Tech savvy: toys

Toy retailers are working together to build a database of bad-apple factories.

Mortally dangerous conditions remain a grim reality for workers at factories around the world.

In September last year, some 300 workers died in a garment factory fire in Pakistan, many because they were trapped behind locked emergency exits. Six months later, another 1,100 seamstresses were crushed to death when an eight-storey building collapsed in Bangladesh, despite warnings it was unsafe.

As the multi-trillion-dollar textile industry struggled to respond to these tragedies, the much smaller global toy industry was able to call on a resource no other consumer product industry can match.

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Tech Savvy: CarbonCure

Injecting C02 into concrete as it hardens is helping slash its towering toll on the climate.

Concrete is a conundrum. It’s the world’s most heavily consumed manmade material, with nearly three tonnes used per person, every year. Yet for the climate, baking limestone into cement does more harm than practically any other industrial process.

To help cut cement’s supersized carbon footprint, Halifax, Nova Scotia-based startup CarbonCure Technologies is tinkering with the age-old recipe for how cement cures into concrete, its final rock-like form. The company’s answer: carbonated cement.

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Tech Savvy: Axion Intl.

Axion International is recycling mountains of plastic for smoother commutes, sturdier bridges and a cleaner environment.

Every day, thousands of commuters on Miami’s rapid transit system are whisked to work cushioned by a bed of empty milk jugs, discarded laundry detergent jugs and other household castoffs.

The plastic in question isn’t the familiar debris that accumulates in rail tracks, along roadways and on the sidewalk. Rather, the trains’ journeys are smoothed by super-rugged railroad ties made up of veritable mountains of plastic waste recycled from consumers’ trash.

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Does dense equal sustainable?

Suburban sprawl might be bad, but overcrowded cities are not the solution.

It has become accepted wisdom that density is a good thing, as part of the notion that cities should grow, adapt and change if they are to become more sustainable, create jobs and remain economic engines.

But not all density is created equal, and there is such thing as too much density. That’s where many academic planning journals and right-wing think tanks start to cross the line. Many complain of too many restrictions that are keeping high-rise condos and business towers from blooming like weeds in a vegetable garden.

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Tech Savvy: Ford

From green roofs to dry machining, the U.S. auto giant is driving down water use and saving money.

In the race to go green, it’s fair to say that Ford has looked high and low – literally – to help its automotive plants cut their impact on the environment.

One of Ford’s highest profile eco-efforts can best be seen by looking down on the roof of its River Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan. Originally constructed starting in 1917 by Henry Ford, the complex debuted as an industrial pioneer, among the first fully-integrated industrial complexes, where steel mills, glass works and chemical plants were built side by side to speed the flow of raw materials into Ford’s burgeoning Model T plants.

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Tech Savvy: UPS

Package delivery giant United Postal Service gives its fleet the hybrid treatment, minus the expensive batteries.

To help its iconic brown delivery vans go much further on a gallon of fuel, United Parcel Service is rolling out a new type of hybrid vehicle that’s propelled by hydraulic pressure instead of electric batteries.

The technology is a relative of the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) pioneered by Toyota’s Prius, which achieves enviable mileage by recapturing much of the energy lost during braking. Instead of saving that braking energy in batteries, UPS’s new hydraulic hybrid vehicle (HHV) delivers a 35 per cent boost to mileage by storing hydraulic fluids in super strong tanks.

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Tech Savvy: PepsiCo

Recovering water from fresh potatoes helps chip factory turn off the taps, part of a pilot project with worldwide potential

For PepsiCo, one of the world’s biggest makers of potato chips, the key to producing the crispiest chips possible is all about driving moisture out of raw potatoes. Paradoxically, though, potatoes are made up mostly of water.

At a Walkers Crisps factory in Leicester, England, PepsiCo is turning this soggy challenge into a water-saving innovation. The goal: to extract so much water from inbound spuds that the factory can go “off grid,” drawing little or no water from public taps. Doing so, PepsiCo hopes, will help save the plant roughly $1 million a year in avoided water costs.

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Tech Savvy: American Water

Energy-shifting at pumping station helps regulate the grid.

If they ever think of water works, most people imagine pipes and pumps – more Victorian age than high tech. After all, in most cities, the big facilities that filter our drinking water and process our waste are out of sight, out of mind. But ask Ron Dizy, president and chief executive of Enbala Power Networks, about North America’s thousands of water works, and he’ll tell you they represent an enormous reservoir of untapped, low-cost energy services potential.

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Philly’s greener path

Can mayor Michael Nutter make sustainability stick in his second term?

Michael Nutter couldn’t have picked a worse time to win the keys to city hall. In late 2007, after 14 years as a city councilman, Nutter was elected as Philadelphia’s 125th mayor. His victory was built in part on a campaign promise to make his town in Pennsylvania “the greenest city in America.”

Yet mere months after he took office, Wall Street imploded, sparking global financial crisis and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Philadelphia’s fiscal outlook plummeted from surplus to billions in deficit, leaving Nutter facing painful choices.

Rather than retreat on his green agenda, however, Nutter looked to sustainability to help right the city’s finances. In 2009, he unveiled Greenworks Philadelphia, an ambitious blueprint to help the city run more efficiently, with less pollution, and become healthier all while using less energy and money to do so. “Cities are incubators of innovation,” said Nutter in an interview with Corporate Knights. “Congress can’t figure out energy or climate policy. Breaking new ground is happening at the city level because this is where it has to.”

Philadelphia’s eco-planners developed the program by auditing a vast array of urban metrics – from the amount residents walked to the availability of fresh, whole food. Then, they cast the data into the future, assessing how the city might look if “business as usual” continued. Finally, they combed through the numbers to set tough but achievable goals touching on dozen of actions. The final report organized the targets under 15 broad categories.

As an integrated vision for urban sustainability, Greenworks won plaudits for its unusually ambitious timeline. When it comes to energy or climate goals, it’s not unusual for governments to set targets a decade or more into the future. But distant goals can erode political will, Nutter notes, so his team agreed to peg the bulk of the plan’s targets to 2015.

Three years in, the results are showing up on Philadelphia’s city streets, and on its bottom line. Some of the programs are helping the city’s day-to-day operating budget. Consider recycling: The city saw rates soar to 18.9 per cent in 2011, more than triple the benchmark rate of 5.4 per cent in 2006.

The city made recycling both easier and more rewarding. Recycling days were shifted to the same day as regular garbage pickup and doubled in frequency. The city also eased the sorting hassle by expanding the types of plastic that could be recycled to numbers 1 through 7. Most U.S. cities accept just a few of those types.

The shift is turning a cost into a revenue source. Each ton of trash diverted to recycling bins not only saves about $68 in landfill costs, it generates more than $50 from the sale of bulk recycling material.

Other efforts promise to deliver huge, long-term capital savings. For example, Philadelphia was facing a $10-billion tab for new sewage facilities to prevent storm water from tainting regional waterways. Instead of a costly infrastructure fix, though, the city is spending $2 billion over 25 years on a multifaceted solution that restores the urban landscape’s ability to absorb rainfall.

Additional trees, parks and urban green space, all of which act as natural sponges, top the city’s to-do list. For buildings, the tricks include rain barrels and green roofs to collect and hold rainfall. The city is building out permeable road surfaces that let drops of rain soak slowly into the ground, rather than race down to storm sewers. “We recognized we could save money, not dig up half the town, and improve our parks and green spaces,” says Nutter.

The mayor’s green team tapped private partners to help multiply public efforts. To help cut citywide energy use, city programs aim to reinsulate homes and recoat black-tar roofs – which become oven-like hotspots in the summer – with cool, reflective white coatings. To spark homeowners’ competitive impulse, the city teamed up with Dow Chemical on the “Coolest Block” contest. Residents competed to win energy-saving cool roofs, insulation and other efficiency upgrades donated by Dow to their entire block. Said the mayor: “We can’t do this alone.”

For Nutter, the city’s green programs are delivering growing rewards, too. Philadelphia closed a multi-billion dollar budget gap as Greenworks took root. In its 2011 self-assessment, the city found that 135 of its initial 151 green goals have been completed or are underway. That quick success, Nutter says, has fired ambitions, spurring the addition of dozens more new eco-goals.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success for Nutter is re-election. He won a second term in November, assuring he’ll be there to push Greenworks through its 2015 deadline, and beyond.

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