May 29, 2012

Green Gift Giving

Wondering what to get dad for Father's Day? Not sure what a freshly minted graduate might want or need? Running out of thoughtful birthday gifts? Why not think green next time you need a gift. Even if your gift recipient isn't very eco-conscious, you can still give a gift that they'll find useful and that you can feel good about.

Consider some of the following for your next give-giving opportunity:

Experiences. Sometimes the best gift you can give is your time. You could plan a scenic hike that includes a gourmet picnic, take someone to a concert or show, or offer to teach something you're an expert at (cooking, knitting, computers, etc.).

Provide a service. Green clean their home. Babysit for the day or for a night out. Cook them an organic dinner.

Classes. Give your foodie friend the gift of a cooking class or the fitness fanatic in your life a session of their favorite yoga class. If your loved one is really into a sport like tennis or golf, buy them a one-on-one consult with a pro to help them improve their game.

Charitable donation in the person's name.

CSA Farm Share. Give the gift of local, seasonal food that comes straight from the farm. A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a membership to a farm that includes a parcel of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. Find a CSA near you at localharvest.org/csa/.

National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80 this pass provides up to four adults access to federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee for a year. Learn more at nps.gov/fees_passes.htm.

State Parks Pass. Many states offer some sort of pass that grants access to most or all state parks. Click here for a list of all fifty states with a link to their official state park website and information on their state park entrance pass program.

Plants. Give an air-cleaning plant. Some of the most effective are philodendron, English ivy, spider plants, dracaena, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, and peace lily. Give one of these or some herbs in a decorative pot.

Clothing and accessories made of organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp.

Sheets or towels made of organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp.

Cast iron skillet. This durable and versatile cooking tool can be a great replacement for questionable non-stick cookware.

Food containers made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, Pyrex, bamboo, or stainless steel to replace plastic containers which may be unsafe.

Home Water Filter. Filtered tap water is purer than bottled water, not to mention less expensive and better for the environment.

Fair Trade, Organic, Shade-Grown Coffee. Eco-friendly coffee, a reusable coffee filter, and/or reusable coffee mugs make a great gift basket for the coffee lover in your life.

Organic, fair-trade chocolate.

Biodynamic wine.

Organic beauty products made without synthetic fragrances, dyes, parabens, or pthalates.

Jewelry, accessories, artwork or housewares made from recycled materials and/or made by local artisans.

Children’s books with an eco-conscious message.

Eco-friendly toys.


Once you've selected your green gift, opt for wrapping paper made of recycled paper. Even better, wrap gifts in materials you already have on hand like fabric or the newspaper comics.




May 24, 2012

How to Save on Gas

Gas prices continue to hover around the $4 mark and with Memorial Day, the official start of summer, approaching they're only going to get worse. So, here are some tips on how you can save money and cut down on greenhouse emissions by using less gas.

Let's start with the most obvious . . . drive less. Walk, bike, use public transit, and carpool when possible. Check with your local public transportation authorities; they often have carpooling information as well as their regular services. If you own more than one car, choose the one that gets the best gas mileage whenever possible. Make the most of each car trip by combining as many errands as you can.

How you maintain your car can have a significant impact on gas mileage. Make sure to get regular tune-ups. Stick with the recommended maintenance schedule found in your owner's manual. Keep tires properly inflated (again, check your owner's manual) and aligned. You can even improve your car's gas mileage by using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil. Selecting oil labeled "energy conserving" can also help.

When it's time to gas up make sure to fill the tank so you don't waste time, money, and fuel driving back to the service station for another small purchase. Never top off the gas tank though. Once the nozzle clicks off the first time the gas you're paying for is not going into your tank. Waiting until you have just a quarter tank (but no lower) can improve your gas mileage because you are carrying a lighter fuel load.

The way you drive is also important. For optimal gas mileage drive at a constant speed and avoid quick accelerations and hard braking. When there is little traffic use cruise control. You can also improve your gas mileage by 15% if you drive at 55 mph instead of 65 mph. When it comes to manual transmissions the lower the shift speed the better the gas mileage so remember to shift up early and shift down late.

Avoid idling. Turn off the engine whenever you will not be moving for a minute or more. If you're stuck in traffic or in another scenario where you can't turn off the engine, shift into neutral instead.

Keep your car light to boost fuel efficiency. Take out any unneeded items from the trunk and reduce drag by carrying items inside the car rather than on a roof rack.

On hot days seek out parking spots in the shade to reduce gas evaporation as well as your need for air conditioning. Investing in a good windshield shade will help keep your car cool which also reduces your need for AC. If you have a garage, make sure to use it to park your car. Parking in your garage helps your car stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, reducing your need for heat, defrost, and AC. When you do use the heat or air conditioning remember to turn it off 5 minutes before you reach your destination.

If you're in the market for a new car, get only the options you really need. Optional features, such as four-wheel drive, can significantly decrease your gas mileage. Manual transmissions have better fuel economy than automatic transmissions. Get only the size of car you truly need since the bigger the engine the lower the fuel efficiency. Decide on your required model size and compare the gas mileage of cars in that category at fueleconomy.gov – the official U.S. government source for fuel economy information. Consumer Reports released its list of the most fuel-efficient cars tested just this past February. If you're considering a hybrid, compare the stats and features of available hybrids at Hybridcenter.org.



May 16, 2012

Health Risks Associated with Nonstick Cookware

Nonstick cookware is great for easy-clean cooking and baking that requires little or no cooking oil. But that convenient nonstick coating is usually created using a chemical associated with multiple health concerns. On the flip side, would these products be on the market if they posed serious health risks? The debate leaves many people wondering, “How safe is nonstick cookware?”

The health concerns associated with nonstick cookware have to do with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that is used to bond the nonstick coating to cookware. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans." Studies by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) show that high exposure to PFOA “can have a harmful impact on health and can damage the liver, cause developmental and possibly reproductive problems.” Not good news considering PFOA is present in the bloodstream of 9 out of 10 Americans and in the blood of most newborns.

Before going any further, it's important to note that nonstick cookware is not the sole exposure source of PFOA. Furniture, cosmetics, household cleaners, clothing, and packaged food containers can all contain Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs), many of which break down into PFOA in the environment or in the human body. Some of the most popular PFC brand names are Teflon, Stainmaster, and Scotchgard. Check out the Environmental Working Group's Guide to PFCs to learn more about the health concerns associated with PFCs and how to avoid them.

Ask for nonstick cookware and PFOA, there are measures you can take to avoid or at least reduce the amount of PFOA being released. First, only use nonstick cookware with medium heat (350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. Add water or oil to cookware to absorb heat before turning on a burner or the oven. Wash nonstick cookware by hand using nonabrasive cleaners and sponges and avoid using metal utensils or stacking pots and pans to avoid scratching. If any of your nonstick cookware does become scratched, toss it or (for a slightly more eco-friendly option) bring it to a scrap metal yard.

You can also rotate out any nonstick cookware with pieces made from other materials. Health Canada has a great overview of the benefits and risks of various cookware materials. I think it's best to have an assortment. Personally, I use stainless steel pots, a cast iron skillet (this is my go-to cookware piece), ceramic and Pyrex baking dishes, and silicone bakeware.

Just be wary of the “green nonstick” products currently on the market. In 2006, the EPA and eight major U.S. companies, including Teflon-maker DuPont, launched the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, where the companies committed to reducing their use of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating it completely by 2015. To meet these deadlines the companies rushed to market replacement chemicals they claim are safer. These new chemicals, known as C6 chemistries, are a lot like PFOA (also known as C8) in that they persist in the environment, are extremely toxic to aquatic life, and can cross the placenta to contaminate babies before birth. Unlike PFOA, there is practically no information on their health risks. I'd steer clear until more information becomes available.



May 11, 2012

2nd Annual National Kids to Parks Day on Saturday, May 19th

The 2nd Annual National Kids to Parks Day is coming up on Saturday, May 19th. The National Park Trust created the day to encourage children and their families to discover and enjoy parks in their community. Their goal is to “inspire healthy outdoor recreation and to cultivate future park stewards.” National Kids to Parks Day is also officially in support of the First Lady's Let's Move Outside! initiative.

Visit the Kids to Parks Day's web site to make the Kids to Parks Day pledge, find parks and related events near you, and/or download a resource toolkit so you can plan an event of your own.

Go outside, breathe some fresh air, get some exercise, and show your kids why preserving our parks is so important!


May 8, 2012

Understanding Chicken Labels

For many, chicken is a popular dinnertime staple. It can be prepared over a dozen ways and is a great source of protein, vitamin B6, phosphorus, niacin and selenium. But making your poultry selection among the sea of labels at the grocery store can be confusing. There's all-natural, organic, pastured, and free-range, just to name a few. If you need some clarification or just want to confirm your suspicion that some of those labels are totally bogus, check out Everyday Green’s Guide to Understanding Chicken Labels:

100% Vegetarian Diet. This label means the chickens were raised on feed (most likely grains) free of animal by-products. Chickens are actually natural omnivores who, if left to their own devices, would forage through grass for insects.

Air-chilled. Most chicken is water-processed which means it's chilled in cold pools of chlorinated water. The chlorine is necessary to kill bacteria. Air chilling avoids the chlorine, but takes more time and expense resulting in higher prices at the market. Air-chilled proponents say air-chilled chicken tastes better and has skin that cooks up crispier.

All-Natural. This label is used often on a variety of different foods and it's basically meaningless. There are no set standards for calling something natural, so pretty much anyone can add this label to their product. With chicken it's taken to mean nothing, such as flavoring or coloring, has been added to the bird after slaughter. Naturally enhanced or naturally flavored are two other ambiguous labels. They could mean anything from the chicken was pumped up with a broth made from its own bones to sugar was added.

Free range. Free range means the hens were un-caged with at least some access to the outdoors. In theory, free range chickens should be more nutritious because the chickens are outside absorbing Vitamin D from the sun and (as natural omnivores) eating insects for protein. In reality, the USDA allows this label to be placed on any poultry product that has had at least 5 minutes of open air access a day. That open air may very well be in a barn or warehouse and whether or not the chicken took advantage of the access is of no consequence.

Kosher. This term refers to Jewish religious criteria, which is primarily focused on the slaughter of the birds. Kosher chickens are raised more humanely than conventionally-raised chickens and their slaughter must be done by hand. One of the principles of kosher meat production is being very careful that the animal is not sick, so chickens are carefully inspected for any signs of disease. Kosher birds are typically washed with salt, creating a kind of pre-seasoned taste that many people prefer. This label is certified by religious authorities, not the USDA.

No hormones. Another superfluous label. All chicken is hormone-free because the USDA banned the use of hormones in poultry production back in the 1960s.

Organic. For a chicken to be certified Organic by the USDA it must meet the following criteria: its feed must be 100% organic with no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, animal by-products, or genetically modified organisms; it cannot have been administered any antibiotics (thus, organic chickens are not crammed together as they are in conventional production because then it would be impossible to prevent disease without drugs); and it must be free-range (i.e., have at least 5 minutes of outdoor access a day).

Pastured or Pasture-Raised. This label means that the chickens are kept in coops at night, but are left to forage on grass, seeds, and insects during the day. Their diet may be supplemented with grains. Pasture-raised chickens are raised more humanely and their meat is more flavorful and nutritious (with higher levels of vitamin E and omega-3s) than conventionally-raised chickens. The Pastured label is not verified by the USDA or any other third-party.

Raised without antibiotics. Antibiotics are allowed in conventional chicken production, but the administration of antibiotics is supposed to happen early enough in the bird's life that there is not supposed to be any antibiotic residue in the final product. The term “raised without antibiotics” is supposed to mean the chicken did not receive any antibiotics at any point in its lifetime, but this label is not certified by the USDA.

So, what to choose for dinner tonight? Organic and pastured are probably your best options, but they may not be available at the local grocery store and, if they are, you're likely to pay a premium. If available, a whole chicken is generally more economical and stays fresher longer. Otherwise, local farms, co-ops, and CSAs are all great places to look for reasonably priced pastured or organic chicken. Find resources near you at LocalHarvest.org.

Finally, if you have the time, space, and inclination, you can always raise your own chickens (think of the eggs, too). You may be surprised at how big the whole backyard chicken movement has gotten. Find out more at backyardchickens.com.