Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Food for thought..and for microbes

We have to thank our friends the microbes. Those little guys break down our food scraps into compost to enrich soil, and now they are cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico!

OK, they are partially cleaning it up. Today’s headlines (NYT for one) detailing the publication later this week of an article in Science about BP-oil-eating microbes are fascinating for a few reasons. One is that nobody knows for sure how much of the oil was broken down by these bacteria. Scientists know they have consumed a portion of the underwater plume, but there are still chemical byproducts as well as the surfaced oil to worry about. Also the underwater plume may have been thinned out in one location but could show up later in another. So the bugs haven’t totally saved the Gulf, as much as BP would hope that it was so.

But let’s give the bugs credit for what they’ve done so far - recycled waste into food. The rich new food source these as-yet-unnamed bacteria suddenly found on the ocean floor led to an explosion in microbial activity (the underwater plume on the ocean floor was the site of the leak, rather than oil spills like Valdez where the oil source comes into the ocean from the top – hence different microbes living at that sea level found themselves with a new food source and multiplied like crazy). Apparently, over millions of years, these deep-sea microbes have evolved to eat the occasional oil leak from the earth. Thanks to them, the haze of the underwater oil plume is gone, and there is now just a haze of cellular debris leftover from the microbial fellows after their short lives. Perhaps even this becomes food (plankton?) for other ocean life. BP should really give these guys a big thank you for the massive clean up.

Plastic debris on reef. credit: David Burdick NOAA.
Now, the other haze of debris in the ocean - the Pacific Ocean to be exact - is that floating plastic landscape the size of Texas, lovingly referred to as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Unfortunately for the oceans (and ultimately for us) no microbe has yet developed to eat plastic bottle tops, nurdles, or netting. But, as Alan Weisman notes in his book The World Without Us, perhaps in a hundred thousand or maybe a million years (like their oil-digesting cousins), some microbes will adapt and do our clean-up for us. They can dine on all of our to-go cutlery, food packaging, toys, buttons, medical tubing, credit cards, drinking straws, film, nylon carpets, polyester clothing, ID badges, acrylic paints, foam cushions, vinyl siding, water bottles, dashboards, computer casings, et alia that we’re all using at this exact moment. It will be a feast for them!

But seriously, we can’t count on evolution to watch our backs on this one. Since we don’t know if plastic-digesting bugs will ever come into being, perhaps we should take the precautionary approach (see Carol’s previous post) and limit our plastic use as much as possible. Obviously the keyboard and mouse I’m using at this moment are both coated in plastic – yes, it’s not going to be easy to rid ourselves – but we have to start somewhere. Stainless steel Tupperware, anyone? Can I get you some bioplastics?

P.S. You can read for free Weisman’s disturbing chapter “Polymers are Forever” by clicking on Chapter 9 here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Late Sunsets After Early Dawns

Deidre's post got me thinking about why historically, in the US, it takes so long to see long vilified chemicals dip below the horizon. Even after early-dawning evidence of risk, many chemicals remain in play for long afternoons of far-reaching genetic, carcinogenic, or hormonal effects.

While by no means complete, consider the following long roads taken from concern, to hazard, to action:

Asbestos was first called into question in 1898, when the Chief Inspector of Factories in the UK reported to Parliament that the "sharp, glass like nature of (asbestos dust) particles" when mixed with air "have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected." The first cases of asbestos deaths in factories in Britain were confirmed in 1906. While claims were filed in the US starting in 1918, and many shipbuilders suffered from asbestos exposure during WWII, asbestos was pulled off the US market in the mid-1980s.

Mercury enjoyed an exceedingly long day in the sun as a cure-all in medicine (starting in the 16th century), to felt production from fur (in the mid-18th century), to the main ingredient in dental fillings in the early 19th century. While mercury was identified as a neurological poison 200 years ago, its various suns are setting slowly. Banned from the US felting industry in 1941, it is only now being eliminated from hospitals by organizations like Health Care Without Harm and in state-by-state legislation.

The slowest setter of them of all may be lead, with its toxicity recognized for thousands of years, as indicated by ancient Greek and Roman accounts of lead as a brain and blood toxin. But remediating houses (and not necessarily historic ones) for lead paint is a current activity, as is discovering that inflatable vinyl "bounce houses" (see "The Cost of Greening" post) are delivering lead to the young population most susceptible to its hazardous effects.

I'm going to venture a guess. Perhaps our response time to toxins may be somehow proportionate to the course of the human disease or environmental disaster, which may take years or generations to manifest. "Not enough evidence" is often what is cited when there is no immediate danger, even though we're smart enough to extrapolate the evidence that is there.

None of us take the long view easily perhaps, but somehow we have to get better at it. That, or simply embrace what's called the Precautionary Principle: not waiting for scientific certainty before taking action against serious threats to human or environmental health.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Alphabet Soup

In case you were wondering what all that *stuff* stands for, go to our acronymns page. This list is by no means just keeps growing. Here's the first ten for starters.

C2C- Cradle to Cradle
CHPS- Collaborative for High Performance Schools
CREL- Chronic Reference Exposure Limit
DfE- Design for Environment
EIS- Environmental Impact Statement
EPA- Environmental Protection Agency
EPD- Environmental Product Declaration
EPEA- Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency
EPR- Extended Producer Responsibility
EWG- Environmental Working Group...........

Monday, August 16, 2010

Chemical sunsetting: the dawn of "less"?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of chemical sunsetting (ie, the phasing out of certain harmful substances – see the POPs list for example). When getting rid of one substance, do you automatically replace it with something else? And if so, do you conduct an alternatives assessment to make sure the replacement is not equally bad? OR, as an alternative to that scenario, can something be “sunset” and not replaced? Can we live with less?

As new toxins are “discovered” in the midst of our daily lives (discovered here means covered by the media*), will consumers demand more “sunsets” of toxic substances? When one plastic item (say, toy jewelry) is found to contain lead, and then the supplier responds by switching to another heavy metal like cadmium, will the consumer at some point decide they don’t need plastic jewelry for their children?

2011 is the UN-designated “International Year of Chemistry.” I salute the green chemists out there and hope that 2011 will be a great year for advancing greener products, discovering alternatives to toxic substances, and finding uses of more natural (non-synthetic) materials. I also hope it will be a great year for realizing that we can all probably use less stuff.

*In the absence of regulation for transparent labeling for many types of products, it often takes the media to uncover or “out” the substances. Toys do not come with a nutrition label, nor do many of the other items we come into contact with every day.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The cost of greening

From the heights of greenwashing, to the costs of compromising. Or at least that's what struck me this week, as I read about various calls to green practices all met by the same chorus: this is no time for adding expense, no matter what the health and environmental cost! Hello?

What kind of cost-benefit analysis justifies waking pre-schoolers up from a phthalated nap on their vinyl mats (as uncovered by Deidre) to go for a hour of rollicking in an lead-riddled "bounce house"? While this sounds like a scenario California would have banned years ago, it's one that was just identified at a summer day camp in Berkeley. A lawsuit has been filed against vendors like Cutting Edge Creations, Inc. whose senior vice-president was quoted as saying: "California already has many financial problems. Do they really wish to potentially place thousands of small business-owners that operate children's party centers out of business?" Let's give some credit here to the small business owner, who is unlikely to bank on the appeal of materials that contain lead at 5,000 - 29,000 parts per million when the federal limit is currently 300 and to the informed California consumer, who is now able to do their own cost analysis on allowing their children to play where the long term effects range from behavioral problems to neurological defects.

The chorus also sang out this week in Ohio, where farmers are resisting more humane treatment of egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves. An agreement has been reached banning future use of "extreme caging methods," which The Humane Society notes produces a rise in stress hormones in these animals. But the cost of better treatment, says the United Egg Producers, a national trade organization, is stress on consumers and school lunch programs who won't be able to afford the 25% rise in egg prices. Clearly, someone's stress has to give, but the assumption that inhumane practices don't come with their own long term cost is a convenient one.

Even a successful transition, like the one Portugal has made to renewable energy, cannot be celebrated without a dampening statement about the costs being too steep to make Portugal to a model for the rest of the world. One might think a country that manages to supply 45% of its electricity from wind, solar, and hydro would be cause for national pride, but the Portuguese fossil fuel industry has been a persuasive detractor. In the assessment of the International Energy Agency in Paris, the cost increase is has not been well-received by consumers, perhaps partly because the increase is not well understood. As a country without fossil fuel resources of its own, Portugal has harnessed its wind, sun and waves for enormous value, in terms of independence and economic and environmental sustainability, and yet that may still be cold comfort when monthly utility bill arrives.

Does all this mean we are hopelessly short term thinkers, who may be persuaded, household by household, to buy Seventh Generation products at a premium, but can't get mainstream consumers or industry groups to think beyond end of the quarter? Maybe factoring in tons of carbon saved or health benefits gained by some of our higher cost choices doesn't motivate enough of us. Would we be better off taxing all materials that may cost less at the check-out counter but much more in terms of allergies, biodiversity, birth defects, cancer, climate change? (That's only a - c by the way; I'll reserve the rest of the alphabet for future blogs!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The heights of greenwashing...

[Carol’s previous post smelled good. Sorry to follow it with one that smells so bad…]

Oh, the heights of greenwashing.

Meet the Earth Friendly Antimicrobial Vinyl toddler napmat. This handy mat that your child will sleep on five days per week in daycare or preschool is touted as “Earth Friendly” right on the front of the package. However no other claim or qualification of that statement can be found in the product specs on Amazon, or on the company website (Kindermat of Baton Rouge, LA).

Now meet the Eco Yoga Mat, sold by Gaiam. These yoga mats are, Gaiam claims, “as easy on you as they are on the Earth. [...] As always, Gaiam is committed to protecting and preserving our planet's natural resources.” However, when I emailed the company this spring asking what the contents of these mats were, and specifically if they were made of PVC, I was told, “While they do not contain the 6 banned phthalates they are made of PVC.” Apparently just meeting regulation (by removing phthalates that they are required to remove by section 108 of the CPSIA) is enough to make something “Eco.”

The hazards of PVC have been well documented before, but here is a brief primer. PVC, aka vinyl, releases dioxin throughout its production process. Dioxins are likely or known carcinogens (likely according to OSHA, or known according to this EPA Draft). Besides cancer, there are other health risks from dioxin and the other PVC byproducts, such as: endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects and impaired child development, reproductive and immune system damage. Dioxins are also persistent bioaccumulative toxins (according to the United Nations Environment Programme, Stockholm Convention), meaning that once they get into our bodies, they stay there. (For more info see HBN’s PVC fact sheet).

Child’s sleeping mats and adult yoga mats – both made of PVC – and both claiming to be “good for the earth.” I see new greenwashing every day – just about anywhere my eyes fall – but this is really a new low. And from Gaiam? They should know better - they are supposed to be selling an "eco" lifestyle. Selling it indeed. But I hope they will think about avoiding greenwash and try to be transparent with thier branded products (maybe if enough customers start asking questions!!). And I hope people aren't taking the "eco" and "earth-friendly" claims at face value, but I fear some are. Onward with radical transparency...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sustainability and slow food

Quite some time ago I read a memoir of anthropologist Margaret Mead by her anthropologist daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Tonight while sauteing onions, a radical moment in the book re-visited. Mary Catherine, newly-wed, was confiding in her mother that her complete disregard for cooking was causing turmoil in her marriage. And Margaret, truth-seeking keen observer of parts unknown, suggested that Mary Catherine simply simmer some onions to create the hearth-and-home feel before her husband arrived home. The headline in my brain was: Margaret Mead suggests daughter just fake it!!!

It took me a while (okay, so what's a decade or two amongst friends?) to realize that MM was not suggesting that the onions be pawned off as dinner until the table was set and the jig was up. I think she was saying: Dear, why not defuse the situation with the essence of what is being missed? And perhaps, (this part has absented itself from my memory) create space for a dialogue about managing expectations.

With our green antennae on alert, many of us have great expectations for the green materials and technologies that should be coming out of the kitchen any minute now - and highly sensitive feelers for fakery. But let's let it waft a bit before we pounce. Is it a sincere attempt at a start? Or a false claim of bouillabaisse?

The eco-resort honeymoon is over. Let's talk about what's cooking.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Welcome to Green Antennae, a diablogue hosted by Carol Derby and Deidre Hoguet on issues of environmental product design, green chemistry, greenwash watch, chemicals of concern... and more! We hope this sparks some good conversation.