10 easy ideas for a sustainable 2008

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I wrote this article over at YouSustain: Top 10 Easy Ideas For A Sustainable 2008

I’ve received a lot of good feedback on it, so please check it out. Also, to help raise awareness about personal sustainability, consider sharing the article on any sites like Digg, Reddit, Delicious, etc.

Democracy’s achilles’ heel

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Benazir Bhutto Killed

The opposition leader in Pakistan has been killed. I’ve always thought this was the reason it would be so hard to quickly develop a workable democracy in Iraq. Democracy is based on the need for freedom of expression. Democracy cannot grow when there is a segment of the population, no matter how small, who is willing to kill people because their views and ideas are different.

Who now actually believes an effective opposition will be mounted in Pakistan since it’s almost a guarentee the new leader would be killed?

However, when really thinking about this, what strikes me as most amazing is that so many countries do exist without the fear of violence in the political system. Or, is it just that security has gotten so good?

Sustainability challenge: turn off work computers at night

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This is a new sustainability challenge over at YouSustain that I think is really easy to do but has a decent impact: Turn off unused work computers at night.

A lot of us are pretty good about keeping our computers at home turned off when not needed, but we don’t always think about that at work. That’s mostly because we’re not the ones paying for the electricity at work. But, that electricity is still being generated by CO2-emitting means. The impact is fairly significant: if you turn off or put your computer to sleep when not at work you could reduce approximately 745kg CO2 in a year. That’s quite a lot.

I encourage everyone to join the challenge and invite their friends to do so as well. If a single person raises awareness of this issue in 5 friends, that person is directly responsible for a reduction of almost 4,500kg CO2/year, just from this. That’s about equivalent of taking a car off the road, which is a huge impact for such little effort.

Harper is dragging Canada down with him

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Thanks to our esteemed Mr. Harper, Canada has dropped further down the rankings in the Climate Change Performance Index 2008 (pdf).

In 2007 we were an embarrassing 51st position. This year we are 53rd. Harper and his lying friend Baird can pretend all they want that “they are taking action on climate change” but no one is listening. As all conservatives seem to do, they are just trying to stall as long as possible to take action on climate change. The problem is their economic arguments are completely incorrect; this will cost more to fix the longer they wait. I think they have just become so ideologically opposed to the “green movement” of the 80′s and 90′s that they can’t see the truth in front of them now.

I really, really, hope this is the issue that unseats Harper in the next election. I will definitely work towards that goal because their contempt and lies are so infuriating and destructive.

Sustainability challenge: reusable bags

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I’ve created a sustainability challenge called Use reusable bags for one week. It’s very easy, and only takes a week to complete, but makes a very important impact. The huge number of plastic bags being used every day is extremely wasteful. It’s so easy to always keep a few reusable bags in your car in case you might stop by a store.

I encourage everyone to join the challenge, and to invite friends and family, especially those who don’t normally think about sustainability. Since the duration of the challenge is only a week many more people would be willing to try reusable bags.

Not checking kids lunches a human rights violation?

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There’s a fuss in Vaughan over a schools decision to stop inspecting children’s lunches for allergens: Parents want school’s allergy checks reinstated

Some schools have been completely banning all food containing peanuts from being brought by children. I even heard of a school that banned sandwiches because they weren’t “healthy enough” for kids.

From the above article:

“The families say failing to screen lunches for eggs, peanuts and other allergens to which their children suffer severe reactions is a form of discrimination.”

Even for peanut allergies, which seems to be the most common fear, the rates are only around 1% of the population (references: here, here, and here).

I realize I may feel differently if I had a child who had a severe allergy, but completely banning these foods seems extreme. I’m slightly on the fence on peanuts (mostly leaning towards thinking a ban is a bit extreme). For “eggs and other allergens” which presumably appear in the population much less than 1%, I definitely think that’s extreme. Where does it end?

And specifically in the case of the first article, it goes to the point of every child’s lunch needing to be searched? I can understand banning some items in food provided by the school but lunches brought by other kids is another matter. And, arguing it’s a human rights violation to not search the kids lunches?

Nuclear energy revival

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There has been a lot of talk lately about a possible nuclear energy revival. It looks like Britain is heading down that road: The atom and the windmill: Nuclear power draws nearer as renewables retreat.

I previously noted that one of the Greenpeace founders had a change of heart to think nuclear was the best alternative at the moment: Is Nuclear Power Good?

In my opinion nuclear needs to be a part of the overall solution.  Even with proper investment it will probably take at least 20 years for renewables to ramp up to provide a major percentage of our energy needs.  So, until we get there we have to make a choice on the least of the evils.  Nuclear is not a good option, but it is better than coal (unless a practical carbon capture solution comes along).  I realize this is trading a short-term problem (CO2) for a long-term one (nuclear waste), but given how alarmingly fast CO2 levels are increasing and the effects we’re already seeing, I think it’s the right decision.

How toxic chemicals end up in our blood

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I just ran into this article which is a good follow-up to yesterdays post about the dangers of plastics.

Toxic inaction: Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood

The article shows the history of how we ended up with regulations that pretend to protect us, but don’t in practice. One of the best quotes:

“The assumption among Americans is, ‘If it’s on the market, it’s okay,’” explained Robert Donkers, an E.U. official who was asked to review Europe’s regulatory laws after the baby-product scare. “That fantasy is gone in Europe.”

Analyzing the news about the dangers of plastics

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There’s been a surge of news articles recently about the harmful effects of plastics. I’ve wanted more details on this for a long time so I’ve taken the time to aggregate the information that’s out there right now.

For starters, here’s a map of some areas that have banned specific chemical additives: CBC News Interactive: Plastics.

The biggest concerns so far are a group of chemicals called phthalates and another called BPA. I’m not sure if BPA is in the same class of chemicals as phyhalates, but seems to have been handled separately.

Both Phthalates and BPA have been shown to be carcinogenic and some also mimick the behaviour of estrogen. A report I heard on CBC radio yesterday talked about a study of fish upstream and downstream from a major city, where the downstream water had high levels of BPA. One third of the male fish downstream ended up developing partial female reproductive organs. Rats that were then fed these fish had a very high rate of infertility.

So far most of the bans on use of these chemicals has been related to children, especially anything that is chewed or sucked on. There is also some concern about plastic medical instruments used on children, specifically those which contain the phthalate DEHP.

Another related item to this is PVC which is a type of plastic that started being banned from childrens toys in 1998. PVC contains relatively high levels of the groups of chemicals above. Here are some details on PVC from an anti-PVC campaign. PVC contains at least phthalates, dioxins and mercury.

Enough countries have banned Phthalates for young children that I think it’s safe to assume they are unsafe. The only pro-Phthalates information I’ve been able to find so far was from plastics industry lobby groups. The harder question now is whether these chemicals are unsafe for adults and if so in what quantities.

First, some points:

  • Something that has shown to be so harmful to children will also be harmful to adults. The effects will be more extreme in children because they are still developing.
  • A lot of the health issues we are starting to become aware of are due to chemicals building up in our bodies over time and the interaction between them. See this for some details on chemical build-up in children.
  • Therefore, I would say we already have enough evidence to warrant at least reducing human contact with these chemicals.

Aside from childrens toys, the biggest concerns in the news lately have been plastic water bottles and nicrowaving plastic food containers.

Plastic food containers

It’s hard to nail down a definitive answer on this one. This is from the US FDA in 2002, and mimicks the sentiment from a lot of other sources (which is probably all fed from lobby groups, but nevermind that). The article has the following points:

  • “Microwave-safe plastic wrap should be placed loosely over food so that steam can escape, and should not directly touch your food.”
  • “It’s true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food,” says Edward Machuga, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns about the particular chemical.”

So, the FDA says the chemicals will leak out of plastic. For plastic wrap it apparently will leak out enough that they recommend it shouldn’t touch your food while in the microwave. They deem the leakage as within acceptable limits of toxicity. Considering the pattern of similar concerns in the past, that everyone swears it’s safe for decades until enough time has passed for enough evidence to mount against it, personally I think it’s safest to limit exposure.

Water bottles

The latest evidence seems to show that chemicals will leak out from most types of consumer water bottles over time to some extent. The general feeling seems to be that there is limited leakage on the first use of most off-the-shelf bottled water, however leakage will increase over time.

Washing normal and even reusable plastic water bottles is a different story. Apparently using harsher detergents has been shown to cause a large amount of BPA to be released. As a result, use only very mild soaps for washing, if necessary.

See On the Trail of Water Bottle Toxins and Plastic Water Bottles.

Conclusion

Personally, I’m going to make a significant effort to limit my exposure of plastics to my food. Particularly I will stop microwaving food in plastic (although, as I’m about to post this after I wrote it last night, part of the lunch I brought to work today is in a plastic container, so I guess I’ll be eating it cold.)

I didn’t reuse plastic bottles very often so that one isn’t a big concern for me. I have been using a reusable plastic travel mug for coffee lately, so I will switch that up for a metal one.

Probably most importantly, I will make sure to get exposure to these chemicals as close to zero as possible for children.

Other references not linked above