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

June 4, 1993

Air Date: June 4, 1993


Germany Recycles - Or Does It? / Alexa Dvorson

Alexa Dvorsen reports from Bonn on Germany's Green Dot recycling program. Although the much-admired German recycling campaign is being used as a model for other countries to follow, recent reports of large-scale dumping of Green Dot products in developing countries leads some to question the integrity of the program. (07:59)

Computerized Waste Exchange / Gordon Black

Gordon Black looks at an industrial waste exchange network coordinated on computer systems. The network helps companies with industrial "waste" to find other companies which can use that material in their own production process. However, supply of waste products far exceeds demand, and some environmentalists fear that potentially harmful material is simply being moved from place to place rather than disposed of properly. (05:33)

Contest Runners-Up

After weeks of anticipation, we talk with our "Making A Difference" third place winner Paul Meckes of Orlando Florida and our second place winner Thomas Murphy of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, and hear excerpts from their entries. (07:45)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: John Keefe, Peter Kenyon, Betsy Bayha, Alexa Dvorson, Gordon Black

(Theme music intro)

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

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Germany has perhaps the most aggressive recycling program in the world, but it has problems -- some supposedly recycled trash is being dumped illegally overseas, and critics say recycling itself is not enough.

KRAUSE: We stress the point that recycling is not always an ecological solution. The main priority must be the prevention of waste production.

CURWOOD: Also, the first round of winners in our "Making a Difference" contest.

MURPHY: If the problem is that we consume too much and do it wastefully, then the solution cannot itself be big and consume great resources. The way to make a real difference must involve something small and local and personal. Each person must discover that having only what you need is better than having more than you can ever use.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ordered 34 nuclear power plants to fix a potentially deadly design flaw in their safety systems. The action comes more than a year after a supervisor at a Connecticut utility discovered the problem, and brought it to the NRC's attention. One of the devices failed this winter at a Washington State plant. That incident reportedly prompted the order. The device could fail to warn operators of dangerously low water levels, and that could lead to a core meltdown. The NRC says utilities must repair the faulty equipment beginning in August.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force is being asked to pay attention to environmentally-induced diseases. Advocacy groups say environmental concerns have so far been missing from the current health care debate. John Keefe reports from Washington.

KEEFE: The report by the Environmental Defense Fund and Physicians for Social Responsibility calls for specific measures to prevent three diseases -- lead poisoning, caused by crumbling lead paint; low birth weight, which has been linked to fish contaminated by toxic waste; and asthma, which has been linked to smog. EDF toxicologist Ellen Silbergeld says these diseases are long-term and largely untreatable.

SILBERGELD: These chronic, limiting conditions probably exact enormous uncalculated costs on our society.

KEEFE: The report calls for revised water-quality standards, new guidelines for fish consumption by pregnant women, and lead blood tests for all children under two to be included in the health plan. The White House Health Care Task Force hasn't made any official comment on the report. For Living on Earth, I'm John Keefe in Washington.

NUNLEY: Some good news from the Arctic regions: air pollution there, known as Arctic haze, appears to be on the decline. That's according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Peter Kenyon of Alaska Public Radio reports from Anchorage.

KENYON: Scientists have been studying Arctic haze since the mid-1970's, when it became clear that industrial smokestacks in Europe and the former Soviet Union were filling once-pristine Arctic skies with a smog-like haze. There were fears the haze would lead to a regional temperature rise in the Arctic, which would in turn contribute to global warming. But research meteorologist Dr. Barry Bodane says the latest studies from a station in Barrow confirm that Arctic haze has declined dramatically.

BODANE: Since 1982, the level of the Arctic haze has decreased by about a factor of two.

KENYON: Bodane credits pollution control in Europe and a shift to greater natural gas use in the former Soviet Union for the decrease, and he suggests a new estimate for Arctic haze's contribution to global warming -- roughly half of what was predicted in the early 1980's. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Kenyon in Anchorage.

NUNLEY: One of the most damaging exotic species introduced into North America may finally have met its match -- in another exotic species. The gypsy moth caterpillar -- scourge of northern US forests -- is succumbing to a Japanese fungus, which has recently spread throughout the eastern US. The fungus apparently affects only the gypsy moth.

This is Living on Earth.

Two Chinese panda poachers have been put to death within hours of their conviction for selling skins of the endangered species. The action comes amid criticism of the Chinese government for poor environmental enforcement. Ginette Hemley works on panda protection projects for the World Wildlife Fund. She says the executions are regrettable, but not surprising.

HEMLEY: Certainly I think they want to send a message that this is a major problem. The panda is such a visible species and they want to show that they're trying to get a handle on what is a very serious poaching problem. At the same time I don't think executing poachers is going to solve the problem.

NUNLEY: Hemley says the key is shutting down markets for panda skins in such countries as Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

The first environmental group dedicated expressly to the interests of Asian-Americans has been formed in San Francisco, and it has a decidedly urban bent. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports.

BAYHA: Unlike traditional environmental groups concerned with preserving open space and protecting wild lands, the Asian-Pacific Environment Network was established to focus on issues of the urban environment. Large numbers of Asian-Americans operate dry cleaning establishments, where they're exposed to known carcinogens. Many of them use dishes imported from abroad, which have a high content of lead in the glaze. And many practice subsistence fishing in San Francisco Bay, where the fish they catch are likely to be contaminated with heavy metals or selenium. The group plans to focus on public policy and says it will pressure government agencies to clean up environmental pollution in Asian neighborhoods. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.

NUNLEY: For the first time ever, the EPA has ordered a military base to clean up its mess. The agency says Reese Air Force Base, near Lubbock, Texas, polluted the local drinking water supply with a number of hazardous chemicals. The industrial solvent trichlorethylene, a known agent of birth defects and cancer, has been detected in area wells at more than 10 times the safe level. The Air Force is notifying area residents of the danger, and supplying them with bottled water.

That's this week's environmental news, I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

Germany Recycles - Or Does It?

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

We've all gone to the store to buy a simple item -- say a roll of film -- and come back with packaging that weighs almost as much as the item itself, it seems. We bring it home in a paper or plastic bag, then take off the plastic wrap around the cardboard box, then rip open the box itself, then inside the box we find a plastic can, which we unscrew to get to the film. The bag, the wrap, the box and the can all go into the trash. What if, instead, all that packaging was recycled? Well, in Germany, they are trying just that. By law, the majority of packaging must be recyclable. And now a label known as the "green dot" appears on a multitude of consumer items. It's supposed to ensure the package is recycled, but as Alexa Dvorson reports from Bonn, some of this packaging is showing up in dumps overseas, and some Germans are wondering if the green dot is really just a green dupe.

(Supermarket sound)

DVORSON: At thousands of German grocery stores like this one, you can't walk down an aisle without glimpsing the ubiquitous "green dot" logo. By the time you reach the checkout line, practically everything in your shopping cart, from milk cartons to liquid whiteout, has the green dot trademark: a sort of yin-yang circle of adjoining arrows. In participating cities, consumers leave the empty packaging in specially marked disposal bins for collection and recycling. The agency issuing the green dot, the Duales System Deutschland, or DSD, says nearly all German communities take part in green dot paper and glass collection, and about half also collect plastic and laminated packaging. The Duales System spokeswoman, Ines Siegler, says the green dot has a dual benefit. It helps meet the German requirement that 60 percent of all packaging be recycled, and unlike the American system, the green dot motivates manufacturers to use less wrapping material by making them pay for recycling it.

SIEGLER: Now industry has to confront this problem -- what to do with this product, what to do with the materials. Now industry has to recycle packaging -- that means additional costs for recycling, it's actually saving raw materials, that means less waste to be landfilled or incinerated.

(Sound of waste processing plant)

DVORSON: The system works like this. Industries pay a licensing fee to DSD to put the green dot symbol on their products. The fee is on a sliding scale -- the more environmentally friendly the packaging, the less there is to recycle; hence the cheaper the charge. With this money, the DSD brings trash haulers to collect the discarded green dot packaging and bring it to processing plants like this one in Hamburg, where workers sort paper, scrap metal and plastic in preparation for recycling. Holger Meinke is the plant's managing assistant.

MEINKE: Here in Hamburg, we do about 6 thousand tons of waste paper altogether per month. We sort out the different kinds of recycling materials, we bale it and then we send it to the paper factory, for example, or to a factory where we granulate it there and and then it's back into the new production.

DVORSON: But Germans are diligent recyclers, and the collection program has been such a success, that the market is flooded with recyclable waste. That's why 60 percent of the waste paper at Holger Meinke's plant will be loaded onto container ships and exported to the Far East.

MEINKE: We do export as well, yeah, like waste paper, we export to Indonesia, Thailand, Holland, you know, European market, but lately, because we can't sell it in Europe, we have to go to Thailand and Indonesia.

(Sound of TV program in German)

DVORSON: It's in the export of recyclable waste that the green dot's mission gets murky. An investigative television program on Germany's main channel recently ran a damning documentary about one case of waste export that ran amok. "Your expectation that the green dot stands for environmental protection is partly false," the show host says on camera. And with that, the program showed footage from a Greenpeace investigator who discovered tons of rotting, unsorted, unrecycled German waste in the Indonesian capital, Djarkarta.

(TV sound: " Überall, grüne Punkte . . ." fade under)

DVORSON: "Everywhere, the green dot label," the reporter says, as shots of the unmistakable logo fill the screen. Since the 2,000 tons of German garbage found in Djarkarta could not be reused, says Greenpeace spokesman Ingo Bockerman, this shipment was against the law.

BOCKERMAN: Diese Sachen sind überhaput nicht recyclebar . . . (fade under)

DVORSON: "This stuff isn't recyclable at all; that's why it was exported in the first place," says Bockerman, and he accused the Duales System of secret trash dumping around the world. For days after the program aired, the press echoed with scathing commentaries condemning the green dot as a green dupe. But the DSD says the charge is unfair. Spokeswoman Ines Siegler says most of the trash shown in the TV program was industrial, not household waste, and that the garbage with the green dot logo must have come from a municipality not participating in the collection program. But Siegler admits the green dot system isn't completely foolproof.

SIEGLER: It would be very naive to say there's not the danger that any illegality from a local waste management company would not be committed. But it is our task to control and to put a stop if any of this happens.

(Harbor sounds)

DVORSON: But despite the furor, ships loaded with green dot waste export continue to sail for the Far East and elsewhere from this harbor in Hamburg. And the exporters defend the practice as wholly legitimate. They point out that waste shipments must be approved by government ministries in Germany and the receiving country. And above all, Germany's Federal inspection agency must certify that the waste can be recycled safely after reaching its destination. But Martina Krause, a campaigner at the German Association for Protection of the Environment, says this approval process is practically a farce.

KRAUSE: That's written on paper but it doesn't work in reality. And that's a real scandal. And even if it would be recycled, I think it doesn't make any sense at all to get the paper or the plastic mountains in the Third World to recycle it there. They don't have packaging at all, or they have other, more environmentally friendly packaging, so why should they go on the plastic trip too?

DVORSON: Martina Krause says the DSD and its green dot are missing the point. Better, she says, to promote more refillable packaging, and push for a ban on materials that are too costly to recycle.

KRAUSE: Everyone talks about the possibility of recycling packaging materials, but not one talks about the question, whether it makes ecological sense. And that's a point that DSD ignores. We aren't against recycling at all. But we stress the point that recycling is not always an ecological solution. The main priority must be on the prevention of waste production.

DVORSON: But according to DSD, the amount of packaging material made of plastic has already dropped significantly and should continue to fall further. And the Duales System says by 1997, Germany should be able to recycle all green dot plastic here, without having to export it. On the other hand, as more and more cities participate in the program, the more difficult it may prove to keep the green dot scandal-free. Yet despite the recent bad press, the green dot concept is catching on. Belgium and Austria plan similar programs, and the European Community is using Germany's green dot market incentives as a partial model for an EC-wide recycling law, to be voted on later this year. For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson in Bonn.

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(Supermarket sound fade out)

Computerized Waste Exchange

CURWOOD: Every working day in America, about 25 million tons of industrial waste is created. Something is the wrong color, wrong shape or wrong size, and into the scrap heap it goes. Or a by-product, like sawdust or or used chemicals, is created. Getting rid of this waste can be troublesome and expensive. But more and more, people are forming networks to divert one firm's discards into another firm's new product. Waste exchanges aren't new, but in the increasing drive to recycle, they are finding new life. From Washington State, Gordon Black has our story.

(Sound of computer modem logging on)

BLACK: Sitting at a computer in Spokane, Washington, Bob Smee logs on to a new national network of waste exchanges. Smee directs the Pacific Materials Exchange, and helped establish this computerized network.

SMEE: Whatever would otherwise end up in a landfill or an incinerator, we would like to see put in this exchange network to try to find potential uses for.

BLACK: The computer network ties together the inventories of 32 of the 34 waste exchanges operating in the US and Canada. Most provide the service free of charge. Materials are listed in 17 categories, ranging from corrosive acids to goose feathers.

SMEE: There's just all kinds of strange, unusual things. I see here even fragrance, apple blossom concentrate, 220 gallons. In the Midwest there are a lot of agricultural wastes -- everything from chicken parts to rice hulls. In looking at these materials, it is kinda like going into a flea market or a garage sale.

BLACK: A sale that also includes toxic and hazardous materials you'd rather not have in your garage.

(Sound of mill rollers)

BLACK: Inside a warehouse south of Seattle, heavy rollers ooze a brightly-colored goop into plastic buckets. This is textile printing ink, made in custom colors by the QCM Company. Vice President Ray Wheeldon.

WHEELDON: If we incorrectly tint that color, that could be a case of generating waste. There's a regular waste stream with most plastic companies for this type of bad batch, or old batch, discontinued product.

BLACK: These bad batches are classified as hazardous waste. And it costs QCM up to $1000 a barrel to dispose of them. But in the world of materials exchange, QCM's waste is another company's manna. A listing in the quarterly catalog of the Industrial Materials Exchange, or IMEX, in Seattle, paired QCM with a roofing contractor who took 200 gallons of waste epoxy. On another occasion, QCM supplied a similar kind of waste to a ski-board manufacturer. Bill Lawrence is IMEX program coordinator.

LAWRENCE: The immediate benefit is businesses are saving money, they're saving money on disposal and furnishing the material, a raw material, a feedstock, to another business and probably also making some new business contacts.

BLACK: Lawrence says IMEX has fostered 200 exchanges in four years of operation, and saved business close to a half million dollars. But he says that for now, there are still four times as many companies offering waste as companies looking for reusable materials.

(Sound of Georgia-Pacific mill)

BLACK: Wood-pulp and paper giant Georgia-Pacific is one of the companies that are in the market for waste. Its plant in Bellingham, Washington, uses waste liquids from local chrome-plating shops in making lubricants, or muds, used in oil and gas drilling. Don Wines is the plant manager.

WINES: A single plater may have available 4 or 5 tank trucks of material, which could be 15, 20, 25,000 gallons of material. There is an economic advantage in the cost of this material versus virgin material from chemical suppliers.

BLACK: Wines estimates that Georgia-Pacific now gets 20 percent of its chromic acid through waste exchanges. Although waste exchanges may benefit the environment, environmentalists give them only cautious support. Some worry that they could lead to a shell game of industrial waste, with regulators losing sight of dangerous materials. Others are troubled that exchanges might remove incentives from companies to adopt materials that are not toxic. Carol Dansereau coordinates the Industrial Toxics Project of the Washington Toxics Coalition.

DANSEREAU: The emphasis in our society has been much more at the end of the pipe, and the exchanges are, again, an end-of-the-pipe sort of solution. They are preferable to landfilling and incinerating, no doubt, but they are not promoting alternative substance usage.

BLACK: But Robert Smee of the Pacific Materials Exchange defends the role that exchanges can play in recycling industrial waste.

SMEE: I think that it's somewhat naive to think that we are going to totally shut off materials that are produced that are unwanted.

BLACK: Smee says exchanges fill a niche in waste management. And with increasingly tighter regulation of all garbage, as well as rising costs for disposal, waste exchanges will have a growing role to play. This year alone, more than a dozen new exchanges will open. For Living on Earth, I'm Gordon Black in Seattle.

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(Drum roll up and under)

Contest Runners-Up

CURWOOD: And now. . . the moment you've all been waiting for. . . the winners of the Living on Earth / Stonyfield Farm Yogurt "Making a Difference" contest. Well, almost. We'll announce the grand prize winners next week. This week we wanted to introduce you to our runners-up -- the second and third place winners. (Contest music up and under) We asked our listeners to tell us, in 500 words or less, what they'd do to make a difference for the environment if they were President in 1993. And our independent judges chose the winners based in part on how well their proposals would translate into real-life application. Our third place winner -- the envelope please -- Our third place winner is Paul Meckes. He's a 16-year-old high-school junior from Orlando, Florida. He heard about the contest through WMFE, in Orlando, and he wrote an essay in which he proposed an eminently practical plan. He vowed to use the President's office to enlist the country's favorite actors and pop stars in getting the environmental message out to kids everywhere. But President Paul Meckes wouldn't stop there. . . He says he'd personally bring the message of environmental responsiblity to kids around the country.

MECKES: If I were President, I personally would visit schools to talk to children about our environment. Most important, I would require all schools to teach a course in environmental science that points out our current threat to our resources and environment. School recycling programs would also be mandated during my term of office.
CURWOOD: Now you focus on education in your essay. Why is this so important, Paul?
MECKES: Well, that's where it should start, basically. You teach kids while they're young and when they get older they'll have a habit.
CURWOOD: What's wrong with the older people in this world in terms of taking care of the environment, do you think?
MECKES: Well, they've lived life in the past the same way they're living now, they're not cleaning up. I mean, a lot of people are different, there are people out there who do protect the environment, but there are those people who haven't been taught yet.
CURWOOD: I was wondering if you could just read for me, Paul, the last two lines of your essay.
MECKES: Even if I never become President, I pledge my life to make a difference for the environment on a daily basis. I really mean it.
CURWOOD: Well, Paul, I want to thank you. Congratulations for a terrific essay. And thanks for talking with us on Living on Earth.
MECKES: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Paul Meckes, of Orlando, Florida. His essay landed him the third-place prize in our Living On Earth / Stonyfield Farm Yogurt "Making a Difference" contest. Our second-place winner also puts a high value on education. Thomas Murphy teaches English at Mansfield University. Recently he left a well-paying job, pulled up stakes with his family, and moved to the small mountain hamlet of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. In his winning essay, Thomas Murphy proposes a very personal way of making a difference for the environment.

MURPHY: If the problem is that we consume too much and do it wastefully, then the solution cannot itself be big and consume great resources. The way to make a real difference must involve something small and local and personal. Each person must discover that having only what you need is better than having more than you can ever use.
CURWOOD: Congratulations, Tom.
MURPHY: Thanks, Steve.
CURWOOD: Now you say everyone needs to live simpler lives. When did you decide you needed to live a simpler life?
MURPHY: Well, when I was working for a large company in Philadelphia, after I'd been there for about 15 years. We always tried to keep our needs down, to grow food for ourselves and to be careful with the resources that we used, but we decided that we needed to push that a little harder, that in fact we wanted to put ourselves in a situation where we couldn't afford to be wasteful. So my wife and our three kids and I decided that we would begin to figure out what we would do without, so that we could find out how much less we could afford to make, so that we could move to a place where we could live more simply, and that this was important enough to both of us that we were willing to make the sacrifices that it took to do that sort of thing.
CURWOOD: Is it a sacrifice, Tom?
MURPHY: No (laughs ). That's what turned out to be kind of ironic. We're away from many of the cultural resources, but what we lose in that we gain in many other things, and I like to be able to just stand outside and look at the mountains and listen to the birds, and that really -- it hasn't grown old, even after three years being able to do that sort of thing, which was a surprise to us.
CURWOOD: I'd like you to read an excerpt from your essay if you might --
CURWOOD: -- there's a portion there where you talk about the reactions of a colleague to your call for a simpler life.
MURPHY: Yes. Okay. "I remember a co-worker telling me about her career plans, how her ever-rising income would mean a fancier car, a better place to live, better clothes. She was surprised when I commented that my family and I were looking into reducing our needs in order to increase our options. The fewer our needs, the less money we required, so that I might be able to find a job that paid less but perhaps kept me away from my family less and allowed more creative opportunities. My friend was surprised. She'd not thought of it that way before."
CURWOOD: Tom, have any of your friends or family followed your lead?
MURPHY: I don't know yet, I mean, you know, you can't tell how long it takes a seed to develop. I know that once it became clear what I was doing at work, the conversation that I had with that co-worker there was reflected in similar conversations with a lot of people.
CURWOOD: Now you wrote in your essay that everyone on the planet must begin to lead simpler lives -- that's a pretty tall order. How can that happen?
MURPHY: Well, I -- as I also said in the essay, it's gotta happen one by one. I'm convinced that eventually everybody is going to change. I talk in the essay about the idea of people needing to experience directly the positive aspects of conserving resources. Eventually everybody's going to experience directly the shortages connected with not having them, and it's just the difference between being forced into doing without and choosing to do without. If we wait until our backs are against the wall, our options are much less.
CURWOOD: Tom, given that you are now leading a more simple lifestyle, I hazard the guess that you're not really all that disappointed about not winning the grand prize, which is a trip to Costa Rica aboard a gas-guzzling airplane.
MURPHY: (Laughs ) That's right. That's absolutely correct. I still don't know the names of all the wildflowers that grow in our field in the summertime, so I have a lot to learn from what's right around me.
CURWOOD: Thanks so much, Tom, for joining us, and once again, congratulations on doing so well in the contest.
MURPHY: Okay, Steve, thank you.

CURWOOD: Thomas Murphy is an English teacher at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania, and listens to Living on Earth on WSKG, across the border in Binghamton, New York. And again, congratulations to both our second- and third-place winners in the Living on Earth / Stonyfield Farm Yogurt "Making A Difference" contest. They each win a year's supply of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, a contest tote bag, and a Living on Earth tee-shirt. Tune in next week, when we'll announce the grand prize winners. The creator of the number one entry in our adult division wins a trip for two to the Costa Rican rainforest, courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The winner in the youth division wins a gift certificate for a bicycle, and thousand-dollar U-S savings bond.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Colleen Singer Coxe, Reyna Lounsbury and engineers Laurie Azaria, Mark Navin and Ron Mitchell. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts, for reporting on the national and global environment . . . the National Science Foundation . . . all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt -- Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy . . . and from the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Additional support comes from the NPR News and Information Fund, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States for expanded coverage from Europe.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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