#EarthDay2020: Carbon & Our Electronics

For the next installment of ACE Recycling’s #EarthDay2020 blog series we are changing it up with a video. This video focuses on Carbon and Our Electronics. It explores the carbon footprint of producing, using and disposing of electronic devices.

This blog is part of a series of blogs from ACE Recycling In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.  This series focuses on changes you can make to decrease your carbon footprint and help the environment.  These changes are intended to be user-friendly.  Being environmentally responsible has the added benefit of being healthier and more cost effective.  The goal is to create fun and engaging activities for the whole family.  Simple changes to our everyday lives have big impacts on our health and the health of our planet.   #EarthDay2020 #EarthRise2020 #ActsofGreen #ACERecyclingBlog #SmallChangesBigImpacts

In the third installment of ACE Recycling’s #EarthDay2020 blog series we will look at Carbon & Our Electronics. As explained in the first two articles of this series, everything has a carbon footprint. The electronic devices we use daily are not an exception to this. Carbon is released through the mining of the raw material to make the components for our devices, the manufacture & transport of the device, and its use. Carbon and other toxic chemicals are also released through the improper disposal of the device at the end of its life. The video explains the #SmallChanges you can make for #BigImpacts on the carbon footprint of your electronics.

Other Articles in this Series

Carbon 101 – In the first article of this series we look at the carbon system as a whole.

Carbon & Us – In the second article of this series we look how carbon is affecting humans as a whole. We have always had a big impact on Earth and each other. This article explores some of those big impacts.

Up Next

Your Carbon Footprint: A look at what a carbon footprint is and how to calculate and reduce yours in fun, family-friendly ways.

#EarthDay2020: Carbon & Us

In the second article of this series we will look how carbon is affecting humans as a whole. We have always had a big impact on Earth and each other. This article explores some of those big impacts.

This blog is part of a series of blogs from ACE Recycling In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.  This series focuses on changes you can make to decrease your carbon footprint and help the environment.  These changes are intended to be user-friendly.  Being environmentally responsible has the added benefit of being healthier and more cost effective.  The goal is to create fun and engaging activities for the whole family.  Simple changes to our everyday lives have big impacts on our health and the health of our planet.  #EarthDay2020 #EarthRise2020 #ActsofGreen #ACERecyclingBlog #SmallChangesBigImpacts

In the second article of this series we will look how carbon is affecting humans as a whole.  For a general run down on carbon, read Carbon 101, the first article in this series.   It is a scientific fact that the climate is changing at an unprecedented pace caused by human activities, in the same way that it is a scientific fact that a pencil will fall to the floor when dropped.  Now we need to band together to innovate and create a solution.  This communal problem solving is uniquely human and one of the most powerful forces on Earth.  We have created civilizations from dirt, flying machines from metal forged in fire and the internet.  We have always had a big impact on Earth and each other.  This article explores some of those big impacts.  These impacts come from choices made by you and I, but ripple out to affect humans half way around the world.  How do your choices have that far of a reach?  Because nothing exists in a vacuum, that is to say that everything affects everything else.  It is very important to understand that us humans are a part of the system and are subject to the laws of nature.  Therefore, when we alter one thing, it will alter something else and those alterations will affect all life on earth.  Being a former teacher and general science nerd, I believe knowledge is power and understanding is the first step to making conscious, deliberate choices in our everyday lives to decrease our impact.  Our choices, from the car we drive to the meat we eat, affect everything else because we are part of this big, beautiful system we call Earth.       

Climate Change is Happening Now

According to the 10 New Insights in Climate Science, “The pace of contemporary rise in greenhouse gas concentrations is unprecedented in the climate history over the past 66 million years.”A warming Earth alters more than just baseline temperatures.  A warmer climate alters the water cycle, (increased temperature causes evaporation) and is shifting biomes northward.  We are actively, in real-time, seeing life on Earth adapt to this ever-warming climate.  Migration patterns, mating seasons, harvest cycles and many other season-linked activities are changing or have changed.  Life is adjusting and adapting as it has done for millions of years. Humans are too, but most do not see the connection between climate change and societal issues.  Immigration, war due to drought and famine (Arab Spring), increased energy prices, higher food costs and more intense and far-reaching diseases, are all direct consequences of climate change. 

As the temperature increases, evaporation is increasing putting more water into the air to act as a greenhouse gas, which in turn, further warms Earth.  This is called a feedback loop and in “normal” circumstances this feedback loop creates and maintains the conditions needed for life to exist.  However, it can “runaway” and compound itself to the point that it will wildly swing in one direction and become irreversible. More frequent and more powerful storms in some regions and extreme drought in others are a direct effect of the altered water cycle. Both of these scenarios displace populations and change food production leading to immigration and higher food costs, respectively.  Conservative estimates on the average number of people pushed into poverty each year due to flooding and drought are 26 million.  It is estimated that 180 million people will be displaced by 2100 as a result of altered weather patterns

RCraig09 [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

What was once considered unlikely or rare (both in terms of the intensity and frequency) is becoming part of a “new normal”.  The impacts of this new normal will affect all sectors of society and include, increased food prices due to crop failure, health impacts from the outbreak of water-borne disease or heatwaves and infrastructure damage from storms.  All of this will cost us, both in monetary terms, but also in terms of human health and life.  One specific example of this can be seen in the Jet Stream.  “The jet stream – a fast-moving band of air 11 km [7 miles] up in the atmosphere – is increasingly showing signs of unusual behavior…” . It is shifting hot air circulation Northward around the globe, leading to hot African air reaching northward to France and Germany.  This will ultimately affect the economy of these regions changing what can be grown.  For France, this is especially pertinent, considering they are synonymous with vineyards.  

https://electroverse.net/multiple-all-time-low-temperature-records-fall-in-minnesota-the-changing-jet-stream/

In these early days of climate change, the populations most affected are the world’s most vulnerable. It is estimated that poor populations are 8-32 times more vulnerable to the risks of climate change.  It could be argued that it is this reason alone that the developed world is so slow to accept that the climate is changing.  It is, after all, our lifestyles that are causing the most negative changes to the climate, but it is not us that are being negatively affected by that lifestyle. Yet.  Climate change is already affecting food production by reducing agricultural yields.  Increasing concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere decreases the nutritional value of food.  In the Western world we are largely disconnected from the source of our food and employ technology to fortify food with vitamins and minerals.  But what we must remember is, most of the world is growing their own food without the help of such technologies and catching their food from the natural world.  Most of the world meets its nutritional needs through rice and fish.  The oceans are taking on the brunt of the access heat on Earth.  As ocean temperatures rise, fish yields decline.  The global availability of protein is projected to fall by 4.1%, iron by 2.8%, and zinc by 2.5% at carbon concentrations expected by 2050.  This could affect the nutrient status of 600 million people.  This coupled with reductions in productivity due to climate change and the rising food costs associated with it, will leave many countries in economic and social crisis.  As climate change intensifies an estimated 100 million could be pushed below the poverty line by 2030 and 3 billion by 2050.  It will be the wealthy developed nations that are called upon to assist with the humanitarian crisis that climate change causes. 

https://ccafs.cgiar.org/blog/climate-change-and-farming-what-you-need-know-about-ipcc-report#.Xjx8zWhKg2x

Quite frankly, we should be the ones called upon to help those affected.  The US is the second highest producer of carbon emissions, second only to China.  In an ever-competitive environment this will only get worse.  It is the need for the latest, greatest thing that fuels production and waste.  SUVs (which are a squarely American invention) were the second most important cause for increased global emissions in the energy sector (after power) between 2010 and 2018.  Global emissions have increased 35% in 5 years and overall oil and natural gas use has increased every year, despite growing awareness of the consequences.  Why?  Money, which ultimately leads to power.  Four out of the five top fossil fuel investors are US based and four out of the five top coal investors are Chinese.  Since the Paris Agreement was adopted (and unadopted by the US), 33 global banks have invested $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel companies.  Another reason that we continue to emit carbon even though it is clear we shouldn’t be is very simple: change is scary.  This great country was built, literally, on coal.  This is part of the American identity and it feels as though we are betraying it when we walk away from it.  The most powerful reason why we continue to rely on carbon-based fuel is because we, the people of America and ultimately the world, have not demanded that we do not.  We have checked out and stepped back. 

Looking at it Another Way

What if, instead of seeing the call to reduce our carbon output as an attack on our way of life, we saw it as an opportunity?  This is an opportunity to be healthier, more community based and less obsessed with material things.  This is an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important to us and “cut the fat”.  This is an opportunity to harness the most important human behavior – communal problem solving, working together to innovate and create positive, sweeping change. Personally, I find that thrilling.  Really it boils down to this: the species that will be most uncomfortable, most affected, most desperate as the climate changes will be us humans.  Life will go on without us, just as it has for millions of years.  We are not the most important of the species, that is a subjective, man-made concept that has no basis is biological or ecological reality, we are just another life form on the planet.  The question is, how much do we care about our survival?  Not you as an individual, but us as a species. Personally, I see my fellow human beings as my tribe.  If I can make a small change that will have a big impact on them, I am willing to do it.  More importantly, if I can leave my children a better, healthier planet, I absolutely will because I am a mother and the drive to give my children “better” is innate and visceral. Everything affects everything, so I am sending out a positive ripple that I hope will be felt for years to come. After all, the ripples we start are ultimately our legacy after we are gone.

NOTE: For the first article in this series click here

COMING UP NEXT:

Your Carbon Footprint: A look at what a carbon footprint is and how to calculate and reduce yours in fun, family-friendly ways.

#EarthDay2020: Carbon 101

This blog is part of a series of blogs from ACE Recycling In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.  This series focuses on changes you can make to decrease your carbon footprint and help the environment.  These changes are intended to be user-friendly.  Being environmentally responsible has the added benefit of being healthier and more cost effective.  The goal is to create fun and engaging activities for the whole family.  Simple changes to our everyday lives have big impacts on our health and the health of our planet.  #EarthDay2020 #EarthRise2020 #ActsofGreen #ACERecyclingBlog #SmallChangesBigImpacts

In the first article of this series we will look at the carbon system as a whole.  This system is complex, and though I will attempt to simplify it, I suggest you use this article as a jumping off point to research more, as what is presented here is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are sources within the article that are worth looking at for more in-depth information.  Quintessential to understanding Earth’s cycles is the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum. That is to say that everything affects everything else.  It is impossible to alter the amount or composition of one thing, without altering another thing in some way.  It is very important to understand that us humans are a part of the system and are subject to the laws of nature.  Therefore, human activities affect all life on Earth. When we alter the path of a river, burn fuel, cut down a tree or build a road, there are consequences. The key to balance is understanding those consequences, good or bad, in the context of the “Big Picture”. Being a former teacher and general science nerd, I believe knowledge is power. To that end, understanding the “Big Picture” is the first step to making conscious, deliberate choices in our everyday lives to decrease our impact.  In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” Understanding that our choices, from the car we drive to the meat we eat, affect everything else because we are part of this big, beautiful system we call Earth is the first step to creating balance.    

Carbon as a Greenhouse Gas

Earth is a closed system, much like a snow globe.  Our atmosphere acts like a shield, protecting us from harmful radiation, regulating our temperature and holding in essential things, like oxygen and water.  The only thing that can come and go, and must for life to exist, is energy in the form of light and heat (think the sun).  However, there are certain compounds that capture heat and hold onto it, keeping it from escaping into space.  This heat becomes trapped on Earth (hence the greenhouse analogy).  These compounds are referred to as greenhouse gases.  Water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone (O3) are greenhouse gases. By burning fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) humans are pulling carbon out of long-term storage and putting it back into circulation allowing it to capture heat that would have otherwise escaped. You put carbon into the atmosphere every time you start your car or turn on a light.  

Ultimately, through natural processes this carbon would have been released, though probably slowly over a long period of time.  It is the pace at which we are releasing it that is shifting the system so drastically. In the blink of an eye, in terms of the history of Earth, humans have been pulling massive amounts of carbon out of the ground. That being said, in that short time a lot has changed which is cause for alarm.  The warming trend over the last 50 years (about 0.13° C or 0.23° F per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years.  But even more alarming is that we don’t really know the complex consequences of this drastic shift in atmospheric carbon concentration.  Science takes time, and quite frankly, all this is happening too fast for us to get a good grip on.  It would be prudent to slow down our carbon output until we fully understand the consequences of our actions.  

Natural Pathways

The elements on and within Earth exist in finite quantities.  This means that, the amount of any given element will remain the same.  That being said, elements can change form as a result of chemical reactions, temperature and/or pressure. Elements combine through chemical reactions to form various compounds, including water and minerals.  Regardless of their form they are trapped on Earth, in the ground, water, atmosphere or in living things.  These materials move through the environment, interacting with each other and responding to change, in predictable pathways.  For example, we understand that if water is heated up, it will evaporate and enter the atmosphere, once cool it will fall as rain or snow.  We call these pathways biogeochemical cycles.  Remember learning about the water cycle in school?  That is water’s biogeochemical cycle.   

The diagram shows the pathway water will take as it reacts to temperature and pressure changes on Earth. Along its path it will interact with other chemicals. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b3/8c/74/b38c74dfe446bc3fcd4fa2fdc9f3ca6a.png

Generically, elements can be stored or they can be in circulation.  In storage, they are removed from the cycle and are not available to interact with other elements in the system, although they are still subject to temperature and pressure changes. In circulation, elements are actively interacting with the environment and each other.  Usually storage takes place because the material becomes trapped in Earth’s crust.  We call these materials minerals and find them valuable for many reasons.  An element in the atmosphere or (generally) water, is considered in circulation and becomes part of the billions of chemical reactions that take place on Earth every day.  Life stores elements, but on a shorter time scale than if they were underground. When the living thing dies, the elements it stores are released back into the environment and the cycle.

Natural Change, by Natural Forces

Throughout Earth’s history different elements have been more or less prevalent in circulation verses storage.  There was a time when carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide was more prevalent in the atmosphere then it is today and oxygen was scarce.  (Curious how scientists find out what atmospheric conditions were like millions of years ago?)  Plants evolved in this carbon dioxide rich environment and began pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into their cells.  There, carbon was used to convert the sun’s energy into a form of energy (glucose) the plant could use to power itself.  A waste product of this chemical process is oxygen (lucky for us).  As carbon dioxide was pulled out of the atmosphere and oxygen was pumped in, the chemical make-up of the atmosphere changed.  Because everything affects everything else, this chemical change resulted in a change in the climate.

The chemical composition of our atmosphere is dynamic due to natural processes, like volcanic eruptions, decomposition, changes in Earth’s tilt and fires caused by lighting.  In most cases, these shifts in atmospheric chemical composition are small and therefore have small effects. But after what we would consider a catastrophic event, things change in an instant and have big effects. When change occurs slowly, life has time to adapt and adjust.  When change occurs quickly, as it is now, life cannot keep up with the changes and extinctions occur.  The most known example of this is the dinosaurs. After a catastrophic meteor strike, coupled with intense volcanic activity, 76% of all dinosaur species just ceased to exist. However, there have been five major mass extinctions in Earth’s history, all of which were a direct result of drastic changes in climate caused by a catastrophic event.

Long-Term Carbon Storage in Fossils

The footprint of chemical changes in the atmosphere can be seen in the analysis of the geochemical record held in Earth’s crust.  Studying the past, allows us to determine what will happen if a certain chemical is more or less prevalent in circulation.  Historically, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are high, temperatures are high. This is true because carbon is a greenhouse gas and traps heat.  When the dinosaurs roamed Earth, there was a lot of volcanic activity releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide.  At that time there was no ice at the poles as there is now and average ocean temperatures were 95 degrees.  It was a tropical paradise on the coasts, complete with tree-sized ferns, but in-land there were massive barren deserts. It is during this time that the coal, natural gas and oil we use today was created.  Large plants and small photosynthesizing algae pulled in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create their own energy.  With the carbon locked in their cells, they died and were fossilized.  Today we call those dead organisms fossil fuels. We dig them up and burn them to release the energy they hold and generate power.  As a result, the carbon they have been storing underground for 65 million years is released and put back into circulation.  This is an artificial (human-made) carbon release at a pace that is unprecedented and will lead to unprecedented challenges for life on Earth.  This is equivalent to a meteor strike – huge changes in a small amount of time that are resulting in mass extinction (yes, we are currently in a mass extinction). 

The yellow line represents atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million for the past 800,000 years. The 2013 annual average concentration is the dashed line. The peaks and valleys in carbon dioxide levels follow the coming and going of ice ages (low CO2) and warmer interglacials (higher CO2). Graph by NOAA Climate.gov, based on EPICA Dome C data (Lüthi, D., et al., 2008) provided by NOAA NCDC Paleoclimatology Program. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/2013-state-climate-carbon-dioxide-tops-400-ppm
The Most Powerful Force

It is a scientific fact that the climate is changing at an unprecedented pace and that it is caused by human activities, in the same way that it is a scientific fact that a pencil will fall to the floor when dropped.  The scientific foundation on which climate change sits, is the same foundation that medicine is grounded in. Science simply puts into words what occurs in the natural world, by gathering evidence and analyzing the data embedded in that evidence.

It is an unmistakable truth that humans have always had big impacts on Earth and therefore, life on Earth. We have continuously and drastically altered the environment around us, by damming rivers, building cities in swamps (Washington DC), flattening mountains and cutting down vegetation. Many of those impacts have resulted in positive consequences, but there are those that have negative consequences. Usually, the negative consequences are a direct result of our huge population (7.7 billion humans and counting). But our large population can be a positive. Two heads are better than one, right? We need to band together to innovate and create a solution that has resounding positive consequences.  This communal problem solving is uniquely human and one of the most powerful forces on Earth.  We have created civilizations from dirt, flying machines from metal forged in fire and the internet. The key is a focus on creating more of the positive consequences, while acknowledging the negative consequences. For any of this to happen humans must acknowledge our direct connection to the cycles on Earth. This cannot happen without first understanding that we are a part of these cycles, not the master of them or some force standing on the outside. The key to balance is understanding the “Big Picture”, in which we are a part of the whole. Science helps us place the small things into the context of the big picture by defining our role within the processes on Earth.

COMING UP NEXT IN THIS SERIES:

Carbon & Us: A look at the current impact of carbon on humans

Your Carbon Footprint: A look at what a carbon footprint is and how to calculate and reduce yours in fun, family-friendly ways.