A highlight from attending the annual Bioneers conference this year for me was getting to chat face to face with Annie Leonard. Annie’s the author and host behind the viral “Story of Stuff” movies, the latest installment of which comes out today. A succint environmental spokesperson casually dressed in jeans, Annie skips technical terms from years of research visiting landfills in exchange for everyday language and a down to earth approach. Wearing a smile, she is just as approachable as she is knowledgeable.
“Too often, environmentalists aren’t really that fun,” she explains. “We asked if there was a way to turn the volume up on this conversation without guilt, without scientific jargon.”
Annie Leonard exploded on YouTube in 2007 with her extremely popular viral video, “The Story of Stuff.” The movie’s powerful message, along with Annie’s relatable narrative, resonated with people all over the world. While many people recognize her as the face of the video, many might not be aware of the depth of her commitment. She actually spent two decades visiting landfills all over the world and has become an expert on smart consumption.
Her first “Story” video received 50,000 views on the day it launched. Even the original English version made its away around the world with people in Buenos Aires to Bangkok commenting on it and forwarding to friends. By now it’s been translated to ten languages and has received millions of views so far. Story of Stuff evolved into a video series, as the orginal “Story” was followed by exposés on bottled water, cosmetics , and cap & trade. The videos are now part of a global movement towards accumulating less stuff to save our resources and reduce waste. The latest edition, released today, is called “Story of Electronics,” and focuses on the waste generated by home electronics and gadgetry.
Annie’s videos lend a voice to a larger picture revolving around issues such as the worldwide recession, global warming, and a rising consciousness as people turn back to spirituality and minimalism.
From old thinking to new thinking
“We’re going through a big paradigm shift with materials and realizing the old paradigm isn’t really working,” explains Annie.
“The old paradigm said to add stuff. The new one shifts to sole access to stuff. A perfect example is Netflix,” she explains, “in which you watch a DVD, return it, and it gets passed on to others, all at a low monthly cost.” (Netflix has actually pushed the envelope beyond that now. By promoting video streaming it is now distributing its movies directly through the Internet, moving us towards removing DVD’s entirely from the equation.)
Car sharing, couch-surfing and house-swapping are other ways to lower our footprint. Annie herself lives in an east bay community of six homes, where neighbors share belongings and help each other out. She delights watching other friends de-clutter their homes on weekend yard sales.
“We’re burdened and crowded with the money and time it takes to upgrade our stuff, and realizing it comes at a cost of quality of life. We only see happy stuff in the media, but it doesn’t show us forests or dumps in Nigeria or China. I think people should be required to visit a landfill before getting their first credit card. Before buying something, We need to ask, where does it come from?”
Standing by a block of compressed, recycled plastic waste Annie names its likely destination: an incinerator in either India or China. She speaks passionately against propagating this waste treatment process, especially in wake of her new video being released.
“We can’t make metals disappear,” she says. “Didn’t these people take Physics? Incinerators cause these things to end up in smokestacks or as ash! We must fight them from Brussels to the slums of Mumbai.”
In this next “Story of Electronics,”Annie examines how the industry makes computers and gadgets “designed for the dump.” Companies convince us to buy the latest products, which quickly become obsolete and end up as waste shipped abroad. Co-produced with the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC)—a national partnership of over 30 environmental and public health organizations—and Free Range Studios, the movie urges viewers to demand that electronic companies “make ‘em safe, make ‘em last, and take ‘em back.”
Old cell phones, laptops, and chargers end up in recycling garages in China, landfills, or burned in incinerators. Easy to break, impractical to repair, and hard to upgrade, they emit toxic chemicals such as PVC, mercury, solvents and flame retardants when built and disassembled. Yet the lack of corporate accountability hides their true environmental and public health costs.
“There are billions of people out there who want access to the incredible web of information and entertainment electronics offer. But it’s the access they want, not all that toxic garbage,” says Annie. “Imagine that instead of all this toxic e-waste piling up in OUR garages and the streets of Guiyu, we sent it to the garages of the CEOs who made it. You can bet that they’d be on the phone to their designers”
Aside from factory workers experiencing health problems, children in these areas suffer the consequences with high levels of lead or dioxin in their blood. The 25 million tons of annual e-waste adds to what Annie names a “global, toxic emergency.”
“Anyone who’s had a cell phone fritz out after six months already knows all about planned obsolescence,” said Ted Smith, Chair of ETBC. “Most of our electronics are laden with toxic chemicals like lead, PVC, chlorine, and bromines, so when they break it’s not just a bummer, it’s a global toxic issue. Instead of shipping our toxic trash to across the world, Product TakeBack ensures that electronics companies—not individual consumers, our governments, or worse, some poor guy in China—take responsibility for the stuff they put on the shelves.”
The guilt-free consumer
Some people might misconstrue Annie’s message and take her for an extremist, when that is not the case. Her message says do what you can and ask questions. “I’m actually pro-stuff,” says Annie. “I want us to have more relevance. We’re not the ones who put carcinogens in our iPods or ripped the train system, creating an entire economy geared towards wasting.”
Empowered, active consumers play a part on how stuff is made and thrown away. Doing one’s research and educating others can make or break a product. As concerned consumers or bloggers, we have the means through social media to enlighten others with what we find out and spread the word. An active and engaged community of buyers leads to new business practices and new legislation, from plastic bags bans to more compostable packaging.
Tips from Annie:
1) Reduce use of wasteful materials. In Annie’s view, recycling becomes an admission of failure. “We Americans recycle this stuff, thinking we’re doing good,” she says, “but recycling is the last resort after reducing.”
Annie’s call to action is for us to 1) reduce, 2) reuse, and only as a last resort, 3) recycle.
2) Fight against single use, disposable plastic. This is usually labeled 6 or 7 and can contain toxins like styrene. Plastic adds up: it sticks around forever, polluting our land and our oceans. Use a reusable container instead.
3) Avoid high toxicity PVC, labeled with the number 3. Annie explains it’s made of resin, the most toxic of plastics along the whole cycle. Workers handling it can get cancer and it can leak toxic chemicals called pthalates. This plastic rarely gets recycled and gets worse as it reacts to heat, wear, and tear. It’s found in detergent and shampoo bottles and plastic bags.
4) Get BPA-free, reusable bottles. The chemical Bisphenol A is made in the making of certain plastic food containers inside metal cans. It can be found in trace amounts in foods packaged this way. Studies show it pre-disposes one to cancer, heart disease, and even diabetes.
5) Don’t beat yourself up. Keep in mind, Zero Waste is a direction, more than a destination point. Every step in that direction counts, as highlighted by Colin Beavan on his blog noimpactman.
5) Don’t feel bad, take action instead. Feeling guilty or powerless won’t do any good. Be proactive, channel your energy into positive actions. Call companies, ask questions, send back and skip buying products that threaten our health and environment.
6) Find a good place to dispose your old gadgets. Check with local non-profits that will reuse your old phone. Find an e-steward to recycle it without dumping it abroad. Use the manufacturer’s takeback program.
7) Tell Congress to co-sponsor the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act. Our government should create jobs and stop dumping toxic products in developing nations.
Watch the movie here: