Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Road to Hell is Paved With Helium Balloons

Helium balloons – so round, so squeaky, so floaty and colorful as they disappear into the blue sky! And yet, so pointless, polluting, and wasteful both inside and out. Once it descends from the sky, the Mylar or latex balloon can end up inside the belly of a sea turtle, whale or dolphin, which often mistake them for jellyfish until the indigestion sets in. The ribbon and strings can end up tangling up sea birds – as the photo shows, even when wrapped up in ribbon and balloon fragment, a dead bird still doesn’t look all that festive. And then there’s the helium inside, which is totally benign – and totally irreplaceable.
As I wrote in Sierra Magazine in November:
At present rates of consumption, the world's supply of helium could be exhausted in three decades. "Once it is released into the atmosphere, it is lost to the earth forever," Nobel physicist Robert C. Richardson explained in a recent lecture. The world may be able to survive without Mylar party favors (which, if Richardson had his way, would cost $100 each), but helium is essential to many less-frivolous products: MRI machines, liquid-fueled rockets, microchips, and fiber-optic cables. Scientists are already complaining that helium shortages are delaying research and driving up cost.

The bulk of the world's dwindling supply, 1 billion cubic meters, currently rests in the underground Federal Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, created in 1925 and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. In 1996 Congress decided to liquidate the reserve by requiring that its contents be sold off by 2015. That decision artificially lowered the price of the gas. This, combined with skyrocketing helium use by China and India, has led to the rapid disappearance of an element that it took 4.5 billion years of radioactive decay to produce. Scientists say there's no cost-effective way to synthesize helium or reclaim it from the atmosphere. Once it's gone, there will be an empty place-setting on the periodic table--an ignoble fate for a noble gas

This one isn’t too complicated. Do you really need helium balloons? If you must use balloons, blow ‘em up with air and then put them in the garbage when you’re done. Otherwise, figure out some other way to decorate for the party.

Friday, September 3, 2010


If you’re an environmentalist worth your salt, you know the apocalypse is around the corner. It could be global warming, colony collapse, oceanic dead zones or genetically-modified frankenfish, but something’s gonna get us before long. Naturally you’ve stockpiled canned foods in your basement, along with a few guns in case someone tries to steal your solar panels. But wait one (organic) cotton-pickin’ minute here. Are you sure those canned foods will really see you through the devastation to come? Or will they be wreaking devastation of their own, this time on your endocrine system?


Turns out most cans have an epoxy liner containing bisphenol-A (BPA), an estrogen-mimicking chemical linked to reproductive harm, alterations in behavior and brain development, increased risk of prostate and breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and an earlier onset of puberty. That would be okay if the BPA stayed in the liner, but in May 2010, the National Work Group for Safe Markets tested 50 cans of food, including fish, fruit, vegetables, soups, and soda, and found BPA in 92 percent of them. The amounts varied from as few as six parts per billion to as many as 1,140 parts per billion, with an average of 77.36 ppb. The EPA’s safe level is 50 parts per billion. A December 2009 Consumer Reports study had similar results.


Some companies are beginning to replace their can linings with other compounds, but so far the pickings are pretty slim. Eden Organics hasn’t used BPA in its canned beans for ten years, and Native Forest has BPA-free canned veggies and coconut milk. Trader Joe’s canned fish and meats are BPA free, as is Vital Choice and several other brands of canned seafood. (You can find a complete – but rather short -- list of BPA-free canned foods here.)

If the food you want isn’t available in BPA-free cans, your best bet is to start preserving your own. That means you’ll need to get yourself some BPA-free canning lids, which can be obtained here or here. Or, if you’re intimidated by home-canning, use your freezer to preserve fresh tomatoes and other veggies.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Children's Books Pillage The Planet

I write the things, so don't blame me for spreading the bad news. If I weren't such a blabbermouth, I'd keep quiet about it. Still, a new report by the Rainforest Action Network called Turning the Page on Rainforest Destruction: Children’s books and the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests reveals the sick truth: children's books may be good for the soul and all that, but they're still linked to rampant razing of rain forests in Indonesia.


RAN chose three children’s books that were printed in China from each of the top ten children’s book publishers and had their pages tested by an independent laboratory for fiber associated with deforestation in Indonesia. The result: sixty percent of the books (18 out of 30) contained fiber linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction. Books with rainforest paper came from nine of the ten publishers -- despite the fact that half of those publishers have policies committing them to the use of sustainable paper sources.

AS RAN explains:

Unchecked by government or industry, pulp and paper companies are razing natural rainforests on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra and replacing them with acacia pulp wood plantations. This expansion of the pulp sector directly threatens endangered species like tigers, elephants and orangutans with extinction in Sumatra. It is causing ongoing conflicts with local communities whose lands, livelihoods and rights are being usurped, and it is causing massive greenhouse gas emissions from rainforest loss and drainage of carbon-rich peatlands. Driven by global demand for pulp and paper that favors “low-cost” producers, the enormous emissions from the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatlands have vaulted the country into the rank of the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S. Moreover, at least half of the logging in Indonesia takes place illegally.

It turns out that half of the American children’s picture books printed on coated paper are printed to China and China is the top importer of Indonesian pulp and paper.

With the rapid growth of book printing and manufacturing being outsourced to China, the U.S. book industry has become increasingly vulnerable to controversial paper sources entering its supply chain. . . . .From 2000-2008, Chinese sales of children’s picture books to the U.S. ballooned by more than 290 percent, averaging an increase of more than 35 percent per year.


Here's where things get tricky. Some say e-readers like the Kindle or I-Pad are an improvement; others say not necessarily. There's some surprisingly sloppy "research" on this topic, and, like all life-cycle assessments, there are a lot of variables -- in this case, the big ones are how many books you read on a single e-reader, how the e-reader is manufactured, and how the e-reader is disposed of when you're done with it. A New York Times Op-Ed says that if you're concerned about global warming, you'd have to read 100 e-books before your I-Pad becomes a better choice than old-fashioned books. (A good summary of research on this topic can be found on the Ecolibris website.)

If you choose an I-Pad, commit to keeping it for a long time, and using it a lot. If you buy books -- and I want you to buy books! -- help pressure publishers to use sustainable paper sources by signing this “I Love Books and Rainforests” petition. And, of course, support your local library, which is still the greenest way to read.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Candles Cause Cancer and Brain Rot

Ah, candlelight. It's so scented and flickery and romantic and 18th century and ... carcinogenic. Recent studies reveal that paraffin candles -- that's your generic, garden-variety hunk of wax-- are flaming sticks of burning poison, releasing a bouquet of aromatic toxins into your home every time you light them.

Paraffin comes from crude oil, and it's filled with all kinds of nasty chemicals, just like gas and oil are. (Paraffin candles even contribute to global warming -- emitting about 10 grams of carbon dioxide per candlelit hour.) One study observed that the soot produced by paraffin candles is very similar to diesel exhaust:

Diesel soot and candle soot share the same physical and many of the same chemical properties which are believed to contribute to both toxicity and carcinogenicity. These similarities point to a similar potential for adverse health effects.

An August 2009 study by the American Chemical Society found that burning paraffin candles releases compounds like toluene, benzene, methylethylketone, naphthalene -- the first two on the list are known carcinogens.

Many commercial candles also have lead wicks, which -- big surprise -- release lead into the air when burned, thus helping rot your brain. Lead wicks are illegal in the U.S., but they are easy to find anyway -- EPA researchers had no trouble finding candles with lead wicks when they did their candle study.

Look for candles made of beeswax or soy. Both have been found to be significantly less toxic than paraffin. If you want to use up your old paraffin sticks, just make sure to provide adequate ventilation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Corn-Based Plastic -- Vice Masquerading as Virtue

So there you are, tossing your corn-based plastic cup into your corn-based plastic garbage bag and then tossing your corn-based plastic garbage bag into your regular old garbage bin. OK, so it's going to the landfill, but still, it's biodegradable and that makes you all green and virtuous and stuff, right?

Actually, no.


Turns out that compostable plastics are only green if you actually compost them. If you toss them in the landfill, they're not going to decompose any more than a conventional plastic bag will. Or at least you hope they won't. In the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of the landfill, decomposing organic materials produce methane, a greenhouse gas 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time frame. Landfills are the largest human-made source of methane emissions in the United States, with a greenhouse-gas impact equal to one-fifth of that produced by the nation's coal-fired power plants.

If it's not going to be composted in an industrial-grade composting facility, don't use compostable plastic. Throwing compostable plastic in with recyclable plastic just contaminates the recycling load, and trying to compost corn plastics in your home compost pile doesn't work (home compost piles don't get hot enough). If the garbage is headed to the dump anyway, you might as well use conventional plastic garbage bags. The real low-impact solution: work to eliminate your landfill-bound garbage entirely by composting your food waste, recycling your recyclables, and avoiding products with plastic packaging.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bagged Salad Greens Are Full Of ...

I said it before, and I'll say it again: Bagged Leafy Greens are a plastic-encased petri dish of punishment for people who are too lazy to wash their own lettuce. Just ask Consumer Reports, which found "bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination" on both the organic and inorganic samples researchers picked up at supermarkets in the tri-State region.

Here's what they said:
We tested for total coliforms and for other bacteria, including enterococcus, that are better indicators of fecal contamination. Federal action limits exist for indicator organisms in water, raw meat, milk, and some processed foods, but not produce. Those organisms are typically used to gauge possible pathogen contamination.

Several industry experts we consulted suggested that for leafy greens, an unacceptable level of total coliforms or enterococcus is 10,000 or more colony forming units per gram (CFU/g) or a comparable estimate. In our tests, 39 percent of samples exceeded that level for total coliforms and 23 percent for enterococcus.

My suggestion: If you want mixed greens, buy them direct from the farmer, or grow them yourself. Otherwise, buy your lettuce by the head, the way your parents did. Wash it yourself. Really, it isn't that hard.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Was a time when people wiped their asses with the Sears Roebuck catalog. Now we use old growth forest. The paper pulp in plushy toilet paper comes from old growth forests in Northern Canada, the Southern U.S., Indonesia, and Brazil – a full five percent of the US Forest Products Industry is devoted to butt wipes, according to Treehugger.com. The site also points out that making a roll of toilet paper uses 1.5 pounds of wood, 37 gallons of water and 1.3 KWh of of electricity. All that, just to wipe your hiney.

Buy toilet paper with a high post-consumer recycled content – that doesn’t mean it’s made of old toilet paper (ew!) -- it’s made from recycled newspaper and printer paper. Face it, if you’re feeling virtuous because you recycle, but don’t buy recycled products, you’re not fully engaged with reality.. Or break with the TP habit altogether and install a bidet – ironically, because toilet paper takes so much water to produce, washing your hindquarters with water is still a net savings, and think how clean you’ll feel!