Monday, December 31, 2012

Recycling Your Christmas Tree

Sadly, it is time to start thinking about how best to dispose of our Christmas trees. Don't put your tree out with the regular trash, where it will simply end up in a landfill.

In Mt. Lebanon, you can put your tree out at the curbside for pick up the next two Saturdays, January 5 and 12; trees will be recycled into wood chips. You can also drop off your tree at the Public Works facility during this period.

The Allegheny County Parks Department also has a Christmas Tree Recycling Program, which runs through January 19 this year at all 9 county parks. Trees will be mulched and used in the parks. See here for drop off locations.

Check with your local municipality for other tree recycling programs.

Remember to make sure that your tree is not in a bag and that it does not have any decorations, lights or any other material on it.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paying Attention to Food Additives

The New York Times ran an article last week about a teenager who started an online petition asking PepsiCo to remove an ingredient called brominated vegetable oil from its sodas and sports drinks.

Even if you avoid these types of drinks, the article is an eye-opening account of the almost total lack of oversight of food additives in the U.S. Since 1997, the vast majority of new food additives, including flavorings, dyes, and preservatives, never received a safety determination from the government. What's more, since 1958 at least 1,000 new ingredients have entered the food supply without the knowledge of the government officials responsible for ensuring food safety. Manufacturers are not required to submit even basic information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before including a new additive in their products.

How is this possible? For the past 15 years, the FDA has ceded its responsibilities to the food manufacturers themselves. If a a company can get a hand-picked "expert," that is, one of its own employees or contractors, to say that an ingredient is safe, the company doesn't even have to alert the FDA that it is putting the ingredient into food.

This almost complete lack of regulation stands in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the developed world. It is so troubling that many ingredients that have been banned from the food supply in other countries remain in products sold in the U.S. Food manufacturers, instead of removing a banned ingredient from all versions of a product, will manufacture two versions: one free of the banned chemical for sale in the rest of the world and one containing the banned chemical for sale in the U.S.

Why? Because in those instances, it is cheaper to use the potentially harmful additive, rather than a safe alternative.

      Brominated Vegetable Oil

The case of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) in sodas and sports drink is a good example of the major food companies' tactics. This ingredient is added to drinks to keep the flavoring ingredients from separating. BVO contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and it is patented as a flame retardant for plastics. Only limited studies of BVO have been conducted in humans and animals. However, it has been found to build up in fatty tissue, raising concerns because overexposure to bromine causes a host of neurological and reproductive effects.

The European Union has long banned the use of BVO in food. Sodas sold in the EU market use alternative, natural ingredients to achieve the same stabilizing effect. Why don't companies replace BVO in drinks sold in the U.S.? The companies say that switching would be too costly.

      Artificial Food Dyes

Petroleum-derived food dyes are added to a myriad of products, many of them designed to appeal to children--products such as macaroni and cheese, candies and fruit snacks. Some of these dyes are known carcinogens. British studies have linked consumption of artificial dyes to hyperactivity in kids.

European Union regulations require a warning label on food containing artificial dyes; the warning must state that the food "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." These regulations have prompted U.S. companies, including Kraft, Coca-Cola and Mars to remove artificial colors from products distributed in other countries, but not from their products sold in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Nestle completed the process of removing all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of its candies sold in the U.K. In that market, Nestle uses concentrates of fruits, vegetables and edible plants to provide colors to it products. At the same time that the company was announcing these changes, it announced that it had no plans to make similar changes in its products sold in the U.S.

Avoiding Harmful Food Additives

  • I've linked to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's guide to food additives before. It is a useful guide with safety ratings for a large number of additives.
  • Read labels. (Also be careful with children's medications; many contain artificial colors and preservatives).
  • Choose organic products whenever possible, by law they may not contain artificial dyes and preservatives.
  • Avoid brightly colored candies and other foods. Eat chocolate!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jackie's Thoughts

Karen does such an incredible job with this blog and I am always grateful for every one of her posts.  I had a thought today that I just wanted to share in light of what we all have been dealing with this weekend.  Everyday many children in our schools say these words out loud: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".  For our children we must be "one", we must be "indivisible" we much teach "liberty" and we must seek "justice for all".  Under the watchful eye of our God we must recognize when we are called to act.  I have no idea what we are to do but I think every real good change begins with conversation and ends with compromise.  As we all mourn, my prayer  is that we live what we claim and truly become "one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all"!

Monday, December 3, 2012

How Green is Your Christmas Tree?

From flickr by
Which is more eco-friendly, a real or an artificial Christmas tree? Environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council all agree: natural is best, both for the environment and for your family's health. 

Nevertheless, sales of artificial trees continue to climb; they are expected to hit 13.4 million trees this year, for a record $1.07 billion in sales. In the U.S., twice as many homes will put up fake trees as will display real ones.

The vast majority of artificial trees are manufactured in, and shipped here from, China. Their transportation alone creates a huge carbon footprint. Fake trees are made from PVC, a petroleum-derived plastic. PVC is toxic to the environment and to human health throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal. During the production of artificial trees, highly toxic dioxins are released into the environment. Dioxins are potent carcinogens. Further, PVC cannot be recycled; these trees will end up in landfills or being incinerated, again releasing dioxins.

In addition, lead is added to PVC during its production. The PVC in artificial trees degrades under normal conditions, releasing lead dust. According to the EPA, when fake trees are 9 years old, the degradation of the PVC can result in "dangerous lead exposures."

A PVC tree has no place in anybody's home, but certainly not a home with children.

Real trees, on the other hand, help the environment by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere while they are growing. You can also support a local small business by buying a tree from a local tree farm. Pennsylvania is one of the top Christmas tree growing states and there are a number of tree farms in our area. We buy our tree every year from Nutbrown's Christmas Tree Farm in Carnegie. You can cut your own tree, or they will cut one for you. It is a wonderful holiday tradition.

Finally, remember to recycle your tree after the holiday. Many communities, including the City of Pittsburgh and Mt. Lebanon, will pick up your tree and chip it for mulch. I will post information about pick-up dates and drop-off sites as it becomes available.