Q&A: Eco-Benefits of Being a Vegetarian?

  • September 26, 2012 9:20 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I just had a question regarding meat. Everyone always stresses how sustainable becoming a vegetarian is. I obviously understand the animal rights aspect to becoming a vegetarian, I was just wondering if you could explain more of the environmental benefits of not eating meat to me? Thanks.

-Terry

Answer:

Terry,

Thanks for your question. Yes, there are many environmental benefits to giving up or at least limiting meat consumption. It decreases water use, methane production, the impact of growing animal feed, and much more. It’s not an easy thing to answer quickly, but I’ll try to outline the basics below. I urge you to do some reading on your own, too. The production of animals into meat is an amazing system to learn about, with many shocking twists, turns, and revelations.

If you’re into stats and numbers, this site compares water usage for various items. It says that it takes approximately 15415 litre/kg of water to produce beef and only 257 litre/kg of water for potatoes. I don’t know anyone who only eats potatoes, but there is also quite a difference between chicken and beef.

Then there’s methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Cattle emit 80 million tons of methane annually, according to the EPA. And I haven’t even gotten to feed. Most animals are fed a grim mix of genetically modified soy and corn (neither are great for the environment as they require tremendous amounts of chemical sprays to grow), antibiotics (which create drug-resistant superbugs), and hormones.

All of this said, I am not personally a vegetarian for many, many reasons. Though I eat very little meat compared to most meat eaters I know. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research and thought to this decision and I only ever eat local, pastured, well-raised meat. I go into great detail on how and why to source this kind of meat in two of my books. I wrote  The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat with my butcher. I had interviewed him and his wife previously for  The Conscious Kitchen, which has a chapter concisely detailing meat labels, how shop, and other educational resources.

Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t immediately mean your environmental impact is nil. Many vegetarians continue to eat conventionally raised dairy and eggs–the eco-impact of these is far greater than their local, pastured counterparts. And if all of the soy you switch to eating is conventionally raised and coming from, say, China, that has its own not insignificant footprint. There have also been interesting studies done on the safety of soy-based diets. So all of this is worth considering as you weigh the pros and cons of giving up or eating less meat.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Recycling Baby Items?

  • September 19, 2012 9:08 am
Question:
Alexandra,
I attended a Montclare seminar in April on Greening and I was wondering if you had any suggestions where locally one can recycle breast pumps and children car seats as well as strollers.  I found this website that recycles old car seats, strollers, etc.  But you have to mail your items to Texas.  I was hoping there was something more local.  One thought perhaps Montclare can sponsor a green drive for used baby / toddler goods like high chairs, strollers etc.  Though we would need to find a place to recycle it all or do a bulk ship to Texas.
Anyway, if you have any suggestions, I appreciate it.  Many thanks.
- Karen
Answer:
Hi Karen,
Thanks for reaching out. You’ve hit on a frustrating situation. I share your frustration. There are definitely places to recycle items such as those, but it requires work on your part to do the right thing. Unfortunately, Goodwill does not accept any of these items (anymore), but anyone should technically be able to find a local organization that accepts car seats and strollers. Baby Buggy, for example, is local here in New York City, and it accepts both strollers and car seats–but only if the car seats have never been used (!).  Little Essentials also accepts both strollers and car seats.
Recycling breast pumps is a little trickier, to say the least. You can’t donate breast pumps as they really should not be shared from one mother to another; breast milk is a bodily fluid and can contain the sort of things any bodily fluid can contain that aren’t exactly the sort of thing you’d like to share (HIV, hepatitis, etc.)–especially with your infant. My understanding, which I wrote about in The Complete Organic Pregnancy,  is that milk can get backed up into the parts of individual home pumps (industrial pumps have mechanisms that block this from happening and that’s why they’re safe to share). The FDA calls them single use products. I asked my intern Kelley to call Medela, a well known single use pump manufacturer, to ask them what they suggest parents do with breast pumps that are past their useful life or are no longer needed. She got the runaround and wound up calling four times! Basically all of the customer service people told her to just throw them out. Sad but true. She asked if they could be recycled and was told that some parts might be recyclable. The only way to find this out, of course, is to check with local municipalities to find out. So you’d have to look and see what number plastic it is and then call 311 here in New York to see if there is a place that takes oddly shaped plastic parts made out of that kind of plastic. It’s not my understanding that these can go in regular NYC plastic recycling bins. It would be a special drop off situation, if anything at all.

I don’t like this response anymore than you like reading it. A while back a group of consumers petitioned Brita to make their water filters recyclable. I think it is high time someone–you?–starts a petition asking breast pump manufacturers to do the same. It should not be this hard to not add tons of breast pumps to the landfill.

Best,
Alexandra

Q&A: Safe Plastic Baby?

  • September 12, 2012 9:02 am

Question:

I just read a great article you wrote back in 2008. I’m desperately trying to find a non-toxic, albeit vinyl-ish (???) baby doll for my little girl. I like what you stated about Corolle (a brand I’ve heard good things about!) and was wondering, is it just a certain doll that is “safer” or the entire line?

I’d appreciate your input. I’d write more eloquently if I wasn’t completely exhausted from this search!!!!!

Thank you and loves the article :)

~Carrie

Answer:

Hi Carrie,

Thanks for writing and giving me a chance to clarify. You made me revisit the article you referred to because I don’t recall ever writing or saying that Corolle dolls are a “safer” option. They have claimed to be made of phthalate-free PVC. If this is indeed true, which some tests seemed to show, that’s better than not, I guess, but it’s still PVC . As I explained in the article you mention, environmentalists like to refer to PVC as the poison plastic. It’s that bad.

Here’s what I wrote in 2008:

“…when a brand, say Corolle, gains a reputation in eco circles for making a phthalate-free PVC plastic doll, parents concerned about environmental health flock to it. HealthyToys gives Corolle, which is owned by Mattel but operates independently, medium hazard ratings for all dolls because they’re PVC. By several accounts, they test their dolls thoroughly and often for non-allowed substances, and HealthyToys didn’t find levels of these. And if you email Corolle through their website to ask a question (say, about why the things smell so strongly of vanilla and what chemical that scent is, exactly), Beau James, Managing Director for Corolle North America, will call you back and speak to you at length. Even if you’re not a reporter. It’s kind of like being able to speak to an actual farmer at a farmers market about what they spray and why vs. going blindly into a supermarket. Even if there are legal reasons James returns emails via phone calls (as he told me), these nuances make an green-leaning holiday shopper feel better about buying a phthalate-free PVC doll for their kid. PVC is, of course, still an environmental issue (its manufacture and disposal are so un-eco and detrimental that environmentalists refer to it as “poison plastic.”) And sometimes it – even the phthalate free kind – can contain other questionable chemicals (read this interview with Mike Schade from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice at SafBaby.com.)”

I stand by what I wrote. There really is no way for a PVC doll to be a good thing. I far prefer no PVC. And anything that smells strongly of vanilla and maintains this smell over time contains a synthetic chemical fragrance mix of who knows what (there is scary stuff in fragrance) that the company isn’t disclosing. There are plenty of plastic-free baby dolls on the market if your child would like to play with them. There are even ones made of organic cotton and wool.

Every parent makes compromises along the way. I just prefer them to be educated compromises. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t eventually wind up with a plastic baby doll in our apartment, after much arguing. I would prefer not to have it, but a family is made up of more than a mother. It was the first plastic toy we ever had. To this day we have very few. I bought it when I was abroad (my thinking was that there are stricter standards in the E.U. and I happened to be in France), but the thing is still plastic. And once I brought it home, I set some rules, including that I don’t let my daughter sleep with the doll. We also always wash our hands after playing and before eating.

Hope this helps. And happy playing.

Best,

Alexandra


Eco-Friendly Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

  • September 10, 2012 8:41 am

School starts today at loooong last! I don’t even bother shopping for anything until at least a few weeks into school to see what we actually “need” (usually nothing). Well that’s not entirely true. My mom had a tradition of always helping us choose a back-to-school outfit a few weeks before school started so we could get excited and picture what we’d be wearing as we went about the first day. It wasn’t always a new dress. Quite often it was a hand-me-down. So my daughter does have a first grader new dress–thanks to her grandmother–that has been waiting to be worn for about two weeks. I have loving memories of my own first grader first day dress. It was a brown and white gingham number with a red apple on my chest. Ah, the 70s.

On the topic, here’s my most recent post for Elizabeth Street and it’s all about eco-friendly back-to-school shopping. Maybe I’ll take my own advice come October….

The Conscious Kitchen Now Available On Kindle!

  • September 5, 2012 12:29 pm

Good news!  The Conscious Kitchen is now available on your Kindle. Was excited to run across this today.

Q&A: Natural Solutions For Poison Ivy

  • August 29, 2012 9:00 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

I recently bought a house in upstate New York. It is perfect except for one problem: poison ivy. Now, I have kids and want to avoid using pesticides and chemicals because that is where they will be playing–outside on the lawn. Is there any way to deal with all this poison ivy non-toxically?

-Kevin

Answer:

Dear Kevin,

Congrats on your new home. Although it may seem impossible to deal with poison ivy without pesticides, apparently there are ways. I say apparently because I have not tackled this myself and an initial search shows the natural ways of battling PI get mixed reviews. But I certainly think they’re well worth a try. Here are some suggestions I saw listed as ways of battling poison ivy naturally: mowing it, suffocating it, and using certain plant oils. Do not burn it! This can result in serious rashes in your lungs and eyes (family lore is my grandfather did this once and was hospitalized).

All of these methods aside, it seems that the most effective way to deal with poison ivy is to pull it out. My understanding is that if you yank the itch-making stuff by the root, it cannot grow. Simple enough. Of course this poses another problem: PI is not exactly the sort of thing you want to be touching in order to yank. So full HAZMAT suit and rubber gloves are required. If this is not a task you would enjoy doing–who can blame you? I wouldn’t want to do it either–and  you have the budget, hire someone to do it for you. Here is great story about a guy in upstate New York who started his own poison ivy pulling business.

If you’re not Kevin and reading this and have other suggestions, please weigh in in comments.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Non-toxic ways to deal with grain beetles?

  • August 22, 2012 7:49 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

This weekend when I went to my pantry I found grain beetles in there. I’ve been suspecting them for a while, but now it’s undeniable. I prefer not to use the conventional toxic products people use. Are there any non-toxic ways to get rid of them?

Thanks.

-Henry

Answer:

Henry,

I feel your pain and am glad you don’t want to use bleach or a conventional pesticide to get rid of grain beetles. I did a little research for you, including posting on my Facebook author page for suggestions. Here’s what my FB fans had to say:

  • “I just washed everything down with safe dish detergent and kept everything in glass jars or tight fitting lidded enameled cans after.”
  • “Just composted ALL the boxed crackers/pasta/etc. that were open/infested, plus the bulk items…if sealed in glass they are easy to contain. It was mostly crackers that got nasty. And old stuff. Even paprika!”
  • “Skim beetles off the top of the rice when you cook it. Whatever. No big deal, really. They ARE in there, no matter what.”

All in all some good advice here. The key is to methodically go through what’s in your pantry–spices and all–and compost (or, sadly, throw out) what appears to be infested. Peer into open boxes of pasta, crackers, nuts, rice, corn kernels, flour, dried fruit–everything. Once you’re sure you’ve looked at everything, wipe the cabinets down with plant-based dish detergent. If you have honey, vinegar, or oils in your cabinet that have dribbled, wash these bottles off, too. You can then keep sealed containers of food in your pantry. If you don’t want to bother with sealing everything off, you can always keep rice and other grains–once opened–in the fridge.

I hope this does the trick. Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra


My intern Kelley’s thoughts on the documentary Toxic Baby

  • August 15, 2012 8:42 am

Kelley and I went to see a screening of Toxic Baby together and I asked her to let me know what she thought. I loved what she wrote to me so much, I asked her if I could post it here. (I’ll admit that part of why I loved it is that interning with me, which isn’t exactly the most gain-office-experience-traditional internship, is adding  a new layer of information and insight to her studies.) And she agreed. Her thoughts are below. If you haven’t had a chance to see Toxic Baby, I urge you to find a way to do so, or organize a screening near you. You can also see Penelope’s TED talk online. It’s worth a watch.

—-

“I had the great opportunity to view a screening of Penelope Jagessar Chaffer’s documentary Toxic Baby. After screening this film about the health hazards of chemical exposures, it would not be an exaggeration to say that my mind was blown.

As an environmental studies student in college, you would suspect that the majority of the film would be a reiteration of what I have previously learned in class. However this was not the case. The majority of what I have learned in class has been mainly focused on the food system and global climate change. Though these two topics are extremely important, Chaffer’s documentary does not focus on these. Instead, Toxic Baby’s main focus was the toxicity of chemicals in products and in the home – aspects that have not yet been covered in my course of study.

The film follows Chaffer and her discovery of the dangerous effects that certain chemicals can have. It was not until she became a mother that she discovered this information and made it her duty to protect her child from these toxic chemicals. The film consults with experts on the dangerous effects that chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and flame retardants have on pregnant mothers and their children. All of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and exposure to these chemicals are linked to an array of health issues, such as cancer, many different birth defects, and many more.

Reading about these issues, you can sometimes get very lost, and that is why seeing Chaffer’s journey as a mother exploring these issues is so great. It lays out the information easily for the everyday person and with the perspective of a mother.

What concerned me most after viewing this film is really the lack of public knowledge of the subject. As I stated before, my own academics have not touched upon these environmental health concerns – and I’m an environmental studies major! Imagine the lack of knowledge of the general population in regards to this problem.  And in the film Penelope’s knowledge on the subject only came about during motherhood. Hopefully, as this film gains notoriety and is seen by the general public, we can raise awareness of this serious issue and get these chemicals out of our homes.”
Thank you Kelley for coming to see the film with me and for letting me share your thoughts.

Q&A: BPA and Plastics

  • August 8, 2012 8:18 am

Question:

Alexandra,
A friend just sent me a video of you talking about safety concerns about plastics and children. My wife and I are brand new parents. Our twins were born 6 weeks ago. We are using the Dr. Browns BPA-free bottles. My concern is we’ve been washing them in the dishwasher. I’m wondering about the possibility of substances (other than BPA) in the plastic leaching into the milk due to the heat in the dishwasher. Do you have any info on this? Where do you find your information? We’ve been reading a lot but haven’t seen any studies on possible dangers of BPA free plastics that are exposed to high temperatures. Do you think I should switch to glass or just start hand washing the plastic bottles I’ve got. Thanks for your help.

Best,
David

Answer:

Hi David,

Congrats on your new additions.

Watching that video of me talking about plastic, it should come as no surprise that I’m deeply wary of plastic for both environmental and health reasons and therefore fond of both shatterproof glass and/or stainless steel–especially for the early years and developmental moments. All plastics degrade when exposed to high temperatures. While the safety research has mainly been on BPA (plastic #7) and PVC/Vinyl (plastic #3), there are studies that have been done on what comes out of even the plastics that are considered safe by the scientific community, especially #1. Since you’re contending with twins, you might not be aware that the FDA recently finally banned BPA from baby bottles, though not from any other infant products (which is frustrating). There is no word on what manufacturers are supposed to be replacing BPA with, and if these chemicals are any safer than their banned predecessors. More reasons to avoid plastic….

Though there are great resources (like The Environmental Working Group) to turn to for information on plastic, staying on top of  the latest plastic safety details can be a full time job. This is another reason I prefer glass and stainless steel. You don’t have to keep on top of their safety.

Another bonus: If you are too tired to wash everything by hand, glass and stainless are your friends; both are fine in dishwasher. Keep in mind that any/all plastic you use should only ever go on the top rack of the dishwasher if you can’t hand wash.

Bottle issue solved, now get some sleep!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Beach Pollution

  • August 1, 2012 9:36 am

My latest post for Elizabeth Street was actually inspired by a reader question and offers some of my safety thoughts for beach goers. I find it frustrating we’re in an environmental moment where I even have to answer this sort of question, but we are.

Click through to read my thoughts about the environmental hazards–with regard to water and sand quality–to watch out for as you splash and build sand castles on the beach this August.