Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Ultimate Greenwashing: Barbie Goes Green

BarbieAlmost a month ago, we received a press release for Barbie™ BCause, an attempt by Mattel to fool consumers into believing made in China, plastic, out-of-proportion dolls were green. I sent it out to our Eco Child’s Play writers stating, “Anyone want to take this on. I can’t do it. I’d be struck by lightening or something. ” Beth Bader responded that there had been too many lies, too much deception to believe such sustainability claims. So I thought green Barbie was dead to our blog, until Skye Kilaen of Crafting a Green World sent me an interesting article from Mother Jones. MJ writes:

When I first saw the press release about a “green” Mattel collection of accessories called Barbie BCause, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. Apparently not. Mattel’s new “playful and on-trend” collection of hats and bags for young girls will be released “just in time to celebrate Earth Day in style.” Which is pretty ironic, really, given that Barbie dolls themselves are made out of plastic and are packaged in even more plastic. And not the kind of plastic you can throw in the recycling bin, either.

Barbie™ BCause is a line of accessories for girls made from excess fabric and trimmings from other Barbie products:

which would otherwise be discarded, offering eco-conscious girls a way to make an environmentally-friendly fashion statement with cool, patchwork-style accessories.

The eco-conscious young girls I know of steer clear of Barbie. My daughter just gave away her Barbie that her grandmother had bought her (without my approval, of course) while wearing her “Free Tibet” t-shirt. Truly green families will not be fooled by Mattel’s greenwashing. If a green girl wants a patchwork bag, she will make it from her own clothing she has outgrown and not Barbie’s.

“Barbie is always a reflection of current cultural trends and issues, and girls are increasingly aware of making a green statement,” said Richard Dickson, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Media and Entertainment, Worldwide, Mattel Brands. That’s right, Barbie is reflecting the trend of going green. Mattel realizes it wants a piece of the eco-friendly toy pie, but this ploy screams of greenwashing, especially considering the line will only be sold at Toys R Us. MJ sums it up well:

If Mattel really wants to be green, why not reduce the ridiculous amount of packaging they use for displaying their dolls? Why not only sell the collection at eco-conscious retailers instead of exclusively at Toys “R” Us? Oh right, because it’s Barbie.

And what’s with the stupid name BCause? I’m so tired of products targeted to children not using proper English. Haven’t toy makers ever heard of environmental print and the role it plays in young children’s literacy development?

Original here

An Export in Solid Supply

An 80-foot wall of coal at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle mine in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming is an example of abundance in America.

These days, people really are taking coals to Newcastle.

That flow is part of a vast reorganization of the global coal trade that is making the United States a major exporter for the first time in years — and helping to drive up domestic prices of the one fossil fuel the nation has in abundance.

Coal has long been a cheap and plentiful fuel source for utilities and their customers, helping to keep American electric bills relatively low.

But rising worldwide demand is turning American coal into another hot global commodity, with domestic buyers having to compete with buyers from countries like Germany and Japan.

Environmental concerns have forced some American utilities to cut back on plans for coal-burning power plants.

Nonetheless, spot prices for two benchmark American grades of coal, from central Appalachia and the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, have been rising, with occasional dips, since last spring.

They eased in recent days but are still up by 93 percent and 64 percent, respectively, in the last year, according to figures from Doyle Trading Consultants and Evolution Markets.

How high prices will go, and how quickly the increases will be passed along to electricity customers, remains to be seen.

American utility companies buy almost all their coal on long-term contracts, locking in prices for several years.

But as those contracts come up for renewal, price increases are likely, analysts said.

“Watch out, consumer,” said David M. Khani, a coal analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group. “You’re probably going to see accelerating electricity prices in 2009, 2010 and 2011.”

Coal and utility executives predict that coal will remain the most economical fuel in years to come. But they concede that any significant rise could have an important inflationary impact since coal is used to produce about half the nation’s electric power, and coal is also vital in steel production.

For coal producers, the new demand abroad is good news at a time when coal is under political attack at home. More than 50 proposed coal-fired power plants were delayed or canceled over the last year because of concerns over greenhouse gas emissions.

“This export boom right now is the difference between slow growth in our markets and hyper-expansion in our markets,” said Gregory H. Boyce, chairman and chief executive of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company. “You have two billion-plus people looking for a better standard of living. The world is energy-short and the U.S. coal sector is beginning to fill that gap.”

Many environmental groups see the rising global trade as an ominous development, however, since it promises to confound efforts to limit global emissions. World consumption of coal has increased in recent years by more than 4 percent annually, a major reason that emissions of carbon dioxide are going up, not down. Carbon dioxide is the principal gas implicated in global warming.

“Any rise in coal use around the world is bad news for the environment,” said Alice McKeown, who works on coal issues for the Sierra Club. “The U.S. needs to be a leader on global warming, and increasing our coal exports is moving in the wrong direction.”

The United States will export 7 or 8 percent of its coal production this year, up from about 5 percent last year, industry leaders predicted in interviews. Because of higher prices, the value of coal exports should double, to $3.75 billion.

United States exports of coal grew from 49 million tons in 2006 to about nearly 59 million tons in 2007, according to coal industry statistics, while domestic production increased by 1 percent. Coal executives say they expect exports to reach 80 million tons this year, and with railroad and port improvements, to rise to as much as 120 million tons in the next few years.

“There’s no question that the incremental rise in exports this year has driven the prices up,” said Charles E. Zebula, senior vice president for fuel supply at American Electric Power, one of the country’s largest utilities.

Simultaneously, imports of coal are decreasing gradually as producers in Colombia and Venezuela turn to markets other than the United States for higher prices. The shifts are further tightening supplies of coal in the eastern United States, where stiffening regulations and various mine closings have limited output in recent years.

“U.S. coal producers are trying as much as possible to ship coal to the highest bidder, and in many cases that means Europe,” said Gordon Howald, a coal analyst at Calyon Securities. “The once-stodgy coal industry has become an exciting global commodity.”

Great Britain, the country that used its vast coal stocks to pioneer industrial development in the 18th century, has become a major coal importer in recent years, its own industry moribund. With Newcastle-upon-Tyne once being the center of a rich English coal region, the phrase “hauling coals to Newcastle” was a cliché describing an absurd economic proposition.

Nowadays, however, coal arrives regularly at the Port of Tyne from suppliers in the Baltic and South America. American coal goes to other English ports at rising rates; figures from the Commerce Department show that in 2007, United States steam coal exports to the United Kingdom increased by 53 percent and coking coal, used in steel-making, by 20 percent, compared to the previous year.

The boom in coal exports is partially linked to a falling dollar, which makes American coal cheaper on world markets. But there are deeper, longer-term reasons for the world to turn to the United States, which has 27 percent of the world’s coal reserves, more than any country.

As it continues a building spree for coal-fired power plants, China is consuming so much coal that its ability to export is diminishing rapidly; it is expected to become a net importer. Other exporters like South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam are cutting back for a variety of reasons, including growing domestic needs and local power shortages. Recent flooding in Australia has cut exports, at least temporarily, while an earthquake closed a major mine in Germany.

Meanwhile India is building huge coal plants that will require growing imports, while Russia is using more and more coal to make natural gas available for export.

As a result the pattern of world shipments for coal used for metallurgical and energy purposes is shifting. South Africa and other exporting nations that used to export to Europe are turning to Asia, where coal prices are higher, leaving European markets open for American exports. American coal is making its way to England, Spain, Japan and other countries that traditionally looked elsewhere.

The increase expected this year will make the United States a major global exporter for the first time since the early 1990s. For years, low-cost producers in Australia, China and other countries grabbed the bulk of the international coal trade. But now the United States is becoming a low-cost producer, in part because the euro and other currencies have gained so much value in relation to the dollar.

In the United States, plans to build new coal-fired plants are being shelved, and bankers are scrutinizing new projects because of uncertainties over future costs of carbon dioxide emissions. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates say they favor legislation to control global warming, which would presumably limit such emissions.

As the coal industry sees it, exports could be crucial if the American market starts to shrink. Coal executives are talking about upgrading mines, rail and port facilities to meet increasing world demand.

Just within the last couple of months, Peabody began sending coal from Wyoming to Europe, first by rail to the Mississippi River, then by vessel through the Gulf of Mexico. And for the first time in a decade, the company is shipping coal to Japan from the California coast.

“As U.S. coal demand is constrained because of increasing environmental regulation, coal production in the United States will increasingly go toward overseas buyers,” Chris Ruppel, an energy analyst at Execution, a brokerage and research firm, predicted.

The rise in coal prices has so far been invisible to most American consumers because price increases have yet to hit most utilities.

American Electric Power said it had contracted for more than 90 percent of its coal for 2008 before recent price increases. The company said it expects to spend 13 percent more for coal this year than last, after spending about 5 percent more in 2007 compared with 2006.

“We’re not going to see the spot market price in the customer’s bill today,” Mr. Zebula said. “But clearly the price of the good has gone up and will increase over time.”

Already, there are some signs of rising prices. Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, both American Electric Power subsidiaries, on Feb. 29 filed papers seeking approval in West Virginia for a 17 percent increase in revenues, mainly to pay for costlier coal. If the request is approved, a residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours a month would see his bill increase from $64.55 to $73.94, starting in July.

Kenneth B. Medlock, an energy analyst at Rice University, predicted many more electricity consumers will begin to feel the coal price spike over the next year, particularly in states most dependent on coal, like Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio.

“Their power bill is going to go up, but it also will start to affect the prices of goods they buy at the grocery store,” he added.

Original here

Robobug goes to war: Troops to use electronic insects to spot enemy 'by end of the year'

Plans for a robot that can crawl like a spider are 'well developed'

It may have seemed like just another improbable scene from a Hollywood sci-fi flick – Tom Cruise battling against an army of robotic spiders intent on hunting him down.

But the storyline from Minority Report may not be quite as far fetched as it sounds.

British defence giant BAE Systems is creating a series of tiny electronic spiders, insects and snakes that could become the eyes and ears of soldiers on the battlefield, helping to save thousands of lives.

Prototypes could be on the front line by the end of the year, scuttling into potential danger areas such as booby-trapped buildings or enemy hideouts to relay images back to troops safely positioned nearby.

Soldiers will carry the robots into combat and use a small tracked vehicle to transport them closer to their targets.

Then they would swarm into the building and relay images back to the soldiers' hand-held or wrist-mounted computers, warning them of any threats inside.

BAE Systems has just signed a £19million contract to develop the robots for the US Army.

Researchers hope they will eventually create machines that can fly like a butterfly

Enlarge the image

Plans for a creature that can crawl like a spider are said to be well developed, and researchers eventually hope to be able to create creatures that can slither like a snake or fly like a dragonfly.

While some of the creatures will be fitted with small cameras, others will be equipped with sensors that will be able to detect the presence of chemical, biological or radioactive weapons.

A computer-generated video from BAE Systems shows the tiny invaders being released by a soldier, before scouting out a suspect building, which is finally blown up by ground forces.

BAE Systems scientists from the UK and America plan an army of the electronic bugs, and have ambitions to equip every front-line soldier with them.

Programme manager Steve Scalera was inspired by the way creatures use their senses to detect danger.

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Promotional video shows a 'bug' being sent into a danger zone in a special vehicle

"What we are doing is providing an enhanced awareness for soldiers, basically an extension to their eyes and ears," he said.

"The creatures have external sensors. They can be tossed out into a building or a cave or even a pile of rubble and then send images back to the troops.

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Pictures from the bug are beamed back to the operator, allowing the target to be blown up

"The idea is to get a number of these working together – some tiny, some maybe up to a foot in length, and all going into a building together carrying out different tasks. Eventually we hope to have animals flying and slithering.

"The five-year programme has just started but we could have them with soldiers within six months, and then continue to develop the concept as the project goes along."

Despite the high-tech gadgetry involved, BAE Systems insists once production is in full swing, each bug will cost no more than £100 to produce.

The Ministry of Defence declined to comment.

Original here