Cleaning up our act for Earth Day


    In honor of Earth Day, our local transfer station, aka The Dump, had a hazardous waste roundup Saturday. That’s where you can legally dispose of all the toxic yuck left over after refinishing furniture, painting walls, clearing clogged drains and removing lime scale from your bidet or whatever.

    The fact the guys unloading the cars are wearing HazMat suits should be a clue. Like why would anyone use this stuff in the first place? I’m sure the labels didn’t say, “Only dispose of this product at a toxic waste facility” or “Use only with rubber gloves and a gas mask.” Of course they didn’t.

    A few years back I realized I couldn’t walk down the supermarket detergent aisle without sneezing. Since I was shopping for organic produce at natural foods stores anyway, I started buying cleaning products there too. Since I wasn’t sneezing in their aisles, I could actually read the labels: No petroleum-based solvents. Contains only plant-based surfactants. I got it.

    So I’ve been thinking, since our legislators seem so cowed by the current administration’s bullying tactics, it’s unlikely they’ll ever pass tighter emission controls or higher gas mileage standards. My suggestion is to boycott all products that use petrochemicals.

    Have you noticed that every major oil company has a chemical division? There’s some form of petroleum in damn near everything sold in this country. Not just paints, pesticides, herbicides and solvents. Just about every product we use to clean anything, if it’s a brand name, it’s got petrol in it.

    It doesn’t stop with “anionic and nonionic surfactants” in detergents. Try the cosmetics aisle and read those labels. Petroletum is the main ingredient in all the stuff that goes on our hair, skin, nails and lips.

    How appetizing is that?

    Federal regulators don’t make it easy for us to discover what’s in all those products. Obfuscation in labeling is a government-sanctioned art form. Biodegradable is good, right? Actually, biodegradable means squat.

    A product may be labeled biodegradable even if it takes 100 years to degrade and releases harmful chemicals into the environment in the process.

    Martin Wolf, chemist with Seventh Generation, a company that uses plant-based surfactants in its cleaning products, says major brands use petrochemicals because they’re cheap and the labels don’t have to say that.

    “The EPA tests new products for biodegradability only to the extent that there’s no foaming left after 10 days,” he said. “That standard was set because foam from detergents was clogging rivers and showing up in drinking water.” Yummy.

    Seventh Generation uses only hydrogen peroxide, citrus oils and other benign ingredients. Its labels clearly state: Free of petroleum based solvents, glycol ethers, phosphates, acids, caustics, dyes and perfumes.

    “We use only those ingredients that do not pose any chronic health risks and are safe for the environment.”

    More interesting is their claim that: “If every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle of solvent based cleaner with our hydrogen peroxide based product, we could save 33,000 barrels of oil.”

    I asked Wolf how they extrapolated those numbers when Proctor & Gamble won’t disclose how much petroleum they use. He said the numbers come from a “1990s life cycle analysis of all steps used to make certain chemicals, from published reports we assume a product contains a certain amount of the active ingredient.”

    My favorite laundry detergent is Ecos, an Earth Friendly Product, that can expunge everything from grass stains and motorcycle grease to pizza sauce. Ecos marketing manager Sona Rejebian says the real issue is not even the amount of petroleum used but that “it’s not sustainable and is fouling the environment, so we’re not going to have fresh water anymore.”

    “If we’re putting chemicals down the drain, filtration plants can’t get it out, leaving horrible toxins along lake edges,” she said. “Even if we get an idea for a product and find it would have to have even a tiny bit of a toxic chemical, we just scrap it.”

    Now there’s the real honor system at work.

    My other favorite is Ecover, a Belgian company elected to the U.N. “Global 500 Roll of Honor” for outstanding environmental achievement. Their labels say “Biodegradable in 3 to 5 days!” Now that’s the “Old Europe” way.

    Ecover also makes dishwashing liquid, cream scrub, fabric softener, nonchlorine bleach, and glass and floor cleaners, even an enzyme drain opener. But my favorite is its spot remover.

    My daughter has been slow to accept all these natural products even though I tell her she might justify her petrol-addicted SUV that way. But brainwashed by all those tacky TV ads, she’s sure a spray-on spot remover is easier. Trouble is, she tosses things in the drier without checking to see if the stains came out. After ruining her best new sweatshirt that way, I used Ecover stain remover on it and, Voila! It’s like new. She may be convinced, but getting her to change shampoo, skin lotion and lipgloss may be too much culture shock.

    Even though my Saturn gets 32.5 miles to the gallon, I feel compelled to do what I can to reduce emissions and gas consumption. I’ve cut my shopping trips from four to three a month, and am growing (organically, of course) more of my own food.

    Now if Bush would just make good on his promise to promote hydrogen-powered cars, we’d be on our way to a meaningful Earth Day.