Category: Solid Waste

Ban the Bottle

Should we be able to cause major environmental damage just because it is convenient? Individuals purchasing bottled water seem to think so. In addition to harming our world, water bottles can cause risks to human health, are a waste of money, and are a drain on water and energy sources. Colleges and universities all over the country are recognizing this and as of 2012, more than 90 schools either banned or restricted the sale of plastic water bottles on campus. To continue sustainability efforts, Duke University should take similar action, banning these bottles and encouraging the use of reusable water bottles and existing water fountains and hydration stations.


Despite attempts to encourage recycling, 38 billion water bottles, or 80% of bottles purchased, end up in landfills each and every year. This wouldn’t be so horrifying if it weren’t for the fact that waste from these products never really goes away. The bottles that we get rid of, end up poisoning us. Because most water bottles are made of petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate (also known as PET), they break down through photodegradation into smaller and smaller pieces instead of biodegrading. This does not frequently happen in landfills since bottles are not likely to be exposed to the sun. However, ten percent of plastic (3.8 billion water bottles annually) ends up in the ocean as a result of trash being deposited in waterways by humans, wind, and heavy rains. Once exposed to sunlight, breakdown of these plastics results in toxic chemicals, including BPA and PS oligomer. These toxins are ingested by ocean animals, which can be ingested by humans and cause serious health risks.


In addition to damaging our health and environment, these bottles damage our economy. Would you be willing to pay $1.45 every time you wanted to fill up a water bottle using the faucet in your kitchen? As it turns out, you may be doing that without knowing it. The Natural Resources Defense Council found that 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water. Tap water itself costs only about 0.9 cents per gallon, meaning that when we buy bottled water, we are paying 560 times what that amount of water is worth. As a country experiencing hard economic times, does it make sense for us to be paying this much for a resource that we can get from a faucet for free? Americans spent $11.8 billion on water bottles in 2012 alone. This is $11.8 billion that we are able to put right back in our pockets by making a simple behavioral change. Duke University should play a part in helping us make better economic decisions by having students and faculty take advantage of water fountains and water bottle refilling stations that have already been installed all over campus.


Lastly, the production of water bottles is a huge waste of oil and water.  Despite the fact that water bottle companies claim to be a “healthy and eco-friendly choice”, the production of bottled water uses 17 million barrels of oil each year, which is enough to fill a million cars for a year and takes three liters of water just to bottle one liter.  When taking into account production and transportation of these bottles in the United States, the Environmental Research Letters journal estimated that 32 to 54 million barrels of oil are used annually, which represents almost a third of our entire country’s energy consumption. This is energy that does not have to be used if we just turn on our tap. As Duke University moves towards becoming carbon neutral, banning water bottles on campus will be an important step.

Our university needs to recognize and communicate the implications of selling water bottles on campus. If banning water bottles seems too extreme, the administration should, at a minimum, post and distribute information telling consumers of the impacts of their choices. Misinformation or lack of information is not an excuse at one of the best universities in the country. However, I think that the best option is simply to ban them. We already have the infrastructure available for individuals to quickly adjust to this change. Free water bottles are distributed regularly and there is no lack of places to fill them. Duke needs to step up, ban the bottle, and end consumer irresponsibility.


Electronic Waste Disposal

A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials for resale in Guiyu, south China’s Guangdong province, Friday 01 July 2005. Electronic waste, illegally imported here from developed countries, is causing severe environmental damage and exposing workers to highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Source: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Over the last decade, quality of life and owning electronics have become inextricably linked.  As a result, the production and sale of electronic goods has skyrocketed worldwide.  Due to rapid advances in technology, there is a much wider range of products available and new versions of existing goods are being launched constantly.  Therefore, the rate at which electronics are being discarded (and sheer volume of waste) has increased drastically as well.  This electronic waste, or e-waste, is being exported to developing countries where crude ‘recycling’ techniques expose both the workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.

So, How Much E-Waste is Actually out There?

In the United States, 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year.  Globally, e-waste generation is growing by 40 million tons per year (1).  This is equivalent to filling around 15,000 football fields six feet deep with waste!  As unimaginable huge as this figure already is, it is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2020, it is estimated that in China (which is currently the largest dumping ground), e-waste from computers will have jumped by 200-400% and mobile phones will increase by 700%.  In India, computer waste is predicted to rise by 500% and e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times higher than current levels (yes, that is an 1800% jump) (1).  While some state-of-the-art electronic recycling facilities do exist, the majority of this e-waste is being shipped (legally and illegally) to developing countries.

E-Waste in Developing Countries

Due to increased safety rules in Western countries, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to developing countries than it is to locally recycle (3).  Though some e-waste exportation is legal, a large portion is illegal.  Electronics exported under the category of ‘used’ or ‘second-hand’ goods are not subject to any restrictions, and numerous other loopholes, export schemes, and corrupt officials have been discovered (4).  In 2005, inspections of 18 European seaports found that approximately 47% of exported waste was illegal and that 23,000 metric tons of e-waste was illegally shipped from the United Kingdom (5).

Common e-waste destinations include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, and Brazil, just to name a few.  China is by far the most popular dumping ground and receives an estimated 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly (3).  The e-waste industry employs 150,000 people in Guiyu, China, while the scrap yards in Delhi boast 25,000 workers and 20,000 tons of yearly waste (5). These countries create a ‘perfect storm’ for e-waste dumping: cheap and desperate labor with no added cost for health or safety regulations.

Human Health and Environmental Issues

 It is an undeniable fact that e-waste in “backyard” recycling operations poses a major threat to both human health and the environment.  Valuable metals such as gold and copper can be extracted from electronics, but this recovery process is often done in the cheapest and most unsafe way.

Plastics, which contain heavy metals and flame retardants, are burned in open piles and release deadly dioxin and furans.  Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are broken with hammers to remove copper, a process that also releases toxic phosphor dust.  Circuit boards are literally cooked over open flames or in shallow pans, exposing workers to lead fumes.  Acid baths are used to extract gold from circuit board chips, spewing even more toxic gases into the air (6).  These processes release a wide variety of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury into the air, soil, and water (5).

Despite the obviously toxic nature of the most common ‘recycling’ techniques, over 90% of e-waste landfills or dumps have no environmental standards (3).  Unbelievably, Nigeria does not have a single legally licensed landfill despite having a population of 115 million and being a popular e-waste dumping ground (2).  The environmental impacts of unregulated ‘recycling’ sites are evident in polluted groundwater, extremely unsafe levels of lead and mercury in nearby rivers, and toxic emissions that contribute to global warming.

Workers at e-waste sites are usually migrants from extremely poor areas and are often children.  They have little to no access to gloves or face masks and are often too desperate for work or uniformed to care about the health risks.  Workers at e-waste sites are prone to skin rashes, cancer, weakening of the immune system, and respiratory, nerve, kidney, and brain damage (3).  In China’s Guiyu region, workers have extremely high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies and over 80% of the children already have lead poisoning.

What Can You do to Prevent E-Waste Dumping?

As with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and “backyard” recycling operations.  However, you can take measures to ensure that your e-waste is being properly disposed of.  Large consumer electronic stores such as Best Buy and Staples have in-store recycling programs.  You can also find out specific information on nearby certified e-waste recycling programs on your state government’s website.  A list of certified electronics recyclers can also be found through e-Stewards and R2 Solutions.








Plastic Bags: on the Verge of Extinction?

Every day millions of Americans can be seen buying groceries, visiting the pharmacy, or shopping for clothes.   They visit a variety of retailers for different purposes, but they all walk out with the same thing: plastic bags.  Plastic bags are so widespread that one may even consider them indispensable.  That’s why the next time you walk up to the check-out counter, you might be surprised to see that these customary items have disappeared.  That is exactly what is happening in more than 50 cities across the state of California.  This trend was inspired by a plastic bag ban that started two years ago, when Washington D.C. discovered that plastic bags account for about half of the waste that ends up in local streams.  Now cities such as Santa Cruz and San Francisco have taken up the cause.  These policies not only ban plastic bags, they also require customer to pay a 5-10 cent charge for every paper or compostable bag they receive with their purchase (Richtel 2012).  Local officials hope that these policies will encourage people to be more waste conscious.

Disposal Issues

You may be asking yourself, why this sudden attack on plastic bags?  What makes them so bad?  It all comes down to disposal.  Out of the approximately 500 billion plastic bags in distribution each year, less than 4% are recycled (Wagner 2012).  Those that are disposed as municipal waste are either burned or end up in landfills.  Both options have negative effects on the environment.  Plastic bags are made from petroleum and toxic chemicals.  These toxins are released into the atmosphere each time these bags are burned (“Why Ban” 2012).  But landfills aren’t the solution either.  Since plastic is not biodegradable, when it’s sent to a landfill, it stays there.  Unfortunately, these are not the only two ways that bags are disposed of.  Millions of plastic bags end up in the oceans, causing the deaths of marine mammals who mistake them for food (Wagner 2012).  If this problem isn’t resolved, it can have a considerable amount of impact on natural life.

Ban Faces Resistance

Since plastic bags seem to cause so many problems, you might expect there to be an overwhelming support for these bans.  But that isn’t the case.  There are people who are skeptical about how much of an effect this ban will have on the environment.  They wonder whether these benefits are enough to overcome the costs.  Although a 10 cent charge per bag might not seem like a lot, for a working class family living paycheck to paycheck, it certainly takes a toll.  And it isn’t just customers who are upset; some retailers are also speaking out against these policies.  “Higher-end” stores have complained that it seems ridiculous to charge someone 10 cents for a bag, after they just spent hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on a product (Richtel 2012).  But the ban is not optional.  Retailers and customers alike are required to comply.

Reusable is the Way to Go

Clearly the ban on plastic bags has stirred up some controversy, but if we weigh the costs and the benefits it seems that this policy is for the best.  The challenge will be to get people to adopt new habits.  Plastic bags are mostly for convenience sake and it will take some time for us to get used to not having this commodity.  But just like with all change, it will eventually blend into the status quo and we won’t see it as a burden.  Nevertheless, the plastic bag ban policies can be further improved.  Although paper bags pose less harm than plastic ones, they aren’t free of repercussions.  After all, it takes a lot of trees and energy to manufacture them.  For now, it seems that the best option is reusable.  So on your next trip to the supermarket, save yourself a few cents and remember to bring along a reusable bag.