Learning through Action

I'm Lauren and this blog began as a journey to live a life with less environmental impact.  As my journey led me to Myanmar, my focus shifted from aspiration to advocacy. 

This project is an effort to provide a glimpse into my life in Myanmar—the people, places, and issues that inspire and teach me as I continue this adventure towards a more sustainable life.   

To learn more, click "About" above, and stay tuned for updates.

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Saturday
Oct082011

Greening Your Laundry Habits Part II: Natural Alternatives and Efficient Products

photo credit Jefferson Sisters blog

The environmental impact of laundry is considerable.  In fact, between 75 to 80 percent of the lifecycle of our clothing comes from its washing and drying.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives to conventional laundry habits that can significantly reduce your laundry’s eco-footprint.  In addition to reducing the temperature of the water used while washing, as discussed in my last post, ecological impact can be reduced by line drying, purchasing concentrated and eco-friendly laundry detergents, and being smart about the kind of appliances we purchase and use.

Reduce Dryer Use, or Better Yet Line Dry

The dryer uses enormous amounts of energy.  It ranks second in energy use for household appliances, right after the fridge, and accounts for approximately 6% of home energy consumption In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 88 million dryers, each emitting more than a ton of carbon dioxide a year.  On average, this also adds over $70 to your annual energy bill. 

You can save energy, lower your utility bills, and improve your ecological footprint by simply reducing your use of the dryer.  Try line drying all or part of your laundry.  Like washing with cold water, line drying is better for your clothes and increases their longevity.  There are excellent resources that provide tips for line drying, including how to avoid clothes becoming too stiff and products that make line drying easy.

Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent

Conventional household cleaning products, including laundry detergents, often contain ingredients that are toxic to the environment and human health.  Phosphates—found in some laundry detergents—can wreak havoc downstream on marine life and aquatic habitats.  Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives that are phosphate free and biodegradable.  Look for a detergent that has plant or vegetable derivates rather than being petroleum based. 

In addition to being eco-friendly, your detergent should also be super concentrated.  These detergents come in smaller bottles, which means less packaging and reduced transportation costs (fuel, air impacts, etc).  I use method’s Lighthouse, which is eight times more concentrated than traditional detergents.  There are other concentrated detergents, and the trend towards soaps that contain less liquid is on the rise.  Most of these detergents can be used in cold water cycles, which as we have learned dramatically reduces energy use. 

For the do-it-yourself crowd, making your own laundry detergent is an option—and several sources provide recipes and instructions.  Fabric softeners also should be avoided.  Instead, trying adding a cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle, which naturally balances the pH of the soap and leaves clothes feeling soft. 

Maximize the Efficiency of Your Appliances

The kind of washer and dryer you use is also a factor in the environmental impact of your laundry.  For example, switching to an Energy Star washer reduces energy use by 50% and can save up to 7,000 gallons of water each year.  Treehugger estimates that over an 11-year lifecycle, that is enough water to provide a lifetime supply of drinking water for six people.

Your dryer choice also matters.  If you can’t live without a dryer, use one with a moisture sensor to optimize efficiency.  Clean out the lint filter after every use, which will improve the performance of the dryer.  Like fabric softeners, avoid dryer sheets if possible.  They contain toxic chemicals and actually wear out fabrics

The proper load size is also important for a machine’s efficiency.  Small loads waste water and fail to maximize a washer or dryer’s space.  Conversely, large loads are hard on the machine’s motors, which lead to energy inefficiencies.

Finally, the carbon neutral fanatic can always use a handcrank clothing washer, which reduces energy use—aside from your own—to virtually nothing.

Sunday
Sep252011

Greening Your Laundry Habits: Tips to Reduce the Impact of Washing Machines

Laundry is one of those household tasks I try not to think too much about.  Often tedious, never inspiring, laundry is relegated to my must do but actively avoid checklists.   Yet this single task accounts for about 14% of our household water use and has a heavy impact on our carbon footprint.  What accounts for the large energy and environmental costs of washing our clothes?  How can we reduce the impacts of the estimated 400 loads of laundry the average American household does each year?

There are several simple solutions that can dramatically cut your water and energy use, and reduce your laundry’s footprint.  These include adjusting the temperature of your wash, reducing dryer use, maximizing your appliances, and using more concentrated green laundry detergents.  This post will tackle the first of these issues, with follow-up on the remaining laundry strategies to come.

Turn the Temperature Down: Wash in Cold Water

Nearly 90% of the energy used to wash clothing goes to heating the water.  This energy use has monetary and environmental implications: a single load of laundry washed in hot water is equivalent to driving nine miles in an automobile.  It also adds over $100 annually to your utility bill.

The simplest solution to this energy problem: reduce the temperature of your wash cycle.  Switching to warm water will cut a load’s energy use in half.  Washing in cold water is even better—it is estimated that if Americans switched to washing in cold water rather than hot, we could reduce our national carbon emissions by 1% and save over $3 billion dollars in energy costs.  Cold water is also better for your clothes.  Hot water reduces fabric longevity and speeds up color fading. 

Furthermore, washing with hot water is often unnecessary.  Washing machines are more advanced and efficient than years past when hot water washing was the default.  There are also many effective, ecologically sound laundry detergents that are formulated for cold water washing (including for whites and stains).  In light of these product advancements, there is simply no reason not to wash your clothes in cold water.  Unless there is a particular reason, such as allergy prevention or oil stains, each load of laundry done in hot water wastes energy.

Finally, be sure to set your hot water heater to no higher than 120 degrees and try to minimize water use.  This may mean wearing clothes more than once before washing or shortening your wash cycle.  For example, the UN Environment Programme estimates that if you wear a pair of jeans at least three times and wash in cold water, you consume five times less energy than washing after each use.  These changes are crucial.  Water is and will continue to become a valuable resource, with demands for clean, reliable sources increasing.

Friday
Aug122011

Uncovering the Health and Environmental Risks of Traditional Mattresses 

We spend anywhere from a quarter to a third of our lives asleep.  Many of us spend the rest of our times in office buildings or homes.  Given the amount of time we spend inside, our indoor environment—including our sleeping habitat—is equally if not more important to our health and quality of life as the outdoor environment.

The status of bedding, especially mattresses, is far from comforting.  The danger from many mattresses comes under the guise of safety.  In the United States, federal law requires that all mattresses be fire retardant.  The only way to avoid this chemically laden condition is to obtain a prescription from your doctor, or to purchase your mattress in natural component parts.

The Dangers of Fire Retardants

Traditional fire retardants contain caustic chemicals, including PBDEs (polybrominaded diphenyl ether) that are known endocrine disruptors.  Even the newer, “safer” fire retardants, which use boric acid—also contained in insecticides—raise health concerns.  Compounding the problem is the vast number of options that claim to be organic and natural.  However, in an industry where regulation applies only to what must be included—fire retardants—rather than how to define materials, “organic” and “natural” labels are rendered meaningless.  While there are several healthy, safe alternatives, it takes a bit of research to find and understand them.

Considerations and What to Avoid

-    PBDE’s (described above), are known carcinogens used as a fire retardant on mattresses

-    Petroleum-based polyurethane foam is used in traditional mattresses.  This material off-gases tremendously—which means it releases petroleum based chemicals and volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s, that pose well-known health risks and environmental damage in the form of smog. 

-    Synthetic latex, as opposed to its natural counterpart, synthetic latex contains chemicals that can cause skin irritation.  Blends of natural and synthetic latex are better than synthetics alone, but I prefer a fully natural product.  A brief comparison of the two can be found here

-    Soy-based foam, although it sounds like a healthy alternative, consumers should be mindful of soy products.  Much of the soy produced is genetically modified, grown in vast monoculture farms, and involves traditional pesticides with known health risks.  

The E.P.A. also publishes a chemicals alternative assessment, which lets you compare different chemicals and materials to potentially safer options. 

Natural Alternatives

To avoid federal regulations requiring fire retardance, several companies sell mattresses in component parts—like latex foam without the cover, and natural mattress cover sold separately.  Many of these companies offer organic cotton, wool, and natural latex as alternatives to the petroleum-based, chemical-filled mattresses that have long been the industry standard.  Wool is an excellent fire retardant, satisfies regulatory requirements, and is a breathable insulator.  Natural latex is biodegradable.  A combination of wool and organic cotton or natural latex offer the best alternative to soy or petroleum based foams.  The New York Times published a detailed chart, comparing 17 mattress makers, the components of the mattress, both inside and out, and their price-point.  This is a good starting point to learn about your options and the problems with some companies that hold themselves out as eco-friendly or organic.

Friday
Jul222011

The Carbon Pawprint of Pets: 3 Considerations for Green Pet Care 

Are you a dog or cat person?  Perhaps, like me, you consider yourself both.  Regardless of your preference, it is likely that you—like the majority of Americans—are an animal lover in one form or another.  According to a recent survey, more than 71 percent of U.S. homes include a pet.  Dogs are more popular than cats—with over 45 percent of households owning at least one dog, and roughly 38 percent owning at least one cat. 

Our pet culture is evident everywhere—in neighborhoods and parks, in advertisements, even in fashion and pop-culture.  However, the environmental impact of our furry friends is something given little attention.  Frankly, it was something I hadn’t even considered when beginning this journey to reduce my ecological footprint.  The impact, according to two New Zealand scientists, is large and startling.  Robert and Brenda Vale’s book, “Time to Eat Dog?  The Real Guide to Sustainable Living”, claims that dogs are worse for the environment than SUVs.  According to the Vales’ research, a medium-sized dog has double the impact (and carbon footprint) of driving an SUV 10,000 miles.  Cats fare a bit better, with the impact of a Smart Car, and gold fish have impacts equivalent to two cell phones.  This hierarchy makes sense—the smaller the animal, the smaller its environmental impact.

Why are dogs and cats so bad for the environment?  These animals are carnivores, and it takes a lot of carbon-producing land and energy to make their food.  However, this does not mean that we should do away with domesticated animals.  Pets provide many other benefits—including companionship—and like other environmental impacts can be improved by making a few simple changes.

Greening Your Pet Care:

1.     Reduce Your Pets’ Food Impact

Because our pets’ biggest impacts come from their food, this should be the focus of any meaningful change.  Dogs—unlike humans—typically eat food made mainly of beef or beef by-products.  Beef has the worst environmental impact of all meats.  Fortunately, there are alternatives—the best being to make your own pet food from other proteins and vegetable sources.  This solution has the benefit of cutting down on processing and transportation impacts and allows you to make the same kind of food choices for your pet as you make for yourself (local sources, healthier options, etc).

If you are unable or unmotivated to make your own pet food, consider how pet food is produced.  Select smaller, locally made pet food brands or buy in bulk.  Look for foods with non-beef ingredients, like chicken, fish, and duck.  Organic food and treats are also readily available and often a better option.  Our pets, like us, need to have a balanced healthy diet to ensure a long life a lower risk of chronic health issues.

2.     Use Environmentally Friendly Products

As with other products we purchase, look for options that decompose and at a minimum don’t pollute.  Opt for compostable bags for your dogs waste.  Replace traditional cat litter—which is bad for your cat’s health—with ones made out of recycled newspaper or corn.  Select animal shampoos that are free of unnatural chemicals including sodium lauryl sulfate.  Most of these products are available at local health food stores or online. 

Flea and tick treatment often contains chemicals that are dangerous to both human and animal health.  For safer alternatives, check out NRDC’s list or consider making your own natural solution.  One vet suggests a flea treatment made with a base of castile soap and additions of 10 drops of lavender, five drops of eucalyptus, five drops of rosemary, and five drops of cajuput oil.  Feeding your dog garlic rosemary treats is also a preventative flea treatment.  

3.     Invest in Recycled and Reusable Products

Like accessories and toys for people, there is a wide-range of products available for your pet.  Instead of repeatedly buying cheaper, lower-quality pet toys that end up more frequently in the landfill, invest in higher quality, durable products.  There are many products made from natural materials—like hemp, soy, and organic cotton—that don’t contain chemicals and are built to last.  Hemp leashes and collars are also more comfortable for dogs than their nylon counterparts and can be washed and reused with ease. 

As with food and flea remedies, consider making your own toys and accessories by reusing materials or products you have at home (used tennis balls, fabric or old blankets for bedding, etc).  An old suitcase and some fabric can be turned into a small bed for your dog or cat. 

Making a few of these changes can make a big difference in your pet’s environmental impact and their overall health.  You can also consider changing some of your own habits to offset the impact of your pet.  These changes can ensure that the benefits your pet provides will far outweigh their ecological impact.

Saturday
Jul022011

Uncovering the Environmental and Health Impacts of Makeup

If you are like me, you think very little about the makeup and lotions you wear and the impact they might be having on the environment and your body.  According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average person uses up to 15 different cosmetic products a day.  And these products don't just stay on the surface—up to 60% of what we put on our skin gets absorbed into the bloodstream.  These products also wash off our bodies and into the water supply system. 

Ingredients to Avoid

Many skin care and makeup products contain chemicals associated with serious health risks.  Phthalates—endocrine disruptors and developmental toxins linked to asthma—are often used in nail polishes and as solvents in the blended fragrances used in many personal care products.  Phthalates are banned in Europe.  Parabens—a family of preservatives that are suspected of endocrine disruption and have been detected intact in breast cancer tissue—are used in makeup to prevent microbial growth.  Parabens are banned in Japan and Sweden.  Other chemicals to avoid include:

-         Formaldehyde: a carcinogen associated with immune dysfunction, used in lotions, mascara, makeup remover, and nail polish.  Banned in Europe.

-         Alkanolamine family Diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), monoethanolamine (MEA): these are hormone disruptors are used in concealers, eyeliners, face powders and hair products.

-         EDTA complexing (chelating) agent: used in shampoo, body wash, bar soap and handwash.  It is not biodegradable and has been shown to bind with toxic heavy metals (like mercury, lead and cadmium), making them available for accumulation in aquatic ecosystems

-         Triclosan: antibacterial agent used in handwash and body wash. Avoid this one! It has been found to accumulate in breast milk, has been detected undegraded in 80% of US rivers and lakes, and worse: it doesn’t make products work any better (it just allows them to say ‘kills 99.999999% of germs’).

Many countries outside the U.S. have begun banning these chemicals.  The U.S. lags behind, with FDA authority over cosmetics limited by an outdated chemicals control policy (written in 1976!).  In light of this regulatory shortcoming, a consumer’s best protection is information and label reading.

Differentiating Between Products

The EWG has created a database—called “Skip Deep”—that provides searchable information and rankings on over 68,000 products ranging from skin care and makeup to children’s products.  Skin Deep provides two ratings for products and ingredients: a hazard rating from 0-10  (low to high) and a data availability rating.  The data availability rating—none, limited, fair, good or robust—reflects the amount of knowledge scientists have about an ingredient.  EWG recommends products with low hazard scores and at least “fair” data availability.  The database is a great starting point if you want to think critically about what is in your body care and cosmetic products.

Packaging Considerations

A final note—a number of makeup companies have begun to take into account the environmental impact of their packaging in addition to product ingredients.  For an overview of ten eco-minded brands, check out this list.