Monday, December 21, 2009

The Conservationist's Christmas

I'm pleased as punch with all the terrific and eco-friendly alternatives to gift buying, gift giving, and even gift wrapping that are cropping up both in stores and on the Internet these days. I don't know whether it's a result of increased environmental awareness, the prolonged economic recession, or both, but there are so many alternatives now to the commercial consumerism trend that has dominated Christmases past that it has become hard-- even for those who equate Christmas with presents and presents only-- for people not to consider the impact of their purchases!

When it comes to buying gifts, the options are as varied as the gift givers themselves; there's bound to be something for everybody! For the person who has everything, a donation can be made in their honor to any number of charities. Whether it's a charity that holds special significance for the gift recipient or an organization that puts the money toward a more specific purpose, such as rescuing a penguin or providing seeds for farmers in Africa, the gesture is appreciated and the money is put to good use. While these aren't always the most exciting gifts to receive, I really think it is more representative of the true meaning of Christmas than, say, a Play Station, because you're giving for the sake of giving and helping those in need, even though you're not getting anything (tangible) in return.

Another option would be to purchase fair-trade goods or seek out companies that are pledging to donate a portion of their profits to a specific cause or charity. I managed to do both when I bought fair-trade coffee for my brother-in-law; not only were workers in a far-away country getting a living wage for their product, a part of the proceeds went to feeding orphans as well! Then, of course, are the artisans and companies that use recovered, reclaimed, or recycled goods to make new and one-of-a-kind merchandise. They turn trash back into treasure by making purses out of old seat belts or colorful necklaces out of discarded magazines; the offerings are quite varied, and very creative!

When it comes to wrapping all these environmentally responsible, one-of-a-kind gifts, there are a number of equally Earth-friendly options available. I purchased a number of decorative gift boxes back in January; they already look like they've been wrapped, so I just add a bow and call it a day! Same goes for gift bags... I don't think I've ever purchased a new one of these, I've just repurposed the bags from gifts that I've received!

And for those odd or irregularly shaped items that just won't fit in a box or a bag, consider using butcher's paper instead of traditional wrapping paper (which is not recyclable!). Dress it up by adding a bow, and save a tag by writing directly on the paper! Some people have suggested purchasing fabric remnants and using those in place of wrapping paper; maybe if I'm at a craft store during their after-Christmas clearance sale, perhaps I'll look into it. I've also lobbied for saving and reusing gift tags (the tie-on tags, not the sticky tags-- I'm not that bad!) because it requires minimal storage and will save time when labeling gifts for next Christmas.

So what are you doing in the name of conservation this Christmas? I think my favorite idea this season has been the second-hand Christmas my sister is having with her husband and in-laws. All the gifts have to be a hand-me-down or a "regift", or from a second-hand or antique store or a garage sale. That's one sure-fire way to avoid the mall-- I can't wait to hear what they got! I think if I were to participate in a gift swap like that, I would throw the option of supporting charities or purchasing fair-trade or repurposed goods into the mix; now that would be a conservationist's Christmas!

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Poison Fest"?

Last night, a murder spree of Biblical proportions took place in a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal near Romeoville, which is about 40 miles southwest of the city. The killing was both premeditated and indiscriminate, and the resulting carnage is staggering. I'm talking about a decision by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to dump 2,200 gallons of rotenone, a toxin that is lethal to-- as some expert on the WGN morning news said (in his best movie trailer narration voice)-- "anything with gills". This drastic measure was taken to prevent the Asian carp from continuing their journey from the Mississippi River into Lake Michigan, which, for the Great Lakes ecosystem (and the commercial fishing industry as well) is a "doomsday" destination.

The Asian carp in question is more accurately known as the Bighead carp; of the five known species of carp in this country, all of them came from Asia. This includes the common carp, which was brought over in the 1830s and is now considered to be a native species. The Bighead carp (along with the Silver carp) were deliberately imported from Eastern China in the 1960s and 70s by catfish farmers and wildlife experts to improve water quality and to control aquatic vegetation. The problem is, these huge fish (with voracious appetites) escaped their enclosures in the 1990s (likely after a flood), and entered a number of waterways in this country, namely the Mississippi River. They're bottom feeders that reproduce freely, and they eat such a ridiculous amount of plankton that it disrupts the entire food chain, established long ago by the many species native to these ecosystems. These carp can range anywhere from 50-100 pounds, and they have an especially disturbing habit of responding to boat traffic by leaping out of the water and slapping their huge, scaly bodies into boaters or fishermen or skiers; a number of people have been injured by these giant, flying fish!

This is just one of many failed attempts to control one biological nuisance by importing a species that is not native to the area, which in turn becomes an even bigger nuisance than the pests it was brought in to control! I'm not in favor of indiscriminate chemical controls, either (like those deployed last night), but I'm afraid I don't have a satisfactory solution to the problem at hand.

So what is rotenone, exactly? According to this article from Reuters, it is a "natural poison that prevents fish gills from absorbing oxygen." It goes on to say that it is "used as a broad-spectrum insecticide and pesticide, kills fish and freshwater snails but does not harm other animals. It dissipates within two days, though authorities plan to introduce a neutralizing agent to speed up the process." More specifically, it is a natural pesticide derived from the roots of tropical and subtropical plants and is used in organic gardening, on household plants, and as flea and tick control on pets. The fish and insects affected by this toxin die slowly, but stop eating almost immediately.

Other sources (which I can't verify, so I won't list here) suggest that it may contribute to mammary tumors and changes in blood composition in pets that accidentally inhale or ingest the stuff, and may possibly be linked to Parkinson's Disease in humans who have had chronic exposure. The sentence that bothered me the most in all of my readings was:
"There is considerable controversy over the use of rotenone to kill non-game fish in water body management areas. One study found that the practice has a substantially harmful effect on biodiversity, in which several populations of the native fish showed negligible signs of recovering stocks, while populations of all exotic species are up."

Invasive species are bad-- I get that-- but the killing of any living creature (an estimated 200,000 POUNDS of dead fish are expected to be recovered within the next couple of days!) on such an expansive scale just doesn't sit well with me, especially since early reports have turned up only one big, bad carp and scads of good, native fish. Surely there's a better way... right?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sticking it to the "Mon" ... Santo, that is

Corn Dusk, originally uploaded by Dodo-Bird.

You can have your fantasy football teams, but I'd rather spend a lazy Sunday laying the groundwork for a fantasy class-action suit that's been knocking around in my head. This fantasy suit of mine pits innocent and hardworking farmers against the greedy, multi-national agricultural companies that sue farmers who save and replant their own seed into permanent submission, and instead force them to purchase their patented, genetically modified products. The source of my defense actually comes from a small section of environmental law meant to pertain to real estate: the innocent landowner defense of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (better known as CERCLA).

CERCLA is a massive piece of legislation; I took a semester-long class that focused only on the innocent landowner (and contiguous property owner) defense within CERCLA, and we only just scratched the surface. The focus of the class was on conducting site assessments for potential purchasers of industrial real estate, but with my brain working the way that it does, the potential implications outlined in this defense gave me another idea.

Let me preface my fantasy class action by saying that I am not a lawyer. I'm not shouty or argumentative, I can't talk in circles, and I detest legalese, which means that I will probably never be a lawyer, because I would be lousy at it. Nor am I a farmer, I just sympathize with those land stewards who are trying to stay afloat in the seriously messed up, over-subsidized and overpriced crop monoculture that is big agriculture in this country. I first became aware of the shady, underhanded dealings of these multi-national corporations-- who have crossed a moral and ethical line by genetically modifying crops and obtaining patents not only for the seeds but for the crops they produce-- through documentaries and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food, Inc. and The Future of Food.

Each of these resources acts as an exposé into the seedy dealings of these seed businesses, who make the purchasers of their seeds sign over their souls, while going after the farmers who don't want to do business with them and suing them for saving their own seed. Of the farmers who chose to fight Monsanto in court, the few who didn't immediately submit to the settlements (on the condition of silence) and start purchasing Monsanto's "cutting-edge biotechnology" wound up losing millions before eventually losing their lawsuits. These companies are simply too rich and too powerful for individual farmers to take on... hence the need for a class action!

A number of farmers spoke out against Monsanto's practice of sending out "investigators" to bully and intimidate farmers whose properties were adjacent to their customers' farms into buying their products as well, an action Monsanto at once denies then claims is at their customer's insistence. Although these persecuted farmers came from all over the continent, their stories were all pretty much the same. Monsanto tested their seed, supposedly found their patented technology, and took these farmers to court. Monsanto has a number of articles denying these claims on its website, and boasting that the validity of their patents on living organisms was reviewed and upheld as recently as 2007 (patents come up for review every 20 years or so-- this is not good news!) They also cite specific cases against the farmers who were brave enough to speak up, listing all the reasons why the farmer-- and not their corporation-- is in the wrong.

So who are we to believe? A greedy, international corporation that is raking in record profits and steering this country into another dust bowl era, or a nation of beleaguered farmers who just don't have the resources to fight the good fight? I can't say for sure... but in case you couldn't tell, my allegiance is with the farmers.

I will concede that there are a couple of factors that complicate my argument. First, we have to establish that Monsanto's patented, genetically modified seed is a contaminant and-- more specifically for the CERCLA defense-- a hazardous substance. Non-GMO farmers certainly consider even trace amounts of Monsanto's patented technology that appear in their carefully saved, cleaned, and stored seed to be a contaminant, because it's not wanted! In this legislation, a hazardous substance is defined as, "...such elements, compounds, mixtures, solutions, and substances which-- when released into the environment-- may present substantial danger to public health and welfare or the environment." While Monsanto's seed in and of itself isn't a hazardous substance, the effects of eliminating biodiversity and monopolizing the agricultural industry is an environmental hazard, and the ridiculous surplus of corn and other grains grown in this country each year does pose a danger to public health and welfare in that food scientists keep finding new and sugary ways to get us unsuspecting consumers to eat (and drink!) more and more of this stuff. Furthermore, I don't think it would be too hard to make a connection to the obesity epidemic and the increased consumption of corn-based foods; in fact, some of the resources listed above already have! And second, we'd have to find a way to hold our own against the scores of shouty, argumentative, legalese-loving lawyers employed by Monsanto, whose sole job would be finding ways to prove us wrong.

In the case of chemical contamination, liability can be difficult to prove, especially if the original contamination source is not located on the property in question. This makes it hard for current owners/operators and prospective buyers of the land in question to qualify for the innocent or contiguous landowner defense, and even when they do, there is still no guarantee that they will be exempt from liability. As for my argument against this biological contamination, however, Monsanto's coveted patents would make it incredibly easy to trace, identify, and prosecute(!) the responsible parties. The CERCLA legislation is one of the few environmental policies that actually has any teeth and-- like most tax laws-- is designed in a way that makes any potentially responsible parties "guilty, until proven innocent". And the best part about CERCLA is that it's retroactive; even if these corporations can get away with these shenanigans now, if Congress comes to their senses at some point in the future and repeals the right to patent seeds, these corporations will be liable for contamination that occurred before and after these changes are made!

Without getting too much into the due diligence of the matter-- which really only pertains to potential buyers-- for the sake of my argument, I'm going to say that the farmers owned their properties before the contamination source appeared. Assuming due diligence has been proven, the imaginary farmers I'm representing would have to meet certain conditions to qualify for the innocent landowner defense, such as:

  • The contaminants migrated onto their land from other properties despite due care. The most likely cause of seed contamination is by cross-pollination of the innocent farmers' crops with genetically modified crops from neighboring farms. There is a clause in the innocent landowner defense (I don't remember which one, and will only look it up if somebody really wants to know... I'm not a lawyer, remember?) stating that landowners cannot be held responsible for contamination that occurred as a result of an act of nature.
  • They have no knowledge of/no reason to suspect contamination. Unfortunately, this would eliminate any farmer who plants even a portion of their fields with patented seed; basically, once you sign Monsanto's "seed steward" agreement, they pretty much own you whether the seed in question is theirs or not. Also, if the purchaser "contributes" to the contamination, the I.L.D. cannot be applied. But innocent farmers cannot be held responsible for unknowingly "violating" an agreement that their neighbors made with a seed company!
  • They acquired either the land (or, in this case, the contaminated seed) through inheritance or bequest. One of the cases Monsanto describes on their website involves contaminated seed given to a farmer by a relative. Even without my fantasy defense, Monsanto was unable to prosecute the innocent farmer to the extent that they would have liked.

Even if my class-action farmers were able to qualify for the innocent landowner defense, they would still probably have to make a "contribution" to the EPA toward the remedial actions necessary to remove the contaminant from their seeds. Under CERCLA, the current owner/operator of the land in question is automatically considered a potentially responsible party. In the case of "strict" liability, the farmer would likely be stuck with the cleanup costs. So we'd be pushing for "joint and several" liability, where the EPA examines all PRPs and goes after the one(s) with the deepest pockets. In this case, there's no doubt that would be Monsanto. The small settlement the farmers would have to make is known as a de minimis settlement, and it would also protect them from later being sued by Monsanto (should it be determined that they were indeed the contributors of this contamination) to recoup some of the costs of remediation.

A remedial action is defined as a "...remedy that is protective of human health and the environment and maintains protection over time". This is a long-term process, because Monsanto (for the sake of my argument) would have to find the best and most cost-effective solution. CERCLA liability is generally limited to the remediation costs plus up to $50 million to cover natural resource damage (read: contamination of the innocent farmers' crops). However, I would go on to argue that the release of their patented, biological contamination was done willfully. Surely they know that, before they started concocting corn in a test tube, plant pollination occurred naturally. The fact that they're hunting down farmers who aren't buying their seed is evidence enough that they were relying on some level of cross pollination (contamination) to occur.

If we could prove that, then there would be no limit to the amount of money Monsanto would have to fork over to clean up the mess they've created. This would likely involve quantifying what amount of "trace" contaminant is acceptable (and amending their precious patents... or better yet, doing away with them altogether!); this amount would have to be considerably higher than they'd like, to account for the promiscuity of pollinating plants. If they don't like that idea, then they would need to put their mad scientists to work developing a genetic hybrid that a) doesn't pollinate with other varieties of seed or b) is asexual and unable to pollinate at all. They clearly enjoy playing God, and make their customers buy brand new seed each year as it is, so it shouldn't make any difference whether or not their test-tube crops can reproduce! That's the only way they could ensure that their precious biotechnology wouldn't wind up in unsuspecting hands, thus allowing the farmers who choose to sow their crops in the age-old way (that nature intended) to do so, without fear of prosecution.

And that is how I would help David fight Goliath. Clearly, if this were ever to become an actual defense, I would need to get a law degree, read the entire CERCLA Act, flesh out my arguments, and brace for a long and ugly battle. So what do you think? Should I keep my day job or start fielding calls to be some environmental lawyer's next Erin Brokovitch? Is my idea crazy, or crazy enough to work? Who's with me? Let's "stick it to the Mon(santo)" and help farmers everywhere take back their fields!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Seeding the Clouds

When we woke up to a veritable snow storm on our last day in Beijing, having enjoyed pleasant 70-degree weather just the day before, I was baffled. I later learned that the clouds had been "seeded" earlier in the week, which supposedly induces rainfall. I didn't know what that meant. In fact, I hadn't even heard of this practice until it backfired on the first of this month, spoiling our last day of vacation, and causing an international stir by creating one of the earliest Beijing snowfalls on record. But it turns out that cloud seeding is nothing new, and when it comes to the controversial practice (to say the least!) of messing with the weather patterns, China is leading the way.

In one 2006 report, the Chinese government spends about $50 million (USD) a year in their attempts to control the weather. (Current estimates are as high as $90 million!) It is estimated that China sends cloud-seeding aircraft on roughly 700 missions per year, loaded with a comparable number of rockets and artillery shells that are filled with chemicals such as silver iodide and mixed with dry ice. These rockets are then shot into the atmosphere in hopes that the chemical particulates released will aid in the formation of water vapor, which will then fall to the Earth as rain.

Although China has had a moderate amount of success with this practice, bringing much needed rain to drought-stricken areas and helping to extinguish raging forest fires in remote regions of the country, the path that they are heading down is a slippery slope indeed. Rumor has it that they made attempts to ensure sunny, favorable weather for the Summer Olympics, which were held in Beijing just last summer, by using this practice to coax rainfall out of any potentially moisture-rich clouds headed toward Beijing, inducing the rain to fall prematurely so as not to ruin their moments in the spotlight. I couldn't find any proof of whether this worked, though, or if it's even true. The skies were sunny, sure, but Beijing has been suffering from a nearly decade-long drought, so the scientists' claims may be more arrogant than they are accurate.

So arrogant, in fact, that they've done it again; created an unseasonal snowstorm that has, according to an article published today, already killed 40. In China's defense, they're not the only ones trying to outsmart Mother Nature; weather modification experiments have been going on in Europe, Asia, and even the U.S. for more than 50 years. Proponents of this practice argue that the main chemical components of the rockets-- silver iodide (which is found in iodized table salt) and carbon dioxide (found in the atmosphere)-- are harmless. Everything has a toxicity level, though-- even water! And who's to say what the long-term effects may be from prolonged exposure to these chemical rains?

The Chinese, however, are unapologetic in their cloud-seeding efforts. It seems to me that they plan to advance their civilization as rapidly as possible, and will only deal with the consequences when they (inevitably) arise. I'm all for scientific breakthroughs and development, but there's a fine line between weather modification and playing God; if it's not done responsibly, they'll have to answer to Mother Nature in the end, and she's quite a force to be reckoned with.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Obese Packaging

I came to the startling realization the other day that the shape of our bodies and the shape of our packaging has undergone an alarmingly parallel transformation over the past 50 years or so ...

Using soda as an example, let's first consider the 8-ounce bottle of Coke. This is one serving size of carbonated goodness, served up ice-cold in a glass bottle that -- once empty -- was returned to the bottler, who would carefully wash, sanitize, and refill the container. People took good care of these bottles (the fact that there was a small monetary incentive to do so certainly didn't hurt!) and, on average, bottlers were able to reuse the glass packages 25-30 times before the paint would start to fade and they were forced to take the bottles out of circulation. People also took better care of themselves back then; they kept portion sizes in check and put forth a little extra effort to keep themselves in circulation (so to speak).

By comparison, the 20-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper on the left crams two and a half servings into it's shapeless plastic packaging, and -- despite the serving size on the label -- we generally pour all of that sweet, sugary liquid down our gullets in a single sitting, transferring the contents of the bulging container into our bulging bellies. Then we carelessly discard the single-use containers, thinking little of the cost, energy, and oil it takes to create a new container for yet another super-sized serving of soda. If we're lucky, the plastic bottles will be recycled, but this doesn't often happen.

Think about it -- the small, svelte, and shapely bottle of Coke could swap clothes with Barbie ... the big, bulging bottle of Dr. Pepper would be resigned to covering up in a flowing, shapeless mumu. Guess the phrase "you are what you eat" should extend to beverages, too!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Silent Spring: A Summary

Like any good tree hugger, I decided over the summer that I needed to read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's "explosive bestseller" about the devastating effects of the chemical pesticide programs used during the 1950s and 1960s. I hear it referenced so often that I assume it's mandatory reading for entomologists, biologists, ecologists, and environmentalists alike. So I picked up a musty, crumbling paperback copy in a used book store one day and dove right in. I motored through the first couple of brief chapters pretty quickly, intrigued by Carson's answer to her own rhetorical question:

"How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and even death to their own kind? Yet this is precisely what we have done. We have done it, moreover, for reasons that collapse the moment we examine them." (p. 20)

After that, however, things began to get very technical, very quickly. The book is structured as a commentary on a number of case studies done during the height of the indiscriminate chemical spraying era, from the late 1940s up to the early 1960s (when the book was published). Even though the jargon is kept to a minimum and most of the data is presented in layman's terms, it is a tedious and laborious read and I couldn't mentally process more than ten pages at a time. I aimed to get through one chapter per sitting, but with so much data crammed onto each water stained page, not even the chapters' blatantly incendiary titles (such as "Elixirs of Death", "Needless Havoc", and "No Birds Sing") could help me to maintain my focus.

As I slogged through the meaty middle chapters, I began to get an eerie feeling; it was both a sense of foreboding and deja vu. In case study after innumerable case study, while the locations, pests, and sometimes even the chemicals changed, the inevitably disastrous result was almost always the same.

When DDD was sprayed at Clear Lake in California to kill the gnats, the swan grebes died. When the hop growers of Washington and Idaho sprayed heptachlor to kill the strawberry root weevil, their crops died and the land remained unusable for years. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture sprayed dieldrin over Iroquois County, Illinois, to "eradicate" the Japanese beetle, the song birds of the region were wiped out within a matter of days. When DDT was sprayed in East Lansing to kill the gypsy moth and prevent Dutch Elm disease, the robins died. The list goes on and on, but the message is clear: saturating the country with chemical pesticides is bad... very bad. Got it.

Scientists came to discover that these poisons were stored in higher and higher concentrations as it worked its way up through the animals in the food chain. The initial spraying might not have killed a bug, for example, but it probably sickened an earthworm or a fish that ate several bugs, and in turn almost instantly killed a bird that ate several earthworms or fish. The birds that didn't die instantly were either rendered infertile or endured a long, drawn-out illness before the twitching and agonizingly painful convulsions set in that, after much suffering, ultimately killed them. And-- perhaps worst of all-- the programs didn't even work long-term.

What these short-sighted chemists and government officials failed to realize was that it's nearly impossible to eradicate a single species of pesky insect; those that survived not only reproduced at a much faster rate than their natural predators, but they became resistant to the pesticides more quickly as well, rendering subsequent sprayings ineffective. Without a healthy bird population to keep these insect populations in check, the pests' numbers can exceed pre-spraying levels in a matter of years (and sometimes months!) As Carson explains:

By their very nature chemical controls are self-defeating, for they have been devised and applied without taking into account the complex biological systems against which they have been blindly hurled ... (p. 218)

She continues:

"The really effective control of insects is that applied by nature, not by man. Populations are kept in check by something the ecologists call the resistance of the environment: The amount of food available, conditions of weather and climate, the presence of competing or predatory species, are all critically important ... [The second neglected fact it] the truly explosive power of a species to reproduce once the resistance of the environment has been weakened ... (p. 218)

Thankfully, the sprayings eventually stopped, but not before our soil and groundwater was heavily contaminated. I know many of these same pesticides are still in use today, albeit in much smaller concentrations. Still, the best way to fight a force of nature is still with nature itself. For in her final paragraph, Carson issues a harsh admonishment, warning that:

"The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man ... It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the [E]arth."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shortening the Supply Chain

Do you know where your dinner came from? Today, I do. I made a delicious pasta dish using homemade ravioli from the Madison farmers' market. It's fresh, I recognize every ingredient on the label, and-- best of all-- it's relatively local. The pesto sauce was made from the basil on my back deck, and the cherry tomato garnish was also harvested from a plant out back. I would have taken a picture of the meal itself (which was served with a side of locally grown greens) but it was in my belly before the thought ever occurred to me.

I wish I could eat meals such as this every day; it's fresh, it's flavorful, and (from a broad environmental standpoint, if not a personal one) it's frugal. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to prepare healthy meals from unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods. If you shop at a grocery store, this task becomes next to impossible. The foods on the inner shelves-- the juice boxes, cake mixes, and snacks-- have been almost entirely created in a laboratory somewhere; the meats come from animals that were drugged, sickened, and tortured during their short and miserable lives; the eggs are six to nine months old by the time they reach us while the other dairy products have had the nutrients pasteurized right out of them; and even the produce has been genetically modified, saturated with a myriad of pesticides, or both! And to top it all off, the vast majority of these items have been trucked in from some distance away; the average fruit or vegetable travels about 1,500 miles to get to our plate.

I will admit that there are some things I like about the current food chain; I can get fresh produce (like citrus, avocados, and other tropical fruits) that we just can't grow here-- they would never survive Chicago's temperamental climate. But why ship tomatoes from Mexico when there is an abundance of them grown right here in the Midwest? It just doesn't make any sense to me. Also, some of the products manufactured by this country's food scientists (microwave dinners, instant oatmeal, packaged cookies, condensed soups and the like)-- even though they are nutritionally worthless-- can be convenient in a pinch. The problem is that most Americans eat this garbage on a daily basis; and some rely on these items for each and every meal!

The third factor is the cost; government subsidies and the overwhelming imbalance between supply and demand have driven prices down to the point where industrial farmers will never be able to turn a profit. To pay a fair price for meats (for example) that were responsibly and naturally raised is a sticker shock for some, while completely cost prohibitive for others. I saw on a news broadcast the other night that, despite recent price hikes on grocery essentials, Americans on average are only spending 5% of their income on food, compared with the 10% our grandparents doled out just 50 years ago! I'd be willing to bet that they ate a lot better, too.

While I would love to go off the grid entirely, to plant a huge garden, make everything from scratch, and only buy my food from local farmers, that simply isn't realistic for me at the moment. So I splurge on real food whenever and wherever I can, and when I do make a meal using entirely fresh ingredients, I savor the fruits of my labor.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Nothing special or profound to report here; I just wanted to share my small contribution to the greening of the urban jungle that is Chicago. I love, love, LOVE Gerbera daisies, and these sunny little beauties are one of my favorite features in my current apartment. A vibrant splash of color on an otherwise dull, gray, and impervious surface, they provide a nice contrast to my primarily green container garden, and happily soak up the sun's blazing rays that drench my deck with its western exposure.

Fall is coming, and these flowers won't last but another month (or two); this is just a feeble attempt to preserve a moment in time, to savor the beauty and save the image. When I look back on these pictures in a few months' time, during the dull and dreary doldrums of a Midwestern winter, maybe they will make me smile, and remind me that the sunny days of spring aren't as far off as they will undoubtedly seem.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Primo Parking

I was cruising around a parking lot at a mini mall in a swanky southwest suburb, looking for a place to park. There were no regular spots to be found so, out of desperation, I pulled into a spot up front . It was not a handicap spot (I would NEVER do that), but it still had a sign. When I drove by before, I assumed it was a designated spot for expectant mothers or something like that. Well, if anyone was watching, I could stick out my gut, hold the small of my back, and waddle into the store. I was only going to be a minute, and I had to get to work!

As it turns out, it wasn't pregnant lady parking at all; better yet, I had every right to park there! The spot was reserved for fuel-efficient vehicles, and my 2006 Sentra certainly fit the bill. It's no Prius, but it averages 33 miles a gallon, which more than makes up for its poor acceleration abilities. In fact, that sign made my whole day. Kudos to the environmentally conscious parking lot engineers of Kane and DuPage counties! The actual design of the lot is a mess, which makes no sense to me, but at least they got one thing right. Hopefully they're blazing a trail that future parking lot construction and design teams will want to follow. They've got my repeat business, and it's all because of that sign!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's The Most Wonderful Time...

I'm not talking about the holidays, or even the start of a new school year (especially not that!) I'm referring to the plethora of fresh produce that is in season this time of year. Farmer's markets everywhere are overflowing with nature's bounty! Whatever adjectives you want to use to describe your fruit or vegetable of choice-- ripe, crisp, plump, juicy, sweet, etc.-- it all applies. And prices have never been cheaper-- these farmers have corn and tomatoes and zucchini coming out of their ears! All they want to do is get it out of their gardens and into our bellies; now who can argue with that?

With so many delicious and affordable options available right now, I'm tempted to buy extra and try my hand at canning, pickling, or even freeze-drying, so I can enjoy these farm fresh tastes all year long. I saw the first apples of the season last week, though, so I know that I'll need to act fast, because like all good things, this too shall pass. In the meantime, I'm eating any and every piece of produce I can get my hands on-- with food this healthy and fresh, why should anyone have to choose? Eat your hearts out, fellow veggie lovers!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Basil Bug?

Someone's been eating my basil, and it's not just me! I've been trying to harvest more basil as of late, but someone (or something) else has been getting to it first. The big leaves have huge holes chewed out of them, and some of the smaller ones have been sheared off altogether. Harrumph.

Well, when I was out watering today, I finally identified the culprit:

Can you see him? How about now?
I have no idea what type of insect this is, but he blends in so perfectly with the leaves of my poor basil plant, he's probably been there all along! As far as bugs go, it's really quite beautiful; leaf shaped and with an iridescent sheen that catches the sunlight. He's so cool-looking, that I couldn't bring myself to flick him off of the plant, so I guess I'll have to settle for sharing my bounty. Surely there's enough basil for us both... right?
(By the way, if any of you do know what type of bug this is, I'd love to find out!)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Aveda "Kicks the Cap" out of Plastic!

On my way to a matinee at the Landmark Century Theater, I stopped by the Aveda Institute with a bag full of plastic bottle caps. I know what you're thinking, but let me assure you that they were in fact happy to see me! You see, the Aveda company is leading the way in the area of "producer responsibility", a novel concept that I hope catches on soon with companies large and small, far and wide. In addition to using wind power to generate energy at their manufacturing plants, they have begun recycling plastic bottle caps into bottles and containers for their many products.

Why is this such a brilliant idea, you ask? Well, the caps on most plastic bottles are made from a different (and much harder to recycle) plastic than the bottles themselves, and few local recycling companies can process them. What Aveda has done is to find a use for these caps (all the recycling in the world won't do us any good unless someone finds a way to repurpose these recycled products!) and what better way to reuse old packaging than to turn it into new packaging?

Their "responsible packaging" has long been made from easy to recycle plastics, glass, and even cardboard cartons, and the Caps Recycling Program is their latest effort to keep these little plastic bits from littering our parks, beaches, and oceans. They are looking to partner with schools, to educate students who will then aid in their collection efforts. The company provides a specific description of the type of "rigid plastic" they seek; the lids I had saved from countless gallons of milk did not make the cut, because I could bend them with my bare hand. Some of these rigid plastic caps are marked with the number 5. This sounds like an easy way for students to learn about the "cradle-to-grave" life cycle of a product, and the caps are easy to collect.

The link above has suggestions for parents and teachers who are interested in getting their students involved in this noble effort, and it seems like most of their cap collectors are in fact children; the woman who took my caps kept asking if I was a teacher or had neices and nephews who had asked me to drop the caps off for them, and whether they were excited to be taking part in their program. So I told her that, yes, this was an exciting program, and that I hoped to recruit and excite more people to assist in their efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. And that, my dear readers, is where you come in. The caps can be dropped off at any Aveda salon; the company also provides special shipping labels to schools who enroll in their program so they can mail the caps instead. The process couldn't be easier, and I encourage you to encourage the little people in your lives to start collecting caps today, and let them see that they, too, can make a difference!

Monday, July 27, 2009

South Pond

I was walking through Lincoln Park today, and smelled something awful. The stench seemed to be coming from behind a large, makeshift fence, and after a block or so, I stumbled upon this sign, which explained the odor.

Basically, they are transforming the southern pond into an "urban ecosystem", returning native species of fish, plants, birds, frogs, and the like back to the area. I vaguely remember seeing something about the project on the news earlier in the spring; they had to kill off a number of the non-native plants and critters that were inhabiting the pond before the renovation, which made me sad, but I'm all for restored wetlands and furthering the native species and the like.

I'm not quite sure how I imagined they would go about "restoring the natural habitat", but I certainly was not expecting to see this:
Cranes and bulldozers and idle construction workers, oh my! I guess I never figured they'd have to do a complete demolition to make a natural restoration; I expected them to just make improvements to the existing pond. Not so. I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product, which the sign assures me will be "an outdoor classroom for students of all ages", I just find their restoration methods a bit ironic.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Phone Book Rant

Dear Local Phone Company,

PLEASE STOP SENDING ME PHONE BOOKS! Why must you cling to this archaic practice? Nobody uses them anymore, yet each spring they arrive on the doorstep of every resident in the city, regardless of whether they have a land line or not! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but after all the money you spend producing these monstrosities and all the fossil fuels you burn by distributing them, only a minuscule amount actually wind up in peoples' homes. Most are either pitched, recycled (I'm hoping...), or left to languish on the same doorstep where you left them.

These books are massive and take up precious space, and they're hard to use; the few times I've tried, I've failed to find the business listings I was looking for, because it wasn't logically categorized. Yet when I then turn to the online yellow pages and enter any related key word, I can find what I'm looking for in a matter of minutes! In summary, the Internet wins. Hands down, every time.

I recycled the books that appeared in my lobby in April, and I recycled the unwanted duplicates you sent me when I moved. Surely you can understand my frustration at opening the door to my apartment building this afternoon and finding YET ANOTHER STACK OF PHONE BOOKS. I've yet to recycle this batch, and every time I see them in the foyer, my temper flares. Since I already disposed of the last two sets of directories you sent me this year, why on earth would you think that I'd want a third?!?

Here's a thought: in addition to touting your online billing practices as your company's way of "going green", why don't you save some real green-- financial and environmental-- by only issuing phone books to customers who specifically request them. Then you could spend all the money you'd be saving on studies that quantify all the trees you'd be saving. This would stop clogging our landfills with those despicable space wasters, and the tree huggers of the world would begin hugging your executives instead. I think it's something that you, as a company, should seriously consider. After all, your rival company doesn't harass its customers (and potential customers) by littering their entryways with giant, heavy, yellow doorstops... do you really want to let your main competition have the upper hand in this regard? I highly doubt it.

I implore you to at least think about giving the printing press a rest. And in the meantime, LAY OFF the unsolicited phone book deliveries! Thank you.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Quiet Statement

I couldn't help but smile when I saw this "license plate" today; I myself am petrified to ride a bike in the city, but I certainly appreciate the sentiment!

Monday, June 22, 2009

I've Been Greenwashed!

I've been so careful about reading labels and dissecting the fine print lately, to make sure that the green, eco-friendly, and organic products I buy are, in fact, as pure as advertised. My vigilance is in large part to avoid falling victim to "greenwashing", which is a relatively new marketing ploy-- advertising that proclaims a product is "green" when it's really not. The suggestive wording on the packaging appeals to our subconscious as well as our eco-conscious, luring consumers who want to be more responsible in their product choices to buy what they're selling. However, all greenwashing really does is to get customers to shell out more money while (underhandedly) making them feel good about their decision to "go green". A sneaky and shameless tactic, indeed.

Until now, I've done a pretty good job of outsmarting the marketers-- like 100% natural soda (or yogurt, or granola bar)... made with high fructose corn syrup? Nice try! Environmentally themed t-shirts... woven from 55% polyester blends? For shame! Eco-friendly pesticides? Oxymorons! I know better than to fall for that, don't I?

Today, at my local big-box retailer, I was lured by the earthy green sheen of shampoo and conditioner bottles plastered with happy, earthy words such as "organic!" "natural!" "ultra whipped yogurt proteins!" and "sulfate free!" Topped with a rebate slip for 100% of the purchase price (printed on recycled papers, with soy-based inks), I was hooked. Sold!

(For those of you who are wondering, sulfates are cheap and effective chemical surfactants that are used in products from shampoos to face washes to toothpastes. Manufacturers like them because they're inexpensive and plentiful; they easily break down dirt and oils, and create a rich lather. Some popular sulfates used in cosmetics, however, are also registered pesticides and/or suspected carcinogens, hence the organic movement's attempt to make sulfate-free products. These products are equally effective and often less irritating to skin and eyes [and the environment!], but generally don't foam as well and can often cost more).

It wasn't until after I got my eco-hair cleansers home and tore off (and filled out) the rebate slips that I saw the list of ingredients hiding underneath. Water, Cetyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate... Wait. Methosulfate?!? Not the dreaded Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, but still... It's ingredient #3 in my sulfate-free shampoo?!? D'oh!

Marketers: 1. ChicaGoinGreen: 0.

If it weren't for the fact that I'll be getting my money back in 6-8 weeks (thanks to the strategically placed rebate slips), I would be much more inconsolable than I am. Let this be a lesson to all you fellow planet savers; paying more for an "organic" product doesn't automatically make it better for the environment-- so it pays to do your homework!

Friday, June 19, 2009

River Roads

With more than a year's worth of above average rainfall in the record books, my fellow Chicagoans and I have been dealing with a sharp increase in street flooding. In fact, it now seems that even a moderately heavy rainfall turns intersections into giant puddles (and sidestreets into swiftly moving streams) in a matter of minutes. It's quite common to see diligent homeowners on the street corners after a downpour, in their galoshes, jabbing a broomstick into the storm drains, hoping to loosen whatever is "clogging" the sewers.

After wading home through nearly a foot of water (thanks for the pic, Danielle!), rushing down the street after a monsoon-like rain-- in February-- I seriously considered investing in a canoe. Even the water-main replacement projects have done little to relieve the flooding! What most residents don't know, though, is that it's not a glut of fallen leaves that clogs our sewers, it's a problem that was intentionally created by the Department of Water Management. After the "great flood" of 1997, the city installed nearly 200,000 rainblockers, or intake restrictor valves, in neighborhood storm drains.

The purpose of these valves is to slow the amount of rain that enters the system. Like many older cities, Chicago has a combined sewer system, which collects both sewage and storm runoff. An influx of storm water into the city's sewer system forces raw sewage releases into Lake Michigan or-- worse yet-- into the streets or peoples' basements. Reasoning that flooded streets are preferable to flooded basements (no argument here), the city boasts that their rainblocker program was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, and at only a quarter of what it would cost to actually improve the sewer system.

What the city fails to mention is that this program is a "band-aid" for an actual solution that was started two decades before, that (like so many things in this city) is behind schedule and over budget-- the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. Better known as "The Deep Tunnel" program, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the project as out of money and far from finished. Begun in 1975, the program called for more than 110 miles of tunnels to be built under Chicago and its municipalities. These tunnels would then carry sewage and storm water to an appropriate number of reservoirs, where it would be stored until it could be properly treated and safely released.

While the tunnel system is nearly complete, the reservoirs (which were originally slated to be finished in 2015) are virtually non-existent. The result of which is, as expected, flooded streets and raw sewage releases into Lake Michigan. And while the EPA lauds Chicago for testing the water quality of Lake Michigan with such great frequency, the tests show unacceptable levels of E. Coli more than a third of the time, which leads to beach closures throughout the summer. When the red and yellow flags are flying, you really don't want to make that day a beach day.

My vote (not that it matters) is to dedicate a chunk of the city's stimulus money to finishing what was started more than 30 years ago, to reduce (and potentially eliminate) the sewage and flooding problems that have plagued this city since its inception. Until then, though, who wants to go swimming?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

My 20/20 Challenge

I met a friend for lunch in Andersonville today, and picked up a flyer about the neighborhood's 20/20 Challenge. Promoted by the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, the idea is, if each resident commits to spending just $20 a week in their neighborhood for a total of 20 weeks, local restaurants and business owners will prosper. This will support small businesses in the neighborhood and enable them to keep their doors open, because people are more likely to visit thriving and vibrant neighborhoods than they are to frequent those with vacant or boarded-up storefronts!

I'm a huge proponent of mom-and-pop stores (and of supporting local businesses), and I think this challenge is a great idea. I didn't sign up for A-ville's challenge, however, because I would rather spend that money in my own neighborhood; it's a remarkably easy thing to do! So far this week, I've gotten take-out from the restaurant down the street, bought some cat food at the nearest pet boutique, and washed my clothes at the independently owned laundromat. That doesn't even count the meals I've eaten at the restaurant where I work (they're supposed to be supporting me, not the other way around!) and I'm well over my $20 already.

Along those lines, I'd like to take my personal challenge a step further and try to do the same thing at my local farmer's market. $20 doesn't go nearly as far there as it does at the grocery store, but if these small farms are going to survive in the face of big agriculture, they need our support. With a little planning, I think I can stretch my $20 by basing my meals around the produce that in season (that which is most plentiful is usually the cheapest!) any given week. I can even get cheese, eggs, meat, and some baked goods from these farmers, so I won't get bored.

There, I've said it out loud; I am going to "vote with my wallet" this summer and support the local farmers who are using sustainable and environmentally sound methods of growing their food. Now-- who's with me?

Friday, May 15, 2009


On Wednesday, Chicago's City Council voted to ban baby bottles and sippy cups that contain Bisphenol-A, or BPA, becoming the first city in the country to do so, preceded only by the state of Minnesota, which passed a ban of their own just last week. BPA is a chemical that is used to harden plastics; it also lines some food containers. In 2007, independent researchers came out with studies that linked BPA ingestion to the eventual onset of diabetes, breast and prostate cancers, and a host of other problems caused by the general disruption of the endocrine system. The chemical reportedly mimics estrogen in humans, which in itself is cause for concern, and researchers concluded that infants and young children were especially susceptible. BPA ingestion occurs when foods or beverages are heated in containers made with BPA, as this causes the chemical to be released, and it is then leached into foods.

However, the FDA disagrees, claiming that its tests (purported by some to have been funded by the plastics industry) revealed BPA to be safe for human use. While I'm not taking sides either way, I do think that any evidence to the contrary should be more than enough to warrant a closer look. I do, however, question the need for a city-imposed ban. When the independent reports came out a couple of years ago, many manufacturers voluntarily pulled suspicious products from their shelves, and many more have retooled their manufacturing methods to produce BPA-free plastics. To insist that retailers sell only BPA-free baby products in our city seems a bit redundant. On the flip side, it could pave the way to a nationwide ban, which would benefit everybody. Back in the 1970s and '80s, for example, when California insisted that the vehicles in their state be held to stricter emissions standards than the federal government required, the entire nation soon adopted the standards set by California lawmakers, because manufacturers didn't want to produce two different types of cars.

And why only baby products? It's not okay for infants and toddlers to ingest this stuff, but kindergarteners get the green light? Who's to say that a baby won't still be exposed to BPA because they ate food that came from a can lined with BPA, which isn't marketed specifically for children, and is not included in the ban? And what about the rest of us? Are we just supposed to know better? For those of us who don't, if a plastic product has a recycling number 7, there's a very good chance that it contains BPA. I guess I'm not as concerned as I maybe should be-- I still buy canned goods, and have yet to replace my BPA-laden Nalgene bottle. On the same token, I don't heat foods in the can, and my Nalgene bottle has never been in a dishwasher, or a microwave, or left in the car on a hot day. So maybe I'm in the clear. Then again, maybe I'm not. And maybe this latest ban will turn out to be a good thing, or maybe it will go the way of the foie gras ban; only time will tell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009

I happened to be home this morning to catch Oprah's Earth Day special. I'll admit I tuned in more for the environmental aspect than the "O factor", as I'm still a little bitter about the tapings I was subjected to a few years back... which is a whole other story... but I actually learned something! So, I never thought I'd say this, but thanks, Oprah! I was devastated by the opening segment with Jacques Cousteau's grandson, Fabien, about the largest garbage dump in the world, the swirling patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean. Estimated to be twice the size of Texas, and up to 90-feet deep in places, marine animals big and small are ingesting, getting entangled in, and dying from OUR TRASH. They showed picture after heartbreaking picture of a turtle whose shell had grown grotesquely around a plastic ring it must have gotten stuck in as a baby, a bird who was trapped and dying under layers of plastic, and an entire cigarette lighter in the belly of a dead albatross.

I know we're a long way from the Pacific Ocean, but there's a mass of trash in all of the world's oceans, and whether we realize it or not, we're contributing to the growing problem. Trash dumped in area lakes and rivers is washed downstream to bigger rivers, and is eventually carried out to sea. So this Earth Day, consider joining forces with other city dwellers and spend an afternoon this spring cleaning up a vacant lot or fishing trash out of the Chicago River. The city's "Clean and Green" initiative has several events coming up in May, and the Park District and Forest Preserves offer similar volunteering opportunities. Just think, a plastic bag that is plucked from a river in Chicago could potentially save a fish that would have otherwise been suffocated by unwittingly swimming into it! Just go to the City of Chicago web site or be on the lookout for volunteer opportunities in your area. We can all help to make this Earth Day a happy one!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crestwood's Conatmination Concerns

I was stunned to see an explosion of investigative reports and articles in the news today, stating that village officials in suburban Crestwood had knowingly pumped contaminated water from a tainted well into their municipal water supply. And continued to do so for more than two decades after the U.S. EPA alerted them to the contamination! According to the article in today's Tribune, the EPA warned Crestwood officials back in 1986 about the dangerously high levels of perchloroethylene in their main water supply. Officials reportedly placated the EPA by agreeing to pipe in their drinking water from Lake Michigan, and the well was downgraded to an emergency-only, back-up water source, which eased state requirements for regular testing.

The article goes on to say that the Village of Crestwood continued to draw up to 20% of it's monthly water supply from the tainted well until 2007, when the EPA finally shut it down altogether. It took a vigilant mother of a child with cancer to get the attention of the EPA, and now the whole town is outraged. A segment on this evening's news focused Crestwood residents with (or in remission from) a myriad of cancers, suggesting that these illnesses could be chronic health effects of, or the possible result of long-term exposure to, a drinking water contaminant.

Is this possible in this day and age? You betcha-- have you ever watched Erin Brokovitch?!? Was it shady for Crestwood officials to tout low water prices while drawing drinking water from a contaminated well? Most definitely. Is it illegal? Well.... not exactly.

Under the SDWA, the EPA has set National Primary Drinking Water Standards, which identifies and classifies 86 known water contaminants, along with health risks and likely contamination sources for each. The EPA has studied these contaminants and set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and goal levels (MCLG) for each. While perchloroethylene, a commonly used dry-cleaning solvent, is not on the list, the two organic chemicals that form when PCE mixes with and breaks down in groundwater, dichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, are. Dichloroethylene, which can cause liver problems, has a MCL that ranges from 0.007 to 0.1 mg/L. Vinyl chloride, which increases cancer risk and is also a suspected cause of autism, has a MCL for just 0.002 mg/L and a MCLG of 0. This is some bad stuff! The October, 2007, test revealed vinyl chloride in an amount that was more than twice the legal MCL for that chemical.

However, this water was diluted with treated water from Lake Michigan, which likely reduced contaminant levels enough to pass the MCL tests, which are performed daily by all water treatment centers. However, saying that "dilution is the solution to pollution" is like advocating the withdrawl method of birth control; a crap shoot at best. If any of these contaminates exceed the MCLs, the local public water system (PWS) is required to notify their customers under the Public Notification requirements outlined within the SDWA. A tier-one notice requires notification within 24 hours if the contamination poses an immediate threat to human health, while a tier-two notice gives the PWS 30 days to report excess contaminant levels or improperly treated water. Crestwood only ever sent out tier-three notices, which were little more than cheery updates sent out with the annual water-quality reports.

The State of Illinois also has a right-to-know act that was passed in 2005, which would require either state officials or the Department of Public Health to notify residents when their soil or groundwater had been contaminated, even if the public water system failed to do so. Even the best technology available cannot remove all contaminants from the drinking water, so we are all drinking a chemical cocktail of sorts, regardless of where we live. It is the job of the EPA and our PWS to ensure that the contaminants we ingest are in such miniscule amounts that they pose the least possible threat to human health.

Although a statement was reportedly issued to Crestwood residents by the Health Department in August of last year, it was released nearly a year after the well was capped for good... and some may argue that the notice came nearly a quarter-century too late.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Giant Piles of Garbage

I hate to break it to you all, but waste management in this country is just that-- the management of waste. It's been likened to a shell game; we move piles of garbage from one place to another. Every year, the garbage trucks have to drive a little farther out to find a place to pile up all the trash we generate; in fact, the EPA estimates that all the landfills in the Chicago area will be full within the next 5-7 years. Cities like New York are already facing the space crunch; they sent out a "garbage barge" a few years back, with the intent of making their garbage someone else's problem. The barge circumnavigated the globe, and since no one was willing to take New York's trash, it wound up right back in New York.

According to the 2006 EPA report on the subject, of the 251 million tons of waste we generate each year (that's roughly 4 1/2 pounds of garbage per person per day), a full 55% of that was discarded. Only 32.5% was recovered (recycled), and a mere 12.5% was burned and the byproducts of combustion recovered as energy. We used to burn a lot of our garbage, but the gases and fumes that resulted were not properly filtered or recaptured, and the air pollution levels forced us to find another way. Many of the old incinerators in this city are now used as sorting facilities for our single-stream recycling program; city workers separate the materials that have been designated for recycling.

Our current method of waste management is to dump garbage into what they call "sanitary landfills". It sounds like an oxymoron, but basically all it means is that, once the landfill is full, it is covered with dirt. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Not necessarily. Old sanitary landfills are everywhere-- even if they no longer look or smell like landfills, it's hard for me not to call them what they are-- giant piles of garbage.

For example: those "mountains" along the Bishop Ford freeway into Indiana? They're not hills-- this is Illinois!-- they're covered mounds of trash. Ditto for the hilly landscape around Calumet City. The Brickyard Mall was built over a filled-in garbage pit, a large clay pit that was originally used in the making of bricks, hence the name. While that sounds like a good use for a former landfill site, the mall had to be closed down a few years back and was ultimately rebuilt, because the trash upon which the foundation was laid settled and compromised the structural integrity of the building. I'm not sure, but I suspect that the massive hill in the park across the street from me-- the one cross country runners dread-- was also created from garbage. And the popular sledding hill in the ritzy community of Evanston? The locals who remember call it "Mount Trashmore"-- it is aptly named.

We've become an undeniably "throwaway" society, but how do we reverse the waste and recovery percentages and slow the formation of these giant piles of garbage? There's not a single answer to that question; it will require a multi-faceted approach and the full cooperation of the American people to turn those numbers around. It will undoubtedly take time, but the effort is becoming increasingly necessary. Can you imagine what future civilizations will think of us when they excavate mound after mound of trash? I shudder at the thought.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Problem with Packaging

Tree huggers and environmental advocates everywhere are always urging consumers to purchase products that use as little packaging as possible. While this is good, sound advice, even well-intentioned shoppers wind up reaching for the brand names or sale items instead of the environmentally sound alternatives, which often trumps their desire to avoid excess packaging. So, how big of a deal is it, really? Most people are stunned to discover that, as of a 2006 EPA report, 32% of all Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in this country comes from product packaging alone. That's nearly 84 million tons a year, or 1/3 of all trash hauled away from our homes and dumped into landfills!

The sad thing is, much of this packaging is unnecessary. There's a whole psychology to product packaging; graphics and color schemes draw attention to the product, while larger packages take up more shelf space, which makes consumers think they're getting more for their money and also increases product visiblity on store shelves. Also, manufacturers can charge more for all the extra materials used to package the product, which is a sneaky way to increase their profits. Are we really that distracted by bright and shiny objects? Research suggests that we are, and as long as we keep succumbing to these sales tricks, manufacturers will continue in their wasteful ways.

As far as unnecessary packaging goes, some of the biggest culprits (in my opinion) are print cartridges, eletronic accessories, and over-the-counter drugs. Have you noticed that the box the print cartridges come in are usually twice the size of the actual cartridge, which is nestled in a plastic tray (usually made from hard-to-recycle plastic), which is encased in a plastic bag? Sure, the box has all the information and instructions on it, and the plastic tray keeps the cartridge from rattling around the box, but all the same instructions are printed on the plastic bag! Why not just poke a hole in the plastic bag and hang it on a hook!?!

I recently bought a memory card for my camera (it's a very small disk), which came encased in plastic packaging the size of a paperback-- why!?! And pill bottles drive me nuts. I bought some allergy medicine last year, which was embedded in an oddly shaped plastic package (which requires much more shelf space and larger shipping boxes than the bottle alone). It wasn't for protective purposes; I removed a tamper-resistant seal on the bottle when I finally got it dug out of the package. Once I got the bottle opened, I then pulled out a large piece of cotton, then dumped out some miniscule pills, which barely covered the bottom of the bottle. Ridiculous.

That said, there are some responsible producers and manufacturers out there. Take cell phone companies, for instance. They have one sample of each make and model of phone on display, and once the customer selects one, they go into the back and bring out an unremarkable box, filled to the brim with the phone, charger, and instruction manual. Windex has come out with refill packets for their glass cleaner-- a one-by-three-inch package of concentrated cleaner can be dumped into an empty spray bottle, mixed with water, and-- voila!-- a whole new bottle of Windex, minus the plastic bottle disposal.

I know some of these measures are used as shoplifting deterrants, but surely there are better ways to go about it... What if pharmacies had bulk dispensers of some of the most popular OTC drugs (like the plastic bins with the different colored jelly beans at most candy stores)? If customers come in with an empty bottle, they can get it refilled, at a discount. Or why not keep more of the small electronics behind a counter? With minimal packaging, stores could fit quite a number of products behind the electronics counter. Leave one out on display, like the cell phone stores do, and only pull out the product after the sale has been made. As for ink cartridges, many stores already offer a refill option on existing cartridges, which is something every consumer should take advantage of whenever possible!

The European Union issues levies (taxes) on manufacturers who use excessive packaging; if they want to waste materials, they can, but they will be charged accordingly. While it's not a ban or a law that producers would likely rail against, it has proven to be an effective deterrant in wasteful packaging. Our government and policies, unlike those of the EU, are more reactionary than preventative, but consumers can wise up now-- look at the packaging before purchasing a product. If we band together, we can pressure manufacturers even if our government will not... When it comes to product packaging, if consumers boycott the worst offenders, they will get the message!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Saving Time!

I love Daylight Saving Time, especially in the spring. For me, the extra hour of daylight in the evenings is synonomous with growth, renewal, happiness, and all things summer. In fact, I consider the extension of Daylight Saving Time in 2006-- by moving up the start date by three weeks in the spring and delaying the end date by a week in the fall-- to be the single crowning achievement of the Bush Administration. I was surprised to find out, however, just how many people disagree with me. They argue that it's hard to get up in the dark and reset their internal clocks, to lose an hour of sleep, and even to lose an hour of drinking time at the bars the night the clocks change.

Although the idea of Daylight Saving Time started with Benjamin Franklin, in an essay written while in Paris in 1784, it wasn't seriously considered until Englishman William Willet took up the cause, lobbying to shift the clocks ahead a total of 80 minutes on four consecutive Sundays in April, and to reverse the progression by the same incriments in November. He began lobbying Parliament in 1909, and was met with much ridicule. He continued to fight for this idea of "Summer Time" until his death in 1915; the bill finally passed in 1916 and was adopted in the U.S. two years later.

The argument has long been that Daylight Saving Time (note it's not Daylight Savings Time, even though that sounds more grammatically correct) helps save energy because people are able to rely on natural light later into the evening. However, the advent of air conditioning seems to have negated these benefits somewhat, as people are instead using the energy to run their fans and window units longer than they might otherwise do. In fact, a study was recently done in Indiana (a state which has been a little slow on the uptake, only switching to DST at the request of the Bush Administration in 2006) that shows energy usage went up during the summer hours, which reinforced their theory that DST was useless. What the study failed to mention, however, was the climate trends and population growth from the years used in the comparison.

Whatever your position on the matter, I find it's easier to get up in the dark those first few mornings when I think ahead to the long, lazy days of summer, and the time spent outdoors in the evenings, when the kids can stay out and play until bedtime. It's much more depressing to me when the daylight goes away, when it's dark by the time I come home from work. And not even an extra hour of sleep can change that.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Don't Grab a Kleenex!

While we're still in the midst of cold and flu season, let me pose this question: do you know where your Kleenex comes from? For most of you, I'm guessing the answer is no. Instead of repurposing recycled paper content, giant corporations like Kimberly-Clark, Proctor and Gamble, and Georgia Pacific knowingly and actively participate in the deforestation of some of North America's most ancient forests. Greenpeace has been fighting Kimberly-Clark (makers of Kleenex, Scott, and Cottonelle, among others) since 2004 to adopt a more responsible approach to the manufacture of such disposable products. Kleenex has fought back, reluctant to change their destructive and wasteful ways. So now, nearly five years later, the battle rages on.

This article in today's New York Times reminded me of this fact and got me mad all over again. Think about it; do we really need to cut down trees that have been enhancing the beauty of our planet and providing forest animals shelter for hundreds of years, just so we can wipe our ass with (or blow our snot into) something shiny and new? NO! This nation's trend toward bigger and better, regardless of the cost, has only fueled these companies' desires to create 2-, 3-, or 4-ply, quilted, padded, and even moisturized personal tissue items.

Sure, they're soft. Sure, they're aesthetically pleasing. But the luxury is NOT worth the damage caused to wildlife and to the environment. For all the energy it takes to cut down, process, bleach, heat, and package the sad remnants of a once-majestic tree, those hefty costs are passed on to the consumer while our natural resources are destroyed. I'm no businessperson, but it makes far more sense to me to use recycled paper products, which are far more cost and energy effective, and manufacturers can instead pass savings onto their consumers while maintaining their profit margins!

Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone go back to carrying a handkerchief, because that's... well... gross-- but you can be a smart consumer and vote with your wallet. For example, Trader Joe's sells wonderful (and cheap!) paper products that are 100% recycled, use up to 80% post-consumer content, and are not whitened with any chlorine bleach. The tissue boxes are funny and even fashionable, and cost less than a dollar (and the toilet paper doesn't leave any remnants on your behind)! If you have a terrible cold and are going through multiple boxes of tissues a day and your nose has been rubbed so raw that you just have to get a box of ancient-forest tissue, I suppose I can look the other way for a bit, but for average, everyday use, recycled tissue reigns supreme!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Winter, Be Gone!

Winter in Chicago always seems to become interminable this time of year. We haven't seen the ground in more than a month, and our usually vibrant city is colorless and ugly, made dull by a film of snow and ice, road salt, and "city sludge" that covers every available surface. The unmelted snow is a blank canvas for all the filth and pollution generated in this city; every bit of territory marked by the neighborhood dogs is instantly visible along the deep snow banks, and the discolored snow by the roadside ranges from a weak coffee brown to charcoal black. Have you ever noticed how starkly a freshly washed car stands out against the dull winter landscape? Even then, the color doesn't stay true for long. I washed my car just two days ago, and it is once again the color of grime, with only a hint of red.

Has anyone else wondered what causes snow to turn that color? It's not dirt, people-- the ground has been frozen solid for months. It's a combination of the soot and particulates belched out by countless car and truck exhausts, fragments of rubber from car tires, and even specks of concrete and blacktop that have unintentionally dissipated from the roadways and fallen from the overpasses. This is a direct result of the repeated plowing and salting that city streets endure each winter, which in turn creates potholes, cracks in the infrastructure, and yes, countless blown-out tires. This pollution, some of which is absorbed by flowering plants and trees or washed away by cleansing rains during the warmer months, stares us in the face each winter, soiling even fresh snowfall like dust on the fingertip of a white kid glove.

Despite efforts to "green" the city, during the months that aren't actually green, the pollution has nowhere to hide. Chicago was nicknamed "the Black City" during the Golden age (around the turn of the twentieth century) because of the smoke and soot generated by trains, iron and steel plants, slaughterhouses, and other industries, which covered nearly everything downwind. Pollution management has gotten unquestionably better since then, but despite these improvements, the city still has a long way to go. Although the sources may be different now, the outcome is the same; extensive pollutants in the Windy City.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Blue Carts are Coming! The Blue Carts are Coming!

Actually, the blue carts are here! They were delivered to eligible homes in my ward last evening-- hooray! Although we received information about the blue cart program (along with an invitation to participate) weeks before, my apartment building has too many units to be eligible for this program. It looks like they will accept all the same materials they accept at the drop-off centers, which is nice. The brochure shows pictures of the many items that can be recycled in these blue carts, and does not require the different materials to be sorted (or even rinsed [!!]-- just emptied), and recyclables will be picked up every other week starting in February. First a drop-off recycling center in the park across the street, now blue carts in the alleys... it's a good day in the 33rd ward!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The GAIA-Movement?

It seems like clothing donation boxes are everywhere in this city; they're scattered through almost every neighborhood in grocery store parking lots or next to gas stations or banks. I was all set to tout the virtues of the non-profit group behind the large spring-green donation bins, the GAIA-Movement, until I started doing a little research. This 501 (c) (3) charity, named after the mythological Greek term for "Living Earth", was started in 1970 by a group of Danish teachers, now known as Tvind. The organization was started under the premise of James Lovelock's Gaia Theory, which states that the Earth is a living planet, and that:

"All life forms work together in symbiosis to make this planet habitable, regulating the atmosphere the oceans and the climate. Humans also contribute to the life of the atmosphere, oceans, and earth. We believe that humans affect the environment both positively and negatively. We believe current human activities are disrupting the composition of the environment with possible disastrous consequences. We think that action is needed."

According to the Web site, the Gaia Movement collects donations (they primarily solicit clothing, but accept all sorts of odds and ends), which are sold to resale shops (usually in third-world countries) and the money raised goes to fund a myriad of environmental projects, such as recycling and landscape beautification at home and water and energy conservation projects abroad.

The Gaia Movement came to Chicago in 1999, and now has more than 500 green donation boxes scattered throughout the region. They had an overwhelming response from generous, eco-conscious Chicagoans; the group raised more than $2,000,000 the first three years alone! What attracted me to this organization was their environmental purpose and charitable promises, which are listed right on the side of the box, and the fact that they even accept clothes that are no longer wearable, because they can recycle the fibers!

I sent an email to the Program Manager of the Chicago branch last fall, asking on behalf of the shelter where I volunteer if they would accept the threadbare linens for recycling, but received no response. I imagine they will, though, because according to their Web site, textiles are one of the easiest materials to recycle, yet only 15% of all discarded clothing in the United States manages to stay out of the landfill! I also like the convenience of their many drop-off locations; there's a donation box sitting in the Burger King parking lot at the end of my street-- it's so easy!

The thing that gives me pause, though, is this Tribune article from 2004. As it turns out, high-ranking members of Tvind, the founders of the Gaia Movement, are under criminal investigation in Europe for embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering schemes. The article goes on to say, that:

"(al)though Tvind leaders face criminal trial and front-page headlines in Europe, the group flourishes in the U.S. ... Tvind’s Chicago-area operations demonstrate how the international collective sustains itself by generous clothing donations, idealistic volunteers and the determination of middle managers who live in Spartan conditions for the sake of a revolutionary creed."
"At the center are Gaia’s green bins. They stand 6 1/2 feet tall and weigh 500 pounds when empty. In an America where the average person recycles or donates to charity less than a quarter of the 68 pounds of textiles he or she tosses out every year, the Gaia bins offer what people seem to want: painless altruism, cleaner closets and utter convenience."

The article goes on to say that the Gaia movement has ties to for-profit organizations such as U'SAgain and Planet-Aid, and despite the claims that more than $2,000,000 a year goes toward environmental projects, a reported 96% of that money instead funded the business of resale clothing and paying their Atlanta-based contractors. I tried to follow the money trail posted in the sidebar to this article, but quickly got a headache. I'm not an accountant or an investigator, so I don't know what to believe.

I can tell you what I think, though-- I think that it's best to donate reusable clothes directly to resale or thrift shops instead of to a third-party organization. Legitimate resale-clothing outfits, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army, have decreased the number of drop boxes located throughout the community because these boxes are costly to maintain, and it's too easy for improperly packaged donations to get wet or dirty when dropped into these metal collection bins, which then makes them unusable.

I still think these boxes are great for unusable clothes (and linens!) because these textiles are reportedly recycled, which is something most other organizations like this are unable to do. I worry less about what they do with the profits that come from selling recycled textile fibers, because the good that comes from recycling somewhat negates the allegedly shady monetary actions, at least for me. I guess the moral here is, while it's good to support environmental causes, it might be even better to first do some homework on the organization you're looking to support first, because sometimes these things aren't always what they seem.