Archive for the ‘research’ Tag

Dealing with Greenwashing in the Dry Cleaner Industry   2 comments

After his short trip to Las Vegas, Mike had a few items of clothes labeled “dry clean only” that needed to be cleaned to get out the cigarette smoke smell. I hadn’t yet gotten around to researching a local dry cleaner near our house, so there was a flurry as I quickly attempted to do my research before he just went to the nearest one. Unfortunately I didn’t find one I could recommend, just one that I wasn’t completely opposed to. Especially in California greenwashing is rampant in the dry cleaner industry. The use of the very hazardous chemical perchloroethene (perc or PCE) is being phased out in California, and many dry cleaners have made the switch to other cleaning methods already. However, some of those alternative methods aren’t exactly “green” or healthy, so the “green cleaning” ads that many of those companies use are considered greenwashing in my book. GreenAmerica did an article on dry cleaning alternatives back in 2007 (when they were still called Co-op America and the monthly newsletter was called Real Money) that I used for my research last week.

Now for me, I just handwash anything “dry clean only” and have been for years. I figure that people were wearing wool, silk, linen, and cotton for millennia before dry cleaning was invented, so obviously they can be washed in water. And since I avoid synthetic fabrics that means my entire wardrobe can be wet cleaned. Yes, I handwashed my hemp-silk wedding dress, and hung it up to dry.

I started with dry cleaner that is about a block from where our workplaces. My research consisted of asking what process they used to clean the clothing. At that first place (which uses plant leaves in the logo, subtly implying that they are a green cleaner) the lady had no idea what process is used to clean the clothes. My question completely baffled her. Scratch that place from the list; for all I know they could still be using perc, which is not at all an option especially since we’re trying to get pregnant.

So I searched for other dry cleaners near us and found a couple more. The second place that I called at least knew what process they use: hydrocarbons. He assured me that it is not perc, and that it is “organic”. Unfortunately for him I’m an environmental engineer who took organic chemistry. When talking about agriculture “organic” means raised/grown without synthetic pesticides, when talking about chemicals “organic” means containing carbon atoms. Perc is organic, it is also carcinogenic and toxic. So are many, many, many other organic chemicals. Basically they just use a petroleum-based solvent instead of a chlorinated organic solvent. Again, not an option when we’re trying to get pregnant since I don’t know what will be off-gassing from the “clean” clothes.

The third place that I called very directly advertises as a “green cleaner”. They use the GreenEarth process, which uses a silicone-based solvent. On the plus side there is no risk of off-gassing from the clean clothes, and it degrades into sand, water, and carbon dioxide. On the negative side, according to the GreenAmerica article, the solvent may be a carcinogen and the manufacturing process generates a known carcinogen. Since I was short on time, though, this is the cleaner that won out. At least our exposure to anything hazardous is nothing or next to nothing, even if the workers at the dry cleaner have an exposure risk and there are problems up the supply chain.

Ideally I would have found a cleaner that uses a wet cleaning technique or a liquid carbon dioxide process (other than Solvair). Since we hardly ever take clothes to a dry cleaner, I don’t know if or when I’ll continue this research. Maybe I’ll do another flurry the next time the need arises.

The Precautionary Principle   Leave a comment

The Precautionary Principle (PP) has been around for a long time, but many people have never heard of it or don’t really know what it means. I believe very strongly in the PP, so I’m going to take a stab at presenting it. The plain English translation for the PP would be “better safe than sorry”. The PP means that if there is a possibility of causing harm, and/or scientific uncertainty, than the burden of proof lies on those who create the activity/material that may cause harm rather than those who would potentially be harmed. Think of the PP as an offshoot of the moral law “Do No Harm”. Currently, the burden of proof is almost always on the victims.

It is appropriate in our English legal system for the burden of proof to be on the prosecution (the representative of the victims) and not the defendant (who allegedly caused harm). This protects people from false accusations. Also, there is no way to run tests or models and predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not someone may do something illegal in the future. How could you prove that someone is a murderer if there is no murder? But note that our legal system does employs the PP when it comes to sentencing: a guilty verdict indicates that the person does present a danger to society and as a result the person is placed in prison to protect the general public from future harm.

It is not appropriate in the case of new developments for the burden of proof to always be on the victims. It is significantly easier and cheaper to run models to determine the floodplain of a 100-year storm (a storm of such severity that it would not be expected to occur more than once every hundred years) and limit building within that floodplain, then to clean up the mess when the 100-year storm hits and destroys homes. It is significantly easier to run lab tests to determine the fate of a new chemical in the environment (eg. will it end up in air, water, or oil? will it accumulate in plant and animal tissue?) and to determine potential health effects of exposure, then to figure out the health effects in the general population where there are millions of other variables that complicate the analysis.

The development of chemicals is where I see the PP pushed the most by advocates. The basic idea would be that chemical companies must conduct testing BEFORE a new chemical is put into general use, rather than AFTER it is linked to problems in the general population. The chemical industry fights back by saying that this would stifle innovation. I don’t see how that would be. It doesn’t put a stop to new developments, it just slows down the pace of the application of those new developments. Pharmaceutical companies have to do studies before a new medicine is approved and that doesn’t seem to have stifled innovation in the industry. Not that I am advocating using the same system that we use for new drugs; there are way too many flaws in that system! The PP involves looking at more than one facet of a new development before putting it into use. After all, new developments aren’t made in vacuums, and the “side effects” are usually the problem.

The way I see it the PP would make it SIGNIFICANTLY easier to make educated, informed decisions. The amount of effort that I have to put forward currently to living a life free from known or suspected toxins/mutagens/irritants/etc is frustrating because I have to make decisions based on sketchy, incomplete data. When there is a suspicion I try to follow the PP and remove the offender from my life until I know that it is safe, but that means doing a lot of label reading, internet searching, and plumbing the shallow depths of my scientific knowledge. And there are numerous situations where I find that I cannot avoid something questionable because it is ubiquitous. I absolutely understand why most people aren’t willing to put forth this much effort, but I believe that everyone has a right to live an uncontaminated life anyway.

Posted March 14, 2010 by mayakey in environment, health

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Shopping for a Skillet, Made in the USA   Leave a comment

Shopping in our house means research, generally. I don’t research every product that we buy on our weekly grocery trips, but special purchases mean research. Today we finally bought a new skillet (yay!) and I’ll use it as an easy example of my thought process and research when shopping for something.

The prep for a purchase like a skillet was relatively easy. I knew that I needed a skillet without a non-stick finish (I’ll rant on non-stick finishes later), but I wanted something all-purpose so cast iron was out and stainless steel in. Items like a skillet don’t have considerations like organic, “natural”, or “artisan-made” (although the All-Clad website uses “artisan” as a key word in their About page). In this case my consideration was finding something made in the US. I really believe in buying goods manufactured in the US and not supporting the “race to the bottom” as companies continuously move their operations to countries with cheaper labor and fewer regulations. When there are alternatives, I cannot in all conscience buy something that I know was made by people who do not earn a fair wage and that was probably not subject to real environmental regulations. Those regulations in the US have contributed to a great increase in our societal standard of living, and I think it is wrong to force conditions that we would not condone at home just to save a few cents.

Usually I start by searching the internet, since I make most of my purchases online, but this time I started by wandering through Macy’s one Saturday after the farmer’s market. What caught my eye was the All-Clad because the boxes clearly say “Made in the USA” whereas just about everything else said “Made in China” in small print. So I started my research from there. I already knew that All-Clad is well regarded for having high quality cookware, but I needed to verify that it is domestic. I found a great website, Still Made in USA, that includes a list of companies that make kitchenware in the US. The only other cookware company that I recognized on the list was Calphalon, but when I had looked through the display at Macy’s all of the Calphalon skillets were non-stick (I know they have stainless steel cookware, but I am tired of always having to buy online and I wanted to actually buy something at a convenient physical store). I also looked at the All-Clad website. According to their information the Stainless line is made in Pennsylvania, but the lids and some of the other lines are made in China. The company was bought in 2004 by a French multi-national corporation, Groupe SEB. Since it is a multi-national company, I have to assume that it has the same environmental and social problems as our American multi-national corps.  All-Clad and Groupe SEB are not listed in Green America’s Responsible Shopper, so that was kind of dead end for researching social issues. I don’t know how to research Groupe SEB any further, but I decided that the sins of the parent company don’t really have bearing in this case and focused on All-Clad. According to the EPA’s databases, All-Clad is a Small Quantity Generator with 250 lbs of air emissions and approximately 0.75 million pounds transferred offsite for disposal. The releases are the metals that you would expect: aluminum, manganese, nickel, chromium, copper. They have no violations listed and look to have a squeaky clean environmental record. The results: “we are cleared for take-off” with a minimum of bad-purchase-guilt.

Posted March 6, 2010 by mayakey in shopping

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