The Green Gazette column focuses on renewable energy living topics, this issue includes floriculture pesticides, making sustainable beer and recycled tire rubber.
Picking a perfect posy isn't as simple as it used to be. Although today's fresh cut-flower industry has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business, producing more than 100 million flowers every year, the picture isn't all so rosy, says David Tenenbaum in a May 2002 report in Environmental Health Perspectives. While floriculture work has opened up employment opportunities for about 190,000 people in countries like Colombia. Mexico and India, prodigious pesticide use in gigantic greenhouses, where they process tons of flowers each year, threatens worker health and safety, jeopardizes renewable energy living, the environment and could impact consumer health.
To raise ravishingly red roses and other flawless flowers in controlled environments, many greenhouses rely on large quantities of pesticides. More than half of all cut flowers sold in the United States are imported from countries that have fewer restrictions on pesticide use. Rut even flowers grown in the States have been found to he contaminated with pesticide residues. California-grown roses were found to have 1,000 times the level of cancer-causing pesticides as comparable food products, according to a 1997 Environmental Working Group study.
Improper handling, storage and application of toxic chemicals not informing workers of pesticide exposure hazards, and the lax enforcement of protective-gear use greatly endangers worker health. In 1990, a report in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health documented use of 127 different pesticides in Colombian greenhouses. A March 2000 article published in Mutation Research reported the use of 36 different chemicals in Morelos State, Mexico, flower greenhouses, including those banned or restricted in the United States, like DDT.
Many of these pesticides, such as organophosphates, are potent neurotoxins — acting on the nervous system — and genotoxins — negatively affect reproductive health. Epidemiologist Jaime Breihl of the Ecohealth Project of the Health Research and Advisory Center in Quito, Ecuador, says that almost two-thirds of greenhouse workers report headache, blurred vision and dizziness, which can be manifestations of neurotoxicity. Among these workers, increases in miscarriages, congenital malformations in their new born children, reduced ability to conceive and lower sperm counts also have been reported. In California, ornamental plants were among the top five crops associated with acute pesticide poisonings.
Propagating perfect, pest-free petals also contributes to a poisoned planet. From stern to store, flowers travel an average distance of 1,500 mile, adding significantly to global warming and pollution. Every three hours, one 35-ton cargo plane departs Colombia, jetting flowers around the globe. In some areas, floriculture s liberal use cal groundwater has caused water tables to drop. And reports have documented "direct discharge of pesticides and washing of pesticide equipment in waterways, and runoff reaching important aquifer areas," says Claudette Mo, former professor at the Regional Wildlife Management Program of the National University of Costa Rica.
To address these issue, groups are rallying around worker and eco-rights in their own flower -power movement Several European human rights organizations, notably the FoodFirst Information and Action Network, are promoting a "Flower Campaign" to establish a "humane and ecologically sustainable production of cut flowers." The Flower Label program, initiated by FLAN, has been adopted in about 10 percent of Ecuadorian floriculture businesses. The Rainforest Alliance, in concert with the Sustainable Action Network is developing floriculture standards that would prohibit use of chemicals banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the European Union, and the U.N. Focal and Agricultural Organization. Farms certified by SAN could denote their products with the "Rainforest Alliance certified" seal. And Asocolflores, the trade association for the Colombian flower industry, sponsors a voluntary program called Flor Verde, which focuses on sustainable development, including ways to reduce pesticide energy and water use.
At New Belgium Brewing Company's Ft. Collins, Colorado, plant, you walk past colorful perennial flower beds and well-used bike racks, and enter the building through the bustling employee break room where recycling bins neatly line one wall and employee computers another. One of the employee-owners explains that after a year of working at New Belgium, you get a new cruiser bike as a reward. On a typical sunny day, as many as a third of the company's employees ride those bikes to work, often including at least one of the company's founders — Jeff Lebesch or his wife, Kim Jordan. The bike is a symbol for much more than the company's popular Fat Tire beer. It also symbolizes the bike trip Jeff took through Belgium that launched the business and the commitment he and his wife made to run that business sustainably, to operate a profitable company that is "socially, ethically and environmentally responsible, that produces high-quality beer true to Belgian brewing styles."
Their commitment to the mission is reflected firsthand. Compact fluorescent light fixtures and bulbs, motion detectors that turn off lights when no one is in a room, much higher levels of insulation than is conventional, and passive-solar design cut company costs and save energy. New Belgium kooks to the highly efficient German brewing industry for state-of-the-art ideas. The company made a special effort to research and implement more efficient refrigeration, switching to ammonia rather than conventional freon-cooled units, which cut the cooling system's energy consumption by half. Waste heat recovered from the boiling kettle and from wort (unfermented beer) as it's cooled down is used to heat water for brewing and for cleaning the tanks.
New Belgium staff also supports a concept called Zero Emissions, which seeks to eliminate all waste products from industrial processes. Applying this concept would require expanding the firm's expertise into farming and energy generation. The major output factors of the brewery (high protein and fibrous cake from the grains, spent yeast, massive amounts of water, excess energy and carbon dioxide generated by natural fermentation) could be used for mushroom farming, chicken farming, biogas generation, algae production and fish farming. The most likely element to emerge in the short term is a greenhouse that would be heated with waste heat and irrigated with recovered wastewater. The company currently sells spent brewery "wastes" to local farmers.
Another example of New Belgium's research-in-progress is the beer bottle. Jeff has examined European attempts to sell beer in PET plastic bottles (highly recyclable plastic, usually denoted with a #1 recycling symbol), which, he says, would help solve some of the weight problems of shipping glass, although it would cut the product's shelf life in half.
Besides striving for ecological sustainability, the company's emphasis on "open-book" management is another good example of its fresh approach to business. " . . . each employee knows precisely what it costs to make a barrel of beer, and how much their department contributes to that cost. Since they have a vested interest in the profits, they often meet to set performance targets to bring those casts down," says Kim.
She watches as one of about 1,400 annual truckloads of beer pulls away from the brewery. Half of that output stays in Colorado, and with a sales increase in 1999 of 40 percent, the company is now doing well throughout the West. "We ship as far east as Missouri, south to Texas and up to the state of Washington," says Kim. "but we're not looking at aggressive marketing strategies right now because quality of life — for ourselves and our employees — is important, too. If sales become the only focus of a business, and you're constantly hiring new staff, you may lose track of the original goals: to have some fun, maintain a great working environment and produce an excellent product that doesn't have [negative] impacts on the environment. There's more to it than just the numbers."
— By Dave Wann, co-author of Affluenza:
The All-Consuming Epidemic.
Although well-meaning gardeners may have the drive to mulch, mulch, mulch, those who are considering rubber mulches (also called shredded tire mulches) might be spinning their wheels and wrecking their soil.
Companies marketing shredded rubber mulches say that their product takes much longer than organic mulches to break down, fights weed growth in gardens, will not blow or float away, and is environmentally safe.
But, says Dr. Rufus Chaney, a research agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recycled tire rubber leaches zinc into the soil, and too much zinc impairs plant growth. Many garden plants, such as tomatoes, cabbage, beans and peanuts, are especially zinc-sensitive. "Gardeners shouldn't be using shredded tire mulch," says Chaney, who joined the USDA's composting team in 1973 and specializes in studying heavy metals in soils.
Rubber mulch companies promote their product as a long-term solution to the yearly labor and cost of mulching with organic materials, but using this mulch could permanently damage your garden soil. The release of zinc into soil from rubber mulches especially poses a problem where soils are acidic. In Western and Midwestern regions with more alkaline to neutral soils, zinc from rubber mulches is released more slowly, but Chaney still cautions against using rubber mulches in gardens, where soil pH should be slightly acidic.
Any soil with a pH of 6.5 or below is too acidic for shredded tire mulch; gardeners who want to use old tires for planters or for raising garden beds also should exercise caution. Painting the tires before using them as planters may be one way to reduce zinc contamination of the surrounding soil, but the bottom line is that it's better to keep tires out of your garden. Instead, use traditional soil-improving organic mulches like hark, wood chips, hay, straw, paper, leaves, grass clippings and compost, and reuse your old tires by converting them into feed bunks and fences for livestock, split-log carriers, children's swings or even build your house with them. Architect Michael Reynold's Earthships (www.earthship.org) are built with tires filled with rammed earth, for about $20 per square foot.
— Lindsey Hodel
Have no fear: Those menacing red and green eyes glowering in your darkened house aren't midnight dream stealers, but electron-gobbling gremlins. While they won't eat you out of house and home, these little energy phantoms' have appetites that are a constant drain on your energy conservation measures and your renewable energy systems.
Once upon a time, when you turned an appliance off, it was off. Now many modern appliances, especially ones with remote controls, clocks and microprocessors, are designed with "instant-on" features, meaning they are primed for action at a moment's notice. It also means that they're constantly drawing electricity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Each year, says Home Power magazine publisher Richard Perez, phantom loads in the United States consume about 100 gigawatt-hours of electricity —enough electrical energy to feed the annual electrical energy needs of Greece, Peru and Vietnam.
If you're serious about conserving household energy, find those phantoms: appliances with plug-in wall cubes, remote controlled machines, instant-on TVs, microwaves and stereos. Unplug the appliance when it's not in use, purchase power strips (available at hardware and discount stores for $4 to $8) that can be shut off with the flip of one switch, or plug the offending appliance into sockets controlled by a wall switch. Use clocks powered by rechargeable batteries.
— Claire Anderson
Friendlier Flowers No one can deny that a bouquet of freshly cut flowers is a delight for the senses. But how many people want to bury their noses In blooms contaminated with chemicals? For organic and pesticide-free flowers, buy in season from your local farmer's market. Or order organic flowers on line by visiting www.organicbouquet.com.
Market Monopoly. A typical American supermarket sells 30,000 different items, half of which are produced by a mere 10 corporations.
The Wheel Deal. In the United States, fewer than 0.44 percent of commuters used their bicycles to get to work. Even three-quarters of short trips (one mile or less) still are made by motor vehicle. (source: www.bicyclinginfo.org )
Retired Tires. An estimated 280 million car and truck tires — that's more than 760,000 a day — are discarded every year. Although 75 percent of these tires are reclaimed, most (more than half of these tires) are burned for fuel. (source: Rubber Manufacturers Association)
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