back to the garden

a year of greener thinking


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Manufacturing, Toxins and the Traceability Challenge

A machine may be more than the sum of its parts, but, when something goes wrong, tracing the origin of those parts is becoming a problem. The component parts of devices ranging from iPads to coffeemakers are frequently made by different companies that may be located in different countries, which makes it difficult to assign responsibility when a product is defective, a recent Slate article explains.

The struggle to trace each component part matters not only in cases of error, where an accidental flaw in a device makes it dangerous. It also could have implications for product claims. Say a company claims its product is BPA-free, but some of its components are not. It it even clear which entity is legally responsible for each piece of the product? To what extent is quality control the responsibility of the company that is selling the device and making claims about the product?

These issues are increasingly important given a Wall Street Journal article that found companies’ claims that their products are eco-friendly or BPA-free are frequently false. In short, if you’re worried about plastics, you’re better off purchasing products that are glass or metal. You can’t trust companies’ claims that their products are free of endocrine disruptors or other dangerous chemicals. (Or, apparently, lead paint, if you remember the recent scandal when it was revealed that millions of toys imported from China contained lead or other dangerous substances.)

In an ideal world, government regulators or reliable private or non-profit groups would test products and let consumers know what they contain. There are great resources, such as the Environmental Working Group, that do just that (their cosmetics database is particularly impressive). But their data is not available for all products and the government’s oversight and resources are limited. Until this situation is improved, consumers are mostly on their own in researching companies and products. The diverse origins of product parts makes this task all the more difficult.


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FDA to warn of carcinogenic arsenic in rice

You may want to hold off on making that stir-fry dish for dinner tonight. The U.S. FDA is set to warn consumers about potentially dangerous levels of carcinogenic arsenic in rice and rice-based products, The Chicago Tribune reports. The agency has not yet set federal limits for the amount of arsenic in food, the Tribune notes, but Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is cautioning the public to avoid eating large amounts of rice or feeding rice products to infants.


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Loyola to ban sale of bottled water on campus by 2013

Photo courtesy of lifefactory.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Loyola University in Chicago is banning the sale of bottled water on its campus by 2013, citing students’ desire to reduce the university’s environmental footprint.

Bringing your own reusable water bottle instead of purchasing bottled water helps minimize waste and prevents the release of greenhouse gases emitted during the bottles’ transport. It also cuts down on oil use (a significant amount of oil is used to produce disposable water bottles) and is better for your health, since studies suggest that estrogen-like compounds known as endocrine disruptors can leach from soft disposable plastic.

Looking to start carrying your own reusable bottle? I recommend these glass bottles from lifefactory. They are BPA-free (make sure whichever kind you choose to buy is) and have an effective protective cover (I drop mine all the time). You can order them online or find them at local yoga and natural food stores and Whole Foods.


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Tianjin: A new eco-city in China

Check out this article by the BBC’s Gaia Vince about her visit to one of China’s newest eco-cities, Tianjin. The city, which was built on a reclaimed industrial dumping ground, is designed to encourage walking and public transport and includes numerous sustainability measures and nature areas. Additionally, Vince’s article notes that 20 percent of the housing has been reserved for low-wage workers and their families.


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Nick Kristof on “How Chemicals Change Us”

Nick Kristof is back with another column on the dangers of chemicals found in everyday materials, including canned foods, thermal receipts, cosmetics, plastics and food packaging. In particular, Kristof notes the Endocrine Society’s recent censure of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to ban BPA in food packaging.

Kristof leaves us with a salient and disturbing question to consider: “Shouldn’t our government be as vigilant about threats in our grocery stores as in the mountains of Afghanistan?”


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My Kind of Town: A new play about the Chicago police torture scandal

Picture courtesy of Timeline Theatre.

Chicago journalist John Conroy first exposed the torture and police brutality taking place in the bowels of Chicago area police stations in the pages of the Chicago Reader. Now, Conroy’s first theater piece, My Kind of Town, which is based on the torture scandal, is playing at Timeline Theatre in East Lakeview.

The play’s first preview took place last night, and I went with a friend. We both took a human rights class on the police torture cases last quarter and were fortunate to hear Conroy speak about his writing and upcoming play.

In a 2010 New York Times article, Conroy said that when he wrote the play, he “wanted to indict the whole city of Chicago [and]  to get at the public indifference, to go up the ladder and look at not only the cops who chose to torture but also at families and society that seemed to accept that some criminals constituted a tortureable class of people.”

In My Kind of Town, Conroy does just that. He has managed to convey the horror of what happened and to show how it came to be. He also demonstrates the complicity of players across the judicial system and the damning acquiescence of ordinary Chicagoans. None of the characters were easily categorized or static, from the condemned man and his family members to the police torturer and his friends and relatives, which made the play all the more compelling.

If you’re interested in seeing My Kind of Town (you should!), the play’s official opening is next week and it will run until July 29th, 2012. You can find an in-depth Chicago Reader article on the making of the play here and a Chicago Magazine interview with John Conroy here.