Thursday, August 23, 2012

Packing a Waste-Free, Plastic-Free Lunch

When I posted earlier this year about avoiding plastic food containers and packaging due to the potential leaching of harmful chemicals, a few people asked about packing school lunches.

Well, it's time to start thinking about that seemingly endless parade of school lunches, and of what to pack them in.

Last fall, I purchased a stainless steel PlanetBox for my daughter, and a year later I am still a big fan. The PlanetBox is a bento-style lunchbox with four compartments. (The company recently started selling a version with three, larger compartments). It works perfectly for us. I usually fill two of the compartments with fruits or vegetables, one with a halved hard-boiled egg and the largest one with a sandwich. I purchased a carry bag that accommodates an ice-pack, so everything stays fresh.

Her lunch is completely waste-free, there is nothing to throw away. The lunchbox is easy to clean.  I wash it by hand but it is advertised as being dishwasher-safe. My daughter likes the cute magnets that you can purchase to decorate the PlanetBox. And I love the fact that after one full year of use (including lunches for summer camp) it is still in perfect condition. The price does reflect the quality of the product; I paid $60 for the lunchbox and carry bag.

If this style of lunchbox doesn't work for you, there are still a myriad of options available. is a wonderful source of products for packing a waste-free lunch. They have a wide selection of stainless steel containers. I have several of the LunchBots containers; they are great for packing sandwiches and otherwise replacing plastic bags. Whole Foods in East Liberty is selling some To-Go Ware stainless steel food carriers that look nice and functional.

Pack reusable utensils, and a reusable water bottle or insulated bottle, and you'll be doing your part to reduce the 67 pounds of lunch waste that the average American school-aged child throws away every year.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mattresses: Conventional vs. Organic

I'm in the process of choosing a mattress for my daughter's new bed and updating the research that I did five years ago when my husband and I purchased a new mattress. What I'm finding confirms the reasons we chose an organic latex mattress back then and why we will be purchasing an organic mattress now.

Most conventional mattresses are constructed of materials that can off-gas and otherwise degrade, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and toxic dust that we then breathe, absorb through our skin, and even ingest during the hours we spend sleeping.

Conventional cotton used to make mattresses may be contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues. It also is treated during the production process with chemicals, some of which are very toxic. These include formaldehyde, dioxins and heavy metals.

Formaldehyde is also used in some mattresses to make the adhesives that hold the mattress together. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that has been linked to asthma, as well as lung, nose and throat cancer.

Most conventional mattresses contain polyurethane (PU) foam. There is nothing good to be said about PU foam. It is a petroleum-based material that emits VOCs linked to respiratory problems and skin irritation. Memory-foam mattresses contain a host of troubling materials--one lab analysis revealed that one model of this type of mattress emitted 61 chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene.

In addition, PU foam is extremely flammable and thus, in order to meet federal safety standards, manufacturers must take measures to make it resistant to flames. They do this by using toxic flame retardants or barrier fabrics, which also may contain harmful chemicals.

Many conventional mattresses manufactured prior to 2004 used PDBEs as flame retardants. The use of these substances was banned or phased out by industry as the evidence of their toxicity mounted. They are developmental neurotoxins as well as potent thyroid disruptors. PDBEs accumulate and persist in our bodies. They are still found in women's breast milk and the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.

There is no way to know what manufacturers are using today to meet federal regulations regulating the flammability of mattresses. Major mattress companies refuse to disclose this information, claiming that their materials are protected as proprietary trade secrets.

This article cites an industry spokesperson who says that most of the manufacturers now use fire-resistant barrier fabrics. Some of these are made of melamine-formaldehyde resin; as these fibers degrade they release formaldehyde. Others are made of modacrylic fiber, which contains antimony oxide, another known carcinogen. Still other barrier fabrics used in mattresses are cotton bonded with boric acid (which some object to as it is also used as roach poison) and rayon treated with silica (tiny fragments of glass or clay).

Of course, avoiding harmful materials is of paramount importance when shopping for a child's or baby's mattress. A report released in November of last year found that 72% of the crib mattresses sold in the U.S. contained one or more chemicals of concern, such as antimony, polyurethane, vinyl, other volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed flame retardants.

Wool is naturally fire-resistant. An organic mattress can meet federal fire safety regulations without the use of chemical flame retardants if it is properly constructed using wool.

If you are in the market for a new mattress or shopping for an infant's or child's mattress, there are many sources of safer alternatives to conventional mattresses that you might want to consider. We bought our organic latex mattress at the Organic Mattress Store in Hellertown, PA. We took a side trip there on a trip to Philadelphia; it is about 1 1/2 hours away.

I was happy to discover that an organic mattress store recently opened in Pittsburgh: the Natural Sleep Shop in Cranberry. This store carries the Savvy Rest line of organic mattresses and crib mattresses.

An organic mattress will almost certainly cost more than a conventional mattress. However, a natural latex mattress will also last longer than a conventional mattress. We were told that ours should last 20-25 years. When I considered that we spend 8 hours a day breathing and otherwise absorbing whatever is being released from our mattress, it made sense to me to go organic.