personal care

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

Air conditioner choices and tips for staying cool inside

July 3rd, 2013.

First published June 2009, last updated July 2013

While it’s winter here in Australia, in the northern hemisphere it’s summer and things have been really heating up in some countries. At the time of updating this article, it’s 3am in Las Vegas and the temperature there is 37C (98F). At 3am!

A few days back Las Vegas experienced temperatures of 47C (129F) and in Death Valley, the mercury climbed to 54C (129F).

Even by Australian standards, that is incredibly hot.

Unfortunately, most houses haven’t been constructed, insulated or positioned correctly in order to minimize the amount of artificial air conditioning required to keep temperatures indoors bearable throughout the summer months. Add to this the urban heat island effect and things can become very uncomfortable and even life threatening.

This will become an increasing challenge in the years ahead as global warming really starts to kick in and developing nations start having increased access to luxuries, or in some cases necessities, such as air conditioning. Millions more people will start using air conditioners and for longer periods.

Aside from the spike in electricity and water consumption connected to air conditioner usage that costs consumers and the environment a great deal, utility company transformers are well known to overheat and explode when air conditioning usage hits its peak during a heatwave, often cause massive blackouts and fires. The use of air conditioners also adds to the urban heat island effect.

Basic tips for staying cools indoors

Where I live is pretty much a desert state – it’s not unusual for temperatures here to hit above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) for days on end during summer. When we moved into our previous house, we were very surprised to find that the roof wasn’t insulated – at all.

Dark roof tiles and summer heat aren’t a really good combination; so instead of running the air conditioner for many hours a day, we invested in earth friendly roof insulation made from recycled cellulose fiber. It was a great investment, not only keeping us cooler during summer, but warmer during winter and increasing the value of our house. Additionally, it helped to reduce noise from outside.

But even with that insulation in place, the house still became quite hot at times – unfortunately it was built facing east-west instead of north-south as it should in the southern hemisphere to take advantage of passive solar warming during the winter months and present a side of the house to the sun with fewer windows during the summer.

To further reduce the need for air conditioning, over the summer we leave some doors and windows of the house that have security screens on them open from the evening through to early in the morning to let out pent up heat. We then shut the house up and draw the curtains as the temperature rises. When temperatures indoors get to the stage that it’s uncomfortable, then the air conditioner goes on – usually not until well after midday on the hottest days of the year.

Here are some other tips for staying cooler indoors without air conditioning:

– The use of ceiling and pedestal fans. While a fan on its own doesn’t reduce temperature, the movement of air over your skin evaporates perspiration causing a cooling effect – making the temperature feel up to 8 degrees cooler. You don’t need to be sitting directly in front of the fan to feel some benefit – it’s just a matter of getting air inside the room moving. If you decide to install a ceiling fan, try to buy one that has a reverse feature – it can then be useful in winter too.

– Gaps around doors and windows should be sealed to prevent hot air entering the house. Again, this will be of benefit during winter too.

– All electrical appliances generate heat; especially refrigerators and some TV’s. Plasma screens in particular are known to create a great deal of heat, to the point that some refer to them as space heaters.

If you’re not watching the TV, switch it off. Encourage your family not to have the refrigerator door open for extended periods and don’t overload your fridge. Turn off any appliance at the wall you’re not using (this will also reduce standby power consumption)

– Switch from incandescent bulbs to LED or Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL’s) as 80% – 90% of the energy consumed by incandescent lighting is wasted through heat. CFL’s will also save you money in electricity.

– Try to confine physical activity such as housework to the early hours of the day or late in the evening.

– Try to prepare foods that require the least amount of cooking as possible and use a microwave where you can. Ensure your range hood exhaust fan is switched on while cooking.

– Wear clothing that breathes, such as cotton. Avoid wearing shoes as our feet are also designed to be efficient heat exchangers. In fact, the less clothing you can get away with, the better as our bodies have quite an effective inbuilt cooling system.

– Curtains and shades should be a light color and of heavy material to help reflect/block the heat. Blackout curtains can also help keep heat in during winter.

– Keep rooms you don’t use often closed off.

– Plant trees around your house to provide a shade buffer between the sun and your walls. Use deciduous trees on the northern or southern side (depending on the hemisphere you live in) so you can still take advantage of passive solar warming in winter.

– Discourage your family from coming in and out of the house excessively. Each time the door is opened, a substantial blast of hot air will follow.

– Drink plenty of fluids, but steer clear of alcohol and sugar laden drinks.

– A spray bottle full of water kept close at hand can be a great way to get a bit of relief, particularly if there’s some air movement.

– A damp cloth applied to the back of the neck can help take the edge off the heat

Don’t forget about your pets.

Dogs don’t perspire, but cool themselves by panting. If your dog is panting rapidly and salivating heavily, this could be a sign of heat stress.

Make sure your pets have plenty of water and in the case of dogs, a spray every once in a while with a spray bottle containing water or a shallow tub with a few inches of water in it that the dog can stand in can be a big help.

Niki the Wonder Dog enjoying some respite during a heatwave
when temperatures reached as high as 48.5C (119F)!

After seeing the difference the tub idea made to the comfort of Niki the Wonder Dog, I tried it out myself and yes, it does really work. Even though only my toes were covered with water, it had a fantastic overall cooling effect. A minute or so standing in the tub and I’m good to continue enduring the 40+ degree celsius (105F +) temperatures we regularly experience for a while in a better frame of mind .

It does get to a stage in some parts of the world where the above simply won’t be enough. If you are considering buying an air conditioner, there are three types commonly used in homes:

Evaporative air conditioning

These units are also known as air, swamp or desert coolers and range in size from portable units suitable for single rooms to massive installations that can cope with entire complexes.

Rooftop evaporative air conditioners use a fan that draws in air through a wet filter. As the hot air passes through the filter (usually made of paper or straw), the water evaporates which cools and humidifies the air. Depending on temperature and external humidity, evaporative air coolers can reduce indoor temperatures by as much as 30° F (17° C).

Evaporative air conditioning isn’t a new invention – as mentioned above, nature has installed evaporative cooler in our own bodies in the form of perspiration. Artificial evaporative air conditioning was invented thousands of years ago in Iran. In its simplest form, a wind shaft in the roof of a dwelling would channel air over a small pond of water, cooling the air before being blown into the house. The Iranians had far more complex and efficient installations as well that still rival any modern electrical cooling appliance in terms of effectiveness.

Evaporative coolers are best suited to environments such as ours – they are incredibly effective in dry air climates. An evaporative cooler used in a humid environment will be totally ineffective and likely make discomfort even worse.

One of the great aspects of evaporative air conditioning is maintenance and running cost – up to 80% less than other forms of artificial air cooling. An evaporative air cooler is usually around 50% cheaper to purchase also. A negative aspect of evaporative air conditioning is water usage – around 3.5 gallons per hour for a ducted system on the average home; but refrigerated air conditioning also involves the use of water indirectly through increased electricity consumption.

If you find that only a single room in your home really needs air conditioning, small mobile evaporative cooling units can be purchased for under a hundred dollars.

Important tip: Evaporative air conditioning works best when you leave a couple of doors or large windows open – the cooling effect is dependent upon air turning over within a house. By running evaporative air conditioning with the house entirely shut up, you will increase humidity to uncomfortable levels and this can also cause issues with mold and electrical equipment malfunctions.

It may sound odd having a door open when it’s 115 outside, but as long as the door or window left open is on the opposite side of external air movement and not in direct sunlight, heat from outside will not enter – the air pressure from inside will keep it out. If you have an outdoors barbecue area or pergola attached to the house, it’s a great way to keep that a tad cooler too!

Refrigerated air conditioning

This type works very much the same way as your refrigerator, using the evaporation of a refrigerant liquid in a closed system to provide cooling. A compressor compresses the gas, which heats it. The gas then passes through coils allowing the heat to dissipate and for the gas to condense into a pressurized liquid. The pressurised liquid then passes through an expansion valve where it it hits a low pressure area due to the vacuum action of the compressor at the other end of the line. It then becomes a gas again at a much lower temperature, cooling the pipe that contains it. This gas flows through an insulated line to to a console unit containing a series of coils with a fan behind it; which sucks air from the room over the coils (unless it is a split system, then air is drawn from outside), cooling the air and then pushing it back into your home.

Refrigerated air conditioning also removes humidity from the air through the condensation of moisture on the cold evaporator coils. This condensate is drawn away to either evaporate in a pan over the warm condenser coils or just run directly outside.

While refrigerated air conditioning doesn’t directly use water, it does use a great deal more electricity than evaporative air cooling. That’s where the water usage lies; in the electricity generation process. When this is taken into account, the amount of water used by refrigerated cooling unit is approximately two thirds that of an evaporative unit.

The use of inverters in refrigerated air conditioning has delivered some energy savings – I’ve read claims of between 30 and 50 percent. Air conditioners without inverters need to stop and start in order to maintain a room’s temperature, whereas models featuring inverters automatically adjust the compressor speed.


Not as common for cooling applications as refrigerated or evaporative air conditioning, dehumidifiers are sometimes used in tropical locations to remove moisture from the air – a major contributor to a feeling of discomfort in higher temperatures. In a dehumidifier system, moisture laden air is drawn over a coil, much like a refrigerated air conditioner’s evaporator coils. Moisture from the air condenses on the coils, then drips into a pan or is piped into a drain. The air then moves over another warmer coil and is then blown back into the room.

While the resulting air isn’t really cooled, with the excess moisture removed it makes higher temperatures more tolerable. Dehumidifiers are used in situations where humidity is too high for an evaporative cooler, but refrigerated cooling cannot be used. The amount of electricity consumed is about half that of a comparable refrigerated air conditioning unit.

Air conditioners and off grid living

If you’re living off the mains grid and have limited access to water and power, it can be difficult to find a suitable air conditioner. I looked for many months for a unit I could use while in the bush and running off a small mobile solar power system. I finally stumbled across the MightyKool, a very portable personal evaporative air conditioner made in the USA. I’ve had it for a few seasons now and it’s absolutely brilliant. It only uses about a quart of water an hour and draws just .8 amps at its lowest setting. While it’s not a cheap item, it’s been worth every penny as there have been a few occasions where this powerful little air conditioner has likely prevented me from suffering heat stroke.

Artificial air conditioning – luxury or necessity?

The human race survived relatively well before air conditioning was powered by electricity and complex manufactured systems. The arrival of modem artificial cooling is somewhat a blessing and a curse due to the large amounts of energy required to run these systems – we need to use it wisely and see it as a luxury and privilege when it’s not being used in critical situations.

If you do run an air conditioner, before switching the cool on, try just running the fan for while until things really start heating up – it can save substantial energy and water. Also remember that the aim is to stay cool so you can function, not to create a refrigerator type environment – experiment with thermostat settings and find the highest possible temperature before you start feeling too uncomfortable.

I’ve noticed some houses in my neighborhood run their air conditioning units 24/7 over much of summer; but don’t bother closing curtains or taking other low/no-cost steps to minimize heat entering into their homes. It’s annoying to hear the hum of all the motors of a night time – more noise pollution – and the practice consumes an incredible amount of electricity.

While there are certainly situations where air-conditioning is a matter of life and death, I think we all need to toughen up just a bit when it comes to our expectations of acceptable living comfort levels. The planet depends upon us doing so.

What is GreenPalm?

June 22nd, 2013.

Sustainable palm oil is a very important topic – more than most of us realise. So what is GreenPalm and is it effective?

You’ve probably consumed palm oil at some point today. It’s used in many processed food items and personal care products such as soap and shampoos.

Palm oil is not always indicated on ingredient lists – it may be simply referred to as “vegetable oil”. To make matters more confusing, other ingredients can be derived from palm oil; such as Cetyl Alcohol, Glycerol Stearate and Sodium Kernelate.

Indonesia is by far the largest producer of palm oil. It’s estimated the country produced 28 million tonnes of palm oil in 2012. Malaysia is also a significant producer; cranking out around 19 million tonnes in 2012.

A major concern with regard to the production of palm oil is the environmental cost. For example, rainforests have been razed in Borneo and Sumatra to clear the way for palm oil plantations. Aside from increasing carbon emissions through the burning, it has had a significant impact on many species including the critically endangered orangutan; which has lost over 90% of its habitat in the last two decades.

The issue of palm oil gained additional focus in June 2013 after air pollution hit a record high in Singapore; to the point it endangered the lives of the old and ill. The major cause of the event was the burning of peatlands on Sumatra to make way for farmland.

So what is being done to address the many issues surrounding palm oil?

Probably the biggest initiative is GreenPalm; which is a certificate trading programme based on Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.

About RSPO certification

The RSPO was established in 2004 to promote the production of sustainable palm oil. The RSPO Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production are the global guidelines for producing palm oil sustainably.

RSPO certified operations must commit to and observe 8 basic principles:

1 – Commitment to transparency

2 – Compliance with applicable laws and regulations

3 – Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability

4 – Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers

5 – Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity

6 – Responsible consideration of employees and of individuals and communities affected by growers and mills

7 – Responsible development of new plantings

8 – Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity

Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) must be grown on plantations established on land that was not deforested after 2005.

The RSPO says all certified oil is fully traceable through the supply chain. The organisation’s members produce about 40% of the world’s palm oil and are processors or users of more than 30%.

However, RSPO isn’t just an old boys club of industry – there is also some input and oversight from NGO’s to allow for increased transparency.

As of the end of 2012, RSPO certified plantations covered an area 22 times the size of Singapore island and around 14% of the world’s palm oil is now RSPO certified – a massive jump in just a few years.

While the growth of CSPO is impressive, the majority of the world’s supply is still non-certified and rainforest continues to be cleared at an alarming pace.

How GreenPalm works.

With so many producers – both RSPO certified and non-certified – one of the challenges is that a tanker-load of oil will have come from different plantations, mills or even countries; making it difficult for palm oil purchasers to gauge the provenance of the product. While splitting up certified and non-certified product can be done, it adds costs at multiple stages.

However, RSPO certified producers can register X output of their product with the GreenPalm program. For each tonne of certified palm oil, the producer is given one GreenPalm certificate.

Those certificates can then be sold via the GreenPalm online trading platform to companies such as food producers. The price of a certificate is a premium above the cost of non-certified oil. The additional cost isn’t huge – less than 1%.

A producer can buy X tonnage in certificates equivalent to what they use in production of their food items; or part thereof.

So, while the actual oil the food company is using may not be RSPO certified; they have paid for certified oil – which is being used somewhere.

The idea is that producers can make more money through having a certified product and manufacturers can promote their support of sustainable palm oil; which can have a positive effect on consumers, resulting in more sales.

GreenPalm issues

Whether RSPO certification and GreenPalm has been effective or not will depend on who you ask. Some have accused the organisation of being a greenwashing front due to perceived low standards and lack of regulations. However, at the moment it appears to be the best of a bad situation.

So what’s a consumer to do?

Given the current circumstances and how difficult it is for most people to avoid palm oil, the best thing we can all do is to let companies know we are concerned and demand answers.

In my 2007 article on palm oil, included is some sample text that can be used in an email to companies asking about the provenance of their palm oil  and registering concern with regard to sustainability. Yes, it does seem to be just ‘keyboard warrior’ stuff, but it’s the pressure from consumers on companies that has forced some of them to examine their palm oil supply chains and make the shift to RSPO certified oil.

… in the meantime; Sumatra burns, the people of Singapore choke on the smoke and many species are threatened; but the hope is increased RSPO/CSPO certification will at least buy a bit of time to come up with better solutions.

For more information regarding issues surrounding palm oil, visit Say No To (Unsustainable) Palm Oil – it’s an impressive site; particularly given the person behind it – Thomas, a 17 year-old Australian. Far from being a keyboard warrior, Thomas has visited Borneo twice and has seen the destruction first-hand.

Rethink Cigarette Butts

April 20th, 2013.

Cigarette butts are one of the most common litter items found on roadsides, beaches and waterways around the world. They aren’t just unsightly – cigarette butts are also toxic.

A survey conducted by US anti-smoking group Legacy shows more than 44 percent of smokers polled admit to having dropped a cigarette on the ground and nearly 32 percent have dropped a cigarette out of a car window.

Guilty as charged on the former. During most of my years as a smoker*, I believed filters were quite biodegradable and I didn’t take into consideration the high concentration of toxins in the butt.

Simply put – cigarette butts are toxic waste and need to be disposed of as such.

For example, a 2008 study found similar patterns of poly-aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) – some of which are carcinogenic – levels in roadside soil as in cigarette butts found in the immediate vicinity, indicating that the chemicals had leached from the butts into the soil.

Legacy has teamed up with Leave No Trace for the Rethink Butts campaign to try and help reduce the littering cigarette butts and to highlight the very important point that the billions of cigarettes butts littered around the world annually represent a huge environmental and public health threat.

As part of the RethinkButts campaign; a thought-provoking TV ad has been produced:

Legacy was established in 1999 as part of the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the major tobacco companies and various US governments to redistribute a portion of the money received from the tobacco industry to undertake research and provide education on the impact of tobacco.

*After nearly 3 decades of heavy smoking, I entirely quit my tobacco cigarette habit on July 24, 2012 using ecigarettes. If you are a heavy smoker who has tried everything else to quit smoking and failed; ecigs are well worth looking into.

You can learn more about ecigarettes here (one of my sites). I’ve also published an article on the topic of ecigarettes and the environment on Green Living Tips.


Environmental Impact Of Tobacco

Greening baby wipes

April 10th, 2013.

First published March 2009, last updated April 2013

I often wonder how our parents got by in the days when there was no such thing as disposable diapers, let alone baby wipes. Wipes are very handy to have around, but I never gave much thought to the environment when I was using them. Heck, I didn’t even know what they were made of. I assumed it was some type of wood fiber.

The baby wipe

Baby wipe packaging isn’t the only plastic part – the wipes themselves often are too.

The material used in baby wipes can be made from silk, cotton, polyester, wool, rayon, polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene – or a mixture. Price conscious consumers are likely getting a product that’s predominantly plastic – which is derived from crude oil.

So, the first green tip is to never flush these down the toilet as they are not biodegradable, nor can they be composted and for obvious reasons, they aren’t recyclable. Unfortunately, they need to go to landfill where they will spend many years before they break down.

The cleanser

Wipes can incorporate quite a chemical cocktail, including ingredients such as:

– Sodium diamphoacetate
– coco phosphatidyl PG-dimonium chloride
– hydroxymethyl cellulose
– methyl and propyl paraben

There’s not only implications for human health with some of these chemicals, particularly triclosan, but as waste products, they can be toxic in aquatic and land ecosystems.

The packaging

Baby wipe packaging is predominantly plastic. As outlined in my article “Recycling by the numbers“, not all plastics are created equal. Some can be recycled, others not. It’s important to check the tub for a little triangle with a number in it, which indicates the plastic resin code. If that number is 1 or 2, then it is easily recycled.

If you’re not able to find packaging that can be recycled, try buying a brand that utilizes a container you can reuse for another purpose or one you can buy refills for.

I came across some baby wipes a while back that had an interesting twist on packaging – it was chalk based; made from a mix of calcium carbonate (chalk) and plastic. However, I didn’t check to see if the packaging was recyclable given the chalk content.

Green baby wipe alternatives

While for some people total cessation of plastic based baby wipes may not be possible, particularly when travelling or out and about, when at home you can reduce consumption, plastic waste and save money to boot!

You can use something as simple as a diaper soaked in warm water and then just throw it in with your cloth diaper loads. Others have come up with their own “recipes” for making baby wipes you can lug around, such as the ones here and here.

Note: when looking around for instructions on how to make baby wipes, I noticed quite a few pages recommending the use of baby oil as a component. As it turns out, baby oil is basically mineral oil, derived from crude oil. Environmental issues aside,  there seems to be a lot of controversy as to the possible negative effects on health through applying mineral oil directly to the skin.

There are also some commercially available environmentally friendly baby wipes around that use plant fiber and are free of synthetic chemical additives – and they aren’t all that more expensive. If you run a search on “green baby wipes” or “environmentally friendly baby wipes” on your favorite search engine, you’ll likely find these. Also request that your supermarket stock them – you’ll be helping out the companies that produce these wipes, other eco-conscious shoppers and of course the environment!

An eco-friendly shave

January 1st, 2013.

First published April 2009, last updated January 2013

Shaving is one of those personal care issues that we can probably all green a little more. I’m writing this from a guy’s perspective, but I’m sure some of this applies to the ladies as well :)

Back in my late teens, I used disposable razors until I was given a hand- me- down electric razor from my father. It served him for years and then me for a couple more. It was great in that I wasn’t dumping so much shaving related waste (but there’s the electricity consumption of course). However, each time I buy an electric razor since that original hand-me-down, the time span before buying yet another new one seemed to be getting shorter.

My next shaver lasted me several years before it required a new head. Then cheaper cordless/rechargeable ones started hitting the market and it’s been a downhill run ever since.

Even some of the more expensive and well known brand names I’ve bought seem to be rapidly degrading in quality. Granted, I’ve never bought one of the $300 – $500 models, but given my experiences to date, there is nothing that leads me to believe they’ll be worth the money, or the waste.

What I find rather disgusting is that the cost to replace the head or battery on an electric razor can be comparable to buying a whole new shaver – so what do many people do? Dump the 1 – 2 year old shaver and buy a new one. I’ve been guilty of this myself. A head and screen for my last razor was going to cost $60 and the battery was starting to go as well, so I simply bought a $150 shaver that was marked down 50%..

Even that electric razor didn’t last. It was a well known brand, but one of the cutter bars somehow fell off and I couldn’t find a replacement part. This is by no mistake or oversight, it’s called planned obsolescence.

So after over a decade of electric razors, it was back to blade shaving for me, but that presented other challenges.

Disposable razors

The disposable plastic handled razors are still ultra-cheap, but create a lot of waste – even if you can squeeze a number of uses out of them. 2 billion disposable razors are purchased annually in the USA.

There are also many replaceable head brands, but what happens with those is that after X period, the blades can be discontinued.

Extending disposable razor life

You don’t *have to* throw out a disposable razor after the first use. There’s no law against using it until it no longer serves its purpose. To extend their life, as a disposable razor blade rusts quite rapidly and it’s this corrosion that speeds up the dulling process, you can slow the degradation down by rinsing the razor after use, flicking off the excess water and then placing it in a container of olive oil.

What about shaving cream?

This is another scary area and one we don’t have to deal with when using an electric shaver. I tried making do with vegetable soap and water in my latest blade razor ventures, but it was pretty rough going and time consuming. For guys that have thick facial hair or rapid growth rates, it would be even tougher (actually, impossible); so shaving cream is the obvious answer.

But have you seen what’s in canned shaving cream? Here’s an example list of ingredients from a well known brand:

Palmitic Acid
Stearic Acid
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Sodium benzoate
Lauryl alcohol
Stearyl alcohol
Irish moss
Dimethicone PEG/PPG-20/23 benzoate
DMDM Hydantoin
PPG-1-PEG-9 Lauryl Glycol ether
PEG-40 Hydrogenated castor oil
Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate

That’s just frightening – some of those ingredients such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate are particularly nasty in an aquatic environment and given most of us shave over the sink, waterways are where all this gunk ends up.

A more natural shaving lather

So how the heck did our forefathers achieve a comfortable and effective shave? With a soap bar and bristle brush for lathering. The soaps used back then were quite environmentally friendly, consisting primarily of vegetable oil. If you type the following into google:

natural shaving soap

.. you’ll find it’s not all that hard to source and is quite reasonably priced. If you are more adventurous, try searching on

shaving soap recipe

… and make your own :).

Another option is extra virgin olive oil. I recently began trialing this and while it’s not as comfortable as using a shaving cream, it certainly works – although I wouldn’t like to leave it too long between shaves. All you need to do is to dampen your face, apply a small amount of olive oil, rub it in and then hook in (carefully) with your razor. When done and after washing your face, it may feel a little greasy; but that sensation disappears within minutes. The olive oil will also act as a moisturizer.

Shaving brushes

Shaving brushes pose a bit of a challenge as well.

The best quality shaving brushes are said to be made from badger hair – and that hair isn’t obtained through the badger having a hair cut unfortunately. As badgers are a protected species in North America and most of Europe, most badger hair comes from China where in some places they are considered a nuisance. Boar hair or horse hair is also used in some brushes.

If you’re concerned with animal welfare issues; the only option might be a nylon bristle brush – which is plastic; so it’s a case of being caught between a rock and hard place, but a good brush should last many years.

While taking a more earth friendly approach to shaving certainly won’t save the planet on its own, it’s one of the many small things we do that in total do make a positive difference and slightly reduce our impact.

Trees and our toilet paper

November 7th, 2012.

First published March 2009, last updated November 2012

Do we *really* need that super soft, fragranced triple-ply white toilet paper with the floral print? 

The mind boggles at how many trees are cut down each year just so we can wipe our bums.

While toilet paper from recycled materials is quite common here in Australia and in many other countries, back in 2009 when I first published this article, tissue made from 100 percent recycled fibers was still under 2 percent of the USA’s domestic use market among conventional and premium brands. 

I haven’t been able to find any updated statistics, but I have noticed more “name” brands using recycled content, which is good to see.

Looking at a few corporate sites’ sustainability pages, it seems that 2009 saw quite a turnaround in the industry as the toilet paper issue received a fair amount of attention that year. However, even in brands that have seen the light, the level of recycled content is often still quite low.

Further improvements can definitely be made – not just in the USA, but in Australia and other nations too. I’d like to warmly encourage folks to please ignore the marketing that says you *need* the super-fluffy blinding white paper and to at least have a try of the 100% recycled content stuff.

It might not be quite as soft, but millions of people I’m sure would agree when I say that it’s not exactly sandpaper either. There’s certainly no pain involved, I assure you :).

Toilet paper made from recycled material does the job, does it comfortably, does it well – and really, isn’t this an area of our lives where we really don’t need over-pampering; particularly when otherwise what we’d be wiping our butts with was made from live trees?

Most of the paper for toilet tissue in the United States comes from tree farms and second growth forests – an area that has re-grown after a major disturbance; but some still also comes from virgin forests

One of the most commonly used type of tree can produce around 1,000 rolls of toilet paper. Given that Americans use an average of 23.6 rolls per person per year, based on a population of 314,723,449 (estimated USA population at November 2012), that equates to 7,427,473,396 rolls of toilet paper annually – 7.4 billion. We’re talking many millions of trees – and even in the case of plantation timber, that could be put to better use.

Recycled content toilet paper traps
Buying toilet paper made from recycled materials is great but even this can present some challenges.
Recycled paper needs to be de-inked before it is pulped and processed. This de-inking process may involve chlorine to bleach the paper. Chlorine based chemicals can react with paper fibers to create toxic compounds such as dioxin and organochlorines.
Dioxins cause cancer, learning disorders, decreased immune response, diabetes and all sorts of other nasty problems in the wider environment. By the way, the same chlorine issue is prevalent when using virgin-fiber based toilet tissue too.
When shopping for earth friendly toilet paper look for statements such as “unbleached”, “processed chlorine-free” or “totally chlorine free”.

Also be sure to check the level of recycled content – it could be as low as 5%.
Toilet paper from recycled materials costs around the same. If you’re really in savings mode, you can also save on paper (and save yourself some cash) by opting for 1 ply paper. While a roll of 1 ply can be more expensive, there’s more usable paper and studies have shown that people tend not to use more of it. 1 ply also breaks down faster, which is particularly a good thing in septic systems. Less paper means less pumping out and less cost.
Choosing fully recycled chlorine-free paper is something we can all do. If your local supermarket doesn’t stock it, ask for it – the only way we’ll change the situation is through consumer demand.

Hair spray, mousse, wax and gel

September 20th, 2012.

First published September 2007, last updated September 2012

Memories of my mother spraying her hair liberally with countless cans of hair spray over a number of years , followed by the mousses and gels that then became popular stay with me.

I vividly remember the little hand held shield she used that prevented the hair spray from getting in her eyes. I can still smell the throat-catching fragrances of the various sprays and potions she applied, that wafted out of the bathroom and throughout the house. I shudder to think how many hours she spent of her life in a hair products chemical fog.

My mother died of kidney failure when she was just 51.

The hair sprays and gels she used over the decades didn’t kill her, but they certainly didn’t help. My mother took great pride in presenting herself nicely, so cosmetics were a big part of her life until the disease that lurked in her since childhood took hold and then she started reacting to many synthetic chemicals. The fact that she had these strong reactions shows that these cosmetics were toxic – they hastened her demise.

So what’s actually in this stuff and aside from the effects on humans, what is the impact on the environment? It not only sits on your skin and soaks into it, but once you shower, it winds up down the drain in into our waterways.

For starters, most come in elaborate packaging; cans and plastic spray bottles. The plastics will be with us for a long time to come; breaking down into toxic chemicals that poison the earth and groundwater. Most of the plastics are made from crude oil; the industry which has wreaked so much havoc on this planet.

I’m not sure what the average person consumes in terms of hair sprays, gels and waxes a year, but it would be safe to say my mom added hundreds of plastic bottles and jars to landfill during her life. She absolutely adored nature, the consequences just really weren’t on our radar in those days. As my mother neared the end of her life, these things became more apparent to her.

As for the ingredients in these product, here’s the laundry list of chemicals in a few products I looked at. I haven’t used this sort of stuff since the amazing 80’s. Memories.. brrrr :).

Hair spray

Butane/Propane – human toxicant

Octylacrylamide Acrylates – Banned in the EU; not sure why

Butylaminoethyl – Banned in the EU; not sure why

Cyclopentasiloxane –  Persistent, bioaccumulative in wildlife. Animal studies show sense organ effects at moderate doses

Propanol – animal studies show reproductive effects at moderate doses; possible carcinogen, skin irritant

Fragrance – always unsettling as fragrances can be made of all sorts of toxic chemicals. They aren’t required to be specified in this country as they are “trade secrets”

Hair wax/fudge

PVP/PA Copolymer – petrochemical

Polybutene – used as pesticide inert, with potential toxicological concerns

Tribehenin – animal studies show broad systemic effects at high doses

Phenoxyethanol –  animal studies show sense organ effects, neurotoxin, carcinogen

Diazolidinyl Urea – Known human immune system toxicant, irritant, neurotoxin in animals

Butylcarbamate – animal studies show brain and nervous system effects at moderate doses

Fragrance – see hair spray

Hair gel

Polyquaternium-11 – possible carcinogen, respiratory toxin

Panthenol – animal studies show broad systemic effects at high doses

Benzyl Nicotinate – Broad systemic toxicity in animals

Zinc PCA – Persistent, bioaccumulative in wildlife

Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate – May contain harmful impurities

Phytic Acid – animal studies show brain and nervous system effects at moderate doses

Dipropylene Glycol – animal studies show sense organ effects at moderate doses

Polysorbate 20 – animal studies show reproductive effects at high doses

Methylchloroisothiazolinone – human immune system toxicant

Tetrasodium EDTA – animal studies show sense organ effects at low doses

Methylparaben – possible carcinogen, neurotoxin, skin irritant

Fragrance – see hair spray

Hair mousse

Isobutane/Propane – human toxicant

VP/PA Copolymer – petrochemical

Panthenol – animal studies show broad systemic effects at high doses

Hydroxylsolexl-3-cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde – animal studies show sense organ effects at moderate doses

Butylphenyl Methylpropional – Possible human immune system toxicant. Animal studies show respiratory, reproductive brain and nervous system effects

Alpha Isomethyl Ionone – Possible human immune system toxicant

Polyquaternium-11 – – possible carcinogen, respiratory toxin
Oleth-20 – animal studies show sense organ and skin effects at low doses

Fragrance – see hair spray

As with other cosmetics, the number of ingredients and chemicals that are made from petrochemicals (originating from crude oil) is astounding.

If you don’t see the chemicals above in your hair products, it doesn’t mean that nasties aren’t lurking in them. The above were single product samples and not all the ingredients from each as the printing on the labels was so small, my eyes were starting to bleed trying to read them.

You don’t need any special knowledge or hours of research to track down what’s in your hair care products. Run them against a database such as the excellent application available at Skin Deep. If you decide that the risk to your health and the environment is too great; consider looking for earth friendly products based on vegetable rather than petrochemical ingredients.

These can be found on the web using search engines by simply entering terms such as:

earth friendly hair spray
hair spray natural ingredients
environmentally friendly hair gel
organic hair wax

.. and other related terms. Products based on plant ingredients are certainly out there, reasonably priced these days and are better for you and our planet! Do be cautious though as some products may contain natural and organic ingredients, but also have other chemicals mixed in as well; yet still be marketed as “earth friendly”. It really pays to read the labels.

Ecigarettes And The Environment

September 16th, 2012.

NOTE: This article is not intended to promote the use of nicotine; which is a toxic and highly addictive substance.

There are some horrible mistakes you make when you’re a teenager. Some you get to walk away from, wiser for the experience. Others you spend your life repairing. A few you may never be able to. Smoking can often be the latter.

I’ve published a few articles on tobacco related issues on Green Living Tips over the years and I’ve always acknowledged my writing on the topic was rather hypocritical as I was a smoker.

I say “was” – on July 24, 2012 a major change occurred in my life. After nearly 30 years of consistent and very heavy smoking – a habit I had started by the age of 14 – I smoked my final cigarette. After trying various methods that were all spectacular failures for me, what stopped my tobacco smoking dead in its tracks was an ecigarette.

Electronic cigarettes are rechargeable battery operated devices. They do not use tobacco, instead they vaporise a liquid mix of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine plus food grade flavorings at a relatively low temperature to create a vapor that looks like smoke.

ecigarette kit
An Ecig Kit – Learn more about ecigarettes

While liquids used may also contain nicotine, some smokers have been able to kick the habit using nicotine-free liquids, or wean themselves off nicotine based liquids over time onto liquids without the addictive substance, then finally ceasing altogether. An average smoker will only require a very small amount of liquid a day – around 2 mls (.067 fl. oz.).

To say I’m impressed with ecigarettes is somewhat of an understatement. There is a lot of controversy and misinformation surrounding the devices, so I recently launched a site to provide more in-depth information on the topic based on my own experiences and research –

In this article, I just wanted to focus on some the environmental aspects of ecigarettes.

The green street cred of ecigarettes

Are ecigs green? In a nutshell, no. Their nature means they never can be. Are they more environmentally friendly than smoking tobacco cigarettes? In my opinion, yes; definitely.

A nicotine liquid based ecigarette system still has a connection to the tobacco industry – as that is where the nicotine comes from; so many of tobacco-related environmental impacts still apply at the production stage of the liquids. But there are some distinct advantages.

Air pollution

Some of tobacco’s greatest evils related to the burning of the plant material. Combusting tobacco results in the creation and release of thousands of chemicals, dozens of which are carcinogenic. The world’s billion smokers collectively contribute a significant amount of this very toxic air pollution each day.

Aside from the death toll in terms of smokers, an estimated 600,000 non-smokers die each year through being exposed to second-hand smoke.

The vapors generated by the liquid in ecigs does not have the same chemical structure of tobacco smoke. Only traces of a couple of carcinogenic materials have been found in ecig vapors – far, far lower than in tobacco smoke to the point they are almost negligible.

Radioactive materials

Something I wasn’t aware of until recently is smoking tobacco also releases a deadly radioactive material – polonium.

While polonium is present in minute quantities in foods we eat, as the lining of our digestive systems is continually shed and replaced, when we ingest polonium through food it is passed out of the body.

It’s a different story for smokers. Cigarettes burn at very high temperatures, enough to melt the polonium in the tobacco, turning it into a gas that condensates on sensitive lung tissue – which isn’t replaced.

A pack a day smoker will receive the equivalent of 200 X-Rays a year and 2% of smokers will die as a direct result of radiation related illnesses. Needless to say, all this polonium being emitted into the atmosphere isn’t exactly a positive thing for the wider environment either.

No butts about it

My switch to ecigarettes means I won’t be contributing at least 1,600 cigarette butts soaked in toxic materials to the waste stream *each month* – another aspect of smoking that weighed heavily upon me. Billions of cigarette butts are discarded globally each year; each a little bundle of poison that will take years to break down and leaching toxins as it does.

Cigarette butts also require some complex chemistry and significant energy to create.

While the use of ecigs does involve some consumables, such as the liquid, cartridges/atomizers or cartomizers (which can be refilled a number of times), even waste related to these components can be minimized by making the right choice in equipment – and most of these consumables (aside from liquids of course) can be recycled to some degree.

Fire reduction

The number of fires started by smokers each year is phenomenal. Just in the USA, in 2010 over 90,000 fires were started by cigarettes. These fires resulted in 610 deaths and $663 million in damages. While new laws are now in place in the USA for “fire safe” cigarettes, it’s expected the changes to cigarette design will result in a 33% reduction in fires. It’s good, but that still means tens of thousands of cigarette related fires each year.

Aside from destroying houses and lives (and these fires generating very toxic smoke), fires started by cigarettes have also wiped out huge tracts of native vegetation around the world.

I used to have nightmares about accidentally starting a fire on my chunk of Australia, one that would spread to neighbouring properties. I no longer have that worry as the fire risk associated with a good quality ecigarette is extremely low as nothing is burned – and that brings me to the next important point.

Ecig devices and the environment

In addition to the liquids and other consumable items, there is the main part of the device itself to consider – the battery and housing, a small amount of electronic circuitry and associated components such as a charging cable and/or pack.

Ecigarettes aren’t all that complex and are small devices, but like all electronics, quality plays an important role in the impact the equipment will have environmentally speaking. Most components can be recycled, but a poor quality device won’t last as long, creating more waste – and it takes energy to recycle (there are also safety aspects).

There are also single-use ecigs available – while these can be useful as a trial product; like most disposable items the waste is such that I couldn’t recommend them for regular usage.

The big picture

While ecigarettes require a level of consumption of valuable resources, if used as a cessation tool I think the long term gain far outweighs the short term environmental pain. Even just as a harm minimisation tool, there are related benefits.

For example, lets say I kept smoking at my previous level and survived another 20 years. During that time I would have smoked over a quarter of a tonne of tobacco and generated a staggering 384,000+ cigarette butts – along with their toxic payload.

A note on propylene glycol

Propylene glycol in ecig liquids is often seized upon by those opposed to ecigarettes, who say it is a deadly poison. They are confusing it with ethylene glycol and some other glycols, which are toxic. Propylene glycol is generally recognized as safe and is used in medications (including asthma inhalers); among other applications.

Propylene glycol can also be converted from glycerol – which is vegetable glycerine, another component of ecig liquid which as the name suggests comes from plants.

However, like anything, it is important to buy liquids from reputable merchants.

Don’t demonize smokers

This is getting away a little from the environmental thrust of this article, but the fewer smokers there are, the less the impact on the environment.

In order for someone to quit smoking, they must first make the decision to stop. Demonizing smokers does not help them get to that point.

Smokers are becoming increasingly marginalized in some countries and paying dearly for their habit not just in terms of their health, but through massive taxes.

I used to joke that I was simply pre-paying my palliative care and that I would need to take up heroin dealing to pay for my tobacco habit. However, I used to get very angry when people would generalise and state smokers were a drain on society. I was paying my way; and then some.

While some who smoke are just inconsiderate people generally regardless of whether they have a cigarette hanging out their mouth or not, others are ashamed of their addiction even if they don’t admit it – the air of defiance is just a smokescreen (excuse the pun); a reaction to the negativity or just fatalism covering fear.

Many smokers have tried everything they can to quit and have failed. Some simply cannot envision a life without tobacco. It sounds insane, but I understand it as I was one of those people. Many, like me, began at a very early age and do not understand what life can be like without tobacco because they simply cannot remember. Tobacco is a frenemy to hundreds of millions of people.

It’s important to understand that not all smokers become heavily addicted and for those that are, quitting smoking is more than just about willpower.

Reformed smokers can at times be the most aggressive critics of practising smokers. Some feel that because they were able to kick the habit, everyone should be able to through self discipline alone or whatever method they used.

However, around 30% of smokers will find it incredibly hard to give up due to the way their brains react to nicotine. This is not an excuse, it is fact. The brains of people in this group create more nicotine receptors than in the other 70%. When these receptors do not receive nicotine, that is when the physical withdrawal symptoms kick in and the more nicotine receptors, the more amplified the withdrawals become. These symptoms can get to the point the person can no longer function.

Quitting can be excruciating and terrifying. No-one should have to go through that pain if they don’t have to – and if ecigs help them in this respect, it should be supported.

It’s about people AND planet

It’s estimated 100 million died from the effects of smoking last century. This century, up to 1 billion will be killed by their addiction.

Yes, it could been seen as a method of reining in population growth which is another major environmental threat. However, I don’t think lung cancer and other smoking related diseases are particularly kind strategy when there are many other population management approaches that don’t involve killing people. That and the fact non-smokers subjected to second-hand smoke suffer too.

While in some countries smoking is decreasing, in other heavily populated countries, it is increasing due to rapid population growth and increased marketing efforts by tobacco companies that are not kept on a short leash in those regions.

While ecigs haven’t been around long enough to understand if they will cause long term damage to the user (aside from known issues concerning nicotine), just based on what we know now, they are the lesser of the evils in my opinion both from a human health and environmental viewpoint.

I feel that governments that profess to be against smoking should be doing all they can to recognise these devices as legitimate nicotine replacement therapies as soon as possible, rather than being influenced by Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and the uninformed.

Some of these entities want to see ecigs banned, others want to take control as there is literally billions of dollars to be made from the technology.

One of my concerns is that if ecigarettes are given the status they deserve, like other nicotine replacement therapies they will be under Big Pharma’s control exclusively and made horribly expensive, limiting their appeal. Nearly 80% of the world’s one billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.

For the moment, we are the experiment; we’re the research subjects. The hard yards are being done by us and the companies manufacturing the products currently available. We have financed much of the research and development. There is no reason that ecigs need to be expensive if Big Pharma or Big Tobacco decides to run with them (and rumor is they will soon).

I have been more than happy being an ecig guinea pig of sorts – the benefits I have experienced already just simply through being able to stop smoking tobacco have been far more than I ever expected and it’s a message I want to communicate to as many as possible – for people, for planet.

For further information on ecigarettes and my experience with these devices, visit

Traditional Medicines – Natural Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Environmentally Friendly

September 6th, 2012.

There’s a lot to be said for alternative and traditional medicines, but like their mainstream counterparts, they can be accompanied by a major cost to the environment.
Much of the issue relating to mainstream medicines has to do with their disposal and the impact they have on the environment when they leave the body.
The problem with some alternative and traditional medicines is more related to how they are sourced.
For thousands of years humanity has been reaping the bounty of nature to help cure what ails us. For the most part, this is done sustainably, but in some instances, not so.
For example, I was reading today about the caterpillar fungus; the result of a parasitic relationship between the Ophiocordyceps sinensis fungus and the larva of the ghost moth. 
This fungus kills and mummifies the caterpillar and the fungus then grows from it. The fungus is sought by practitioners of Tibetan, Chinese and traditional Folk medicine – so much so, it’s currently selling for around $20,000 a pound. 
Consequently, gathering of caterpillar fungus has gone into overdrive and their occurrence is decreasing. What implications this has on local ecosystems is hard to say; but most organisms have an important role to play and the relatively sudden absence of an organism can have serious knock-on effects; some of which may not seem connected (see the Butterfly Effect).
One effect that is known is on soil. According to an article on the issue on ChinaDialogue, digging up one fungus disturbs at least thirty square centimetres of earth. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but soil in the regions where the most prized fungus is found is fragile and many are dug up each year.
Other traditional medicines may be made from rare plants or other creatures. 
One of the many plants to become endangered in part due to its medicinal properties is liquorice root; which may become extinct in some Chinese provinces due to over-harvesting.
Elephant ivory can be an ingredient in some preparations and while there has been a ban on ivory products in many countries; this has only served to push up the price of it on the black market. 
Once the realm of individuals or ragtag bands of poachers, the black market ivory trade is now being run by organised crime syndicates and in some cases, members of the military in some countries. I read a particularly disturbing story today of nearly 2 dozen elephants rounded up by helicopter (suspected to be military) and shot. The only thing taken from the elephants was the ivory. To add to the tragedy, some of the animals were babies and had no ivory.
Alternative and traditional medicine plays a very important role in human health; but by buying natural preparations, it’s not a guarantee the medicine is environmentally friendly. 
When considering these medicines, learn what they are made of and do a little research on the ingredients to ensure you’re not supporting a creature or plant being pushed closer to the edge of extinction.
With regard to animals, regardless of their status, there is also the concern about their treatment. For instance, some Asian black bears are kept in captivity for the purposes of harvesting their bile, an ingredient in some traditional medicines. Living for up to 12 years in tiny cages while bile drips from a hole in the bears’ abdomens and gall bladders, or even worse, “milked” from them twice daily, the conditions these bears endure is absolutely heartbreaking. I’ve seen the photos and I wish I hadn’t.
In relation to plants, a rare plant listed as an ingredient may not be such an issue if it isn’t harvested from the wild; but determining provenance may be difficult.
For researching the status of plants, a very handy resource is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.