I saw an ad for bottled water recently that caught my eye: For every liter of Volvic that you buy, the sign said, the company will provide 10 liters of clean drinking water to Ethiopian children through a partnership with UNICEF.
Immediately a red flag went up in my brain.
It may be laudable for a corporation to fund new sustainable water supplies and sanitation education programs in an area of the world where such things are sorely needed. However, it's hard to get around how troubling the bottled-water industry as a whole is.
As Annie Leonard's just-released "The Story of Bottled Water" makes clear, agua that doesn't come from the tap is problematic along its entire life cycle, from the oil required to make its bottles to the pollution it causes once it's tossed. It is not necessarily as pure as tap water, which in the developed world is regularly inspected and well regulated (violations of the Clean Water Act notwithstanding), and it costs thousands of times more.
Another video, by Food & Water Watch, emphasizes how bottled-water companies siphon off what most of us think of as a public resource,
straining the environment in the process. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the issue to me: the privatization of municipal water supplies. And as Mother Nature Network points out, the more people get accustomed to consuming bottled water, the more distanced they become from the tap and the less incentive they have to support bonds that would maintain and upgrade public systems.
So getting back to Volvic's campaign, if for some reason I got marooned on an island with no freshwater source and only two water vending machines, one for a company with a do-gooder campaign and one without, I would give my money to the former. Then I'd start sending smoke signals in hopes that the Plastiki would pick me up.
But really, if helping kids in Ethiopia is the objective, I'd rather just contribute directly to a nonprofit like Charity: Water.
Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user @kevinv033.
Are you now, or have you ever been, a consumer of canned food?
Yeah, me too.
And I was none too pleased when I learned that epoxy-lined cans appear to be our main source of bisphenol A (BPA) exposure. I now avoid most canned food, which is kind of a drag convenience-wise (although it has done wonders for my soup-making skills).
Nonetheless, I'm still troubled by the estrogen-mimicking chemical's widespread presence in food packaging and other items (cash-register receipts is my new favorite).
So I was happy to learn from the Soft Landing (via Dr. Greene's blog—and thanks, Michele, for the tip) that preliminary research from Duke University suggests that folate and genistein may counteract the effects of BPA, particularly for children and possibly for adults as well.
The endocrine-disrupting chemical is of particular concern for fetuses and children, because, as Dr. Greene puts it, "[BPA] turns on and off different genes," resulting in a higher risk for problems such as obesity, early puberty, and breast and prostate cancer.
In their experiments, the Duke researchers exposed pregnant animals to BPA and gave them extra folate (found in leafy greens) and genistein (found in legumes such as soy and fava beans). They found that "[t]hese nutrients switched the genes back the way they should be, and the
BPA effect was completely nullified." Greene continues: "Beyond this, the researchers propose that these nutrients could
block the effects of chemical estrogen exposures, even if given later
in childhood and possibly even in adulthood."
Hmm... What's on the menu tonight? I think some romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collard greens, and broccoli with fava beans!
Pardon the gush, but I just have to share this fantastic, anti-plastic-licious tidbit with you: The folks at Straus Family Creamery are working on replacing their plastic yogurt tubs with a biodegradable potato-based alternative by the end of the year.
Ever since I recently internalized the fact that plastic recycling isn't very green (in terms of both people and the environment), I've been trying to decrease the amount of the stuff that comes into my life. I'm no Beth Terry, though, and my refrigerator in particular is home to a fair number of plastic containers: tubs of hummus, salsa, and especially yogurt.
Mostly I buy Straus yogurt. I love the way it tastes and the way it's made (organically, but beyond that, it's cooled in metal vats, not the plastic tubs you buy it in). And, as you can tell from my two entries on the company in the Boycotts & Buycotts section of this blog (lower right), I have a lot of respect for Straus's business practices. For example, I'm really into the fact that I can buy its awesome milk in a returnable glass container.
Now I have even more respect. The reason Straus is pursuing the potato-based tubs instead of what's emerging as the standard compostable packaging, corn-based PLA—which isn't as environmentally friendly as it seems—is that, as marketing manager Liz Scatena told me, Straus has "a very strict
policy against GMOs. We do not want them in our products, nor do we
want to support their growth." The corn in PLA is genetically modified, and lots of pesticides are used to grow it.
I look forward to seeing Straus's totally tubular tubs whenever they hit the shelves. In the meantime, though, I just discovered another local company, Saint Benoît, that uses glass and ceramic containers for its yogurt, so I'll probably branch out and give it a try. Cost-wise, it's only one penny more than Straus (as long as you return the containers).
I'm always amazed at how quickly November and December blow by. Life's been so crazy that I never even managed to write a holiday-consumerism-themed post.
But I have managed to think of a New Year's resolution (a two-pronged one, even!), and I'm just going to throw it up here, all quick-and-dirty-like: From now on, I will no longer buy paper towels or paper napkins. The paper industry is supposedly the third-largest contributor to global warming, and I've been rather enjoying using rags, dish towels, and Skoy cloths to clean up messes. Also, Mr. Wallet Mouth and I have some pretty cool cloth napkins (see above) that make us feel classy when we use them.
Part 2 of my resolution is to buy and consume fewer things packaged in plastic. Ever since learning that "plastic recycling" is a misnomer (plastics are actually downcycled into unrecyclable objects) and that the entire enterprise is not very green, I've been more aware of my relationship to the stuff. I even remembered to bring my stainless-steel water bottle on my holiday plane flights (hmm, speaking of global warming...) so I could say no to the plastic cup. I'm lucky to live near a grocery store that offers a wide range of bulk goods, but for some reason I haven't been in the habit of buying non-food items—things like lotion and laundry detergent—in bulk there, so this year I'm going to try to change that.
I love it when pop culture and ethical consumerism converge.
Last weekend brought one of the best live-music shows I've ever attended: the Swell Season. The music was sublime, and speaking between the songs, Glen Hansard was as honest and unguarded as you'd imagine he'd be among a small group of friends, never mind the nearly full theater's capacity of 3,000.
At the merch table afterward, I was pleased to see that the band was selling organic cotton T-shirts (did you know that conventional cotton is responsible for some 16 percent of global chemical pesticide use?), canvas tote bags, and metal water bottles sporting their cool owl logo. Clearly this is a group interested in promoting greater environmental consciousness.
The water bottles particularly struck me, because I had noticed during the show that the band members were drinking standard bottled water. Wouldn't it be amazing to see major touring musicians sipping from reusable containers onstage instead of plastic water bottles? What a nice quiet statement that would make against bottled water's numerous problems (the wastefulness of its production and disposal, the health issues, etc.). I asked the guy who sold me my T-shirt to pass an encouraging word on to the band.
The following day, there was a coda to the theme. I heard a cool song on the radio called "Garbage," by Chairlift. I'll close by sharing some of the lyrics:
All the garbage that you have thrown away
Is waiting somewhere a million miles away
Your condoms and your VCR
Your ziploc bags and father's car
Dark and silent it waits for you ahead
So much garbage will never ever decay
And all your garbage will outlive you one day
You should sign a fancy signature to your messy messy portraiture
Because dark and silent it waits for you ahead
Making so much garbage each and every day
We make this shit for you to throw away
In plastic rooms in factories for you to dispose of as you please
Because dark and silent it waits for you ahead
I've got nothing against the occasional sugary-cereal splurge, but if you saw an official-looking seal on the front of a box of Fruit Loops that said, "Smart Choice," wouldn't you find that a bit ... loopy? Me too. That's why I was happy to hear, via Change.org, that the FDA recently wised up to the so-called Smart Choices labeling scheme and slapped it upside the head before the program's doublespeak could gain much traction.
The initiative—sponsored by such food-industry giants as ConAgra, Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo—characterized high-sugar, high-fat processed products (and possibly some foods that are actually healthy to eat) as "smarter" choices. "Smarter than what?" one must ask. Dining on day-old éclairs tossed in pork fat and served on a bed of fresh cotton candy? Well, OK.
Thankfully, after the FDA sent a letter to the big guys saying it would begin cracking down on inaccurate food labeling, the companies voluntarily suspended the program.
Apparently Beth Terry is having more of an influence on me than I thought.
Last week I had a freelance editing gig downtown, and I did not manage to pack a lunch at home (I blame Mini-Mouth, who did not want me to abandon her). When I left the office to forage for food on that first day, I discovered something interesting: that I couldn't bring myself to buy certain edibles that I normally would have... because of their packaging. I had gone to a market with a deli counter offering all manner of delicious-looking salads, pastas, and the like, but I had no way of getting them without also getting their plastic tubs, and that bothered me.
It bothered me enough to make me keep looking for other options until I found something plastic-free. I ended up with a Greek wrap (encased in paper) and some tomato soup (in a compostable bowl, sans plastic lid, which got me a weird look at the cash register).
The next day I passed over a tiny Japanese place with yummy-looking noodles (they had no ceramic bowls or plates, even if you ate there) and went with a burrito from a stand across the street.
I find this fascinating because I hadn't purposefully set out to "be like Beth" and radically cut my plastic consumption. It was much more subtle than that. It was as if some new wind current had entered the atmosphere of my subconscious, without my even realizing it completely, and yet... there I was, changing my purchasing behavior.
The tipping point was probably when Terry commented (in Facebook, not here) on my recent post about envelopes, informing me that the West Coast ships most of its plastic "recycling" to China, where it is either processed by workers laboring under often-toxic conditions or burned for energy. Not, as she said, what most of us have in mind when we think of recycling.
Now, I know that my individual lunch choices amount to zilch in
the face of, say, the huge issues associated with climate change that
world leaders recently met to discuss. And I'm not saying I'll never again buy any food item that's packaged in plastic (in fact, a quick glance at our grocery bags from this weekend shows that I already have).
But it's safe to say that a new level of awareness has undeniably crept into my psyche, and it will be interesting to see how it manifests in the future.
To all my Bay Area readers: Want to do something fun and social that will also make you feel good about harnessing your economic power?
Tomorrow, Sept. 10, 2009, from 5 to 10 p.m., the pocketbook activists at Carrot Mob invite anyone and everyone to show up at Epicenter Café, at 764 Harrison between Third and Fourth streets in SOMA, and spend some money there as part of a group effort to help the café earn some extra bucks to improve its already quite laudable green credentials. More details can be found here.
I'm going to try to make it on the early side with Mini Mouth. Maybe see you there!
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).