March 29, 2011

Genetically Engineered Foods

Across the country Saturday protestors took to the streets (including outside the White House) to rally against genetically modified foods. But what exactly are genetically modified foods and why are they so controversial?

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are plants that have had their DNA altered with genes from other organisms to make them more pest-resistant or change some of their characteristics. The vast majority of soy, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola seed grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered.

Proponents of GE foods say they are the only way to keep up with the demands of a fast growing human population. Yet France, Italy, Japan and several other countries have banned them because of health concerns and worries that GE crops may spread their engineered traits to other plants.

Since they were only introduced in 1992, there have not been any investigations into the possible long term health effects of GE foods. Some studies suggest that GE crops and the pesticide used on them has led to the development of “super weeds” resistant to that pesticide. There is also the 2000 incident when GE corn meant for animal feed made its way into tortillas, corn chips and other foods, leading to a recall of over 300 foods and a $110 million settlement for farmers.

In a lab animal study, genetically modified soy was shown to cause serious health problems in third-generation hamsters. They included infertility, low birth weights when they did reproduce, an increased infant mortality rate, and hair growth in the mouth. A recent Russian study demonstrated that the genetic engineering process itself can cause changes that scientists cannot foresee.

The most recent controversy over GE crops has two major factions of U.S. Agriculture, organic growers and GE crop growers, embroiled in heated battle. In addition to wanting more research on the safety of GE foods, organic growers are fighting to have genetically modified foods labeled and limits imposed on how closely such crops can be grown to organic farms. Organic growers, and even some conventional growers, fear that without regulated buffers their crops may be contaminated by the pollen and seeds of GE crops drifting over from neighboring fields. Such a scenario becomes more and more likely as the number of genetically engineered crops quickly continues to grow. Such a scenario would also be extremely detrimental to organic growers because their products may be rejected by entire countries if tests show they carry even trace amounts of GE material.

It is the GE crop growers, however, that have been victorious in battle most recently. In the first few months of this year Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has approved the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa, given the go ahead to planting GE corn for ethanol, and given limited approval to GE sugar beets. Vilsack has been a long time supporter of genetic engineering. He was even named “Governor of the Year” by the Biotechnology Industry Organization back in 2001 when he was governor of Iowa. And while on the topic of unsavory political connections, let's not forget that the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who says GE foods are completely safe, also happens to be the former vice president of Monsanto, the almighty agricultural biotechnology corporation that patents and sells genetically modified seeds, after already bestowing upon us Agent Orange and PCBs.

I digress. Score one for genetically engineered foods as the battle continues. Monsanto is in the process of suing the government for not fully deregulating GE sugar beets and the Center for Food Safety is once again suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop the planting of genetically engineered alfalfa and sugar beets.

What can you, as a consumer, do?

Send a letter or email voicing your displeasure with the Obama administration’s decision to approve the unrestricted cultivation of genetically engineered alfalfa through the Organic Trade Association's web site.

Check out the Non-GMO Project, “a non-profit organization created by leaders representing all sectors of the organic and natural products industry in the U.S. and Canada, to offer consumers a consistent non-GMO choice for organic and natural products that are produced without genetic engineering or recombinant DNA technologies.” You can find products certified to contain no genetically modified material through the Non-GMO Project's 3rd party verification program and sign their Consumer Pledge to demonstrate your support.

Send a message with your grocery money. Buy organic when possible, especially the most common GE crops – soy, cotton, canola, and corn. Avoid processed, packaged foods since so many of them use GE corn.

Finally, call your government representatives and let them know you want mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Biotech may have won the latest battle. Don't let them win the war.

March 28, 2011

Green Dry Cleaning

When the process of dry cleaning started over 200 years ago solvents like gasoline and naphtha were used. Over time other, not necessarily safer, solvents were developed for cleaning clothes. Today, 80% of all dry cleaners use perchloroethylene (perc) – a synthetic liquid solvent described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “toxic chemical with both human health and environmental concerns.”

The health effects of perc depend upon the level of exposure. People exposed to high levels of perc (individuals working in or living next to a dry cleaning facility) may experience symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to skin, lung, and eye irritation to liver damage and respiratory failure. Low levels of exposure may carry risks as well. When laboratory animals were exposed to perc the effects on developing fetuses included altered growth, birth defects, and death. Perc has also been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and studies of dry cleaning workers suggest an increased risk for certain types of cancers. Due to such health concerns perc is banned in several countries and California is in the process of phasing it out completely by 2023.

Perc also poses an environmental concern as it can get into the air, soil, and water during most phases of the dry cleaning process. Once it's released into the air, perc remains in the atmosphere for several weeks before breaking down into other chemicals – some being toxic and others suspected of depleting the ozone. Perc, in its liquid form, can seep into soil. It is known to be toxic to plants and significant amounts of perc have been found in dry cleaning waste (considered a hazardous waste by the EPA). When it seeps through the ground perc can contaminate water supplies, including drinking water (there is an EPA limit on the amount of perc acceptable in drinking water). Perc has also proven toxic to aquatic animals who can store it in their fatty tissue.

Alternatives to Traditional Dry Cleaning
There are a some options for people wanting to avoid the health and environmental effects of perc dry cleaning.

“Green” or “Organic” Dry Cleaning. If you see “organic dry cleaning” advertised, ask some questions to find out what exactly that means. Many perc alternatives are petroleum-based solvents, the most popular being a chemical called DF-2000. Because it contains a chain of carbon, DF-2000 is scientifically classified as “organic.” By the same reasoning, gasoline and perc are organic. So when you see a dry cleaner advertising all-natural, green, or organic dry cleaning, they may very likely be using DF-2000 which is classified as a VOC and is listed by the EPA as a neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers. Another perc alternative is a silicone-based chemical called GreenEarth. California’s Air Resources Board studied GreenEarth for 18 months and decided that it did not qualify for a non-toxic alternative dry cleaning solvent grant program, but it did qualify it as an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative.

Professional Wet Cleaning. Most dry cleaners offer a process called wet cleaning where “dry clean only” clothes are washed using computerized washers and dryers and special cleaning solutions. The EPA calls wet cleaning a “viable and environmentally-preferable clothes cleaning technology.” It uses no hazardous chemicals and generates no hazardous waste or air pollution. Wet cleaning has proven less effective than silicone-solvent based dry cleaning, but just as effective or better than perc dry cleaning.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Cleaning. Carbon dioxide cleaning uses CO2 with high pressure, converting it into a liquid that can act as a carrier of biodegradable soaps, just as water would work with detergents in a washing machine. Afterward the CO2 turns back into a gas (much of which is reused) and the clothes dry instantly. The CO2 used in this process is the captured by-product of existing industrial processes. So, instead of being released into the atmosphere, CO2 is re-purposed as a cleaning agent. According to Consumer Reports, CO2 cleaning is more effective than GreenEarth cleaning (a close second), professional wet cleaning and perc dry cleaning. Unfortunately, CO2 cleaning is not yet widely available.

Home Dry Cleaning Kits. For clothes that are not heavily soiled, a home dry cleaning kit is an inexpensive alternative. These kits still involve chemicals, but until non-perc dry cleaning becomes more widely available, they're a a reasonable alternative.

Steam. Lightly soiled items can be steam cleaned in your dryer. Simply place the item in the dryer with a damp towel and run a normal cycle.

Avoid this dilemma all together. Steering clear of “dry clean only” fabrics will help you save money and avoid dry cleaning chemicals. Many of the dry clean items you currently own can be safely washed at home. Special fabrics, such as silk and suede, need special cleaning, but most other fabrics are sturdy enough to withstand being washed by hand or in a washing machine's gentle cycle with mild detergent.

If you must use a traditional dry cleaner, make sure to air out items outside before bringing them indoors. Hopefully, with time, safe perc alternatives will become more widely available.


March 27, 2011

Green Beauty Favorites

While I love the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics and personal care products safety database for the valuable information it provides, I’ve often been frustrated with its search capabilities. Case in point: I do a simple search for a moisturizer and get a results list with 3,117 products. Of those, 1,525 have a safety rating between 0 and 2 (low hazard) and 1,273 are rated between 3 and 6 (moderate hazard). I sort the results by hazard score and start scrolling through. I don’t recognize any of the products (or even brands) listed on the first several pages. I start googling and discover that most of the products with a 0 or 1 hazard score are only available online from small companies of which I’ve never heard. As my eyes start to blur I begin seeing products I might at least be able to find at Whole Foods, but even then I know they’re bound to be pricey.

So, I’ve put in the time and done the research. I’ve found the products with low hazard scores, that work for me, that are moderately prices, and are (for the most part) available at places like Target and CVS. As I said before, the best way to utilize the EWG database is to look up your current favorite products and products you’d like to try first, but if you still need some suggestions here are some of my personal favorites.

Face Wash: Alba Botanica's Hawaiian Pineapple Facial Cleanser (safety score of 4)

Scrub: Alba Botanica Hawaiian Pineapple Enzyme Facial Scrub (score of 4)

Soap: Dove Beauty Bar Soap for Sensitive Skin (score of 2)

Shampoo: Burt's Bees Pomegranate & Soy, Trader Joe's Tea Tree (both with a score of 4)

Conditioner: Burt's Bees Pomegranate & Soy (score of 4)

Facial Moisturizer: Boots No. 7 Lifting & Firming Day Cream, Night Cream, and Eye Cream (all with a score of 4)

Body Lotion: Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion, Fragrance Free (score of 2)

Foundation: L'Oreal True Match Foundation, liquid or roller (score of 4)

Eye Shadow: Boots No. 7 line (all scores between 2 and 5)

Lip Gloss: Burt's Bees Lip Shimmers (all with a score of 3)

Mascara: Maybelline Define-A-Lash and L'Oreal Telescopic (both with a score of 4)

Eyeliner: Maybelline Define-A-Lash in Brownish Black (score of 2), CoverGirl Exact EyeLights in Black (score of 6)

Safety Scores
0 to 2 = Low Hazard
3 to 6 = Moderate Hazard
7 to 10 = High Hazard

March 26, 2011

Flame Retardants Warning

There have been health concerns over flame retardants since 1977 when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned a type of flame retardant made of brominated and chlorinated tris phosphate (Tris) after it was found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Once Tris was banned a new type of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) came onto the market. In 2010, after years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that PBDEs are bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment and began working on a voluntary phase out of the chemicals by the end of 2013.

According to the Environmental Working Group, “exposure to minute doses of toxic fire retardants such as PBDEs at critical points in development can damage reproductive systems and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and hearing, as well as changes in behavior.” Children are exposed to PBDEs not only from wearing flame resistant sleepwear, but also from mouthing the fabric putting them at increased risk.

Wal-Mart recently announced that it has banned PBDEs from all of its consumer goods and will be conducting tests to verify that suppliers are complying with their ban. Hopefully, more companies will follow Wal-Mart's lead. Until then, keep a careful eye on the labeling on children's sleepwear (where most of the PBDEs in children's clothing are used). Opt for pajamas made of natural fibers with tags stating “must be snug fitting” and “not flame resistant.”

No matter how cute the footsie pajamas, nothing justifies exposing children to the unsafe chemicals found in flame retardants.

March 25, 2011

The Greenest Bag of All?

We all know that reusable shopping bags are more eco-friendly than plastic bags, but are all reusable bags equally green? Take a look around the register at the stores you frequent and you'll notice a variety of options. Are some greener than others? If so, what is the the greenest option? Let's review.

When reusable shopping bags first started becoming popular they were typically canvas bags made of fibers like cotton and hemp. Thanks to its heavy use of insecticides (using 16% of the world's insecticides for 2.5% of the world's cultivated land) cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop. The environmental impact of cotton production (pesticides, pollution, and the significant amount of water used) is directly correlated to its weight. So when choosing a canvas bag opt for lighter bags, preferably made of organic cotton or hemp.

Polyester is thin and extremely durable. The production of an average-size polyester shopping bag creates as much greenhouse emissions as it would take to produce seven disposable plastic shopping bags.

More often these days you will see bags made of polypropylene. These are those soft, plastic-y looking bags shaped like brown paper grocery bags that most major chain stores offer. In terms of greenhouse emissions, the manufacturing of one polypropylene bag equals 11 disposable plastic bags.

All three reusable bag options are greener than the disposable paper and plastic bags available in stores. Polyester and polypropylene bags are pretty comparable. Both have a moderate edge over canvas. You can feel good about using any type of reusable type. Just remember:

  • Reusable bags need to be cleaned. You don't want to be carrying bacteria along with your groceries. You should always choose bags that can withstand a cycle in the washing machine. If you retire a bag once it gets soiled, you're not really being all that green.
  • Look for lightweight, but sturdy. Again, if the bag doesn't last very long because it starts falling apart then it can't be very green.
  • You have to actually use the bags for them to be green. A reusable bag needs to be used 171 times to negate the environmental impact of one plastic bag. Keep a stash of bags in your car so they're always readily available. And remember, they can be used for every type of shopping not just groceries.

March 23, 2011

Raising a Green Kid

We hear it all the time. Kids today spend too much time indoors watching TV and playing video and computer games. Each day they grow plumper and less daunted by the images of sex and violence that inundate them. Among older teens and young adults, apathy is up while empathy is on the decline.

By encouraging kids to go out and enjoy nature and be vested in its conservation, we’re not only getting them some much needed exercise but teaching them valuable lessons in empathy, respect, and good citizenship.

The best way to raise a green kid is by being a good example yourself. Point out to them what actions you take to be green. Let your kids know why you are turning down the thermostat, using reusable shopping bags, recycling, composting, and so on. They may not give such actions much thought. Let them know why it's so important.

Make being green a family initiative. Kids can help sort recycling and rip up old clothes and linens for cleaning rags. Have them sort through clothes and toys they've outgrown and then accompany you to donate them to a charity. Teach your kids to shut off lights and toys when not in use and to turn off the water when they brush their teeth. Explain why these are such important habits to keep and give them plenty of kudos when they act green all on their own.

Grow a garden together. Let kids see where real food comes from. You might even get them to eat an extra veggie or two if you grow them together. Growing any type of garden or even a simple plant can be a very rewarding experience. Plus, what kid doesn’t like to play in the dirt? You can also build a bird feeder out of a used milk carton or plant milkweed to attract butterflies. Check out the National Wildlife Federation's web site to learn how you can have your yard certified as a wildlife habitat.

Beyond growing veggies together, you can involve kids in everyday meal planning. See what locally-grown, seasonal produce is available at the grocery store, let your kid(s) pick something new to try, and cook up a culinary adventure together. Visit farmers markets together and explain why local and organic foods are healthier and more eco-friendly. And don’t forget to pack their lunch in reusable containers.

Before throwing anything away think of how you might be able to use it in an arts and crafts project. If you're not particularly crafty, there are plenty of books at the library full of ideas. Put together an “invention box” with paper holders, bottle caps, leftover bits of ribbon and yarn, left over art supplies, etc. and see what your child's imagination comes up with.

Go beyond home and get the whole family involved in “green” community activities. If there are none available in your area, go out an organize them. Get a group of family and friends together to clean up a local park or work with your PTA to get local, organic produce in the lunchroom, green cleaning products in the broom closet, and a nature discovery center in the school yard.

Finally, don’t forget to show kids what it is we’re working so hard to preserve. Visit state and national parks in your area. Many offer great family friendly activities. Or simply get outside in your own yard or a local park. Bring along binoculars, a magnifying class, and a journal (young children can draw pictures of what they see) to make it a true nature expedition. Teach your kids how to observe, enjoy and appreciate nature without disturbing it.

This is actually a quote from a Go RVing ad, but I find it incredibly apropos.

"Along with milk and vegetables, kids need a steady diet of rocks and worms. Rocks need skipping. Holes need digging. Water needs splashing. Bugs and frogs and slimy stuff need finding."

You might get something out of a little dirt digging and bug finding yourself. At the very least you can build some lasting memories doing incredibly positive things with your children.

March 22, 2011

World Water Day

Today is World Water Day. Calculate your water footprint with this calculator from National Geographic. It offers tips on water conservation as you proceed through the questionnaire. You may discover some ways you're unknowingly wasting water.

Here are my own top tips for water conservation:

  • Install low-flow shower heads to save water without sacrificing pressure. An efficient shower head will save a family of four up to $285 per year. They typically cost less than $15 and are simple to install.
  • Put an aerator on all household faucets and cut your annual water consumption by 50%.
  • Install a low-flow toilet. They use only 1.6 gallons per flush, compared to 3.5 gallons per flush for pre-1994 models. If you have an older model, adjust your float valve to admit less water into the toilet's tank.
  • Only run the washing machine and dishwasher when full.
  • Landscape your yard to use less water. Go with more flowerbeds, walkways and drought-tolerant plants.
  • Install a rain barrel to collect rainwater that can be used for watering indoor and outdoor plants as well as other non-potable uses such as car washing.
  • Take a look at your everyday habits. Shorten your shower by a minute or two and you'll save up to 150 gallons per month. Using a broom instead of the garden hose to clean your driveway can save 80 gallons of water and turning the water off when you brush your teeth will save 4.5 gallons each time.

March 21, 2011

Green Beauty

Think of how upsetting it is to hear about big corporations polluting our air, water, and soil with harmful chemicals. Now consider the disturbing fact that many people are unknowingly contaminating their own bodies with harmful chemicals every day with the personal care items they’re using. Your skin is your biggest organ and your greatest defense barrier, but skin absorption is the number one way chemicals are getting into your system (after all you wouldn’t willingly ingest this stuff).

Yet, the FDA does not require companies to test cosmetics and personal products before they are sold. Currently, the safety of personal care product ingredients is evaluated through a voluntary program run by the cosmetics industry. The FDA can only regulate cosmetic products after they are put on the market and even then they cannot require product recalls but must go to court to remove misbranded and/or tainted products from the market.

A 2007 an Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation found that hundreds of cosmetics sold in the U.S. contained chemicals the industry itself has deemed unsafe even when used as directed. Many products sold in the U.S. include chemicals that are banned in most other countries. After analyzing over 23,000 products, the EWG discovered that nearly 1 of every 30 products sold in the U.S. failed to meet 1 or more industry or governmental cosmetics safety standards.

So what’s a consumer to do? Keep informed. The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Safe Cosmetics  is a pocket-sized guide to what ingredients and products to avoid when you’re walking down the health and beauty aisle.

The EWG has also created a personal care products safety database that allows you to research products and their safety. A piece of advice though . . . there are over 30,000 products in the database and just doing a search for something general, say shampoo, can leave you with an overwhelming results list to go through. The best way to utilize the database is to first look up your current favorite products and products you’d like to try. Then, see where the results lead you. Over time you’ll learn which products and product lines give you the best results without compromising your health.

March 19, 2011

13 Steps to a Greener Home

A green home is a healthy home. Greening up your living space will benefit your health as well as the environment. Some steps are quite simple, while others will take a bit more effort. Never let going green overwhelm you though. Remember: Even the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

  1. Replace your incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). They use 66% percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer.
  1. Save an easy 10% on heating and cooling costs by programming your thermostat settings back when you're not home or sleeping. When it’s hot out, it helps to shade your east- and west-facing windows and wait until evening to do things that generate heat, like running the dishwasher. Also, whenever possible choose ceiling fans over air conditioners.
  1. Keep your furnace filter clean. This means changing it every month during heavy usage. This will keep your air clean and save you money since your furnace will run more efficiently. You may even want to consider buying a new furnace (depending on the age of your current furnace). Furnaces today are significantly more efficient than they were 20 or 30 years ago, especially those with Energy Star certification.
  1. Keeping your HVAC system well maintained with a tune up every couple years will keep your system running efficiently and save you 5% to 10% on heating and cooling costs.
  1. Keep your home well insulated with weather-stripping and caulking to avoid drafts and the energy they waste. Check around windows, doors, electrical outlets, and any spots where pipes come in. Also, check your attic floor for any spots with inadequate insulation.
  1. Use less water. Install low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators to save resources without sacrificing water pressure. An efficient showerhead will save a family of four up to $285 per year. They can cost less than $15, and installing them couldn't be easier: they just screw on. Put an aerator on all household faucets and cut your annual water consumption by 50%. Install a low-flow toilet. They use only 1.6 gallons per flush, compared to 3.5 gallons per flush for pre-1994 models. If you have an older model, adjust your float valve to admit less water into the toilet's tank. Of course, you don't need products to save water — behavioral changes also add up quickly: using a broom instead of the garden hose to clean your driveway can save 80 gallons of water and turning the water off when you brush your teeth will save 4.5 gallons each time. Landscape your yard to use less water. Go with more flowerbeds, walkways and drought-tolerant plants. Replace fixtures with low-flow Water Sense® rated models. If your toilets are the older water-guzzlers, consider replacing with new low water use models.
  1. For about $20 and 5 minutes of your time you can make your hot water heater more efficient. Just put an insulating jacket around your water heater and secure (with tape, wire, or a clamp) foam pipe sleeves around the hot water pipes and three feet of the cold water inlet pipe. Also consider turning the temperature on the water heater down to 120 degrees to save money and prevent scalding.
  1. When replacing your appliances, seek our Energy Star-certified products. They are 20% to 50% more energy efficient than standard models, so they’ll save you money and reduce greenhouse emissions/air pollutants/water usage.
  1. Select low or no-VOC paints and finishes. Conventional paints contain solvents, toxic metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful to your health and the environment.
  1. Trade in those expensive, smelly, chemical-laden cleaning products for cheap, non-toxic, earth-friendly solutions you can make right at home. With a few simple products, like vinegar, baking soda, and peroxide, you can get your house just as clean as with traditional cleaning products. You’ll save money on cleaning supplies, keep the plastic bottles they come in out of our landfills, and avoid harsh chemicals that harm the environment and your health.
  1. Fill your home with air-cleaning plants. NASA spent two years testing 19 different house plants for their ability to remove common pollutants from the air. The most effective plants were proven to be philodendron (heartleaf, selloum, and elephant ear varieties), cornstalk dracaena, English ivy, spider plant, dracaena (Janet Craig, Warneck, and red-edged varieties), weeping fig, golden pothos, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, and snake plant.
  1. Cut down on plastics. Americans throw out about 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags every year. According to the EPA, the processing and burning of petroleum (from which plastics are derived) is one of the main contributors to global warming. Keep a stash of reusable shopping bags handy so you always have some when you shop. As your plastic food containers wear out, recycle them and seek out replacements made of glass, ceramic, Pyrex, porcelain, bamboo, or high grade stainless steel.
  1. Opt for green home renovations. When you’re ready to get rid of dust-catching carpet or your vinyl floors wear out opt for environmentally-friendly options like bamboo or recycled linoleum or laminate. When it’s time to re-shingle, look for products made from recycled materials. If your siding needs replacing, consider fiber-cement products made from concrete and recycled fibers.

March 18, 2011

A Greener Fish Oil Supplement

How healthy is your fish oil supplement? Not very, if your Omega-3s are mixed with pollutants like mercury, PCBs and dioxins. Fortunately for us, the Environmental Defense Fund investigated the purifying process of 75 of the most popular supplements. Make sure your brand comes from one of the companies purifying their fish oils to meet stringent safety standards.

 
Don’t take a supplement, but enjoy eating seafood. Check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s Complete List of Seafood Eco-Ratings to learn which options are healthiest for you and the environment.

March 16, 2011

The Problem with Plastic

The list of health problems associated with plastics seems to grow longer by the day. The latest: British and U.S. researchers found an association between bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, and heart disease. The study also confirmed that BPA plays a role in diabetes and some forms of liver disease.

The problem is not so much with plastic, but with the chemical additives used in plastics. They’re necessary to mold and stabilize plastic, but it has not been until most recently that people have started realizing the extent of their impact on human health.

The additives you hear most about are BPA and phthalates. BPA is used to make plastic food containers firm and vinyl products soft and pliable. It also happens to be a hormone disruptor (a fact known since the 1930s) linked to an assortment of health problems, including obesity, early puberty in girls, low sperm counts in men, reproductive problems, and asthma. It is estimated that 90% of people in the U.S. and Europe have detectable levels of BPA in their body. In 2010 Canada declared BPA a toxic chemical, making it easier for the government to regulate its use and possibly leading to the outright ban of BPA in food containers.

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or durable and also as solvents. While phthalates have been banned in toys and child care products for children under 12, they’re found in pretty much everything else. Just a few examples are food packaging, plastic bags, inflatable toys, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, perfume, nail polish, soap, hair spray and shampoo. Phthalates have been found to disrupt the endocrine system. According the U.S. Center for Disease Control, several phthalate compounds have caused reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals. They have also been linked to liver cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates phthalates as water and air pollutants and the European Union prohibits phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe.

Now consider all the oil and other resources required to make plastics, the pollution created in their production, and the massive amounts that end up in landfills, the ocean, or incinerated (releasing cancer-causing pollutants into the air). While there’s no way to avoid plastics completely, there are steps you can make to guard your health and protect the environment.

  • Choose reusable over disposable. Invest in food and beverage containers made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, Pyrex, bamboo, or stainless steel instead of using bags, containers, and bottles made of plastic. Pack real silverware with your lunch. It feels more luxurious than plastic utensils anyways. And don’t forget: Reusable shopping bags are a great option for all shopping, not just groceries.
  • Be picky about packaging. Choose products in recyclable or reusable containers, such as cardboard cartons or glass jars. Opt for fresh or frozen foods in place of canned goods. Avoid plastic wrapped food, especially fatty foods like meats and cheeses, whenever possible. You can even ask the butcher to wrap your meat in wax paper instead of plastic. Transfer any plastic-wrapped food to non-plastic containers once you get home.
  • Watch how you heat. Avoid heating food in plastic containers, especially polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate containers that contain BPA usually have a #7 recycling code on them.
  • Watch how you wash. Avoid putting plastic containers in the dishwasher. Yes, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than hand washing, but the heat and harsh detergent may cause may cause plastic to leach chemicals.
  • Just say no to vinyl and PVC. If you absolutely have to have plastic food containers, opt for those labeled as PETE or recycling codes #2, #4, and #5. Avoid those labeled #3 or #7. Instead of a vinyl shower curtain, use one made of cotton, hemp, or polyester.
  • Go fragrance-free. Fragrance almost always contains phthalates, so in addition to taking a pass on perfume and cologne choose fragrance-free personal care products (i.e., moisturizers, shampoos, deodorants, etc.) whenever possible. At home, avoid air fresheners and swap chemically-scented candles for soy- or beeswax-based wax candles scented with essential oils.
  • Opt for clothing, linens, and other housewares made of natural materials.

March 15, 2011

Recycling Rewards

Check Family Circle's list of Recycling Rewards to learn how major businesses like Costco, Starbucks, and CVS reward you for being green.

Recycling Plastic Bags

While it’s best to avoid plastic as much as you can, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up with some plastic bags and packaging. I’ve begun noticing more plastic bag recycling drop offs in local stores and now I’ve discovered that you can drop off more than just plastic grocery bags. They’ll also accept retail bags, paper towel and toilet paper plastic wrap, plastic newspaper bags, plastic dry cleaning bags, and any clear bags labeled with a #2 or #4 recycling code. You just have to make sure they are clean and dry.

I checked out plasticbagrecycling.org for drop off locations in my area and found several convenient locations, including various grocery store chains, Lowes, and Wal-Mart. Go ahead and check it out for yourself!

March 14, 2011

Use Less Paper. Be More Green.

Think twice the next time you go to click that print button. Did you know the paper industry is the third largest industrial consumer of energy behind only the chemical and petroleum refining industries? It’s also the fourth largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases and the third largest industrial user of water. Plus, the pulp and paper industry is responsible for massive amounts of toxic waste contaminating our air and water. Then, what becomes of all that paper? According to the EPA, paper accounts for about a third of all waste. That’s at least 84,000,000 tons a year!

Now, you don’t have to run out and chain yourself to a tree just yet. You can make a difference by reducing your own paper consumption, encouraging your friends and family to do likewise, and helping your employer devise and implement a paper conservation policy.

Here are a few ways to get you started:

  • Go paperless. Opt for electronic statements from your bank, credit card companies, and utility providers. In addition to saving paper, electronic statements are more secure and easier to keep organized than paper statements.
  • Avoid junk mail. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (567-8688) or visit www.optoutprescreen.com to opt out of receiving pre-approved credit card offers for five years. You’ll have to provide personal information like your Social Security number, but it’s confidential and will only be used by the credit bureaus to process your opt out request. You can also notify the three major credit bureaus that you don’t your personal information shared for promotional purposes. Click here for the addresses and a sample letter. Finally, register with the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service to opt out of receiving unsolicited mail and e-mail from companies that use the DMA’s Mail Preference Service.
  • Go online. Read newspaper and magazines online instead of buying hard copies. Many retailers have electronic copies of their catalogs, sales flyers, and even coupons available on their web site.
  • Bring your own cloth bags whenever you shop to avoid paper and plastic store bags.
  • Rethink how you print. First, consider if something can be emailed rather than printed out. If you have to print, print only the specific text or pages you need and print on both sides of paper. Keep misprints for scrap paper (thus saving Posts Its). Print addresses directly on envelopes instead of printing mailing labels.
  • Buy in bulk to reduce wasted packaging.
  • Cut up old t-shirts and towels for rags and use them instead of paper towels.
  • Keep a stock of dish and hand towels in the kitchen to use in place of paper towels. Toss them in a mesh bag until you have enough to run a load of laundry.
  • Buy recycled paper and paper products. A ton of paper made from recycled paper (versus virgin paper) saves 4,100 kilowatt hours of energy, 7,000 gallons of water, 60 pounds of air emissions, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space.
  • Buy unbleached paper. The bleaching process creates a lot of harmful waste that contaminates air, water, and soil.
  • And never forget . . . recycle all the paper and cardboard you can!

March 13, 2011

Green Don’ts

Don’t top off your gas tank. Once the nozzle clicks off the first time, the gas you're paying for is not going into your tank. You’re wasting money on gas that is stuck in the hose or getting ready to spill on the next person. Topping off your tank damages the vapor recovery system that's designed to minimize the amount of vapors released into the air. Gas vapors pollute the air with volatile organic compounds that are harmful to our lungs and our environment.

Don’t use the full suggested amount of laundry detergent. Use ½ to ¾ of your usual amount and you will save money, reduce the amount of suds polluting our waterways, cut down on detergent bottles sent to the recycling center, and get your clothes just as clean if not cleaner than before (unrinsed detergent on your clothes can actually attract dirt!).

March 12, 2011

Drinking Green

Time and again we hear how great drinking water is for us. It aids in weight loss, flushing out those nasty toxins while preventing headaches and sickness and giving us clear, supple skin. Yet, do we really know what we’re getting when we twist open a bottle of water?

According to the Environmental Working Group, most bottle water companies aren’t so forthcoming about what exactly is going into those bottles. Only 3 of the 173 companies the nonprofit analyzed disclosed information on where their water comes from, how or if their water is treated, and whether the results of purity testing are revealed. Some of the worst-rated brands, from the companies disclosing little or no information, also happen to be some of the best-selling in the country. Aquafina, Dasani, and Poland Spring all received a grade of D for information disclosure.

According to the EWG, the only A grade option is filtered tap water. Properly filtered tap water is purer than bottled water, not to mention less expensive and better for the environment.

Unlike bottled water, tap water is regularly tested with the test results openly reported. A simple, faucet-mounted water filter can improve the smell and taste of drinking water by removing chlorine and bacterial contaminants.

Not sure you want to splurge on the $35 water filter and $10 re-usable bottle? Consider this: Some bottled water can cost up to 1,900 times more than tap water. According to the New York Times, a person drinking only bottled water will spend about $1,400 a year compared to the 49 cents it costs for a year's supply of tap water.

And let’s not forget the cost to the environment. One and a half million barrels of oil are used every year to manufacture disposable plastic water bottles for the U.S. That's enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. About 80 percent of those bottles will end up as litter or in landfills where they’ll take at least 450 years to break down. Plus, the process of bottling water actually wastes two gallons of water for every gallon of water packaged.

So, want to drink cleaner, cheaper, and greener? Just turn on the tap!

March 11, 2011

Eating Green

Ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you that they’d like to eat “right”. But what’s “right” is sometimes debatable and often times confusing. Take eating organic foods for example. Are they that much better for you? What’s so wrong with conventionally grown foods?

The arguments for eating organic are plentiful: Organic foods are free of not only pesticides, but hydrogenated fats, artificial colors and sweeteners, and preservatives as well. Organic foods are not genetically modified, when the long term health effects of GM foods is still unknown. They taste better and a growing number of scientific reports suggest that organic foods are more nutritious and richer in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids than non-organic food. And when it comes to the environment, organic farmers avoid the pesticides and herbicides that contaminate groundwater, erode soil, and damage local ecosystems.

Now on the flip side: Who can afford to only buy organic food and are all conventional foods really so bad? Knowing which organic food is worth the extra cost can be confusing. Fortunately the Environmental Working Group offers a great resource with its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the 12 conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, along with a list of the 15 cleanest fruits and vegetables. According to the EWG, you can lower your pesticide consumption by nearly four-fifths by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and instead eating the least contaminated produce. You can print out a wallet-size list or download the iPhone app at www.foodnews.org.

Purchasing from local farmers is a great way to get fresh, healthy food that hasn’t been chemically modified to keep its appearance after traveling half way around the world. Find farms and farmer's markets in your area at http://www.localharvest.org.

What if the farm you like isn’t certified organic? Earning organic certification is a lengthy and costly process that not all farmers can afford. Instead you can ask your local farmer if they use organic practices or, if they’re not organic, if they use non-synthetic pesticides and/or practice minimal spraying. If they answer yes to any of these questions, then you're likely buying from a conscientious farmer who’s producing good quality, minimally-processed food.

Even if you don’t get to the farmers’ market, you can still make an effort to purchase local produce at the grocery store. To buy local means to buy in season. Yes, you can buy pretty much any type of fruit or vegetable any time of year, but what sacrifices in quality and impact to the environment do you have to make? By purchasing local foods when they are in season, you avoid the environmental damage caused by shipping foods thousands of miles and you’ll get fresher tasting fruits and vegetables. You can better plan your meals around what’s in season with the seasonal produce guide available at http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/seasonal/.

You can cut down on your waistline and your food budget, while doing the environment a good turn, by swapping one or two meat-based meals a week with a vegetarian or seafood dish. One of your best options for fish is Wild Alaskan Salmon. Because it is wild-caught, it's purer in flavor than farm-raised salmon (which is fed pigment and antibiotics) and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Another great option is canned sardines. Unlike tuna, sardines aren't in danger of being over-fished and are low in mercury.

Finally, one cost-efficient way to eat green is to simply cook at home and pack a lunch (in reusable containers) as often as you can. By preparing your own food you'll be better able to avoid preservatives, cut down on packaging (think of all those ketchup packets and napkins in take-out bags), and save money. Now that is eating green.

March 10, 2011

Cleaning Green

Swapping out expensive, smelly, chemical-laden cleaning products for cheap, non-toxic, earth-friendly solutions you can make right at home is probably one of the quickest and easiest ways to start being green. With a few simple products, like vinegar, baking soda, and peroxide, you can get your house just as clean as with traditional cleaning products or those pricey green products. You’ll save money on cleaning supplies, keep the plastic bottles they come in out of our landfills, and avoid harsh chemicals that can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritations.

The two workhorses of the green cleaning arsenal are distilled white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide. You can clean and disinfect most of your house with these two easy-to-find and inexpensive products.

Thanks to its acidity, distilled white vinegar is effective at killing most mold, bacteria, and viruses. Put full strength vinegar in a spray bottle to create an all-purpose cleaner you can use on glass, mirrors, doorknobs, sinks, appliances, and countertops (just avoid using it on marble). In place of harsh bathroom cleaning products use undiluted vinegar on toilets, bathtubs, and showers (add a little baking soda for extra scrubbing power). For stubborn soap residue in the bathroom or grease stains in the kitchen let the vinegar penetrate for 10 to 15 minutes before wiping clean. To get rid of the residue on a showerhead mix 1 part baking soda with two parts vinegar in a bag and wrap it around the showerhead. Let it sit there for at least an hour. Then, remove the bag, give the showerhead and quick wipe, and run the water. To keep your dishwasher clean and odor-free, once a month put white vinegar in the soap dispenser and run it empty for a cycle. Mix a cup of vinegar with a gallon of water to clean vinyl and linoleum floors.

Hydrogen peroxide (the 3% solution you can pick up at pharmacies and grocery stores) is a nontoxic antibacterial that kills viruses, mold, and mildew. You can think of it as an all-natural bleach. Anything you typically clean with bleach can be cleaned with peroxide. This includes countertops, sinks, cutting boards, bathtubs, showers, toilets, and garbage pails. Just spray it on, allow the bubbles to subside (hydrogen peroxide needs time to disinfect) and wipe. To clean and disinfect those vinyl and linoleum floors mix equal parts peroxide and water to mop. No rinsing necessary. For laundry you can replace bleach with one cup of hydrogen peroxide. You can also soak items, like toothbrushes, sponges, cleaning cloths, retainers, thermometers, and loofahs, in hydrogen peroxide to disinfect them.

Using vinegar and peroxide together (spray with undiluted vinegar and then 3% hydrogen peroxide) creates a one-two punch that is as effective as bleach at killing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, but is safe enough to use on produce without so much as an aftertaste.

As for wood furniture, the best way to dust is with nothing more than a damp cloth. Commercial wood polishes can contain harsh chemicals and leave a very hard-to-remove residue. For an all natural polish mix two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice and apply it to your wood furniture using a soft cloth.

Use these all-natural cleaning solutions with rags you make out of old towels and t-shirts (saving money on paper towels and reducing waste) and you’re ready to clean green!


Want more green cleaning tips? Check out Cleaning Green Supplement: Lemon and Baking Soda.