Earthtalk
From E - The Environmental Magazine

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EarthTalk Teach Climate Change
There are many resources available to help parents and educators teach kids how to understand the issues and become better stewards for the planet. (Photo courtesy of Global Imagination)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Do you have any tips for explaining global warming and other complex environmental problems to my kids? – Peter Buckley, Pittsburgh, Penn.

Kids today may be more eco-savvy than we were at their age, but complex topics like global warming may still mystify them. Luckily there are many resources available to help parents teach their kids how to understand the issues and become better stewards for the planet.

A great place to start is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change” website. The site is divided into sections (Learn the Basics, See the Impacts, Think like a Scientist and Be Part of the Solution) so kids can get just the right amount of detail without feeling overwhelmed.

One feature of the site is a virtual trip around the world to see the effects of climate change in different regions. An emissions calculator – with questions tailored to kids’ lifestyles – helps connect everyday actions (like running the water while brushing teeth) and climate change.

And a FAQ page answers some of the most common questions about climate change in easy-to-read short paragraphs.

Another great online resource is NASA’s Climate Kids website, which engages kids with games, videos and craft activities and offers digestible info on what’s causing climate change and how kids can make a difference.

A guided tour of the “Big Questions” (What does climate change mean? What is the greenhouse effect? How do we know the climate is changing? What is happening in the oceans? and others) uses cartoon characters and brightly colored designs to help kids come to grips with the basics.

Perhaps even more engaging for those eight and older is Cool It!, a card game from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The game, designed in collaboration with science educators, requires players to collect “solution” cards in the categories of energy, transportation and forests, while slowing opponents down by playing “problem” cards along the way.

“The game enables teachers and parents to talk about global warming in a fun and hopeful way,” reports UCS. “Kids, meanwhile, will learn that all of us make choices that determine whether the world warms a little or a lot, and which of those choices reduce global warming emissions.” The game is available for purchase ($7.95) directly from the UCS website.

Younger kids curious about climate change can consult the Professor Sneeze website, which features online illustrated children’s stories that present global warming in a familiar context. The stories for five- to eight-year-olds follow a cartoon bunny on various warming related adventures.

A few of the story titles include “The Earth Has a Fever,” “Where Are the Igloos of Iglooville?” and “Tears on the Other Side of the World.” The site also features stories geared toward 8- to 10-year-olds and 10- to 12-year-olds.

Of course, teachers can play a key role in making sure kids are well versed in the science of climate change. A recently launched initiative from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) – long respected for its work in defending and supporting the teaching of evolution in the public schools –aims to help teachers do a better job of teaching climate change in the classroom.

The group’s Climate Change Education website points teachers to a treasure trove of resources they can use to demystify the science behind global warming, combat “climate change denial” and support “climate literacy.”

Contacts: EPA’s “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” www.epa.gov/climatestudents; NASA Climate Kids, http://climatekids.nasa.gov; NCSE’s Climate Change Education Initiative, http://ncse.com/climate; Professor Sneeze, www.contespedagogiques.be/pages/accueil_angl.html.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).

Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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EarthTalk Emissions Lower
Though natural gas emissions are still far to high for the fuel to be considered a global warming solution, lower overall CO2 emissions over the past 20 years are in large part due to the swapping out of coal at power plants and industrial facilities across the country for cleaner-burning and now more abundant natural gas. Shown is the Port Westward Natural Gas Powered Electricity Plant in Clatskanie, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Portland General Electric)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How can it be that carbon dioxide emissions are the lowest they have been in the United States in 20 years despite the fact that we have no binding federal legislation limiting them? –  Jason Johnson, Port Chester, N.Y.

Carbon dioxide emissions are indeed lower than at any time since 1994, according to data recently released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). But if you think that the rise of the hybrid car, our embrace of public transit, walking, biking and those new windows on the house are behind the trend, think again.

According to the EIA, increased energy efficiency has played a role, as have recent warmer winters and the recession, but the key driver has been the swapping out of coal at power plants and industrial facilities across the country for cleaner-burning and now more abundant natural gas.

The reason so much natural gas is around is the rise of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), a technique whereby drillers inject water and chemicals into underground shale rock deposits to free up otherwise trapped natural gas.

Fracking has allowed U.S. oil companies to access huge natural gas deposits from the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast and elsewhere. The increased supply has brought natural gas prices down so that it has been cheaper than coal during the last few years. Our carbon footprint benefits because burning natural gas to generate electricity generates about half the carbon emissions of coal for every megawatt hour of power generated.

But Americans might not want to pat themselves on the back for too long, as the positive trend won’t continue indefinitely.

“Replacing coal with natural gas reduces smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury, but natural gas production and distribution comes with a host of problems, including methane leaks, contaminated water supplies, destroyed streams and devastated landscapes,” says Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group.

“And while gas-fired power plants have lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal-fired ones, their emissions are still far too high to be considered a global warming solution.”

Furthermore, EIA says our energy-related carbon emissions are already rising again given recent increases in natural gas prices that have steered some utilities back to coal. The EIA anticipates U.S. energy-related carbon emissions rising 1.7 percent in 2013 and another 0.9 percent in 2014.

The most important remaining question, says Lashof, is whether or not the U.S. will continue to reduce its CO2 emissions to achieve the president’s 2020 goal of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels – and eventually the 80 percent or more reductions needed to prevent the most dangerous risks of climate disruption.

The target is within reach, he says, but power plant carbon pollution standards, among other changes, will be needed.

Lashof adds that the only way to keep the ball rolling is via a coordinated effort including stricter federal carbon and energy efficiency standards, new state renewable energy and energy efficiency incentives and reworked zoning and transportation policies that discourage the use of private automobiles. “We can build the clean energy future we need, but we aren’t there yet and it’s not going to happen by itself.”

Also, even if Americans can mobilize to get their emissions in check, will it matter? During 2012, energy-related carbon emissions fell by some 3.7 percent in the U.S., but rose 1.4 percent overall around the world. Indeed, global carbon emissions are on an unrelenting upward march as developing nations acquire the taste for the extravagant fossil-fuel-driven lifestyle perfected in the U.S.

Contacts: U.S. Energy Information Administration, www.eia.gov; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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EarthTalk Waterless Fracking
A typical fracking operation pumps some 5 million gallons of water and chemicals underground to break up the shale. About half the water is removed during the oil and gas recovery process, leaving the other half underground where it can contaminate aquifers and degrade soils. (A Flickr Photo)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I hear there’s a greener form of fracking for natural gas and oil that uses carbon dioxide instead of water to access underground reserves. Is this really better for the environment? – Jason Burroughs, Erie, Penn.

Hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”) is a method of causing fissures in underground shale rock formations to facilitate the extraction of otherwise inaccessible natural gas and oil.

In a typical fracking operation, drillers inject a mixture of pressurized water and chemicals underground to fracture the rock and free up the gas and oil.

Not widely employed in the U.S. until less than a decade ago, fracking has quickly become a major player in the U.S. energy scene.

The resulting influx of cheap domestic natural gas – cleaner burning than the oil and coal it has replaced – is at least partly responsible for the fact that the U.S. has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest levels since 1992.

Fracking has been good for oil companies, the economy and even our carbon footprint, but it doesn’t come without environmental cost.

A typical fracking operation pumps some five million gallons of water and chemicals underground to break up the shale.

About half the water is removed during the oil and gas recovery process, leaving the other half underground where it can contaminate aquifers and degrade soils.

Enterprising petroleum engineers have been hard at work trying to find ways to frack without water. One promising alternative involves using carbon dioxide (CO2) to break up the underground shale instead of water.

“Fracking with carbon dioxide has a number of potential advantages,” reports Kevin Bullis in the MIT Technology Review. “Not only would it eliminate the need for millions of gallons of water per well, it would also eliminate the large amounts of wastewater produced in the process.”

He adds that CO2 may also yield more natural gas and oil than water, given the dynamics of how it works underground. Also, CO2 used in fracking can be recovered and used repeatedly. And once a well is done producing, it can be sealed up, sequestering the CO2 underground where it can’t add to global warming.

Researchers at the University of Virginia estimate that fracked sections of the Marcellus shale in the eastern U.S. could store over half of all U.S. CO2 emissions from power plants and other stationary sources over the next 20 years, with other shale formations providing significant additional storage.

Right now CO2-based fracking is uncommon, given the abundance of water in our biggest fracking regions and the logistical challenges in transporting a compressible gas to well sites safely and cheaply. But as fracking expands into politically charged areas, or arid regions where water is scarce, waterless fracking could become more common.

Already, nearly half of the fracked wells drilled across the U.S. in 2011-2012 are in water-stressed areas, according to the sustainability-oriented non-profit, CERES. And a recent study from the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie concluded that many of the countries with the greatest promise for developing shale oil and gas through fracking suffer from water shortages.

Bullis says that one of the largest shale gas resources in the world is in China underneath 115,000 square miles of desert. “Piping in water would strain already tight supplies,” he says, but adds that China’s major use of coal-fired power plants means the country has plenty of CO2 it could be capturing and using.

Contacts: MIT Technology Review, www.technologyreview.com; “Estimating the Carbon Sequestration Capacity of Shale Formations Using Methane Production Rates,” http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es401221j.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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Earth Talk Private Lands
Several organizations help private landowners create legal protections against commercial development on their lands, which aren't just those our houses are on but include commercial, industrial and agricultural lands, too. Shown is the Gwynedd Wildlife Preserve in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Its fields are being restored and protected after over a century of agricultural use. (Photo by Amdougherty, courtesy of Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: While working to protect public land from resource extraction and development seems to be the focus of many environmental groups, what is being done to preserve and protect private property – the majority of our land – across the country? – Jim Friedland, Bath, Maine

Indeed, private property makes up about 60 percent of the total land base across the United States. In 42 states there is more private land than public, and by a wide margin in most cases.

Only Alaska, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Wyoming and California have more public land – that is, land owned by a federal, state, county or municipal government – than private.

Of course, all this private land isn’t just the parcels where our houses sit. It includes most commercial, industrial and agricultural lands as well.

What we each do on our own private property may be our own business, but whether and how we take care of it does impact the public good and the health of ecosystems near and far.

One way each of us can do our part is by cultivating native plants and landscaping around our homes and businesses to increase habitat for local wildlife.

As development slowly but surely swallows up open space, every backyard counts. The National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF’s) Certified Wildlife Habitat program provides homeowners with information and inspiration to make their backyards part of the solution.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans have used local land trusts to put conservation easements on their properties that preclude future development.

The Washington, DC-based Land Trust Alliance serves as a clearinghouse for information on obtaining conservation easements and other private land protections through one of the 1,700 local land trusts across the country.

And the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy has helped protect upwards of 15 million acres of private land across the U.S. by buying at-risk parcels, putting conservation easements on them and seeing that they are managed sustainably moving forward.

As for conservation on working lands, the American Farmland Trust has helped thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country protect over five million acres of private agricultural and grazing land through conservation easements and other tools designed to limit the conversion to non-agricultural uses.

There are also smaller regionally focused groups that work on private lands conservation. Stewardship Partners works with Washington state homeowners and businesses to restore fish and wildlife habitat, improve water quality, protect open space and “green up” the built environment while maintaining working landscapes of farms, forestland and livable communities.

The group has helped hundreds of farms and vineyards across the state identify ways to restore otherwise unproductive lands for the betterment of local ecosystems, and is helping thousands of homeowners across the state install “rain gardens” that utilize rainfall to save water and reduce run-off pollution in and around the Seattle area.

Another pioneering private lands conservation group, the Pacific Forest Trust, works with owners of private forestlands throughout California, Oregon and Washington to preserve working forests and keep sustainable forest practices alive and well in some of the country’s most productive timber forests.

To date the group has helped conserve upwards of 50,000 acres of private forestland in the region through conservation easements and other means.

Contacts: NWF, www.nwf.org; Land Trust Alliance, www.landtrustalliance.org; The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org; American Farmland Trust, www.farmland.org; Stewardship Partners, www.stewardshippartners.org; Pacific Forest Trust, www.pacificforest.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

 

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Earth Talk CarInteriors
The Ecology Center’s 2012 Consumer Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Cars compared over 200 different cars across the 2010 and 2011 model years. Those scoring the most kudos in regard to interior air quality include the Honda Civic, Honda CR-Z and the Toyota Prius, shown here.

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Can you discuss pollutants in car interior materials and also pollution inside cars originating from gasoline and diesel exhausts outside the car? – Mervyn Kline, Philadelphia, Penn.

The interior of your car may seem like a safe haven from air pollution, but it may actually be quite the opposite. Chemicals emanating from the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats mix with the airborne pollution being generated under the hood to form a witch’s brew of toxins for those riding inside.

“Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” says Jeff Gearhart of the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based non-profit. The extreme air temperatures inside cars on sunny days can increase the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and break other chemicals down into more toxic constituents.

Some of the worst offenders include airborne bromine, chlorine, lead and other heavy metals. “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face,” adds Gearhart.

Exhaust fumes also find their way into the passenger cabins of many cars. The International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) found that concentrations of carbon monoxide (a noxious by-product of internal combustion known to cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue as well as being a major asthma trigger) may be 10 times higher inside any given car than outdoors along the roadside.

ICTA added that in light of the fact that the average American spends an hour and a half driving around each day, in-car air pollution may pose “one of the greatest modern threats to human health.”

To help consumers minimize their exposure, the Ecology Center released the fourth version of its Consumer Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Cars in 2012, comparing over 200 different cars across the 2010 and 2011 model years.

Those scoring the most kudos in regard to interior air quality include the Honda Civic, Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z. The Civic scored first by being free of bromine-based flame retardants (BFRs) in interior components, utilizing polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-free interior fabrics and trim, and having low levels of heavy metals.

Meanwhile, pulling up the rear were Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport, the Chrysler 200 SC and the Kia Soul. The Outlander finished in last place due to its use of BFRS as well as antimony-based flame retardants in its interior, chromium treated leather components and excessive amounts of lead in seating materials.

“The good news is overall vehicle ratings are improving,” reports the Ecology Center, adding that the top performers have gotten rid of BFRs and PVC altogether in their interiors. “Today, 17 percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without BFRs.”

Consumers can check on their late model car by steering their web browser to the HealthyStuff.org website, the Ecology Center’s free online resource for consumer information.

While environmental and public health groups are working to try to get automakers to clean up their interiors, individuals can reduce their exposure by parking in the shade, using interior sun reflectors to keep temperatures down inside the car and rolling down the windows to let the fresh air in.

Contacts: Ecology Center, www.ecocenter.org; ICTA, www.icta.org; Model Year 2011/2012 Guide to New Vehicles, www.healthystuff.org/documents/2012_Cars.pdf.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

 

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Earth Talk Retail Waste
CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) suggests that retailers consider the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – when setting up their sourcing, packaging and related procedures. (Photo by thinkretail, courtesy of Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I work for the Gap and know firsthand the amount of waste that’s produced at my store. Can you suggest ways retail stores can reduce waste? And how can I get a conversation started with the people upstairs about recycling and being less wasteful? – (name withheld, via e-mail)

Waste is an issue for all retail operations, given the need to take in and unpack large numbers of individual items and then display and package them up in a way that customers will appreciate.

CalRecycle (California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery) suggests that retailers consider the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle – when setting up their sourcing, packaging and related procedures.

As for reducing, CalRecycle encourages retailers to ask their suppliers to provide items without excess packaging and to reuse whatever packaging they can. Also, stores can give customers the choice of having their purchases bagged – or give a discount to those who bring their own or go without.

For reusing, CalRecycle recommends donating old merchandise to charities rather than throwing it in the trash, and looking for schools or institutions that would take display racks and other decor elements from the previous sales season.

Posting such items to a materials exchange is a quick way to find takers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a state list of material exchanges on its website.

Retailers can maximize the amount of recycled packaging in their stores by demanding their suppliers use it. And if a store has enough recyclables it may be able to sell it to an industrial recycler periodically.

If a store is in a mall, there may be other opportunities for greening. “Mall property managers and anchor stores can provide leadership by coordinating waste prevention, recycling and purchasing programs at multitenant complexes,” says CalRecycle.

“Mall managers can consolidate efforts among businesses to generate large amounts of recyclable material, thereby making recycling more cost effective.”

All big retail chains have sustainability challenges, but the Gap has made great strides in the last decade in reducing waste and its overall environmental footprint. They recently completed a green makeover of their corporate offices in San Francisco, diverting as much as 75 percent of the waste stream there.

While the Gap has limited control over what goes on at its retail stores given local rules and systems for waste management, it is partnering with other retailers through industry groups to facilitate recycling in mall store environments and establish lease templates that support waste reduction and other environmental goals.

The company is also part of the Clean by Design program, an initiative of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to marshal the buying power of multinational corporations (including Wal-Mart, Levi’s, Nike and others) to reduce waste and emissions among suppliers abroad.

 

But just because the company is on the case doesn’t mean new suggestions aren’t welcome. Corporate leaders at companies like the Gap often encourage feedback from workers, especially when it could benefit the company’s bottom line or image.

Offering some concrete, succinct examples of ways the company could reduce waste would most likely be the best approach.

Contacts: CalRecycle, www.calrecycle.ca.gov; Gap Social and Environmental Responsibility Report, www.gapinc.com/content/csr/html.html; Clean by Design, www.nrdc.org/international/cleanbydesign; EPA Materials Exchange, www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/tools/exchstat.htm.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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EarthTalk Beach Resorts
According to the Climate Institute, the impact of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was much greater in more developed sections of coastal Thailand where mangrove and coral reef loss preceded the natural disaster. (Photo by Alan C., courtesy of Flickr)

EarthTalk®: Where there are People also will be Environmental Change
By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental risks associated with beach resorts? – Shine Shoukkathali, via e-mail

While they may put up with a lot of stress from wind, waves and weather, beaches and the coastal environments surrounding them are surprisingly fragile.

The ecosystems which make up coastal areas have evolved over eons to their current natural states as to their geologic features and the types and distribution of native plants and animals that live there.

When large numbers of humans move in, whether as full-time residents or vacationers, the dynamics of local ecosystems begin to change. If the growth is not managed well, this inundation with people can contribute to a wide range of environmental problems.

For starters, development of any kind can scar ecosystems and seriously reduce or eliminate wildlife habitat. As houses, condos, shops, restaurants and other buildings begin to replace sand, grasses, trees and other natural features, the birds, fish and other wildlife that frequent such areas are forced to look elsewhere for suitable habitat if they can find any at all.

An oft-repeated side effect of all this building is the removal of mangrove forests and sea grass meadows – important natural buffers against destructive waves from storms as well as important wildlife habitat.

Other examples of coastal development gone awry include boardwalks or marinas built near or on top of coral reefs; beach-front houses, condos, hotels or golf courses replacing sand dunes and meadows; massive amounts of freshwater getting diverted from coastal rivers and streams for the benefit of tourists; and sea turtles scared off from nest sites.

According to the Climate Institute, the impact of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was much greater in more developed sections of coastal Thailand where mangrove and coral reef loss preceded the natural disaster.

“In the absence of these natural protective barriers, the giant wave carried its energy all the way to shore, killing over 250,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage,” reports the group.

“In areas where natural buffer zones remained, such as the Phang Nga province, inland territories were protected by large mangrove forest that dulled the wave’s impact and dissipated its energy.”

“The indiscriminate conversion of natural shorelines and mangrove forest ecosystems for shrimp farming, urban settlements, tourism development and other often unregulated and unplanned human activities over the past several decades often make the coastal areas and its inhabitants much more vulnerable to the immense destructive force of the tsunamis,” reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Likewise, the hurricanes that have battered the U.S. in recent years have been far more destructive than those previous, and many blame unrestrained coastal development.

“A significant chunk of the $200-billion-plus bill from the Katrina-Rita hurricanes might have been avoided if there’d been tough, realistic plans to deter development in exposed coastal areas through buffer zones, wetlands protection, tough building codes and relocating settlements to higher land,” reports the news service Common Dreams.

The key to minimizing property damage and the loss of lives from such natural disasters may well be in what we allow to be developed. By now, most North American coastal regions have learned their lesson the hard way about the perils of unrestrained development, and new building codes now tend to be much tougher.

But with coast-battering storms getting more frequent and intense, all bets are off as to whether our newer rules will be enough to protect beaches and surrounding coastal areas in decades to come.

Contacts: Climate Institute, www.climate.org; WWF, www.panda.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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EarthTalk Essential Oils
Some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is good for the planet, given that it can take hundreds if not thousands of pounds of plant material to make just one pound of an oil. Shown is a lavender field at the Norfolk Lavender farm and nursery and distillery in Heacham, Norfolk, England. (Photo by Mary Hillary)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the skinny on essential oils? I love them, but a friend told me they are no good for the environment. – Mary M., via e-mail

Essential oils are more popular than ever for medicinal and therapeutic purposes as well as in fragrances and flavorings for food and drinks.

Typically produced by harvesting and distilling large amounts of various types of plant matter, essential oils are in many cases all-natural and can take the place of synthetic chemicals in many consumer applications.

But some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is so good for the planet, now that their popularity has turned them into big business.

“It often takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil,” reports aromatherapist and author Mindy Green of GreenScentsations.com.

She adds that it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil.

Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.

“Growing the substantial quantities of plant material needed to produce essential oils results in a monoculture style of farming, with large swaths of land dedicated to a single species,” says Green.

“These systems are most efficiently managed by intense mechanization, and irrigation is frequently used for optimal oil production of the plants.”

Green adds, “As global citizens we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future. So there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes, or lavish massage and spa purposes.”

Green also warns that many essential oils are not produced from sustainable sources. “Some species are at risk, particularly those occupying marginal habitats, such as dwindling tropical forests,” she reports.

She adds that the poverty-stricken in developing countries will harvest and sell whatever they can, in order to put food on their own tables.

Cropwatch, a non-profit that keeps tabs on the natural aromatics industry, maintains a list of wild species threatened by the fast-growing essential oil trade.

Of particular concern are essential oils derived from rosewood, sandalwood, amyris, thyme, cedarwood, jatamansi, gentian, wormwood and cinnamon, among others, as they may well be derived from threatened and illegally harvested wild plant stocks.

Also, some essential oils must be treated as hazardous if spilled and should be kept out of sewers and local waterways. Mountain Rose Herbs, a leading retailer of essential oils, reports that if its tea tree oil spills, it should be absorbed with inert material and sealed it in a container before disposal at a hazardous waste collection site.

Such information is included on the company’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for every essential oil and includes information about flammability and chemical composition.

Consumers would be well served to check the MSDS for any essential oils they might like - Mountain Rose will supply them to customers upon request – to make sure they are using (and disposing of) them correctly.

Contacts: Green Scentsations, www.greenscentsations.com, Cropwatch, www.cropwatch.org, Mountain Rose Herbs, www.mountainroseherbs.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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Earth Talk Essential Oils
Some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is good for the planet, given that it can take hundreds if not thousands of pounds of plant material to make just one pound of an oil. Shown is a lavender field at the Norfolk Lavender farm and nursery and distillery in Heacham, Norfolk, England. (Photo by Mary Hillary)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the skinny on essential oils? I love them, but a friend told me they are no good for the environment. – Mary M., via e-mail

Essential oils are more popular than ever for medicinal and therapeutic purposes as well as in fragrances and flavorings for food and drinks.

Typically produced by harvesting and distilling large amounts of various types of plant matter, essential oils are in many cases all-natural and can take the place of synthetic chemicals in many consumer applications.

But some wonder whether our fascination with essential oils is so good for the planet, now that their popularity has turned them into big business.

“It often takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil,” reports aromatherapist and author Mindy Green of GreenScentsations.com.

She adds that it takes 50-60 pounds of eucalyptus to produce one pound of eucalyptus oil, 200-250 pounds of lavender for one pound of lavender oil, 2,000 pounds of cypress for a pound of cypress oil and as many as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms for one pound of rose oil.

Production of these source crops takes place all over the world and is often organized by large multinational corporations with little regard for local economies or ecosystems.

“Growing the substantial quantities of plant material needed to produce essential oils results in a monoculture style of farming, with large swaths of land dedicated to a single species,” says Green.

“These systems are most efficiently managed by intense mechanization, and irrigation is frequently used for optimal oil production of the plants.”

Green adds, “As global citizens we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future. So there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes, or lavish massage and spa purposes.”

Green also warns that many essential oils are not produced from sustainable sources. “Some species are at risk, particularly those occupying marginal habitats, such as dwindling tropical forests,” she reports.

She adds that the poverty-stricken in developing countries will harvest and sell whatever they can, in order to put food on their own tables.

Cropwatch, a non-profit that keeps tabs on the natural aromatics industry, maintains a list of wild species threatened by the fast-growing essential oil trade.

Of particular concern are essential oils derived from rosewood, sandalwood, amyris, thyme, cedarwood, jatamansi, gentian, wormwood and cinnamon, among others, as they may well be derived from threatened and illegally harvested wild plant stocks.

Also, some essential oils must be treated as hazardous if spilled and should be kept out of sewers and local waterways. Mountain Rose Herbs, a leading retailer of essential oils, reports that if its tea tree oil spills, it should be absorbed with inert material and sealed it in a container before disposal at a hazardous waste collection site.

Such information is included on the company’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for every essential oil and includes information about flammability and chemical composition.

Consumers would be well served to check the MSDS for any essential oils they might like - Mountain Rose will supply them to customers upon request – to make sure they are using (and disposing of) them correctly.

Contacts: Green Scentsations, www.greenscentsations.com, Cropwatch, www.cropwatch.org, Mountain Rose Herbs, www.mountainroseherbs.com.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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EarthTAlk Sweetners
There has been considerable talk of how dangerous synthetic sugar substitutes may be for our health, but little evidence of harm has actually come forth. However, their environmental impacts may be more reason for concern. (Photo by abbyladybug, courtesy of Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I saw an article on sugar’s effects on the environment. Has anyone compared different sweeteners (artificial or natural) for their environmental impacts? – Terri Oelrich, via e-mail

The production of sugar has indeed taken a huge environmental toll. “Sugar has arguably had as great an impact on the environment as any other agricultural commodity,” reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

WWF is citing biodiversity loss as a result of the “wholesale conversion of habitat on tropical islands and on coastal areas” to grow sugar. WWF adds that the cultivation of sugar also has resulted in considerable soil erosion and degradation and the use of large amounts of chemicals across the tropics and beyond.

Some natural food markets now carry sustainably harvested sugar that does not fit this profile, though sugar’s ugly history has led many eco-conscious consumers to look elsewhere to satiate their sweet teeth.

Fortunately there are several natural and artificial options that are safe to eat and relatively benign for the environment. Perhaps the most popular choice is stevia, a sustainably harvested herb from Latin America that is 30 times sweeter than table sugar but without calories.

Other natural alternatives include coconut palm sugar, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar, maple syrup and raw honey. These choices may not save on calories like stevia, but they do sweeten without environmental guilt.

As for synthetic sugar alternatives, there has been considerable talk of how dangerous they may be for our health, but little evidence of harm has actually come forth and their environmental impacts may be more reason for concern.

Aspartame, for example, used in Equal and also in diet sodas, is made by fermenting corn and soy, the two biggest genetically engineered crops in the U.S. Environmentalists are concerned that such tinkering with nature could have unexpected and potentially disastrous results down the road.

Another common sugar alternative, sucralose (trade name Splenda) has its issues, too. A study released in 2013 by researchers from the University of North Carolina (UNC) found that the majority of Splenda used around the world ends up in the Gulf Stream, the fast-moving ocean current that starts in the Gulf of Mexico and flows into the Atlantic Ocean and beyond into the coastal waters of Europe and Africa.

“Sucralose cannot be effectively broken down by the bacteria in the human digestive tract,” reports UNC. “As a result, the body absorbs little or no calories and 90 percent of the chemical compound leaves the body through human waste and enters sewage systems.”

Since this sucralose cannot be broken down by most water treatment systems, it ends up in the oceans, where the long-term effects remain unknown.

Saccharin (trade name Sweet’N Low) got a bad rap in the 1970s when rats exposed to large amounts got bladder cancer, but it has since been vindicated: The Food and Drug Administration removed warning labels in 2000 and the Environmental Protection Agency removed it from its lists of hazardous constituents and commercial chemical products in 2010.

Nonetheless, saccharin can cause problems for pregnant women and infants who consume large amounts, and also gets a veto as a petroleum derivative.

Contacts: WWF, www.wwf.org; “Fake sweetener Splenda fills our oceans, scientists find,” www.naturalnews.com/039156_splenda_ocean_pollution_environment.html, “The Sweet Side of Fair Trade,” Green America, www.greenamerica.org/livinggreen/SweetFairTrade.cfm.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Politics

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By Nusayba Hammad, Communications Director, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (nusayba@uscpr.org) WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an act unprecedented in recent history, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand...
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