Rubbish cleaners, better plastic yoghurt pots and greener trucks

Electrolux turns sea garbage into vacs

The oceans of the world are home to giant floating garbage islands. To help draw attention to the global problem, Swedish appliance maker Electrolux is turning discarded plastics recovered from the oceans into vacuum cleaners as part of its “Vac from the Sea” initiative.

Electrolux has made five vacuums from plastics found in the North Sea, Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, Pacific Ocean and Baltic Sea. The plastic debris was collected in partnership with schools, Electrolux employees and volunteers throughout the various regions.

While the models are fully functional, they are not intended for use but to draw attention to the “plastic paradox” – that despite the masses of garbage we generate and discard, there is a surprising shortage of recycled plastics that are of a high enough quality to be used for home appliances.

The company plans to auction its Vacs from the Sea, and the money raised will go to recycled plastics research.

Electrolux makes a Green Range vacuum cleaner from 70% recycled plastic, with the aim of reaching 100%. Celia Nord, vice-president for floor care environmental and sustainability affairs at Electrolux, says the company is working closely with its suppliers to explore new alternatives and promote the use of sustainable plastics.

“This issue is much too important to leave to politicians,” Nord says. “Companies, consumers and politicians are equally accountable for the situation. Since our company delivers appliances to millions of homes, we have an opportunity to raise awareness and affect consumer decisions.” (See also Sweden briefing from p17 for more on Electrolux.)

Stonyfield’s first yogurt maize cups

Stonyfield Farm is getting a little corny … in a good way.

The US maker of organic dairy products is now using a plastic made from maize for its multipack yogurts, making it the world’s first dairy company to do so.

According to Nancy Hirshberg, vice-president for natural resources at Stonyfield, the company had been looking for an alternative to polystyrene for a while. So when the company’s life-cycle analysis revealed that using the maize-derived plastic called polylactic acid (PLA) would cut carbon emissions for the multipacks by nearly half, the company was quick to make the switch.

But the new cups are not perfect, and Stonyfield readily acknowledges it. For one, the cups use genetically modified maize because to guarantee the use of non-GM maize would require the entire production line to be cleared of GM maize first, generating a much higher project cost, which Stonyfield did not want to pass on to consumers.

Additionally, there is only one US facility that recycles PLA (and just one other in the world in Belgium), and those facilities do not yet have the capacity to separate paper labels, lids and the like from the cup to be recycled.

As a result, Stonyfield explored another way to help promote sustainable farming: offsets. In cooperation with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and its Working Landscapes programme, Stonyfield is paying its farmers to grow GM-free maize equal to the amount of GM maize used in its cups. The non-GM maize grown through the offset programme will go into whatever product is being manufactured at the time, so it could end up in the maize-based yogurt cup or in another product.

Stonyfield is also helping to advance PLA technology away from maize to other materials such as agricultural waste, or crops that are not suitable for food. The company is so enthusiastic about non-maize PLA that it’s putting its years of research up on the internet. For free.

“It’s important that we not make the quest for perfection the enemy of the good, and wait at the starting line until the perfect solution presents itself,” Hirshberg says. “We all need to jump into that grey area and innovate in an effort to move the needle on critical issues of sustainability.”

If all US dairy companies follow suit and replace polystyrene containers with plant-based ones, CO2 emissions could be reduced by nearly 700,000 tonnes a year, equal to the emissions from 1.5m barrels of oil.

Slaves making everyday goods

To mark the UK’s first Anti-Slavery Day, Anti-Slavery International has developed a new data visualisation website called Products of Slavery, which exposes 122 common products that are made using child and forced labour across 58 countries.

More than 12.3 million people are enslaved today. On the site, yellow circles dot a world map to illustrate the number of products that are highly likely to have been made by child or forced labour in a particular country. Today, the products most frequently made with forced and child labour include cotton, coffee, cocoa, sugar cane, rice and tobacco in the agricultural sector; bricks, carpets and garments in manufacturing; and coal and gold in the mining sector.

India was identified as the country with the widest range of goods made by children, and Burma as the country with the greatest range of goods produced using forced labour. The data is predominantly based on the 2009 US Department of Labour report Goods Produced by Child Labour and Forced Labour.

So what’s to be done? “It’s critical that a strong CSR policy is backed by a thorough understanding of forced labour,” says Joanna Ewart-James, Anti-Slavery International’s supply chain coordinator. “This includes understanding which workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation like migrant workers, minority groups and women.”

Ewart-James also stresses the need for companies to work with organisations and trade unions to more deeply understand workers’ conditions of employment. This is particularly important, as auditing systems are often inadequate to identify forced labour, and might only address possible symptoms such as excessive overtime.

“Companies should work with their suppliers and take a genuine approach to partnership,” Ewart-James says. “For example, making it clear to suppliers that they will not be dropped if forced labour is identified at their sites but, rather, that the company will work with them to build their skills in identifying and addressing the issue.”

GE takes on a new light

When it comes to finding something as seemingly simple as an energy efficient light bulb that doesn’t cast an unnatural hue (or cost more than a light bulb should), the pickings have been slim. But in 2011, GE will introduce the first hybrid halogen-compact fluorescent (CFL) bulb to the US market.

The new incandescent bulb is unique in that it combines halogen technology for a brighter light with the energy efficiency of a CFL, resulting in a more natural and long-lasting colour than your average halogen. The new bulbs will be launched under the GE Reveal and GE Energy Smart Soft White labels, and will last eight times as long as traditional incandescent bulbs. So now you can step into the light, without squinting.

Volvo enters WWF partnership

Volvo will take its seat as the first car and lorry manufacturer to join WWF’s Climate Savers programme, the aim of which is to galvanise companies to cut their CO2 emissions by more ambitious targets than they had set in the past. Volvo will be in the company of other mega multinationals such as Johnson & Johnson, IBM, Coca-Cola and Sony.

As part of its commitment, Volvo has vowed that its truck lines including Mack, Renault, UD and Volvo will reduce their total carbon emissions by 13m tonnes – that’s equivalent to the emissions from Sweden in three months. Third-party experts will also keep an eye on the company to monitor and track progress.

By 2014 Volvo also plans to introduce a new truck with 20% lower fuel consumption compared to a 2008 model, and will also develop at least one truck model that will run on renewable fuels. Over time, the company wants to bring car models into the WWF partnership, as well.

Beyond vehicles, Volvo is shifting to renewable energy for production and heating. In 1997 the company debuted the world’s first carbon-neutral, wind-powered auto plant in Belgium.

“As the first vehicle manufacturer to be selected to participate in the Climate Savers programme, we have been presented with a real challenge,” says Volvo chief executive Leif Johansson. “But by focusing on lower CO2-emissions, we believe that we can create more value for our customers’ business while contributing to sustainable development at the same time.”

Facebook combats LGBT slurs

In response to the wave of recent American teen suicides resulting from unbridled anti-gay bullying, Facebook has partnered with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad) to put an end to anti-gay messages posted on the ever-popular social network.

The partnership began when Glaad received more than 18,000 emails calling for Facebook to remove anti-gay comments that were posted on an event page dedicated to the recent victims of gay bullying. Glaad subsequently contacted Facebook to red flag the problem and help work through a long-lasting solution. As a result, Facebook has new policies in place to respond more quickly to hateful comments and better monitor such activity. For example, the company created a robust reporting infrastructure and uses automated systems that identify abusive content, so it can be removed as quickly as possible.

“We take our statement of rights and responsibilities very seriously and react quickly to reports of inappropriate content and behaviour,” says Facebook’s Andrew Noyes. “The goal of these policies is to strike a very delicate balance between giving people the freedom to express their opinions and viewpoints – even those that may be controversial to some – and maintaining a safe and trusted environment.”

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