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When green products go bad March 31, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, change, communication, consumer, environment, food, nature.
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terrachoice-greenwasher.jpgIn case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a green revolution over the past few decades — at least in the industrialized world — and it’s turned our buying and trashing habits upside-down. Small grassroots initiatives have led to local programs such as recycling, support for products such as organic foods, and increased government regulation. Not surprisingly, now that the corporate world has cottoned on to the financial benefits of “being green”, there’s also an increase in the amount of skepticism from consumers.

Generally speaking, skepticism is a good thing; a responsible consumer should ask questions and do research before making a decision. And the research shows some claims about so-called green goods are insupportable.

According to a recent news report, Canada’s Competition Bureau and the Canadian Standards Association will be soon releasing national guidelines on the use of recycling, chemical-related and other environmental terms. The new guidelines are designed to prevent companies from making vague claims. For example, instead of simply saying a product is recycled, a company will now have to say how much of its content is from recycled materials. Companies will also not be allowed to say products are free of chemicals or substances if the products never contained those items in the first place. Any eco-friendly statements will have to be backed up with data.

The Competition Bureau, an independent law enforcement agency, was spurred to act following a New York Times report that questioned environmental claims made by clothing company Lululemon. In November 2007, the Bureau forced Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica to remove any references to the therapeutic benefits of its VitaSea clothing products because it made claims that could not be verified. The clothing’s advertising said it would release minerals and vitamins in to the wearer’s skin when wet and could improve skin in a variety of ways and reduce stress.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also in the process of updating its guidelines for environmental marketing by holding workshops to get consumer input on terms like recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable along with perceptions of third-party certification of green claims.

At the same time, TerraChoice (which regulates the use of the Ecologo certification) released a study of 1,018 “green” products from big-box stores which found that all but one were marketed with false or misleading eco-claims. Researchers claimed these products were committing what they called the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”:

  1. a hidden tradeoff (e.g. toxin-loaded electronics touting their energy efficiency);
  2. no certifiable verification of green claims;
  3. flat-out lying about certification;
  4. vagueness (e.g. products claiming “all natural” status, which could include hazardous substances that occur naturally);
  5. irrelevance (e.g. products claiming to be CFC-free even though CFCs have long been banned)
  6. or a lesser of two evils (e.g. organic cigarettes).

According to the study, Cascade paper towels were the big — and only — winner, with claims of being chlorine-free, having recycled content, and having legitimate logos checking out as accurate.


The main problem hampering adoption of green habits and products isn’t skepticism or lack of choice, but misinformation. Take the case of CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, for example. CFLs last up to 15 times longer, use between one fifth and one quarter of the power of an equivalent incandescent, and waste a lot less energy due to heat output. Therefore, they are better for the environment and the household budget. However, their mercury content makes them more hazardous when it comes to disposal than the old incandescents.

Yet, because of a story that broke last spring — and travelled like lightning around the world — about a homeowner in New England who spent $2,000 on clean-up of a broken CFL, enviro-skeptics still say that the CFL campaigns are a scam. What they failed to read were the follow-up stories, the admission of over-reaction by the Hydro company, and the facts about the proper disposal of CFLs. Yes, there is mercury, but new standards have meant the amount has already been reduced, and clean-up is focused on allowing air circulation, then disposing safely of broken glass. And nearly all stores selling CFLs have now said they will take care of disposal as well.

As with any innovation, there are questions that need to be asked, and a watchdog role for consumer groups. But skeptics and early adopters alike have a responsibility to base their decisions — not on fear or blind optimism — but on balanced information.

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Related Links:
Terrachoice: “The Six Sins of Greenwashing”
“Most products’ green claims exaggerated, study claims”
Ecologo Program
CBC: “‘Green’ Ad claims must be better defined”
Energy Star answers
Slate: “The Case for CFLs”
“How much do flourescent bulbs really cost?”
The CFL clean-up: urban myth


Earth Hour: a drop or a sea change? March 28, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, communication, energy, environment, language, nature, technology, world.
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Lights around the world - image from Inhabitat

Lights out for Earth Hour. That’s the message circling around the globe as we speak, as the clock ticks down to the action hour: 8 p.m. on March 29. Organizers are hoping that millions of people around the world will participate, turning off lights and other electrical appliances not in use.

This worldwide light-switch flipping won’t be as dramatic as it sounds — even from the vantage of the International Space Station — since 8 p.m. arrives at a different time in each time zone. (And in case you were wondering about the image above that I gleaned from Inhabitat, it’s obviously not a satellite image, because only half the world should be in darkness at one time. But I digress…)

Earth Hour logoParticipating cities will include: Bangkok, Brisbane, Buenos Aires, Christchurch, Copenhagen, Dubai, Dublin, Fiji, Halifax, Manila, Montreal, San Juan, Scott Base (Antarctica), Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. With a couple of exceptions, these cities ring the centre of the planet, representing the most densely populated and richest countries.

There are two key objectives for Earth Hour. The first is to engage as many households, communities and business to turn off their lights for one hour on March 29. The second objective is to measure the change in our greenhouse gas emissions over the following 12 months, aiming for a reduction in the year following Earth Hour. The website estimates that if the greenhouse reduction achieved in the Sydney during that hour was sustained for a year, it would be equivalent to taking 48,616 cars off the road for a year.

Earth Hour is turning out to be a major public-relations coup for the organizers — it’s backed by the World Wildlife Fund — and provides a positive outlet for society’s current need to “do something” about the environment. What could be simpler than turning off your lights for an hour, on a weekend, in early evening?

I support this idea in principle, but I can’t help asking questions:

  • Will this action make a difference? In terms of the actual effect of turning off lights, the net environmental benefit will be a drop in the bucket compared to overall power usage. Still, when Earth Hour got its start (with participation of an estimated 2 million people plus businesses) last year in Sydney, Australia, power consumption dropped about 10 percent over the course of the hour. That may be small change in terms of power consumption, but that’s big change in terms of participation.
  • Are participants pawns in a play for government funding? The fact is, climate change affects everyone, but it is too big for us to act alone; we need governments as well as people to commit themselves to change. A collective action can be stronger than a vote, especially if a higher percentage of people participate in Earth Hour than voted in the last federal election. That should help move environmental issues to the top of the political agenda.
  • Why should I bother when my arrogant neighbours will be acting selfishly by [fill in the blank]? If you’ve ever had the experience of picking up trash only to find someone littering behind you, you will probably have asked yourself this question. Everyone has a different answer. All I can say is, any small thankless task that you do that makes the world — even momentarily — a better place inspires me to act for the greater good as well.
  • What will make this tiny drop in the ocean — environmentally speaking — into a sea change of behavioural difference? The act of turning off a light is largely symbolic, especially if people spend their Earth Hour by watching TV in the dark. But awareness is only the first step; Earth Hour participants are encouraged to take part in longer-term changes, and pledge to take actions to reduce their daily energy consumption. With all the eco-friendly information available now, there’s an action for everyone, no matter what your interests.

When I stop to think about it, there are lots of ways I can support the Earth Hour campaign. It will be a great time to take an extended walk with the dog, and if the city lights are dimmer, maybe we’ll see some stars.

In the end, Earth Hour is an opportunity for each of us to act, to educate ourselves, and to remember that we are not alone — that our consumer choices and energy spendthrift ways will eventually affect someone else, somewhere else. And for me, that’s the most compelling reason to take part.

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Related Links:
Earthhour homepage
Toronto Star: Earth Hour special section

Time: “Earth Hour ’08: Will it matter?”

Biofuel powers world record attempt March 26, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in energy, explore, technology, world.
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Earthrace (Florida, Jim Burkett)

A world tour with a difference will kick off this Saturday, March 29, as the Earthrace team tries to make the fastest world circumnavigation ever in a boat entirely fueled by biodiesel.

The team, led by New Zealander Pete Bethune, will begin their journey of more than 24,000 nautical miles in Valencia, Spain.

Earthrace will sail westward, stopping in the Azores and Puerto Rico before going through the Panama Canal and on to Manzanillo, Mexico and San Diego. From there it will hopscotch across the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii, the Marshall Islands and Palou before stopping in Singapore. The final leg will take the crew from Conchin, India to Oman and through the Suez Canal to Valencia.

This is the second world record attempt by the Earthrace team, following a failed attempt last year. After a tragic collision with a Guatemalan fishing boat in March 2007 that resulted in the loss of one fisherman and left the boat in need of repair, Earthrace finally had to abandon the race while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in May, following the third storm in three weeks that left a 2-metre crack in the hull floor.

Since then, Earthrace conducted a public relations tour of European ports, and has just completed a major refit in Spain. The team has tried to make it as environmentally friendly as possible, installing filters for bilgewater, eating organic foods, and using a non-toxic antifouling coating (to keep off the barnacles).

The B100 biodiesel fuel (that’s 100% pure bio, no diesel) powering Earthrace includes a unique additive: human fat. Bethune and two other crew members underwent liposuction, stripping fat from their bodies to make into seven litres of biofuel, enough to power the boat for about 15 kilometres.

Another unique aspect of this race is the boat itself, designed more like a racecar than a yacht. Craig Loomes Design designed the trimaran around a needle-like wave piercing hull that allows Earthrace to slice through waves — it can be submerged under 21 feet of water while doing so — rather than sailing over them. Its twin “skis” enable it to surf down any that hit it from behind as well. It can travel faster in rough seas than any other vessel.Construction took 14 months and the vessel was launched on Feb. 26, 2006. It has a top speed of 46 mph and carries 3,000 gallons of fuel, giving it a range of about 2,800 miles. It was designed to withstand 50-foot waves and has been tested in 40-feet seas against 90 mph winds.

Of course, with a boat this fast and light comes a different kind of pollution: noise. It averages around 85 decibels at cruising speed, which means the crew has to wear earplugs continually. And then there’s the axe… if the boat capsizes, it won’t sink, but the only way out is to use an axe attached to the hull to chop their way out.

The crew plans to sail almost continually for 65 days at between 23 to 29 mph. The current record for circumnavigating the globe is 74 days and 20 hours and 58 minutes, set in 1998 by the British vessel Cable and Wireless Adventurer.

[EDIT: The Earthrace set out a month later than planned; it didn’t leave port until April 27, 2008.]

Earthrace route

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Related Links:
Earthrace homepage
Wired: “Around the world in a boat fueled by human fat”
UK Guardian: “Racing around the world on biofuel”
UK Telegraph: “Earthrace: the green machine”

Owning our role as predator? March 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, diversity, environment, food, life, nature, strange, world.
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Invasive species posterInvasive species are threatening to take over our environment. So what are we going to do about it: wring our hands in despair?

We humans have long been told we are the invasive species, the top predator on our planet. There’s already too little food to go around, and if we don’t act now, the aggressive plants and animals could take control. So, what better solution than to let our predator instinct out from under the veneer of civility. C’mon, guys, let’s go after those alien invaders!

A fun and practical idea popped up on a trend blog in Japan recently (thanks to the link from Naturally Interesting), where adventurous restos have been making the special of the day a little more unusual. In Japan, invasive species such as the North American Blue Gill and Black Bass are responsible for the diminishing population of local fish. So, what do they do? Eat them!

This found food is tapped to be a new fad; kudos to the suppliers who saw the current eco-interest and found a way to bring awareness about species population control to the table. Apparently the non-traditional burgers are delish!

Applying this idea to North America is a good fit, because we have lots of invasive species from which to choose. Take zebra mussels, for instance.

zebra musselsOriginally from the Balkans, Poland and the former Soviet Union, zebra mussels were first discovered in North America in 1988, and now they’ve spread from the Great Lakes down to the Texas panhandle. Zebra mussels are notorious for their ability to reproduce: in one location, researchers noted that in one square metre, zebra mussel populations jumped from 1,000 to 700,000 in six months. They cause deterioration of dock pilings, plug water pipes, encrust boats, and disrupt fish habitat and the flow of nutrients.

Are they edible? The contaminants they filter out of the water then concentrates in their flesh, and causes sickness or death in the fish and water birds which eat the infected mussels. So, first let’s keep contaminants out of the water, then get out the butter and garlic!

Speaking of garlic, garlic mustard is considered to be one of the most invasive exotic plants in Canada. It thrives in roadside ditches and woodlands. Once it moves in, it steals water, nutrients and light away from native plants, and chokes out forest understory growth, threatening the health of the forest ecosystem. Garlic mustard is also toxic to butterflies.

Is it edible? It’s a member of the mustard family, smells like garlic, and was originally grown as a healing herb. What do you think?

Asian long-horned beetle

So, what about the Asian Long-Horned Beetle, which tunnels into not only dead and dying trees, but also attacks apparently healthy trees? It prefers maple, poplar and willow, but also devours horse chestnut, mulberry, plum, pear, black locust, elm, chinaberry, citrus, birch and rose of Sharon.

This bug sure fits the bill, but is it edible? Well, here’s some food for thought, from a paper by Gene R. Defoliart of the University of Wisconson:

“Many species of insects have served as traditional foods among indigenous peoples, especially in warmer climes, and the insects have played an important role in the history of human nutrition. As part of the hunter-gatherer style of life, the main criteria for selection of these traditional species appears to be medium-to-large size and easy availability… Thus it is not surprising that many insects considered as crop pests in modern agriculture have served as important food sources.”

And, yes, there’s actually a website with insect recipes and information on bug-eating around the world. For those of you with unsqueamish stomachs, check out What’s That Bug for a description of Roasted Giant Water Bugs and other tasty specimens.

These are just a few ideas to get you thinking; what other invasive species should be on the hit (and eat) list?

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    Related Links:
    Invasive alien species in Canada
    CBC: Alien Invasion
    Invasive Species (Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation)
    Invasive plants and pests
    The Nature Conservancy: Invasive Species page