Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Living Green: A Practical Guide to Simple Sustainability

Book Review: Living Green: A Practical Guide to Simple Sustainability 
by Greg Horn (Freedom Press 2006)

This is a cool book that gives one many ideas about becoming more green. Many of these we have already implemented and some have become more mainstream in the five years since this book has been published – but certainly not enough as many people here and now are literally decades behind even in this age of internet and multi-media. There were even some ideas that had slipped past us as far as dangers and ways of lessening dangers.

After reading this book one is likely to be impacted by the statistical data on the sheer numbers and amounts of toxic or potential toxic chemicals with which we come into contact every day. We are still transitioning ever too slowly from the golden age of marketplace poisons and the cancer and disease which has well seemed to accompany them. There are toxic or potentially toxic substances deliberately put in our food, cosmetics, personal hygiene products, cleaners, paints, industrial products, building materials, furniture, car interiors, and many other products with which we interface.

Becoming green is accepting a new paradigm, a new way of relating with the things human manufacture. Sustainability is a philosophy that considers the future. Sustainability, or sustainable development, has been defined by the World Commission on the Environment and Development as, “the ability of humanity to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability as a philosophy was influenced by Native American  notions of impacts on future generations, by the mid-nineteenth century transcendentalist movement of Thoreau and Emerson, and by more modern environmental philosophers like John Muir – but also from the indigenous peoples of the world who seem to have a closer and more reciprocal relationship with nature.

The author was once a CEO of General Nutrition (GNC) and now heads a smaller natural foods and supplements company. He gives the Top Ten things can do to get started in becoming more sustainable as: 1) eating organic, 2) going carbon zero – which means calculating ones carbon footprint and buying renewable resource energy to offset one’s deficit – ah that one costs money, 3) recycling, 4) denying disposables, 5) switching to natural personal care, 6) using natural lawn care, 7) cleaning green, 8) filtering your tap water, 9) increasing energy efficiency, 10) staying informed.

The first section includes sustainable eating and drinking practices. His suggestions for a sustainable diet are: 1) buy organic whenever possible, 2) be careful of fish, 3) eat low on the food chain, 4) filter your water, 5) reduce sugar and sodas, 6) cut fried and processed foods, 7) change your cup – to paper or a mug instead of disposable styrofoam or plastic.

Another important piece of information is the Top Ten foods to buy organic: meat, dairy products, fish, berries, salad crops, mushrooms, root crops, bananas, waxed fruit, and coffee and tea.

Filtering of water helps get rid of chlorine, fluoride, arsenic, lead, and aluminum among other things. Bottled water bottles (and many flexible plastics) contain phthalates which leach into the water especially if warmed. Phthalates are well-known to disrupt hormonal systems and are known as ‘estrogenic endocrine disrupters.’ This can lead to early puberty and reproductive malfunctions in young females and lower sperm counts, decreased sex drive and feminizing effects in young men. Phthalates are apparently in many other products as well. Studies show that most bottled water is not better than most tap water and is less regulated than tap water. The author suggests filtering water with something like the common (Brita) charcoal filters and carrying water in a stainless steel water bottle. Reducing intake of processed sugar, sodas, and flour can be quite healthful. Many studies link highly processed sugars such as high fructose corn syrup with diabetes and obesity. Fried food is also linked to health problems. Fried foods soak up highly heated oils which makes them harder to digest. Belly fat and clogged arteries can be a result. Most white flour, white pasta, and white rice has had the essential nutrients removed so that it can be stored longer. Processed foods are treated with heat and chemicals to give them a longer shelf life. Along with the bad bacteria that are killed are also good bacteria and beneficial enzymes – so the food value of processed food is much lower. Trans fats in the form of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are very strongly linked to heart disease. A few decades ago it was thought that their longer storage life kept them healthier as they could be stored a long time without going rancid. I remember my grandparents always touting ‘oleo’ (partially-hydrogenated oil/trans fat) over butter as healthier. But my grandfather developed heart problems and eventually died from his heart disease and I believe this stuff may have been a major culprit. It is now discouraged in many foods and actually outlawed in some areas. None the less I do still seen it in many products. It is allowed up to 0.5 gm and still able to be labeled no trans fats. Some products such as Little Debbie snacks and the Tofuti fake cream cheese contain large quantities of it. Much of it now has been replaced with palm oil which is not ideal but much healthier. The author notes that many canned vegetables have had nutrients cooked out of them with the exception of tomatoes and beans. Carrots are also healthy cooked.

Other suggestions are to never heat food in any plastic in a microwave and avoid heated stuff in styrofoam since the styrene in it is a probable carcinogen. Unfortunately this is not always possible for some of us – especially travelers. The convenience and extremely poor quality of gas station and fast foods is basically killing people – the very people that must work and travel often. I have been waiting for many years for better quality food in these venues. There are things one can buy but the choices are still quite limited.

Covered next are products humans put on their bodies – sunscreen, clothing, dry-cleaning, person care and hygiene products, shower and bath water, and even feminine hygiene products. Organic cotton clothing has been available for a while and can even be found at places like WalMart for very cheap. Organic bedding and sheets are also available. Buying organic clothing helps farmland since cotton is one of the most pesticide and herbicide laden crops. Children’s clothing – especially infants – are typically treated with fire retardants (as are mattresses- required by law –and furniture). Fire retardants contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and related chemicals which are linked to brain and thyroid problems. This chemical is now in most water supplies as well. Disposable diapers contain polyethylene dyes and fragrances which may be mildly harmful and small amounts of dioxin – a known carcinogen and endocrine disrupter. There are now available chemical and dioxin-free diapers. Apparently, disposable diapers are the 3rd most common item in landfills. There are now also flushable disposable liners that can keep the crap out of the landfills and let it be neutralized better in sewage and septic systems. Dry cleaners are apparently very toxic but I guess now there are some ‘green’ ones coming on-line.

Other personal care products that can be potentially toxic are shampoos, toothpastes, mouthwashes, skin products, deodorants, hair sprays, hair dyes, sunscreens, tampons, and cosmetics. In all these products there are safer ones available, although usually at a significantly higher cost. Common dangerous chemicals in these products include: triclosan - a bactericide commonly in deodorant that can cause liver damage), phthalates -also labeled as DBP and DEHP , DEA and TEA – often given linked to other ingredients such as cocamide-DEA (these can interact with other ingredients forming carcinogenic nitrosamines), formaldehyde - a bactericide/preservative often listed as quaternium 15 which releases formaldehyde. (found in hair spray, mascara, and many other products and associated with nerve damage, allergies, and possibly cancer), bronopol - a dangerous pesticide chemical found in bug repellants, dimethyl dimethyl hydantoin – a microbe killer found in soaps, baby wipes, shampoos, and sunscreens, parabens – known toxin possibly linked to breast cancer, aluminum – in deodorants and like triclosan absorbed easily through the skin especially on women through shaving nicks. fluoride – said to be toxic at more than the 4 parts per million commonly added to drinking water. There are many more chemicals. Cosmetics tend to be very toxic, especially lipstick – which women typically end up swallowing. According to a study in Glamour magazine it was estimated that a typical woman swallows 4 to 9 pounds of lipstick in her life. Perfumes and aftershaves are often full of petrochemicals – and most of them smell utterly horrible in my opinion. The author also suggests filtering shower and bath water as he notes that the heat makes the chemicals and chlorine in the water more volatile and easier to be absorbed into the body. He gives an experiment where one breaks off a piece of garlic clove and rubs it on the bottom of one’s foot and says within 15 minutes you will taste garlic in your mouth – that is if you don’t believe the stuff that touches your skin is being absorbed.

He gives seven sustainable steps for the home: 1) conserve by increasing efficiency, 2) recycle, 3) clean green, 4) furnish for health, 5) breathe easier, 6) say “no” to disposables, 7) green your yard.

Suggestions for increasing energy efficiency include: sealing cracks (but also keeping good ventilation), turning down the thermostat a little (or up in summer), turning off lights and unplugging unused appliances, conserving water, getting rid of plastics – especially cups, using recycled paper, and buying - Energy Star – appliances. As far as recycling – most places now have it or you can still separate and take it. There are now places where you can take used motor oil and places like Lowes take used up rechargeable batteries, CFLs, and plastic bags. Used postal packages can also be recycled. Computers can also be recycled. In fact people discard many things that can be recycled strictly out of laziness and convenience. In some ways overcoming the inconvenience and laziness is both noble and patriotic although I admit I am guilty of that laziness at times.

The author also gives many suggestions for alternatives in the book – both stuff one can make or blend themselves and companies that make green products. For green cleaning he recommends lemon juice, white vinegar, borax, baking soda, vegetable-based liquid soap, and washing soda. Most of the time this stuff works just as well or at least one can use it for the easy stuff. He notes that all-purpose cleaners contain things like chlorinated phosphates, complex phosphates, dry bleach, kerosene, petroleum-based surfactants, sodium bromide, glycol ether, Stoddard solvent, EDTA, and naphtha. All of these are toxic or potentially toxic. Hand dishwashing detergents and laundry soaps and products, glass cleaners, and disinfectants/anti-bacterials can also contain some of these chemicals. The anti-bacterial soaps are known to get into the water supply in significant amounts and there is a worry that bacteria will develop more and more immunity to them.

Furniture made out of press board and particle board typically contains formaldehyde in the glues which outgases over time as the glues decompose. Paints and other products are full of dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) although there are now available paints with lower amounts and some with none. Synthetic materials in curtains and carpets are also full of chemicals that outgas as are the glues and other formaldehyde-containing building materials. He recommends removing carpets which I heartily recommend as well. Many people, including the author, apparently suffer from “sick building syndrome,” also known as  “multiple chemical sensitivity “(MCS).

“The EPA says indoor air pollution is the nation’s number one environmental health problem. They estimate that indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.”  The author suggest several strategies: 1) ventilation and air filtration, filters such as an activated carbon filter system in certain rooms, cleaning houseplants like aloe vera, philodendron, spider plant, and ficus (and many others) that absorb airborn contaminants into their leaves through photosynthesis, checking for radon gas – commonly associated with black shale outcrops near one’s basement, and use of a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum.

He suggests using less and less of disposable plastic products and plastic bags. Rechargeable batteries instead of disposable ones are also a good option. Organic gardening is also a very sensible option and these gardens can be every bit as good and better as those laden with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.

There is a chapter on sustainable building and retrofitting. The author recommends insulating for efficiency, using sustainable building materials, and utilizing fans, awnings, and good windows. Designing for the climate is important. He recommends using water-based adhesives and grout sealers, using non-glue connections on PVC pipe, using caulks without mineral spirits, avoiding toxic joint compound, avoiding formaldehyde-urea foam insulation and rigid polystyrene insulation. He says fiberglass insulation is dangerous during installation but less toxic overall. He recommends an insulation called Icynene. There is a discussion of solar and wind energy systems. These have come even further in the last five years. He also recommends getting organic mattresses or futons and de-chlorinating the water by filtration. He also gives a method to heat up the house full tilt for 1 – 4 days with all people and pets out. This is done to ‘bake out’ the outgasing materials especially with new construction. They say new chemical odors should be gone after this.  

Next are general suggestions for thinking sustainably like living near work, keeping energy efficiency by reducing waste, buying local, keeping vehicles tuned for efficiency, buying natural electricity and incorporating renewable energy, and buying hybrid and electric vehicles. One no-brainer is to use compact fluorescent light bulbs – they last over 10 times as long and use way less energy and save landfill space. Solar hot water heating attic fans, battery and cell phone chargers, landscape lights, and flashlights are an affordable reality now. There is some info on ways to increase fuel mileage like replacing air filters on time and keeping tires inflated. There is a discussion of alternative fuels such as ethanol (E85) but he correctly notes that ethanol is very problematic and even though there are slightly less emissions with ethanol, there are many other problems and potential problems with it on a large scale that make it quite non-sustainable as a widespread fuel. Bio-diesel and natural gas, and newer possibilities like ‘green gasoline’ in development may be better alternatives.

Green investment, green technological development, and green politics are also discussed. Andres Edwards, author of “The Sustainability Revolution” noted that the second wave of business sustainability is the movement from basic sustainability to “ecological, economic, and social responsibility.”  Edwards also writes that, “The ecological, economic, and equity components of sustainability are no longer viewed as competing but rather as complementary.” It seems we are seeing some of this now as sustainable products and practices become more widespread and mainstream. One of the most important practices that has economic potential is simply reducing waste and increasing efficiency. Green is now cool and expected to a certain extent. It is now popular to the point we are competing to see who is the greener, for better or worse.

This is a great book to see what you may have missed in greening your habits. There is far to go in getting the regular folk to get on board. I try in little ways but people are stubborn in their ways and seem not to easily accept change. But if we are smart and well-informed on the statistics and comparisons perhaps we can convince them.

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