Just Say “No” To The Plastic Bag

Oh the plastic bag, something so basic and innocuous, yet so dangerous and toxic to the environment.  Before 1977, paper bags were a staple in retail outlets, including grocery stores.  In 1974-75, giant retailers, such as, Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Jordan Marsh and Allied began switching to plastic merchandise bags.  By 1977, the fad had caught on and spread like wildfire to grocery stores, where consumers were given an option…paper or plastic?
Many consumers don’t think twice when carrying their groceries home in plastic bags, unloading and putting away their items and most, indiscriminately disposing of the plastic bags in the garbage to never, ever wonder where these plastic bags end up.  Let’s find out.
As of August 2010 between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are being used each year worldwide.  50 million of those plastic bags end up as litter every year in Australia.  There is a patch that floats in the Pacific Ocean called the “plastic soup patch,” because it’s just a covered film floating atop the water twice the size of the continental United States, roughly 80% plastic.  Adding to this atrocity, according to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year when they mistake this plastic litter for food and choke to death trying to eat it or become entangled in the mess and strangle to death.  The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic.
Plastic bags are barely being recycled in America at a rate of only 1% to 3%.  Americans throw away an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year.  Plastic bags are not, repeat, are not biodegradable and it is estimated that just one plastic bag can take anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years to naturally break down on it’s own. These bags will outlive us all and in the meantime while the environment is waiting on them to decompose “tiny toxic bits seep into the soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans,” said Vincent Cobb, an entrepreneur, who launched the website Reuseit.com. The toxic materials seeping into these water sources only adds to the water contamination issues and clean, drinkable water scarcity plaguing the globe today.
As if the plastic bag hasn’t done enough, approximately 60-100 million barrels of crude oil are needed to make a world supply of plastic bags each year.  Plastic bags are made from petroleum, a non-renewable, natural resource. The manufacturing process alone contributes to harmful carbon emissions and pollutions being released into the air during the petroleum extraction process.  Additionally, most plastic bags are made of high density polyethylene or HDPE, which is extremely hazardous to manufacture and most recycle centers refuse these types of bags due to their durability, which regularly gets caught in the recycle machines, causing costly repairs.  Additionally, a recent study found that the inks used on plastic bags contain lead, a known and very dangerous toxin.
A few states, such as, California along with Walmarts nationwide have attempted to tackle the plastic bag debacle head on, by requiring large grocery stores and pharmacies that typically use the polyethylene bag with the two handles, to take the bags back in an recycling effort to remedy this problem.  However, these attempts have been unsuccessful, because it requires people to actually bring their plastic bags back to the store once they are done transporting their items home…not likely with the hustle and bustle that makes up the American way of life. 
On the flip side of this issue, these bags are widely used in grocers and other retailers because they are cheap, costing no more than 2 cents per bag, while paper bags run a high 4 to 6 cents and compostable bags 9 to 14 cents. Recycling the plastic bag and trying to make a new plastic bag would actually cost more in the entire process than the bag is actually worth.  According to an article taken from Salon.com, Carol Misseldine, sustainability coordinator for the city of Oakland said “we are not recycling plastic bags into plastic bags.  They’re being downcycled, meaning that they’re being put into another product that itself can never be recycled.”
In March 2007, San Francisco was touted as the first and only major U.S. city to enforce a ban on plastic bags. Large retailers, supermarkets and pharmacies in the city were forced to ditch plastic shopping bags and replace them with paper bags or those made from all-natural biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic.  The result has been huge, with a whopping 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect.  Stores like Ikea and Whole Foods are also doing their part.  In 2008, Whole Foods banned plastic bags from all 270 of their U.S., Canada and UK stores now only offering paper, reusable or canvas.  Ikea now imposes a 5 cent fee to consumers that choose to bag their items in plastic.  This program started with their UK stores in 2006 and by 2007 when it was rolled out to the U.S. locations, the company already marked a 95% decrease in plastic bag usage in the UK.
While reusable and canvas bags are definitely the eco-friendly way to shop, what would be even better for the environment is to take this issue a few steps further and ban the use of plastic bags in the United States altogether. You can leave your green footprint so to speak in making sure that our environment is rid of the plastic bag once and for all by signing this petition today.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/3183610309/

MSG: The Obese Elephant In The Room

Have you ever wondered why many signs as you enter Chinese food eateries read “No MSG?”  If you failed to see this sign would you still consume their food or would that be a deal breaker?  Monosodium Glutamate aka MSG was discovered and patented by Professor Ikeda of the University of Tokyo in 1908, when he isolated the glutamic acid in the seaweed commonly used in Asian broths and it has been a mainstay in Asian cuisine and many other processed foods ever since.  

Today experts blame MSG for causing many side effects, such as, headaches, dizziness, chest pains, shortness of breathe, nausea, rapid or irregular heartbeat, flushing or excessive sweating, skin rash, numbness, intense thirst, lethargy or sleepiness, ringing ears, tingling in the mouth, obesity and sexual reproduction problems.  Pretty lengthy list of side effects for one ingredient.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg for the impact MSG has on the body and the environment.

In the 1970’s MSG was reluctantly removed from baby food, but somehow it has made it’s way back into the foods commonly eaten today and also in fertilizers used to grow fruits and vegetables.  Fertilizers such as, Omega Protein Refined/Hydrolyzed Fish Emulsion and Steam Hydrolyzed Feather Meal contain hydrolyzed proteins and AuxiGro WP contains both hydrolyzed protein and monosodium glutamate are being sprayed on many of the fruits and vegetables consumed today.  So not only is MSG a common food additive found in much of the fast and processed foods on the market, it is also a primary component in the growth cycle of U.S. agriculture.

MSG is derived from an amino acid called glutamic acid, which contains D-glutamic acid, pyroglutamic acid and a host of other chemicals that are referred to in the industry as “contaminates.”  These contaminates are used to grow and process food.  So what’s the big deal?  Here’s where it must get a bit technical to accurately explain how MSG directly impacts the human body when consumed.  Glutamic acid is known to be toxic to the nervous system because it is a neurotransmitter that can get into the brain causing nerves to over excite often times injuring and killing neurons.  According to Dr. Jack Samuels, President of the Truth in Labeling Campaign, the evidence of toxicity of MSG is overwhelming “exposed laboratory animals suffered brain lesions and neuroendocrine disorders.”  It was also noted in studies conducted on retinal degeneration in mice treated with free glutamic acid that they also became very obese following administration of the acid.  Is it simply a coincidence that the hypothalamus in our brains regulates weight as well as other endocrine functions?

Which brings us to another horrible impact of consuming MSG…obesity.  According to a study highlighted on ForceChange.com, MSG has successfully been linked to obesity.  A research team travelled to China in 2008 where MSG is consumed in large quantities and found that “one-third of people who used the most MSG were almost three times as likely to be overweight” than those who consumed none.  So how exactly does MSG lead to obesity?

As previously explained, MSG is an excitotoxin, a substance that overexcites the neurons.  The human body lacks a blood-brain-barrier in the hypothalamus and this is the primary reason MSG can be so damaging to the human body. Due to the lack of a  barrier the hypothalamus allows the excitotoxins to enter the brain and cause damage and abnormal development, which includes obesity, short stature and reproductive problems.  Another disturbing factor of obesity induced by MSG according to Dr. Russell Blaylock, author of Excitotoxins, “is that it doesn’t appear to depend on food intake.  This could explain why some people cannot diet away their obesity.”  Basically, no matter the amount of caloric intake of MSG or the physical activity to work off that intake, obesity is still the end result.

In a controversial book book titled Slowly Poisoning America, the author John Erb notes that MSG is used in many scientific laboratories today to fatten up mice.  He said  “No strain of rat or mice is naturally obese, so the scientists have to create them. They make these morbidly obese creatures by injecting them with a chemical when they are first born. The MSG triples the amount of insulin the pancreas creates, causing rats (and humans?) to become obese. They even have a title for the race of fat rodents they create: “MSG-Treated Rats”.”

You may be wondering at this point which foods you need to stay away from to avoid the notorious MSG monster.  The list is longer than many think and may require at great deal of will power for many who have become accustomed to the fast way of eating, quick pick vending machine snacks, fast food restaurants and pretty much most of the processed foods flavored to dangerously yummy taste.

Foods containing MSG include but are not limited to: Fast food and most restaurant foods, pre-made meals, The Campbell’s soups, Hostess products,  Doritos,  Lays flavored potato chips, Top Ramen, Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper, Heinz canned gravy, Swanson frozen prepared meals, and Kraft salad dressings, especially the ‘healthy low fat’ ones-to name a few.   It is shocking to see how many of these products are consumed by children in school cafeterias and even at home. Additionally, the shiny appearance on your fruits and veggies are a result of the monosodium glutamate (MSG) laden fertilizers discussed earlier in this article.  

Alarmingly, the products that do not say monosodium glutamate may still have the ingredient in them, just under a different name.  Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein is also another name for monosodium glutamate. They hide MSG under many different names making it extremely important to educate yourself on the various alias this toxic ingredient can fall under.

While the U.S Food and Drug Administration has deemed MSG to be safe and they currently have no limits on how much can be added to food, one really has to question the difference between safe and healthy.  With one third of the US population suffering from obesity and children growing in number with weight related health issues today, it is evident a change has got to come.  That change needs to be in the form of removing MSG from the diet of a country where obesity is quickly on the rise.

You can lend a hand to this very important health issue by signing this petition urgently demanding that the Food and Drug Administration ban products containing Monosodium Glutamate.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/nexus_icon/282678968/


What WIll They Drink Now?

The United Nations recently declared “access to clean water and sanitation a fundamental human right.”  This may raise a few eyebrows for many reading this article;  it would seem obvious and no need for declarations that access to clean drinking water is a human right.  Let’s picture for a moment a world without access to clean, fresh drinking water, a world lacking effective sanitation facilities.  A bit hard to imagine for most, but not so hard for the 40 percent of the global population-more than 2.6 billion people around the world-who wake up everyday to disease-ridden water so saturated in filth and raw sewage, it is undrinkable.  Of that number, 1.6 billion people worldwide lack the means to safely eliminate excrement and other waste.
In places like Brazil, Haiti, Pakistan, Iran, Africa, Venezuela, Mexico, Sudan, Cuba, China and Egypt, to name a few-the water crisis for these people has reached epic proportions.  According to an article  taken from GreenAnswers, in Sudan only 37 percent of the country’s population have access to drinking water.  A lack of water not only puts the Sudanese health at risk, but leaves them struggling to grow enough food to feed their families.  Instead of spending their days in school getting an education, the children of Sudan spend their days traveling great distances on foot to access water sources to bring back to their families.
In many of these Third World countries and cities, people live in slum areas that lack toilets, running water, and drinking water.  They are forced to use what is called “flying toilets, “ which is waste collected in plastic bags and tossed into the streets.  This unsanitary practice leads to the contamination of water sources where people come into direct contact with feces, causing diarrhea, cholera, hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid and other water-borne diseases that most times end in death.
According to the United Nations agencies it is estimated that two million people die from water born diseases every year.  1.2 million are children under the age of five, a number that has surpassed the HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles death toll combined.  A number that is so avoidable.
What is the solution?  The answer may seem like an easy fix but it runs the full spectrum of complexity for many Third World countries, such as, Haiti and many other countries that lack the underground sewage infrastructure and running water needed to simply install Western-style toilets and bathrooms as a remedy.  If only it were that simple.  The technology does exist to fix this crisis,  however it will require a full commitment from the politicians governing these communities and tragically this issue continues to remain a low priority in many countries.  After all the people who suffer the most are the poor and least influential.
One may see some light at the end of the tunnel with the UN declaring “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for full enjoyment of the right to life.” This resolution passed with 122 nations in favor and none against, is a direct urge to the international community to ”scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable water and sanitation for all.”  While this may be a step in the right direction, for some countries it simply is not enough.  According to BBC News, Barbara Plett, “some countries feel the resolution does not clearly define the scope of the human right and the obligations its entailed.”  It is clear that what these people need most is less talk and fast action…now.
On a grassroot level, the process to providing clean water to these countries, while daunting can be done with a workable budget and political support.  It would involve drilling wells, running pipelines and building water purification plants.  Such projects have cropped up in Haiti, with one group called International Action, managing to install 110 neighborhood water tank chlorinators in Port-au-Prince.  However, these efforts have simply fallen short of what’s needed to fix the crisis in Haiti and many other countries.
One organization working tirelessly to improving the sanitation conditions in these countries is WaterPartners International, a nonprofit organization committed to providing clean drinking water in developing countries.  Their efforts has led to an annual event called World Water Day, funded water and sanitation project grants in Honduras, Ethiopia, Kenya, India and Bangladesh in 2008 that reached 153,000 people and provided access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation, and hygiene training.
It is organizations like WaterPartners International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which is currently taking a multi-tiered approach to resolving the global water crisis, needed to raise awareness of this crisis and call to action much needed philanthropic support and help in these countries.
Bill Gates is providing $41.5 million in new sanitation grants for his project to reinvent the toilet.  Toilet 2.0, the name he has coined his new toilet design, is the next frontier in sanitation facilities in these Third World countries and will be designed to not only eliminate waste, but turn it into an environmental asset, in the form of compost, fertilizer, inexpensive fuel or renewable energy, and here’s the big take away-transform urine into drinking water-a water purification process successfully implemented in northern Orange County, California and providing drinking water to 2.3 million residents.
These toilets will be very basic in design, easy to install, use and maintain, affordable with sanitation services costing no more than 5 cents per person per day and above all else water will not be the primary component for it to function properly.  What most of these countries are lacking is massive amounts of water and sewer infrastructures, so a waterless toilet system is imperative to the success of this project. With this design in mind, Bill Gate’s goal is to begin production on several new toilet prototypes within the next year and have the new toilet systems in developing countries in the next three years.
Many people in the United States are not privy to the global water crisis facing the people of these countries today, many may also be missing out on the looming water crisis that has started to hit a bit closer to home.  With water resources diminishing in the United States at rapid speed due to climate change, pollution, excessive droughts, flooding and careless consumption, one has to wonder what the future holds in US talks to privatize of our fresh water supply.  With our largest natural resource possibly becoming a profitable commodity, with any product sold in society, there are those that can afford to have and those that can not.  Will privatization create a system of the “haves” and “the have nots” when it comes to access to clean, drinking water?

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/cristic/423806317/

Cheese: Better For Your Car Than Your Health?

Cheese lovers around the world may cringe after reading this article.  Your love for all things cheese, especially coupled with a smooth wine and great company, may directly threaten your environmental values and ethics. Conversely, the same cheese said to be bad for the environment may be the next best thing for the future of alternative fuel in eco-friendly vehicles.

First things first however, let’s get to the bottom of this cheese issue.  The Environmental Working Group published a report last week detailing the findings of a study into the lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions for common foods and vegetables.  Topping the charts for the highest gas emissions was lamb coming in highest with 39.3kg (86.4lbs) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for each kilo eaten.  Beef ran second highest with 27.1 kilos (59.6lbs) of C02e eaten.  And surprisingly, trailing third, cheese with 13.5 kilos (29.7lbs) CO2e per kilo eaten.  The study only focused on cow’s milk cheese, however, another study found goat’s milk to be equal to cow’s milk cheese and sheep’s milk cheese faired much worse.  How can this be many of you may be wondering?  It seems the majority of these high emissions can be traced back to the production phase.

In order to understand cheese’s contribution to global warming, we must take a look at the production process.  Emissions come from the use of fertilizers and pesticides, used to grow grain and feed, which in turn produces gas from the stomachs of ruminant animals and also from their manure.  The entire growth process contributes heavily to the  contamination of the environment’s natural resources, due to feed production, waste handling, packaging and transportation, causing a warming effect; However, it is the fertilizer and pesticide production that has the greatest impact on the environment, in large part because of the nitrous oxide that is released during the application process.  Factor in the nitrous dioxide and methane released from the manure, which also releases pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics and metals into the environment and you have a recipe for disaster of sorts on the environment.

Compounding the problem and adding to cheese’s carbon footprint are the refrigeration and shipping processes.

According to the study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, emissions are much higher in air-freighted food compared to domestic, specifically the report states “cheese imported by air has a 46 percent larger footprint than domestically produced cheese.”  Based on these figures, the EWG  recommends buying cheese locally from organic or grass-fed pastured animal farms whenever possible.  Going organic not only helps wage the battle against global warming, because grass fed operations are better for the environment using less energy-draining methods and better animal management  leading to improved quality of  feed growth, but it is also extremely beneficial for your health by reducing your exposure to toxins from pesticides that accumulate in animal fat.

In an article taken from the Washington Post, Steve Zeng, a dairy researcher at Langston University in Oklahoma, “singles out feta cheese as one of the best options in terms of processing impacts and notes that chevre, brie and Camembert are also pretty green.  Same goes for American’s top-selling cheese-mozzarella.”

While all of these harmful toxins and natural gas emissions weather bad for cheese production and consumption, cheese just may be the next best thing to fuel the future of eco-friendly vehicles.  The Lotus Exige 270E Tri-Fuel was showcased at an eco-rally organized by the Prince of Wale’s environmental initiative, Start, in London last week.  This sports car is the first prototype capable of running on an ethanol fuel made from wine and whey, which is a byproduct of cheese.  In case you run out of cheese while on the road, no need to fret, this specialized vehicle also takes conventional gasoline and methanol, a fuel produced from taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

Dr. John Fieschko, a Syracuse researcher and executive director of the Central New York Biotechnology Research Center,  just won a $400,000 state grant to investigate the potential of cheese fuel, according to a story in the Times-Picayune. Fieschko plans to convert whey protein, a leftover waste from cheese production, into ethanol. The whey will come from the Kraft Foods cream cheese factory in Lowville, N.Y.

It’s hard to believe that something as tasty as cheese could come with so much environmental baggage.  Taking a look on the bright side, however, the American dairy industry is making strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent over the next ten years.  By adjusting cow’s diets and installing methane digesters to convert manure into electricity, the dairy industry is well on its way to reducing the harmful effects of cheese on our environment.

But no matter how you cut it, cheese will always have its place on the tables and possibly the gas tanks of millions, so it’s up to us to enjoy and consume it responsibly.  Cheese!

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/koadmunkee/4255301697/