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Burning truth about firelogs, foam insulation and Tresemme

NMFSC_026_0116 firelogsMaybe it’s the defiant Montrealer in me, but I really don’t mind a -30 day as long as the sun is beaming down from its blue sky perch. Of course, it helps if you’re tucked warmly inside. Okay, maybe that doesn’t count as a true love of the cold, but I’ll take icy blue skies over a week of frigid rains any day. No matter what your take on winter, it’s prime time to tackle some cold-weather questions.

This week in Ecoholic, you’ll find a product guide to fire logs. I got some flack from an astute reader who was appalled that I could recommend compressed firelogs over good old locally cut wood. And you know what, he has a point, I never did address the local factor in this guide, but one thing I do know from government stats: compressed synthetic logs weirdly burn cleaner than plain cordwood. Sorry, it’s just the truth. Doesn’t make compressed logs uber green or local or affordable or even an option if you have a wood-fired furnace, but they do burn cleaner. At the end of the day though, neither compressed logs nor plain wood logs are permitted in areas where wood fires are banned because of winter smog concerns.

Most logs have ditched the petroleum wax and now use recycled content but it was surprisingly tough to find out what wax companies did use. Still waiting to here from Northland on that one.  In the meantime, check out this week’s log guide.

Also this week, I answered a question about spray foam insulation. Is it safe? Is healthy? Is it green if it saves you energy? Are they all created equal? You’ll get the complete lowdown…except, sadly, Walltite Eco never did get back to us about what kind of flame retardants they use in their Mike Holmes-endorsed foam insulation.  Kind of odd.

And finally, you’ll get the dirt on our Greenwasher of the Week: Tresemme Naturals. They’ve reformulated this one to ditch the sodium laureth sulfate but there are still plenty of other dodgy ingredients in here to make us question their ‘natural’ claims. For the red hot truth about all this and more, check out the full column in NOW.


‘Tis the season to be giving: karma-boosting gifts

NMFSC_048_1212_v2 ethical guideMy family stopped exchanging Christmas gifts a good 15 years ago. My sister, in med school at the time, told us she just didn’t have time to shop for us (pshaw, what an excuse!). And just like that, the whole card castle crumbled and we gave up the whole swapping tradition ever since.  Instead, we just hang out, laugh and eat as much as humanly possible. There is one exception to the rule: kids. If you’re under 18 you’ll still on the “nice” list and will get gifts beyond love and hugs.

Whoever’s still on your gift list this year, make sure you’re opting for options that aren’t muddying your karma. I’m including my ethical giving guide (above) and my toy guide (below) for a survey of some of what’s out there. Just click on each image to lead you to my guides in NOW. Oh and check out my DIY gifts of the week each week to get some super last-minute ideas made with 100% upcycled and/or local/organic ingredients. Happy holidays!

NMFSC_037_1219 toys


The Bright Idea Edition: lightbulbs & Tzeporah Berman

Lightbulbs guide image

In this issue of Ecoholic, we’re just brimming with bright ideas, both literal and figurative. The literal ones come from the latest innovations in lighting – figured a roundup on light bulbs would be useful right about now since most basic incandescent bulbs are being phased out in a couple weeks. The figurative ones come from Canadian activist extraordinaire Tzeporah Berman. I got to have dinner with Tzeporah when I was hosting Earth Day’s Beyond Green Youth Summit that she was speaking at. I have to say I love this woman. She’s a power house for change and the new green economy. (I definitely recommend putting her bio “This Crazy Time” on your holiday reading list. You can read some snippets from her fascinating speech on Petropolitics here, along with my bulb guide and greenwash of the week (Raw Essentials!).

Ethical coffee guide: Is your cup green ’til the last drop?

Coffee guide columnI’ve got to confess, I actually gave up coffee cold turkey about a decade ago because it wasn’t waking me up, just messing with my stomach. But I know an ethical cup o’ joe when I see one, and I also live with a coffee snob, who insists that the java that gets brewed in my house is as fresh ‘n potent as it gets. So what do we buy? We get Merchants of Green Coffee, roasted in east end Toronto. They’re awesomely ethical and crazy fresh. But if you live in BC or Calgary or anywhere else, I really ethical beanrecommend supporting the local, organic, fair trade beans roasted closest to your home. As I say in the column though, if you’re in a major grocer and in urgent need of beans, Kicking Horse and Ethical Bean are two excellent organic, fair trade Canadian  companies with nationwide distribution.

As for the trashy score I gave coffee pods, a few of you emailed me to say that pods don’t always have to be landfill bound. Keurig does offer a reusable filter so you can fill your machine with whatever certified fair trade, organic beans your heart desires. Also, you can start a Tassimo Brigade and mail in your old pods to TerraCycle for upcycling into new products like cutting boards and plastic garbage cans. I still say there is less of an enviro footprint to going the reusable filter route but at least it’s an option for those that already own Tassimos.

Also in this Ecoholic, you’ll find nature notes on the illegal carcinogen found in 100 shampoos (is your ‘natural’ brand guilty?), as well as enviro orgs legal push back against censorship, a petition for bike lanes on Bloor and our Greenwash of the Week…SmartKlean!

The Dirt on Green Cleaners: a guide to all purpose cleaners

All purpose cleaningIt isn’t easy reviewing green cleaners – especially when it’s still not mandatory for cleaning companies to disclose their ingredients. The good news is that while too many brands aren’t listing their ingredients on the bottles, more and more are coming clean, so to speak, on their websites, at least. Even Vim ProPower Naturals, who we slammed on CBC Marketplace last year cleaning labelfor being tight-lipped about their ingredients, is now (sort of) sharing online. Others, like Ecolife, are clinging to pronouncements that their ingredients are “proprietary” and wouldn’t share upon request, beyond saying they’re made of “corn, coconut, potatoes, etc.” Sorry but that’s a stew recipe, not an honest disclosure of synthesized corn/coconut/potato-derived ingredients. Most are still only half honest with you – they list some ingredients then offer up vagueries like “preservative” or “coconut-based surfactant.” Not good enough.

Interesting research out of Ottawa U led by biology prof Adam Oliver Brown and Justyn Pellizzari looked into “science communication in green marketing” in the field of household cleaning products. They found the market awash in, well, greenwash. They did a sweep of 5 major retailers (Loblaws, Metro, Rexall, Shoppers and Walmart), tallied all the green claims amongst all purpose cleaners then cross checked them against Terra Choice’s 7 Sins of Greenwashing. The results? “Green products made up between 13 and 20 percent of each store’s total inventory of all-purpose cleaners.” Of the 15 products making green claims, “almost 87% committed at least one of the seven sins of greenwashing.” The only two that didn’t commit any sins were EcoMax and Nature Clean.

Sin of vagueness -Terra ChoiceUltimately, the scores in the latest Ecoholic all purpose cleaning guide in NOW are based on a bunch of factors. Questions asked include: are the products/ingredients safe for human use, safe for the environment, are they third party certified, do they fully disclose their ingredients (on the label, on the website, upon request) and are the products actually effective? A super honest, clean product like EcoMax still won’t get a perfect score unless it works beautifully. Performance, wise, I didn’t love it as much as others so it got a 3 – a “decent pick with some misgivings.” A company like Method which I’ve always called a greenwasher, earned an extra point for becoming more open than most about their precise ingredients online and the efforts they’ve gone to make their synthetic ingredients like scent and colour, free of carcinogens, etc. Plus for other reasons mentioned in the column, instead of it getting a 2 , it also got a 3 out of 5. So you see my point- it’s not easy ranking green cleaners. A lot of factors went into all of these scores.

As the Ottawa U researchers concluded, “At the end of the day, the number one way to guarantee you won’t be fooled by companies using greenwashing on their products is to avoid them all in general. Water, vinegar or lemon, and baking soda are enough to clean almost every surface in your home.” Hear, hear. That’s why DIY ingredients are the Ecoholic pick of the week.

Blackout issue: alt power guide, tales of a dark night & more

NMFSC_025_0718Summertime and I’m totally behind on blogging! Just wanted to catch you guys up before I head out of town again for a couple days….Here’s a column I did post-Toronto floods, including my own reflections on being holed up without power and water on the 15th floor with my father (who now depends on a wheelchair). Thought it was only fitting the product guide that week be on gadgets that keep you fired up without plugging in. I also wrote up a Greenwash of the Week that I happened to spot in my mom’s shower – sorry, mom, you weren’t the only one duped by Organix hair products! Plus Nature Notes on Kellogg’s dirty palm dealings & news on Lac Megantic. Here’s a link to it all.

The dirt on dirt. Organic claims in garden centres & more

3238 NOW Ecoholic 033_0523_NMFSCYou’ll spot the word ‘organic’ so often in garden centres you’d think you’d died and gone to Whole Foods. Alas, the word organic means something totally different in the gardening context. It basically means “organic matter” – typically anything composted/decaying like manure. Sounds benign enough – except when you stop to think ‘ugh, wait, do I really want antibiotic-laced chicken poop on my veggies?’ Cow manure doesn’t come from idyllic pastures either but often from intensive, confinement-heavy factory farming operations.  Ditto for bonemeal and bloodmeal.

What about garden products certified for use on organic food? That’s got to be better, no? I wish I could rule out that it came from factory farms, but alas that’s organic compostnot in the rule book, according to the certifier I spoke with (Pro-cert). Why can’t we just get poop from certified organic farms? Turns out there’s not enough to go around. So basically that composted manure can come from any old farm, but not ones where animals can’t turn around 360 and are kept in the dark (poor baby veal). Those are both very good things but still push for details. Pefferlaw Organic garden products say their products don’t come from “intensive farming operations.” Their “certified organic compost” (left) comes from horse manure and composted bog vegetation.

In the meantime, for more from the Ecoholic test guide to fertilizersGreenwash of the Week (All Natural Temptations!), Nature Notes on the big cola oil sands campaign, and my piece on the David Suzuki 30×30 Nature Challenge, read on.


No fracking way: keep your furnace (and water) off dirty gas

How’d you get your eggs cooked this morning…or your shower nice and hot? Natural gas has always gotten a lot more respect on the green-front than other fossil fuels. We hear again and again that it burns cleaner, choking out less smoggy pollutants than say coal or conventional oil, so when we use it in our homes we don’t feel so guilty. We get 1 green thumb up for our natural gas furnaces (particularly if they’re high efficiency), natural gas-fired baths (especially if your system is tankless or high efficiency), even our our natural gas stoves (as a cook, I admit, I love mine). But I would feel a lot dirtier coming of that shower if that natural gas had been fracked, as it is in a growing number of provinces and states. I get into all the nitty gritty in the latest Ecoholic column on natural gas and fracking.

The ArtisCC Fracking petitionts Against Fracking video above is trying to keep fracking out of NY state but the message extends across state lines. Tell your provincial/state politicians not to frack with you – keep the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas out of our energy plans. Sign this Don’t Frack With Our Water Petition from the Council of Canadians.




What’s hiding in your wipes?

news-eco-0314_largeTo wipe or not to wipe

I know, I know, wipes are seriously convenient when you’re on the go, but you probably know it’s definitely more sustainable to go the reusable cloth/wipe/rag route. You wipe junkies will have my head if I tell you to axe them from your life permanently, but can we agree to reducing? Let’s try a tradeoff. Cut out disposable wipes from your cleaning routine and home bodycare routine (that means NO using moist wipes instead of TP!) and keep the disposables for when you’re out and about. For the DIY route, an old flannel sheet cut up into squares works beautifully. Now what to look for when you’re shopping for greener wipes? Read the latest Ecoholic column on the topic! Here are a few bonus bits of info.

Rash-worthy ingredients

The thing with wipes is the chemical substances aren’t rinsed off, they get to stay on skin. Not good since so many wipes contain stuff like parabens and serious irritants. Also, just because the wipe says it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s free of dodgy chemicals.  Huggies Naturals wipes replaced formaldehyde- releasing DMDM hydantoin with methylchloroisothiazolinone/methylisothiazolinone. Not good! Dermatology journals have documented cases of sores, redness and itching on people’s behinds, hands, etc from using moist wipes that contain the preservatives (these bad boys are so irritating they’re on Health Canada’s hotlist of restricted ingredients).

Phenoxyethanol, while really common in paraben-free products like Aleva, can also trigger skin reactions with prolonged contact in some so isn’t desirable in products that stay on the skin. Ditto for cocamidopropyl betaine, which may really irritate some (like my mom!). FYI, phenoxyethanol used to be okayed by some organic certifiers like Ecocert, but Ecocert has since changed its mind.

Don’t believe the biodegradable hype

I’m glad there are so many wipes out there that are offering alternatives to typical petroleum-fibre materials (like polyester, etc), but be aware that if your wipes say they’re made of tree pulp or cellulose fibre, they’re mostly just rayon AKA viscose – yes, your wipes, too. Rayon/viscose fibre is made of tree pulp aka cellulose fibre and, as I say in the column, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on bamboo rayon companies claiming their materials were biodegradable because, well, nothing biodegrades in your typical North American landfill – and city composters just skims all wipes out. Also processing tree pulp, even bamboo, into a soft fabric like rayon involves a lot of polluting chems. All this to say, your wipes really not going to biodegrade, so let’s try to use less of them. Deal?

What the palm? The rainforest-razing oil in…everything

Hand me a top hat and cane and I’ll sing about palm as a supercalafragalistic  plant-based petrochemical replacement. Gee willikers, you can add it to everything from lip balm to bathroom cleaner – amazing! But the song and dance come to a screeching halt when you start probing palm’s rainforest record. You know how headlines used to tell us that rainforest beef was clearcutting the Amazon? Well, now palm oil plantations are clearcutting rainforests in Indonesia, Malaysia, Liberia, Camaroon, and the list goes on. I get into some of the nitty gritty details in this week’s Ecoholic column in NOW mag. One reader, Tarama, had written in wondering how she can avoid the troubled ingredient.  Noted Tamara, “It seems almost everything from food, cosmetics and cleaning products (including environmentally friendly brands) include it.” That’s right, sister. Many of them do. So how do you avoid it?

When it comes to food, you’d think palm oil would be easy enough to spot and avoid on ingredient lists, but it’s also often the basis of what’s listed as “vegetable oil.” The EU is starting to demand that veggie oil makers put an end to the mystery. Unfortunately, that ain’t the case in North America so if a product won’t cough up details beyond “vegetable oil,” SKIP.

As for beauty products, palm can be hidden behind the name sodium laureth sulfate, sodium laurel sulfate, sodium laurel sulfoacetate (all of which can also be from coconuts) as well as glyceryl stearate, stearic acid, steareth-2 and steareth-20. I mention a few palm-free soap brands in this week’s column like Ella’s Botanicals and Lush.

When it comes to cleaners, even natural brands often use palm. It can be hard to know for sure since it’s not mandatory for companies to disclose their ingredient lists. When in doubt, try emailing your favourite natural brand and asking them whether they contain any palm-derived ingredients. I’m waiting to hear back from a couple myself. Let them know you want to support palm oil-free products. If all else fails, go back to basics. Baking soda and vinegar are totally palm-free.

Know of any other palm-free brands? Let me know!