Sunday, November 17, 2013

Diversity is beautiful!

This summer I went on a trip to Mendocino. My partner and I went on a number of hikes, including one in particular that went from the ocean to the top of a nearby mountain (Russian Gulch State Park). The diversity of the plant life was amazing to me -- each zone had a rainbow of colors (and even more amazing, almost no invasive plants!). I documented the plants I could identify and grouped them into three zones. To me, this was a reminder that diversity is key to a thriving ecosystem, something humans need to keep in mind!

Coastal Zone
Lupin -- top right
Seaside daisy -- top left
Indian paintbrush -- middle left
California Poppy -- bottom left
Queen Anne's lace -- bottom right

Foothill Zone
Wild cucumber -- far left
Red columbine (not sure of this identification) -- top middle
Buttercups (not sure of this identification) -- top right
Forget me nots -- bottom right

Mountain Zone
Giant rhododendron -- top
Sorrel -- bottom left
Mountain iris -- bottom right

Indoor air safety: Creating a safe and beautiful home environment

The Question

"I've been reading about indoor air pollution, particularly from plastic. I guess you don't even have to touch it or put it in your mouth for it to be dangerous -- it's just the dust that comes off of it. What do I do?!?"

The Answer

Yes, indoor air pollution is a growing concern, particularly with the prevalence of plastics in our everyday lives. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are off gassed from a variety of sources, including fresh paint, new appliances, new carpeting, and many varieties of soft plastics (including some children's toys!).

One of the ways to deal with this is to have indoor plants. A while back, NASA conducted a study to see which common indoor plants are best at filtering pollution out of the air. The recommendation was that the average household should have one plant per 100 square feet (read, one per room).

Many of my friends have pets or babies, so I cross-referenced this list with non-toxic plants as listed on the APSCA website. Here is a short list of plants that are both non-toxic when chewed on and will help make your home non-toxic too!

Safe for dogs, cats, and babies

Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii) -- far left

Cast iron plant (aspidistra elatior) -- middle
Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii) -- upper right

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) -- lower right

If you do not need to worry about pets or babies, here is a list of plants that I found easy to care for (read: water once a month and otherwise neglect) and easy to find at the local hardware store (I prefer Osh).

Plants that are easy to find and care for

Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica) -- far right

Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium) -- upper middle

Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum) -- lower middle

Mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii') -- far right

I've also had good luck with the spider plant and cast iron plant listed above. Most of these plants are medium sized and thus relatively inexpensive (exceptions are the rubber plant and bamboo palm, both of which can get very big). Be warned though, nice pots will set you back a bit.

Happy planting!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Understanding risk: A reasonable level of certainty

I love what the EWG is doing. The EWG website has multiple guides for consumer products from makeup to cleaning products. The products are easy to search and clearly rated. Having all of the available data put together in one easy-to-search place is an invaluable aid. The EWG is also doing a good job of getting the message out there that not everything in consumer products is consumer friendly. However, the website does not replace common sense.

Let's review.

The precautionary principle says that if there is a reasonable belief of risk and there is an acceptable alternative, then use the acceptable alternative. This sounds simple, but in practice it can be difficult to interpret and apply to daily life. What is a "reasonable" level of certainty that the risk exists? What level does the risk need to surpass before I believe it is a clear and present danger? How convenient and available must the alternative be before I switch over?

In a previous blog article I talked about zero risk. The main point of the article is that there is no such thing as zero risk. But what is a reasonable level of certainty that the risk exists?

The principle I follow is that if the manufacturing process uses traditional methods and there is little evidence of harm, then the product is okay. Here I mean traditional methods to be those involving physical changes (e.g., freezing, drying, pulverizing into a powder) and well established chemical changes (fermenting, roasting, and so on). If the manufacturing process is relatively new (I'm thinking last 50 years as "new"), then more substantial proof is needed to affirm the safety of the product. If the process is extremely new (let's say last 10-20 years) and involves a radical departure from traditional methods (e.g., genetic changes or extreme chemical changes), then very substantial proof is needed.

For example, there have been very few long term studies on the risks of gmo foods. Because gmos are so new and represent such a large departure from normal practices, I personally feel that more proof is needed to establish the safety of such products. Similarly, I feel that many of the chemicals produced for or as a byproduct of plastics need similar vetting before I can deem them safe.

Here is a counter example. Retinyl acetate is listed on the EWG as an 8 (0 being the best and 10 being the worst for cosmetic products). Retinyl acetate is more commonly known as vitamin A. Clearly, vitamin A has been around for a long time and is vital for normal functions of the body. However, because it is fat soluble too much vitamin A can lead to problems. Lathering your entire body in pure vitamin A every day would quickly lead to high levels of toxicity. Yet it is not clear to me that the level of vitamin A in these products is likely to lead to such high levels of build up. So, knowing that there is vitamin A in a product, by itself, is not enough information to be useful.

Here is another counter example. EWG lists lavender oil as a C (A being best and F being worst for cleaning products). However they present no evidence as to how or why lavender oil is bad (except perhaps that there are no studies on it?). Some of the cleaning products are listed as bad merely because they do not list all of their ingredients. I am in favor of clear and complete labeling, but the absence of complete labeling does not automatically mean that the product is going to cause me harm.

Conclusion: EWG is doing a great job of making valuable information accessible. However that does not replace our need to understand risk -- both its certainty and its level.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Organic foods cause food born illness?

The Question

"A friend sent me this...her 'anti-organic' mother-in-law sent it to her. My friend wants to know if there is anything they should do different...she washes her fruits/veggies 3 times. Hmm...I just rinse mine!"

The Answer

This 2002 article from a conservative think tank argues that because organic farmers fertilize their foods with manure, organic produce is leading to an increase in serious food born illnesses. Specifically they point out a virulent strain of E coli -- regular E. coli might give you an upset stomach -- E. coli strain 0157 can lead to hospitalization and, in rare cases, death. They state that in 1996, the CDC reported that there were 250 deaths caused by this strain of E coli.

So, the question is, is this true and what should I do about it?

The short answer: The risk is real, but very small. Most people already practice safe food habits, so there is no need to do anything different.

Safe food habits include buying from a reputable producer (i.e., not a rundown roadside stand), buy only produce that looks fresh (i.e., avoid bruised or moldy produce), and wash your hands with soap and water before preparing and eating food.

The long answer: After reading this article, I did some fact checking. I could not find numbers from 1996, but I figured that since then consumption of organic food has really boomed, so current numbers from the CDC should show even more deaths from food related illnesses. In 2010, the most recent year for which the CDC has verified data, there were only 23 deaths from all food related illnesses combined. If you include hospitalizations, the number goes up to 1,184. (Check for yourself here). That right there makes me think the article was cherry picking the data, but maybe 1996 was a bumper year for food born illness or maybe 2010 was a abnormally quiet year. Let's pretend for argument's sake that 250 deaths per year is the real number for most years. Is this something the average person should worry about?

By itself the number does not really provide a lot of information. If only 250 people ate organic produce and 250 people died, then, yes, I would be terrified! However, this is far from the truth. A Harris poll in 2007 (see the NY Times article here) states that 30% of Americans eat organic produce some of the time. So, if the population of the US is 300 million, then 90 million people eat organic produce at least occasionally. In that case 250/90 million= 0.0003% chance of dying from a food related illness.

Take, by comparison, heart disease. Every year nearly 600,000 people die of heart disease! Atherosclerosis is caused by an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise (as per the Mayo Clinic). If anything, the article should have been written about the dangers of fast food!

Okay, but what about conventional produce? Consider this: "the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10,000-20,000 physician-diagnosed pesticide poisonings occur each year among the approximately 2 million U.S. agricultural workers" (as per this CDC article). Let's pretend that absolutely none of the harmful chemicals that sicken these workers actually stays on our food to accumulate in our bodies. Even with that assumption, would you really want to contribute to that? Umm... no, thanks.

What is the real story here? To me, it is the fact that there is no such thing as zero risk. We all live with risk every day of our lives. What we have to do is learn how to evaluate how much the risk affects us and why it scares us. Being hospitalized from a case of really bad food poisoning seems a lot scarier than eating fast food because the results are immediate and understandable. That means it is easier for the human brain to process the message "organic food = food poisoning = bad." By contrast, the relationship between fast food and heart disease is less immediate and clear to us, so we are less likely to behave in a way that benefits us in the long term. I see a similar story play out with environmental problems like climate change all the time.

Being a savvy information consumer is an important skill in today's world. And if you need a second opinion, always ask your personal green expert.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

In the news: Uplifting stories

In the last month, I've read a number of inspiring stories in the news. Here is a quick recap (with links) of what I've learned.

1. In Canada's Globe and Mail, columnist Margaret Wente writes about how a 29-year old entrepreneur, Jon Dwyer, created an alternative fuel that doesn't need government subsidies or specialized technology to work. Flax fuel is cheaper than diesel and runs in diesel motors (without modification). The new form of biodiesel is being used to power Toronto's city fleet and other buildings in the city.

2. In a similar story on NPR, guest host on Morning Edition, John Ydstie, talked about social entrepreneur David Green, who is lowering the price of medical technologies by making cheaper products to compete with conventional ones. This competition drives down prices. Green successfully made a hearing aid with off-the-shelf blue tooth technology at a fraction of the cost of a traditional hearing aid. He's also helped 18 million people see better by making cataract surgery cheaper.

3. Check out the Economist's review of Nature's Fortune, written by Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams from the Nature Conservancy. The authors describe how putting a price on an ecosystem service allows governments and businesses to incorporate the ecosystem in their planning and thus preserve it. The best known example of this is New York City's decision to restore the Catskill watershed because it was cheaper than building a water purification plant.

4. I wish mainstream news in the US would report more on uplifting human achievements, like BBC did in this article on green heroes. The UK's National Trust was the world's first organization dedicated to conserving natural and historical places (started in 1895!). Each year they celebrate three exceptional volunteers with the Octavia Hill award.Check this out: In 1985 they had three volunteers, now they have over 60,000!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Repurpose part two: New clever ideas!

For some reason, I had thought that chain letters had died in the last decade. So I was a little curious when my mom sent me what looked like the typical chain email. I was pleasantly surprised to find photos of ingenious ways to reuse ordinary things! One of my secret hobbies is to troll through websites like Apartment Therapy and Homesteading/Survivalism's Facebook page looking at just these sorts of photos. I'm sharing here only the best photos from the chain mail that were new to me.

 Here is one I'm including because it was so beautiful, but, I think, a little sacrilegious. Also, it is not very practical because how many people have a baby grand piano just lying around?

 This one was not part of the email chain, but is one that I use personally. It is a melted wine bottle that is used as a spoon rest. Actually, the one my sister gave me is even better than this one because it is divided into three sections, so there is room to lay two or three different spoons (which I find often happens in my kitchen where there might be multiple things cooking at once).

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rules for recycling, compost, and trash

The Question

A coworker recently asked me for a clear guide for what should be recycled, composted, or trashed.

The Answer

This question is actually surprisingly difficult to answer. This is because recycling rules differ from county to county and even from city to city within a single county. I'll outline some basics, places to go for more info, and some interesting facts about recycling and composting.

Most waste haulers offer a single-stream recycling system. This means that all recyclables can go into a single bin that later gets sorted. You may think that single-stream recycling is universal and obvious, but really it isn't. In Japan, some cities have 30 different recycling bins!

The single-stream recycling bin can take most metal, plastic, paper, and glass. The most common exceptions to this list are light bulbs, broken glass, dirty paper or cardboard, juice boxes (or any other box that holds liquid like soup boxes, etc), and plastic bags.

Recology, a waste hauler that serves many places in the Bay Area has a lovely graphic display for their recycling rules. You can find it here.

Why can't I recycling plastic bags?
When I say plastic bags I don't just mean the ones you use in the grocery store to protect your produce or to pack your groceries in -- I mean ALL plastic bags. That includes the ones that your salad mix comes in and the bread bag too. The recycling centers use automated machines to sort all of the items and the plastic bags end up getting stuck in the machinery like string in a vacuum cleaner. If you've ever had that happen to you, you know what I mean, it is not fun.

Do I need to wash out my jars and cans and stuff before I put it in the recycling bin?
For most recyclers, the answer is no, not really, but it's nice. I usually just fill up my jar with water, shake it vigorously to remove the big food pieces, then drain and throw into the bin. Most recycling plants have processes to remove impurities before recycling the item. Check your local waste hauler's website to be sure.

If your waste hauler offers composting, you should jump on the chance to use it. State law requires composting and recycling to be cheaper than garbage, meaning most people save money when they add composting because they significantly reduce the amount of real garbage they need to have hauled away.

Composting at the smallest scale requires a mix of different plant matter to operate most successfully. When composting at home you should mix together grass cuttings, dead leaves, and your vegan kitchen scraps (no dairy to meat) into a heap about 1 meter cubed. On an industrial scale, however, you can compost a lot more than that. Industrial composting can handle meat (even bones!), dairy, soiled paper (used paper cups, pizza boxes, etc), and bigger yard trimmings (even small branches!).

Some places only offer bins for yard waste, not compostables, so check your local waste hauler's website to be sure. You can find the Recology compost rules graphic here.

Trash includes everything that doesn't go into the recycle or compost bin, unless it falls under the hazardous waste category. Check out my previous post for information on household hazardous waste. Sadly, most often this trash goes straight to the dump to be preserved for generations upon generations.

In some places, like San Jose, the waste hauler has a MRF system (pronounced "murf") which prevents most waste from ending up at the landfill. Actually, the single-stream recycling also goes to a MRF system, but that is a "clean" MRF, not a "dirty" MRF. The GreenWaste MRF in San Jose can actually sort recycling and compostables from trash thereby removing the vast majority of materials from the waste stream. Pretty cool!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Eating foods native to the Americas

Cinco de Mayo, as many people know, is a day where Mexicans in the United States celebrate their heritage. The date originally commemorated the victory of the Mexican army over the French forces back in the 1800s (and, no, is not Mexican independence day, which is in September).

This year I decided to celebrate all week by eating only foods native to the Americas. This is both for personal and altruistic reasons.

1) I have a number of dietary restrictions that relate to my genetic background. As someone with Mexican heritage myself, I am unable to eat most dairy or wheat products. The ability to tolerate gluten and lactose evolved in European populations where grain and dairy was their main food source for many thousands of years. Sadly these genes did not get passed on to me. If you want to know more about the argument for eating foods that your ancestors ate, read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (To be reviewed more formally in a later post).

2) Eating foods native to the Americans means that I'll be eating locally! (For the most part, I've assumed that the reader is familiar with the arguments for eating locally, although I may specifically address this in a later post.)

It is surprising how many fruits and veggies originate from the Americas. Here is a short list of the most common commercially available foods (there are many, many more which are not domestically cultivated, so are not common in grocery stores, such as guavas and prickly pears). Corn, beans, squash, tomato, avocado, chili peppers, potatoes, peanuts, pecans, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, chocolate, vanilla, maple syrup, and agave (as syrup or tequila!). Of course, the native people also had access to other food stuffs that are found worldwide, such as meat (fowl, fish, and herd animals like deer),  honey, and leafy greens.

With only a few exceptions from this list (like onion and lime) I'm making a whole slew of tasty dishes! (Chicken tortilla soup, vegan enchiladas [stuffed with squash, black beans, bell peppers, and salsa], roasted potatoes, fish tacos with avocado, turkey chili, and so on).

What is even better is that this experiment has been educational and thought provoking. I recently read about the "Three Sisters" myth. Native Americans planted their three main crops of corn, squash, and beans together because they grew better together than apart. This triad became known as the three sisters, and several myths developed to explain the phenomenon. Today we call this companion planting or interplanting, and modern scientists have only just recently begun to understand why interplanting is so beneficial. To my mind, this makes Native Americans the first to practice sustainable agriculture.

I hope this inspires you to experiment with your own local food cuisine! Recipes to be posted later this week!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Make your home beautiful and eco-friendly: Napkins, silverware, and more!

My sissy is amazing. Recently she announced,

"I just bought re-usable cloth: napkins, produce & bulk bags...another step closer to being greener! AND made in the USA (even the materials!)"

She bought from an Etsy vendor LoveForEarth who lives in Virginia and focuses on eco-friendly alternatives, such as the cloth bags and napkins my sister bought from her. Even better, on LoveForEarth's Facebook page she announced an Earth Day special discount. My sister mentioned she had just missed the special, but loved her products, and guess what! The vendor applied the Earth Day discount retroactively and refunded her the savings!

I've been using cloth napkins for a while now, and my tip would be to get something in a multi-colored pattern. I have white napkins and black napkins, and the white napkins show stains too easily and the blank napkins show bits of lint that they pick up from the dryer. Of course, with the white napkins I can use bleach, but I try to only do that a few times per year, because bleach is so caustic.

Another dilemma I recently solved was in regards to silverware. We had previously been using an odd assortment of spoons, forks, and knives from at least 6 different sets.One of the things I had really wanted was a real, grown-up, silverware set to use (and not be embarrassed when we had company over).

I thought Oneida was still manufacturing in the US, but turns out they moved their production facilities to China back in the 90's. Boo! I looked and looked, but could only find one silverware maker in the US, but the were an online only store and had an extremely restricted return policy, so if I didn't like the set I bought, I would not be able to return it. Lame!

I end up searching on Etsy and found a vendor (AuctionJunkies) who was selling old Oneida sets (similar to the one pictured below). Even better! Originally made in the US, second hand, and now being bought from someone in Missouri. Yay!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fish: It's what's for dinner!

The Question

I'm talking with my parents the other day, when they tell me about their latest dilemma. There they are in frozen food aisle at Trader Joe's looking at the frozen fish. There are several different types of salmon. In particular, they wondered, "Should we get the Atlantic salmon or the Pacific salmon?"

The Answer

Short answer: Pacific salmon.

Long answer: Soooo... I think we all know that the world's fish stocks are in pretty sad shape, what with overfishing, pollution, and global warming, so I will just assume that you, the reader, know why we should be mindful of which sorts of fish to eat. When considering what fish to eat, mostly I consider it from the environmental perspective of eating the most sustainably harvested fish. However some people, particularly children and pregnant women, need to think about this from a health perspective too, because some fish can contain high levels of mercury.

The most complete compendium I have found on what fish is good and bad is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. You can review it here. It very neatly lists which fish is "best choice," "good alternative," and "avoid." I printed out their pocket guides and have been using them for about 3 years now, since I became a pescatarian.The one complaint that I have about the Seafood Watch is that it is way too complete.

Here are some of the problems I have come across:

1.  There is no way anyone can get all of the information needed to decipher the list. The most information you can get from food packages is the general type of fish (e.g., salmon, halibut, etc) and where it was caught (Pacific, Atlantic, etc). Sometimes you can get how is was raised or caught (e.g., farmed, line-caught), and very very rarely will you get the species (e.g., bluefin, yellowfin, skipjack, blackfin, bigeye, and albacore are all types of tuna). Oh, and let's not go it to the whole scandal about how much fish is mislabeled...

2. The guide is almost impossible to use when at a restaurant. The waiter is usually clueless, and long ago I gave up asking. I have even been to nice restaurants that list the location and harvesting method on the menu and still failed to be able to match it to what was on the list. Usually the lighting is too dark to clearly read the tiny font and I don't have my reading glasses with me. It is also kind of embarrassing. Do I really want to end up like the couple on Portlandia?

3. Then there is sushi, which means I have to translate first before reviewing my guide or use their separate sushi guide.


1. The Seafood Watch people also have a Super Green list, advertised as a short list of fish that is good for your health and the environment. This list is short, and, did I mention, short? Also, or actually because of that, it is easy to decipher.

2. Really I'm to the point where I've just memorize the 3 main types of fish I like and that are okay to eat: Pacific salmon, Pacific halibut, US tuna, and US catfish. And if I'm out at a restaurant, then sometimes that means going with the vegetarian dish.

3. I just found out that they have turned Seafood Watch into an Android app! I'm downloading it today and hopefully can give some feedback on it soon! Yay!

Friday, March 22, 2013

The problem with plastics (well, at least one of the many)

Is this true?

A while ago, a friend sent me this article from on BPA. BPA (for Bisphenol A) is a chemical found in many types of plastics, including those used for food (e.g., the plastic liner in some canned products, Nalgene bottles, etc). BPA has a similar molecular structure to estrogen, and when introduced to the body can interfere with processes that rely on estrogen. It has been associated with breast cancer, low semen production, and rising rates of early pubescence in girls.

SmartMama reviews a scientific study linking BPA to obesity. My friend asked me for my take on it.

Here is what I said. 

The abstract of the study does not say if they controlled for dietary choices. Obviously, eating more packaged foods equals more BPA and more calories...

However, these results are not surprising. The body is extremely parsimonious. The same hormones that lead to sexual development are also used in building muscle and controlling the metabolism. BPA is a hormone disrupter, so no surprise when we find out it is messing with our bodies in a multitude of ways.

What should you do about it?

I try to avoid eating processed foods as much as possible. Of course, that is a good move for many reasons (healthier, fewer calories, less packaging materials, etc). However, you can't always avoid it entirely. The trick is that only certain plastics have BPA. Typically plastics labeled 1, 2, 4, and 5 are BPA free. Here is the rhyme I came up with to help me remember which ones.

One, two, four, and five
If you want to stay alive.
Avoid number three
So you can be cancer free.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Repurpose: One of the many Rs (Reduce, Recycle, Reuse, Repair, Refuse...)

During the course of my most epic adventure (err... I mean, moving, stressing about moving, and looking up organization tips), I found a few more great resources.

1. Homesteading and Survival-ism: They have a website, but their Facebook page is far more exciting. They have wonderful pictures of little cabins and other rustic living spaces, but they also have a lot of cute, cool little ideas how to do things on the cheap, like turn gutters into hanging gardens (see here).

2. Karmic Recycling: A woman catalogs her experience with her worm bin. Check it out here.

3. Apartment Therapy: Another great resource on how to live comfortably in small spaces, how to re-purpose trash into treasure, and other fun things (check their blog out here).

How to get rid of your stuff: Why George Carlin was right

I believe George Carlin once pointed out that other people's belongings are "shit", while your own things are "stuff." I'd like to carry that logic one step further and say that all stuff is shit. Seriously, why do I need a food processor, blender, and an immersion blender? And where the hell did that creme brulee torch come from?!?

I'm moving from a large apartment into a much smaller apartment, and I need to get rid of a lot of things that I do not use very often. But I can't just throw it away in the garbage! That means it goes to a landfill, to slowly corrode and seep into our water supply. Throwing things in the garbage unnecessarily is one of the high crimes of environmentalism, but one that is so easy to give in to. Here is what I've learned so far.

A. The resources listed below vary widely from county to county in what they will accept. Always check beforehand with your local facility to be sure they will accept your items.

1. Stuff: The vast majority of your stuff can be donated to Goodwill. For people in the Bay Area, you can check out the list here. There is a very small list of what they won't take, like really dangerous stuff (guns, knives, etc), or really big appliances (refrigerators, water heaters).

2. Furniture: The Goodwill in my neighborhood contracts out with a group called College Hunks Moving Junk. According to their website, they will pick up your furniture and haul it away for you. Anything that can go to the Goodwill, they give you a tax deductible receipt for, and anything that cannot go to the Goodwill, they take anyway and dispose of in the most environmentally responsible manner possible. Sadly, I cannot yet vouch for the attractiveness of their employees.

3. E-waste (Old electronics, cables, power cords, etc): Most electronics can go to (surprise!) the Goodwill. They will refurbish useable electronics (they erase and reformat the drive, to protect your privacy), and whatever doesn't work is disassembled and recycled. The few exceptions are fluorescent bulbs and batteries. Those have to go to the household hazardous waste facility.

4. Household hazardous waste: In addition to bulbs and batteries, you can take your old cleaning supplies here. The useable stuff is donated to poor families. I even donated old, but useable soap and shampoo to be put in their donation warehouse. Some of these facilities have weird hours (e.g., only Tuesday from 2-5pm), and most will require an appointment for drop-offs.

5. Medicine: As I mentioned in a previous post, you should not flush your unwanted medicine down the toilet. There should be a medicine drop-off box at your local sheriff's office that will take everything, including controlled prescription painkillers. As I've said before, I still cannot find out what exactly they do with the unwanted medicine. I've emailed a number of resources, and still no luck. Maybe I can find an investigative journalist to take this one on.

6. Miscellaneous: In one of my first posts I called out this website ( as a good place to find out where to get rid of your stuff. Another resource I stumbled across recently is the San Mateo Recology Database. Pretty good resource for all of the miscellaneous crap I need to get rid of that can't go anywhere else (e.g., used cds, crutches, eyeglasses).

B. Don't give up! You will have to make a number of trips to different places to get rid of all of your crap, but it will be worth it! At the end of the day you will know you've done the right thing and that somewhere someone treasures that thing you wanted to throw away like the piece of shit it was. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Season of Consumerism: The Saga Continues

Back in November, I was struggling with Christmas time dilemmas (see this post). I wanted to give and receive gifts as part of the season's celebration, but without being a sellout to consumer-driven impulses. I'm following up on that post by describing what I learned about turning the season of gift giving into the season of charity.

Asking for donations to charity as a Christmas gift
As my November post states, my partner suggested that I ask for a donation to any of a list of charities. I thought this was a great idea, but I was worried about sounding self-righteous or offending others by my choices of charities. I very carefully selected a list of charities that I thought were politically neutral (e.g., Red Cross, Humane Society) and said that I would like a small donation to whichever one of these charities was most moving to the giver. We ended up getting the regular stuff (gift card to Target,, etc), but in addition we also got a card from the Red Cross saying a generous donation had been made in our name! Yay! I sent off a thank you email right away gushing about how delighted I was, and I now have that card hanging up on my wall.

Additionally, some of our other friends, without any prompting or discussion on the topic, gave us a donation to American Forests! (Check them out here.) Twenty five trees were planted in our name! Super cool! Of course, as a scientifically trained environmentalist, I can be pretty picky about which trees get planted where and for what reasons, but after reading through their website, I thought they were going about it in a reasonable and scientifically sound way. Good on them!

Giving donations to charity as a Christmas gift
Right, so what about giving a donation to charity as a gift? Well, the first concern is how the recipient will feel about it, especially if you haven't talked with them about it. That will depend on your relationship with them, so I'll leave that part to you. But a secondary concern is knowing which charity to give to, which is what I briefly discuss here.

I want my donation to have the maximum impact, but how do I pick the charity? There are a number of websites that rate charities. The Better Business Bureau has a special section for charities; Charity Watch and Charity Navigator are two others. Of the ones that I've looked at, Charity Navigator had the best presentation of information, easiest to use search tool, the most comprehensive rating system, and a very large number of charities listed (also organized by cause). You can check out their rating system (here), but basically it boils down to how efficient they are with the money they receive and how transparent they are about spending that money. Charity Navigator also has these great "Top Ten" lists (here): biggest, best rated, most inefficient, most overpaid CEOs, and so on.

But I don't know which charity my friend might like best! So far, I've found two organizations that provide gift-givers with flexibility of choice. The first is Donors Choose which allows you to give money to a classroom. You get to choose in which area you want to donate to (e.g., in your current community or your old hometown) and for which type of project (e.g., science, art, etc). You get your friend a gift card and they can reimburse it for the project of their choice.

The second one is Charity Choice, and I prefer this one because it is more generalized. You buy a gift certificate and your friend can choose any of 250 charities to spend it on (up to 3 charities). These charities range across many different causes and include the biggest players in the field (e.g., WWF, Sierra Club, Greenpeace).

But what if I still want to give them a physical gift? There are definitely times when you do need a physical gift and showing up with an envelope with a gift card just seems lame. Here are a few solutions I came up with this Christmas.

1. Get them something local and consumable. While I try not to buy "stuff" like clothes or gadgets, I still have to buy consumable goods like food, shampoo, toilet paper, and so on. So why not get your friend a luxury consumable good like wine, olive oil, spices, and so forth. A lot of these goods can be found in local shops and farmers markets.

2. Get them something fair trade. We are lucky to leave near Palo Alto which has a United Nations Association store. Whenever I need a physical gift that won't spoil, I go there. They have cards, books, jewelry, ornaments, clothes, and so on. Most of these items are made by artisans in developing countries who are paid a fair price for their work. Profit from all of the items helps support communities in those developing countries. Beyond that, you can also find some cool stuff in your local Whole Foods.

Overall, I have to say I'm pretty satisfied with how this Christmas season went and very optimistic about Christmas this coming year!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

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Bane of the vain: Earth friendly deodorants

This may fall into the category of TMI, but I sweat. A lot. I mean, I only sweat when I exercise, but still, I've known guys who sweat less than I do. I mention this because, as an environmentalist, I have a problem with commercial deodorants. All of those chemicals, yuck! Besides parabens (see previous post) most commercial deodorants use aluminum as an antiperspirant. To date, I have not read any conclusive studies of the relationship between aluminum and Alzheimers or breast cancer, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a relationship we don't know about yet. My rule of thumb is that if I'm in doubt on the safety of the product and there is a convenient and comparable alternative, I will use the alternative.

The problem was that until recently I had not found an effective alternative. I tried the crystal (until I found out it was a block of aluminum salt, uhhh... no thanks), Tom's of Maine's all natural stick deodorant, witchhazel, and baking soda. Baking soda was by far the closest I got to a working solution. I'd mix it with canola oil and lavender oil, until it was a smooth consistency. The problem was that it never remained a smooth consistency, it didn't apply well, and it didn't really smell that great. I mean, it didn't smell bad, and certainly not as bad as I would have smelled without it, but it didn't smell great.

Then, out of the blue, my sissy asks if I want anything from this website. "They're having a half off sale and I'm getting stuff for the baby." So, I end up getting a little jar of Poofy Organics creamy deodorant, made of basically the same stuff I had used for my baking soda version, except with some professional know-how and some better scent combinations.

Holy moly! I think it might work, and it most definitely smells great. It goes on smooth, doesn't leave gross white chunks, and seems to last throughout the day. Cautiously, I started using it on days when I knew I wasn't going to the gym. By the end of the day, I'd do the armpit sniff check, and everything was okay. Yesterday I worked out at the gym without applying conventional deodorant first. Success! It is not an antiperspirant, so you'll still sweat, but you won't smell. Honestly, it did feel a little funny to have sweat trickling down my arm, but I guess that's no worse than having sweat trickle down my face, right?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Simpson Fish: Dispose of unused medicines safely!

A friend recently asked:

"Here's an environmental question for you. What is the proper way to dispose of unused medication? I still have a full bottle of pain pills and the suggestions I get are essentially to dump them into the water supply. Umm.... pass. :-(  "

My response:

Great question! There is a short answer and a long answer.

Short answer: Remove the prescription info from the bottle, mix the medicine with something icky, conceal it in a bag or other container, then throw it in the trash.

Long answer: There really is no good answer. The FDA website says to find a take back program in your area. Usually this is the police station, but Rite-Aid, Walgreens, and CVS have mail back programs where you buy a pre-paid package to send to company that processes them (more on this later). If there is no take back program near your home, you should dispose of your medicine in the trash. The website also says that some medicines should be flushed down the toilet to avoid having someone accidentally taken them, and that the damage done to the environment is a better choice than accidental ingestion.

To my mind, this is utter bullshit. The FDA website points out that most of the drugs contaminating our groundwater are from elimination. This means that the drugs are not fully used in the body and get passed on through urine and feces, and because water treatment plants are not equipped to remove these contaminants, the drugs go on to our creeks and oceans. Trace levels of many drugs including antiobiotics, hormones, and painkillers have been found in local water supplies. So what better way to continue contaminating our water supply than by putting completely undiluted drugs straight down the drain!

If you dispose of drugs at home, there are some relatively simple precautions you can take to make sure no one accidentally takes them. The best guide I found online was from the South Caroline Department of Health and Environmental Control, and it describes the steps I listed above in the "short answer" section. This seems to me to be a very effective way to eliminate the risk of accidental ingestion while keeping the drugs out of the water system. There is, however, a minor, secondary problem associated with this route.

Will the drugs leach out from the landfill into the groundwater? A USGS website had a pretty good article on this topic. Basically, landfills built prior to 1970 were unlined, meaning contaminants could leach out into underground aquifers. In the 80s legislation was passed to make all new landfills lined, thereby reducing the amount of leaching possible, but even then, the lining will eventually degrade and leaks will happen. Scientists are currently studying natural process which they hope will filter out most of the contaminants (e.g., eaten by microorganisms, filtered through limestone, etc). But yes, it will eventually be a problem we will have to deal with in the future.

What about the take-back programs?
So, this is another interesting option. The mail back programs exclude powerful painkillers like vicodin and hydrocodone, so not helpful in this case. But most police station will take drugs, including controlled prescriptions like those painkillers I listed. In either case, they end up in the same place: a designated disposal facility. The big one that the pharmacies use is Sharps Compliance Inc. I've looked everywhere on their website, but for the life of me, I can't find any description of how they destroy the drugs. Honestly, I'm a little bit suspicious, especially after I found out what happens at the local household hazardous waste facility. In either case, I've emailed the Sharps Inc customer service department, so hopefully I will get a good answer and update this post with a better alternative.

Wait, what was that about the household hazardous waste disposal? Haha, oh yes. I recently dropped off some old household cleaners at the Redwood city household hazardous waste facility. When I dropped them off, I asked the guy what would happen to them. He said the good stuff would be given away to the poor and the rest would be incinerated. WTF?!?! I'm not sure which disturbed me more, the bit about poor people or the incineration of toxins. So I did a little more investigation. Household hazardous waste (which includes paint, pesticides, cleaners, fluorescent bulbs, and batteries; but not used medicines or needles) is regulated at the state level. Each state will have different processes, but from what I've read they are all pretty similar. The best description I've found of the various disposal methods was on the Florida website . Yes, the good paint and cleaners are given away to the poor, and some stuff is incinerated, but most of the processes do seem legitimate, and certainly better than the landfill.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Passing on environmental values to our children

Communicating environmental values has been a major focus of my research. While most of this work has centered on adults, a part of me has always wondered how I developed a passion for the environment when I was a child.

With the birth of my nephew, this line of questioning has only grown more persistent. This is definitely a topic of research worth exploring in the extant literature, and I'll certainly be posting more about it in the future. But for now, I'd like to share a story I wrote and illustrated for my nephew, who is now two and a half years old.

The idea came for it as I was watching Planet Earth's breathtaking views of the changing of the seasons and the cherry blossom festivals that mark the start of Spring. It occurred to me that with climate change we may no longer have the same distinct seasons or the same traditions that mark those seasons. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how many of our traditions are reliant on steady seasonal trends.

This book envisions a time in the future when my nephew is all grown up and has grandchildren of his own. While waiting for the rain to stop so he can play outside, little Dennis asks Grandpa Ryan why the weather is always miserable. Check out the story here.