articles & guides

What Extreme Hoarders Can Teach Us

March 30th, 2014.

Extreme hoarders aren’t just troubled people – they are teachers; albeit likely unknowingly.

There’s been a spate of news headlines relating to hoarders recently, including a Sydney family that apparently has accumulated so much stuff; they are now sleeping in a van parked outside their house.

Another story is that of a Dallas man who died and health services needed to cut through his home’s roof to get to his body; which took them two days to find due to the volume of stuff in and around his house.

In yet another incident, the apartment of a man in Manhattan is so cluttered he has to access his home via the fire escape.

To some, these stories are amusing, to others tragic – the obsessive compulsive disorder that leads to hoarding on such a scale can be quite terrible.

We certainly shouldn’t sneer at these people and their struggle has some value for the rest of us – it gives us an inkling of just how much rubbish we generate.

For most of us, trash goes out in the bin and whisked away – out of sight is out of mind. However, all that junk has to go somewhere and we create so much of it. Imagine if our garbage services suddenly stopped for any length of time.

In addition to the day-to-day waste; I think about the major cleanups I’ve performed during my life and the amount of stuff I’ve thrown out.

It all really adds up.

According to the USA EPA, folks in the USA generated about 251 million tons of trash in 2012.

While 87 million tons of this material was recycled or composted, that still leaves an amount equivalent to 2.87 pounds (1.3 kilograms) of trash per person per day. I suspect the stats would be similar in Australia.

Whenever I see these hoarder stories, it reminds me that what I’m seeing in the often shocking photographs is probably the same as what I have been responsible for generating during my life – it’s just that it’s all in the one place. For the hoarders that also collect from other sources; it’s a case of our garbage becoming theirs.

These stories are just as much about our own impact as it is of the individual or family of focus.

When I’m shopping these days I try to remember to ask myself not only if I really need whatever it is I’m contemplating purchasing, but what I will do with the associated trash it will generate – and what I can do with it once I’m done with it.


Tips For Extending Food Shelf Life
Recycling Numbers – What They Mean

Earth friendly air freshener tips

December 26th, 2013.

(originally published April 2007, last updated December 2013)

I admit it; I was an air freshener abuser – big time. My cleaning cupboard had more air freshener varieties than you can poke a stick at. But in fooling my nose, I was also poisoning myself and the wider environment. There are certainly greener ways to keep nasty smells at bay.

The majority of air fresheners you buy in the supermarket do not destroy odors, but simply mask them. They create a coating on your nasal membranes that fool your brain into thinking that the smell has gone. As for those air fresheners that claim to kill bacteria, our bacteria paranoia is leading us to kill good bacteria while creating strains of drug resistant bad bacteria. While anti-bacterial air fresheners have their place, they should really be limited to hospital environments in most cases.

Air fresheners – chemical cocktails

Many commercially air fresheners contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals that aren’t healthy for us or the environment. Some of the chemicals you may find:

Formaldehyde – known carcinogen
Phenol – skin and nervous system irritant
Petroleum distillates such as butane and propane
Methylformamide – Organ system toxicity, cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity
Butanoic acid – Neurotoxicity, Endocrine disruption, Organ system toxicity
Nitro- and polycyclic musks  – linked to cancer, hormone disruption

.. and the list goes on.

I’ve read that up to 3000 synthetic chemical ingredients are used by the air freshener industry.

One of the other problems of these air fresheners is toxic chemicals accumulate in carpet over time, which is particularly of concern to parents with young children. Being rather sticky, the chemicals also wind up on our shoes and feet to be taken into the outside environment where they wind up in soil.

Added to all that, there’s the non-recyclable or reusable packaging of these products – millions of spray cans and plastic bottles hitting our landfills each year; not to mention the production of chemical ingredients and the packaging.

A recent trend in air fresheners are the 24/7 products that spray automatically every X minutes – whether it’s needed or not. Based on the chemical cocktail described above, I feel these are terrible products that should be pulled from the market.

Something else you should know about air fresheners is that we tend to build up a tolerance to them. We get used to the smell and start using more to get that same olfactory “kick”. If you really feel the need to use these products, try rotating the fragrances you use regularly.

The whole air freshener product life-cycle is an environmental nightmare.

Green commercial air fresheners

Thankfully, some manufacturers have been responding to consumer concerns regarding the health and environmental issues associated with these products and commercial “green” air fresheners can be purchased.

A favourite of mine for the bathroom is Orange Power’s Lime And Orange (available in Australia, not sure about elsewhere). Quite reasonably priced, it contains water, alcohol, cold pressed orange oil and lime oil – and that’s it. It’s also packaged in a reusable atomizer bottle, which is recyclable.

Still, be wary of some of the “green” commercial products – a common trick companies play is to say something along the lines of “contains natural pine scent”, which it may well do – but what about the other ingredients? Check the labels and if the label is unclear, contact the company for a complete ingredient list.

Alternatively, you can try search for the product’s MSDS online. An MSDS is a Materials Safety Data Sheet. These *usually* contain more information than what you’ll find listed on a product’s packaging and may also include toxicological and environmental data.

Run a search on Google like so:

product MSDS

Where “product” is the name of the air freshener.

Armed with that information, you can then also use online databases such as Skin Deep to find out the potential effects of the chemicals.

Green home-brewed alternatives

Here are a few tips for greener ways to help keep your home smelling fresh. Of course, be cautious of how you use some of these ideas if you have young children or pets scurrying around the house.

– A simple one, but improving air circulation outside to inside will do wonders. Open windows when you can.

– A tablespoon of salt in a half an orange with the flesh scooped out. I’m told this is a good one for the toilet.

– 1 to 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract placed in small containers around your home

– Pot pourri made from lavender, roses or whatever scented plants and flowers you may have in your garden.

– Use baking soda to soak up acidic odors; also great for ash trays

Baking soda can also be used as a spray – one teaspoon dissolved in cup of water and then sprayed as a fine mist.

– Use vinegar to neutralize alkaline odors. Yes, vinegar is a little smelly itself to start off with, but the initial pong quickly fades.

– A couple of drops of essential oil in an atomizer/mister full of water sprayed around (bear in mind this only masks the smell rather than neutralizing it)

– A couple of drops of essential oil on a cotton ball place in inconspicuous places around a room

– Placing citrus fruit or cinnamon in a pot with water and simmer gently (rather energy resource intensive though)

– If you have extraction fans in the kitchen or toilet, ensure the screens are kept clean. If you haven’t cleaned yours for a while, try it out and I guarantee the difference will amaze you.

– Treating the cause rather than the symptom is always a preferred strategy. For example, pet bedding can create an awful stink and while it may not be viable to wash it every week, simply putting it out in the sun regularly and giving it a good shake will help. The sun is an important factor as sunlight kills some of the stink-causing bacteria.

Farming Bugs For Food

October 6th, 2013.

I’ve kept an open mind on eating insects – mainly because billions of people around the world have been eating bugs for a very, very long time.

I’ve been compost worm farming for a few years now and it has really opened my mind to the role that “lesser” creatures play in the ecosystem. While worms are actually an animal, it’s my wriggly friends that have also sparked my interest in different ways of sourcing protein. I’ll take this opportunity to point out I don’t eat my composting worms :).

I recently embarked on raising mealworms and the first generation of darkling beetles (what mealworms become) have begun emerging and will soon start laying eggs; which will then grow into human-food ready mealworms.

Mealworms are high in protein and mealworm farming involves around 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions compared with beef production.

Whether I’ll go so far as to tucking into a meal of mealworms remains to be seen (stay tuned). It’s quite easy to euthanize the little guys; I’m not concerned about the cruelty aspect – it’s the ick factor. I’ve eaten some interesting things in my life; but I have drawn the line (so far) at bugs.

mealworm-tacoMealworm Taco – Don Bugito Prehispanic Snakeria

It’s funny what we recoil from in the way of food. For example, we eat crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters and they are just souped up bugs. As I understand it, insects and crustaceans belong to the same group of creatures – arthropods.

An oceanic crustacean delicacy even has the “bug” word in its name. The Balmain Bug does look like a large insect – and is very, very tasty.

Let’s say mealworms turn out to be the tastiest tidbit on the planet. Consumer perception is going to be the major battle.

However, some are already making inroads. For example, Monica Martinez; owner of Don Bugito Prehispanic Snakeria, is introducing crickets and superworms (a type of mealworm) to residents of California.

Last month in Adelaide, South Australia; ants, crickets and scorpions were served up to diners at an event focused on global food security and sustainability.

Of course, if the idea of eating bugs is just way too extreme for you (and as it may turn out – for me too); there’s always mock meat and perhaps soon, cultured beef if you’re wanting to avoid traditional meat for whatever reasons – environmental, animal welfare or otherwise. Or, as people keep pointing out to me, just ditch the meat or “I-can’t-believe-its-not-meat” fixation altogether.

There is a lot riding on us being able to reduce our meat consumption.

Trivia: the practice of eating insects is called entomophagy.

Simple Tips For Extending Food Shelf Life

September 29th, 2013.

As I’ve mentioned many times over the years, food waste is a major environmental issue as so many resources go into growing food and then getting it from field to fork and paddock to plate.

The figures vary somewhat depending on where you source them, but one estimate I’ve seen is that 40 percent of all the food produced in the US is thrown out – and that isn’t even at the high end of the scale.

Aside from the wasted resources, there’s also a substantial financial cost. An average American family dumps an equivalent of up to $2,275 worth of food in the bin annually. Food waste is the single largest component of solid waste in U.S. landfills.

Since I started worm farming, I’ve had a good way deal with veggie waste – but I still don’t like the concept of giving what was edible to the worms to eat (but they certainly aren’t complaining) or just composting the waste.

I also started raising mealworms recently and as a source of moisture for little guys (and a bit of added variety to their diet); I provide them with chunks of fresh carrot. The last time I purchased carrots, I couldn’t buy them loose, only in a bag. I’m not a big carrot eater and wasn’t looking forward to boosting my carrot intake so as to not waste them.

Remembering an old trick I’d heard; I put the (perforated) bag of carrots on a couple of layers of paper towel in the fridge.

Photo is a little misleading – there’s no visible condensation in the bag

It’s now been 4 weeks and the remaining carrots haven’t lost any of their crispness. It seems the paper towel idea not only extends the shelf life of carrots, but lettuce too.

There are many simple ways to extend the life of fresh produce; some don’t involve any additional products at all – not even paper towel.

Some of the strategies involve not storing some foods like we usually do these days or avoiding storing one type of food next to another.

For example, onions should not be stored close to potatoes. It seems gases one gives off affects the other.

Our refrigerators tend to become dumping grounds for all sorts of foods, some that don’t require and shouldn’t be refrigerated. Wiser refrigerator use might also mean a smaller appliance is needed – and that means additional environmental and financial savings.

Some fruits produce ethylene gas that can cause vegetables in close proximity to spoil more rapidly; so these should be stored if possible at room temperature rather than in the fridge. (You may have smelled ethylene gas in your fridge – it has a sweet, musky odor.)

Fruits that should not be stored in the fridge include:

  • avocados
  • apricots
  • bananas
  • oranges
  • kiwi fruit
  • melons
  • nectarines
  • pears
  • peaches
  • plums
  • pineapple
  • tomatoes

There are so many simple tips – another example – to increase the shelf life of green peppers, broccoli and celery; I’m told wrapping these foods in foil works a treat.

Something I’ve also found to help is to wipe out the veggie crisper bin in the refrigerator each week and without fail. I’m assuming that this is because it helps to reduce the amount of bacteria present that contribute to spoilage.

It’s not just fruit and veg you can easily extend the life of. In the case of cheese; instead of wrapping in plastic, use cheese paper or wax paper. Mushrooms should be stored in a paper bag, not plastic.

For more tips on  extending the shelf life of various items; check out the food storage guide on RealSimple.

Rechargeable and disposable batteries – the environmental impact

September 4th, 2013.

First published July 2008, last updated September 2013

I wouldn’t call myself a gadget freak, but in my work and given I spend a good deal of time away from a mains power supply, I use a lot of battery powered equipment. I started using rechargeables some years back and it’s definitely saved me a lot of cash.

But what about the environment?

I guess it’s a bit of a no-brainer that if you use one of something compared to a zillion, it’s got to be  better for the planet, but not if the one of something is one zillion and one times toxic :). So I decided to take a look at how rechargeable batteries stack up against their disposable counterparts.

Disposable and rechargeable battery types

Disposable, or dry-cell batteries are usually the alkaline type. They used to contain very high levels of mercury, but the amounts used have greatly decreased over the last couple of decades and some brands use none at all. Still, some do contain a small amount of mercury and given the massive waste involved should be avoided, or at the very least, recycled.

While rechargeable batteries have dropped in price over the years, the love affair with disposables continues. According to figures from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; in June 2013, over 75 million alkaline batteries were produced. This was a massive increase of 96% year over year.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult finding places that will actually recycle disposable alkaline batteries. Many recyclers separate them from rechargeables and they wind up in landfill anyway.

A service I came across in the USA for alkaline (and rechargeable) battery recycling is Big Green Box, which is just a box you can dump batteries into and when it’s full, send it back to the recycler. You can purchase a box for your home or office, or utilize one that’s in one of the participating stores mentioned on their site.

Button batteries are a problem as a great deal of metal is used for their comparatively small size and they can contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. Thankfully, due to the increasing price of raw materials, these are a desired recyclable item.

Rechargeable batteries used to be quite environmentally toxic beasties, containing cadmium (NiCad batteries). These days, one of the more common AA and AAA rechargeables are Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH). NiMH batteries have a better life and performance than Nicads and don’t contain as much in the way of toxic heavy metals, so they are a “greener” choice.

If you own a notebook, it’s likely the battery in it is Lithium-ion. These are the top of the line in terms of performance and the type we’re seeing in electric cars. Again, these are a more environmentally friendly option than NiCads.

Here’s a bit of rechargeable battery trivia: – the Tesla Roadster’s battery pack isn’t one big battery or even a few – it uses 6,831 18650 Lithium-ion batteries!


You can also buy rechargeable alkaline batteries, but these perform poorly and will cost you more in the long run – and you’ll create more waste.

Regardless of the lower environmental toxicity of today’s rechargeable batteries, they should definitely be recycled rather than thrown in the bin to wind up in landfill.

Where to recycle rechargeable batteries

If you’re in the USA or Canada, try Call2Recycle, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) program’s web site for further information. The following is a short video about Call2Recycle’s operations.

In Australia, Battery World stores offer a free service that has collected over 6,000 tonnes of used batteries so far.

In the UK, there’s a free recycling program called BatteryBack – the initiative aims to have over 50,000 collection points by the end of 2013

Environmental savings

According to a study by Uniross carried out in 2007, the production of rechargeable batteries has the following advantages over disposables (comparing serviceable life):

– 23 times less potential impact on non-renewable natural resources
– 28 times less potential impact on global warming
– 30 times less potential impact on air pollution (ozone pollution)
– 9 times less potential impact on air acidification
– 2 times less potential impact on water pollution

Getting the most from rechargeable batteries

I made a few mistakes using rechargeable batteries in the beginning, so I offer the following tips so you might avoid the same. These simple tips will help ensure you get the maximum life from your rechargeables.

– If you’re going to buy rechargeables – keep track of them :). Being small critters, batteries are easier to lose. Given that a rechargeable battery in itself is more toxic to the environment than a single disposable alkaline; if you keep losing them and keep buying more, it defeats the purpose. Have a central point in the house or your car where you store flat ones. I also mark each battery set (eg. mb1, mb2, mb3, mb4) so there’s equal ‘wear’, rather than mixing old ones with new ones.

– Avoid using the batteries at high temperatures and store out of direct sunlight

– Recharge regularly

– Avoid overcharging.

Cost savings

As mentioned, you can not only lighten your environmental footprint, but save a ton of cash by using rechargeable batteries.

A pack of 4 rechargeable batteries I purchased a short while ago cost me around $20. They’ll be good for at least 500 recharges, likely more. A battery charger costs anywhere from about $10 -$30. The cost to recharge the set works out to be just a couple of cents each time; even factoring in electricity. So, in total, even taking into account in the charger, a set of 4 AA will cost no more than $55 for their serviceable life.

A comparable set of heavy duty disposables cost around $2 – and that’s at a discount price. The equivalent usage would cost $1000!

Environmentally and financially, rechargeable batteries just make more sense. If you can, try ditching your disposable battery habit and reap the rewards.

Tissues And Our Forests

August 31st, 2013.

First published November 2006, last updated August 2013

Yep, even the humble facial tissue can have quite an impact on the environment.

I originally published this article back in 2006 after discovering the manufacturer of the tissues I used to purchase utilized pulp made from trees felled in old growth forests.

Imagine that; the destruction of virgin forests, just so I could blow my nose. It’s pretty disgusting. Aside from the source of the material used for making tissues, some manufacturers also use dangerous and highly toxic bleaching processes; plus fragrances and other additives with dubious origins.

The problem is you can’t always trust what’s written on the box. In the instance I mentioned above, the manufacturer stated that they sourced materials from renewable plantings and “sustainably managed forests” – it seems at that point that they were using the term rather loosely.

Since this article was first published, the manufacturer has made some progress – achieving Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) accreditation and switching to oxygen based bleaching in Australia. However, FSC accreditation has been criticized by some who say its standards are not always being applied in practice.

The best advice I could offer here is to look for solid statements such as “no bleaching”, “unbleached”, “100% recycled paper” and similar in facial tissue products. If you’re still not certain, most large companies offer consumer hotlines and you can gain clarification. If they can’t answer your questions or seem cagey about doing so, then that company may be contributing to the destruction of old growth forests.

Thankfully, in recent years tissues made entirely from recycled paper are now more commonplace and affordable. A few of the brand names offering facial tissues with 100% recycled content include 7th Generation, Green Forest, Ecosoft, Marcal and White Swan.

Aside from the tree issue, using recycled paper products brings other environmental benefits; such as using 60% less energy and 50% less water than making paper from new materials.

As for me, there’s not a box of tissues to be found at my place any more – I make do with 100% recycled paper towel. Sure, perhaps it’s not as pretty as boxed tissues I guess; but it does the job (and is cheaper).


How Stuff Is Recycled
Tips For Buying Recycled Paper Products
Recycling Energy Savings

Unsung environmental heroes – random acts of green

August 21st, 2013.

First published July 2010, last updated August 2013

When a movie star goes green, it makes headlines. The green movement also has its share of home-grown heroes; people you see mentioned each week on environmentally themed sites. It’s great stuff as it inspires many people.

What inspires me more is witnessing what would appear to be “random acts of green” by ordinary folks.

I remember an incident a few years back driving along on the outskirts of Adelaide. It was a windy, cold morning with intermittent drizzle. Niki the Wonder Dog and I were comfortable enough in our heated mini-van buzzing along the highway when in the distance; I saw a car on the side of the road. I slowed down thinking that perhaps someone needed assistance.

Out of the gloom emerged a lonely figure; an elderly gentleman with a bag who appeared to be just picking up rubbish along the side of the road.. and no, he wasn’t just picking up cans and bottles for the deposit cash.

He wasn’t wearing a Greenpeace T-shirt, there was no environmental group name stencilled on his car and he certainly didn’t have the media in tow. In fact, there was nothing to indicate he was a “greenie” at all aside from what he was doing – he just seemed to be someone doing his bit for the environment.

I’ll never know his name, but to me he’s an environmental hero. He made me stop and think about why I couldn’t do something like that from time to time; a random act of green-ness – to spend 5 or 10 minutes each trip cleaning up a section of roadside; or perhaps where I stop to have my break.

It’s the sort of thing we can all do.

These random acts don’t have to entail you being chilled to the bone and trudging along a muddy road or spending hours at a time engaged in an activity. It could be picking up some litter in the park or at the beach while you are there, turning off a light at work in a room not being used – just something spontaneous and outside your own usual green focus.

Just imagine, if every adult in the USA performed one random act of green a day, over a year that would amount to over 114 billion actions. That’s a lot of litter collected or lights turned off. As I’ve so often mentioned, simple green actions do work when occurring in multiples.

For those of you who do regularly practice random acts of green – it is noticed and it does inspire. Like the better known green celebrities and activists; you are heroes too.

Natural Gas And The Environment

August 18th, 2013.

First published June 2010, last updated August 2013

With the tide (thankfully) starting to turn against coal fired power generation, renewable energy is finding favor, as is electricity generated via the combustion of natural gas.

So, is natural gas green?

What is natural gas?

Natural gas consists mainly of methane and is often found associated with oil fields, coal seams and other fossil fuel deposits; but also may exist on its own in huge underground reservoirs.

Extraction methods

Like oil, natural gas is often obtained through targeted drilling, however at times it’s a by-product of oil drilling. Not so long ago, gas associated with oil extraction was simply burned off (flaring), but now it’s increasingly captured for use.

In drilling operations where natural gas is targeted, hydraulic fracturing may also be employed once a well is sunk to the required depth to boost the flow of gas. The fracture is formed by pumping special fluid into the base of the well. This process is also known as “fracking”.

Natural gas processing

While natural gas will burn without refining; in order to make it suitable for residential, automotive and industrial use, it must be processed – and that in itself is an energy intensive task. However, the by-products of the process produces useful substances such as propane and butane.

Natural gas emissions

Natural gas is often referred to as the “cleanest” of the fossil fuels, including so-called “clean coal“. According to, the burning of natural gas emits almost 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal.

However, this isn’t the full story – burning gas may create lower emissions, but the entire production process can be emissions intensive. A major issue is fugitive emissions from gas that escapes during extraction. In a medium case scenario, life-cycle emissions per joule of energy derived from fracked gas could potentially be similar to those derived from coal.

While the combustion of natural gas also results in lower levels of nitrogen oxides (which contribute to acid rain), sulfur, carbon monoxide, and virtually no particulate matter; it’s this lack of particulate matter compared to coal combustion that may mean a shift to gas could accelerate a rise in global average temperatures. Confused? I don’t blame you. Read more about this aspect here.

CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) and automobiles

CNG is becoming an increasingly popular alternate fuel for cars. says the EPA has found vehicles using compressed natural gas have reductions in carbon monoxide emissions of up to 97 percent, carbon dioxide emission reductions of 25 percent and nitrogen oxide emission reductions of up to 60 percent.

Natural gas environmental implications

Natural gas certainly sounds like a panacea for all society’s energy woes in some ways – but it is a fossil fuel and unlike solar power and like oil, it is a limited resource. As such, a massive switch to natural gas would see many of the problems associated with oil production still occur.

The fugitive emissions risk aside, extraction of natural gas can be an environmentally damaging process. The process of “fracking” involves toxic waste and can contaminate the ground water with the fluids and the gas itself. In some parts of the world, the amount of natural gas that has leaked into aquifers through nearby fracking activities is enough to burn – I’ve seen photos of people lighting their faucets.

Fracking operations can also draw heavily on groundwater and are believed to be connected with some earthquake incidents.

The hydraulic fluids themselves can be somewhat of a black box, with some in the industry refusing to reveal the components of the fluids involved. The documentary “Gasland” claims some fluids contain known carcinogens and heavy metals.

Gas produced from fracking operations is “wet” and needs to be separated from the water and fracking fluid when it comes to the surface and this wastewater can also be highly toxic.

In some countries, land owners may own the surface area of their properties, but not the resources that lay beneath. Some are forced to allow gas drilling operations on their property and there’s little recourse if the company involved doesn’t restore the land to what it was before. The same problems can occur on government or public land; as with all forms of mining.

As mentioned, another environmental issue is the methane itself. While methane does burn quite cleanly, it is a very potent greenhouse gas – around 60 times the Greenhouse Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide. Methane leaks from extraction and during transportation just add to an already greenhouse gas overburdened atmosphere.

A great deal of energy is required to process natural gas and while some by-products of that process are useful, others are just toxic waste, such as hydrogen sulfide and carbonyl sulphide

While natural gas may be “greener” than all other fossil fuels (and that is certainly debatable as more information becomes available), it’s certainly not green – it’s the lesser of the fossil fuel sourced energy evils.

Natural gas provides an interim source of energy while we wean ourselves off coal and oil and perhaps as a baseload source of energy when needed; but there’s a danger of  natural gas being seen as a replacement for renewable energy for our future power needs.

Natural gas will not solve the climate change issue – it should be seen only as part of the solution and a stepping stone to even cleaner energy technology.

The environmental impact of tea

August 12th, 2013.

First published January 2011, last updated August 2013

There are all sorts of teas, but in this article I’ll focus on the world’s most popular flavored beverage made from the dried leaves and buds of  the tea bush, Camellia sinensis.

While the amount of tea used in the preparation of a single cup may seem tiny, well over 4 million tons of tea is produced annually around the world.

As far as beverages go, tea is probably one of the more natural as in its simplest form, it just consists of dried plant material without a great deal of processing.

However, like any intensive monocropping, tea farming does have an environmental impact.

To generate that 4+ million tons of dried plant material each year means a great deal of land is utilized for growing it. As demand increases, so does the amount of land required. The massive alteration of habitats for farming tea means some plant and animal species native to that area suffer.

Additionally, pesticides and artificial fertilizers are often used in tea plantations to restore nutrients used by the tea bush and to fend off parasites. The resulting soil degradation is a major issue, one usually addressed by using even more fertilizer and chemicals that further compounds the soil degradation problem. Chemical runoff into waterways can also be a problem.

Unlike some other food crops though, the tea bush isn’t ripped out of the ground during harvest – only the top 1-2 inches of the mature plant are picked; so in that aspect, it’s quite a sustainable crop. An individual tea bush can be commercially viable for up to a century.

When we see images of tea plantations, the bushes are only around waist height; but tea plants can actually grow to an incredible 50 feet high if left unharvested.

After the tea is picked, it’s fermented for a period depending on the type of flavor to be achieved. This fermenting is called “withering” and as the name suggests, it just consists of the leaf drying for a period naturally.

After the withering, the leaves are rolled through machinery and then they need to be fully dried. This is not carried out by air-drying – the leaves are heated using fuels such as wood or gas. According to information from WWF, in Sri Lanka it takes between 1.5 and 2.5 kilograms of wood to produce 1 kilogram of tea. While the wood required for drying is increasingly grown in plantations, in some cases it is still taken from local forests.

Some of the above sounds a little un-green, but compare it to other beverages and tea seems quite environmentally friendly; until we come to the packaging involved with some tea products.

Loose leaf tea usually just comes in a box with a liner – so nothing terribly environmentally evil there (comparatively speaking).

Where packaging does have a particular impact is in relation to tea bags.

Traditionally, tea bags have been made from special paper derived from Abacá (a type of banana tree) , but a few years back there appeared to be a major push by tea companies to use nylon and PET; which has caused some concern with regard to chemical leaching – and even paper based bags may have some issues.

Probably the only other major environmental issue is that of food miles – as tea plantations are predominantly in Africa, Asia and India, it can be very a long way from farm to cup.

As I was perusing various tea company sites while researching for this article, it was encouraging to see many of them featuring an environmental section where they detail their efforts and plans to further minimize the impact of their operations.

Some are switching to organically grown tea leaves, aiming for Rainforest Alliance Certification, using biodegradable boxes and pouches and importantly – implementing fair trade concepts; so looking after people as well as the planet.

If you have a favorite brand of tea, visit their company web site to find out what environmental efforts they are making.

I’m not a big tea drinker, but I’m told the tea in tea bags is generally rather low quality stuff – tea “dust”. So by switching to loose leaf tea, you’ll not only cut down on packaging and possible associated health risks; but you’ll get a better tasting cuppa – in fact, a good quality loose leaf tea can be brewed a couple of times.

Uses for used tea leaves

  • If you do use tea bags, instead of throwing them into your household trash bin – they can be composted or added to a worm farm.
  • I’ve seen dried tea leaves suggested as an incense (although in my opinion, burning tea leaves smell pretty bad)
  • Following on from the last tip – burning tea leaves is said to repel mosquitos (that I can believe)
  • Dried tea leaves can absorb moisture in cupboards and odors in refrigerators
  • Tea leaves sprinkled in kitty litter can help reduce smell
  • Remove oil from pots and pans without impacting on their “seasoned” aspects
  • Dried tea leaves can sop up oil spills in the kitchen.
  • Soak old tea bags in melted wax to make firelighters

Greener pillow alternatives

August 5th, 2013.

First published January 2007, last updated August 2013

Another throwaway item that we probably don’t give much thought to environment-wise is the pillow. Most of us will sleep our way through dozens of pillows over our lifetimes – and with many millions of other folks doing the same; it’s worth giving some consideration.

Synthetic pillow stuffings

A widely-used pillow filling is polyester fiber. The most common polyester for fiber purposes is polyethylene terephthalate or simply PET. PET is made from fossil fuel and while PET is recyclable, I’ve never seen the recycle logo on any pillow I’ve owned.

Other common synthetic pillow fillings include memory foam which is made from polyurethane with additional chemicals – not particularly earth friendly either.

Both of these substances take a very long time to break down in the environment.

In looking for “greener” alternatives, here’s what I came up with.

Wool Fibre Fill
Wool is flame resistant and offers excellent moisture absorbency, allowing the pillow fill to breathe. Wool is naturally bacteria and dust mite resistant. Try to find wool fill pillows sourced from organically raised sheep, or recycled wool.

Feather and Down Fill
Made from duck or goose feathers, the higher the down content, the softer the pillow will be. However, while this may be a more natural filler; how it is sourced is important. Some pillows will have feathers that are a by-product of slaughtering, others may be gathered feathers, but it seems in some cases, they will be forcibly removed from the bird; causing injury.

Buckwheat Hull Fill
Said to be superior to either of the above options, buckwheat hull material conforms to the contours of your head and neck without “pushing back” as some fibers do. It has excellent insulation properties for both summer and winter and a single fill can last for years.

Natural Shredded Rubber Fill
Also known as latex, this is a byproduct of the rubber tree – when purchasing, check that it’s not a synthetic rubber.

Kapok Fill
Kapok is a soft and silky fiber from the seed pods of a the ceiba tree

Organic Cotton Fill
Bypass ordinary cotton if you can – its a pesticide and water intensive product.

Going beyond the pillow filling, pillow cases are also often made from synthetics. More earth friendly materials include hemp, organic cotton and wool blends.

So the good news is, there are greener choices when choosing a pillow. The bad news is, they are substantially more expensive. From what I researched, natural shredded rubber fill was the cheapest. Bear in mind though that while “alternative” pillows may be costlier, they have a longer lifespan compared to polyester fiber fills – and living a greener life is as much about level of consumption as it is about product choice.

If you want to stick with polyester filled pillows – perhaps put your old pillows to good use.