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Last year’s catastrophic fires here in California, and now in the Amazon rainforest, along with severe weather events, like Hurricane Dorian, remind us that climate change is real. So, you might wonder if small steps to go green can make a difference. It is easy to get discouraged. But there are good reasons to do what we can, in our own lives and in our own homes by choosing green alternatives.
Why does going green matter?
It matters to our health and to the planet when we choose to get unnecessary chemicals out of our lives.
“Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” was an advertising slogan for DuPont, adopted in 1935 and used until 1982 when they dropped the “Through Chemistry”. That may have been in part because the public began to realize that trusting big business to provide us with products that were both effective and safe did not always go hand-in-hand. Safety was often an afterthought, especially when the labeling of hazardous chemicals was not mandated on certain products.
Even today, we are failing to keep up with the way chemicals affect our bodies and our planet. And you don’t have to suffer from allergies or autoimmunity to feel concern. Take Roundup Weed Killer. The herbicide active ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate that has been litigated in the courts for years. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, carried out an assessment of glyphosate’s risks and on March 20, 2015, IARC announced its conclusion: Glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In May of this year, a California jury awarded a couple more than 2 billion dollars in damages, against Monsanto, a subsidiary of Bayer.
Taking precautions to limit exposure to harsh chemicals is a good step.
The EPA, which doesn’t have the best track record for keeping us safe, as evidenced by their waffling over products like Roundup, does provide useful information about why we should green our cleaning products.
Their recommendations are as follows, beginning with a note:
NOTE: The following discussion primarily addresses hazards associated with cleaning product ingredients. The actual risks from these chemicals at typical exposure levels are often uncertain, and in many cases are probably low. Regardless of the expected risk levels, however, reducing the intrinsic hazard of a product is a desirable pollution prevention objective as part of decisions that also take into account other important product attributes.
- Cleaning products are released to the environment during normal use through evaporation of volatile components and rinsing down the drain of residual product from cleaned surfaces, sponges, etc. Janitorial staff and others who perform cleaning can be exposed to concentrated cleaning products. However, proper training and use of a Chemical Management System (a set of formal procedures to ensure proper storage, handling, and use) can greatly minimize or prevent exposure to concentrated cleaning product during handling and use.
- Certain ingredients in cleaning products can present hazard concerns to exposed populations (e.g., skin and eye irritation in workers) or toxicity to aquatic species in waters receiving inadequately treated wastes (note that standard sewage treatment effectively reduces or removes most cleaning product constituents). For example, alkylphenol ethoxylates, a common surfactant ingredient in cleaners, have been shown in laboratory studies to function as an “endocrine disrupter,” causing adverse reproductive effects of the types seen in wildlife exposed to polluted waters.
- Ingredients containing phosphorus or nitrogen can contribute to nutrient-loading in water bodies, leading to adverse effects on water quality. These contributions, however, are typically small compared to other point and non-point sources.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOC) in cleaning products can affect indoor air quality and also contribute to smog formation in outdoor air.
The site even goes on to list further benefits:
- Choosing less hazardous products that have positive environmental attributes (e.g., biodegradability, low toxicity, low volatile organic compound (VOC) content, reduced packaging, low life cycle energy use) and taking steps to reduce exposure can minimize harmful impacts to custodial workers and building occupants, improve indoor air quality, and reduce water and ambient air pollution while also ensuring the effectiveness of cleaning in removing biological and other contaminants from the building’s interior.
- Buying cleaners in concentrates with appropriate handling safeguards, and reusable, reduced, or recyclable packaging, reduces packaging waste and transportation energy.
- Buying less hazardous s cleaners may reduce costs when it comes time to properly dispose of any leftover cleaners.
That is quite the list of good reasons and benefits for seeking less hazardous, eco-friendly, organic cleaning produces. Here is a link to the EPA’s page on how to choose safely. The more people who do it and make the switch, the more effective the effort will be. In fact, in a report released late last year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the need to avoid disastrous levels of global warming, and said it will require, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
What else can you do to be greener and reduce greenhouse gases?
Transportation is a big one. Traveling less, the move to more sustainable choices, like accessible, efficient public transit and full embrace of electric vehicles has to happen. The Marin Bicycle Coalition is pushing for more and safer bike paths to encourage riders, and the introduction of lightweight, electric boost bicycles might go a long way to making riding more accessible to the average person. But as long as bicyclist have to share the shoulder of the road with hulking SUVs and towering delivery trucks, many will choose to drive instead. The introduction of the SMART Train is undoubtedly helping those people have the connecting transportation systems to reach their ultimate destination, but it has quite a way to go.
Greener buildings certainly have a role to play. That means not just the materials used to construct a building. How you heat it, cool it and maintain it all can add or detract to its energy use. Even the paint you use to decorate your home can emit gases from the volatile organic compounds, just like those in harsh cleaning products. Some can cause irritations to individuals who have compromised immune systems or allergies to certain compounds. Depending on where you live, the materials used to construct your home (or place of business) the indoor air may be more polluted than the outside air.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that indoor air can be anywhere from two to five times as polluted as outdoor air. Household air pollution is one of the world’s greatest environmental health risks, according to the World Health Organization.
An earlier Organic is Better post provided tips on how to improve your indoor environment to lesson allergies and severe immune reactions.
Beyond that, you might look at your landscaping to ensure that your planning includes low maintenance, low water-use plants, and that the health of your soil will support water saving efforts and even carbon sequestration. A great Bay Area resource is ReScape CA, if you need expert advice.
What else is on the list?
You might be surprised to learn that you can do your part for the environment by not wasting so much food. In 2013, Food Industry Wastes revealed that more than 34 million tons of food waste was generated in the United States in 2009, at a cost of approximately $43 billion.
While it might sound a bit wonky and targeted to a different audience, consumers can take steps to keep food waste out of landfill. For the food waste that does get produced, the key findings included:
- Food waste is an area of focus for a wide range of related industries from food science to energy and engineering
- Outlines the development of green product strategies
- International authoring team represents the leading edge in research and development
- Highlights leading trends of current research as well as future opportunities for reusing food waste
Marin County is lucky to have Marin Sanitary Service. Their tagline is “Conservation, Our Mission, Our Job” and they’ve evolved over the decades to meet their goals. They provide curbside pick-up in the communities they serve that includes the collection of food scraps and yard waste for composting. Separating out food scraps is becoming a natural activity for many Marin families, as they make an effort to reduce their carbon footprint.
Removing organic material from the landfill is a top priority for us. Not only does proper disposal of organic materials produce a soil amendment for California farmers, the removal also has an impact on reducing greenhouse gases. When organic material like food waste is landfilled, it breaks down anaerobically, creating methane and other greenhouse gases that leak from landfills and contribute to climate change. – Marin Sanitary Service
This year, Food-related routines, product characteristics, and household food waste in the United States: A refrigerator-based pilot study, published in Resources, Conservation, Recycling, highlights the contributing factors involved in encouraging food waste within American households.
Highlights of the report point to several strategies that provide avenues for change:
- Institutional signals of food quality drive consumer food waste behaviors.
- Food-related routines affect whether refrigerated food gets eaten.
- Ambiguous date labeling decreases the odds that refrigerated food will be eaten.
- Respondents are systematically over-optimistic that refrigerated food will be eaten.
Our diets matter.
Lastly, what we actually do manage to eat can impact the planet. As evidenced by the burning of the Amazon for the production of beef and soybeans in Brazil. Organic choices are increasingly important, but so are the types of organic food we choose. Plant-based diets are thought to be the eco-friendliest alternative. The recent, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report suggests that people should consume about 30% less animal products. Eating less meat is only one of several mitigation strategies suggested by the IPCC to overhaul both agricultural and land-use practices, including the protection of forests. The livestock sector is estimated to account for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, more than direct emissions from the transport sector. That is a kicker.
Human behavior change is a big issue here. These so-called shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs), which focus on mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, are a fairly new innovation and point to this new dimension to climate modeling: us!
So, take heart. It isn’t over, yet. We can make positive changes in our own lives over the next 12 years and take action as advocates to choose green cleaning products, organic food, eco-friendly practices in our lives and demand that action from the “Eight of the world’s largest oil companies are responsible for as much of the climate-damaging pollution spewed into the atmosphere as the entire U.S., according to a study by a London-based researcher.”
This could be worth taking action and making noise about.