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Archive for June, 2012

It’s hard to have a conversation today without the word “HOT” popping up within the first 60 seconds. In fact, as we enter our second day of over 100 degree heat here in North Carolina, I think HOT is the only thing that people are talking about. This is mostly because it’s so hot, I think our brains are kind of melting. I know mine is.

The heat saps our strength and we find ourselves making excuses to stay out of the sun and find indoor activities to do during the day. It  makes us appreciate things like air conditioning, ice cubes, and small breezes. It makes some of us grumpy. And while many of us acknowledge that the heat may have a little something to do with a thing we call global climate change, it is hard to change our habits at this time – especially if these habits involve keeping us cool. I am no exception.

Right now, my home A/C is running almost full time and if I do venture out into my car, I immediately turn the car’s A/C to “max’ and keep it there for the entire trip.  I may be an environmentalist, but I get hot too. I try to lessen the impact by keeping my home thermostat set at 77 degrees during the day, using my home’s ceiling fans to circulate the air and parking in the shade when I do happen to venture out in my car.  Little things, but they make me feel better.

It is during these times that I notice something about our culture.  When the going gets hot, all attempts at sustainability go out the window.  Store owners leave their doors wide open to invite shoppers into the cool air. Cars idle in parking lots as passengers keep cool while they wait for the shopper to emerge.  Air conditioning units blast cold air 24 hours a day to keep buildings at a comfortable (if not chilly) temperature to offset the heat that blasts at us outside. It’s as if, in our heat-tinged fog, we have forgotten that sometimes, conserving energy means not increasing our usage.

As our electric grids are pushed to the max to keep us cool and we idle our cars in long lines to purchase fuel, our emissions jump proportionately which, as you might suspect, increases the likelihood of global warming.  It’s a strange, cruel, inevitable global warming spiral.

There are many things we can do to stop the spiral, or at least slow it down. Top of the list is to harness the power of the sun and make the very thing that is heating up our environment be the first place we turn to cool it down.  But there are other things too.  Little things.  Like closing store doors and not letting the cool air escape.  Like turning off the car when running errands and parking in the shade.  Like turning up the thermostat – 76 degrees still feels great when it is 100 degrees outside.

It sure is hot out there. Unfortunately, if we keep going the way we are going, it will keep getting hotter.

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As a student of sustainability, I know the advantages of tracing a product’s life cycle back to it’s origin. I think it is important to know where my food comes from and what the labor conditions are like in the plant where my cell phone was made. I’d love to make every single purchase decision I make based on a sustainability scale that is posted right on the package – kind of like a nutrition guide for busy environmentalists.

But alas, no such guide exists today.  Oh sure, some major manufacturers have tried.  Unilever, for example, offers an online product analyzer which is supposed to look at the environmental footprint of its products, but it is hard to find on their website and even harder to understand.  It doesn’t give me the “warm, fuzzy” feeling that I am looking for or explain where my product was actually made and, even more importantly, what my product was made from.  In fact, I’m not sure the manufacturer even knows the answers to these questions. Which I guess is part of the problem. With huge manufacturers providing us with most of our food, clothing and products, it is hard to trace any product back to its origin.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was given a shirt last week that carried a bright green tag with two simple words:  “trace me.”  Intrigued by this unique request, I went to the website, icebreaker.com, and entered my shirt’s unique “Baacode” which I found conveniently sewed to my shirt.  Up popped two sheep “stations” – the sources of my icebreaker’s merino wool.  Out of 120 stations, my product’s origin had been narrowed down to two and (this is the most amazing part), I could click on videos to meet the farmers and learn more about their farm.  Talk about warm and fuzzy.  I literally felt like I had just purchased my shirt from the farmer himself. Amazing.  Simply Amazing.

I realize that developing a traceable tag for every product is not an easy or inexpensive task. The icebreaker shirts are all made from wool provided by a manageable number of farms in New Zealand and  if I did a cost analysis, I am sure they cost a bit more than their mass-produced counterparts. But that is not the point.  What I find simply amazing is that, with the help of my traceable tag, I can learn more about the product I am purchasing and make decisions based on what is important to me – sustainable products, ethical treatment of people and animals, and environmentally conscious manufacturing.  Better yet, I feel like I just bought a shirt from the farmer down the road.

Try it out for yourself.  Visit icebreaker.com and use my Baacode:  EFF0E2206.  Or, ask for e a demo code.  Visit the farmers, tour the farms and then sit back and think.  Wouldn’t it be crazy if every one of our products offered us this amount of transparency? Imagine the changes that would be made in manufacturing companies around the world if we could see where each of our products come from and how each of our products is made.

‘Trace Me’ technology.  Brilliant.

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I’m not a big fan of hospitals.  Oh, I know the great things that they can do to keep us healthy, but they make me nervous. I’m not exactly sure why.  It could be because I don’t understand the medical lingo.  It could be because of the pain and suffering that I know lies behind the patient doors and I am unable to offer any assistance.  It could be a variety of things, but most recently it is because I have witnessed the tremendous amount of waste and inefficient energy use that flows out of hospitals and I am unable to see how to offer sustainable recommendations without risking a decline in quality patient care.  There’s a fine line between a sterile first-time use of medical equipment and  a sterilized, re-manufactured second-time use of the same equipment. I’m not exactly sure why, but as a culture we have in our minds that only first time use is acceptable. Especially if you are the patient that is using the equipment.

I read a report in the Scientific American recently that said that health care facilities dispose of more than four million pounds of medical waste each year. That certainly seems like a lot of waste, but I didn’t realize how much of it is unnecessary until I spent a few nights in the hospital last week. As a hospital patient I was relieved to see that my equipment, surgical tools, syringes and other medical devices were all sterilized, in their own bags and seemingly unused by other humans.  But as an environmentalist, a part of me cringed each time I saw another piece of waste hit the trash can.  Even worse, some of the waste had not even been used, but was part of a larger “kit” of supplies.  Double cringe.

And yet every time I was administered a drug, I was relieved to see that each of my syringes, IVs and tubes were individually wrapped and new.  If one of my syringes had come with a “made from 30% recyclable material” sticker on it, I might have sent it back and requested a brand new one.  But why is that?  I have no trouble eating my food off of reusable dishes.  I reuse my water bottle on a daily basis and I am quite certain it is not cleaned under the most sterile of conditions.  I reuse toothbrushes, contacts, and other toiletries regularly.  All of these are by no mean sterile, but are being put into my body.  What makes it so different?

The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the fact that we have come to equate “quality medical care” with “single use” devices.  Despite the fact that much of the medical equipment and supplies we use today can be “reprocessed” to be as high quality as first time use, many of us (myself included) prefer to see that the supplies being used on us have not been used by others.  And so, the medical waste piles up as  elastic bandages, pressure infuser bags, tourniquet cuffs, drills, compression sleeves, and general-use surgical scissors are thrown into the trash can rather than put aside to be reprocessed – cleaned, sterilized, and tested for quality – and individually wrapped for another patient’s use.

Unfortunately, the waste is not occurring just in hospitals. After developing a slight infection following my surgery two weeks ago, I was required to take a twice-daily infusion of an antibiotic.  Only not in the hospital – this infusion I would do at home.  The day I arrived home, I received a huge box filled with elastomeric (accuflo) pumps, saline syringes, heparin syringes, alcohol wipes, bandages, surgical tape and a lot of other supplies that I’m not even sure how to use.  Twice a day, I get an infusion and use one pump, two saline syringes, and two heparin syringes. If I’m doing the math right, that equates to 28 pumps and 112 syringes over the 2 week period that I received the infusions. And they all get thrown in the trash when I am done.  I had inquired about how to recycle them and received a funny look in return.  So each day my trash can fills up with the used medical supplies.  Supplies I’m very sure could be reprocessed if given a chance.

I am not a medical expert or an expert in hospitality sustainability, but I am a medical consumer. Although I want my medical environment to be as safe and sterile as possible, I know that there must be a way to reduce the waste associated with it.  We cannot continue to throw this waste into our landfills and assume that it will do no harm.  If it can be used to improve the health of one person, we certainly don’t want it to cause harm to another down the road.

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