November 1st, 2013 by
Posted in Being Green

I’ve written in the past about not throwing e-waste away, but I wanted to share with you the progress being made on the next crucial step in the e-waste stream – responsible recycling. (more…)


August 16th, 2013 by
Posted in Being Green

One topic leads to another. While you may never see the large scale “batteries” I mentioned in my last post, we use batteries every day. Due to our technology having differing requirements for size, voltage, output, and recharge ability, there are lots of different types. What batteries you can and should recycle can be a little confusing.



May 10th, 2013 by
Posted in Being Green

As we pursue our fortunes in the Chinese market, one of the questions that always pops into my head is, “How do we get the exhibits there?” The easiest answer is air freight, but while that is the fastest and smoothest route, it’s also the most expensive. The other option is ocean freight, which is markedly cheaper, but also much slower. Shipping schedules are set months in advance, and if your company is running late, they will sail without your load.

Before you try to wrap your head around how we get massive ground forms into a semi, let me reveal a little of the magic behind the curtain. Each structure is built knowing that we will be cutting it into chunks. Chunks that can fit through a double door, ideally. The exhibit is a 3D puzzle that comes together amazingly well. So, we know how to fit an exhibit into limited shipping spaces. Packing a shipping container for an ocean transit isn’t too different from packing a short semi-trailer. You don’t want to waste any space, and you want the weight to be well distributed, since the entire container will be moved by some sort of suspension system in the port.

If you don’t live near a port, you might not know that the vast majority of ocean freight is carried within shipping containers. They show up a lot in thrillers on TV whenever there are dark deeds happening in a port, often stacked three to four high. These corrugated steel boxes come in several sizes, but the most common are the 20’ and 40’ lengths. Most of them are made in China, which makes sense, considering how huge the Chinese export market is. The economics of international freight often makes it more expensive to ship an empty container back to China to reuse it than it is to buy a new container in China. This leads to massive numbers of empty shipping containers accumulating in ports where freight came ashore.

More than ten years ago, architects began using empty shipping containers as building elements, since they have standard dimensions and construction. They have been turned into houses, hotels, emergency housing, exhibition spaces, stores, and buildings on military bases. A secondary market has appeared that pre-fits the new containers as various building elements, which avoids some troubling challenges with using old containers. Since the real containers have to be resistant to the elements (including salt water) and insect attack, they are manufactured with tough coatings on the steel and powerful pesticides in the wooden interior floors. No one wants these chemicals in their work or living spaces, so the containers need a bit of work to make them safe to use.

An art center in Seoul, South Korea.

A store in Zurich, Switzerland, for Freitag, a company that makes bags from old truck tarps.

The ‘greenness’ of using shipping containers, either new or old, in architecture will be debated as the trend grows. Keep your eyes open when in cities with major ports and you might spot one of these boxy creations. Have you been inside a shipping container building?


April 26th, 2013 by
Posted in Being Green

Spring is having a heck of a time getting sprung around here. It’s cooler than normal and way wetter than normal, so we need some heating-degree days in a big way. But even though the farmers are fretting, everyone is moving ahead with clearing out junk. Municipalities are organizing dumpster days and opportunities for the public to dispose properly of electronic waste. Since it’s illegal in Illinois to throw e-waste into the regular trash or a landfill, I am glad the public does have disposal options. I’ve got enough old equipment here at work to fill a pickup truck!

Our IT support company, MCS, has organized an e-waste collection event, and I’m hopeful we can clear out a lot of old gear. We are lucky in that we only have computer monitors that are the old tube type. Televisions with cathode ray tubes are flooding recycling centers as consumers upgrade to flatscreens, and the recycling industry can no longer make money on taking them. Big box retailers charge at least $10 to take old CRT TVs, and if you have one, I would strongly suggest getting rid of it now before the disposal cost increases.

I think it is wonderful that manufacturers are coming up with ways to save energy with electronics. Flatscreens save money, no question. Digital video players use less energy than DVD players. However, the constant stream of new products forces those who buy them to dispose of the old equipment. Unfortunately, it is not in the manufacturer’s best interests (right now) to make their products in such a way that the products can be easily broken down into reusable components. For the longest time, the tech industry has been dependent on China for crucial heavy metals. By keeping the cost of heavy metals low, China drove any competitors out of business. But where are those heavy metals now? In the very e-waste we are disposing of. Reclaiming heavy metals from e-waste should be a priority, but it may not be cost-effective. I hope that such technology makes it to the market soon, because the more heavy metals that are reclaimed, the less that can get into our food and water.

If you have a closet full of e-waste, I urge you to call around your area to see what disposal events are planned. Responsible disposal is part of being a good consumer. Do you have any tips on disposing of e-waste?


March 15th, 2013 by
Posted in Being Green

Of water, I mean. You may have already heard (and felt in your wallet) that bottled water is marked up more than 1,000% compared to tap water. This often makes bottled water more expensive than gas, even at today’s $3.50 per gallon pricing. While I understand that some municipal supplies taste bad, and people in rural areas depend upon vulnerable wells, the vast majority of bottled water drinkers are losing money hand over fist. Is bottled water cleaner than average tap water? At least 50% of bottled water comes from a municipal source, which is then filtered in a process that is much less regulated than tap water.

If you want purified water, buy your own filtration system for your home. Top end reverse osmosis and distillation systems can be expensive, but cheaper carbon filtration cartridges and carafes do a great job also. Once you have water you like the taste of, get a reusable container for it. Stainless steel water bottles (such as the Klean Kanteen) are becoming inexpensive and easy to find, so the trick is finding one with a good seal. Aluminum bottles need to have an enamel liner to keep the aluminum from leaching into the liquid (like those produced by Sigg). Reusable plastic containers, like Nalgene, are made from Lexan, a polycarbonate plastic, which shouldn’t be used for hot liquids. Polycarbonate can release bisphenol A (also called BPA), a synthetic chemical ingredient that interferes with the body’s hormones.

In addition, it’s not wise to reuse the one-time bottle you purchased. While the PET (polyethylene terephthalate, labeled as a #1) plastic is safe initially, as it crinkles and ages from exposure to heat and UV light, it can leak a chemical called DEHP, which has been revealed as a probable human carcinogen.

However, if you do find yourself stuck with bottled water, be sure to recycle the empties! Millions make their way to landfills or are incinerated every year. This is another product that has a high environmental cost and no reusability, so recycling is crucial. So let’s spread the word. What’s your favorite reusable container?

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