Sunday, June 29, 2008

A subject of grave importance

Inasmuch as any of us seeks to tread lightly on the earth in our day-to-day life, it's usually just that: in our day-to-day life. But what about in our death?

Reading the July issue of National Geographic, I was stunned by some statistics about what gets buried along with the deceased in the U.S. each year: 30 million board-feet of casket wood, including some from exotic, possibly endangered, trees; 90,000 tons of steel, enough to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and then some; 1.6 million tons of concrete (for burial vaults); and upwards of 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid, more than enough for an Olympic-size pool. Whatever happened to ashes to ashes, dust to dust?

As it happens, a movement exists that advocates for a return to simpler end-of-life practices. "The goal then and now is the same: to allow the body at death to rejoin the elements it sprang from, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life," writes Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, in his blog.

Proponents of green burials are attracted to the idea of making their last act on the earth a sustainable one. Eco-friendly approaches conserve natural resources (decedents are lain to rest in shrouds or biodegradable caskets or crematory urns) and avoid the use of toxic embalming chemicals like formaldehyde (dry ice may be used to preserve bodies for memorial services). They also tend to cost much less than conventional burials.

But where it really gets interesting is interment location. The Green Burial Council has developed a certification program for cemeteries that emphasizes environmental stewardship and seeks to ensure that burial land remains burial land. To attain its highest-level certification, a cemetery must be owned or protected by a conservation easement held by a government agency and/or conservation-oriented nonprofit. Taking it a step further, the council has been meeting with land trusts and conservation groups to promote the use of burial as a conservation strategy. "Burial is another layer of protection," Green Burial Council executive director Joe Sehee explains in Grist. "It consecrates the land and offers another barrier to development."

Not that burials have to occur on land. Scattering ashes at sea has long been an established practice. There is even such a thing as a memorial reef, a structure that does double duty as a container for a loved one's ashes and an artificial reef to provide habitat for marine life.

But whether on land or on sea, the theme is the same: to seek harmony with the earth in death as in life.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Questions of design

A photo of a man building a house out of newspapers appears in the summer issue of On Earth, the NRDC's magazine. It's part of a profile of The Newspaper House, an interactive installation by conceptual artist Sumer Erek, who in March recruited volunteers to help construct the five-meter-high structure in London's Gillett Square to draw attention to the problem posed by the scads of free publications that end up littering the city's streets and subways.

As an attention-getter, the installation is a success. An actual house made of newspaper, however, wouldn't be such a great idea. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their seminal design manifesto Cradle to Cradle, newspaper, being made of recycled paper, contains short fibers that easily abrade into the air, and numerous people have developed allergies to it.

The authors point to the use of recycled paper in insulation as an example of the difficulties of creatively reusing of materials: "additional chemicals (such as fungicides to prevent mildew) must be added to make ... paper suitable for insulation, intensifying problems already caused by toxic inks and other contaminants. The insulation might then off-gas formaldehyde and other chemicals into the home."

It's an example of what they term downcycling (what most of us call recycling): when one type of thing is melded with like items of lower quality, the overall quality of the resultant material is reduced over time. McDonough and Michael Braungart call for a new design sensibility, one inspired by biological systems in which one organism's waste is another's food.

Not that Sumer Erek is advocating building paper houses, of course. As the artist states on his blog, The Newspaper House is meant to "open the 'reduce-reuse-recycle' debate as well as make our voices heard about making the city—our city—clean and liveable."

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Clearing the air

When you hear the term "air pollution," what do you picture? A factory smokestack, perhaps? Or the tailpipe of a truck belching out black fumes and causing you to cover your mouth? While such things no doubt qualify, we should be more concerned about the air we breathe when we're indoors, according to the U.S. EPA.

In its report "The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality," the agency states that things like furniture, carpet, insulation, and cleaning products in homes and other buildings can expose us to high levels of pollutants. While any one source of pollution may not amount to much in isolation, the cumulative effect of all these sources can be considerable—especially given that most people spend the majority of their time indoors.

So how can we improve the quality of the air we breathe inside? Houseplants like Boston ferns and spider plants have long been championed for their air-cleaning abilities (for example, see this graphic from Good magazine), although there is controversy about their efficacy. The EPA recommends air cleaners for certain types of pollutants.

Most mileage can be gotten from eliminating the sources of pollution. Limit your exposure to paints, varnishes, and non-green cleaning supplies (you can make your own cleaners with simple ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and borax). Avoid air fresheners, vinyl shower curtains, and paraffin candles. Steer clear of traditional dry cleaners, which use a chemical that's bad for both you and the environment.

Consider replacing furniture or flooring made of pressed wood or plywood, much of which offgasses formaldehyde (not all of it, though; the largest U.S. manufacturer of plywood furniture, Columbia Forest Products, uses formaldehyde-free technology). When shopping for furnishings, look for the Greenguard Environmental Institute's low-toxicity product certification, or consider secondhand items that have pretty much finished their offgassing.

Finally, simply opening a window to increase ventilation helps a great deal. And don't forget to get outside!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Fishing for answers

Reading my local newsweekly the other day, I was struck by a review of a sushi joint whose menu is focused on sustainable seafood. I've been hearing a lot lately about how our oceans are overfished, but this was the first time I'd seen a sushi restaurant engaging directly with the issue. 

So, what makes for a sustainable sushi menu? And what can I as a consumer look out for the next time I'm at a seafood restaurant? To get some answers, I talked to Gretchen Helsel, who manages Tataki (the aforementioned sushi joint), and Casson Trenor, who works for the nonprofit FishWise and acts as a sort of fish consultant for the restaurant.

One red flag is farmed salmon. Tataki doesn't serve it because oftentimes the farms "are extremely dirty open-containment, or net-pen, farms where there's no barrier between the open ocean and farm," Trenor said. This was a problem I'd heard of: large concentrations of sewage from the captive fish pollutes the ocean; also, contagious diseases and parasites spread easily in a net pen and then infect wild fish.

Instead of farmed salmon, the restaurant offers wild Alaskan salmon and farmed Arctic char, which is better suited to farming, Helsel told me. "It's smaller, and it's better raised on vegetarian diet," she said. 

Also absent from the menu are unsustainably farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia and unagi, or freshwater eel, whose wild populations are crashing, Trenor told me. "A huge proportion of unagi comes from China, and the industry is notoriously opaque" and plagued with problems such as escapism and disease. In place of unagi, Tataki serves anago, a wild saltwater eel.

Another item consumers might think twice about before ordering is bluefin tuna (toro, or fatty tuna, on menus). Why? Severe depletion, for one thing. "They're tasty and coveted, and because of that, they're disappearing faster than we could ever replace them," Trenor said. A bluefin farming industry has sprung up, he added, in which the fish are ranched—captured as juveniles and raised in a pen. "Every tuna you get out of a ranch would've been in wild and won't have a chance to breed." Another problem is that it requires an enormous amount of feed to produce a relatively small amount of bluefin; the protein ratio "approaches or exceeds 20 to 1," Trenor said. "It's inherently unsustainable."

Instead of bluefin, Tataki servesnet-caught skipjack and hand-line domestic yellowfin and albacore. Which points to another consideration for fish consumers: hand-line vs. long-line. "Hand-line means just using one hook and one line to catch one fish," said Helsel. "When they long-line, that's multiple hooks and lines that are miles long, and they leave them out there for days. By the time the boats go back out, there's a lot of bycatch—meaning turtles, birds, and so on that are dead."

Various seafood guides have been published to help consumers eat fish in a more sustainable way, but no one guide is sufficient for everyone, since where you live is a factor. has a list of a number of guides, with links, here.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Consumer power in numbers

Word of mouth is a force to be reckoned with. Businesses crave it; there's even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association. But it's generated by consumers, and that can't be faked—at least, not for long. And now that the internet is such an inextricable part of all our lives, word of mouth is even more powerful.

Earlier this year when my dishwasher broke, instead of combing through the Yellow Pages to find a repair service, I did something I'd never done before: I used Yelp, a user-generated review site I'd heard about from friends. That way, I didn't have to smudge my hands with newsprint and, most important, I got access to something the phone book would never tell me: what others think about appliance-repair shops in my neck of the woods.

Recently I've learned about other, similar sites that have taken social responsibility and sustainability as their unifying theme. IzzitGreen, in Boston, encourages users to rate brick-and-mortar businesses on both how good (as in effective) they are and how green they are. It's only in beta now, so not all of the buttons work (the discussion forums, for example), but already there are inklings (as in this review) of how a tool like this can not only provide sustainability-minded consumers with good information but also help business owners get greener.

Then there's SustainLane, which features reviews, green ratings based on six categories (Good for Me, Good for the Planet, etc.), and lively discussions. In both cases, the ratings are, of course, subjective, but if you believe in the wisdom of crowds, sites like these have the potential to be gold mines of eco-wisdom.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Nuptials with a conscience

It's June. Love is in the air, and weddings are in the calendar. According to the Kiplinger Letters, some 2.3 million couples will say "I do" this year. A number of those brides and grooms are choosing to have their big day reflect their values by minimizing the environmental footprint of their wedding.

I remember when bird seed began to replace rice as a more environmentally friendly confetti to throw on the happy couple. Today's weddings go a lot further than that. Following are some favorite tips I've found (aside from the usual advice to make sure there's recycling and composting at the reception) on having nuptials that affirm a commitment not only to marriage but also to socially responsible ideals.

• Use eco-friendly paper for the invitations, and have guests RSVP electronically.

• Choose vintage wedding wear.

• Get vintage or heirloom rings, or new ones made with responsibly sourced gold or other metals; look for diamonds that are Kimberly Process certified.

• Hold your wedding in a locale that's close to as many guests as possible. 

• Pay for carbon offsets as wedding favors.

• Use local or organic flowers and food, and arrange to donate leftover edibles to a food bank.

• Instead of putting disposable cameras on the dinner tables, set up a free Flickr group or Snapfish group room and encourage digital camera-wielding friends and family to upload their shots.

• Afraid of getting a dozen chip-and-dip servers as gifts? Consider using organizations like the I Do Foundation or, which let guests donate to a favorite charity in honor of the couple. 

• Investigate sustainable-travel options for the honeymoon.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The greening of gaming

A recent Greenpeace report on the presence of hazardous materials in three leading gaming consoles contains good news and bad. First the bad news: the analysis (of Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's Playstation 3 Elite) turned up beryllium, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), phthalates, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

However, not all of those chemical bad boys were found in every console. The Wii, for example, "managed quite well without using beryllium in its electrical contacts, and use of PVC and phthalates was limited." The PlayStation 3 "included 'bromine-free' circuit boards," and the Xbox 360 "used fewer brominated materials in its housing materials."

That's good news, because it shows the potential for improvement through collaboration. If manufacturers got together and shared their expertise, it would be relatively easy for all of them to replace toxic components with clean ones. (By the way, as the report points out, the dangers posed by these materials lie in their manufacture and disposal, not their household use.)

In other gaming-related enviro-news, Gizmodo highlights this chart from Australian consumer organization Choice comparing the energy usage of common household electronic devices, including the PlayStation, Wii, and Xbox. The Wii comes out on top by a long shot, but the main takeaway is, of course, to turn off your games when you're not playing.