The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
Photo by Robert Badger and Nita Winter
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
With all the pandemic and political madness, why should you take an interest in bees? Because they are totally cool, essential to our survival, and in dire need of our help. Let’s get our bee-related synapses firing with a pop quiz!
1. We’ll start with an easy one…Which of the following is a bee?
Answer: Did you pick the fuzzy one? Good job!
Answer: Thousands! This surprised me…
3. Which of the following insects are experiencing huge die-offs?
b. Bees, yellow jackets, and wasps
c. None of the above
Answer: The bee population is plummeting, but yellow jackets and wasps are doing fine, which doesn’t seem fair.
4. What can you do to support the bee community? a. Establish pollinator plants in your yard
b. Encourage elected officials to consider the needs of pollinators when landscaping public areas
c. Remove and relocate unwanted bee colonies humanely
d. Count bees as a citizen scientist
e. All of the above
Answer: These are all good ideas. Read on for the details!
What Be a Bee?
The kind of bee you may be most familiar with is the honey bee, which was imported from Europe in the middle of the 17th century. There are also thousands of species of wild native bees, one of which is the bumble bee. To keep things simple, I will focus mainly on the honey bee and the bumble bee.
You can probably tell them apart. The round fuzzy bumble bee has two sets of wings. The smaller, thinner honey bee has one set of wings and its head is more separate from its body.
These two kinds of bees are quite different in terms of their behavior. Honey bees are very social and live with thousands of friends and family members. Honey bees use caves, rock cavities and hollow trees as natural nesting sites, and of course they are also kept by bee keepers.
Queen honey bee surrounded by attendants. Sorry Slim Harpo and the Rolling Stones, but there is no such thing as a “king bee.”
Bumble bees are also social, but their hives are usually limited to a few hundred individuals. They build nests in burrows or holes in the ground. Most other types of native bees are solitary, but like bumble bees they frequently nest in the ground.
How do these bees stack up in terms of their performance as pollinators? Domesticated honey bees are invaluable to American agriculture. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops….About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees.”
The crazy thing is that honey bees are not THAT great at pollinating compared to many native bees. For instance, contrast the honey bee with the more patient, focused bumble bee. Bumble bees don’t dash around responding to signals from each other like honey bees do; rather, they quickly and efficiently remove the pollen from a single area. And because they are relatively large they can carry heavier loads than the honey bee. They are also better at learning how to extract pollen from different flowers, so they are good at cross-pollination. And they are more resistant than the relatively flimsy honey bee to cold weather, rain, and limited light conditions.
Even though honey bees get most of the attention, native bees are also useful for pollinating crops. They have a special way of vibrating their bodies to break pollen free as they gather it. This “buzz pollination” makes them particularly good at collecting pollen from greenhouse tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, whose anthers release pollen when vibrated.
Threats to Bees
Honey bees are also succumbing to mites, fungi, viruses, and bacterial diseases. Pesticides are a huge problem, particularly neionicotinoids, a type of systemic insecticide that is applied to seeds but which remains active throughout the plant’s lifecycle. Bees who ingest the pollen or nectar of treated plants can develop a neurological disorder that leaves them disoriented and confused. Yet another problem is that floral diversity has been reduced as farms are increasingly planted with a single crop.
Native bees, which often share habitat with honey bees, are under stress from many of the same environmental threats. For instance, recent research has shown that bumble bees are particularly vulnerable to global warming. Because they are large and covered with hair, they stay comfortably warm in cold weather but are miserable when it is hot.
Scientists, government officials, and environmental activists are addressing the plight of the native bees but the situation is extremely dire, and some species have already become extinct.
Native plant garden in Pt. Reyes Station
What Can YOU Do?
Plant a bee-friendly garden
If you have some garden space, whether it is big or small, you can put in some plants to support honey bees and native bees. Basically, they need flowers that provide nectar (sugar and amino acids) and pollen (protein).
Here are some things to think about in terms of food...
1. Plant in groups to increase pollination efficiency. If a pollinator can visit the same type of flower over and over, it doesn’t have to relearn how to enter the flower and can transfer pollen to the same species more efficiently.
2. Plant with bloom season in mind, providing food from early spring to late fall.
3. Select plants of different heights with flowers of varying colors and scents.
Bees also need a variety of options for protection and nesting…
A few other things to keep in mind...
Consider the area outside your own property boundaries. Maybe you can get together with your neighbors to coordinate plantings in the strips between the sidewalk and road.
Also, it’s essential to avoid pesticides!!
Nurseries that specialize in native California plants include Annie’s Annuals and Perennials in Richmond and O’Donnells Nursery in Fairfax. You can find plant lists and other information on the website of the California Native Plant Society’s Marin Chapter. Or visit botanical gardens like the one above the UC Berkeley campus or the Marin Art and Garden Center.
Given how beneficial bees are, and how threatened, most people want to support them if possible. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to remove them. Honey bees and most native bees should not be exterminated; rather, you can hire a beekeeper to relocate them.
A couple years ago I hired a specialist, Chris Conrad, to remove two beehives, located in a soffit below my roof. Chris carefully vacuumed the adult bees out of the hive and into the lower section of a special box. He removed the honeycomb with its baby bee residents and attached it to a frame inserted into the upper section of the box. Then he allowed the vacuumed bees to join the young ones on the frame. He relocated the bees to his bee yard along with the honeycomb and honey they needed to re-establish the colony.
If you want to relocate the bees elsewhere on your property, Chris will bring them back after they’ve had a few weeks to regroup in his yard.
Citizen Science: Counting Bees!
The bee count will run through 2023, and the program encourages participants to sign up at its website or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers will be given an app to upload photos and basic information about the location where the photos were taken. Scientists will identify the bees in the photos and record the information for their database.
The program is based in part on similar efforts to track bird populations. You may have heard of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which relies on nearly 300 “citizen scientists,” volunteers who count migrating hawks and other raptors as they stream over the Marin Headlands in the fall.
Support Local Efforts to Create Public Space for Pollinators
Many of you have probably driven along Redhill Avenue and seen the new median strip that was installed recently, thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor. The other day I went over to take a closer look at the plantings.
A primary goal of the project was to design a median that retains stormwater in order to decrease the amount flowing into neighboring creeks. The median strip is bisected lengthwise by a “river” of multicolored stones varying from one to three or four inches in diameter. The stone river is dotted with beautiful boulders covered with lichen and moss. An array of mostly native shrubs and grasses is artfully scattered beside the stones, with a diversity of plant texture, color, and size. Medium size trees including Japanese maples and Western Strawberry trees provide additional interest. So cool! You can find the plant list on the town of San Anselmo website. This is a great example of an attractive public space that provides essential food and nesting space for bees and other pollinators.
Heading to San Anselmo on Red Hill median
of texture and color
Plenty of color even in winter
Convenient landing pad for a hungry bee
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: email@example.com.
Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Did you know that 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector? But environmentalists, scientists, and farmers are identifying farming techniques that actually remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it, not just offsetting agricultural emissions but also drawing down excess CO2 created by other activities.
A Very Brief History of Agriculture in the United States
Corn and other crops were cultivated by Indigenous peoples in North America for more than 7,000 years before the arrival of the first English settlers. This agricultural knowledge was passed along in the 1600s when the Wampanoag native residents taught the English colonists how to clear land, till fields, and grow the corn that was crucial to their initial survival.
While the agricultural practices of the Native peoples were sustainable for thousands of years preceding the colonists’ arrival, the adoption of new farming methods by subsequent waves of settlers changed the ecological context considerably. During the 1800’s, many practices intended to increase crop yield became widespread including fertilization, use of pesticides, irrigation, and the use of gas-powered tractors. While these developments increased productivity, they also damaged the health of the soil. Moreover, destruction of vast areas of grassland in the Midwest eventually led to the catastrophic loss of topsoil during the drought and subsequent dust storms of the 1930s.
The Chemistry-Phobe’s Guide to Carbon
I tend to zone out when anyone talks about chemicals. I admit that Chemistry was my least favorite class in school. I developed a huge mental block concerning the term for the basic unit of measurement in chemistry: “mole.” And believe me it’s hard to succeed in chemistry class if you keep picturing the wrong kind of mole. But bear with me, we can do this.
According to UC Davis researcher Jessica Chiartas, “The soil represents a huge mass of natural resource under our feet. If we’re only thinking about farming the surface of it, we’re missing an opportunity. Carbon is like a second crop.” Why is she so excited about carbon?
Carbon is a chemical element like hydrogen or nitrogen. It is a basic building block of biomolecules and is found in all organic matter. Carbon exists on Earth in solid, dissolved and gaseous forms.
Under the earth’s surface, carbon is stored in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas as well as in some kinds of rocks. When fossil fuels are burned, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere as a gas (carbon dioxide or CO2), where it traps heat and contributes to global warming. Decomposing organic matter on the surface of the earth also releases CO2 into the air.
Now take a look at the ocean. The ocean is a carbon sink (or repository) because it absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. However, this absorption also makes the water more acidic. The amount of damage done depends on the balance of these conflicting processes.
Now let’s get to the sequestration of CO2 in biomass (i.e., plants, trees, and algae). You may or may not remember that photosynthesis is the process of using light energy from the sun along with CO2 and water in the atmosphere to make food for plants, trees, and algae. When the greenery dies, the constituent carbon becomes part of the soil.
We can support this sequestration process by improving the health of the soil used in agriculture. When soil is healthy, plants grow to their maximum productivity and are thus better able to absorb and sequester carbon so that it doesn’t go back into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.
How Can Farmers Give a Boost to Carbon Sequestration?
Farmers are uniquely positioned to assist in drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere. I was surprised to learn that plants are better suited for this sequestration than trees. Unlike trees, plants sequester most of their carbon underground. Even if the plant burns, the carbon stays fixed in the roots and soil. So, while forests have the ability to store more carbon, grasslands are more resilient in unstable conditions created by climate change.
For this reason, scientists and farmers are becoming more and more excited about the possibilities of soil-based carbon sequestration.
After all, 40% of land in the United States is farmland...an abundant storage area for carbon!
Effective Practices for Creating Healthy Soil
Conventional agricultural practices typically involve stripping the soil of all plants other than the primary cash crop, usually with the assistance of pesticides and aggressive tillage. The alternative is to encourage the growth of diverse plant life in addition to the primary crop. Here are several ways to do that.
Cover cropping. Cover cropping refers to seeding fields between harvests. Cover crops may include either a single species or a mix of seasonal grasses and other plants. As explained by the Fibershed Carbon Farming Education program, the roots from the cover keep the topsoil in place and aerate the soil as they penetrate it, helping the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive. This healthy soil also promotes the abundant growth of the primary cash crop.
Planting windbreaks. Planting native trees and shrubs creates a barrier to prevent the wind from drying out the soil and blowing it around. They also provide wildlife habitat and resources for bees and other pollinators.
Rotational grazing. After crops have been harvested, farmers can allow animals to graze in the fields in order to remove some of the dried-out, dying remnants and allow weeds and other green plants to emerge. These little green interlopers reduce fire risk and increase carbon sequestration.
Opportunities for Change
Here in California, several important programs have been developed to assist farmers and ranchers develop a plan for enhancing the potential of their land to sequester carbon. One of these is the Healthy Soils Initiative, which helps farmers increase carbon sequestration by supporting their efforts to improve plant health and crop yields, increase water retention by the soil, and prevent erosion.
Another important initiative is the Carbon Farming Network. The Network is a coalition of support organizations and land trusts along with 41 of California’s 96 Regional Conservation Districts. These districts work with farmers, ranchers, and foresters to maximize carbon storage in soils by implementing regenerative land management practices based on local conditions. The Network sponsors trainings and workshops to share information and facilitate peer-to-peer learning among its practitioner members. They are particularly attuned to the needs of farmers from marginalized groups, including women and people of color. The Network has facilitated the completion of 57 carbon farm plans to date, encompassing approximately 46,000 acres across the state.
What Can You Do?
Consider patronizing businesses that follow the sustainable farming practices associated with healthy soil. One sterling example is Coyuchi, a purveyor of organic bedding, towels, and apparel that supports regional farms and ranches. Based in Point Reyes, Coyuchi has partnered with Fibershed to support “carbon farming practices that actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, creating climate beneficial fibers.”
Another choice you can make is to buy organic dairy products from local farms. Orchard Valley operates as a collective of small farms across the country. Long committed to sustainability and high animal care standards, they recently secured funding to help member dairies develop methods to increase carbon sequestration and reduce green-house gas emissions. Straus Family Creamery is located in the town of Marshall on the site of a dairy farm established by Bill and Ellen Straus in the 1940s. In the 1980s, their son Albert Straus converted the farm to an all-organic operation and founded the first 100% certified organic creamery in the country. Today, products from the Creamery all come from the Straus farm itself or one of 12 other organic, family-owned farms located in Northern California. I myself am extremely partial to their whole milk Greek yogurt!
Click on this "buy direct" link supplied by Soil Centric to purchase from other producers that use regenerative farming and grazing practices.
One final note: Recently the EFM sponsored a webinar on Healthy Soils as part of the Forum 2020 program. I was educated and inspired by the presentations. Thanks so much to presenters Renata Brillinger of CALCAN, Cynthia Daley of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture, and Jeff Creque of the Carbon Cycle Institute, to moderator Diana Conlon of Soil Centric, and to emcee Anne-Christine Strugnell of the EFM for their fascinating insights into the issues and solutions in this important area. Please contact Kim Rago at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in viewing a video of the webinar.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: email@example.com.
As usual, thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book on wildflowers or visit their website to see more birds, flowers, and other images.
Pandemic notwithstanding, most of us will engage in some amount of festive cooking, home decorating, gift giving, and celebration in the next two months. We all have an opportunity to make some consumer choices to lighten the impact of our merrymaking on the environment. Here are some ideas!
Not all candles are created equal
Let’s start with the humble candle. Until I did the research for this installment of the Notebook, I had never realized that inexpensive candles are made from paraffin wax, a petroleum by-product. They are chockful of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde that are released into the air along with smoke and carbon dioxide as the candle burns.
Beeswax candles are a far better choice than those made from paraffin. They don’t emit any smoke or toxins and they are made from a renewable resource. They are easy to find in stores and online, but if you are feeling crafty you can also make your own. Beeswax is hard to infuse with scent but you can always stick cloves in an orange if you want your home to smell nice!
You have another option that is a bit more complicated: candles made from soybeans or palm oil. Soy and palm oil plantations, while providing employment for many, have caused the deforestation of millions of acres in Indonesia and other countries. However, candles made from them can be eco-friendly if sourced from sustainable, traceable crops. You’d need to do some research to verify the origins of the product.
The Lowdown on Gift Wrap
Americans spend a lot of money on gift wrap, which accounts for roughly 10% of the US paper market revenue. And half of the 4.6 million pounds of gift wrap produced each year ends up in landfills. Not to mention that approximately 38,000 miles worth of ribbon is also purchased during the holiday season.
Some types of wrapping paper may be considered recyclable by some hauling services, but Marin Sanitary Service is not one of them. They advise customers to put all wrapping paper in the landfill cart. Other haulers may accept unlaminated wrapping paper for recycling; however, paper that is metallic, has glitter on it, or has a texture is rarely if ever considered recyclable.
Also, resist the temptation to burn your wrapping paper in the fireplace. Many of us did this in the olden days. But we now know that wrapping paper releases noxious smoke containing dioxins and heavy metals when it is burned.
Alternatives to Traditional Gift Wrapping
Gift-givers may want to consider alternatives to wrapping paper. Here are a few unusual ways to wrap a gift:
The Christmas Tree Conundrum
Some argue that artificial trees are better for the environment than natural ones because the consumer can reuse them every year. However, artificial trees are made of non-renewable plastics and petroleum-based products. They take five times more energy to produce than natural ones. Eventually they are thrown into landfills. And the analyses I’ve seen indicate that you’d have to reuse your artificial tree for about 20 years before it is more sustainable than a real one.
In contrast, natural trees are a renewable resource. It takes about seven years to grow a six-foot Christmas tree, and during that time it is acting as a carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most sustainable solution is to buy a live tree and plant it in a pot, thereby allowing you to reuse it in subsequent years. However, most people buy cut trees from lots. One heartening point is that trees harvested on Christmas tree farms are not cut to the ground. The technique is more akin heavy pruning. The farmer lops off the top for sale but allows the rest of the tree to continue growing for another year.
Your tree can also be put to good use after its holiday service is over. Most communities have curbside collection services for Christmas trees, or you can drop your tree off at a collection site. According to the Marin Sanitary Service, “Some of the holiday trees are ground up and used as mulch or further composted to create soil amendment. Other trees are chipped and used as a biomass fuel source at a Co-Generation power plant. These trees replace traditional fossil fuel sources like coal and are considered a carbon neutral fuel source.”
Carbon Offsets: A Gift to the Planet
One other thing to bear in mind is the emissions caused by frequent flying during the holidays (at least, pre-pandemic). Overall, flights were responsible for 2.4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 — a figure expected to grow more than threefold by 2050.
Carbon offsets offer a way for consumers to balance out their pollution by investing in projects that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If you’re taking a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, for example, you can purchase a carbon offset to account for the specific environmental impact of your voyage. The projects you will be investing in range from planting trees to improved forest management to working with farmers and ranchers to avoid practices that generate methane gas.
Purchasing a carbon offset is not expensive — likely less than $10 for an SF to Chicago flight. Click here to find out more about how to buy them.
Getting Down to the Essentials…
The seven principlesof Kwanzaa
Eschewing elaborate gifts and fancy holiday decorations is not just about environmental sustainability but also presents an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of human connection and commitment to higher ideals during this important time of the year.
In 1965, many children watched A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time. As Charlie bumbles his way to the truth about the holiday, he inspires his friends to abandon gaudy (dog)house decorations (Snoopy), long lists of desired gifts (Sally), and self-aggrandizing entertainment plans (Lucy). When Lucy sends Charlie and Linus to get a "great big, shiny aluminum tree…maybe painted pink," Charlie picks the only natural tree, a sorry-looking twig too weak to hold up a single ornament. But as Charlie’s friends gather to nurture the twig it transforms into a brilliant, beautiful tree. Fifty-five years later, this simple show and its message of unity, purpose, and faith continue to inspire us.
This year has been deeply unsettling for numerous reasons, and many of us may be feeling off-kilter, anxious, bereft, and even traumatized. But the symbols of the upcoming holidays can help us remember the pleasure, meaning, and fulfillment to be found in acknowledging and celebrating our deep connection to each other and to our planet.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. I wish you happiness and good health as we sort through the remaining political and medical challenges coming our way! As always, please feel free to contact me with questions, comments and suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at www.wildflowerbook.com. Visit www.winterbadger.com to see more birds and other images.
Rebecca Burgess and the Search for a Natural Blue Dye
Textile artist and environmental activist Rebecca Burgess traces her thinking about sustainable garments to the summer of 1998 when she was teaching a class at UC Davis on textiledyeing. She and her students had to don the equivalent of hazmat suits to protect their skin, eyes, and lungs from the toxic chemicals in the synthetic dyes, which they then poured down the drain when the dyeing process was completed. Her concerns about the environmental and health impact of these practices prompted her to embark on an intense study of plant-based dyeing in indigenous communities in the US as well as village-based textile cooperatives in a variety of other countries.
In 2009, Burgess challenged herself to create a homegrown personal wardrobe based entirely on local resources. A core objective of this year-long experiment was to develop plant-based dyes in a variety of colors. She had no problem sourcing local plants to create green, pink, orange, yellow, and brown dye, including Toyon, coffeeberry, and hinsii walnuts.
My interest piqued by Rebecca’s quest, I decided to learn more about the history of indigo dyeing, and find out the current status of natural indigo production.
Indigo: Early Days
The first thing I learned is that people of the world really like to dye their clothing. The earliest known dyed fibers were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia; these fibers are estimated to be 36,000 years old. Indigo dye, in particular, has been used throughout the world for a good 5,000 years.
Japan is particularly well known for its indigo textiles. The art of indigo dyeing flourished during the relatively peaceful Tokugawa period from 1603 to 1867. During that time, people in the lower classes were banned from wearing silk and they turned to cotton fabrics, which took indigo dye very well. Regions where the indigo plant was plentiful became wealthy, and indigo artisans perfected their patterns, hues and skills. One particularly beautiful Japanese textile that is made with indigo is called kasuri, which is called ikat in other parts of Asia. I really love double ikat weavings, a process in which the warp and weft threads are meticulously tie-dyed to form distinctive patterns when they are woven together.
When it comes to indigo, nothing says success like the American invention of blue jeans. But how did indigo come to the US, and when was it first used to dye a pair of jeans?
From West Africa to South Carolina
I was surprised to learn that indigo came to the US as a by-product of the slave trade. Beginning around the fourteenth century, Africans began creating indigo in the dye pits of Kano in northern Nigeria. Textiles, and those made from indigo in particular, held significant cultural and economic value in many West African communities, particularly for women. In Ghana, Mali, The Gambia and Nigeria, textile artists created beautiful batik and stitched resist techniques using fabric dyed with indigo.
In the 1700s, slave traders bringing their human cargo to the Southeastern coast of the US also introduced knowledge about indigo and its value. Indigo plants began to be cultivated in South Carolina and for a time were one of the most lucrative crops produced in the region.
In the Lowcountry area of coastal Georgia and South Carolina, enslaved people from a variety of West African communities lived in relative isolation from whites while working on large plantations. They were thus able to retain many aspects of their varied linguistic and cultural heritage, including a belief in the power of blue to offer protection from harm. Early inhabitants of this area used indigo to dye fabric for garments and other household uses.
The economics of indigo dyeing began to change in the mid-1800s, when a German chemist named Adolf von Baeyer succeeded in determining the structure of indigo. Shortly thereafter other German scientists developed a way of synthesizing it. There can be no doubt that the advent of synthetic dye was a boon to the modern textile industry.
Blue Jeans: From Natural to Synthetic Indigo and Back?
Readers from the Bay Area may know that blue jeans were “invented” in San Francisco by Levi Strauss, a German-born immigrant who came to New York in 1847 to work in his family’s dry goods business. In 1854, he opened a West Coast branch of the company in San Francisco, which was expanding rapidly as a result of the Gold Rush. Together with Jacob Davis, Strauss obtained a patent for work pants with copper rivets to reinforce points of stress such as the pocket corners. The men settled on denim, a fabric first developed in France for work clothes, as the most suitable fabric for their new pants. They used natural indigo dye to create the now iconic jeans color.
The company eventually switched to synthetic dye, along with rival brands that started springing up in the early part of the 20th century. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2018, more than 4.5 billion pairs of jeans were sold worldwide.
Given the huge amount of water and many toxic chemicals use to create all these blue jeans, is there a way to meander back to the days of natural indigo? Basically the answer seems to be…yes!
For consumers willing to spend more money for higher-end garments made with indigo, it might be of interest to take a look at Japanese jeans. As many of the American brands increasingly chose to outsource their work overseas, a number of Japanese jean producers decided to keep things local, refining their craft and sometimes continuing to use vintage looms and old techniques. The result is a high quality denim fabric that is only half the width of the rolls produced by newer machines but one with a more durable finished edge. Some denim brands, such as Japan Blue, still choose to dye the cotton by hand using the leaves from the indigo plant for their most premium jeans. However, these jeans tend to be pricey…a pair will most likely set you back around $180.
American brands are also experimenting with less harmful ways of creating blue jeans. For instance, Wrangler is now using a new foam-based process called “Indigood” to transfer indigo to the fabric without using so much water. The company also notes that they obtain recycled denim from pre-consumer denim waste and break down the fibers to produce recycled cotton which is then spun into new yarn. And the other good news is that Wrangler has kept prices low on their jeans.
Patagonia has also made a commitment to sustainability. Their denim garments are made from organic cotton, grown without the use of GMO seeds or harmful fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Like Wrangler, they are also using an innovative dyeing process to reduce the use of water, electricity and chemicals. Less carbon dioxide is also produced, compared with traditional dyeing methods that make use of synthetic dyes.
While the specific claims of Wrangler and Patagonia are somewhat hard to verify, I have hope that their efforts represent a move in the right direction.
I also recommend that you watch "Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo," an independent, feature-length documentary by Mary Lance about the history, culture, and revival of indigo. Lance focuses on people around the globe who are using indigo in projects intended to improve life in their communities, preserve cultural integrity, and nurture the environment.
If you love indigo textiles, read Indigo: The Color that Changed the World” by Catherine LeGrand. This beautiful book, published in 2013, explores the production of indigo textiles throughout the world, with lots of photographs and drawing that provide close-ups of patterns and textiles.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook. Don’t forget to vote if you haven’t already done so! email@example.com.
In the midst of the political upheaval and myriad other crises we are currently experiencing, the need for a rational, science-based approach to health and climate issues has never been greater. In this installment of the Notebook I help you understand how to scrutinize and evaluate arguments about the environment so that you can be an informed consumer of all the information we are inundated with on a daily basis.
These days, being able to think critically is particularly crucial because we are increasingly exposed to corporate greenwashing, a type of marketing spin in which deceptive claims are made to persuade the consumer that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly even though they are largely or totally harmful. Over the last two decades, corporate greenwashing has become very sophisticated, but you can learn how to pierce below the surface of their claims!
What is Critical Thinking?
By Alf van Beem - Own work, CC0
You need to have critical thinking skills in order to evaluate whether
or not the writer of an article you
are reading has used critical thinking
in the process of composing the article! Recursive? Yes! Important?
Critical thinking refers to a process of being receptive and curious while also remaining skeptical as you evaluate and analyze new information from all angles. If I am reading an article about climate change, for example, I need to learn something about the authors of the article. What are their motives? What is their expertise? I should also evaluate the evidence for their assertions. Is the argument based on actual data or on anecdotes and opinion? I need to study whether they are conducting a careful analysis. Are they offering convincing ideas or just manipulating my emotions? How clear and logical is their thinking? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence?
Critical thinking is something that all humans are equipped to do. Based on pioneering work by Jean Piaget, psychologists have shown that children develop the capability for logical reasoning by adolescence. For example, while young children need to see physical objects in order to line them up from tallest to shortest, teenagers can use inference to answer a question like the following: “If Kelly is taller than Ali and Ali is taller than Jo, who is the tallest?” Piaget’s argument was that the ability to think logically and critically is biologically programmed and that, barring terrible deprivation, it will be attained by everyone.
Threats to Critical Thinking
More recently, behavioral economists and social psychologists have highlighted the human tendency to use cognitive shortcuts in reasoning about everyday matters. Sometimes the shortcuts are reasonable timesavers that result in accurate understanding but in other cases they can produce biased or illogical results. Here are four cognitive shortcuts that are particularly likely to trip us up when we think about environmental issues.
Number 1: We are more persuaded by vivid anecdotes and examples than by statistical information.
Examples and anecdotes tend to make a big impression on us, particularly if they strike an emotional chord or refer to something we have experienced personally. We respond less immediately and viscerally to statistics, even though data from a large group is much more likely to provide valid information than a single example. For instance, if my friend crashes her car, I may decide against buying one of that make and model, even if Consumer Reports has conducted a thorough analysis and gives it a big thumbs up.
So beware of writers who rely on examples and anecdotes to make their case. And when you are the one trying to present an argument be sure to use the best evidence available. It’s fine to use examples to illustrate a point, but the example needs to be backed up by deeper evidence.
Number 2: We may reject valid information just because it does not fit in with our prior beliefs and understandings.
We like to think of ourselves as logical people whose ideas and values all add up to something consistent. When someone points out a contradiction between what we say and what we do, we feel very uncomfortable. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance.
For instance, I have read a lot about plastic pollution. I am very convinced of the seriousness of the problem. I certainly want to reduce my own plastic consumption. Indeed, I have started chipping away at the problem, and am happy to report that and am happy to report that I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of Saran Wrap. But during the pandemic I have been ordering groceries to be delivered, and they come in a lot of plastic packaging. I try to find ways to reduce the stressful feeling created by the inconsistency between my beliefs and behavior, such as vowing to shop exclusively at the farmers’ market as soon as the pandemic is over.
So examine your own responses to new information with curiosity and skepticism! If you detect a tendency to resist new information that might be valuable and important, encourage yourself to explore the contradictions.
Number 3: We tend to mistake simple patterns of association as being evidence of cause and effect.
Sometimes it can be OK to look at correlations for some evidence of causation. But the key is to have a good theoretical reason to support the notion of causation. Theory focuses your interpretation of correlations on sensible rather than arbitrary hypotheses.
For example, suppose the number of coal-burning plants is correlated with the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and with increasing air and sea temperatures. We can confidently point to the causal role of coal if we have good information about the type of gases emitted by burning coal and understand how these gases prevent atmospheric heat from escaping into space.
Number 4. If we establish that something is a cause of something else, we often jump to the conclusion that it is the only cause, or the most important cause.
Sometimes it’s hard to consider all the contributors to a complex and multidimensional problem. For instance, it has been established that the presence of lead in children’s bodies causes cognitive deficiencies. And we also know that many children in low-income communities have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. But it would be overly simplistic to say that low school achievement in these neighborhoods can be solved by removing all the lead paint (although removal would certainly be a good start, and the ethically responsible thing to do).
This oversimplifying phenomenon is clearly illustrated in efforts by the petrochemical industry to persuade consumers that plastic pollution is caused by inefficient recycling and that if we ramp up our recycling capability we will all be fine. Recent reports suggest that the plastic industry officials are engaging in critical thinking – they themselves do not believe recycling to be a viable solution! But they continue to promote it anyway as they seek to offset their profit loss from decreasing use of oil and gas with increased sale of plastic. In this case the industry is trying to take advantage of consumers’ tendency to feel satisfied with addressing a single cause of a complicated problem and distract them from other serious contributors.
How Do Emotions Enter the Picture?
I would argue that our emotions are frenemies with respect to our attempts to engage in critical thinking. We are emotional creatures and obviously not all emotions are bad – but we have to be aware of how they come into play when we are trying to engage in critical thinking.
But sometimes we should set emotions aside and focus on the evidence and analysis of the issues. And we should remember that saving only the cute animals is not really the solution.
Another way in which emotions can enter the critical thinking process is via the phenomenon of tribalism.
Humans are in some sense pack animals. We unconsciously favor those most like us, those who belong to our group or tribe. Tribalism strengthens social cohesion and increases our propensity to sacrifice for the common good. However, tribalism can be maladaptive when it causes out-group stigmatism. And when there is a perception of insufficient or unequal distribution of resources, between-group hostility can easily arise.
Several points about tribalism are relevant for environmental advocates. First, we can resist tribalism when it undermines the formation of broad coalitions in finding solutions to our climate crisis. We should reject attempts by government leaders to stoke hostility among groups for political gain.
Also, we can be aware of the complex way in which tribalism has shaped our current media landscape. Social media platforms and cable channels have greatly exacerbated the tribalism in the ways that we consume news. We all select news outlets that we generally trust and respect. However, it is important to remain vigilant even with sources that we think are generally reputable. There can be strong disagreements among generally like-minded people, and it might take careful thinking to sift through the arguments carefully in such cases. Controversies regarding the culling of tule elk on Point Reyes and on the use of rodenticide in controlling house mice on the Farallon Islands are two cases in point.
Thank you for paying attention to this very important and challenging topic. No doubt we will need all our critical thinking skills as we continue to wrestle with our political and environmental challenges. I wish you happiness and good health in the coming days and will be back in touch with a new Notebook post in two firstname.lastname@example.org
Textiles: The Stealth Polluter?
Pollution from textiles tends to remain somewhat outside of the environmentalist spotlight compared to other problems. But in fact the production of textiles is very resource intensive and contributes significantly to the degradation of our environment.
Most sources agree that the most environmentally sustainable fabrics are organic cotton, linen made from flax, wool, and silk (as well as the lesser known hemp, jute, and ramie). These natural textiles are all biodegradable, typically within a year. The exception is silk, which is the most tough, and doesn’t begin to biodegrade for approximately four years.
And the bad choices?
Conventional (i.e., nonorganic) cotton seems to have earned first place in the textile hall of shame. Pesticides are poisoning workers and wreaking havoc on the planet. Cotton is grown on 2.5% of arable land in the world but uses 6% of pesticides, including one particularly toxic one that is a nerve gas.
So far so bad, but also, unlike cotton and flax, nylon takes natural dyes poorly, and the chemical dyes that are used contribute to water pollution. And it is of course completely nonbiodegradable. It sheds fibers when it is washed, contributing to the microplastic pollution in our waterways.
OK, but what about recyling nylon? Many people throw out used clothing, but it can obviously be used by someone else, or it can be shredded for insulation, for example. Additionally, some clothing designers are experimenting with recycled nylon textile to create new products.
As a bamboo lover I am eager to believe that fabric made from bamboo would be fabulous. Bamboo is an extremely fast-growing crop requiring no chemical fertilization or pesticides and a fraction of the water used by cotton. Bamboo can be grown and harvested in a short amount of time and does not need replanting (as you know if you’ve ever tried to get rid of it from your yard).
Chemicals are used to turn cellulose from the bamboo into fiber, including sulfur, nitrous oxide, carbon disulfide and hydrogen sulfide, all toxic pollutants. This water intensive processing also results in water discharge that is also highly polluting if untreated. Moreover, nearly all bamboo textile is produced in China, where the energy needed to produce bamboo mostly comes from burning coal.
Textile artist and environmentalist Summer Edwards votes for organic cotton over bamboo in the textile sustainability smackdown. But she recognizes that bamboo may be “a first baby step in the progression towards stronger environmental practices in the fashion industry” and she concludes that it “lies somewhere in the middle on the continuum between unsustainable and sustainable textiles.” In terms of textiles, I am transferring my affection from bamboo to flax, which is sustainable as well as beautiful.
Tencel is viewed by most designers as one of the most environmentally friendly semi-synthetic textiles. Tencel is a brand name for lyocell, a cellulose fiber made with wood chips that are washed (sometimes with bleach) and then mixed with a solvent made from petrochemicals. The company that holds the patent for Tencel uses a closed loop production process meaning that the solvent is reused and not discarded. The resulting fibers are woven into cloth. Lyocell requires less dye than cotton.
Most sources I consulted were happy about the sustainability of Tencel, with two caveats. The first caveat is that a great deal of tree material is wasted in the production of this fabric. If trees for Tencel production are not grown sustainably, production of this material could have a negative environmental impact. And second, most Tencel is now produced in China, and it is not always possible to ascertain that producers follow the sustainable closed-loop extraction model.
It can be difficult for consumers to know the full story behind a particular item made of supposedly “sustainable” fabric. But it’s worth making the effort.
To find other clothing companies with a focus on environmental sustainability and fair labor practices check out the Toxic Textiles Scorecard developed by Green America. They evaluated 14 major American apparel companies. The top-ranked companies on their scorecard are Target, North Face, Nike, Gap, and Anne Taylor.
Read this article in the Atlantic about the edgy work being done by Modern Meadow, a company that biofabricates leather from a strain of yeast to produce collagen, the protein in skin that gives traditional leather its strength and stretch.
Find out how to reuse and repurpose textiles. For instance, join the folks who wrap gifts in textiles called furoshiki, following the practice common among the Japanese.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Golden Gate Bridge during the daytime…this is not normal!
I have tried to counter my pessimistic ruminations by taking baby steps toward the goal of environmental sustainability. Here are a few things that have given me a sense of happiness and purpose in the last week or so.
Positive step one
On September 9th I attended a webinar on e-vehicles sponsored by Drive Clean Bay Area. The presenters, including EFM Graduate Annika Osborn, provided a helpful overview of the new models. They touched on the environmental benefits of e-vehicles and addressed some potential concerns, including “range anxiety.” I appreciated hearing about all the rebates and discounts available for those who purchase e-vehicles.
Communities of color cause less air pollutionbut suffer from it more
The webinar also took on the issue of socioeconomic and racial inequities in air pollution and indicated the responsibility of privileged community members to address them.
Go their website (drivecleanbayarea.org) and download their informative guide to buying and driving an e-vehicle or sign up for a webinar. The lease on my current gas guzzler ends in a month, and I am committed to replacing it with an e-vehicle.
Positive step two
I got a subscription for Bite toothpaste bits. The bits come in a refillable glass jar packed in cardboard. No plastic tube that will never biodegrade, and no chemicals in the toothpaste. Each bit is approximately the size of a fat aspirin and they foam up quite nicely once you start brushing.
Did you know that the ancient Egyptians invented toothpaste? Read more at https://www.realmofhistory.com/2018/04/09/oldest-recipe-toothpaste-ancient-egypt/
Have you ever tried to do the wash in high heels?
Positive step three
More on the domestic household products front…I started using a new laundry detergent called “ECOSNext.” It is basically a cardboard box full of rectangular sheets that melt in water. One sheet per laundry load. No harmful chemicals in the product and no plastic container. Woohoo! I learned about the company in a webinar sponsored by the Center for Environmental Health, a great local organization dedicated to addressing the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products. One of the webinar presenters was Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, president and CEO of Ecos. As a company, Ecos has achieved carbon neutrality, water neutrality and TRUE Platinum Zero Waste certification.
Positive step four
With less than two months until the election, I made several financial contributions to organizations helping elect leaders who will address climate change and social injustice.
The organization “Vote Save America” has a very informative website with everything you need to know about registering to vote and supporting get-out the vote efforts: (https://votesaveamerica.com/be-a-voter/).
Voter suppression, lack of community resources, inflexible work schedules — all of these rob voters of their voice. Black, brown, indigenous, and other marginalized communities continue to be the victims of targeted voter disenfranchisement efforts.
The two most important things we can all do: 1) be sure to vote in November (or earlier, preferably!); 2) do everything possible to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to do the same.
Moving forward with happiness and purpose
An article I read recently on “The World Counts” website made the point that we are destroying the planet in the process of trying to achieve meaning and purpose through consumption. They provide a thoughtful exploration of other ways we can live truly meaningful and purposeful lives. Here’s the link if you want to read more: https://www.theworldcounts.com/happiness.
I also liked this thought from an article in the Greater Good Magazine, a publication of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
Having more agency means taking responsibility for your life. The next time you sense something happening around you—or within you—that doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and reflexively press on. Exercise the discipline to stop, pay attention, and work on finding a better path for yourself. By practicing more agency, you’ll have more influence over your life and greater impact on the lives of others.
To check out other interesting articles from the GGSC: greatergood.berkeley.edu.
As I write, fires continue to encircle the Bay Area, consuming thousands of acres of open space and threatening homes and businesses. Last weekend, the forecast for more lightning motivated me to pack an emergency evacuation bag for the first time in my life. Underlying my procrastination has been resistance to being instructed to pack “essential” items. I look around my house and wonder which if any of my possessions is important, much less essential?
With all this existential angst rattling around my brain, I decided to ask my friends and former students about the items considered essential by their family members, either now or in past generations. I was especially curious to learn about cultural patterns…how have people in different countries created artifacts to address practical problems and to nurture their spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic cravings?
I paid particular attention to objects that sustain rather than damage the environment. As readers of the Notebook know, I am not a fan of the widespread use of plastic in contemporary society. The cost of the plastics revolution to our environment is very high. And we produce over 300 million pounds of it every year! So I wanted to think about essential items from our cultural communities that may offer alternatives to consuming plastic.
I heard from people who traced their cultural heritage to Egypt, Latvia, China, Japan, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Catalonia, Denmark, and India. Thanks very much to all of you for sharing your ideas with me. I learned so much! Let’s pick a few examples and see what lessons they hold for contemporary inhabitants of Marin County.
Back to Basics
Miwok tribal member with basket
For thousands of years humans have made objects from natural materials. They have used soil and sand, plants and metal to create containers, fabric, and tools as well as art. Until recently, these objects were long lasting and environmentally sustainable.
Here in the Marin and Sonoma area, the Coastal Miwok people lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. What were the items they considered essential and what were they made of? For the Miwok and other native tribal people in California, tule was a highly significant material for creating important objects. Once abundant along the margins of the bay, in the delta, and in the seasonal wetlands of the Central Valley, tule was used to make houses, clothing, mats, baskets, and tools. The Coastal Miwok also used tule to make rafts called tule balsas, or sákas.
Learning about the daily life of the Coastal Miwok people provides a valuable opportunity for reflection about the meaning and purpose of objects in our own lives and may prompt us to renew our dedication to reducing our own consumption.
Appreciating the Value of Mud
Until I conducted the research for this post, I never thought of storing and schlepping one’s stuff around as fundamental aspects of the human condition. But many of the objects we humans produce are designed to do just that. One such item is the olla, a clay vessel for storing water or food. The term “olla” was first used in ancient Rome, spread to various regions in Europe as well as the Middle East, and eventually made it to the Americas.
In Spain, ollas have been used since the Middle Ages to make stews such as olla podrida. In Catalonia a type of olla called a tupí was traditionally used as a container to make fermented cheese. The olla also has a long history in Egypt, where they were used mostly for water storage.
Present Day Use of Ollas
Clearly, ceramics are still very much in use for storing and serving food. Ollas themselves are not well suited to contemporary life as they are heavy, breakable, and hard to clean. However, I was surprised to learn that they are in use here in the US to irrigate plants. The olla is buried amidst the plants with the neck extending above the soil, and filled with water, which seeps out slowly through the clay walls.
And let’s not forget one of the most important features of mud – it is extremely fun to play in if you are a child. We can buy a plastic water table for children or we can give them access to some dirt or sand and a hose.
More Containers: Bamboo and Straw
For centuries, bamboo and straw baskets have been used in many countries for a wide range of purposes, including storage baskets, winnowing fans, eel and fish traps, bird cages, pack baskets, child carriers, and grain scoops, as well as many other other fishing, farming and household containers and tools. These products are not only useful but are often very beautiful as well.
Bamboo is unquestionably an important and effective alternative to plastic in terms of common household products. A glance at the internet reveals a vast array of useful bamboo products out there, from chopsticks to drinks trays and food steamers. You can even get sunglasses, watches, and “Q-tips” made from bamboo. Here’s one source of information about bamboo products: https://www.ambientbp.com/blog/must-have-bamboo-items-sustainable-home. But don’t forget about reducing your overall consumption even if your purchases are “green.” I don’t need to get bamboo Q-tips just because they exist.
The Metal Lunchbox: More than a Place to Store Food
Metal isn’t the first thing to come to mind when I think about environmental sustainability, but I can see how it has a place. Its durability is a huge asset as long as the owner is willing to hang on to the item for the decades that it will continue to exist. One common household object constructed from metal is the lunch box. Perhaps the most iconic example is the tiffin box from India. Tiffin boxes feature multiple individual food compartments that are stacked on top of each other and secured with an outer clip.
In India, the popularity of tiffin boxes can be traced to the growing number of urban residents commuting from home to office at the end of the 19th century. Many did not have time to return home for lunch, nor were they interested in paying for restaurant meals. Their lunchtime problem was resolved in 1890, when a company began picking up tiffin boxes at workers’ homes and delivering them to the workplace. Tiffin delivery services remain very popular today. In Mumbai, for example, over 200,000 tiffins with home-cooked lunches are delivered every day. The tiffin box is an example of a tradition that remained relevant when it was adapted to contemporary needs.
As Milan was growing into an industrial center during the 1950s, factory workers also began bringing their lunches to work in metal containers. The lunch box, or schiscetta, was not used by white-collar employees at that time, and was somewhat stigmatized by its association with the humble worker. However, bringing one’s lunch to work has recently been reconceptualized as cool and trendy among young Italian professionals, and signals a person who is lively, health-oriented, and international-minded. Commenting on the recent appropriation of the traditional schiscetta by young urban professionals, one Italian writer mused, “macrobiotic food in place of fresh pasta in a schiscetta….It is as surreal as seeing a farmer out jogging.” Again, as we saw with the Indian tiffin box, sustainable practices can survive if they are adapted to features of the contemporary context.
Can Metal Replace Some Plastic Toys?
Many toys sold these days are marketed as educational or developmentally stimulating for children. As a developmental psychologist, I don’t think the activities afforded by elaborate plastic activity centers, for example, are more supportive of children’s learning than activities based on simple natural materials. For example, most toddlers like to bang with spoons on metal pots and pans because it gives them a chance to explore the basic principle of cause-and-effect. What is more exciting than realizing you can create a loud noise by smacking a mixing bowl with a spoon? Considering the health and environmental drawbacks of plastic toys, it is worth considering these old-fashioned alternatives.
What Else Can We Do?
This worldwide tour of common household objects reminds us that our “essential” items used to be made from renewable materials like straw and bamboo, or they were made from brass and aluminum and would last for decades. And it reminds us that some of our contemporary needs can be met by considering environmentally sustainable solutions developed in the past, especially if we find new ways to interpret and use them.
If you want to reconsider and reduce your consumption, here are a few ideas (other than the obvious one, which is to buy less stuff):
Imagining What Might Have Been
When I walk on Ocean Beach, I sometimes imagine alternative scenarios in which this open space had been displaced by development rather than preserved. In 1884, the first roller coaster was installed on land adjacent to the beach, and a steady stream of concessions, rides, and other attractions soon followed. Playland at the Beach, as it was called, was a popular destination for Bay Area residents, but by the late 1960s the complex had deteriorated. It was finally torn down in 1972. Today, the space is occupied by the Balboa Natural Area and a development of low-rise condominiums. Ocean Beach remains long, wide, and untouched except for a scattering of fire pits for night-time gatherings.
Building the Case for Preserving Open Space
Working out of her house, Amy helped organized a campaign to thwart the GSA plan for East Fort Miley, collaborating with the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club and SPUR, an organization dedicated to balancing the competing claims of business, housing, open space, and resilient neighborhoods. As she writes in an account of this period, “We had the opportunity to make use of a Department of Interior initiative ‘to bring parks to the people, where the people are.’"
As the battle with the GSA heated up, Amy and her group brought on additional support from an array of over 65 environmental and civic organizations, including the national Sierra Club. The group was also supported by key legislators including US Congress members and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The group made an impressive case for the historical importance and natural beauty of the land and provided convincing evidence of the serious local opposition to building on it. On a foggy day in May of 1970, the GSA representatives finally gave up their plan. The first battle was won but a longer war had just begun.
Becoming Ambitious: Forming a Comprehensive Coordinated Plan
A Winning Coalition Nobody Could Have Predicted
Amy and Ed began working feverishly to build a broad coalition that included environmental, civic, and neighborhood organizations. Congress members Phillip Burton, Democrat, and Bill Maillard, Republican, were major supporters of the GGNRA as was John Jacobs of SPUR.
The stage was almost set for action on a bill to create the GGNRA, but the Senate was balking and had not scheduled a hearing on it. How could the PPGGNRA mobilize the bipartisan support needed to get this bill through Congress? Various supporters began contacting their California senators to demand a hearing. Rancher Boyd Stewart invited his friend, Senator Alan Bible, Chair of the Senate Committee on National Parks and Public Lands, to join him on a truck ride to see for himself the beautiful rolling hills of Marin.
Then something amazing happened. The Committee to Re-elect the President (yes, CREEP) called John Jacobs of SPUR seeking Bay Area exposure for Nixon’s campaign. Jacobs proposed that the President take a ferry ride on the Bay and then greet local citizens on a pier off Crissy Field. A few weeks later Amy and Ed were standing on the pier with the President, where Ed exhorted him to endorse the establishment of the GGNRA. He agreed to do so and within 36 hours a Senate hearing was on the calendar.
Few of us remember Nixon as an environmentalist, but Amy reminded me that he supported the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts as well as the Endangered Species Act. He also created the Environmental Protection Agency. As reporter Peter Hartlaub noted in the SF Chronicle: “Remember the next time you walk through the Marin Headlands and enjoy the real estate development-free views: The president who resigned in disgrace was also an environmental warrior.”
While the success of the GGNRA must be attributed to smart strategizing and persistent effort, the fortuitous timing of this initiative cannot be understated. The early 1970s saw a surge in public support for environmental protection. The women’s movement and the anti-war movement left a legacy of commitment to grassroots organizing. Add a couple of unexpectedly pro-environment Republican politicians to the mix and you have it….a hugely successful new park.
By the Numbers: GGNRA in 2020
Lessons from the Past, Actions for the Future
These days, the EFM and other organizations are working with renewed focus and energy to foster inclusion in open spaces across the diverse Bay Area. How can we move beyond rhetoric to action? Amy notes that it is essential to work actively to retain staff of color in the GGNRA and other national parklands. Having a more diverse group of individuals at the helm is key to developing effective outreach to underserved communities.
She also highlighted the importance of training the next generation of environmental activists, helping them gain the skills necessary to speak effectively to citizens and elected officials as well as develop critical thinking and writing skills to make logical, cohesive, and persuasive arguments.
After talking with Amy and reading about her work I feel a deep sense of respect and gratitude for all she has accomplished. Here are some things you can do to build on the legacy bestowed by "green pioneers” like Amy Meyer:
For most of human history Europeans got along perfectly well without any cutlery other than a knife. In medieval times, a stale piece of bread called a trencher served as a plate. When forks were introduced around 1100, clerics apparently protested, arguing that they were disrespectful to God, who had given us fingers for the purpose of eating. Throughout the Renaissance, forks continued to be viewed as something that only a sinner or a weakling would use.
Forks finally met with acceptance in the 1700s after someone added two extra tines to the original two-tined model, making them much more efficient. Even so, they were not commonplace in homes or inns for several centuries, and many elites traveled with their own personal dining implements.
How did we get from inlaid mother-of-pearl to plastic? The plastic utensil market exploded after the plastic spork was patented by an American company in 1970. Some scholars have suggested that we should blame the French for how things unfolded during that decade. They point to the French love of a picnic for the “marriage of culture and convenience” that set the scene for the widespread manufacture of plastic utensils. One example: French food-service company, Sodexo, was prompted to “turn to plastic” in the 1970s, and became a huge multinational corporation that today buys 44 million plastic utensils per month for their clients in the US alone. However, despite being an early adopter of plastic cutlery, France was also the first country to ban plastic utensils, plates and cups. Redemption!
The San Anselmo Ordinance to Ban Single-Use Plastic Foodware
The extent of the worldwide plastics invasion over the last 50 years is hard to grasp in its entirety. Many activists, elected politicians, and ordinary citizens are increasingly alarmed by the contribution of plastic products to street litter and marine pollution, harm to wildlife, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Foodware consistently emerges as one of the major contributors to this problem. A 2011 study by the Clean Water Fund found that 67% of the litter in the SF Bay is from food (48%) and beverage (19%) packaging.
These concerns prompted a group of San Anselmo citizens to promote a local initiative reducing the use and disposal of single-use foodware, including cups, lids, utensils, straws, clamshells, and other plastic products. Originally adopted by the Town Council at the end of 2018, the ordinance was revised and approved in June of 2019, and went into effect in January of 2020.
What is Banned by the Ban?
Here are four key elements of the San Anselmo ordinance:
What Were the Concerns about the Ban?
Not surprisingly, some food vendors were concerned about the cost of purchasing disposable foodware that met the new criteria. Some also worried about the cost of dishwashing, including the extra staff time and outlay for equipment.
However, analysis by ReThink Disposable suggests that the switch to reusable can be cost effective for food vendors large and small. This was true for a reusable foodware initiative in a dining hall at the University of San Francisco. Bon Appetit, the food services contractor, invested in purchasing reusable foodware for dining-in and trained staff to provide disposables only to those opting for takeout. Plastic utensils and napkins were available on demand rather than being centrally located. These and other changes resulted in a net savings of $150,000 each year and the elimination of 2 million packaging items.
Closer to home, Comforts Café in San Anselmo achieved an estimated annual saving of $14,000 subsequent to complying with the new ordinance. Learn more here: https://www.cleanwater.org/publications/participating-business-testimonials
The Less Told Tale: Toxic PFAS in Takeout Containers
In addition to the problems of plastic pollution to wildlife and the ocean ecology, toxic chemicals leach out of plastic, with devastating effects on human health.
I spoke with Jinesse Reynolds, a member of the Sustainability Commission in San Anselmo, about her role as architect of the San Anselmo ban. Jinesse was particularly motivated by her deep concern about a particular class of chemicals called PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluroalkyl substances. PFAS are a kind of glue used to bind together fibers to make them impermeable. They are used in nonstick pans, waterproof jackets, stain resistant fabric, fire retardants, and personal care products.
Abundant research links PFAS to an array of harmful effects on fetuses, children, and adults. A recent review of the research literature was just published in the Lancet medical journal. Read the highlights in this CNN report: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/21/health/chemical-endocrine-disruptor-doubled-wellness/index.html
From her work in the outdoor garment industry, Jinesse was familiar with the use of PFAS in waterproof clothing; this knowledge inspired her and her husband to found Ibex, a company that makes PFAS-free outdoor garments from organic Merino wool. Ibex products are water resistant…just like sheep.
Jinesse also knew that PFAS are commonly found in many kinds of food packaging. You know that shiny lining inside your takeout container? It is plastic and contains PFAS, which prevent grease and liquid from soaking into the paper container. Disposable cups are also lined with plastic. Hence the stipulation in the San Anselmo ordinance that all disposable food items have to be certified as PFAS free. As well as the strategy of disincentivizing use of disposable cups by adding an extra charge.
To support local vendors now that the ordinance has taken effect, Jinesse has been hard at work tracking down companies that manufacture takeout containers that are completely compostable and contain no PFAS liner. This vendor list is made available to local stores and restaurants in San Anselmo so that they can access products that are compliant with the ban.
What Else is Being Done?
At the county-level, initial work had commenced on an ordinance similar to the one passed in San Anselmo. However, because of the pandemic the County has postponed further consideration of it until the spring of 2021. Other than Fairfax, which has already passed a strong ordinance, other Marin towns are waiting for the County to pass its ordinance so that they can adopt it and receive enforcement assistance from the County.
Consumer pressure has motivated some retail stores and fast food restaurants to reduce or eliminate PFAS and other chemicals in their packaging and processing equipment. Trace their progress in Who’s Minding the Store? — A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals (https://retailerreportcard.com/2019/11/retailer-rankings-2019/).
The bottom line is that some large retailers like Apple and Target are improving and received high scores on the report card, as did Whole Foods. Fast food companies generally fared badly including Subway and Starbucks, which were described as offering “no indication” of taking action to reduce PFAS or other chemicals in their food packaging.
Reusable foodware services offer another way to avoid disposables. For example, a startup company called Vessel manufactures stainless steel cups that can be borrowed at participating restaurants. Let’s say I am an undergraduate who wants a cappucino to take to class. I enter my credit card number at the Vessel website. Then I order my drink at the café, specifying use of a Vessel cup. I take the cup with me to class and enjoy my stimulating beverage. I return the cup (unwashed is OK) to the café or to a kiosk around town within five days. If I don’t return the cup, the company charges $15 to my credit card. Otherwise, the use of the cup is free. Look here to read about their pilot program in Berkeley: https://vesselworks.org/
Reusables and Compostables in the Covid-19 Era
At the start of the pandemic many people worried about contact with contaminated surfaces. However, most health experts now agree that the virus spreads primarily from inhaling aerosolized droplets rather than through surface contact. They also note that disposable and reusable products present similar issues in terms of contamination. If someone sneezes on a single-use plastic bag in the store then it is just as problematic as if they do so on a reusable one. This knowledge has cleared the way for supporting new initiatives to reuse foodware.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning call-to-action book at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.
Environmental Forum of Marin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and a United Way of the Bay Area Certified Agency.
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