Kindle 2.0 a new wave in reading, but an old story in recycling

Books, magazines and newspapers on one hand, Amazon’s Kindle 2.0 reading tablet on the other. A classic matchup of the old and the new, of a better way of doing something that’s been done for centuries. A tale of trees saved, of landfills spared the bulk of unwanted paper and the detritus of broken and obsolete Kindles, because Amazon has set up a recycling program to recover batteries and other potentially harmful components after Kindle loses its final spark.

However, it’s open to debate how effective recycling programs like Amazon’s are. High tech products account for about two percent of the American solid waste stream, according to the EPA, but that percentage is growing rapidly. If the waste stream is growing as manufacturers like Amazon, Dell, Apple, HP and IBM are enacting recycling programs to gain green cred, then something isn’t working. But before throwing cold water on the Kindle, let’s dwell for a minute on its potential appeal to consumers and its considerable environmental upsides.

Should Kindle 2.0 take off with the predicted gusto, it could be the turning point in paperless reading. Kindle, and less-heralded cousin produced by Sony, have what previous generations of electronic reading tablets have lacked; enough convenience, portability and content in one compact package to wean readers away from hard copy books and periodicals. Kindle is thin, light, and can run for four days on a single charge. Its screen uses a technology called “E-Ink” that employs physical ink arranged and re-arranged electronically as the reader flips along. E-Ink is easier on the eyes than conventional screens and doesn’t fade in bright light, so Kindle works everywhere books do. Except that Kindle is a whole library, because its wireless access capabilities provide almost ubiquitous access to a quarter million publications, with more on the way every day. Writing in Slate and Newsweek, Jacob Weisberg makes an excellent case that Kindle can revolutionize the reading and publishing worlds as the dominant reading media of the future. Kindle 2.0, in other words, could be the iPod of reading.

If Kindle becomes the dominant mass reading media, it will have vast environmental benefits. Removing paper from the reading equation saves billions in natural resources and environmental impact. Hard copy publications consume trees and cotton fiber for paper, soybeans for ink, fuel for shipping to retailers, and more fuel for taking back overstock. Pulping and recycling unwanted hard copies means using lots of electricity and, often, chlorine bleach. Books, magazines and newspapers that aren’t recycled take up landfill space. If the landfills are uncapped, they’re probably leaching old petroleum-based inks into water tables, and even soy inks in enough volume can probably damage ground water.

Those benefits are on the front end. The back end is another story. Manufacturers’ recycling programs are not stemming the tide of discarded electronics, and that’s not exclusive to Kindle and Amazon. It applies to Apple iPods, Dell laptops, HP printers, Sony Playstations, and just about anything else that beeps when you turn it on. Most of the current programs place too much onus on the consumer to contact the manufacturer, package the unwanted item, and ship it someplace for recycling. It’s still easier for the average consumer to just bury the dead laptop in his/her trash can and let the garbage crew deal with it.

Yet those same consumers will fill a bucket with used plastic bottles and metal cans and set it out right next to their trash can for curbside recycling. The key is convenience. The industry needs a new recycling model that includes incentives, penalties and convenience. Many municipalities charge homeowners by the bag to haul away trash, but allow unlimited free recycling. In a twist of that model, why not tack on a mandatory refundable recycling fee onto the price of every high-tech product sold? The fee goes into interest-bearing accounts to offset the program’s costs. At the end of an electronic product’s life, the owner brings it to a local site, like a retailer, where it’s accepted for recycling and they get their fee refunded. Such programs might not make any money, but they can be structured not to cost anyone, and they will serve the higher purpose of keeping high tech materials out of landfills and incinerators.

Tech products like Kindle can reduce the overall environmental impact of industries like publishing. But until they can be recycled as easily as an aluminum can, they will not be a solution, just a smaller problem.

If you’re green, prove it

Green is wonderful, especially if you’re savoring it in the forest on a pillow of sun-drenched moss.

As a marketing term, though, green is getting old. Overuse and spin have dulled the verdant halo. Increasingly “green” label may be warning wary consumers they might be getting jerked around. Same with sustainable, fresh, local, organic, natural, recyclable and energy-efficient.

Consumers do want to buy green, and despite the recession, four out of five consumers claim they do (survey results). Unfortunately, one in three doesn’t know how to verify green claims. Translation: when consumers buy green, often they don’t really know what they’re buying.

Since buyers need information and sellers need credibility, the next wave of green marketing will rely heavily on proof – documentation and certification – just as cars rely on JD Power, and as buildings rely on LEED certification.

Says the Federal Trade Commission: “Claims that a product or service is ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘environmentally safe,’ ‘environmentally preferable,’ or ‘eco-safe’ or labels that contain environmental seals – say, a picture of the globe with the words ‘Earth Smart’ around it – are unhelpful for two reasons: First, all products, packaging and services have some environmental impact, although some may have less than others. Second, these phrases alone do not provide the specific information you need to compare products, packaging, or services on their environmental merits. Look for claims that give some substance to the claim – the additional information that explains why the product is environmentally friendly or has earned a special seal.”

So what’s the seal of approval for green claims? There are options for niche segments of the industry, but no universal seal.

A hundred years after introducing its venerable seal of approval, Good Housekeeping wants a similar role in green affairs, at least when it comes to consumer goods for the household, like appliances, toys, cosmetics, food, beverages. The magazine is launching a green seal in the April issue.

The nonprofit Green Seal,  unrelated to Good Housekeeping, also covers consumer goods, but skews toward the institutional and B2B market with categories in construction, food service, office products, transportation and utilities. It has been certifying products since 1992. Green Seal’s bona fides are here Certified Green Seal products and services are here.

The Federal Trade Commission doesn’t have a seal, but offers guidelines for avoiding false or misleading green claims, over which it has some enforcement power. Here are its suggestions for businesses trying to comply with its “Green Guides” against deceptive green marketing. It defines terms like biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, recycled content and ozone- friendly.

The data center community is pushing for special LEED standards specifically for power-hungry facilities packed with servers. The criteria would be entirely different from green homes or office buildings., launched by the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports in 2005, provides information on appliances, cars, electronics, food and home/garden products. It gives ratings and provides calculators.

Two generally respected labels are USDA Organic for food and ENERGY STAR  from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. The Today Show suggests, and

The Boston Globe recently explored this miasma of green confusion around the carbon footprint issue. The article surprisingly revealed that microwaving food (they don’t call it nuking for nothing) is greener than baking it and that bottled water from Fiji or France is probably greener (again, from a carbon standpoint) than Poland Springs. The reason? Bottling plants in France typically use nuclear power-generated electricity, and Pacific Islands plants typically use geothermal-powered electricity. It’s fossil fuels in the United States. Bottom line: tap water is your best bet.

Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. of Concord, Mass., (disclosure: a client), is developing software that fosters intelligent green decisions long before products hit the market – in the design phase. DS SolidWorks makes widely used 3D computer-aided design software, and the new product, code-named “Sage,” will detail in real time the environmental impact of parts, assemblies and design decisions that go into new products.

The software will feature a dashboard that not only provides information on carbon footprint but also on air impact, water impact and energy consumed in manufacturing. The high-end version will roll up the impact of a product across its environmental life cycle and also include information on energy consumption throughout a product’s usage phase.

So those are all the yardsticks. Are you unconfused yet?

Even if we could objectively measure, certify and label products from a perfect set of all-encompassing green standards, we’d still have problems like this: Which is better, buying a new eco friendly hybrid or driving your oil-burning microbus into the ground?

In the meantime, if you’re marketing a green product that’s really green, go to one of the authorities, document your environmental impact, and get certified.

Maple syrup: a lesson in unintentional cleantech innovation

Maple sugaring season is finally underway here, with smoke and steam from boiled sap comingling above thousands of New England sugarhouses.

What most people don’t realize is that those sugarhouses are emitting a lot less steam and smoke these days. But not due to a decline in production…maple syrup yields were some of best on record last year, up 30% nationwide.

Instead, a clever-and-perhaps-lazy sugarbush farmer had an epiphany back in the ‘70s to experiment with a reverse osmosis machine in an attempt to cut down on the time, fuel and sweat he put into boiling his sap down to syrup.

Reverse osmosis is a technology originally invented to purify water, such as for desalinating sea water to get fresh water. By applying the same technology to maple syrup production, producers discovered they can remove 75-80% of the water from the sugary sap, dramatically reducing the boiling effort.

The lesson to cleantech companies is that innovation doesn’t always have to be invented from scratch; sometimes you can achieve breakthroughs by repurposing existing innovations from other industries.

That’s not to suggest that solar, biofuel or wind energy companies should detour from their current R&D quests for the most energy efficient materials, enzymes or geometries.

And to keep things in perspective, the environmental gains of using reverse osmosis in maple syrup production is scant at best, since the sugaring operations are small scale and the season lasts just a couple months.

Yet consider this: my maple syrup-producing neighbor in Vermont used to burn through 40 cords dirty slag wood each year. He now burns just 6 cords since he started using reverse osmosis – which translates into a staggering 85% reduction in energy consumption.

What if some undiscovered, unintentional use of an existing technology could achieve comparable levels of performance in, say, the processing of biofuel feedstocks or the combustionable efficiency of other fuels? I’m just saying that if some farmer can revolutionize an industry by asking “what if I was to hook up that contraption to my syrup tank…?”  why shouldn’t cleantech companies ask the same kind of questions of not-so-obvious existing technologies?

Biofuel needs a new message

Biofuel startups have a messaging problem. Everyone from scientists and environmentalists to economists and ethicists are hammering the industry in a near-daily barrage of bad press and damning research studies.

I won’t spill the entire rap sheet against biofuels – you can read about them here or here for starters – but to summarize the key points affecting public perception:

  • “sustainable biofuel” is an oxymoron: it takes far more fuel and energy to produce than it delivers
  •  production actually causes more greenhouse gas emissions than it eliminates
  •  it takes farmland away from food crops, increasing prices and world hunger, and
  •  it contributes to rainforest deforestation, to name just a few offenses.

These problems are primarily the domain of first-generation biofuels produced from food stock like corn, soybeans or palm oil. Whether its indictments are fair or not, the perception taints the entire industry, including more promising second-generation alternatives such as cellulosic ethanol (which relies on non-food biomass like agricultural waste products and wood chips) and algae-based biofuels.

Yet the industry’s only response is the same old message it’s been touting since day one: Biofuel helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Important as energy independence may be, the message is ineffective. It’s a macroeconomic abstraction at a time when people are struggling with tougher problems closer to home… like having a job, healthcare and a place to live. It doesn’t give me a good reason to care. Besides, don’t solar, wind and other more clean energy industries have a more attractive hold on that same message? And for transportation fuels, electric and hybrid plug-in vehicles rule the day.

Weak messaging combined with the steady drumbeat of detractors has caused the biofuel industry to lose control of the debate…at their own peril. I don’t have the answer to biofuel’s messaging problem. But if asked, I’d steer the discussion this way:

Doing nothing is not an option – First, re-assert biofuel’s essential role in renewable energy diversity. The messaging needs to convey that while it may not be a perfect fuel; it’s certainly a better fuel. Detractors may fling their arrows, but what’s the alternative? Our oil addition may ebb as new green technologies catch hold, but it won’t go away in our generation. Do we just keep pumping and mainlining dirtier fossil fuels into our cars, homes and industries indefinitely? The messaging needs to communicate that doing nothing is not an option. No single renewable energy option can solve all our problems. Biofuel is a necessary part of our clean energy stew.

Make it personal, keep it local – The biofuel industry needs to get beyond its national energy independence message and explain how a well structured biofuel ecosystem can benefit local economies and, ultimately, people’s lives by:

  • creating jobs in feed stock, production and distribution, and
  • reducing the negative impact on local environments.

In our state of New Hampshire, for instance, the North Country’s economy is reeling from the collapse of the pulp and paper industry. Biomass production from waste wood would not only bring jobs and spur new ancillary businesses, it would lead to better forest management, which boosts tourism. Companies like Pacific Biodiesel and organizations like the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance promote small scale, community-based biofuel production based on local feedstocks, local production and local distribution of sustainable fuel. In other words, “grow it here, produce it here, use it here.” The messaging needs to communicate how biofuel can positively impact me and everyone else at a personal level.

Rebrand – Lastly, biofuel startups need to directly address the early missteps and knocks against the industry openly and honestly. Acknowledge the problems and show what you’re doing to fix them. Continued support for current first-generation corn-based ethanol production is a non-starter. It’s an unsustainable industry propped up by bad public policy and pols beholding to the agri-biz lobby and Iowa caucus goers. It’s a battle that can’t be won in the long term.

This requires re-branding. Second-generation biofuel companies need to set themselves apart from their first-generation legacy with branding that communicates how they are different…how they are better. The branding should communicate the industry’s future vision. Today, biofuel startups attempt to differentiate based on their intellectual property and production methods. But who really cares which bacteria or enzymes are best for digesting cellulosic biomass, or which algae strains yield the most oil? Most of us don’t. We have faith you’ll figure out the science. Just show us the way forward.

The growing attacks on biofuel could have the negative effect of stymieing national and global biofuel policies at a time when breakthroughs in sustainable biofuel production are nearing commercial reality. The biofuel industry needs to reclaim the megaphone and deliver a clear, crisp message that communicates its benefits in a personal way.

eBay might be kinda sorta green

eBay is going public about going green (surprise), announcing a Green Team “committed to doing even more to help the world buy, sell and think green every day.” But will the green tint stick?

Well, they’ve got a huge solar power installation. Their business happens to promote reuse, which is better than recycling. They pay for cradle-to-cradle packaging and carbon credits. And who’s to say their heart isn’t in the right place? But beyond that…?

Well, there are plenty of newly manufactured consumer items for sale on their site. A lot of small parcels zooming all around the world 24 x 7 (some $2,000 in goods per second, in fact) doesn’t do much in the way of reducing fossil fuel consumption. And, as the New York Times points out, the ad campaign will be on virgin paper. Ouch! The article proves yet again that even modest pretensions to green goodness are subject to scrutiny.

Credit eBay for doing some good work. But from a marketing perspective, it’s hard to own the green leadership mantle when, by all appearances, your carbon footprint is about the same as everyone else’s.