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Monday, November 26, 2007

On Shopping More Safely and Trying to be Green

Coopamerica.org's Real Money newsletter includes an article titled "Beyond Lead: Toxins in Toys" that could be useful to consumers concerned about the toxicity of items they purchase and have lying around the house, where kids and other vulnerable people might be exposed to them.

The article touches on lead and the safety of toys in general. I'd recommend getting the newsletter by joining Coop America. The article isn't available online now but might be in the future archives of the Real Money newsletter. Only some of the newsletter's content is viewable online.

Shopping discounts are available through Coop America's Green Pages and online shopping directory. I don't often promote products here on my blog, but I do think Coop America's content is pertinent to like-minded individuals: people concerned about the environment and wanting to make a difference in how the spend their money.

I did want to quote one portion of the article mentioning flexible plastic:
"Studies have identified pthalates as a hormone disrupter. Pthalates may also cause liver and kidney lesions, a higher risk of certain cancers, and may exacerbate asthma and allergies in children...PVC also creates dangerous chemicals throughout its lifecycle: making PVC release carcinogens such as vinyl chloride and dioxins, and incinerating PVC generates carcinogenic dioxin."

The article goes on to recommend not using toys with a #3 plastics insignia, which indicated the use of polyvinylchlorate (PVC). Plastics with PVC are rarely marked as such. Plastics 1, 2, 4 and 5 appear OK. It recommends FSC-certified (sustainably harvested) wood. #7 plastics (polycarbonate) are a harder plastic, like that made in cups and reusable water containers and the Natural Resource Defense Council cautions parents against them.

I use the #7 5-gallon water jugs in order to cut down on how many disposable plastic water containers I use (safe or not, "single-use" water bottles require lots of water, petroleum, and energy to make.) According to my water company's website, my water jugs are recycled 40-50 times. Unfortunately #7 bottles can leach bisphenol-A, a known carcinogen.

For children, I'd recommend getting water filtration and using your tap water if it's received a clean bill of health. According to an older Real Money newsletter, testing standards on municipal tap water--regulated by the EPA--may in fact be far higher than those on bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA, I think, which has a lower standard. See the EPA drinking quality reports for some municipalities here

You could use #1 and #2 water gallon water jugs as a compromise if you have children. Children should drink from qualified metal containers. These are brushed stainless steel and some varieties have passed rigorous tests for leaching into waters (some metals can combine with water.) I bought a couple for $15/each or so from greenfeet last Christmas and they're great for hiking trips. I fill them up from filtered (Britta) tap water or from the 5-gallon jug. The water in them never gets stale, and tastes as fresh as when it is poured. Try that with a plastic water bottle after a couple hours of hiking! The weight is marginal relative to the water, so when it's empty, it's not much heavier than plastic.

Dangers of Striving for Perfection

Rather than run hysterically from any known evils, it's better to try and avoid those while adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors which include staying informed. Chances are you are using or coming into contact with products that you think aren't bad for you. Over time, these silent killers are likely to be the largest source of environmental exposure to toxicity. Shampoos and other personal care products are notorious.

The chances of contracting cancer can't be traced to singular events as much as they can be attributed to recurring behaviors and exposure over extended periods of time. For this reason, I wouldn't be terrified of infrequent exposure to a potential cancer-causing substance. Chances are these toxins are omnipresent. A better approach is to screen the toxicity of products you think are safe through web resources like the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org.) Ewg has a section on cosmetics, called Skin Deep, that all users of these products should examine in depth. I'd also recommend exercise and cleansing of body (and spirit) to periodically purge oneself of the toxins that our bodies are sure to accumulate over time.

My personal preference is to rely on chemical-free alternatives as much as I can. Hemp-based shampoos are a personal favorite, alongside Merry Hempster Vegan Lotion. I like Hemp Essentials for their healing salves, body washes and especially their soaps. It's not so much what these products have that I'm attracted to, it's what they don't, although hemp is a wonderful all-around ingredient.

With food, things like salt and saturated fat we know are bad for us; it's the food additives like MSG, aspartame, and high fructose corn syrup that can do the most damage on unsuspecting users simply because there is so little coverage of how they affect your health. Used by food companies, these ingredients may have healthier alternatives that are being ignored. In the case of HFCS, sugar cane sugar may be better for you. I heard that HFCS can confuse the stomach into thinking you aren't full. Hungrier people eat more, get fat, and consume more soda, this is a fact well-known to the soda companies, many of which also offer snack lines.

Following the products you purchase to their source can reveal a lot of sustainability issues. Organic ingredients may be better, but not if they are causing huge tracts of tropical rainforest--which is the world's most efficient carbon-trap--to be converted to sugar cane production, an issue which is behind rising demand for palm oil.

According to a Center for Science in the Public Interest report (.pdf):

"Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Since the 1970s, the areaplanted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to almost 12,000 square miles..."

Any agricultural product dependent on "newly cleared rainforest" should be a red flag as rainforests have tremendous species diversity and are disappearing at alarming rates. Peat-swamp forest contain huge amounts of methane and carbon. If burnt, the gases they trap are released.

Palm oil is also a good example of trying to do good while doing harm. Palm oil has been popularized through the outcry against transfats, an unhealthy by-product of frying using certain kinds of oils. Government stepped in to outlaw transfats. Palm oil has become a popular replacement because it contains no transfats. Yet it is high in saturated fats, which contribute to the obesity epidemic.

Governments can incent companies to do the right thing, but trying to disincent by punishing and making certain behaviors illegal is often counterproductive. Look at the war on drugs for an extreme example of what happens when government denies people things that give them pleasure. Passing a law outlawing certain substances with psychotropic, or unhealthy properties, is a short-run fix that fails to address the real underlying issues of why people want these things. Nothing is easier to demonize the food, additive, or drug if these things are the cause of a societal malady. We can blame the drug and exonerate the indidivual's choice to use it. Yet in the process of fixing a problem we neglect the cure--which in the case of eating is changing what we eat.

Does restricting transfats make American thinner? Such a causal link would be hard to prove. Absent any change in underlying behavior, the obese are likely to overeat as they have. Politicians might clasp hand in victory over some evil, but the problems of obesity, and drug abuse, remain. On the surface, the passage of laws might indicate progress, but unless individual behaviors change, laws meant to impact behavior are superficial. Demand simply goes underground, or in the case of food, people can just eat something else. Sooner or later, eating too much of virtually anything will have the same effect as eating something bad for us.

As we see with the impact of our energy use on Global Warming, it all begins and end with us. If we as individuals choose to do what's right, we as a society will see the benefit. If we don't think of the consequences of our decisions, we could well be morbidly obese and drug-addicted.

No governmental body can legislate proper behavior. Drugs and high fat foods can be driven underground, but substitutes can always be found if the user wants them badly enough. There's never been a case of people being forever denied what they want, if they want it bad enough. So demand reduction is the real solution to these problems--people have to be made not to want what isn't good for them.

Changing Corporate Behavior

Now greenwashing is a common accusation these days, levelled at companies which claim to be doing business in an environmentally friendly way who aren't. Without getting into any specific accusations, a large grocer chain could be accused of greenwashing if it claimed to be conscious of its environmental impact yet carrying products that come from vast distances away. These items are themselves controversial because of the energy costs of transportation.

Pointing fingers is extremely tempting, especially if the products a company offers were universally expensive, as organic produce might now be. Paying $4/lb. for vegetables is simply beyond the ability of most Americans, yet this price is typical for organic produce nowadays.

The social responsibility element goes hand-in-hand with the commitment to safeguard the environment. Sustainable practices are expected throughout the entire supply chain from the producer to final reseller.

Now no one can be perfect, mind you. I've been active within the environmental movement and know the expectations of lowest greenhouse gas emissions coupled with alternative fuels can be impossible, so some environmental cost is to be expected. The whole point is to encourage change, and meeting environmental benchmarks is far preferable to premature overcommittal to perfection. Yet the idea is that if some change can come, why not more, and is a limiting factor on the acceptance of environmentally friendly choices, which at this point depend on voluntary participation.

The profit-motive and demand for increasing quarterly earnings often put pressure on companies to avoid taking steps to make themselves more sustainable. Mining and energy companies are good examples. Yet when companies take steps and improve, they can be rewarded long-term. This is especially true if carbon taxes and other fees are allocated to the producers of fossil fuels.

But taxing the companies that make the most greenhouses gases diminishes the importance of personal responsibility in making changes. Ultimately the success of the "greening" movement will be measured in the changes in individual behavior, lowering for instance the amount of energy we use. These types of changes require some sacrifices--like getting colder at night, or carpooling--but can reap huge benefits to society if we all share in them collectively.

Monetary punishments--through taxes or higher prices--might slow demand, but we Americans need to admit our dependence on cheap energy. In order to reduce demand, we need collective participation. Traditionally government is responsible for overcoming crises, but in the case of Global Climate Change, governments are proving themselves to be far too slow to act.

Even the Kyoto agreements--unratified by the US and Australia, among others--can't substitute for affecting societal change at the local level through individual action. If a rigid emissions schedule can't be addressed now, it's unreasonable to expect government to bail the world out before the problem is too big to solve.

The effects of greenhouse gases on the climate are substantially delayed. This is why scientists have been proclaiming the End is Neigh; not because climate change has started but because the build-up may lag the environmental impact. If for instance we cut carbon emissions by 100%, it may well be that the effects of Global Climate Change could well magnify for several decades before levels stabilize and begin to fall. The problem is worsened by the nasty likelihood that the effects of Climate Change will worsen as ice caps shrink and melt, which will have the added effect of reducing the amount of the sun's energy that's reflected during winter. Instead the sunlight meets the ocean blue and warms it, melting more ice in the process.

The world has been through dramatic climate shifts. I just watched a program on the Sahara that blamed the desertification of that massive region on a slight shift in the Earth's axis. During one portion of the 1300's, Europe endured a mini Ice Age. Before that, Greenland was warm enough to farm.

Critics of Global Warming ascribe many of our recent climatic changes to regular fluctuations in our climate. They'd be right if the changes weren't happening as a consequence of man-made activity. We can actually see the planet warm up through graphics like those seen on An Inconvenient Truth gathered from infrared satellite technologies and the like. There seems to be no denying the planet is getting warmer.

We clearly don't know how Global Climate Change will manifest itself in the future. We also can't scientifically prove that the CO2 or greenhouse gases are the only cause, or that the climate change could be prevented by controlling emissions. Yet at the same time, the best possible scientific data we can use would indicate that global warming is happening due to man-made sources of pollution.

Mankind's contribution to the problem is really an exclusive variable in the broader issue of climate change, no previous climatic changes could be attributable to that. Based on all available information, we at this point must assume it is our industrialized society that had produced the CO2 and greenhouse gases that have caused-- and will continue to cause--the warming. The warming will in turn lead to greater climate destabilization--stronger storms, more extreme floods and droughts, etc..

Now if industrialization is to blame, the sources of greenhouse gases need to be addressed. It is in short the combustion engine that is the most to blame. Put in fossil fuels, combust, and energy, water, and exhaust comes out. Included in the explosion is the conversion of oxygen (in the atmosphere) with the carbon (in the fuel) to produce C+O or CO, carbon monoxide, along with CO2 (carbon dioxide).

Change possible when the Cost of Going On is too high

I've heard it said that people will only change when the cost of change is less than the cost of going on or--alternately--that people will change only when the price of continuing to do as they have exceeds the cost (fiscal, emotional, etc.) of changing.

To effect change, we need to look at our use of energy in a whole new way. Countless new book and stories have been written on this topic, ranging from books on sustainable living to discussions of Peak Oil. One documentary, An End to Suburbia, sticks out as a good example of the self-reexamination of our lifestlye that will be required to commit to lower emissions. It may be that all of our previous assumptions about lifestyle, culture, and even our attitudes towards consumerism and consumption will have to be reconstituted.

Changes in attitude can easily take multiple generations; old thinking can die slowly, or in Global Warming's case, too late to avert dramatic changes and costly consequences.

If our society cannot by voluntary participation change our propensity to consume, the planet will itself be consumed. Already resource depletion is coming at unsustainable levels. For Americans, I think we consume 2 whole acres of the Earth's resources per person per year. And places like China may see the American model as the ideal. Already China belches huge quantities of toxic fumes from new coal plants. The country, also not a signatory of Kyoto, has charted an unsustainable course of economic development built on coal, a carbon-based fuel notorious for its mercury emissions, alongside particulant matter (soot), CO2, and other greenhouse gases.

As I've discussed in some recent posts, the mountaintop removal procedure greenlighted under Bush shows how destructive coal is at the mining stage, then coal becomes the number one source of greenhouse gases in America as it's burned.

Could technologies lead to cleaner-burning coal? Perhaps. Right now coal is subsidized, as is nuclear power. According to Sierra Club's newsletter for Indiana, a coal plant proposed for Southern Indiana is not being built because of demand--the area around the proposed planty already as plenty of energy--but rather because subsidies guarantee a profit for the power company. Higher emissions controls are expected to kick in around 2012 or so, so there's also a sense of urgency to build now, to get in before pollution caps are established.

With global warming, energy derived from coal may be a cheaper form of energy. People therefore want it. And as I said in my post on coal and mountaintop removal, people appear willing to accept the consequences of coal as long as they are in some else's back yard.

The equation changes when the waves of rising seas, or the howling winds of intensified storms come lapping at people's doors. Then the consequences of unrestrained emissions and energy waste come to full fruit. Then the effects of using so much fossil fuels will be very much in evidence. Like the addict or the chronically obese, avoiding accountability for our actions will no longer be an option. We will have to try to mitigate damage, like an alcoholic who hits bottom and needs to begin rebuilding their life from scratch, after hitting bottom.

Can we change individual actions in time to prevent tragedy? Perhaps. But governmental precepts are hardly the way to go. Taxation may increase the cost of fossil fuels to the point people begin to reduce demand. But for so many Americans, using energy excessively is part of their way of life. Changing their impression that energy is cheap, and the consequences of producing it someone else's problem, will be nearly impossible.

It could take generations to change attitudes in this country. This isn't to say change is impossible; it will invariably need plenty of encouragement. Environmental changes have begun to occur quite rapidly as a result of global warming, which may be a good thing. If people accept the scope and severity of the problem, they may see the need for change. But even if they know they must change, people will be limited by issues like car dependency and suburban living. So carbon taxes may only punish people who have no alternative transportation, or who happen to live in large, older homes.

The first step is undoubtedly to begin a education effort and only government appears capable, although at present, the Big Energy orientation of our government makes it unwilling to restrain energy consumption. Mega-engineering projects like chemtrails or solar mirrors are popular ideas because they allow us to circumvent the personal responsibility element which contributes to ignorance on energy conservation and de-links cause and effect. Plus, companies that have the most to lose from carbon fuel taxes want to believe there's a cheaper solution, or costs that others can bear.

There may be in fact a way of reducing solar energy by floating thousands of small mirrored cubes in space between us and the sun. Research goes on. Yet in the end, if we fail we will fail future generations of Americans, who will be handicapped by their addiction to a dwindling supply of fossil fuels in a world reshaped by GCC. We may not suffer as much as other places on the planet, but right now we use more fossil fuels per capita than anyone else. Asking the US to lead the world may be too much considering recent events. Still we should try and change how we use energy, seek efficiency, and more than anything, accountability for individual decisions concerning energy use.

If we can't wean ourselves off using too much energy, we need to find a sustainable source of energy. I've read that a 100 by 100 mile area in Nevada covered in solar panels could provide all the US' energy needs, as could North and South Dakota if they were covered with wind farms (this assumes the power produced could be distributed effectively). Sustainable energy production is not on the horizon, it is here already. And I neglected to mention the huge wind turbines I saw in the mountains of West Virginia. Wind energy could well subsititute for coal power, but only if the popular will is there to pay for it. The government subsidies in the billions going to petroleum and nuclear energy producers would need to be extended to solar and wind power or terminated outright so that those dirtier producers would have to compete directly in the free market on equal terms. Subsidies and tax breaks are available for purchasers of solar and wind technology, but they've been notoriously unpredictable year-to-year as they're subject to Congressional whim.

Government can do much to encourage alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power. The latter option can lead to massive contamination. The half-life of radioactive isotopes is tens of thousands of years--look at the lifespan of depleted uranium used during the Gulf wars. Nuclear waste is almost impossible to deal with. Solar and wind produce no waste except in manufacture of their components. So why go nuclear?

Through non-point pollution, coal is increasing the amount of mercury in our waterways by about 5% a year. These waters will eventually seep into the groundwater. Burning coal is therefore unsustainable unless we want our children to suffer from the effects of mercury toxicity, not to mention leaving the legacy of a denuded and raped landscape in coal country where mountaintop removal has turned it into some kind of Mordor. (Tolkien actually modelled Mordor on the heavily polluted areas of England.)

I, for one, support a move to sustainable energies as soon as possible. I want to produce energy from renewable sources. In turn, I want to purchase products made with sustainable energy. Am I there yet? No, but I'm confident that if enough people come along and commit to a similar course, that companies will supply sustainable energies. Will we still be inefficient with our energy use? Probably, but at least we won't be forced to do business with despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, who sent 15 of the 19 hijackers to our shores. Nor will we have to support the removal of entire mountains, or launch invasions, to sustain our energy gluttony. We can and will use less; we will be forced to by our government and if not by them, then by the inevitable decline of oil reserves, or at least the availability easily extracted (and cheaply extracted) known supplies. I far prefer assuming personal responsibility than waiting around for Peak Oil; but if Peak Oil should hit, I will truly be better positioned to avoid the higher energy costs if I've transitioned to alternative, clean sources.

A little nudge towards energy independence will do more to change behaviors than forcing people to change. Education is vital; Americans need to know that if they don't take action, much higher energy costs and taxes will be imposed on them later that will force them to reduce their demand for energy. Above all, we need our survival instinct to kick in as a nation. We need to pull together in order to meet this challenge, not wait cowering for it to come as it one day will.



  • At 1:54 AM, Blogger jbpeebles said…

    I just posted a comment on commondreams, under a timely article about Global Climate Change.

    Here's my post:

    This is becoming the number one issue of our time. I think the effects of Global Climate Change are only beginning. Perhaps the sooner issues come, the sooner we can all realize the scope of the problem. Change is vital, but so is universal participation. All change begins with the individual, yet we see the origins of GCC in our consumption-oriented lifestyles here in wealthy nations, while poorer nations pay the price. This is a clear injustice.

    Solutions will require education. People need to know what they're doing is wrong. Most importantly, we need to make change part of who we are, collectively, as Americans. The best approach is to tell other people about what is at stake. Simultaneously, we need all governments of the world to take control of the situation. Waiting for more and more negative momentum to build will be 1) more costly 2) less effective and 3) contribute to bigger negative consequences.

    Governments need to act because no matter how much we do as individuals, we cannot directly control the sources of Carbon Dioxide. One coal plant down the street could produce more CO2 in a day then 1000 people could save by biking and using less energy (don't stop doing those things though!). We want our energy cheap, too, so governments need to make the transition to alternative fuels NOW. Transitions like gradual taxation must begin so that the pain of a radical instantaneous shift to sustainable energies doesn't destroy the economy, which we need to consider and redefine if need be. Mega-engineering programs like floating mirrored cubes in space between us and the sun need to investigated, but we must not rely on a quick fix.

    Panic is the enemy; creating a sense of urgency is preferable. Rather than win over CO2 offenders, we need to win them over. Rather than make enemies, we need to stress the need to take action together. Voluntary participation will do so much more than forced compliance, which will come too late. At some point governments will be forced to act; can we wait until then? Entities that make profits based on high CO2 emissions will have to be denied political power and protection.


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