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EarthTalk®

by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Merino wool undergarments tout themselves as being kinder to the environment than other wools or synthetics. How is this so? -- Stella Cooley, Bangor, ME

Since the 1970s, professional athletes and weekend warriors alike have sworn by base layers made out of synthetic “fibers” that would let sweat-based moisture escape, dry fast and be easy to care for. But such garments don’t come without trade-offs: They tend to get stinky when mixed with bodily odors and, like so many modern technological marvels, are derived from petroleum. Merino wool-based garments function just as well or better—and without the olfactory stigma or carbon footprint increase.

The soft and pliable cousin to the traditional wool our grandparents wore, Merino wool is revolutionizing outdoor wear while helping manufacturers and consumers lower their impact on the environment. This natural fiber, derived from Merino sheep in New Zealand, is soft on the skin, wicks sweat effectively, dries out quickly, is naturally odor-resistant—and is machine-washable to boot. And since Merino can be easily spun into different weights, it is used in a wide variety of clothing types (underwear, shirts, coats) making it a natural choice for layering.

Some of the leaders in the Merino underwear revolution include Ibex Outdoor Clothing, SmartWool and
Patagonia, each which sources its wool through Zque, a New Zealand-based certification for Merino producers that adheres to a strict set of sustainability and ethical treatment standards. Qualifying ranches must feed their sheep natural grass and spring water and maintain a low “head-to-hectare” ratio. Upwards of 170 New Zealand Merino ranches have been certified accordingly by Zque as “ethical wool” producers.

Unhappy with synthetic base layers that made him “sweat like a gorilla,” cross-country skiing enthusiast John Fernsell teamed up with sheep farmer and mountaineer Peter Helmetag to start Ibex in 1997. “Everything looked the same and didn’t work,” says Fernsell. “It was all either Gore-Tex or polyester fleece.” The duo set out to find a better choice. With its inherent functionality, style, comfort and sustainability, Merino emerged the victor. Today Ibex sells several different cuts of Merino wool undergarments, including a line of underwear for men and women, long johns for men and women, and boxers for men.


SmartWool, better known for its Merino socks, also makes highly regarded Merino undergarments, such as the mens’ Microweight Boxer Brief and three long johns for men and women of varying weights.
Patagonia also sells a full line of Merino under- and outerwear. Additionally, many more companies have jumped on the Merino bandwagon, so consumers interested in trying it out now have more styles and varieties than ever to choose from. These products are available directly from the manufacturers’ websites or through outdoor retailers including REI.

While Merino undergarments have a lot going for them, they are still expensive compared to the alternatives. But Merino converts insist that the rugged material lasts much longer than synthetic or cotton clothing without sacrificing comfort, style or fit. Scratchy old wool has come a long way indeed.

CONTACTS: Ibex Outdoor Clothing, www.ibexwear.com;
Patagonia, www.patagonia.com; SmartWool, www.smartwool.com; Zque, www.zque.co.nz; REI, www.rei.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.


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the U.S. military doing to reduce its carbon footprint and generally green its operations? -- Anthony Gomez, New York, NY

As the world’s largest polluter, the U.S. military has its work cut out for it when it comes to greening its operations. According to the nonprofit watchdog group, Project Censored, American forces generate some 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually—more than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Although this pollution occurs globally on U.S. bases in dozens of countries, there are tens of thousands of toxic “hot spots” on some 8,500 military properties right here on America soil.

“Not only is the military emitting toxic material directly into the air and water,” reports Project Censored, “it’s poisoning the land of nearby communities, resulting in increased rates of cancer, kidney disease, increasing birth defects, low birth weight and miscarriage.” The non-profit Military Toxics Project is working with the U.S. government to identify problem sites and educate neighbors about the risks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military manages 25 million acres of land that provides habitat for some 300 threatened or endangered species. The military has harmed endangered animal populations by bomb tests (and been sued for it), reports Project Censored, and military testing of low-frequency underwater sonar technology has been implicated in the stranding deaths of whales worldwide. Despite being linked to such problems, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has repeatedly sought exemptions from Congress for compliance with federal laws including the Migratory Bird Treaties Act, the Wildlife Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. military is taking heed of criticisms in regard to pollution and endangered species management, but it is undoubtedly concerned about climate change, as its effects on the environment could lead to unprecedented natural resource wars and mass migrations of people. And reducing our reliance on potentially hostile foreign oil sources is a short term national security imperative as well. A recent Obama administration directive calls for the DoD to draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. Nikihl Sonnad of the GreenFuelSpot website reports that the Army and Air Force are planning to include solar arrays on several bases in sunny western states. The Air Force is also building the nation’s largest biomass energy plants in Florida and Georgia, and the Navy is building three large geothermal energy plants and funding research into extracting energy from ocean waves.

Some of the military’s R&D into renewables is for battlefield applications. Outfitting troops with the capability to produce their own on-site power from solar and wind sources not only makes sourcing oil less of a necessity but also should serve to reduce casualties from fuel transport operations. Over 1,000 American troops have lost their lives delivering fuel in the past few years alone (in part because enemy combatants often use fuel trucks as attack targets), says Sonnad.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports in The New York Times that “there is great hope that some of the renewable energy technology being developed for battle will double back and play a role in civilian life.” She adds that the armed forces have enough purchasing power to create genuine markets in the non-military world.


CONTACTS: Project Censored, www.projectcensored.org; U.S. DoD, www.defense.gov; Military Toxics Project, www.stopmilitarytoxics.org/about.html; GreenFuelSpot, www.greenfuelspot.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.

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I know that some people abstain from meat on Fridays for religious reasons, but what’s the story behind “Meatless Mondays?” -- Sasha Burger, Ronkonkoma, NY

Meatless Monday—the modern version of it, at least—was born in 2003 with the goal of reducing meat consumption by 15 percent in the U.S. and beyond. The rationale? Livestock production accounts for one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and is also a major factor in global forest and habitat loss, freshwater depletion, pollution and human health problems. The average American eats some eight ounces of meat every day—45 percent more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended amount.

An outgrowth of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future, the Meatless Monday project offers vegetarian recipes, interviews with experts, various resources for schools, organizations and municipalities that wish to promote the initiative—and regular updates on Facebook and Twitter. “Going meatless once a week can reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity,” the group reports. “It can also help limit your carbon footprint and save resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.”

The Meatless Monday concept actually dates back to World War I, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged citizens to reduce their meat, wheat and sugar intakes, since such foods took more energy to produce than others. Americans willing to cut back—even just one day a week—would be supporting the troops and helping to feed starving Europeans. To encourage participation, the FDA coined the terms “Meatless Monday” and “Wheatless Wednesday” and published vegetarian cookbooks and informational pamphlets. The campaign was resurrected briefly during World War II, but then died down.

But as Meatless Monday President Peggy Neu reports in a recent issue of E – The Environmental Magazine, today the initiative has transcended its war effort origins: “The focus for the first couple of years was health,” Neu says, but the movement has begun to grow in part because of increasing awareness of the environmental impact of meat consumption.

Some of the municipalities and institutions that have signed on include the City of
San Francisco, the Baltimore Public School System, and Harvard and Columbia universities (along with some two dozen other colleges). Similar campaigns have sprung up in two dozen other countries, while the city of Ghent in Belgium, Oxford University in the UK, and Israel’s Tel Aviv University have also pledged to participate.

In May of 2010, a Washington Post article reported that the meat industry is feeling the heat. “Over the past year, lobbying groups including the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Board and the Farm Bureau have launched a quiet campaign to try to reverse the momentum,” reported the piece. The Animal Agriculture Alliance and the American Meat Institute have railed that
Baltimore schoolchildren are being denied protein—and have urged citizens not to allow Meatless Monday to spread. But Neu says the movement is here to stay. “I want this movement to be sustainable prevention,” she says, “not just a health or environmental fad.”


CONTACTS: Meatless Monday, www.meatlessmonday.com; Center for a Livable Future, www.jhsph.edu/clf; E – The Environmental Magazine, www.emagazine.com/view/?5295.

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.


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of global warming, of course, but what on Earth is “global dimming?”

-- Max S., Seattle, WA


Global dimming is a less well-known but real phenomenon resulting from atmospheric pollution. The burning of fossil fuels by industry and internal combustion engines, in addition to releasing the carbon dioxide that collects and traps the sun’s heat within our atmosphere, causes the emission of so-called particulate pollution—composed primarily of sulphur dioxide, soot and ash. When these particulates enter the atmosphere they absorb solar energy and reflect sunlight otherwise bound for the Earth’s surface back into space. Particulate pollution also changes the properties of clouds—so-called “brown clouds” are more reflective and produce less rainfall than their more pristine counterparts. The reduction in heat reaching the Earth’s surface as a result of both of these processes is what researchers have dubbed global dimming.

“At first, it sounds like an ironic savior to climate change problems,” reports Anup Shah of the website GlobalIssues.org. “However, it is believed that global dimming caused the droughts in
Ethiopia in the 1970s and 80s where millions died, because the northern hemisphere oceans were not warm enough to allow rain formation.” He adds that global dimming is also hiding the true power of global warming: “By cleaning up global dimming-causing pollutants without tackling greenhouse gas emissions, rapid warming has been observed, and various human health and ecological disasters have resulted, as witnessed during the European heat wave in 2003, which saw thousands of people die.”

Just how big an issue is global dimming?
Columbia University climatologist Beate Liepert notes a reduction by some four percent of the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface between 1961 and 1990, a time when particulate emissions began to skyrocket around the world. But a 2007 study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found an overall reversal of global dimming since 1990, probably due to stricter pollution standards adopted by the U.S. and Europe around that time.

Whether or not to try to reduce global dimming in a fast-warming world is a conundrum. Most climate scientists believe global dimming is serving to counteract some of the warming effects brought on by increased carbon emissions. “The conventional thinking is that brown clouds have masked as much as 50 percent of global warming by greenhouse gases through so-called global dimming,” reports Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric chemist at
California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He adds, however, that brown clouds have been known to amplify warming as a result of various environmental factors, especially in regions of southern and eastern Asia.

Some scientists have gone so far as to propose deliberate manipulation of the dimming effect to reduce the impact of global warming, in other words increasing particulate emissions. But Gavin Schmidt, an atmospheric scientist and one of the voices behind the RealClimate blog, argues that such a scheme would hardly provide a long term fix to our environmental excesses and ills and amount to a Faustian bargain, bringing with it “ever increasing monetary and health costs.”

CONTACTS: Global Issues Blog, www.globalissues.org; Scripps Institution of Oceanography, www.sio.ucsd.edu; RealClimate Blog, www.realclimate.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I work at a fast food place and I am appalled by the amount of unpurchased food we throw away. The boss says we can’t give it away for legal reasons. Where can I turn for help on this, so the food could instead go to people in need? -- Ryan Jones, Richland, WA

Many restaurants, fast food or otherwise, are hesitant to donate unused food due to concerns about liability if people get sick after eating it—especially because once any such food is out of the restaurant’s hands, who knows how long it might be before it is served again. But whether these restaurants know it or not, they cannot be held liable for food donated to organizations, and sometimes all it might take to change company policy would be a little advocacy from concerned employees.

A 1995 survey found that over 80 percent of food businesses in the
U.S. did not donate excess food due to liability concerns. In response, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, which releases restaurants and other food organizations from liability associated with the donation of food waste to nonprofits assisting individuals in need. The Act protects donors in all 50 states from civil and criminal liability for good faith donations of “apparently wholesome food”—defined as meeting “all quality and labeling standards imposed by Federal, State and local laws and regulations even though the food may not be readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other condition.”

While homeless shelters, elder care organizations and boys and girls clubs are frequent beneficiaries of food donations, the most common recipients are food banks and food rescue programs. Food banks, according to California’s CalRecycle website, “collect food from a variety of sources, save the food in a warehouse, then distribute it to hungry families and individuals through local human service agencies.” They usually collect less perishable items like canned goods, which can be stored and used any time. In contrast, food rescue programs typically trade in perishable and prepared foods, distributing it to agencies that feed hungry people, usually later that same day. Mama’s Health, a leading health education website, maintains an extensive free database of food banks and food rescue programs state-by-state.

Unused or even partially eaten food waste can also be utilized even if it’s not edible by human standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approves of food businesses giving or selling food waste to local farmers for use in composting or as animal feed. If such food contains or has come into contact with meat, it should be boiled for 30 minutes to reduce the risk of bacterial infections in the animals that eat it. Many states have complementary laws on the books regulating the donation of food waste at the local level.

Many cities and town are now expanding curbside pickup programs to include kitchen scraps and yard waste and then diverting the food waste into profitable compost. Still, some 6.7 percent of the solid waste going into landfills consists of food discards, reports the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance. Diverting food waste to feed hungry people or for animal feed or compost is a winning scenario for all concerned parties as it not only provides relief to overburdened landfills but also helps meet social welfare, agricultural and environmental needs. Also, those restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that donate food will likely reap the additional reward of saving money on their actual waste removal bill as their trash bins and dumpsters won’t be filling up quite so fast.

CONTACTS: CalRecycle, www.calrecycle.ca.gov; Mama’s Health, www.mamashealth.com; North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and Environmental Assistance, www.p2pays.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I am looking for a small, modular home to put on a piece of vacation property. What’s available that could meet my needs and be easier on the environment than building a traditional house from scratch? -- Rob Sherman, Minneapolis, MN

First utilized by relief and aid missions around the world to house workers or refugees, self-contained modular homes that can be partially or even fully fabricated in advance are now all the rage among green architects and those committed to more sustainable living—and they’re beginning to pop all across North America and beyond, mostly for use as guest houses and vacation cabins. The benefits of such homes versus their larger traditional counterparts are many. In theory, prefabrication generates less waste, uses less energy, and provides more opportunities for the incorporation of greener construction methods and technologies. Most such buildings are also less demanding on the home site of choice.

One of the leaders in this fast-growing sector of residential construction is
Toronto’s Sustain Design Studio, which has been building on its miniHome concept for almost a decade. The firm’s miniHomes range from single- to double-wide sizes and can fit into trailer parks or small urban lots accordingly, but are also optimized for off-grid self-sufficiency in wide open or wilderness areas. The buildings, which are mostly prefabricated at Sustain’s Toronto build facility, combine energy efficient systems with beautiful finishes that make owners feel like they are indulging yet remaining true to their green ideals.

Sustain’s California miniHome, for example, comes complete with all millwork, cabinets, plumbing fixtures and appliances, as well as high efficiency lighting circuits, plug-and-play connections to renewable power sources, sustainably sourced woods, and a built-in HVAC/water system that generates 20 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional home—all for under $150,000.

Another player is the Latvian firm Esclice, whose buildings can be installed on-site by two workers in two hours once foundation posts, water and wastewater hook-ups and electricity are in place. Other design studios building similar homes include Quikhouse, Zerocabin, Method Homes and Stem Design Works.

Of course, potential buyers should keep in mind that a home’s construction is just a fraction of its life-cycle carbon footprint—small pre-fab houses are built by people who also drive to work, watch TV and sometimes take long showers—plus, producing and shipping steel, concrete and other building materials are the major drivers behind any building’s carbon and energy footprint, wherever it’s manufactured.

Bearing that in mind, Seattle-based HyBrid Architecture has come up with an interesting slice on the sustainable small home idea: “cargotecture,” which describes the buildings it creates out of empty ISO shipping containers (those large boxes used for long-distance international shipping that one sees stacked atop giant cargo ships). Since many of these containers make just one-way trips from
China, HyBrid has a lot of raw material to choose from. A single 8’ x 20’ container yields 160 square feet of living space, and the structures can be placed side-by-side or stacked up to eight high for more interior square footage. And while no one wants to live in a shipping container, HyBrid cuts doors and windows out of them and finishes them outside so that they look like modern yet nevertheless somewhat traditional buildings.

CONTACTS: Sustain, www.sustain.ca; Esclice, www.esclice.eu/houses/en; Quikhouse, www.quik-build.com; Stem Design Works, www.stemcreativespace.com; Zerocabin, www.zerocabin.com; Method Homes, www.methodhomes.net; HyBrid Architecture, www.hybridseattle.com/cargotecture.html.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that environmental factors could be playing a role in the increasing number of prostate cancer cases in the U.S. and elsewhere? -- Joshua Gordon, New York, NY

Prostate cancer is a growing problem for men in the U.S. as well as in other developed nations around the world. Some 40,000 American men lose their battle with prostate cancer every year—the only cancer more deadly for U.S. men is skin cancer. Age is the primary “risk factor” for developing prostate cancer. One out of every six American men over the age of 40 will develop prostate cancer, while four out of five over 80 years old will get it. Of course, genes also play a big role. The American Cancer Society reports that a man’s prostate cancer risk doubles if his father or brother has suffered from the disease. Researchers believe a genetic predisposition accounts for as many as 10 percent of all cases of the disease in the U.S.

Beyond age and genetics, though, environmental factors do likely play a role. WebMD reports, for instance, that prostate cancer occurs about 60 percent more often in African American men than in white American men, and when diagnosed is more likely to be advanced. But interestingly enough, prostate cancer rates for African men living in their native countries are much lower. When native Africans immigrate to the U.S., however, prostate cancer rates increase sharply.

According to WebMD, the reason for these differences are not fully understood, but an environmental connection—possibly related to high-fat diets, less exposure to the sun, exposure to heavy metals, infectious agents, or smoking—might be to blame. Some new research suggests that a switch to a diet high in fat could be a significant contributing factor in these cases. “The disease is much more common in countries where meat and dairy products are dietary staples,” adds WebMD.

The take-away for men concerned about prostate health is to eat healthier. Several studies suggest that a diet high in lycopene (an antioxidant found in high levels in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon and some other fruits and veggies) could lower an individual’s risk of developing prostate cancer significantly.

Researchers have also found links between other environmental factors and prostate cancer. Dr. Matthew Schmitz, a prostate cancer specialist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and the prostate cancer “guide” at About.com, reports that exposure to high levels of cadmium (a naturally occurring element used in industrial processes and present in cigarette smoke) as well as dioxins (chemicals widely used in herbicides and other applications) have been linked to increased prostate cancer risk. Other researchers have noticed that men who take calcium supplements and multi-vitamins regularly may be at higher risk. Schmitz says that more research is needed to learn how risky such exposures really are.

For those who do get prostate cancer, some promising new treatments will be undergoing clinical trials soon. Dr. Marianne Sadar of the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, Canada, has used an experimental drug adapted from sea sponges to shrink cancer tumors in mice. It will be a year before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits trials of the new drug on humans, but prostate patients and their doctors are holding out hope that this and other new treatments can obviate the need for many surgeries.

CONTACTS: American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org; WebMD, www.webmd.com; About.com, www.about.com; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: Given the environmental and economic benefits, why doesn’t the U.S. have a federal law mandating recycling nationwide? -- N. Koslowsky, Pompano Beach, FL

The
U.S. government has historically relied on state and local governments to handle waste management in all of its forms, including recycling. Although there have been a few attempts to push legislation through Congress to mandate minimum national recycling rates, none have made it out of committee hearings. Federal lawmakers are loathe to take waste management regulatory powers away from individual states which have vastly different needs from one another. For instance, less populous western states with lots of extra land for siting landfills might not be as inclined to push for higher recycling rates as those crowded eastern states with less room to store their trash.

According to Chaz Miller, Director of State Programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association,
America’s very first federal solid waste law, 1965’s Solid Waste Disposal Act—itself an amendment to the original Clean Air Act—didn’t even mention recycling. “Eleven years later, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which remains the cornerstone of federal solid waste and recycling legislation,” reports Miller. RCRA abolished open dumps and required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create guidelines for solid waste disposal and regulations for hazardous waste management, but had little to say about recycling except to call for an increase in federal purchases of products made with recycled content. The EPA also published manuals and workshops on implementing curbside recycling programs, although funding for such programs dried up by 1981.

Nevertheless, the seed had taken root. Pioneering programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere led to the development of curbside recycling programs in more than 600 municipalities throughout the U.S.—mostly in the Northeast and on the West Coast—by the mid-1980s. In addition, 10 states introduced “bottle bill” laws to encourage recycling of beer and soft drink containers. Two states,
Rhode Island and New Jersey, both being small, densely populated and short on landfill space, implemented comprehensive approaches to recycling. They began requiring local jurisdictions to pick-up residents’ and businesses’ paper, metal and glass, and helped towns and cities set-up systems for pick-up, sorting and materials recovery. Most of the 8,600-plus municipal recycling programs in existence today are modeled on these early efforts.

Just a few decades ago, Americans recycled less than 10 percent of their solid waste. Multi-material and curbside collection programs were non-existent, paper was only collected sporadically when a local scout troop or similar group organized a paper drive, and family-owned scrap dealers would occasionally buy paper and metal scrap based on limited market demand for additional raw materials.

Today, the EPA estimates that Americans recycle some 32 percent of the 350 million tons of refuse they generate annually. While it still has no federal platform for doing so, the EPA, through its Resource Conservation Challenge program, is pushing for Americans to up that rate. Forty-two states now have their own recycling or waste diversion goals, and 18 are trying to divert upwards of half their waste via recycling or composting.


CONTACTS: National Solid Wastes Management Association, www.environmentalistseveryday.org; EPA Resource Conservation Challenge, www.epa.gov/osw/rcc.

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.


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