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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

March 10, 1995

Air Date: March 10, 1995


Enviro Tech Exporting / Terry FitzPatrick

Terry FitzPatrick reports on the Clinton administration's efforts to bolster exports of cleanup technology. Entrepreneurs are hopeful their products will see improved sales overseas. But some critics call it corporate welfare and others say it's too little too late to help the U.S.'s sagging envirotech industry. (07:57)

A Bright Idea / Martha Honey

Light bulbs may light up your life, but they contain toxic chemicals, especially mercury. Now there's a new non-toxic sulfur based bulb in the offing. The U.S. Department of Energy is testing the sulfur device to see if it's the best thing to come along in lighting since Thomas Edison. Martha Honey reports. (05:07)

Good for the Environment and Good for Workers

Joseph Romm, author of the book Lean and Clean Management, speaks with host Steve Curwood about ways businesses can boost profits and productivity while reducing pollution and waste. (04:54)

Tracking Listeners

Our story about the proposed cuts in Amtrak funding prompted an outpouring from our listeners. (03:09)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Kim Motylewski
REPORTERS: Deborah Begel, Robin Finesmith, Steve Helwig, Terry FitzPatrick, Martha Honey
GUEST: Joseph Romm

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

There's a major movement afoot in many companies, from the boardroom to the shop floor. Instead of just cleaning up their pollution, many of them are preventing it in the first place. They say it's good for people and for profits.

ROMM: Pollution is waste, and the best companies now measure it, track it, and try to reduce it over time.

CURWOOD: Also, a new high tech light. It not only saves energy and looks like sunlight, but there are no poisonous materials like mercury.

ERVIN: The sulfur lamp is perhaps one of the most important scientific breakthroughs since Thomas Edison created the light bulb.

CURWOOD: Also, why Washington thinks green businesses are good businesses to help sell abroad, and your comments on tax dollars going to Amtrak. That and more this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

MOTYLEWSKI: From Living on Earth, I'm Kim Motylewski. A dramatic turnaround by Mescalero Apache voters will keep a proposed nuclear waste dump alive, at least for now. Just 6 weeks ago, tribal members went against their leadership and rejected a plan to store radioactive waste on their land. Deborah Begel reports.

BEGEL: Tribal officials applauded the vote, saying the $250 million nuclear waste facility will be an economic boon for the 3,500 members. They said members had not been fully informed of potential jobs, roads, and schools, when they voted against the plan in late January. The tribal opponents charge that members were offered money to change their votes, which officials denied. The opponents fear that temporary storage of highly radioactive waste would become a permanent storage facility, creating increased health risks for generations of Mescalero Apaches to come. Many of the 30 utilities eyeing the waste site are likely to welcome the tribe's reversal, since they are facing urgent deadlines for storage of waste from nuclear power plants. The vote moves the plant forward and it's scheduled to begin operation in 2002. However, the facility faces further challenges from New Mexico's entire Congressional delegation and the state legislature. Also, anti-nuclear groups around the country are prepared to file lawsuits to stop it. For Living on Earth, this is Deborah Begel reporting.

MOTYLEWSKI: Air pollution is shortening the lives of people across the country. That's the conclusion of a study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. It confirms earlier research that even modest exposure to airborne particles can damage the respiratory system and cut life expectancy by several years. The risk of death due to gritty air in the most polluted cities was about 15% higher than the risk in cities which met EPA air quality standards. But even those cities were not risk-free.

The Clinton Administration wants to increase the flexibility of the Endangered Species Act. Reacting to Congressional demands to suspend all new listings, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has proposed exempting small, private property owners from most Endangered Species regulations. And the plan would make it harder to list a species as endangered.

A new crop that's gaining popularity with farmers could reduce the paper industry's reliance on trees. Robin Finesmith of Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau reports.

FINESMITH: Kenaf has been growing for centuries in India and Africa, but it's now finding a home on farms in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, where producers say it can be used for everything from paper to rope, cattle feed, home insulation, and material to clean up oil spills. Kenaf can grow up to 15 feet in 4 months, producing in one season a crop that would take trees years to grow. Growers say kenaf paper is also more cost-effective than regular paper, requiring less energy and fewer chemicals to break it down into pulp. And since kenaf is naturally whiter than wood, it needs less bleaching when it's processed. The state of West Virginia and a number of national companies and environmental groups have begun to use kenaf paper, and last July the Joint Committee on Printing approved the paper for Federal use. Producers say the cost of kenaf paper is roughly comparable to recycled papers, and is expected to become more competitive as kenaf finds its way into greater use. The first novel to be published on kenaf paper will be released by Harper Collins this spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.

MOTYLEWSKI: Government scientists can't figure out what's killed 36 bald eagles over the last 4 months. Officials at the National Wildlife Health Center say toxins are involved, but they've ruled out pesticides or intentional poisoning. Since November, 27 eagles in Arkansas and 9 in Wisconsin have died.

Two men were recently arrested in Oregon for stealing a tree. They were part of a growing black market for tree burls, the large, round growths that occur on trunks and limbs. From KLCC in Eugene, Steve Helwig explains.

HELWIG: Jack Duggan says it reminded him of poaching elephants to get the ivory tusks. Two thieves came in and stole the large maple tree off his property. The thieves were allegedly trying to sell the maple's 3,400-pound burl on the black market.

DUGGAN: We learned that the fair amount of illegal activity in the burls, many of them particularly the illegal ones, are being shipped to Japan for use in furniture.

HELWIG: Tipped off by neighbors, sheriff deputies apprehended both subjects red handed before they made it off the property. Duggan says he had no intention of cutting the tree himself because of the maple tree's proximity to a stream running through his property. However, now that the tree has been cut, Duggan found out the street value of the burl is about $1,800. Meanwhile, Bureau of Land Management spokesman Robert Erwin says burl thefts have been a problem since the early 1980s. The problem is severe enough that Oregon recently started requiring permits to transport forest products on state highways, making it easier for the sheriff's office to spot burl thieves. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Helwig in Eugene, Oregon.

MOTYLEWSKI: That's this week's news. I'm Kim Motylewski.

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(Theme music up and under)

Enviro Tech Exporting

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Clinton Administration says environmental protection is a good way to create jobs for the US economy. So, they've launched a program to help American businesses win a big part of the growing world market for green technology. The recent slide of the US dollar against the Japanese and German currencies can only help the effort by giving US business a price advantage. If the program succeeds, it could mean thousands of jobs for Americans, but it may not. Conservatives call it corporate welfare, which should be cut from the budget, while investors say the plan comes too late to help the sagging enviro-tech industry. Terry FitzPatrick of member station KPLU has our report.


FITZPATRICK: The workshop at Advanced Environmental Solutions near Seattle is typical of the thousands of small American firms that manufacture environmental equipment.

(A knock on metal; a man speaks: "This is the activated carbon. It's black and granular in size. It does... ")

FITZPATRICK: Jeff Petty, an engineer turned entrepreneur, is building a system that cleans up industrial wastewater by using simple charcoal instead of expensive chemicals.

PETTY: It is this type of process which we want to look at exporting worldwide, because there are a lot of places in the world which do not have the availability of these chemicals.

FITZPATRICK: Petty has been selling his invention in the US for more than a decade, but he's been struggling recently to sell it abroad. He's had trouble finding business leads and can't afford to maintain offices overseas. At international trade shows, he's made cultural gaffes that have cost him the sale. And when Petty did sell one of his filters in Russia, he had trouble making deliveries.

PETTY: Frankly, it was a nightmare. There was only 2 trucks that had trailers that would fit our 40-foot containers. And trying to first of all find those people and get them to coordinate required a lot of payoffs.

FITZPATRICK: They're the kind of problems facing any business selling equipment abroad. But the Clinton Administration has decided environmental firms deserve special help. So the Commerce Department has launched a $21 million campaign to promote US environmental exports. Raymond Vickery is Assistant Secretary of Commerce.

VICKERY: Environmental technologies is one of those industries which is at a crossroad of public policy and our own economic self-interest. We have an interest around the world of seeing the environment improve, and it also offers an excellent opportunity to employ more Americans and increase our own standard of living.

FITZPATRICK: The export initiative puts environmental specialists in foreign capitals to lobby for American business. There's also a toll-free assistance center that companies can call in Washington, D.C. This advocacy is part of a larger effort to boost all US exports. But environmental protection is the only industry with a special task force involving 19 government agencies. That's because the market for environmental technology is at a critical point in many developing countries.

VICKERY: As countries like Brazil, China, India, get more disposable income, one of the first areas of change which takes place is people want to breathe clean air, they want to drink clean water. They want to have solid waste disposal systems that really work.

FITZPATRICK: The question is, can US firms capture this blossoming market?

(Foghorn, gulls)

FITZPATRICK: If you go to America's major ports, you'll see the US exports less than 10% of its environmental production. By contrast, Japan exports up to 23%. Germany exports 40%. They're far more experienced in environmental trade. American firms have concentrated on domestic sales because the US is still the single largest market for environmental technology. But the domestic market has reached a plateau, and firms are looking abroad for growth. The problem, according to Vickery, is American firms find it hard to compete with German and Japanese companies because they get government subsidies.

VICKERY: And the fact is that if you just say well, we'll just stay out of it, we won't be involved, Americans aren't going to win.

FITZPATRICK: Vickery's program is less than a year old, but already he says it has helped Americans win $2 billion in foreign contracts, which translates into 30,000 new American jobs. Still, the program is under attack from 3 directions. First, some doubt the program will boost depressed environmental stocks. Michael Silverstein edits an investment guide called The Environmental Industry Yearbook, and says the Clinton Administration missed its chance by failing to launch the export program when it first took office.

SILVERSTEIN: Because there was a failure to articulate a vision at that time that this country was prepared to be dominant in enviro-tech, there has been a drastic drop off of investment in the field. Basically people think well, you know, Al Gore for the last year and a half has been going off on the Information Highway. If he doesn't think enough about enviro-tech, well then it probably isn't a good business. And sure, it's good that it's happening now. But we've lost a lot of ground.

FITZPATRICK: The second criticism comes from people who note that the US environmental industry is dominated by firms that clean up toxic spills and build smokestack scrubbers. Burt Hamner, a consultant with Shapiro and Associates in Seattle, says that's not what developing countries want to buy. He says the Clinton initiative should stress instead, efficient technology that will reduce pollution while saving companies money.

HAMNER: They need to be including more production improvement companies, people that make cement better. People that know how to make circuit boards that don't create lots of pollution. That's the kind of technology you can sell, 'cause it's business.

FITZPATRICK: The third criticism comes from conservatives who oppose government subsidies for business. Jonathan Adler is Director of Environmental Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

ADLER: People are painting a lot of pork green. They figure that if you say a program is necessary for environmental reasons, it's a lot easier to get it through Congress. The reality is that just because other countries have decided to adopt industrial policies to help certain industries doesn't mean that the United States should make the same mistake. That we shouldn't burden the taxpayer by forcing them to pay for programs to help politically preferred industries.

FITZPATRICK: The criticisms are nothing new to Assistant Commerce Secretary Vickery. He maintains that the Administration has stressed environmental exports all along, and his initiative does include clean technology. As for funding, he says the program is able to show bang for the buck: $2 billion in sales so far on a $21 million investment. But whether the initiative will continue is now in doubt. Commerce programs are due for intense scrutiny this year in the House Budget Committee. If the Federal program is cut, however, it won't be the end of environmental export assistance. At least 5 states have launched programs of their own. Worldwide, environmental protection is now a $300 billion business, and it's expected to double in size by the year 2010. Government assistance or not, US environmental firms are expected to grow with the world's growing attention to environmental protection. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.

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(Music up and under)

A Bright Idea

CURWOOD: Here at home, many people argue that protecting the local environment from pollution can cost jobs and lower business profits. But others contend that pollution is the mark of inefficiency, like other forms of waste. They say if businesses want to be more competitive, have better profits and happier workers, they should be lean and clean. Among them is the Department of Energy's Joseph Romm, who has just written a book called Lean and Clean Management. He says companies who try this find some nice surprises.

ROMM: One of the things that I found in my research is that companies that have been using energy efficiency in their buildings have found large increases in worker productivity. Companies like Boeing, for instance, have used energy efficient lighting to save money and lower costs, and they found that the improved lighting has actually improved the quality of their products as workers in the new lighting were much better able to spot defects.

CURWOOD: How much do you estimate this saved Boeing?

ROMM: One Boeing manager estimated that the improvements in quality were worth as much as the energy savings. And since the energy savings paid for themselves in 2 years, which is pretty typical of energy efficient lighting, the entire system paid for itself in under 1 year.

CURWOOD: Now what about the other half of your thesis? Lean management. I mean, we've heard the buzzwords; you mention them; total quality management, fast cycle production, just in time inventory. What happens when managers combine clean efficiency with lean efficiency?

ROMM: Well, I think some companies have found tremendous advantages. You're taking a total approach to eliminating waste. Companies that have become lean and clean - and I'll be honest with you, there aren't many that have really integrated this; Compaq Computer is one exception - these are companies that are very resilient. They're very energy efficient, they don't emit a lot of pollution, and they have very high quality products. So you can imagine such companies are very, very competitive and obviously Compaq Computer is one of the most resilient and effective corporations in the United States.

CURWOOD: All right; let's look at Compaq's numbers for a moment. How do they compare with other computer manufacturers?

ROMM: Well, Compaq has recently become the largest selling manufacturer of personal computers in the country. I mean, very rapid growth. Many people know the story of Compaq Computer on the hardware side, but they don't realize that this is a company that took a very aggressive and proactive approach to making their facilities very energy efficient. They worked very hard, they talked to their employees, I think that's a key part of this. Talk to your employees, find out what they like, the number one thing Compaq employees wanted was more day lighting. And one of the things that the book talks about is how companies like Compaq Computer and Lockheed and Walmart have found that the more you use day lighting, the more employees like the work environment. People are able to see better, they have in some cases higher quality work. More sales in some cases. Fewer defects in some cases. Less absenteeism.

CURWOOD: Now are the increased profits and productivity which you're claiming come from this dual lean and clean approach - is this something that companies can calculate ahead of time when they make their investment or construction decisions?

ROMM: I think they can but they have to take a different approach to what they're now doing. Typically, companies are only looking at the first cost. So you might design an office to minimize first cost - use the cheapest lighting - without looking at what the costs are going to be over a 10-year period where you're going to be using inefficient, cheap lighting that undermines your long-term operating costs. And also, frankly, undermines the productivity of your workers. If you take a full life cycle approach where you say how do we minimize overall costs, then you come up with a very different answer.

CURWOOD: Now, in your experience, what then motivates companies who hear your pitch to make the investments and changes that you propose?

ROMM: The companies that have done the best at energy efficiency and clean production are ones that have already begun down the path of total quality management, because they understand that changing the way they've done things can be beneficial. And that if they measure what they're doing, they can get on the road of continuous improvement. And I think the best companies no longer see pollution as an inevitable by-product of the way they do business. But rather pollution is simply a measure of their own inefficiency. Pollution is waste, and the best companies now measure it, track it, and try to reduce it over time.

CURWOOD: Joseph Romm is author of the book Lean and Clean from Kodasha Press. He wrote it while a scholar at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He's now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Energy Department in Washington. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

ROMM: Delighted to have been here.

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Good for the Environment and Good for Workers

CURWOOD: One way for you to cut your personal or your company's expenses is to use the energy efficiency and lighting that Joseph Romm described. But it's not an easy task. Fluorescent lights are efficient but many people don't like their flicker and their color. Incandescent bulbs give off more soothing light, but waste a lot of energy. Both can have mercury or other poisons that become hazards when they burn out. Now, a Maryland company says it can make lights that are relatively non-toxic and cheap to run, and that come close to matching natural sunlight. Martha Honey went to the Department of Energy in Washington, where they are testing prototypes of the new sulfur bulb.

(Echoes within a hallway)

ERVIN: We're talking about the sulfur lamp. This is it.

HONEY: Christine Ervin an Assistant Secretary of State at the Department of Energy, holds a clear quartz globe the size of a golf ball that's perched at the end of a thin glass tube. It looks like one of those all-day lollipops. But Ervin, who's in charge of energy efficiency at the DOE, says this sulfur lamp may well revolutionize the lighting industry.

ERVIN: The sulfur lamp is perhaps one of the most important scientific breakthroughs since Thomas Edison created the light bulb.

HONEY: Ervin explains that the sulfur bulb is filled with two benign elements: sulfur and argon, which are heated by a microwave generator similar to those found in kitchen ovens. The bulb gives off an intense light resembling natural sunlight. The light is then channeled down a long plastic pipe lined with reflective material, and emitted through small holes in the tube. Ervin points to a sulfur lamp prototype installed outside the Department of Energy's Washington headquarters.

ERVIN: We've got 2 of these sulfur bulbs at either end of a 240-foot light pipe. It creates 4 times the amount of light that we had, at one-third the cost, and replaced 260 of these high-intensity bulbs. Multiply that by many, many more applications and you can see what kind of significant environmental improvement there is.

(Outside traffic noises)

HONEY: Ervin says that if used for outside lighting alone, the sulfur bulb could cut US electricity costs by 10 to 20 percent, or by $400 to $800 million a year. During the day, most people passing by the Department of Energy are oblivious to the experimental lighting system running over their heads. But at night, the largely deserted area is brightly lit. On one cold winter night, several people stop to examine the long, thin tube, including this woman from India.

WOMAN: I'm impressed.

HONEY: Is this the kind of thing that could be useful in India?

WOMAN: Definitely. We really have so much of, you know, need for saving on our power. So it's definitely going to be of use.

HONEY: Several students are also impressed, but they note a few problems.

STUDENT 1: It's a bit noisy at the ends, but it's pretty bright and it seems pretty efficient.

STUDENT 2: It's a little greener, and I wouldn't necessarily want it in my house. But I think that if they can, you know, perfect this technology of it, then it can be useful.

HONEY: Over at the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, Program Manager Gene Foley is impressed with the sulfur bulb.

FOLEY: The biggest advantage is, it looks like it is indeed going to be a very efficient light source. From what I've read, the bulb itself should in fact last forever.

HONEY: The sulfur bulb has no wire electrodes to burn out, which is the most common cause of lamp failure. And Foley says, unlike conventional bulbs, the sulfur bulb also contains no mercury, or other toxic substances, and emits much less harmful ultraviolet radiation. But he warns there are some kinks. Also in contrast with the sulfur bulb itself, the microwave generator does not last very long.

FOLEY: The so-called magnetron, which is a unit which creates the microwaves, at this point only lasts 10,000 hours. That, compared to a regular high-pressure sodium lamp, which right now lasts approximately 24,000 hours.

HONEY: The sulfur bulb was invented, and is now being refined, at Fusion Lighting in Rockville, MD. Vice President Kent Kipling says he longs for the quieter days before the Energy Department asked them to install the sulfur bulb prototype.

KIPLING: When those lamps were turned on and people saw the real impact of this lighting, you know, the response was really overwhelming. We've gotten over 700 phone calls in here, so we really weren't prepared for this type of reaction. You know, we're trying to get back to our knitting.

HONEY: And that means further research to eliminate the kinks. Kipling says the company plans to have the lamp on the market by late 1995. Its first applications will be for large spaces requiring high-quality, high-intensity lighting: shopping malls, warehouses, and aircraft hangars. And, Kipling says, he expects that somewhere further out, the sulfur bulb will be available for use in homes and small offices. For Living on Earth, I'm Martha Honey in Washington.

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(Music up and under)

Tracking Listeners

CURWOOD: And now, it's time to hear from you, our listeners. After our recent story on cuts in Amtrak, your many calls and letters ran about 50 to 1 in favor of spending tax dollars on US passenger rail service. Craig Surman of Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote that he usually doesn't think about driving's hidden environmental or social costs. "We make so many choices out of convenience or expedience," Surman says, "without long-term vision for rising cancer rates and a depleted environment. Thanks for making me think once more about the rails that sit idle in this country."

CALLER: Hello, this is Earl Bowie in Pensacola, Florida. I would be opposed to government subsidies for Amtrak. The transportation industry needs to be weaned away from government subsidies including the highway system, and there's no reason to compound the problem by also giving government subsidies to the rail system. Thank you.

CURWOOD: But Susan Naimark of Boston says she'd be willing to pay taxes to keep trains. "Aside from the environmental benefit," she writes, "the train is one of the rare places where people of all ages, races, and economic circumstances mix. We need more, not fewer, places where people mix and get along, despite the differences between us."

Ted Arthur of Salem, Oregon, also wants Federal funding for Amtrak. He recently completed a safety course for older drivers. He says, "The number one suggestion was to use other modes of transport. Need I say more?"

And Anne Oehlschlaeger of Laconia, New Hampshire, worries about a country without passenger rail. She recalls a train trip to Florida during a blizzard. "The airports were closed. You wouldn't have wanted to drive. We got to Washington, D.C., late but with lights, heat, and we got there. Couldn't have done it any other way."

CALLER: My name is Helen Heaton. I'm calling from Bozeman, Montana. The Europeans have realized for generations that trains are important to the transportation system of the country. How long does it take Americans to catch on? We're behaving like adolescents who want to do nothing but drive fast cars.

CURWOOD: And Amy Johnson of Albuquerque adds that the problem with Amtrak is that too little money is put into it, not too much.

Finally, from Baltimore, C. Allen Bush writes, "In adding up the cost of driving, we should include the damage to brain cells of freeway travel. Travel by train helps to preserve the mind for better things."

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You can put a few of those brain cells to work by writing us at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Or zap e-mail to LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG. Our listener comment line is 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is directed by Deborah Stavro, and produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Con Von Hoffman, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, and Christopher Rose. Special thanks to Jim Donahue. Our WBUR engineers are Louis Cronin and Mark Navin. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and recorded at WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Until next week at the same time, so long.

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