Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ken Burns's Newest Documentary Focuses on "America's Best Idea," National Parks

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1903

Ken Burns, award-winning documentary filmmaker (The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball), is at it again. His newest endeavor, entitled "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," explores the complicated history of our nation's oldest landmarks. This 6-part miniseries debuts tomorrow night at 8 PM EST on PBS and runs through Friday night (one two hour segment will be broadcasted each night this week). For those of you familiar with Burns's work, "National Parks" is sure to be shot in his trademark narrative style: intellectual yet accessible, thoroughly informative, and very engaging. I for one am excited to hear his account of one of the most significant ecological struggles and achievements of our forebearers. So tune in tomorrow night at 8 PM and follow this link to the PBS website for more information.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Shame on You, BMW

Watch the recent BMW commercial above. Maybe you have seen it already - it ran during nearly every break during the US Open two weeks ago.

"Americans are always finding ways to be more responsible," the actor begins, gazing longingly at the energy efficient compact fluorescent (CLF) light bulb in his hand. He continues, "And so is BMW," as the ceiling comes alive and hundreds of bulbs illuminate to reveal the company's new line of fuel efficient automobiles (that is, if you consider 28 mpg highway to be efficient).

The clip on the television screen could not have been more incongruous with the message of the commercial. My roommate Hadley and I couldn't help but laugh at the hypocrisy each time it aired. If BMW truly practiced what it preached, it would have shot this commercial in the dimly lit studio it started out with.

With this in mind, I have a few simple questions for the folks at BMW...
  1. How are you "finding ways to be more responsible" by creating the brightest commercial in the history of bright commercials?
  2. On the topic of your "commitment to lowering emissions," does that include increasing the energy consumption of the studio you used to promote your product?
  3. Did no one in the marketing department pick up on this? Really? I mean, come on...
While questions one and two are straightforward and identify the contradictory messages of the commercial, question three is considerably more complex. The unfortunate reality is, the answer to question three is probably a "yes," but BMW expects people to buy their cars regardless. Maybe they thought no one would pick up on it (although it's kind of hard not to). The idea to take away from this is we shouldn't be letting companies get away with things like this. Does anyone else feel a little taken advantage of? It's insulting to be presented with garbage and expected to consume it. It's also more complicated in this situation because the product itself is quite luxurious, while the way it is marketed is more dubious...

This scenario relates back to something I have referred to in several previous posts: the power we have as consumers to dictate the direction of the market. I know very few (if any) of you were planning to skip down to your local BMW dealerships this weekend and pick up a new ride, but this same idea can be extrapolated across all product lines. Each time we purchase something, we endorse the way it was manufactured (and in this case, marketed). Be on the lookout for products with misleading environmental claims, an advertising strategy known as "greenwashing." The website allows concerned consumers to post and review advertisements. Commercials are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 (one being authentic and five being bogus) based on each company's honest disclosure of its environmental responsibility. Cast your vote on the BMW commercial here.

If we work together we can show companies they can't just talk the talk - they have to walk the walk too. If they are going to say they are committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, they have to mean it, and it is our job to hold them accountable.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

From Oil to Plastic (and Back Again?)

In a recent post on Green Inc., the environmental blog of the New York Times (feed available to the right), Matthew Wald describes how one entrepreneur has found a niche in the market for disposed plastics and is closing the production loop of this petroleum-based waste. After years of research and testing, a Washington DC based sustainable waste management company called Envion has developed a way to return plastic to its original form - crude oil (or at least something resembling oil). Wald explains the significance of this technological breakthrough:

"Entrepreneurs have been trying for years to turn low-value wastes into high-value products. Waste plastic is among the lowest in value, and gasoline or diesel fuel the highest, but machines that carry out that conversion usually consume a lot of energy and get gummed-up by leftover material that they cannot convert."

Using a new technique - heating the plastic with infrared energy - the team at Envion has made it feasible to extend the life cycle of plastics. This reduction process produces a murky, yellowish fluid which can be mixed with additional components and sold as gasoline (see image below).

This innovation has significant implications for the world of plastic consumption. As I wrote in a previous post entitled Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, disposable plastic water bottles are a considerable contributor to carbon dioxide emissions. I also referenced William McDonough's book Cradle to Cradle, in which he advises altering the traditional production process from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) system to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) system. With the invention of its new plastics converter, Envion has done just that. As Todd Makurath, the company's director of global brand management explains, “This could be transformational in how we handle plastics."

Of course this new technology is not a perfect solution. As Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace accurately points out in this Washington Post article: "To make it big, this company needs people to waste plastic." He adds, "We need to question whether we should be using plastic at all to begin with."

Even though Davies has a valid argument about the fundamental fault of plastic consumption, it is unrealistic to disregard initiatives such as this one on a matter of principle. The fact is, even without Envion's prodding, people are discarding plastic products at an alarming rate (roughly 50 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually in the US). By taking on the task of reforming this deeply flawed and broken system, Envion provides a creative short-term solution to a very systemic problem. It is obviously not the only piece of the puzzle, but it's nevertheless an important one.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Beaten to the Punch

I have a confession to make. Several weeks ago my girlfriend Lucy brought it to my attention that this blog has some serious competition. On August 21st, she posted a link to Slate Magazine's environmental blog on my facebook profile. What is it called, you wonder? Nothing other than The Green Lantern: Illuminating Answers to Environmental Questions. In an instant, the title I had once considered to be a brilliant combination of my passion for reporting on environmental issues and my affinity for one of the Justice League's banner heroes was defiled (see images below). Instead of being proud I was left with the rotten and pervasive disappointment you feel when you discover the brain-child you have loved and nurtured is not your own, but in fact an illegitimate bastard fathered by someone you've never met.

The Green Lantern, left, and yours truly, right, Halloween 2007

Since this unfortunate reality was brought to my attention I have been struggling with how to break the news, and I have not yet decided what I'm going to do about the existing title. I am currently brainstorming alternatives, but so far nothing has inspired me. I am also considering, having fully disclosed the symmetry between this blog and Slate's GL, keeping my title as is. I will be sure to keep you updated on how I decide to resolve the commonality, and if you have any new title ideas I am open to suggestions!