Plastics Wrap

In honor of Blog Action Day, I had declared the theme for October here on 2Dolphins to be all about the environment.   Although I hadn’t planned it going in, plastic shopping bags and their alternatives ended up being a focal point of our eco-blogging efforts.   So to put a wrap (pun intended!) on our plastic shopping bag coverage, I’d like to mention a disturbing issue that I became aware of only just this month — how dramatically plastic pollution is negatively impacting life in the oceans.

Reef debrisAccording to the California Coastal Commission, 90% of floating marine debris is plastic and 80% of that debris originates on land.   Americans contribute more than 180lbs of plastic into landfills each year on average.   With storms and other urban runoff, plastic trash makes its way into river streams, and eventually oceans.   Once there, the plastic gets broken down and circulated continually by currents in the open sea.   (Be sure to read the excellent Best Life magazine article Plastic Ocean: Our oceans are turning into plastic…are we? for more info on seabound plastic pollution.)

One such current, the massive North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is a swirling vortex comprised mostly of plastic debris that’s now estimated to be twice the size of Texas.   The gyre that lies between California & Hawaii is fed by several major oceanic currents and its circular rotation naturally draws drfting garbage in.   Since plastics do not biodegrade, debris continually accumulates in this ever-expanding mass.   Perhaps most disturbing is that researchers have even given this "island" a formal name:   The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.   The ecological damage wrought by this floating landfill might even rival the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Birds, fish, & smaller marine life eat the plastic because it mimics the food they eat, zooplankton.   (Studies show that plastic particles outnumber zooplankton by as much as 6 to 1.)   Turtles, dolphins, whales, & larger aquatic animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and die of intestinal blockage after ingesting the debris.   Dolphin swimming in plastic debrisWhat’s more, plastic debris can attract and hold hydrophobic elements like PCB and DDT at up to one million times background levels, making the plastic not only hazardous, but deadly poisonous as well.   Even marine debris that’s not eaten can still be deadly as the plastic can wrap around fins, flippers & limbs, entangling the animal and ultimately causing drowning or amputation.   Perhaps worst of all, after an animal is killed by plastic bags, its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment — where it can kill again.

What’s the solution?   Well, it all starts with us, the consumers.   Ultimately, we each bear the responsibility to recycle more, litter less, and aggressively reduce the overall usage of disposable plastic-based items, such as styrofoam containers, shopping bags, & water bottles.   Like replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent (or LED) lights, a small step like using cloth shopping bags is an easy step that we can all take to begin reducing our need for disposable plastics.

Maybe ORV Alguita crewmember Tony Nichols summed it up best:

The circle of life has a new component.   Unwelcome and introduced by man, plastic is permanent and must be dealt with!

Be sure to set your DVR for Nov. 21st at 3:00 pm to watch Animal Planet’s rebroadcast of the documentary video produced by BBC’s Natural History Unit called Hawaii: Message in the Waves for a revealing look at some of the environmental challenges facing the people & wildlife of the Hawaiian Islands, with a focus on giving immediate attention to the issue of global plastic pollution.

Bag and Baggage

A comment from Pelf Nyok on Dede’s What’s In Your Bag post from earlier this month prompted a little thought & research on a simple but intriguing plan.   Increasingly, retail stores are beginning to charge for those insidious plastic shopping bags that we all seem to take for granted.   The amount charged is relatively trivial, but the hopes are that this plastic bag tax (or "PlasTax") is enough to influence a change in consumers’ behaviors.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised & proud to discover that Ireland pioneered a nationwide plan, the Plastic Bag Environmental Levy, back in March ’02 to impose a 15¢ charge on plastic shopping bags to encourage the use of reusable bags and help change people’s attitudes about litter & pollution in Ireland.   This was raised to 29¢ early this year to further encourage the adoption of reusable shopping bags.

  The money gathered by the levy has been used for environmental initiatives and has reportedly led to more than a 90% reduction in use of plastic shopping bags and a dramatic reduction in litter throughout Ireland.   Although some retailers switched to supplying (untaxed) paper bags, many simply stopped supplying bags altogether.

So what do you think — should more retailers begin charging for the "free" plastic bags to encourage consumers to be more mindful of their choices?

Blog Action Day Is Here!

Blog Action Day globe logoToday is Blog Action Day, an exciting opportunity to help to raise public awareness of the serious environmental challenges we face and to bring a vast array of ideas & solutions to the table.   More than 20,000 bloggers worldwide — not environmental activists or professional journalists, but regular people like you & me — are each doing their own little part to make a difference.   So while one voice might be little more than a whisper, collectively this is an undeniable roar!

For our small part in this, we posted the following entries this month:

What’s In Your Bag?

Target bag labelAs mentioned in my earlier 1 Bag At a Time article, we’re being more conscious of using eco-friendly cloth bags when grocery shopping and we’ve managed to significantly reduce the number of plastic bags we bring home.

Of the plastic bags that do find their way into our home from the store, we try to find creative uses for them such as wastebasket liners, lunch bags, and mail packing material.   And we noticed on one of the Target bags from last weekend that they’ve listed 10 more ways to reuse their bags.

What other ways have you found to reuse plastic shopping bags?   Post a comment and share your ideas!

Soap With a Soul

In keeping with the eco-friendly theme of October (also see my recent Blogtipping post), there’s an environmentally-sound product we’ve been using for nearly 3 years that I thought was worth a mention…

Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap features organic peppermint & mentha arvensis oils to create an exhilirating, tingly, sinus-opening shower experience that’s about as close as you can come to bathing in liquid Altoids!

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps logoAlthough Dr. Emanuel H. Bronner passed away 10 years ago, the Bronner family continues to uphold his devout spiritual values, socially-responsible attitutes, & ecological-minded philosophies in both their business and their products.   They support sustainable agriculture, farm worker health, & ecological processing methods by making their completely biodegradable soaps with certified organic oils and packaging them in wrappers & bottles made of 100% recycled materials.   Bronner’s remarkable story and unconventional humanitarian outlook even inspired an award-winning documentary called Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox.

Dr. Bronner’s soaps are also available in bars, but I recommend the concentrated liquid.   Note that because this soap doesn’t contain any environmentally-damaging foaming agents or harsh detergents, they’re probably much less "sudsy" than the stuff you’ve been showering with but it’ll leave your skin feeling clean & refreshed not dried out.

October Blogtipping – Get Your "Green" On

Blogtipping iconBlog Action Day, an annual event where bloggers unite to focus on a single important global issue, is October 15th.   Its organizers chose "the environment" as this year’s theme because it’s an issue that can relate to virtually any subject, any blog, and anybody.   So, in honor of this, my Blogtipping picks for October are all about getting your "green" on:

AutoblogGreen is a group blog dedicated to highlighting environmentally-friendly automotive news.

  1. A wide range of car-related topics are covered — from energy-saving tips to alternative fuels to electric cars to hybrid mass transit!
  2. A steady stream of new articles keep things fresh &amp interesting.
  3. Subscribe via RSS to keep up with the latest posts.
  • Tip: I’m eager to see more Smart Car posts!

Ecotality Life covers a variety of "green" products, gadgets, & technologies.   The site’s worth a look because:

  1. Reviews & previews showcasing useful eco-friendly products.
  2. Lots of informative articles about interesting innovations & solutions.
  3. Clean, easy-to-navigate site layout.
  • Tip: I’d like to see more products aimed at the average consumer.

GroovyGreen is a group blog that highlights news, products, & people who’re promoting sustainability, reducing consumption, improving health, & finding cleaner alternatives.   There’s plenty to like at GroovyGreen:

  1. Practical & easy-to-apply tips for "greening" up your daily life.
  2. Very snazzy design makes it a snap to get around on the site.
  3. Up-to-the-minute Breaking News from around the web.
  • Tip: The main page can be a little overwhelming because it’s so packed with content…

Now it’s your turn!   If you know of other great ecologically-minded blog sites, please post a comment to share ’em with us!

Corny Considerations

photo of a corn man sculpture in claySeems that corn, in one form or another, is a dominant subject in much of the news these days.   Between the very justified villainization of high-fructose corn syrup that’s infiltrating nearly every otherwise healthful food product to the demand for corn-based biofuel causing a rise in the cost of meats to stories about how corn crops are edging out other crops, corn is making headlines.

With that in mind, several themes that revolve around this common topic – corn – have been swirling around in my brain lately…

Are We Children of the Corn?

I’ve just begun reading Michael Pollan’s
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals in which he traces, step by step, the journey our food takes from the soil to the plate.   I’m not far into the book and already it’s some very thought-provoking stuff.   Pollan contends that we are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world.   And what we eat, by and large, is corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak.   Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn.   The eggs are made of corn.   The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Pollan goes to to make the corn connection to a vast array of many of the other foods we purchase & consume – 1 in every 4 items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn.   A staggering number of even the non-consumable items in your local stores are derivatives of Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we know as corn.   In fact, the Ontario Corn Producers Association insists that there are A Zillion Uses for Corn!   Given how most of the corn grown in this country is processed into unrecognizable bits & pieces, you may never look at a cornfield – or the food in your shopping cart – the same way again…

The Bitter Taste of Corn Sweeteners

In 2006 alone, more than 700 million bushels of corn were refined into corn sweeteners – primarily High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS).   Read the labels on beverages & foods and you’ll find HFCS has insidiously wormed its way into all kinds of foods you might never suspect – lunch meats, whole-wheat breads, crackers, salad dressings, soups, cheese, milk, yogurt, vitamins, and even medicines.   Perhaps worse yet, many of the foods laced with this nasty stuff are promoted as being suitable for a healthy lifestyle or weight loss!

Despite the considerable processing required to create HFCS, it’s considerably cheaper, easier to transport, and much sweeter than sugar.   In part, this is because our government artificially fixes sugar prices while heavily subsidizing corn.   But the net result is that this translates into lower costs and higher profits for food producers, so there’ a tremendous economics incentive for them to use corn-based sweeteners.   Since HFCS comes from corn, products that feature it can be billed as "natural" foods but this couldn’t be further from the truth.   In fact, the process of breaking down cornstarch into syrup requires 3 different enzymes – the first of which, alpha-amylase, is industrially produced by a bacterium.

Studies have linked a number of health issues with the use of HFCS.   Some suggest that HFCS may alter intracellular metabolism, which in turn facilitates accelerated aging through oxidative damage.   There’s also connections with HFCS contributing to obesity & diabetes.   So why are these health risks tolerated and the use of HFCS continuing to escalate?   Consumer apathy.   There are simply too few people thinking about the ingredients or nutritional value of the foods they ingest.   We’ve got to let our dollars do the talking – if enough consumers stop buying foods made with corn sweeteners, the producers will have little choice but to abandon the use of HFCS.

Biofuel Causing Corn Shortages?

Not enough that we use innumerable amounts of corn to fuel our bodies, we’ve now been snookered into using it to fuel our cars too.   But the use of corn-based biofuel seems to be coming at the expense of corn as a food crop.

I recently read about a surprising situation in David Bollier’s article on the Mexican corn crisis and although it isn’t quite the same, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Like Ireland’s potato, corn is a food that defines Mexico.   There’s evidence that corn was domesticated in central Mexico more than 7000 years ago and as early as 1500 BC, corn was a primary staple food for most South American and much of the North American cultures.   Corn, in the form of tortillas, is a critical mainstay of their diet & culture but tortilla prices have tripled or quadrupled in some parts of Mexico since last summer.   Why?   Biofuel.

Now it’s true that yellow corn earmarked (rimshot!) for fuel production is not the same variety used for food, but with the increased demand for biofuels, the corn destined for ethanol is fetching a significantly higher price.   So farmers in Mexico are enticed to grow that crop instead of corn for human and/or livestock consumption and instead import cheaper, food-grade white corn from us to offset.   Farmers here in the U.S. are failling prey to similar economic pressures.   Sounds simple, no?   It gets worse…

Not much more than a year ago, Mexico was exporting more than 137,000 tons of its annual corn crop.   Yet at the same time, Mexico is facing a corn shortage and is set to import more than 800,000 tons of corn for its people from the U.S. & other countries.   The price of tortillas has risen so dramatically that Mexicans have taken to mass protests in the streets.

Now it gets really interesting — statistically, the U.S. grew 42% of the world’s total corn crop last year but ethanol production is projected to consume half of our annual corn harvest by 2008.   So, the demand for biofuels is about to chew up 20% of the world’s corn harvest.

Despite the fact that there are other, potentially far more efficient non-food crop sources that can produce ethanol, the push for corn-based biofuel continues.   And this is accompanied by a score of problems:   it requires vast amounts of energy (including fossil fuel) & water to produce, it does nothing to encourage us to reduce our use of fossil fuel, it burns less efficiently than straight gasoline, & overall doesn’t have a net effect of reducing global-warming-causing pollution.   And since corn is heavily subsidized by the government, as the demand for corn-based ethanol to run our cars increases, so too do our taxes — those government subsidies have to come from somewhere, right?

Although I haven’t seen anything documenting this, it’s a safe bet that corn-based biofuel benefits "Big Oil" significantly.   It’s probably also a safe bet that those companies are already snapping up the farms that grow corn.   Once again, seems like a win-win scenario for "Big Oil."

Anybody else find this whole thing frustrating and/or "cornfusing?"

1 Bag at a Time

blue bag 1 Bag at a TimeWe’re far from being model examples of perfect environmentally-responsible citizens but we’re at least somewhat conscious of it and do try to do our part whenever we can.   If you want to see an ideal (and entertaining) example, check out Living with Ed.

Recently I read about Lisa Foster’s 1 Bag at a Time campaign and then I was surprised to find that one of our local merchants, Natural Foods Market in Midland, sells these bags.   As a side note, we were hoping this store would be more like Whole Foods (but that’s another story).

I’ve been making an effort to take reusable bags with us when grocery shopping and these bags are better constructed than most.   They’re only $1.99 plus I like the philosophy behind them.

Top 5 Reasons to Reuse a Bag:

  1. The petroleum in 14 plastic bags could drive a car 1 mile.
  2. Americans use over 14 billion plastic bags annually.
  3. It takes 70% more global warming gasses to make a paper bag than a plastic bag.
  4. Paper bags do not biodegrade in landfills.
  5. Cities spend up to 17 cents per bag in disposal costs.

If nothing else motivates you to do this, surely you’re tired of seeing all those plastic bags hanging from trees!

The Heat Is On!

A couple of weeks ago, I finally worked up the courage to replace our old crank-the-dial, manually-operated, & inefficient Trane thermostat with a new eco-friendly Honeywell programmable digital thermostat.   I’ve wanted to do this for some time now, but was a little intimidated about the whole thing…


Old thermostat

New digital thermostat

Turns out, it couldn’t have been easier.   This model was about $65, features a nice Indiglo-style backlight; big, easy-to-read display; and allows 4 schedule changes for Monday thru Friday and another 4 each for Saturday & Sunday.   Y’know, all the whiz-bang stuff that any gadget-lovin’, techie dude would want…

Been thinking about doing this yourself?   Hesitate no longer!   You’ll be helping the environment and your wallet — you can likely recoup the expense of the new thermostat within a few months thanks to lower energy bills.   And it’s a very straight-forward swap that even a rookie homeowner can tackle.   Read more about the steps required at DIY Network’s Guide to Installing a Digital Thermostat.

Pierce Brosnan Is Saving Whales

A few years ago, Dede & I had the pleasure of seeing MacGillivray Freeman’s "Dolphins" at an Imax theatre in San Diego.   The film features narration by Pierce Brosnan, an awesome soundtrack of Sting’s jazzy songs & music, and strikingly beautiful visuals that live up to the Imax standard.   We loved the film so much that we bought the DVD and have watched it easily half a dozen times.

Apparently though, Pierce Brosnan didn’t just lend his talents to the film for a paycheck.   Nope, far from it.   Brosnan, together with his wife Keely Shaye Smith, is a environmental activist leader with a particular dedication towards marine ecology issues.

A tidbit on Ottmar Liebert’s blog pointed me to Pierce Brosnan’s official website where there’s some good info on his efforts with The Whaleman Foundation.   Together, they’ve launched a "Save the Whales Again!" campaign:

Most people believe that the whales were saved because of the very popular "Save the Whales" movement of the Seventies…   Unfortunately, dolphins and whales face even more threats today than ever before from toxic pollution, noise pollution, global warming, loss of habitat, lack of food, over-fishing, entanglement & ship strikes, and expanding whaling.   The "Save the Whales Again!" campaign is getting the truth out to the masses, in an effort to re-ignite the passion of the earlier "Save the Whales" movement.