Friday, April 23, 2010

It's been a mad dash to get my thesis completed. Monday my advisor told me that I needed to rewrite 95% of it. Needless to say, I haven't been in class all week.                                      

Photo by Mutasim Billah
My presentation is Wednesday morning, and then I have a little bit of time to put on finishing touches and submit my final manuscript. There are definitely plenty of things I want to write to all of you about, but it's going to be a few more weeks at least. Wish me luck.


Friday, April 09, 2010

There's been quite a bit of hype for a few years about corn-based biodegradable plastics. The simple solution to our throw-away culture was to create better things to throw away... or so they say. But the problems with these corn-based plastics run from the obvious to the not-so-obvious.

Photo by Dan Klimke
For starters, they're made from corn. In many instances, it's GMO corn. Even when it's not, corn is the most chemical hungry crop we grow: fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, you name it. So is it really better than traditional plastic? Maybe. Corn-based plastic supposedly uses less than half the energy that petroleum-based plastics use during production. According to an article by Elizabeth Royte in Smithsonian Magazine, corn-based PLA bags use 65% less energy during production, and emit 68% fewer greenhouse gases than their petroleum-based counterparts. Does that offset all of the chemicals that go into producing the corn as compared to drilling and processing oil? I haven't seen anything conclusive, but oil isn't going to be an option for much longer anyways. If we're going to continue to use plastics (which is another discussion altogether), we have to figure out something, whether corn is that something or not.

My bigger concern is with claims of biodegradability. Companies use this "biodegradable" packaging and present themselves as our saviors. Most consumers, not knowing any better, think this is the greatest thing that has ever happened in the history of mankind. But the fact of the matter is that PLA requires high-temp municipal and commercial composting facilities. These don't exist in most places, and a home compost bin just won't do. Home compost bins are aerobic, and they just don't get hot enough to break down these pseudo-plastics.

There are some exceptions, of course. There are a few producers of bioplastics that claim their products are compostable in a home composting bin. However, of these relatively few manufacturers, I've only found one that has actually been certified as home-compostable. That is Mater-Bi. Mater-Bi was tested by Which?, a UK consumer organization, and found that Mater-Bi composted under normal home composting conditions. The Village Bakery has been using Mater-Bi to package their organic breads since at least early 2008. We could use more companies with that kind of initiative.

Of course, the better solution would be to use no plastic at all. Buy from farmers markets where you can avoid packaging altogether, or grow your own food. Ideally, I wouldn't have a trash bin. I wouldn't even have a recycling bin. I'd only have what I could personally put into my body, compost, or reuse. The prevalence of urban sprawl and the dominance of big agriculture remain major obstacles to this goal. In the evolution to that ideal however, biodegradable plastics have a role to play. Perhaps we start with home-compostable corn-based plastics like Mater-Bi. From there we shift from corn to less chemical-dependent crops. As we lessen our dependence on corn we can diversify the crops being grown on those lands, and perhaps provide all of our food locally. Once foods are grown locally, our excuses for packaging them will disappear.

It's a dream, but a dream worth having.


Saturday, April 03, 2010

A round-up of environmental documentaries that are available for immediate viewing via Netflix's streaming video service. See which one's made the cut--and which ones didn't.                                          

This has been my first full week since spring break--if you could call it a break. But, while I was on break, I decided to test drive a trial of Netflix. The awesome thing about Netflix is that you can stream a large number of movies directly to your computer, and with a bit of know-how, to your TV. That means over the break I was able to watch a great number of documentaries without fiddling with DVDs or anything. Here's what I watched and what I thought of them:

The Botany of Desire
The Botany of Desire - Michael Pollan's book has been transformed into a film by PBS. The film follows the domestication of four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. But have we domesticated them, or have they domesticated us? And while it certainly behooves a plant to be attractive to us, has its attraction ultimately caused its genetic weakness and susceptibility to disease? Especially with apples and potatoes, consumers and producers are looking for specific traits, and as we find them, we end up eating a very limited variety of these foods. As a result, genetic variation declines, and the plants become more susceptible to pests. And perhaps our variety in diet has declined too much as a result of our selecting for certain traits. This film has beautiful cinematography on top of having compelling premises that interesting conclusions. Definitely a must-see.

Food, Inc.Food, Inc. - From the man that brought us Fast Food Nation, comes a film that takes us on a tour of the food industry. When we walk into a supermarket, we're met with an illusion of diversity. The truth is that a limited number of companies, like Tyson, own the majority of the food producing operations in the U.S. Not only are we being swindled on variety because of what grows fastest, grows biggest, or stores longest, but the farmer's producing our food have little say in what or how they're growing. Companies like Tyson finance chicken growing operations and tell farmers when and how to do things. If farmers don't play along, they go out of business, often being in debt hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Much the same is true with potatoes. McDonald's is the largest consumer of potatoes in the world. What kind of potatoes does McDonald's want? Russets. And if a farmer isn't selling to McDonald's it likely isn't staying in business. And then there's the business of corn. I knew corn was in a lot of things, but I wasn't terribly concerned until I saw this film. High fructose corn syrup, dextrin, maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, sorbitol, starch, monoglycerides, diglycerides, monosodium glutamate, vegetable oil, vegetable broth. It's everywhere. Not only do farmer's struggle to meet the demands of companies that own patents on GMO corn, but they're also pressured to grow corn because of outrageous government subsidies on corn. Our diet has become almost completely corn, and without our knowledge or consent. Want to know how far the rabbit hole goes? Watch this film.

King Corn (Standard Packaging)King Corn - On the subject of corn, these two college friends and filmmakers decide to get back to their Iowa roots and grow an acre to corn for a year. When it's done, they watch where it goes. Before they even start growing, they're paid by the government just for claiming that they intend to grow. They go through the process of spraying their acre with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and at the end of the growing season they find out that they've actually lost money on their crop. But not to fear, they still have a lot more money to collect from the government just for growing corn. And that's because corn ends up in everything. At the very beginning of the film, the two filmmakers have an analysis done on their hair that shows that their diet is predominately corn. They find out why when they start following their crop. The truth is, the corn they're growing isn't even edible without being processed into high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and other filler ingredients. What's left over goes to feed cattle. The corn-based diet upsets acid levels in the cow's digestive tract, and if they weren't taken to slaughter as soon as they are, the diet itself would kill them. The hamburgers that the filmmakers eat are predominately corn, the ketchup and their burger and fries is predominately corn syrup, and their fries are cooked in corn oil. It's no wonder they analysis was showing so much corn in their diets.

Killer at LargeKiller at Large - This film dives into America's obesity epidemic and tries to uncover why its happening. It shows large food companies lobbying for their rights to target advertisements at children, and then asking parents why they weren't more attentive to what their children were eating. It shows the unprecedented amount of corn in our diets and how that's contributing to early onset diabetes. And it shows how teachers were shut down when they tried to get sugar-filled vending machines out of the schools. I appreciated that this film approached the food industry from the angle of its effects on us. It struck home. Even after the other films railed on corn, this one really sealed the deal because it made the link between our unknown obsession with corn and the effects it's having on our health. If you want less enviro and more human-oriented thinking on the modern food system, this is the one to see.

No Impact ManNo Impact Man - A lone man takes his family off the grid over the course of a year. What's the catch? They live in New York City. They ditch cars for human-powered bikes and scooters and eat only local food (even visiting the farms they're buying from). He starts composting in his apartment and washing laundry by hand. At the 6 month mark, they turn of the electricity, and for the remainder of the year they do everything by candlelight. It's a long year, and they take at lot of flack, but at the end of the year they've learned something about what they can and cannot go without. Of all of these films, this is the one that most inspired me to get out and do something (or stay in and do something, as the case may be). Even something as simple as using candles at night instead of electric lights can be the big difference. And this year I think I'll actually be participating in a CSA owned by a farmer I know through my work at B St. If you want a really well-rounded film that will give you lots of ideas about how you can lessen your impact on the planet, this is the one.

Go FurtherGo Further - This film was worthless. Don't see it. Woody Harrelson and his band of pot-smoking jokers take off down the west coast in a bus and Woody gives speeches on sustainability at colleges along the way. The only part of those speeches you get to hear is a poorly written poem. The rest of it is just an excuse for them to smoke and have sex. This film fails to be educational, and it fails to be entertaining. It just fails. If there were no other documentaries out there on the subject of sustainability, then it might have some merit for starting a discussion. Instead, it says much less than dozens of other films have already said, and it says it much less intelligently. This is the only film I watched that I really can't recommend.

There you have it: my thoughts on some of the eco-documentaries I was able to watch over break. There are plenty more, but that's what I got around to. You can order any of these films from the links provided. Alternatively, you can try to find them at your local library. And, if you want to try out Netflix for yourself and stream all of these movies for free, click here for your two week trial.