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Cisco and Amsterdam's plan to make a green city smart

Published April 14, 2014
Cisco and Amsterdam's plan to make a green city smart

What happens when one of the world’s greenest cities meets the hyper-connected world? We’re about to find out.

Last week, at its Silicon Valley headquarters, Cisco signed an agreement with the city of Amsterdam “to foster smarter and greener innovation” by working to shape the city as an “Internet of Everything ‘lighthouse city’” — one of Cisco's showcase metropolises. That may sound like a nice mash-up of corporate marketing and tech jargon, but something interesting and potentially important is going on here.

The “Internet of Everything” is Cisco’s branding for what most others call the Internet of Things, or IoT for short. By whatever name, it refers to the fast-growing network of physical objects accessed through the Internet — vehicles, buildings, thermostats, street lights, motors, sensors, smart meters, vending machines, parking meters, traffic signals and literally billions of other things. Estimates of the number of “things” that will be interconnected by 2020 range from 26 billion (Gartner) to 50 billion (Cisco). Whatever the number, it’s big.

Cities will be one principal locus of IoT activity, and companies such as Cisco see significant business opportunities in providing the vast range of technologies and services needed to create a truly connected city: the sensors, networks, communications, apps, dashboards, data standards, security, data analytics and many other things needed for all these “things” to connect and communicate effectively. Not to mention engaging the citizens and other stakeholders who have concerns about privacy, security and other matters.

Big business is at stake here. For example, smart city communications networks alone are slated to become a $3.5 billion global market by 2020, according to Navigant Research. That’s just one relatively small piece of the IoT puzzle.

Amsterdam long has been one of the world’s most environmentally progressive cities. With bicycles outnumbering cars — more than 60 percent of inner-city trips take place on two wheels — the city boasts a complex network of non-vehicle routes. (Here’s a fun video about Amsterdam and bikes.) The City Council's objective is to slash CO2 emissions 40 percent by 2025, compared against the 1990 baseline. The Netherland’s largest city is ranked fifth overall in Siemens European Green City Index, with high marks for waste, water and land use.

Amsterdam aims to be not just green, but smart, and it seems to understand the connection between those two terms. Twenty-five years ago, it was the first city in Europe to be connected to the Internet. It was also one of the first cities to appreciate the importance of extending fiber-optic connectivity to its residents and businesses. Today, the city is part of a collaboration with businesses, research institutions and citizens called Amsterdam Smart City, toward the goal of becoming one of the world’s most sustainable cities by 2040. The goal is to invest in capital and communication infrastructure in order to “fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, in combination with an efficient use of natural resources.”

The Cisco-Amsterdam tie-up is one part of that effort. The two have been working together on a variety of smart-city endeavors for about a decade, including citywide optical fiber to homes, a smart grid, and public telepresence capabilities.

Part of the new initiative is to create an open platform for city projects. About 60 percent of the projects are expected to come from global companies such as Cisco, 20 percent from local companies and the final 20 percent from local citizens, “because nobody understands life in Amsterdam better than the people who live there,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s executive vice president of industry solutions and chief globalization officer.

The partnership — Elfrink calls it a “conglomerate” that includes other big companies — could help address a challenge: For all the talk about smart cities and public-private partnerships, creating sufficient progress to live up to the hype of the Internet of Things can be slow going.

“Everyone is talking about open data and many people see interesting perspectives, but it is not happening enough. This should help us as a driver,” Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, explained when I sat down with him at Cisco headquarters last week.

Even the mayor’s goals are modest. When I asked him the kind of progress he expected to see within two years, he talked about improving street lighting in a neighborhood in southeast Amsterdam. “In that district, a substantial part of it will have lights that only go on when there are people coming,” he explained. He expects to halve lighting energy costs but also provide better illumination and reduce crime. “In two years time, I hope to be able to give you the first statistics about the results.”

Amsterdam isn’t the first city to implement smart lighting as a gateway to a large smart-grid initiative. About 270 miles to the south, Paris is in the early stages of a 10-year effort to bring intelligence to a complex network of street lighting, traffic signals and related controls, part of an effort to upgrade Paris’ electricity grid and, like Amsterdam, turn Paris into a “smart city.”

“I think more and more cities are looking for what we call a killer app, an application that justifies the investment,” said Elfrink. “In Barcelona, it looks to be parking services. Paris has chosen lighting. That is one of the things we have to find out in the next six months: What are the unique Amsterdam problems?”

The benefits of all this connectedness goes beyond reducing energy use, explained van der Laan. For example, he says, there are opportunities for smart-city technology to promote the circular economy, another cornerstone of Amsterdam's vision of the 21st century smart city.

Take trash pick-ups, a public service near and dear to nearly every city resident. “One of the funny things about our city is that we have seven districts and many have their own way of getting the garbage of the households,” explained van der Laan. “One of the things we can achieve is that the data can tell us when it is necessary to pick it up. The data enables us to find a better organization to pick it up and get it in the right place."

Moreover, he says, the circular economy model means that household and other garbage are becoming valuable inputs for a variety of uses. "We are entering a phase in which the companies that burn it or work with trash are going to pay the citizens for the garbage," explained the mayor. "That enables us to do innovative things.”

It will take more than just technology. Elfrink and van der Laan explained that part of the just-announced partnership is to determine what new policies are needed, what can be deregulated and how to fund it all.

It’s also about changing mindsets, explained van der Laan, who spent 25 years as a lawyer before becoming mayor. “The idea of public-private partnerships started in the 1980s and huge mistakes were made, especially from the side of the government. We do it better now because it is in fact quite natural to work together as the private sector and the public sector. I mean, we no longer think it is bad when a company makes profit. And they don't think it is bad when we have certain regulations they should obey.”

That level of cooperation may now be second nature in Europe, but things don’t yet work quite so smoothly in other places, especially the United States. Perhaps the Cisco-Amsterdam partnership can show what’s possible when everyone has a clear and compelling vision of what the future can look like, and when everyone’s incentives are aligned.

Photo of car charging next to canal by Hans Engbers via Shutterstock

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:

Why rare earth recycling is rare and what we can do about it

Published April 14, 2014
Why rare earth recycling is rare and what we can do about it

This article first appeared at Ensia.

Earbuds, touch screens, CFLs with a warm glow, rechargeable batteries and power windows: Most of us take these things for granted. When we do, we also take for granted a group of elements called rare earth metals, whose special electronic and magnetic properties make them a key component of many 21st century technologies. These 17 elements are actually plentiful enough — you probably have some in your backyard — but except for a few ore deposits, they are found in nature in low concentrations that make them difficult to collect. As they are integral parts of cell phones, hard drives, hybrid cars, wind turbines and other products with skyrocketing demand, rare earth metals face soaring demand, too.

As recently as 2010, China produced about 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earth elements. That year the country decided to limit exports, which drove prices through the roof.

"Prices of some rare earths rose by 2,000 percent and more," said Jim Sims of rare earth mining company Molycorp, which recently reopened a shuttered rare earth mine in California. Rare earth element prices since have dropped and are now much less volatile — thanks in part to the opening or reopening of Molycorp mines and others around the world. Still, burned by this experience, corporations and countries are working to ensure themselves a sufficient stream of rare earths however they can.

One option being explored is recycling rare earth metals from used products. You might think it would be easier to recover rare earths from products than extract them from the ground, but it's not as easy as it sounds. Given the importance of these products to modern living, governments around the world are funding research to make recycling a more feasible option. Some companies are already finding it worthwhile.

Not curbside

Recycling rare earth elements isn't as easy as recycling glass or plastic — challenges are at nearly every level.

For one thing, the elements are present in small amounts in things like cell phones. As parts get smaller, so do the amounts of material used. In a touch screen, for example, the elements are distributed throughout the material at the molecular scale.

"It's actually getting much harder to recycle electronics," said Alex King of the Ames Lab in Ames, Iowa, director of the Critical Materials Institute — a U.S. Department of Energy-funded "Innovation Hub" focused on strategies for ensuring the supply of five rare earth metals identified by the government as critical. "We used to have cell phones where you could snap out the battery, which is probably the biggest single target for recycling. With smartphones, those things are built so you can't get the battery out, at least not easily."

Curbside e-waste image by youngthousands via FlickrCell phones are typically recycled by smashing, shredding and grinding them into powder. The powder then can be separated into component materials for disposal or recycling. But new cell phones incorporate more elements than ever — some around 65 in total. (For comparison, all of industry uses only about 85 elements.) This makes the powder a more complicated mixture to separate than it was with older phones. "It's easier to separate rare earth elements from rocks than from cell phones," King said.

To separate these materials often means "very aggressive solvents or very high temperature molten metal processing. It's not simple," said Yale University industrial ecologist Thomas Graedel.

Because of the nasty materials or large amounts of energy needed, in some cases recycling could create greater environmental harm than mining for the metals in the first place. "A case by case analysis is needed to decide whether a given product is a good recycling candidate," Graedel said.

One recent study calculated the complete energy and environmental impacts of producing a kilogram of the rare earth metal neodymium for magnets by recycling computer hard drives versus mining the same amount of virgin material. In the case considered, recycling had a human toxicity score more than 80 percent lower than mining and used almost 60 percent less energy. However, Graedel noted, "this example recovers neodymium in the alloy form used in magnets." Applications such as use as a glass colorant would require that it be reduced back to elemental form, which would take more resources.

The researchers, led by Benjamin Sprecher at the Materials Innovation Institute in Delft, Netherlands, also found that shredding hard drives for recycling resulted in a 90 percent loss of neodymium. "The large losses of material incurred while shredding the material puts serious doubts on the usefulness of this type of recycling as a solution for scarcity," the researchers wrote. They propose a method in which hard drives are taken apart by hand as a way to address this issue.

Iridium image by GrrlScientist at FlickrWhen small amounts of rare earths are part of complex mixtures, separation can be too expensive to justify for these elements alone, leading some to suggest that the even more valuable elements within electronics, such as gold, palladium and iridium, may make recycling economically worthwhile. "It might be that the rare earths will pay for the price of doing the processing and the gold, platinum and palladium will be the cash flow," said Eric Peterson of Idaho National Laboratory, who leads the rare earth reuse and recycling research program for the Critical Materials Institute.

To address both environmental and economic problems with recycling, the Critical Materials Institute and other research groups, including a European consortium, are testing supercritical carbon dioxide, ionic liquids, electrochemical methods and more as strategies for improving the prospects of rare earth recycling.

Getting the goods

While the technical challenges of recycling rare earths are substantial, Graedel said, they are not the main problem. "I think it's fair to say that the biggest challenge we have with recycling the rare earths and many other things is the challenge of collection," he said. "It's more of a social and perhaps regulatory challenge than a technological challenge."

With price pressures off, at least for now, and few laws requiring recycling, there is little incentive to try to get the materials back. As of 2011, less than 1 percent of rare earths were recycled. People tend to hoard or toss their old phones. Cars, which may have more than two dozen rare-earth-containing motors in them driving everything from windshield wipers to the rear view mirror adjustment, are not recovered formally. Many electronics end up in developing countries where they ultimately may be dismantled in unsafe or inefficient ways. Even fluorescent light bulbs, which are supposed to be recycled by law because of the mercury in the tubes, are only recycled at a rate of around 30 to 35 percent.

The existing recycling infrastructure for fluorescent bulbs makes them good candidates for rare earth recycling, many experts say. Fluorescent light bulbs make use of rare earth elements to fill out the color spectrum: the red and green phosphors in the powder that lines the inside of the lights are the rare earth elements europium and terbium. Recyclers collect the mercury, the glass and the metal parts of the bulbs, but they traditionally have dumped the rare-earth-containing white powder that lines the tubes. Some companies are now recovering these.

LED array image by steve lodefink via FlickrWhile LED lights may be taking off in popularity, plenty of fluorescent and compact fluorescent bulbs will be in use for decades to come, Peterson said, so they remain good targets for recycling. LEDs use rare earths, too, but in much smaller amounts than fluorescent bulbs and in ways that make them more difficult to recycle. "I am not convinced that it will be possible to extract rare earths from LEDs in an economical manner," King noted.

Another promising area for boosting recycling of rare earths is in products that remain concentrated within industries rather than being scattered into the hands of consumers. Cutting-edge wind turbines use rare-earth magnets in their motors; neodymium and dysprosium make super powerful magnets that allow stronger motors and a simpler mechanical design. For offshore wind farms, maintenance is no small feat, so companies tend to install the most reliable option — which contain hundreds of kilograms of rare earth elements. Because they contain such large amounts — and because they are concentrated in stationary wind farms — recycling rare earths from wind turbines is much more feasible than recycling them from products flung far and wide. "There is a much better chance that they have a happy second life," Graedel said.

Despite the challenges, some companies are trying to make rare earth recycling work. French chemical company Rhodia has announced multiple rare earth recycling projects. Mitsubishi Electric reported in 2012 that it is recovering and recycling rare earth magnets from its air conditioners, and Hitachi announced development of a magnet recovery machine for hard disk drives and air conditioners, with the intent to bring the technology into commercial operation. Honda announced last year that it was beginning to recover the rare earth elements from its hybrid car batteries.

Designing for recycling

Design foresight and better planning before products containing rare earths are produced could help recycling become more successful, some experts note.

Disassembled phone image by K.G.23 via Flickr

One approach is to do the separation early on, Peterson said. "If you have rare earth magnets that are small, as soon as you smash them, all the magnetic material, the powder, will stick to anything that's [iron-containing] and you'll lose them," he said. "We don't know how to manufacture things for recyclability, in this country especially. We have to learn how to do that."

Products could be designed to be easier to dismantle. For example, King said, his team is trying to separate the phosphors from display glass on a phone. "You could ask the manufacturers to come up with a way to get the display glass off at the end of life," before the phone is crushed, he said.

Another possibility is to isolate the rare earths within a device. "We are working with a couple of electronics manufacturers to understand how you can manufacture a board so you can pluck off certain components off of the board before you take others," Peterson said. One example might be to build the circuit board in layers, with different materials at different heights so they could be sequentially scraped off. Or modular rare-earth-metal-containing components could be designed to be reused as is, Peterson said.

Supply and demand

Of course, this all assumes a big enough supply of ready-for-recycling electronics — which may not be a safe assumption right now. Wind turbines, for example, have a 20- to 30-year lifetime, meaning almost none is yet ready for recycling.

In one recent study, Jelle Rademaker of the Green Academy (Dutch) in the Netherlands and colleagues calculated the potential for rare earth recycling from magnets in computer hard drives, hybrid cars and wind turbines, assuming 100 percent recovery in each case. They found that the amount available for recycling could be at most 10 to 15 percent of the demand between now and 2015. The percentage dips even further toward 2020, as demand takes off but only computer hard drives are available for recycling.

Still, as cars and wind turbines reach the end of their lifetimes, recycling by 2030 could theoretically meet more than 20 percent of demand. "In the long run, it might have a significant impact," Rademaker noted.

Until economics, legislation or demand catches up, one idea is to save the metals, trapped in their devices, for the future.

"Some people say we should landfill it all and wait for a better technology," said Rademaker. "That's the idea of urban mining. If you have the space for it and if it's not hazardous and you can landfill it safely, keep the metals for a moment when we do know what to do with it."

With new recycling strategies being developed and demand for rare earth elements growing every day, it's possible that moment isn't too far down the line.

Image of neodymium iron boron rare earth magnets by Dan Hanscom via Shutterstock

6 steps to boost innovation through mindfulness

Published April 14, 2014
Tags: Innovation
6 steps to boost innovation through mindfulness

Cultivating mindfulness — an ability to be open to the new — is critical in a continuing attempt to turn socially innovative solutions into work that benefits those in need. More leading corporations — including Intel, Google and General Mills — are paying attention to the role that mindfulness and meditation can play in innovation.

A decade ago, I co-authored a book with Paul Nakai called "The Mindful Corporation." In it, I offered that the opposite of being mindful was being mind-filled. In a state of mind-filledness, there is no room for anything new to enter.

The paradoxical response people often have to this condition is often to distract themselves even more, with music, food, movies, the Internet, etc. When looked at from this perspective, it's easy to think this additional informational input would only exacerbate the condition — and guess what?

It does.

The more distractions you add to your mind, the less mindful you are and the more mind-filled you become. I would think at this point it would be fairly obvious why people might experience overload: There's simply no more room.

Clamor and clutter distract

Within today's complex work environments, as well as simply staying abreast of what's going on in the world round us, we make a choice every moment — be here or be someplace else. And overwhelmingly we choose to be someplace else.

Don't believe me; try it for yourself. Try to sit still for five minutes without distracting yourself with something else. That includes telling yourself a story, making lists about what you have to accomplish, what you need at the store, how many cracks are on the floor, what sports event you want to watch, taking the wash out of the dryer — no entertainment. Okay, that last one isn't very entertaining — but it could be, especially if you're trying to be aware of all your other distractions.

Even reading this blog is a means of distraction — but don't stop reading yet.

The overfull mind misses much

Why should you care if you are mind-filled or mindful? Let's take your ability to pick up cues within the environment in which you are operating.

Clutter image by Jellaluna via FlickrCues point in the direction of something new about to emerge. They can show up as physical evidence, a sensation or an intuitive awareness, an expectant feeling you might get walking into a crowded room. If your mind were filled, any new information that might emerge probably would not register as more than background noise.

Now, let's extend the notion of picking up cues as the precursor to actually recognizing something emerge, as it emerges, rather than trying to track it down after the fact amid all the muddle and debris.

This is something akin to trying to figure-out a whodunit mystery in real time. Miss a cue and the mystery remains unsolved. If you aren't able to be present enough to see and feel the environment with a mind not filled by other distractions and junk, you'll invariably be surprised when you discover it was Professor Plum in the conservatory with the iPad. "Oh, that's who did it!" — after the fact.

In a business context, this is the ability to move toward recognizing an innovative idea rather than looking back and trying to figure out what just happened. Within the CSR context, if others are spending time looking back at what took place in the past and you're moving toward new solutions, who's benefitting more people?

Clear mental clutter and see what springs up

The ability to become more mindful and make space in your mind allows another profound occurrence to take place. The more you practice mindfulness, the less you become fixated on your own ideas, locked-in by your own biases. Being free from fixed ideas allows you to be more comfortable sitting with a blank canvas.

This is the open space upon which the opportunity for real innovation, something truly new and now, can emerge.

Mindfulness is not something that is simply learned. It is a practice and requires practice. One well-known technique for developing mindfulness is meditation: the act of stabilizing the mind. This is not about learning to stop your thinking, as some mistakenly purport. Rather it is about being able to watch your thoughts without holding on to any of them.

One metaphor describing the relationship between meditation and thought is that you are a mountain and your thoughts are like clouds floating by. You have no means to jump on one of the clouds or pack it away for later. It just moves on by.

Once you have received initial instruction in how to meditate, it takes practice to begin letting go of the clutter you've amassed. Mind-filled hoarding is no less an issue than hoarding material stuff in your own home. But by learning to clear some of that out, you actually discover you've created more space.

Mountain image by kcxd via FlickrAnd by being able to sit within that space and not freak out because you've gotten rid of the comfort of the clutter, something rather remarkable begins to take place. Clarity begins to emerge.

When you can be comfortable simply sitting in the space of your mind while interacting with others, a variety of incredibly beneficial things take place. One is that when something emerges out of that interaction with others, it becomes evident to you and not lost amid the stacks of old New Yorkers you've carefully stored in the corner.

A clear mind spots clues and cues

This ability to cue-spot, as I call it, and capture what emerges within a collaborative interaction actually requires more than just a mindful space. There are six steps within this process.

1. Mindfulness: Returning focus to the topic at hand without clinging to thoughts.

2. Awareness: Recognizing you have been pulled away from the interaction.

3. Listening: Hearing what is being said within all segments of the environment, both inner-personal and inter-personal.

4. Offering: Trusting what is known and to capture and present what has emerged.

5. Furthering: Reapplying what has emerged to deepen the conversation and afford the next level of emergence.

6. Discovery: Identifying novelty as it emerges.

Being able to capture these innovative moments, however, begins with an ability to cultivate mindfulness. It takes a willingness to not be stuck in our fixed ideas about the world we encounter.

Fostering this in our workforce and with those we serve opens the door to social innovations coming to the front of the pack, not lost in the noise. At that point of discovery, they can be nurtured, developed and actualized. The critical factor is having the space to know they are there in the first place.

If the goal is to be of benefit to others, sitting down and shutting up can be a great place to start.

Meditation image by ideldesign via Shutterstock

Meghan Ryan

Associate, Advisory Services
Business for Social Responsibility

Meghan Ryan is an Associate, Advisory Services at Business for Social Responsibility, where she works with Fortune 500 companies to integrate sustainability into their core businesses. Previously, she worked as a sustainability strategy consultant via an MBA fellowship at Natural Capitalism Solutions and was a consultant to major pharmaceutical and medical device companies with Easton Associates (now Navigant Consulting).

Christina Wildt

MS in Environmental Policy candidate
Bard Center for Environmental Policy
Christina Wildt is an MS in Environmental Policy candidate at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. Christina is passionate about transforming the way consumers impact the natural world and is pursuing a career in corporate environmental sustainability management.

Ian Edwards

Executive Vice President
Arcadia Sustainability Communications
Ian Edwards is an NYC-based sustainability communications strategist with 20 years of global experience with global brands. While a practice generalist, the former journalist has developed a specialty in sustainability, issues management and corporate social responsibility as platforms for brand, reputation and operational improvements.

3 magic words to mute 'sustainababble'

Published April 15, 2014
3 magic words to mute 'sustainababble'

As more people use the term "sustainability" without a precise understanding of its underlying meaning, the significance of the word may, if unchecked, be diluted until it means nothing.

Recently, the webcomic XKCD depicted a graph of the use of the word "sustainable" between 1980 and the present, then projected its use through 2109 — at which point "all sentences are just the word 'sustainable' repeated over and over." The caption reads, "The word 'sustainable' is unsustainable."

This message has been especially important for the team at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, which organizes the state's annual Governor's Sustainability Awards. In order to ensure we do not dilute the meaning of sustainability and the spirit of the award, the ISTC is launching a fight against "sustainababble" (PDF).

We encourage our applicants to pursue projects that show scope, scale and significance relative to their organization's primary operations. We hope that these three Ss may help others in this same fight. Sustainability and pollution prevention award/certification programs must work especially hard to maintain their integrity amidst a growing cacophony of sustainababble.

The Governor's Sustainability Award

The Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award was founded in 1987 as the Governor's Pollution Prevention Award. In 2009, the name was changed in order to recognize the expanding scope of environmental initiatives among Illinois companies and organizations.

Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award image courtesy of ITSCOftentimes, when companies change a process to reduce waste or eliminate a hazard, they also find opportunities to save energy and water. They may even find that the environmental problem-solving process fits well as a core part of company operations.

In the mid-2000s, ISTC saw an increase in award applications from businesses outside of industrial and manufacturing sectors. Industrial or manufacturing facilities represented 70 percent of awardees in the early 2000s, but less than half of awardees since 2009. Applicants and winners from the education, government, non-profit, office-based and retail sectors have increased in recent years.

We are excited about this trend because it reflects a growing awareness that pollution prevention and efficiency have benefits for all sectors. But we are cautious to not lose touch with three key qualities of a sustainability award winner: scope, scale and significance.

1. Scope

In evaluating scope, we ask whether an applicant has made impact improvements in the areas most relevant to its business. The latest GRI reporting guidelines refer to this as materiality. For example, a clothing company's sustainability scope includes processes such as fabric manufacturing, washing and dyeing. If the company only touts its lighting retrofits and low-flow toilets, its scope is incomplete.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (PDF) was a 2013 winner that had a strong scope. Almost all of its reported achievements centered on its primary business: Bus transport. In 2009, CUMTD began incorporating gas-electric hybrid buses into its fleet. Today, hybrid vehicles comprise more than 50 percent of its 102-bus fleet. All new buses also are fitted with diesel particulate filters, which remove 90 percent of particulate matter (soot) from emissions. To further reduce bus emissions, the district implemented an anti-idling policy, which mandates that bus drivers will idle for no more than three minutes.

40-foot hybrid bus image courtesy of CUMTD

CUMTD focused its water reduction initiatives on the wash bay, where buses are washed on a nightly basis. By installing a water conservation system that recycles rinse water, the district cut consumption by 20 percent. Additionally, the district now requires the bus garage's supervisor to make a daily decision about whether each bus truly needs a wash. This simple step cut water use by an additional 5 percent. CUMTD reports that these changes reduced water consumption from 12.4 gallons per vehicle-hour to 9.4 gallons per vehicle-hour.

2. Scale

Our awardees range from small family-owned organizations to multinational corporations. We want to continue recognizing a wide range of businesses for their accomplishments, so we evaluate scale relative to an organization's operations. Ideally, every applicant would report information on a relevant per-unit basis, as CUMTD did. Instead of simply reporting "gallons of water reduced," they reported gallons per vehicle-hour, providing us with a measure that can be compared across years, regardless of how many trips the buses make. This type of measurement, a normalized metric, is extremely helpful for evaluating the true scale of a sustainability project.

Each year, only a handful of applicants report normalized impact information, leaving it to our judges to evaluate the context and scale of our applicants' achievements. In 2014, we are nudging more applicants toward normalizing their data by requiring them to provide square footage, number of employees and annual hours of operation in their applications. These units allow us to compare year-to-year performance. The 2014 application also includes additional instructions on normalizing data by relevant units of production.

3. Significance

Significance is where we discover whether an applicant truly has incorporated sustainability — a commitment to environment, economy and society — into the operation of the company or organization. Sustainability has become a significant part of the organization when a company normalizes green purchasing practices, employees routinely seek efficiencies and management is as familiar with impact data as it is with financials. In 2013, 17 of the 27 awardees included descriptions of how true sustainability is being woven into the fabric of their operations, either through an active and multi-functional Green Team, ISO 14001 Certification or sustainability reporting efforts.

Plastic chip image by John MulrowPackaging design and manufacturing company and 2013 winner J.L. Clark (PDF) provides an excellent example of a company that pursues sustainability in a significant way. The company's Green Team includes several plant managers and engineers, the vice president of operations and often the president himself. It is a group well-positioned to evaluate and make changes that are highly relevant in both scope and scale.

In 2012, over 25 percent of J.L. Clark's waste reductions and cost savings were achieved by improving process efficiencies on the manufacturing floor. By grouping all high volume production lines in one area, the company was able to eliminate the need for two sets of constantly running chillers, cooling towers and air compressors. It also achieved significant savings by rebuilding and reprogramming injection molds and tooling. The involvement of engineers and plant managers in the Green Team made these achievements a seamless part of company operations, rather than a special side project.

The Green Team subdivides its work into four project categories: Land, Air, Sea and Mind. This framework ensures that the company addresses all aspects of sustainability in its constant quest for improvement. The evaluators also were impressed that the categories described their purpose and impact more explicitly than the word "sustainability" does.


As the administrator of the Governor's Sustainability Award, ISTC staff is keenly aware of sustainababble and excited to help more organizations pursue true sustainability. Sustainability award and certification programs, including ours, must practice continuous improvement by employing meaningful terms and greater rigor in our evaluations. In the fight against sustainababble, we must choose our weapons and words wisely.

Mute button image by Abel Tumik via Shutterstock

Jessica Marshall

Jessica Marshall is an award-winning science, environmental and health journalist. Her work has appeared in Discovery News, New Scientist, Nature, and Science News for Kids, among other outlets. She has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and has taught science journalism at the University of Minnesota. She lives in St. Paul, Minn.

4 steps to keep food waste from super-sizing climate change

By Chet Chaffee
Published April 11, 2014
Email | Print | Single Page View
Tags: Agriculture, Food & Agriculture
4 steps to keep food waste from super-sizing climate change

What do coal-fired power plants, SUVs and Sunday night leftovers have in common? Surprisingly, it’s carbon emissions — significant amounts, in fact. Our leftovers aren't belching out CO2, but our food production and consumption (or lack of it) habits appear to be contributing significantly to climate change.

According to a report released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (PDF), food waste is one of the most overlooked causes of climate change and is gaining international attention as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Health, safety and environmental managers and others focused on managing resource inputs and carbon outputs no longer can ignore this piece of the sustainability pie.

While most sustainability professionals are at least broadly aware of the carbon impact of the food chain, the impact of what is wasted along the way is rarely included in the tally. From corn to cattle, growing and producing food requires vast energy inputs that result in greenhouse emissions. (In the case of cattle, there’s a certain degree of direct output as well.) But that’s just the beginning.

The FAO report paints a stark picture of the volume of wasted food; how that waste translates into loss of land, water and biodiversity; and the resulting economic costs and impacts on climate change.

So, just clean your plate, right?

Unfortunately, waste occurs at every step in the food chain, from production to processing, packaging and finally consumption. The farther along the chain the waste occurs, the greater the environmental impact as the toll taken by refrigeration, transportation, processing activity and packaging is compounded.

What we do when food finally gets to the fridge — the consumption phase of the food chain — accounts for more than 35 percent of the global greenhouse gas footprint of food waste. On the upside, this also may be where we as business managers, sustainability professionals and individuals can exercise the most control.

Supersized waste

Apple image (Credit: D H Wright via Flickr)If they saw our food waste, our Depression-era forebears would disown us.

According to the FAO report, about one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste. That’s about 1.4 billion tons of edible food annually plus even more in non-edible components. That equates to $750 billion dollars of food wasted annually.

For greenhouse gas specifically, the emissions associated with food waste is estimated at 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The economics of culinary efficiency

As individuals, reducing our personal food waste can be as simple as rethinking how we shop for, cook and store food. Buying local and buying unprocessed, whole foods — already in vogue for health and environmental reasons — also reduces the lifecycle waste of foods we eat. But at an institutional level, strategies become more complex.

For sustainability professionals, there are both economic and environmental incentives to consider in managing waste as an organization. Opportunities are in every sector, from food service providers to hospitals, prisons and schools.

Clearly, companies, organizations and public agencies taking steps to manage their carbon footprints must incorporate food waste into the calculus.

Compass takes action

For example, Compass Group NA recently launched an initiative to measure and reduce the environmental impacts associated with its food service operations. That meant examining the preparation and delivery of tens of thousands of meals daily in restaurants and corporate and campus cafeterias across North America.

Cherimoya seedling image by davecito via FlickrThe program's first phase focused on putting basic sustainability measures in place for daily operations. Chefs and kitchen managers were encouraged to implement best practices in one of four operational areas to shrink emissions. Efforts ranged from making menu changes (less meat, for example) to rethinking the use of energy-intensive kitchen equipment to addressing non-kitchen activities such as lighting and solid waste.

The company then deployed software dashboards that food managers now use to track emissions in real time. The Compass database accounts for production, packaging and transport of individually purchased food items, serving materials and cleaning chemicals and site-specific factors, so that GHG impacts can be accurately assessed.

Four steps to managing culinary efficiency

The Compass program is sophisticated, but most environmental managers can take more basic steps to assess and reduce the GHG contributions of food waste streams. Here are just four to consider.

1. Get the word out

Promote awareness among employees and partners and promote best practices by food service professionals charged with purchasing and preparation.

2. Measure what you do

We can only manage what we can measure.  Find out where your food waste is coming from today and how much is being generated, and then work to reduce waste as needed. Starting with low-hanging fruit (so to speak). Collect the data needed to make good decisions. You do not have to guess any more.

3. Improve food logistics to reduce waste

Food logistics — i.e. proper menu preparation and serving size allocation — can reduce waste considerably.  Don't prepare more than is needed or serve more than can be eaten. Every time food is thrown out, so is all the energy and carbon generated and used from the time the seed was planted or the animal born. Concerned about backlash from hungry diners? Look for opportunities to collaborate with customers to optimize meal sizes and menu selection to reduce food waste.

4. Repurpose uneaten food

Sending freshly prepared but unserved food to those in need — the homeless or shelters for women and children, for example — isn't just a way to give back to your community. It actually carbon impacts by reducing the amount of food prepared at shelters. And plate scrapings can become compost to enrich future harvests.



Advice for utilities: Don't cede power to clean energy

By Suzanne C. Shelton
Published April 11, 2014
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Tags: Energy & Utilities, Energy Efficiency, More... Energy & Utilities, Energy Efficiency, Renewables
Advice for utilities: Don't cede power to clean energy

I once read that when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights legislation into law, he said something like, "I'm ceding the South to the Republican Party for the next 40 years." Listening to several utility CEOs talk at the WSJ ECO:nomics conference last week, it seemed like many were taking a parallel track: ceding electricity generation to the solar industry, perhaps forever.

The message from several utility CEOs was, "We're focusing on transmission and distribution and getting the grid shored up to withstand lots of points of generation, some of which will not be controlled by us." Now, I applaud that they don't have their heads in the sand about the growing market desire to create and store energy (it seems to me that some utilities are trying to fight the market signals rather than pivoting to coexist with/accommodate customer desires). But I'd also urge utilities not to cede the enviable marketing relationship they have with their customers.

Quite literally, utilities have an opportunity that every other industry wishes it had. They:

• Have all their customers' current contact information.

• Know all about their customers' behaviors and usage patterns.

• Can send a basic letter to any given customer and just about be guaranteed that the letter will be opened.

So, to all you utility executives out there, I'd say two things:

1. Don't cede your role as a customer relationship manager.

You may be beginning to put customer relationship management systems in place and only starting to think about how you can leverage all the data you have — but hang in there and stay the course. As other generation options proliferate, those companies will need a way to connect with customers. You could be that way.

2. As you focus on making the grid work for a thousand points of generation, tell your customers about it.

Let your customers know that you're working your tail off to ensure they have lots of generation options in the future, and that you'll make sure they can connect however they want to. Let them see you as a partner so they'll actually want you to play a role in the future as their "tour guide," mentor and concierge in the energy space. There's a profitable business model in that — one the solar industry, and even your customers, will be willing to pay for.

This story first appeared at the Shelton Group's Shelton Insights blog. Electricity pylons photo by Mark Sayer via Shutterstock.


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