November 27, 2011

Green Christmas gift ideas

Green gifts are always in vogue. But buyer beware. Greenwashing by the corporate marketing folks can easily mislead the wisest consumer. “Truth in advertising” is still just a phrase.

Whatever you buy, wrap them in green. It's easy to make Christmas gift bags with seasonal material from your local fabric store. I'm still using the ones I sewed 25 years ago. And even newsprint can look attractive with ribbons.

“Need or want?” is the question most of us should ask ourselves more often. When you get down to it, “nothing” is exactly what many of us truly need. Nothing is more wasteful than unwanted gifts.

The Black Friday hype about buying those latest gadgets or toys makes a lot of people forget that the perfect gift is still something made by the giver or a service that will never end up in a landfill. How about “Four hours of babysitting,” movie/DVD gift certificates, “One home-cooked meal” or a CSA membership at a local farm for family members?

Or what about recycling something as the ultimate in re-gifting. I’m not talking about that hated tie or old perfume, but something truly creative. Even Lady Gaga’s latest “trashion” video has her sporting empty soda cans and a repurposed rotary phone.

Crab by Marcie Evans
One person’s junk? Another’s treasure? I have run into quite a few artists who can turn a bunch of "junk" into amazing pieces of art. Poquoson, VA artist Marcie Evans does some dandy feats with nails and bolts. I first saw her work at Williamsburg's annual Occasion for the Arts.

I had an "Aha!" moment when I saw how she transformed nails into fish and crabs. So I asked if she'd like eight huge glass jars full of multi-size nails—my Dad's collection over his lifetime that had been gathering dust in our garage. I couldn't toss them, but I had no idea of how to "recycle" them in a meaningful way. Check out to see more of Marcie's work or find out which local galleries have them.

Green gift suggestions ─ For foodies, animal lovers, DIYers, kids, health and wellness gurus, pop culture fans, and others can be reviewed, by category, at . I fell for the cute building blocks that can teach about the rainforest, and unmatched gloves turned into cute teddy bears.

Treat yourself ─ To a free EnergySMART Programmable Thermostat if you have a natural gas furnace—or a $25 rebate on the programmable one of your choice. The Department of Energy estimates these can save you up to $180 a year if you use the recommended manufacturer settings. Apply at  until the offer ends on December 31.

You saw it here ─ Soon you will be able to harness solar energy the iPad way with a nifty portable gadget that should remain useful beyond the lifetime of many of your etoys. Third Wave Power’s  researchers came up with the multi-functional mPowerpad product for outdoor enthusiasts and those who travel to remote places and need to recharge their cameras, iPhones and iPads. It might seem like an infomercial because it also includes a reading light and even an ultrasonic insect repellent. It will not, however, spin your salad. It was unveiled it a few weeks ago and should start shipping in January for about $80.

Giving is easy ─ If you make a charitable donation that allows the giftee to give your donation to one of 180 causes of his or her choice—such as Cell Phones for Soldiers or the Nature Conservancy. Simply order a greeting card at and activate a code with a specific donation amount. Donation amounts start at only $5. Bluebell Giving uses Charity Navigator to evaluate charities on their operational efficiency and financial stewardship.

November 23, 2011

Virginia coal plant not a "go" yet

The largest yet coal-fired power plant in Virginia hit a snag when a Surry County Circuit Court judge ruled that a zoning change approved last year was not valid because it was not properly advertised to the public.

Many area environmentalists welcomed this delay in Old Dominion Electric Cooperative's (ODEC) proposed 1500-megawatt power plant as good news. ODEC had announced last year that they'd delay building the plant by 18 to 24 months because of a slowdown in energy demand and uncertaintly in new regulations.

Also, Isle of Wight's Board of Supervisors voted recently to oppose the power plant. More and more nearby folks may be realizing that the power plant will emit mercury and other toxic particles into our air. And the prevailing winds will carry most of that over the James River and into the Hampton Roads and Williamsburg area.

Any hopes for "clean coal" technology disappeared in the near future when American Electric Power (AEP) suspended a $668 million clean coal project this past summer after Congress faild to set any limits on carbon emissions. This project could have resulted in many new jobs, so it's a "lose-lose" as far as I'm concerned. The good news, however, was AEP's summer announcement to close down five older coal-burning plants by 2014.

The EPA is sticking to its guns on cross-border-pollution from plants in neighboring states. It's not simply a matter of "pick your poison"--increased coughs or increased costs. The coal industry claims that cutting pollution will cost them $18 billion per year, and the consumer will pay this. But they fail to see or admit the economic benefits. The EPA folks say that the plant upgrades will cost $2.5 billion per year, and provide $280 billion in public health benefits (fewer death, hospital stays and sick leave days).

November 19, 2011

Natural gas industry invests in big time lobbying

If only the $747 million that the natural gas industry is spending to lobby members of Congres was installing more wind and solar power, rather than convincing our great leaders over a ten-year campaign to support fracking and  ignore the possible dangers of this rapidly expanding but poorly regulated method of tapping gas reserves.

A Common Cause report says this figure includes $1.4 million to members of the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works and $3.7 million to members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. That Senate committee does, after all, include the word Environment. You'd think that meant protect the environment, not risk it.

Unfortunately, money does talk. It always has, and it always will. It showed its effect in other Congressional thinking last week too that might affect the school lunch. The final version of a spending bill released last Monday shows the results of lobbying from the food industry. It would allow pizza to be counted as a vegetable (good ole tomato sauce!), not limit the use of potatoes in school lunches, delay limits on sodium and delay a requirement to boost whole grains.

November 15, 2011

What is the role of menhaden or alewife?

Menhaden fish
This oily little fish has a lot of names: menhaden, herring, bunker, alewife, and more. You won't see it on restaurant menus, and the folks who know what it smells like when it is "cooking" are the residents of Reedville, Virginia, or boaters downwind of the Omega Protein plant.

This Houston-based company is the world's largest producer of omega-3 fish oil and North America's largest manufacturer of fishmeal. It's a really big business, with a really big odor. One night, when we were anchored out, just north of that plant in a cozy little creek, the wind direction shifted. Yegads, what is that horrendous smell? The Reedville residents say it is the "smell of money." Glad that they can tolerate it. We pulled up anchor and got away from the overwhelming aroma.

The story is that menhaden were the fish that the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to plant in the hole with corn. So it's appropriate, this Thanksgiving season, to thank the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for voting to reduce the menhaden harvest by 25 percent of what was caught last year. Since Virginia had NO limit on how much menhaden could be taken out of the Chesapeake Bay, that's good news for the rockfish population.They, along with bluefish, tuna, cod, and haddock, like to see menhaden on their menu! And they should see about 60,000 more metric tons of their favorite meal.

We have watched from our small sailboat as a fleet of menhaden fishing boats encircled large schools of these fish in the Chesapeake Bay, with help from spotter planes. It reminded me of shooting fish in a barrel.

Estimates are that the mendaden population has dropped to about 10 percent of its Pilgrim era numbers. They have been overfished 32 out of the past 54 years. Some may say that government makes too many regulations, but time proves that most companies will not voluntarily reduce their fishing takes. Look at the whaling industry for another example.

What does the tar sands pipeline delay mean?

TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline has been in the national spotlight for the last few months and a lot of misinformation has been included. Not usual in today's climate, or is that word not a good choice?

The Obama administration's decision last week did NOT nix the pipeline, but delayed it to give the State Department adequate time to review the possible consequences to the Ogallala aquifer that supplies drinking water to at least seven states. I drank from that aquifer during the ten years we lived in Arlington, Texas.

There is no need to rush this decision, because one pipeline already carries about 590,000 barrels of crude oil from Canada to Illinois and Oklahoma. Hmm, didn't Oklahoma folks just experience an earthquake.

The game plan was that an expanded Keystone system could move about 1.3 million barrels per day to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

And today,TransCanada agreed to reroute the proposed pipeline to avoid the Nebraska Sandhills, a particularly sensitive ecosystem.
For an understanding of the issues and the opposition of some concerned folks in Nebraska, visit the Tar Sands Action website at  There is much more at stake than a simple choice between jobs or health.

November 8, 2011

Food ADDITIVES can turn your stomach

Worried about gaining weight during the upcoming holiday season? "Pink slime" and chicken nuggets can help you diet.

Chicken nuggets ingredient?
Seriously! A photo really is worth a thousand words. I emailed this photo of  "mechanically separated chicken" to our son-in-law a month ago and his food tastes changed.

I had my doubts when this email made the rounds a year ago, so I checked its "truthiness." Yikes, almost everything I read was true. See for yourself what Snopes had to say about it. But be forewarned. Your food tastes might change forever. I can't believe I fed nuggets to my kids years ago. Ignorance was bliss.

Then you might want to watch this April 2011 episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, and you'll most likely limit your intake of ground beef too--unless you like ammonia. He shows how a centrifuge removes the fat from meat scraps (once used in pet food) which is then treated with ammonia to retard spoilage (as in kill the E coli and salmonella) and turns the stuff into "a mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips." Ground beef can contain up to 15 percent of this gunk, and about 70 percent of our ground beef does. So if you ate a burger today, there’s a good chance you also ate some pink slime.

And the USDA says that's OK and that ammonia doesn't need to be listed as an ingredient because it's a "process"? I'm getting closer and closer to becoming a vegetarian.

What Companies Use Ammoniated Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings? Supposedly, more than 7 million pounds a week of this slime is included in fast-food burgers and retail packages of ground beef. Most fast-food chains use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery stores.

The only sure way to keep the beef trimmings out of your own meals is to ask your local butcher to grind the beef you pick out of the meat display. Or buy grass-fed beef, which supposedly is clearly labeled and contains no ammonia.

Bon appetit.

November 3, 2011

No more tears!

Baby's bathtub is no place for formaldehyde, but it's been there. The persistent folks at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics can take credit for Johnson and Johnson's latest press release in which J & J announced:
We are phasing out formaldehyde releaser preservatives from our baby products. The preservative technologies we use are approved and have been safely used in hundreds of millions of real life uses around the world. However, we know that some consumers are concerned about formaldehyde, which is why we offer many products without formaldehyde releasing preservatives, and are phasing out these types of preservatives in our baby products worldwide. We are no longer introducing new baby products that contain these types of preservatives. Over the past few years or so, we already have reduced the number of formulations globally with formaldehyde releaser preservatives by 33% and in the U.S. by over 60%.

We have reformulated approximately 70% of our baby products with new cleansing formulations that keep trace levels of 1,4 dioxane at below reliably detectable levels, and are continuing to reformulate. We also have established strict standards to ensure that the amount of 1,4 dioxane in any of our remaining products is kept to extremely low levels that are well below the level that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and regulatory agencies around the world consider to be safe."
Watchdog organizations really can force corporate America to do the "right thing." Keep up the good work.

November 1, 2011

Renewable wind energy in Virginia?

Brodie Mountain, Massachusetts wind farm
Promises, promises?

Americans now have a full twelve months of campaigning before us, and a lot of hot air to anticipate. Much of it will be aimed at renewable energy, the alternative to fossil fuels. Thanks to Solyndra’s bankruptcy woes, many fear that wind industry financial problems may be just around the corner too.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell got our hopes up shortly after he took office in 2010 by describing Virginia as “the Energy Capital of the East Coast,” and putting Virginia squarely into the efforts of the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium. It looked like we truly might attain 20 percent of our needed electricity by 2020 by harnessing our wind and creating a quarter-million jobs in the process. Oops, big recession arrived.

Governor McDonnell now proclaims November as “Job Creator Appreciation Month.” Although lots of promises have been made, little has been accomplished to date in the wind industry in Virginia, and the offshore winds are being wasted.

A few weeks ago, Poseidon Atlantic LLC announced plans to develop, in the second half of 2012, a site on the Eastern Shore to test prototype offshore wind turbines on the ground before tackling their operation offshore. Makes sense to get it right early on. Also sounds like jobs. Virginia Lt. Governor Bill Bolling says only 25 jobs in the next two years at this test site, but 5000 over the long haul.

But first things first. Companies need to build the parts for these wind farms. The Spanish firm Gamesa and Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls Industries employ about 80 at their new Offshore Wind Technology Center in nearby Chesapeake where they are building a 5-megawatt prototype wind turbine. They hope to place it off Cape Charles in late 2012.

Transporting these humongous turbines (I’ve seen some up close in Massachusetts) is a mammoth job. So it makes sense to manufacture the turbines (some as high as 75 feet) close by the testing site. More jobs for Virginians?

Fugro, the world’s largest collector of wind data, plans to begin gathering information about our offshore winds within the next few months. More jobs?

The bigger goal is to tie the turbines into the electricity grid owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative. That’s the same company that has not given up building the largest coal-burning power plant in Virginia, not so far away from me in the small town of Dendron, Virginia. That would also mean more jobs, but not the kind I want. I prefer my air minus mercury and other particulates. I saw what our sailboat docked off the York River looked like before the coal-burning plant there ceased operation.

Google is part of a consortium that plans to develop underwater transmission lines from Virginia to New Jersey. Installation of those lines should also mean more jobs, not to mention the maintenance of this infrastructure.

More recently, Charlottesville-based Apex Wind Energy was one of two companies to submit an unsolicited bid to get something going off Virginia’s coastline. Another positive action, and during a tense economic climate.

Virginia joins other southern states on this revealing map from the American Wind Energy Association that shows the current operating wind energy in the U.S..

The bottom line is that Virginia has the potential for LOTS of manufacturing, logistics, operations and maintenance jobs in the wind energy business. 2012 could be a green and windy year. Virginia could be the hotbed for this emerging industry. Or it could be a lot of hot air. Election year is a tough time to get politics out of the air and make real progress that’s good for all Americans.

Mmm, Mmm Good, or NOT Good?

Here's some food for thought.

The folks at TIME just did an eye-openig piece on the infamous McRib sandwich. Infamous because they only appear on the menu sporadically. And infamous now for what the Time writers reveal are some surprising ingredients that they discovered on McDonalds' website.

True, these are only present in very small amounts, but do you really want to ingest:

1) Azodicarbonamide, a " flour-bleaching agent that is most commonly used in the manufacture of foamed plastics like gym mats and the soles of shoes, that is found in the McRib bun. The compound is banned in Europe and Australia as a food additive. (England's Health and Safety Executive classified it as a "respiratory sensitizer" that potentially contributes to asthma through occupational exposure.) The U.S. limits azodicarbonamide to 45 parts per million in commercial flour products, based on analysis of lab testing."

2) Ammonium sulfate, which the EPA website tells us is "used as a nitrogen source in fertilizers." Hmm.

3) Polysorbate 80, a yellow liquid in LOTS of foods as an emulsifier, particularly ice cream.

Perhaps we need to check out other fast food restaurant websites too. As Gomer Pyle used to say, "Surprise, surprise."