Getting into the Earth Day Spirit

With the beginning of April comes the dawning of spring (even if Michigan is still getting snow…#puremichigan). With spring comes a natural desire to get outside. After a long winter, the first flowers, budding trees, and singing robins are a welcome relief for most people, reinvigorating our love for nature. It’s no surprise, then, that situated right in the midst of burgeoning April is Earth Day.

Unlike most of our earthy or casual holidays, Earth Day has its own specific date. Since 1970, April 22nd has been known as Earth Day within the U.S., becoming official internationally in 1990. Though the very first Earth Day was a protest of rising industry, it has since become a more celebratory day of environmental awareness and activism to enjoy and protect this truly spectacular planet.

Today, the classically touted activity of Earth Day is planting new trees. Everybody has seen those cute pictures of smiling, gardening glove-wearing kids patting handfuls of dirt lovingly around a young sapling. While planting trees is all well and good, with April almost halfway gone, here are five other ideas to get you into the spirit of Earth Day!

 

  1. Plant Something Local

I know I said “five other ideas” than planting trees, but here I am at number one telling you to plant something. The reality, though, is this is the perfect time to get some good-for-the-earth gardening done! The key here is to be selective about what it is you’re planting. Don’t just pick some pretty flowers or a nice sapling and call it a day. Do some research. Figure out which plants are native to the area and plant those. Create a garden specifically meant to attract local bees and birds that enrich the local plant and wildlife. Make your Earth Day about plants for the local ecosystem and give yourself a garden that’s both beautiful and beneficial.

 

  1. Do a “No Car” Day

We all know fossil fuels and their emissions are a big contributing factor in climate change and pollution, so use Earth Day see how you can cut down your carbon footprint by using fuel-efficient alternatives. Since this Earth Day is a Sunday, most of us don’t have to commute to work, but if you need to, see if you can carpool or use public transit. If your work or errands are closer, plan on using a bike or walking. Look for daytime activities that don’t require the use of gas and instead get out and about under your own power; you might be surprise how much you don’t need a car.

 

  1. Explore Your Local Farmers Market

We’re now entering the season when many farmers markets will be starting up again. If you have one open and near you (which Marshall does!) this is a perfect time to start going. Buying fresh and local food is not only a boon to the local farming economy, it is often more sustainable as the food doesn’t have to be shipped as far, the practices are smaller, and the produce is in-season and not grown artificially out of season. If there isn’t a farmer’s market near you, try to shop local, seasonal produce at your grocery store or other local businesses.

 

  1. Start New Reusable and Sustainable Habits

Use this Earth Day to set yourself up for a sustainable year! Stock up on reusable bags and water bottles. Switch to washable snack baggies and bees-wax cling wrap. Ask for drinks without plastic straws and takeout without plastic utensils. Generally commit to reducing some of the plastic waste in your life and finding everyday alternatives that are more environmentally friendly going forward.

 

  1. Make the Day About the Earth

Go outside! Visit a local park or arboretum, learn about local plants and wildlife, and enjoy making the day about nature and our earth. Part of environmental activism is loving the earth we live on and appreciating the nature that surrounds us. Use Earth Day to remind yourself and your friends and family how truly great this planet is.

 

Ultimately Earth Day should be more than that one day a year we plant a tree. If done right, it should jumpstart our appreciation of nature and sustainable practices. Use the day as a springboard to doing more and a chance to kickstart new, better habits. These five ideas (and the hundreds more you can find with a quick search) are only worth the effort you put into them. So, get those reusable bags, plant some native flowers, and shop for local produce this Earth Day, but also work to do it the next day and the next week and the next month. Committing to even a couple small things is a great start to celebrating Earth Day on and beyond this April 22nd.

 

Happy Earth Day!

 

For more information on Earth Day and ways to be more sustainable, check out:

Earthday.org

Marshall Area Farmers Market or Michigan Farmers Market Association

“11 Facts About Earth Day” by dosomething.org

“Fighting Pollution Saying ‘No’ to Plastic Straws” by Herb  Weisbaum, NBC News, March 14, 2018

 

 

Is Natural Really Any Different than Organic?

Whenever I go to the grocery store I see a bunch of products advertised under the banners of “natural” and “organic.” There’s the organic produce section, marked with green shelving and a sense of sophistication. On the other side of the store is a new natural foods aisle, similarly labeled in green with packaging that suggests these are not just ordinary chips. These chips are far superior and healthier than their processed, standard cousins. And then there are the other products, edible and otherwise, sprinkled throughout the store that are sometimes “natural,” sometimes “organic,” and sometimes both.

I don’t know about you, but with all the similar packaging, colors, and branding as healthy and better-for-you, I find myself not really knowing the difference between natural and organic, if there even is a difference. I know organic has to do with pesticides, but what does natural mean? And if lack of pesticides isn’t natural, what is?

To help both myself and those of you equally unsure, I did some research so I could finally break down the difference.

 

Organic Means…

Like I mentioned earlier, at its base level organic products are those that have been produced without pesticides. The “organic” label is regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) which is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and defined as “[a] term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations.” Essentially, for a product to be labeled as organic, it must comply with the NOP’s regulations and include over 70% organic materials or ingredients. A pre-packaged snack, for instance, can only be called “USDA certified organic” if over 70% of the ingredients are organic, otherwise individual ingredients can be called organic but not the whole product.

The goal of the NOP and organic products is to create easily identifiable products that are healthier and more environmentally friendly. The regulation of the organic label is also meant to lend legitimacy and support to farmers who follow organic practices. One of the side effects of organic farming, however, is generally more expensive produce, which leads into the debate between organic versus natural.

 

Natural Is…

The key thing to understand about the “natural” label is, with the except of poultry and other meats, it’s not actually regulated by the USDA, NOP, or anyone else. Meat labeled as natural cannot contain coloring, any preservatives, or major processing. However, when it comes to other products or produce, the definition of “natural” is really left up to the producer.

Most people and companies define natural as limited processing and avoidance of artificial additions (colors, preservatives, sweeteners, etc.). The problem is there is still so much wiggle room and space for interpretation within that definition. What does “minimal processing” actually mean? How many additives constitute “only a few?” Furthermore, because there isn’t official regulation on natural products, they are often cheaper than organic products since they can use cheaper growing and processing methods, diluting the power of organic products which is just becoming code for “expensive” to many people. For the average consumer, the distinction between organic and natural is blurry at best, with many thinking natural products actually sound greener and healthier than organic when the reality is they are not regulated and therefore not held to the same standard.

 

Natural is not the Enemy

All of that is not to say that natural products are a scam or not to be trusted; plenty of natural products are well-intentioned, healthy, and environmentally conscious. The real takeaway here is that the labels are not the same. Being an informed consumer of natural and organic products means doing your due-diligence with these labels and ingredients. When looking at products labeled as natural, look for signs of minimal processing such as shorter ingredient lists, items that are in a close to a natural state, and few additives known to add color or sweetness.

The benefit of the natural product boom is, while it may not be regulated the way many consumers believe, if you know what you’re looking for there is now a much broader range of conscious and creative products available to us. Use this to your advantage and you’ll be an intelligent consumer of all the great natural and organic products around you.

 

For more information on the NOP and natural versus organic labeling, check out:

The National Organic Program

“What is the difference between natural products & organic products?” by Kit Arbuckle, SFGate

“Organic vs. natural a source of confusion in food labeling” by Monica Eng, The Chicago Tribune, July 10, 2009

Fair Trade Certification and Why We Care

When you think “fair trade” it’s probably closely followed by “chocolate” or “coffee.” Maybe it comes to mind as the fancy coffee associated with hipsters and small, but costly coffee shops. It may also remind you of really dark chocolate or possibly clothing brands like Patagonia. Fair Trade may seem like just a buzzword to make a product sound better, but it’s actually a signifier of how you can buy products to support more sustainable practices for labor and the environment.

 

What does Fair Trade Certification mean?

Though you can go to the Fair Trade Certified website to get more in-depth descriptions of their mission and methods, essentially Fair Trade is an organization meant to protect and aid labor workers and communities in exploited industries. Products like coffee, chocolate, textiles, and garments, are subject to corporations that take advantage of the low wages in poor countries to exploit workers and drive down the cost of labor and products. This also, often, force small farmers and workers out of business and into working for an unsustainable living. These practices are bad all around, causing community and environmental degradation for the sake of lower prices and better profits.

The goal of Fair Trade is to create industry price floors that ensure workers are paid properly for their labor and products. A company or community that receives Fair Trade Certification must pay a licensing fee which is reinvested into social and economic programs for that community. They also have their operations, from supply chain to sales, overseen to ensure fair trade practices and sustainable working conditions.

Of course, Fair Trade isn’t a perfect program, but it’s a great starting point for learning how the products you buy affect other people and the environment. The end goal is to create a more fair, safe, and sustainable work environment and consumers who are more easily able to make informed, ethical buying decisions. Whether it’s through Fair Trade Certification or personal research, being aware of what you use your buying power for is important in holding brands accountable for treating workers and the environment right.

 

How can you buy Fair Trade Certified?

If buying Fair Trade goods interests you (and, really, what’s not to love?), then you’re in luck! Fair Trade Certified products are always obviously marked with their logo because the goal is to make it easy to support fair trade practices with your purchases. Plus, Fair Trade certification isn’t just for coffee and chocolate. You can find a range of food, clothing, makeup, and some home décor that are all Fair Trade Certified. Armed with the knowledge of the Fair Trade Certification, it’s time to get using that buy power for good!

 

For more information on Fair Trade Certification and products direct from the source, check out Fairtradecertified.org.

Essential Oils: Medicine or Marketing?

It seems there is an essential oil for everything. Oncoming cold? Use peppermint. Anxiety or trouble sleeping? Use lavender. Troublesome acne? Use tea tree oil. The cure for cancer? Ask some people, and they will say essential oils. As essential oils’ popularity has grown, so have the claims surrounding what they can do.

Still, even with all this hype, most people will agree that it’s highly unlikely essential oils are going to do much against something like cancer. But, if you’re anything like myself, you’re probably left wondering, what can essential oils do? With this much talk, it can’t all be nothing, but it’s also hard to figure out where the limits of essential oils’ benefits are.

 

Separating the Fact from Fiction

The first thing to know about the healing benefits of essential oils, is there is actually very little research into what they can really do. Many of the tall claims you hear about their amazing, life-altering properties don’t have substantial research to back them up. The second thing to know is that this doesn’t mean all the proclaimed benefits are fake. The reality of essential oils lies somewhere between crackpot medicine and a magical cure-all.

Part of the reason so many messages are floating around about what essential oils can and cannot do, is how they are marketed and distributed. Rachel Monroe discusses this system in-depth in an article for The New Yorker, but suffice it to say, many essential oils are sold by individuals working for a couple large companies. What this means is there are a lot of people who are really into essential oils saying a lot of things without much regulation. When it comes down to it, claims that essential oils can cure complex ailments like depression or cancer shouldn’t be taken as fact. This shouldn’t deter you from what you can get from essential oils, however.

 

So, What are the Benefits?

Essential oils aren’t about to solve the most serious of issues, but they do still have benefits. Herbal medicine and aromatherapy have been around for a long time for good reason. Just like a hot toddy truly does soothe symptoms of a cold, the scents and compounds of essential oils have legitimate benefits. Scent is a powerful thing and there is a definite link between stimulating the right smell receptors and reaping some emotional and even physiological benefits. For instance, if you love the scent of lavender, smelling it will give you a pick-me-up as the smell can trigger chemical messages that make you feel happy and calm. Will it cure depression? Probably not. Can it calm you down, relax you, and help set you up for sleep? Certainly.

Beyond the connections of smell and mood, there are some studies showing certain connections between essential oils and physical ailments. For instance, tea tree oil has been linked to helping with acne and peppermint oil might ease symptoms of digestive issues and IBS. These studies are still early and neither claims the oils are a cure, but there are true benefits when it comes to easing moods and symptoms.

Ultimately, there is a reason traditional herbal remedies and aromatherapy are still around, and it’s the same reason essential oils are popular: for the right situation, they do work! While you shouldn’t look at essential oils as a cure-all, there are many things you want them on hand for, from adding scents to soaps and lotions to using diffusers or creating home versions of vic’s vapor rub or natural sleep aids. At best, you’ll find some scents that soothe aches and help lift your spirits, and at worst, your home and life will smell really great.

 

 

 

For an in-depth read on the distribution system of essential oils, check out:

“How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety” by Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 9, 2017.

 

For more information on the science of essential oils, check out:

“The Science of Essential Oils: Does Using Scents Make Sense?” by Cari Nierenberg, LiveScience, September 2, 2015.

 

Myths About the Paper vs. Plastic Question

You’re at the grocery store and you get asked, “paper or plastic?” Most people have a standby option they believe is better, whether that’s thinking paper is more recyclable or plastic can be reused for garbage bags. But, is one actually better than the other? To settle this debate, I debunked two myths about the plastic vs. paper debate to help you decide, once and for all, which way to go.

 

MYTH: Paper is better than plastic

Over time, paper bags have garnered the reputation of being the better alternative when asked the perennial question “paper or plastic?” However, the reality is that paper bags really aren’t much better. While paper bags are easier to recycle and have about 50% more capacity than a plastic bag, the energy it takes to make a paper bag is more than the energy required for plastic bag. Just making the paper alone consumes huge amounts of energy (including fossil fuel based energy) before it even gets to the stage of becoming an actual bag, outweighing some of the benefits of recycling.

 

MYTH: Plastic bags aren’t recyclable

Luckily this myth is false! There is nothing in plastic bags that prevents them from being recycled. However, before you get too excited, recycling plastic bags is an arduous process that requires re-melting and re-casting the bags. This process uses less energy than making new bags, but the quality of the plastic is “downcycled,” meaning the plastic is not as viable and is therefore rarely made into new bags. Just because the bags do not turn into new bags does not make them entirely useless, as they can be turned into raw materials for other plastic-based products, but recycling plastic bags is not a perfect fix.

 

Ultimately, experts almost unanimously agree that reusable canvas bags are the way to go over plastic or paper! Beyond the obvious that they can be used again and again, reusable bags are stronger, sturdier, and carry more than paper or plastic, meaning less trips to get all the groceries in from the car. Reusable bags are not the solution to all plastic waste, but using them can be a small step in reducing the nearly 380 billion plastic bags we use every year in this country.

 

For more information on the “plastic versus paper” debate, check out:

"Paper of Plastic? A Look at the Facts, Myths and Numbers of Shopping Bags" by Collin Dunn, Huffington Post, July 16, 2008