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by The Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: A friend with many minor health problems recently switched to a diet of only raw plant foods and reports feeling much better. She also insists her new eating habits are better for the environment. Does this make sense or is the strange diet making her crazy? -- Phil C., Reno, NV

A raw foods diet typically consists of unprocessed foods that are not heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit so as to preserve nutrients otherwise lost during cooking. Proponents claim that besides losing weight and feeling more energetic, they are also avoiding the carcinogens introduced into foods by cooking and protecting the environment from drug- and chemical-dependent, water-wasting big-business agriculture.

Some people do short spurts on the raw diet to cleanse their system of toxins, while others maintain a majority raw diet but do eat some cooked or processed foods. Diabetics can especially benefit from a raw foods diet, as shown in the film Simply Raw, which documents the trials and tribulations of six diabetes sufferers who go on a raw foods diet for one month and effectively cure themselves of their disease.

While humans have been eating raw foods since they first began foraging for their sustenance, the diet really began to catch on in recent years when some high-profile celebrities began touting its health and weight maintenance benefits. Carol Alt, Woody Harrelson, Uma Thurman, Sting and Demi Moore are just a few of the big names who swear by the raw foods diet—and now upwards of 100 raw foods restaurants are in operation across the U.S. For a list of raw food eateries by state, check out the SoyStache website.

Most raw food devotees are vegans, that is, no animal products whatsoever but all the vegetables, sprouts and grains they can muster. Some do eat raw dairy, eggs and even meat—being careful to choose only the freshest stuff so as to avoid getting sick from bacterial contamination.

One shouldn’t embark on a raw foods diet without researching how to make a smooth transition and maintain a proper nutrient balance. Some people hire raw food coaches or consult with nutritionists to walk them through the transition or help them through a cleansing, while others do it themselves with help from friends, natural food store employees, and websites. The Best of Raw Food website, for example, has a plethora of information on how to make the transition. It lists replacement foods for first transitioning to and then maintaining a raw food diet, and provides a tutorial on how to gauge the safety of raw foods.

Those serious about going raw will need a good quality juicer, a blender or food processor, large glass containers to soak and sprout seeds, grains and beans, and mason jars for storing sprouts and other food. Dehydrators that blow air through food at less than 115 degrees Fahrenheit are also popular accessories.

There are some cautions to keep in mind. Cathy Wong of About.com warns that some people experience a detox reaction when transitioning, especially if their old diet was rich in meat, sugar and caffeine—but the negative effects (headaches, nausea, cravings) usually only last a few days. Also, she says, going raw is not advised for children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with anemia or at risk for osteoporosis.

CONTACTS: Simply Raw, www.rawfor30days.com; SoyStache, www.SoyStache.com; The Best of Raw Food, www.thebestofrawfood.com; About.com, www.altmedicine.about.com/od/popularhealthdiets/a/Raw_Food.htm.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I know that purchasing organic crib sheets, mattresses and baby clothes is better for the environment—but do they make any difference in terms of the baby’s health?

-- B.B., Fairfield, CT

It’s true that conventional baby clothing and bedding—conventional referring to that made with cotton grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and bleached and dyed with yet more harsh chemicals—hasn’t seemed to present a problem thus far for generations and generations of babies. But more awareness of chemical sensitivities has many environmentalists and public health advocates wondering if the clothes and bedding children are exposed to could be impacting their health negatively.

Some 25 percent of the world’s pesticides and 10 percent of insecticides go to cotton crops every year. In addition, petroleum scouring agents, softeners, brighteners, heavy metals, flame and soil retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde are used in the processing of cotton once it is harvested. Beyond the environmental impacts of this onslaught in the vicinity of production facilities, there is increasing concern that residues of some of these chemicals might rub off on baby. According to Rachel Birchler of Mooi, a Pittsburgh-based organic children’s clothing boutique, a baby’s skin is more porous and thinner than that of an adult, and as such absorbs stuff more easily. “This means that children are at greater risk for pesticide-related health problems than adults,” she says.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s leading purveyors of baby products, states on its website that “a baby’s skin is thinner, more fragile and less oily than an adult’s” and is “less resistant to bacteria and harmful substances in the environment.” Lotus Organics, which makes organic clothing for both babies and adults, reports that “millions of children in the U.S. receive up to 35 percent of their estimated lifetime dose of some carcinogenic pesticides by age five through food, contaminated drinking water, household use, and pesticide drift.”

So if organic cotton is so much better all around, why aren’t we all swaddling our babies in it and wearing it ourselves? It’s all about cost. Clothing and bedding made from organic cotton is typically more expensive than similar products made with conventional cotton. Consumers watching their spending are often unwilling to pay more for a t-shirt or pants that are just going to get spilled on and beaten up.

But boosters for organic cotton say that paying less for conventional cotton items is penny wise and pound foolish. “Conventionally produced cotton material lasts 10-20 washes before it starts to break down,” reports Mooi’s Birchler. “An organic cotton material lasts for 100 washes or more before it begins to wear down.” How could that be? “Conventionally produced cotton take so much abuse in production because it goes through scouring, bleaching, dying, softeners, formaldehyde spray, and flame and soil retardants before it is even shipped to be cut for patterns,” she explains.

Also, with more and more organic cotton products becoming available every day, from specialty shops to major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, the price premium for going organic is starting to shrink.

CONTACTS: Mooi, www.mooishop.com; Johnson & Johnson, www.jnj.com; Lotus Organics, www.lotusorganics.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Oceans are in big trouble and I understand President Obama is creating a high level ocean council to address them. What are the major issues? -- Steve Sullivan, Bothell, WA

Our oceans are indeed in a terrible state, thanks primarily to unrestrained commercial and industrial activity. Overfishing and pollution have decimated once abundant stocks of fish and other marine life, and the damaging practices continue to this day despite international agreements outlawing them.

Our appetite for seafood has pushed three-quarters of the world’s fisheries to or beyond the limits of sustainability, while nine out of 10 of the sea’s large fish like tuna and swordfish have disappeared. And while it is still unclear what toll global warming will have on oceans—coral reefs dying and powerful ocean currents shifting or shutting down are two scary scenarios—the outlook is grim at best.

While George W. Bush was no friend to the environment overall, his record on ocean protection is actually not too bad. After convening a commission of experts from various disciplines to report on the state of U.S. oceans, his administration took steps to protect 215 million acres of biologically rich deep sea ocean habitat in the Pacific near Hawaii and Guam. The newly protected areas are off limits to resource extraction and commercial fishing but open for shipping traffic, scientific research and minimal impact recreation—and should provide a boon for fish and other marine species trying to recover from decades of abuse. But while such protections are a huge step in the right direction, they represent less than a drop in the bucket as to what still needs to be done to help fish stocks and marine ecosystems recover.

In light of ongoing threats, President Obama last June set up a task force to craft a national ocean stewardship policy. Led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, the task force is currently working to draft a framework for sustainable management of American coastal and ocean resources. Currently 20 different federal agencies oversee some 140 ocean protection laws; Obama has charged his task force with pulling together all the different authorities and laws to focus attention on addressing the most serious challenges facing the oceans and those who manage them.

Environmentalists have been quick to praise Obama for creating the task force—something called for by Bush’s oceans commission and other experts—but it is unclear how effective it can be given competing political priorities. Some members of Congress are pushing an omnibus ocean protection bill called Oceans-21, which aims to regulate fisheries, establish a network of protected areas, provide an oceans management framework to rescue coasts and off-shore areas, and help ocean life survive global warming.

Fortunately, Americans are not the only ones concerned about the world’s oceans. The United Nations launched its Oceans and Coastal Areas Network—later renamed UN Oceans—in 2003 to coordinate ocean and coastal efforts around the world. More recently, several island nations in the western Pacific and Indian oceans formed the Coral Triangle Initiative, adopting a 10-year plan of action to avert growing threats to coral reefs, fish, coastal mangrove buffers and other marine resources across the region. While the challenges may be greater than ever, at least now our oceans are getting some long-overdue attention; only time will tell if we took action in time to stave off a global collapse of marine ecosystems.

CONTACTS: UN Oceans, http://ioc3.unesco.org/un-oceans.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve often cooked canned foods in their own can, things like condensed milk and mushroom soup. I put the can without opening in the pressure cooker, cover it with water and let it cook for 30 minutes. The results are amazing. Is it safe to do that? Can metals leach into my food? -- Mercedes Kupres, via e-mail

For starters, can makers don’t recommend using their products for anything but storing food unopened until it’s ready to eat. “Cans are reliable, recyclable, durable packages that keep beverages and foods fresh and allow them to be transported safely for thousands of miles, even into remote regions—but they were not made to be used as cooking containers,” says Scott McCarty of Colorado-based Ball Corporation, a leading U.S. food and beverage packaging maker.

Proponents of can-cooking cite the fact that many canned goods are already heated up in their cans to kill bacteria during the canning process, so what harm could a little more heating do? McCarty concedes that some cans are indeed heated during the packing process. “But that isn't all cans or all foods, and it is a carefully controlled and monitored process done in an environment that is made to do it.”

As for what metals may be leaching into your canned food, it depends. In the U.S., most food cans are made of steel while beverage cans are usually made out of aluminum. Chromium and nickel can find their way out of steel, but the amounts would be miniscule to nil. Slightly more troubling is the fact that aluminum—large amounts of which have been linked to nervous system disorders and other health problems—could in theory leach out of cans into their food or drink contents.

In order to prevent any such leaching—which is bad for the food and eater but also for the can (as it can cause corrosion)—the insides of most cans on grocery shelves today are coated with food-grade epoxy. But these liners have been shown to contain Bisphenol-A (BPA) and other potentially harmful chemicals. BPA is a synthetic plastic hardener that has been linked to human reproductive problems and an increased risk of cancer and diabetes. A 2009 analysis of common canned foods by the non-profit Consumers Union found measurable levels of BPA in a wide range of items including some bearing a “BPA Free” label.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing whether or not to allow BPA to come into contact with food items at all. In the meantime, some forward-thinking companies aren’t waiting around for an FDA ruling. Eden Foods, which prides itself on the wholesomeness of its products, worked with its packaging manufacturer, Ball Corporation, back in 1999 to switch out traditional epoxy-based liners with a baked-on, BPA-free enamel lining derived from plant oils and resins.

This technology is nothing new; in fact, Eden stumbled upon it by asking Ball what it used before epoxy liners became standard some three decades earlier. While the custom-made cans cost 14 percent more than industry-standard cans would, Eden maintains it’s worth the extra expense (which amounts to some $300,000 extra per year). “It was the right thing to do,” says Michael Potter, Eden’s president. “I didn't want BPA in food I was serving to my kids, my grandkids or my customers.”

CONTACTS: Ball Corporation, www.ball.com; Consumers Union, www.consumersunion.org; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov; Eden Foods, www.edenfoods.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I pruned back an overgrown bush in my back yard last fall and now the soil around it is covered in dandelions and other weeds. Is there any way to get rid of these weeds without resorting to RoundUp and other chemical herbicides? -- Max S., Seattle, WA

Weeds are nothing if not opportunistic. While you may not have bargained for getting one form of eyesore (weeds) by clearing another (an overgrown bush), dandelions and other fast-growing, quickly spreading plants know no bounds when some new territory opens up. They will colonize and spread out given the slightest opening—after all, that’s what defines them as weeds.

Of course, conventional herbicides such as Monsanto’s RoundUp will take down the weeds in a jiffy, but the negative effects on people, animals and the environment may be both profound and long-lasting. Independent studies of RoundUp have implicated its primary ingredient, glyphosphate, as well as some of its “inert” ingredients, in liver damage, reproductive disorders and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, as well as in cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nerve and respiratory damage.

California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation reports that, year after year, RoundUp is the number one cause of pesticide/herbicide-induced illness and injury around that state. RoundUp is also blamed for poisoning groundwater across the U.S. and beyond, as well as for contributing to a 70 percent decrease in amphibian biodiversity and a 90 percent decrease in tadpole numbers in regions where it is used heavily.

Given that you’ll have to manually remove dead weeds from your yard after applying RoundUp (or any other “post-emergent” herbicide), why not just pull them up by hand in the first place? No doubt, the most eco-friendly way to get rid of weeds is to yank them out without the aid of poisons. Unfortunately, many weeds have long deep roots which need to be pulled completely if you don’t want them to grow back; if need be, use a metal weed puller with a hooked end or a mechanical grabber—available at any local garden supply or hardware store—if you don’t want to have to pull those very same weeds next year.

Garden expert Dean Novosat of the Garden Doctor website suggests giving the weed beds a good watering the night before you pull weeds. “…the soil will be softened and will yield the entire weed plant, root and all,” he says. Another way to kill weeds, he says, is by pouring boiling hot water over them.

Of course, once you’ve killed or pulled up all those weeds—and make sure you’re thorough or else it’s waste of time—you’ll want to make sure new ones don’t start showing up in their place. Planting some regionally appropriate and ideally native plants in place of the removed weeds would be a good first step—check with a local nursery about what some good choices might be for your neck of the woods.

Once the area is cleared (and replanted), cover it with three to six inches of mulch. Mulch forms a barrier between the soil and the sun, depriving any new germinating weeds of the sunlight they need to photosynthesize. Mulch is composed of large chunky material such as wood chips and bark nuggets, and works well for weed control also because it is low in nutrients and thus won’t fertilize plant starts below.

CONTACTS: California Department of Pesticide Regulation, www.cdpr.ca.gov; The Garden Doctor, www.the-garden-doctor.com.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: How effective have plastic bag bans and restrictions been on reducing plastic litter and other problems associated with their proliferation? And is it really better to use paper bags, which will just lead to more deforestation? -- Peter Lindsey, New Canaan, CT

Plastic bags, first introduced in the 1950s as a convenient way to store food, have since developed into a global scourge, littering roadsides, clogging sewer drains and landfills and getting ingested by animals and marine life. And in recent years we’ve discovered how they are so prolific that they now comprise a significant portion of the plastic and other garbage that has collected in huge ocean gyres far from land.

A few countries around the world—Bangladesh, China, India, Australia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Taiwan and Mumbai, among others—have taken stands against plastic bags through taxing their usage or banning them outright. The environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, reports that China’s decision to ban free plastic bags in 2008 has cut demand by some 40 billion bags, reduced plastic bag usage there by 66 percent, and saved some 1.6 million tons of petroleum.

In March 2007, San Francisco became the first (and is still the only) major U.S. city to implement an across-the-board ban on plastic bags. Large supermarkets and pharmacies there had to ditch plastic shopping bags by early 2008 in favor of paper bags or those made from all-natural biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic. Environmentalists are particularly fond of the latter option for those who don’t bring their own grocery bags, as these cornstarch bags offer the biodegradability of paper without the deforestation as well as the convenience of plastic without the damage to ecosystems. San Francisco officials had originally tried to work with retailers on reducing plastic bag use voluntarily. But after a few years of little or no cooperation, they decided to just institute the ban on anything but biodegradable bags. The result has been a 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect.

Los Angeles followed suit and its city council voted in 2008 to ban plastic bags beginning in July 2010—but the ban will only take effect if the state of California doesn’t follow through on a statewide plan to impose a fee on shoppers who request plastic bags. City council members in L.A. hope the ban will spur consumers to carry their own reusable bags and thus reduce the amount of plastic washing into the city's storm drains and into the Pacific Ocean. Several other U.S. cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, have considered outright bans like San Francisco’s, but each settled instead on plastic bag recycling programs in the face of pressure from the plastics industry and retail commercial interests.

While increased demand for paper bags in the wake of plastic bag bans could lead to more deforestation, most paper grocery bags in use today are made from recycled content, not virgin wood. Also, an added benefit of paper over petroleum-based plastic is its biodegradability.

Americans go through some 92 billion disposable plastic bags each year, and only five billion paper ones. If the nation banned plastic bags it is likely that paper varieties would only make up a small part of the difference, in light of the proliferation of reusable canvas shopping bags as well as the availability of biodegradable cornstarch plastic.

CONTACT: Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the major threats to the Great Lakes in the United States and what’s being done to address them? -- Saul G., Racine, WI

The Great Lakes watershed is a unique and important ecosystem that contains some 95 percent of America’s fresh water surface area, and is a continental hub for birds, fish and other wildlife. According to the National Audubon Society, the Great Lakes provide habitat for some 400 bird species. But it is the region’s exploding human population—now at 42 million—that is causing many environmental problems.

Major threats include toxic and nutrient pollution, the growing presence of non-native invasive species, and the destruction of critical wildlife habitat. In addition, the region’s residents worry that other parts of the country and world facing water shortages will find ways to divert Great Lakes water to quench their far-off thirsts. Also, it remains to be seen what kind of impact global warming will have on the region.

Perhaps the issue that gets the most attention in the region is the menace of invasive species. They arrive via heel, tire, railway and ship, and are profoundly altering the region’s ecology. The most notorious case is that of the zebra mussel which, originally native to southeast Russia first arrived in the late 1980s on ocean-going ships via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Aside from outcompeting native species for food, they have absorbed toxic PCBs dumped years earlier and transferred them up the food chain in being eaten by round gobies (also a non-native species), which in turn are preyed upon by walleyes, a popular sport fish.

Another major problem is pollution itself. Tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers run off of farms and into the water every month. Coal-fired power plants spew mercury into the air and factories of all kinds emit other pollutants that all eventually end up in the water. Converting farmers to organic agriculture and cleaning up smokestacks are top priorities for regulators and green groups in the region.

Federal, state and local authorities and nonprofit and community groups are working diligently to help restore compromised areas in the region. The Obama administration’s 2010 budget allocates $475 million to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Initiative is assessing the threats to the region and laying out a roadmap for remediation through the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, which includes representatives from the EPA as well as the departments of State, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

Some of the beneficiaries of this funding will also be some of the 100+ nonprofit and community groups that have formed the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition. These groups hope to leverage each others’ expertise and work together on on-the-ground restoration projects throughout the region.

Meanwhile Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Quebec and Ontario have come together as the Great Lakes Basin Compact to ward off drought-stricken far-off places from taking fresh water out of their region. Member states and provinces have delineated a border around the region beyond which water cannot be shipped. The agreement came about in 2005 when a Canadian company announced that it wanted to ship water in tankers from Lake Ontario to Asia.

CONTACTS: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, www.epa.gov/glnpo/glr; Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, www.healthylakes.org; Great Lakes Basin Compact, www.glc.org/about/glbc.html.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is “smart growth” and how does it benefit the environment? And what are the downsides, if any? -- Frank Quinn, Missoula, MT

Originating in the early 1970s when city planners began renovating crumbling inner cities in the face of widespread suburbanization and sprawl, smart growth is now a top buzzword in both municipal policy and environmental circles. Some form of smart growth has likely been implemented where you live or somewhere nearby.

Urban planners subscribing to a smart growth philosophy work to concentrate growth in the center of existing cities and towns to avoid sprawling development in areas otherwise prized for open space. Part of a smart growth effort attempts to minimize automobile traffic and its pollution in urban centers by including stores, residences and schools in neighborhoods, resulting in more walking, bicycle riding and mass transit usage than in a typical suburban environment. Advocates maintain that smart growth initiatives create a unique sense of community and place, give people more transportation, employment and housing choices, and equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development while preserving and enhancing natural beauty, cultural resources and public health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been a big smart growth booster since it formed the Smart Growth Network in 1996. Partners include environmental and historic preservation groups, professional organizations, developers, real estate interests, and local and state government entities. The network serves as a forum for educating the public and policymakers about the benefits of smart growth and fostering idea sharing and community among practitioners and advocates of smart growth planning.

Partly thanks to the Smart Growth Network, smart growth initiatives are numerous across the U.S. today. Denver, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and dozens of other metropolitan areas have experienced urban renewal in the last two decades thanks to planning that has taken into account livability, sustainability and preservation of open space. Communications channels facilitated via the Smart Growth Network enable the successes and failures of previous smart growth initiatives to be learning tools for planning new ones.

Smart growth is not without its detractors. According to Todd Litman of the Canadian-based Victoria Transport Policy Institute, “small government” conservatives and libertarians criticize smart growth for infringing on freedom by instituting complicated layers of regulation over development plans, increasing traffic congestion and air pollution, reducing the affordability of urban housing while forcing locals out and creating undesirable levels of density, and requiring wasteful transit subsidies, among other beefs.

Even the environmental community is somewhat divided. The majority view some development and expansion as inevitable (especially with human population always on the upswing)—and in that light embrace smart growth as a realistic lesser of possible evils. But a smaller segment of greens questions whether any development—smart or otherwise—is good for a given region’s natural systems. But while such debates may rage on at universities and think tanks, smart growth is already becoming the standard lens through which development projects are judged in the majority of our metropolitan areas.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.org; Smart Growth Network, www.smartgrowth.org; Todd Litman’s "Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth," www.vtpi.org/sgcritics.pdf.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Which woods are OK to purchase, and which are not, in the interest of preserving forests and not harming those who depend upon them? -- Jon Steiner, Boise, ID

Deforestation continues to be one of the world’s biggest environmental problems, especially in fast developing regions like South America, Southeast Asia and Africa. Cutting down large numbers of trees erodes land and silts waterways, displaces native people and wildlife, and releases tons of carbon dioxide (which is stored in living wood fiber) into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Of course, wood products are essential to modern life. Without wood we wouldn’t have the buildings, furniture, paper and other essentials we make use of every day. That’s why protecting sources of wood has become a leading concern among not just environmentalists but everyone else as well.

In response to the problems wrought by increasing deforestation, some forward-thinking wood products professionals teamed up with environmentalists, native people’s advocates, community forestry groups and responsible corporations to form the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993. Previous attempts to stem the tide of unchecked logging—including international negotiations and boycotts—were having little effect, so FSC vowed to use the power of market forces to create change for the better.

FSC promotes responsible management of forests by certifying forestry operations around the globe and promoting its certification system at every step of the wood products distribution chain. Whether you’re shopping for wooden furniture, building materials or other items, one easy way to tell if the wood you are considering buying was harvested from sustainable sources is to look for the FSC label on it or its packaging. If it is, you can trust that such products were harvested sustainably and are not contributing to deforestation-related woes. If you don’t see the FSC logo, you should inquire as to where the wood came from and whether or not it was harvested sustainably.

The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns consumers to avoid purchasing some tropical hardwoods unless they can be assured that it came from sustainable forestry operations. Many of these woods—including Big Leaf Mahogany, Spanish Cedar, Caribbean Pine, Ipe, Rosewood, Teak, Ramin, Merbau, African Mahogany, and Okoume—are difficult to manage sustainably as they typically grow in low densities in natural forests and regenerate poorly after logging. Some woods and wood products may contain FSC-certified wood without bearing the logo, while other woods may be OK without going through the FSC certification process. If you don’t see an FSC logo you should ask. If the store salesperson can’t provide information, then you can’t be sure.

Even better than purchasing sustainably harvested new wood is to seek out reclaimed or salvaged wood, as it precludes the need for logging altogether. An added benefit of using reclaimed or salvaged wood—look for it at used building supply stores and even at construction sites where older materials are being tossed—is that it provides incentives for municipal recycling programs. NRDC suggests that if you can’t source used wood, consider recycled plastic lumber or composites if they are applicable for your project.

CONTACTS: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), www.fsc.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: There have been many contradictory reports (“it was good; it was bad”) about what came out of “COP 15,” the December 2009 international Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen. Can you set the record straight? -- Jay Killian, Brookline, MA

Indeed hopes were high that international negotiators in Copenhagen last December at the 15th Annual Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would be able to hammer out a strong agreement to once and for all take the climate beast by the horns and begin to reign in carbon emissions worldwide. But a new binding formal agreement was not to be, mostly because of conflicting priorities among participating countries.

Even a weaker 11th hour voluntary “framework” put forth by the U.S., China, India, Brazil and South Africa failed to win consensus support among the 119 attending heads of state. However, the resulting Copenhagen Accordwhich aims to keep global temperatures from reaching any more than 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial times—did leave the door open for a stronger agreement later, with developing countries pledging a total of $30 billion in the short term and $100 billion a year by 2020, mostly to help less developed nations adopt policies and technologies to keep carbon footprints small moving forward.

“This accord cannot be everything that everyone hoped for, but it is an essential beginning,” reports UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “The bad news is that the Accord is not legally binding and provides no plan of how to limit emissions,” says climatologist Mark Maslin of the University College of London’s (UCL) Environment Institute, pointing out that the original text leading up to the meeting called for a global cut in emissions of 50 percent by 2050, including an 80 percent cut by all developed countries.

The lack of detail in the resulting Accord regarding specific emissions reductions targets means cooperation is completely voluntary, which is not what environmentalists want to hear. “The Accord should be seen as simply a face-saving agreement,” comments Maslin. “The politics are clear: Some developed and the richer developing countries resisted the call for legal limits to emissions.”

The failure of COP15 to generate a binding agreement means that international policymaking will likely take a back seat in the effort to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and profligate carbon emissions. Chris Flavin of the U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute believes that future progress on climate “will be driven more by domestic economics and politics rather than the international negotiating process.”

Flavin goes on to say that climate change mitigation will depend on the ability of individual nations “to persuade domestic constituents that they will benefit economically as well as environmentally from an energy transition.” He adds that future UN climate talks should focus not on overarching agreements but on practical goals like providing funding for poor countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, accelerating international cooperation on technology, and coordinating a global effort to protect the world’s remaining forests given their capacity to store large amounts of carbon. “Efforts over the next few years will determine whether Copenhagen was a fatal setback for efforts to combat climate change, or just a painful mid-course correction,” concludes Flavin.

CONTACTS: UNFCCC, www.unfccc.int; Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org.

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