Wednesday, December 26, 2007

EPA (aka Oil Cronies) Keeps 17 States From Setting Their Own MPG Standards

So over the past few months we've seen both the House and the Senate pass weakened fuel economy standards and poor excuses for energy policies. After wasting hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars debating the standards, they passed a humiliatingly flaccid plan requiring manufacturers to meet a 35 mpg average by 2020. The original bill also contained minimum future requirements for renewable energy from power companies and various clean energy tax incentives, but these were all slashed when Bush threatened to veto. This unto itself shows the utter lack of power or fight in our legislators regarding the environment. The actions of the EPA, however, are even more disgusting, as Stephen L. Johnson, the EPA administrator (clearly a "loyal Bushie"), turned down California's request to impose it's own, more strict standards of approximately 43 mpg by 2016, a much more reasonable commitment considering the state of our planet. Oddly, the EPA has pretty much always allowed California to impose it's own standards, but it is now balking. Now, when 16 other states, including NY, NJ, and CT, comprising over 50% of all U.S. vehicle sales, also want to pass tougher efficiency requirements. The debacle is discussed further in this NYTimes article, and thankfully the Governator is standing strong and, along with many of the other states in question and some environmental groups, they are vowing to sue the EPA and fight this judgement.
Nice work Arnold. Although I generally recommend buying locally and buying U.S. made products to help our own economy and rebuild our country's production capability, when it comes to cars, we have to refuse to buy from the big American manufacturers until they give us the fuel-efficient and alternative energy cars and trucks that we need. They have fallen miserably behind the leaders, Toyota and Honda, and rather than actually stepping up and giving us an environmental option, they stoop to political shell games to keep selling their gas-guzzling monstrosities.

photo from
via Gavin

Lead Poisoning From Your Dishes? You Betcha!

Once again, our runaway train to industrialization and mass-production has turned up more ways that we're poisoning ourselves. Over the last month or so, a flurry of concern has arisen across Utah after a 16 month old girl was found to have lead poisoning. After extensive testing of their home, it was found that the plates that the mother was eating from contained lead, which was then passed to the child through breast milk. Wow. The original story aired on KUTV from Salt Lake, and their local on-air watchdog, "Get Gephardt", did some further investigation. The television station was able to get viewers to bring in over 1,500 plates for lead testing and found that more than 30% contained toxic levels of lead (pdf link for the full report and list of manufacturers). It seems that glazings commonly have lead and many plates with colorful paintings or patterns often have higher levels as well. The lead in the glazing and paints leeches out into your food, especially when heating them in microwaves. Although some of these plates were made in China, many were made in Europe, or here in the good old US of A. And it wasn't just cheapo Walmart brands either, expensive names such as Spode were full of the stuff.
Lead is extraordinarily toxic to the developing nervous systems of young children and can cause permanent developmental delays and retardation. This is just another example of how industrialized production of goods from improperly tested materials can be harmful. We're finding more and more toxic substances in everyday items, from toys, to food containers, to foods, and more. Imagine how many things we haven't figured out are harming us at low levels or have an additive effect with others?

If you can, get your dishes tested. If you can't, consider performing a "tox audit" of your home - we're transitioning to metal water bottles and glass food containers from petrol-based plastics with phalates, Bisphenol-A, and other toxins (here's a good quick article on plastics).

As far as the lead-tainted dishes in question go, there have been no recalls, although the HomeTrends/Gibson dishes in question were pulled from WalMart's shelves. Utah legislators are going to bat and trying to get a law passed to require manufacturers to label products with lead. Nice start, hopefully that will help you choose when you buy new dishes in 5-10 years.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Low-Carbon Holidays Through Skype

My wife Laura and I are in the same holiday predicament as many - how can we visit all of our extended family in one short holiday season when everyone lives so far away? We could fly here and there, spend a thousand dollars on airfare and blow a few thousand extra tons of carbon into the atmosphere, or we could use free technology to have a "virtual x-mas." Since Laura's dad lives in Salt Lake and she has other family in Ft. Collins, CO, we decided to attempt a winter-time Fossil-Fuel-Free-Roadtrip in the Vegfalia. My parents and grandmother, however, live in Maryland and we can't make it out there for x-mas, so we set up our Skype video call for 9am Mountain Time. Some sound issues aside, we were able to open presents from each other across the country using this fantastic free technology. My sister and her husband came up from Mexico to see my parents as well and although we couldn't give holiday hugs, but we were able to laugh and talk and appreciate being "together" as best we could. We managed to see more family, save time, money, and CO2 - it was certainly a special holiday despite the distance.

Although a full report will be coming for the Vegfalia trip itself, I winterized the biodiesel system with a 110V fuel filter heater and a magnetic block heater, plumbed up our Roadside Filtration System to filter WVO on the fly, and headed out with 2 full tanks and an extra 30 gallons of filtered oil. Unfortunately along the way, we've run into cold weather issues with the lower quality oil, and although we found B20 at the pump in Ft. Collins and SLC, the Cardwell Distributing's B100/B50 pumps were gelled up and not functioning at all. The Roadside Filtration System we've discovered is also not able to filter at these temps. So, we've been using what fuel we brought, a little petrol diesel, mostly B20, and we hope to fill up with B100 and some virgin VO from Costco before we leave SLC. Not as fossil-fuel-free as we'd hoped, but still better than flying or driving on all petrol, plus we got to bring our dog Marley and our eco-friendly presents for the families.

Peace and goodwill to all!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Not-so-shocking Study Shows Childhood Obesity Significantly Increases Risk for Heart Attack

In a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, Danish researchers showed significant correlations between childhood obesity and coronary artery disease as adults. Looking at 276,835 children born between 1930 and 1976, a linear correlation was found with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index) directly related to increasing risk of having a heart attack. The example used was that a 13 year old boy who is 11kg (24.2 lbs) overweight will have a 33% higher likelihood of having a coronary event than a similar boy of average weight.

NIH statistics show that 17% 0f American children are obese, triple the number since 1980!
Smoking and obesity have become two of the major causes of morbidity and mortality in our country, both of which are preventable. Obesity is a multifactorial issue that stems primarily from the obvious - poor diet and lack of exercise. Granted, the "American diet" is horrendous overall, with plastic-wrapped, preserved offerings of fried this and that, breaded and cheese-filled whatevers, and heaping portions of processed carbohydrates. One of the problems is that these foods are being marketed to children. Sales and demographics experts run numbers to see how they can most effectively sell horrendously unhealthy foods to more and more children (don't you feel guilty, you heartless bastards?). Cartoons and plastic gifts are used to entice kids to throw fits until they get the Happy Meal or package of sweets that they saw on TV. Also, there is a trend in the media to say that "It's OK to be yourself (aka obese)." Yes, it is good to be comfortable with yourself as a person, but it is not OK to be morbidly obese! From a pure healthcare standpoint, once you are more than 10-20 lbs overweight, you should start looking at ways to lose some poundage, not find ways to justify your excess weight in the eyes of society. It's not insensitive or rude, it's your health. We have gotten so bad, that last year a physician in New Hampshire actually lost his license because one of his patients was offended that he told her that she was overweight and needed to lose weight for her health. She complained to the board and when he refused to go to sensitivity training, they took his license! This to me is absolutely ridiculous. It's like an alcoholic suing you because you told them to stop drinking!

It comes down to parents, however, to provide their children with a healthy diet and teach them lifelong lessons of nutrition and regular exercise. To do your child the most good, feed them locally grown, organic foods when possible, avoid prepackaged foods as much as you can, and avoid fast foods entirely. Minimal or no sodas/sport drinks/etc, water down your juices, and no bottled water (that's more of an environmental concern, though). Once the kids are out of the house, it's tough to encourage these things, so do it while you have their full attention. Also, don't forget the exercise! Limit TV/computer/video game time significantly. Go cycling or play ball with your kids, take them surfing or hiking instead of letting them vegetate in front of the television. Don't buy your child Guitar Hero, buy them an actual guitar! Fiddling with 4 buttons on a plastic guitar teaches them nothing except that it's OK to sit around on the couch and do nothing to better yourself in any way. Your son won't thank you for all the dates he DIDN'T get because you encouraged him to be an awesome "Guitar Hero." He may, on the other hand, thank you for the guitar lessons after the plethora of dates he actually got from his swoon-worthy real-life guitar melodies. Oh, and virtual dates don't count.

Baker JL et al. Childhood body-mass index and the risk of coronary heart disease in adulthood. N Engl J Med 2007 Dec 6; 357:2329.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Eco Gift Expo in Santa Monica December 15 & 16

In addition to suggestions on The S.E.E.P.'s Holiday Gift Guide, I was just informed of the Eco Gift Expo being put on in Santa Monica this weekend. Over 150 eco-conscious companies will be purveying their wares at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium at 1855 Main St on Saturday, December 15th and Sunday the 16th. They'll be joined with vendors of organic food and drink, a live jazz pavilion, performers, an eco-wrapping station, and "The Hall of Indulgence" display. Tickets are $10 and 10% of the proceeds will be donated to Global Green USA and the Whole Planet Foundation.

If you haven't figured out what you're doing for your loved ones this holiday, be it an oxfam sheep, some home made bread (We got a breadmaker at Goodwill for $12!), or a Patagonia fleece, head on over to the Eco Gift Expo for some more sustainable options!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

BP Goes For Canadian Tar Sands, Turns More Evil.

BP, aka British Petroleum, aka "Beyond Petroleum", had been doing fairly well in the eyes of environmentalists, seeming to make commitments to alternative energies, trying to live up to their new name. Now, however, they have made moves that put them up with the highest echelons of environmental criminals. According to The Independent, in a joint venture with Husky Energy, BP has ponied up 3 billion dollars to develop a facility in Alberta, Canada to begin extracting oil from the controversial tar sands. This 54,000 square mile area, covered with virgin forest and wildlife, has an estimated 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This recovery, however, is much more resource intensive and damaging that extracting a barrel of oil from a typical well. One way to get at these sands is basically a strip mining process, but BP is planning a slightly more environmentally friendly option which involves injecting water heated with natural gas to liquefy the oil for extraction. This will require 350 million cubic meters (92.4 trillion gallons) of water from the Athabasca river per year, which will then be contaminated and stored in a 20 square mile system of artifical ponds rather than being returned to the local ecosystem. In addition, it will require 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas to produce one barrel of unrefinded bitumen (tar sand oil), which is the same volume needed to heat a typical British home for 5.5 days.
"It takes about 29kg of CO2 to produce a barrel of oil conventionally. That figure can be as much 125kg for tar sands oil. It also has the potential to kill off or damage the vast forest wilderness, greater than the size of England and Wales, which forms part of the world's biggest carbon sinks. For BP to be involved in this trade not only flies in the face of their rhetoric but in the era of climate change it should not be being developed at all. You cannot call yourself 'Beyond Petroleum' and involve yourself in tar sands extraction," stated Mike Hudema of Greenpeace. According to Hudema, the organization is planning direct action to stop the project.

With this action, BP has completely destroyed any eco-credibility they have garnered thus far, and seem to have no problem commiting what is being described as "the biggest environmental crime in history." In a previous post, I presented the Sierra Club's ranking of the oil companie's relative harm, with Exxon-Mobile and ConocoPhillips the worst at the "bottom of the barrel", and BP and Sunoco at the top. This horrifically irresponsible move will no doubt rocket BP to the bottom of the list environmentally. BP is not the only one to blame, by allowing this travesty, the Canadian government is demonstrating a distinct lack of commitment to the environment.

I suppose we'll be adding BP to the list of companies that will not receive any more of our business! Time to boycott and BP as well as Exxon-Mobil!
via Gavin/infoshop news

Chevy's Greenwashed "Gas Friendly to Gas Free" Marketing Campaign

OK, we all know that all of the U.S. car manufacturers have made decision after decision that is leading to their own demise. First, the engineered obselescence of the 80's and 90's - you need to keep buying new cars if the one you bought was designed to fail, right? Brilliant strategy. Once they knocked that off and lost the faith of the U.S. consumer, they launched ad campaigns convincing a frightening number of us that big, powerful cars are what you need to be a rugged, manly American. They even managed to get ridiculously unnecessary tax incentives passed for ginormous SUVs to sucker in more people. Unfortunately for the American worker, they have continued to lag behind the rest of the world's auto manufacturers and have yet to give us a reasonably sized hybrid or alternative fuel car with the exception of the Chrysler Sebring and Malibu (I don't consider the Impala "reasonably sized")
Now Chevy has answered all of our environmental prayers by launching their new "Gas Friendly to Gas Free" marketing campaign. This ridiculous attempt at greenwashing lists the following subjects: Fuel Efficiency, E85 Ethanol, Hybrid, Electric, and Fuel Cell. Let's go through the list:
#1: Fuel Efficiency - although some chevy cars get decent gas mileage, they still don't match up to most foreign offerings, with Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Minis, and VWs taking all of the top MPG spots. Some improved technology has come out, limiting the use of cylinders when not needed, but this is mostly in huge vehicles. Thanks for polishing our brass - love, the Titanic's crew.
#2: E85 Ethanol - Once again, almost all of these Flex-fuel vehicles are massive SUVs. Also, when was the last time you saw E85 at the pump in most of America? This in addition to the fact that corn ethanol is THE WORST BIOFUEL available! For every 1 gallon of fuel you put into the process you only get about 1.3 gallons of fuel out. Corn requires large volumes of irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides. And don't forget that you're taking a needed food source to pour into your SUV - it just doesn't make any sense at all. Please feel guilty and picture a starving child while you pour what should be their corn into your fuel tank.
#3: Hybrid - What is their first hybrid? A freakin' Chevy Tahoe. You have got to be kidding me. This wasteful monstrosity gets a whopping 20-22 mpg, and although that's good for an SUV, it's downright horrendous for your most eco-friendly offering to date. Why not take your Aveo or Cobalt, which get 24/34 and 24/33 (city/hwy mpg) respectively, and make one of those into a hybrid to compete with the Prius or Civic hybrids?
#4: Electric - Ahh. . . The much discussed Chevy Volt. For one thing, didn't you already make one of these that worked marvelously? Oh right, the EV1. They were repossessed and shredded (not even recycled or disassembled!). Whoops! The Volt is still vaporware to date (but to be fair, so is the much anticipated Tesla Roadster). If/when it actually does come out, it might be a pretty sweet ride.
#5: Fuel Cell - Yet another concept that will probably never reach any one of us. Can we please get some people with money and brains (Sir Branson, would you consider this as the next X-prize?) together to design a functional, reliable, long-lasting, non-toxic super battery/fuel cell/whatever? All we need is a power source people - that's all the hydrogen and fuel cell concepts are - glorified batteries. I think that ultracapacitors might do it (still vaporware as well, though) - imagine driving your electric car for 250 miles or more and when you run low, plug in to a power station, swipe your card, and charge up in minutes! Maybe if the oil companies would release some of those battery patents they've gobbled up, there would be one worth developing.
Basically, I'm asking that nobody fall for this greenwashing campaign of Chevy's. Don't buy an SUV just because it's a hybrid or it's Flex-fuel - don't buy one, period! If they really cared, they'd stop making Hummers, Tahoes, Escalades, and all of the other gas-guzzling compensation tools and make super-efficient, hybrid, alternative fuel (the forthcoming algae biodiesel or cellulosic ethanol), or electric work vehicles, people-movers, and small personal transportation vehicles. Admittedly it would take a lot of chutspa for a major auto manufacturer to trim the fat and only concentrate on these types of vehicles. Toyota is coming close with it's goal to go all-hybrid, but that's not enough. If one of the American companies would step forward to this goal, it could be done, and it could be accomplished with American ingenuity and style and we could lead the world once again in transportation innovation.
Any takers?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Dear ecobot, Episode 1 - Have any suggestions for cleaner energy around the house for those that can't afford to have solar power installed?

This is my preview/tester/first installment of The S.E.E.P.'s "Dear Ecobot" column.

Rachel asked:

Dear Ecobot

"Hi, I found your blog while looking for info on the desalination theater and must say how inspiring it was to see.
I keep seeing sites suggesting all these ways to have clean energy this way and that way,
but everything is so expensive considering I am a not so wealthy college student still.
Have any suggestions for cleaner energy around the house for those that cant afford to have solar power installed?

Well Rachel,

There's all kinds of fun ways to decrease your footprint without having to drop $10,000 or more on a household solar system. Plus, if you're a renter or a student, there's no way you'll be allowed to significantly modify anything in your apartment. So, my first answer is always conservation.

If you haven't already replaced your incandescent bulbs with CFLs and started looking into LED fixtures and bulbs, then get to it. For those that don't mind the cold, get a warm beanie and your favorite Patagonia (or other ecofriendly company) fleece and turn down your thermostat to 62 or so. Thaw out your toes every once in a while with an energy-efficient space heater. Use the seep-worthy mantra, "If it's yellow let it mellow, ". . . you know the rest, low-flow showerheads (cheap and easy to install), and limited showers to save H2O. You can also grab one of the toilet top sinks to save hand washing water.

The next step is to change your consumption to decrease your personal energy footprint. Buy local and organic foods whenever possible, go to farmer's markets. Increase vegetable intake and limit meats to those that are sustainably and humanely raised. Go vegetarian if you like, although I'm in the "Omnivore's Dilemma camp." In general, try to avoid processed foods, pesticides, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), foods with hormones, trans-fats, and most chemicals that you can find an OSHA data sheet on. When you buy goods, make a pledge to buy sustainably and responsibly made. Don't shop at BR, A&F, The G@p, Old N@vy, Walmart, most department stores, and other retailers that basically sell sweatshop-made nylon garments made from processed fossil fuels and other chemicals that have been shipped around the world to you. Instead stick to local shops, even thrift shops, and known responsible companies like Patagonia, Prana, Keen, Simple, Aveeda, The Body Shop, Trader Joe's, Method, the list goes on. We no longer need to look very far or need to look or smell (although my wife Laura loves Patchouli) like hippies, you can be hip and fashionable in your eco-friendly duds.

Recycle everything you can. Start a small compost bin. Get cloth napkins, bring your own utensils and stop using disposable plastic ones. Plant a small garden and grow a dwarf citrus tree on your porch, balcony, or roof.

Here's a project that I've been meaning to build: the seep's micro-solar array. It's basically a modular charging station that can cost anywhere from $50 to $1000, depending on how far you want to go.

The small version: Find your sunniest window. Get some fun and relatively cheap solar chargers like a Solio, a small Brunton, or other pre-wired small electronics charger. Try to get one for each device for maximum daylight charging potential. If you want to get creative, sew/stick velcro onto a curtain/shade and on the back of your chargers and hang them in the window for maximum sun soakage. You can make pouches on the inside for your phone, ipod and maybe laptop and poke a hole through for the wires.

The medium version: Get a Brunton 26 watt foldable solar array (currently $266.52) and one of the Xantrex power packs, like the Powerpack 600 (129.99). For less than $400, this combination should provide you with enough power to charge your laptop, your ipod, your phone, maybe a few AAs, and power a few LED lights.

The big version: If you have a little balcony space or a south-facing window, get an RV Solar Power kit online with an 85 watt or so solar panel a charge controller, a decent power inverter (I chose a 1200 watt one), and get some batteries. I was thinking 2 Optima 55 amp-hour deep-cycle batteries (usually cheapest locally due to high delivery costs) which should give a pretty decent amount of power time and wire them all up. Be creative to find or build a small shelving system or other way to disguise your power station. Fashion some brackets to hang it the the window or off of the balcony. This requires some DIY, but is the most bang for your buck and can be put together for as little as $650 and should provide enough juice to run your laptop, your mobile/iPhone/iPod/gadgets-of-choice, an LCD TV, and a few LED lights for a good deal of your evening hours' work or play. With a bigger system, you could power a small microwave and even a small and efficient DC refrigerator!

85-110 Watt Solar Panel $400-800+

batteries with 100 ahr or so $150-$500+

Charge controller $30-$150

Inverter $50-$150+

This will definitely be an official S.E.E.P. project in the upcoming year!

Thanks for the question Rachel!

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