Friday, April 22, 2011

12 big Earth Day Steps to save water & energy, protect species, eat healthy, protect habitats

Happy Earth Day! 12 Tips Plus

This is the year I'll...catch rainwater in barrels to irrigate the garden. All I need is a hacksaw to shorten a downspout from the roof gutter, and a jolly big rainbarrel like this one, from my Whole Living Earth Day article, 12 Ways to Go Green This Year. Two big green impacts: I’ll save the average 1,300 gallons of drinking water splurged on a thirsty garden each season, and reduce stormwater runoff, which washes garbage, toxic chemicals and pathogens out to sea. Case in point: Last week, surfing after a heavy rain, I caught a virus and wound up in the emergency room! Another big plus: Reducing our water bill.

By now, you’ve probably made many small steps into good green habits, from recycling and reusing to choosing (or mixing your own )green cleaners. Are you ready to try a bigger green step this year? Check out Whole Living's slide show for the eleven other steps, from buying local seasonal produce (with a chart) to composting with a worm bin. We also provide how-to’s, and a readout of the relative effort and impact each step entails. You can also calculate your shrinking carbon footprint (step 2). Take your pick, and let us know how it goes!

Why I chose rainwater catchment for my big step this year: Last night, Earth Day eve, I was on a panel with marine biologist Crystal Sanders and Environmental Defense attorney Cynthia Koehler at the Aquarium of the Bay. The Aquarium is built on Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay, and the evening’s theme was how to protect this vast estuary and the fresh and ocean water systems that flow into and out of it. Crystal talked about how overfishing and pollution contribute to shocks such as the recent collapse of the herring populations in the Bay, and Cynthia, EDF’s political director for water issues, stressed the need to conserve fresh water so that more of it can be returned to important fish spawning and nursery grounds such as the San Francisco San Joaquin delta that feeds the SF Bay. The Bay, Cynthia pointed out, used to be the largest wild salmon fishery in California until all the rivers were dammed; EDF and others are seeking legislation to restore riverrine systems.

By reducing consumer demand for water and upping consumer demand for plant-based, nontoxic green products and sustainably sourced fish from healthy populations, we can help restore the cleanliness and productivity of our rivers, bays and seas.

What You Can Do

*xeriscaping in the garden with native drought-resistant plants
*buying produce from local and organic farms that protect waterways with buffer crops and sound ecological management policies
*fixing your water flow with EPA WaterSense fixtures, low-flush toilets, shorter showers, and rainwater catchment.
*asking where seafood comes from and how it was caught, and choosing sustainable fish picks.
*choosing plant- not petroleum-based
cleaning and personal care products.

Of particular urgency right now
is supporting bills to ban the cruel practice of culling shark fins and throwing these endangered creatures back to die slow agonized deaths.

Some Recommended Products

Thanks to donations from green companies, all attendees were given examples of products that met my criteria for least-toxic ingredients and gentlest eco impact.

* Wild Planet sustainably sourced, low-mercury albacore tuna and other seafoods

* Dr. Bronner’s peppermint liquid soap (certified organic plant oils, certified fair trade); great for deterring ants & garden pests, too!

* Equal Exchange certified organic and fairly traded chocolate and tea

*Martha Stewart CLEAN Dish/Hand soap

*Endangered Wildlife organic lip balms, which also give 25% of profits to the Center for biological diversity

Last but never least, great green thanks to:

*Whole Living
, which cosponsored the event, giving Earth Day issues to all plus very popular raffle prizes: “This is the Year I’ll...” t-shirts and seven year’s subscriptions
*Aquarium of the Bay and its team of cheerful, warm, lateworking staff for providing the space and free Aquarium tours (and stocking their gift shop with my green living book)

*Royal Hawaiian Seafood Co.
Whole Foods Markets and
Farallon Restaurant for providing sustainable seafood (ah, those Oregon rock shrimp!); cheese, crackers & veggies; and divine organic carrot and chocolate cakes, respectively.
EDF and Oceana for providing social networking support and expertise for this event and your great collaborative work in support of our precious seas.

Thank you one and all, and Happy Earth Year!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reduce risk of antibiotic-resistant staph: Buy organic, grass-fed animal foods

Meatless Monday sounds like a better idea than ever, following recent revelations about drug-resistant staphylococcus bacteria in our nation's meat and poultry. But even vegans can be sickened by poor food handling and cross-contamination. Forty-seven percent of 136 meat & poultry samples from 5 supermarkets nationwide contained staph, half of it resistant to antibiotics, in a study released April 15th. A principal source of the antibiotic resistance was the routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals, researchers said.

Contamination of meat, poultry and eggs due to e.coli or salmonella is pretty common, as can ben seen on USDA's recall list. What's scary about the recent findings is the staggering 50 percent antibiotic-resistance figure. Staph can cause food poisoning, skin infections, blood poisoning and pneumonia. Treatment options are reduced when antibiotics don't kill the germs. The meat samples in the study included methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the hospital "super bug" responsible for many deaths.

What to Do?

1. Know where your food comes from. Buy local and/or certified organic, grass-fed animal products. In an article about how dangerous bacterial infections are on the rise, Consumer Reports recommends buying organic and grass fed animal products because they're free of antibiotic residues that can lead to the development of resistant bacteria.

See my updated blog listing "Choose It" vs. "Lose It" green humane animal labels.

Buy from a trusted local source who gives you assurances of sustainable practices and safe food handling. Once a week, my husband walks to the Kapiolani Community College Farmers' Market, a mile and a half from our Honolulu home, and buys local grass-fed meat from Chef Hardy Binscher, pictured above. The executive chef at Michel's, a bastion of fine farm-to-table Honolulu dining, Chef Hardy also grills fresh meat and sustainable fish burgers to order at his farmers' market booth. This week, it was shutome (Hawaii handline-caught swordfish, a Monterey Bay Aquarium "best choice")* papillote with Swiss chard!

2. Chill it. After buying, take meat, poultry, fish and dairy straight home and refrigerate at 40 degrees until ready to prepare. Bacteria grow rapidly in warm animal products.

3. Handle with care. Before and after preparing meat, fish and poultry, wash hands in hot, soapy water. Wash knives, cutting boards, countertops and sink with more hot, soapy water to prevent cross-contamination of other foods. Here are more safety tips.

4. Cook thoroughly. When in doubt, use a thermometer. For internal temps needed to kill pathogens in meat, fish and poultry, see FDA's food prep tip sheet.

For more information:

Keep Antibiotics Working

Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics

*note: Imported swordfish is a "worst choice," and U.S.-caught green ratings depends upon the method used. Always vet your fish at Seafood Watch.

For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Green cleaning scorched pots & pans

The Green Man recently scorched my favorite saucepan when his writing project heated up. The smell of something burning reminded him--too late--that he'd left something cooking on the stove. He found the stainless pan caked with burnt tomato sauce with the consistency of hardened lava; we took turns scraping and scrubbing with our green cleaning arsenal--green dish soap, baking soda, Bon Ami, white vinegar-- but only a trace of the gunk came off.

While making lemon glaze for lemon cakes the other day, I reached for the scorched pan, which was just the right size. The recipe called for half a cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice mixed with half a cup of water, stirred until it boiled and then simmered for five more minutes. Because the black lava had been impossible to scrub off, I thought it had bonded to the pan.

I was wrong. As I stirred it with a wooden spoon, the bubbling lemon sauce took on a distinctly grey tinge. I decanted it into an omelet pan and kept stirring, hoping it wouldn't taste like iron filings. I left the blackened saucepan in the sink, filled with hot water and liquid soap. The lemon sauce tasted fine, soaked into the cakes.

Next morning, the Green Man found the pan in the sink, and exclaimed: "Hey! The black gunk has lifted off!" He swished it with a plastic scrubber, rinsed it out, and the pan was smooth, silvery stainless again.

I hope you never scorch a pot, but if it happens, you know what to do! To economize, I'd use just enough lemon juice and water to cover the bottom of the pot as it boils. Reduce heat, let simmer a couple minutes, then leave in sink overnight in soapy water.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reject household cleaning products that don't list all ingredients

Two cleaning challenges: I'm allergic to my pet, but I don't want to use a cleaning product that'll turn his favorite Persian rug into a toxic miasma!

"Any idea how bad a Swiffer wet jet is for me/the planet?" a Facebook friend asked the other day. Swiffer,I replied to her, is bad for the planet because the cleaning cloths are single-use disposables. That's basic waste. But a wet jet? I had to look it up.

I checked out the Wet Jet solution refill with Febreze lavender and vanilla. The ingredients: Cleaning agents (including solvents), perfume, water. First of all, solvents include some of the most toxic chemicals in use; "perfume" and "fragrance" are buzzwords for synthetic compounds that can contain toxic phthalates and other unhealthy chemicals, according to Environmental Working Group.

But without even knowing the specific ingredients, I could give my pal my opinion: If they're hiding something, don't buy the product. Given the spectrum of toxic, allergenic chemicals found in many conventional (and some so-called green) cleaning products, you owe it to your health to make an informed choice. Problem is, U.S. laws allow cleaning product manufacturers to conceal "trade secret" ingredients.

Earth Justice, Women's Voices for the Earth and Sierra Club filed suit against leading cleaning product manufacturers in New York State, seeking to compel full transparency regarding ingredients.

After the lawsuit was filed, SC Johnson, the maker of Drano, Fantastik and Glade, announced they were voluntarily listing all their ingredients on this website. But they still don't disclose everything! For instance, the ingredients list for Drano includes "proprietary surfactant blend." Sorry, they haven't come clean enough!

My FB pal said she was returning her wet jet to the store. The kicker was, she'd heard of pets being poisoned after licking the solution off their paws.

Cleaner Cleaning Products How-to's

When reading labels, use my list of cleaning product ingredients to avoid

Mix your own from common household ingredients, plant oils and white vinegar. Window cleaner recipe. Get eleven more d.i.y. cleaning recipes in my article in Natural Home Magazine.

For more green living tips, to enter free raffles for green product giveaways, and to subscribe to my free monthly e-newsletter, visit my home page, Post your comments/questions in the comment section of this blog, and I'll reply. Thanks!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Alex Postman, Eco-Editor and Heroine

She walks her green talk, even on her rooftop!Alex Postman of Whole Living is the first editor-in-chief I've known who has climbed up on her roof and painted it white. Why? "The top floor, where our bedrooms are, is like a Turkish bath in summer," Alex says of her four-story Brooklyn brownstone, "and I hate sleeping in an air-conditioned room." A white roof can reduce your energy use--and your electric bills-- by 20% during hot, sunny weather.

And, for the editor of a publication that nurtures a feeling of community among readers, contributors and staff, how cool is it that Alex is not only cooling her house, but benefitting her neighbors, as well! "A white roof reduces the urban heat island effect for the entire neighborhood, says Alex Wilson, founding editor of Building Green magazine.

You can see Alex wielding the roller atop her four-story Brooklyn brownstone in the April Whole Living's Earth Day feature, "This is the Year I'll..." Full disclosure: I was the writer for the piece. But I have yet to paint my own asphalt roof white, which is one reason Alex is my eco-heroine: her hands-on example is a real inspiration!

For this issue, Alex had the idea to honor 10 eco-heroines with the magazine's first Whole Living Awards. Read about these wonderful women in the article "Planet Keepers." But what about the woman behind the scenes? Not only has Alex painted her roof white, but she, her family and neighbors cleaned trash from sidewalk dirt strips and planted new trees and other plants to beautify the block and provide more cooling shade.

Alex's concern for community also led her to coauthor, with her husband Andy Postman and Healthy Child, Healthy World's Christopher Gavigan,a book for parents on how to protect their children's environmental health. Plus, she challenges herself to go greener in her daily life, for example, giving up paper towels a year ago--no easy prospect for a mom of three young children. Alex shrugs these achievements off. Instead, she calls herself an Eco-crastinator in her editor's note this month.

I'm an eco-crastinator, myself, in so many ways, and this--the human, fallible, humorous side of going green--is yet another reason that Alex is one of my eco-heroines.

For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog! Thanks.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

How to avoid GM food, and why it should be labelled

GM foods have recently been making news, with two new GM crops, beet sugar and alfalfa,
getting the go-ahead from USDA, and fast-growing GM farmed salmon awaiting FDA approval . Already, 86 percent of all U.S. corn and 93 percent of soy are GM. On the bright side, Orchids at the Halekulani, a greenmarket gourmet restaurant in Honolulu, where I live, launched a GMO-free menu this month.

We want to know what we’re eating, and more than half of Americans polled have said they don’t want food that’s been genetically engineered (GE), popularly re ferred to as genetically modified (GM). What it means: biotechnicians insert genes from one organism into another, unrelated, organism with which it could not be naturally bred. Example: corn carrying the Bt bacteria gene, which secretes an insecticide. Yum!

But how to avoid GM food, when an estimated 60-70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain GE ingredients, but these are not required by law to be labelled (and so are not)?

There are three easy ways.

1. Choose food labeled USDA certified organic, which forbids GE.

2. Choose food labeled “Non GM” and dairy labeled “cows not given rBGH” (see “Why Avoid GMOs,” below)

3. Weed out processed foods from your diet and eat more fresh, seasonal whole foods–-one of the 12 top green goals in my “This is the Year I’ll...” article in the April Whole Living. With the exception of about 50% of Hawaiian papayas, there is no commercialized GM produce–yet.

Halekulani's Chef Vikram Garg, whom I met for a taste of his GMO-free menu, told me he sources non-GM foods by choosing organic, or foods from local farmers who provide him with written verification that their crops or animal products are GE-free. “Fresh, minimally processed,” is this chef’s rule of thumb. He expressed concern that “people are consuming so much processed food–I want to encourage people to eat simply.” He selects organic or all-grass-fed (not corn “finished”) animal products, since conventional animal feed is likely to contain GM corn, soy and, now, alfalfa–and dairy cows are given GE recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

Why Avoid GM Foods?

“Personally I’m not against anything GM,” Chef Vikram told me, “but if it’s in the plant you eat, it’s going in your body.”

Reasons you might not want GMOs in your body–or in our environment-- include:

Personal health: Synthetic recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbgh, also known as rbst),produced by splicing cattle and bacteria genes has higher levels of, insulin-like growth factor 1, linked to several cancers.

There is also concern that an increase in food allergies may be partly due to the spread of GE foods.

Protecting Genetic Diversity and Keeping Organic Organic:Contamination of organic crops and shrinking crop diversity due to GM pollen drift are very real risks.

Vegetarians do not want to consume foods with animal genes inserted in them.

What matters most to Chef Vikram, he says, is the superior taste of the fresh, sustainably produced local foods that are the focus of his GMO-free menu. We eat a GMO-free, all-local salad arrives, composed of lightly grilled, mushrooms, plus hearts of palm, red onions, and watercress.“The main idea is that people not think that with GM-free you can’t have a dish that tastes like this,” Garg says. “On the contrary, you get the best of all these flavors.”

The entree is organic green lentil risotto, local tomatoes, and organic brown rice, seasoned with turmeric, cumin, salt and asafoetida. “It’s non-GM, but there are other healthy properties–it’s a wholesome, holistic dish,"Chef Vikram says. "Spices such as cumin have ayurvedic, anti-inflammatory properties, and asoefetida aids digestion," he adds.

This is pure comfort food, with a delicate, light texture and taste.“We call it kichidi, and this is my mom’s recipe; when I go home to India this is always my first dinner,” he says, noting that his parents raised him on a meat-free diet based on what’s fresh and seasonal in the market that day.

The Center for Food Safety’s excellent True Food Shopper’s Guide lists specific products to choose or avoid.


Join the Organic Consumers Association campaign seeking required labeling of GE ingredients in food.

If you’re opposed to GE salmon, which may harm endangered wild Atlantic salmon by outcompeting them for food and other resources, let your Congressional representatives know.
Join a campaign asking major candy manufacturers not to use GE sugar beets.

These tips, and many others, come from my book, Do One Green Thing, and grow out of questions and suggestions from valued readers like you. For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog

BPA, pthalates, and the "safer" plastics conundrum

The latest science shows that plastics are really, really bad news. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that while some bad plastics, such as polycarbonate (PC #7) release toxic chemicals, notably hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A (BPA), other plastics are safer. Unfortunately, they may not be. Hormone-disrupting, estrogenically active (EA) chemicals were found to leach from all kinds of plastics, including those labeled BPA-free, in a study published by Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) in March. “In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products,” wrote researchers, who tested 450 baby bottles, water bottles, plastic food containers and wraps bought from retailers including Wal-mart and Whole Foods. Seventy percent of the items released EA into solutions at room temperature, and 95% leached EA after stress tests simulating normaluse in dishwashers and microwaves.

Next, a small but significant study released in EHP online, found that BPA levels in urine samples taken from five SF Bay Area families–10 adults and 10 children–dropped by 66 percent over just three days when they stopped eating packaged food, including food from plastic packages and cans. Participants’ levels of DEHP phthalate, another hormone-disrupting chemical commonly found in flexible PVC plastic, dropped by 53-56 percent.

“All plastic should be labeled as hazardous waste," Captain Charles Moore,who discovered what is popularly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch," told me recently in Honolulu, where he had come with many others to present research at a week-long UNEP/NOAA Marine Debris Conference. Moore's research voyages to the Great Pacific Gyres off Hawaii and Japan, and the waters between, show that the ocean is fast turning into a plastic plasma. Discarded plastic bottles, containers, toys, and fishing line are broken up into microscopic fragments, about plankton size. His Algalita Foundation's latest findings: Thirty-five percent of plankton-eating lantern fish, the bottom of the marine food chain, had plastic in their bellies.

This toxic plastic plasma will rise in the food chain and find its way into our bellies if we don’t stop contributing to it soon. “Everything eventually makes its way into the ocean,” Captain Moore says.

What to Do?

First, we’ve got to stop buying disposable items made of plastic, Moore says.

Second, we must recycle, rather than toss our old plastics in the trash. If your municipality only accepts bottles labeled #1 and #2 in curbside bins, type in “plastic” at to find a recycling/redemption drop-off center nearest you that takes #3, #6 and #7 plastics.

That said,if you sometimes need to store or carry foods in lightweight plastics, choose #1, #2, #4 and #5 and keep them away from high heat and abrasion. No microwaving or cleaning in dishwasher! See my lists of food and drink containers that are least toxic, according to the research that's been done so far.

We can reduce our body burden of toxic plastic chemicals, like the Bay Area families did, by eating mostly fresh, not processed foods, and avoiding plastic. Check out the SF Chronicle’s interviews with the researchers

Take Action

Finally, we can speak up and tell our political and community leaders to ban single-use plastics. Let's not let the plastics industry chill our speech! For example: Over the objections of researchers who were reporting their studies of plastics pollution and the ocean,the “P” word--“plastic"--was left out of all official publications and pronouncements, Dianna Cohen of Plastics Pollution Coalition told me. "Plastic was the elephant in the room," Cohen said. Instead, the euphemism “marine debris” was used throughout, even though, as Moore told me, “Almost all so-called ‘marine debris’ is plastic." Conference sponsors included Coca Cola and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which has been pouring money into efforts to block bans on disposable plastic grocery bags nationwide.
Support ongoing research by Moore’s Algalita Foundation.

Help stop the use of single-use grocery bags in your community. Take the Plastics Pledge and learn more about Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics campaign.

I hope to hear from you! My book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices, grew out of questions and suggestions from valued readers like you. For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog. I'll answer!