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.