Dear EarthTalk: How can I have a greener, healthier laundry room? — Billie Alexander, Topeka, KS
While there are many ways to green one’s laundry room, one place to start is with detergent. Luckily, in 2009 the federal government phased out phosphates, harsh chemicals that help break down minerals and loosen food bits during the wash cycle, because their presence in waste water causes algae blooms in downstream waterways. But mainstream detergents still often contain the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), which researchers have identified as an endocrine-disrupting estrogen mimic, meaning exposure to it can cause reproductive and other human health problems. Bleach, a corrosive chemical known to burn skin and eyes on contact and damage lungs when inhaled — and which can react with ammonia to produce toxic gases — is also a common ingredient in detergents.
Sarah van Schagen tested and reviewed six leading eco-friendly detergents for Grist Magazine. To qualify for consideration, each needed to be “free and clear” of dyes and perfumes and also “concentrated” in order to save water, packaging and extra carbon emissions from transport. The contestants included detergents from Earth Friendly Products, Biokleen, Mountain Green, Planet, Seventh Generation, and All. Each did a respectable job getting clothes clean and smelling fresh, with most performing just as well as mainstream brands. Seventh Generation Free & Clear was the overall winner for its combination of eco-friendly ingredients, good stain fighting, pleasant but not “perfumey” scent and low price.
Another way to green the laundry room is to lose the fabric softener. Mainstream varieties, whether dryer sheets or liquid, contain harmful chemicals like benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen). Many dryer sheets also contain tallow, a processed form of beef or mutton fat.
“You can avoid these health risks, the animal fat and the waste simply by using vinegar to soften your clothing,” reports Josh Peterson of The Discovery Network’s Planet Green. “Add 3/4 cups of vinegar to your final rinse cycle and your clothes will come out soft.” And since vinegar “is ludicrously inexpensive when compared to fabric softener,” consumers can save money and the planet at the same time.
Of course, swapping out that old water-hogging, energy-gulping washing machine for a new model that meets federal EnergySTAR standards will save lots of electricity and water. EnergySTAR certified washing machines use about 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than regular washers, and also have greater capacity, so it takes fewer loads to clean the same amount of laundry. Their sophisticated wash systems flip or spin clothes through a stream of water and rinse them with repeated high pressure spraying instead of soaking them in a full tub of water. Likewise, replacing an older clothes dryer with a newer EnergySTAR model will help reduce your household’s electricity consumption. And, if you live in a place with a mild and often sunny climate, ditch the dryer altogether and hang your clothes to dry outside.
CONTACTS: Biokleen, www.biokleenhome.com; Earth Friendly Products ECOS, www.ecos.com; Mountain Green, www.mountaingreen.biz; Planet Inc., www.planetinc.com; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; All Laundry, www.all-laundry.com; Grist Magazine, www.grist.org; Planet Green, planetgreen.discovery.com; EnergySTAR, www.energystar.gov.
Dear EarthTalk: What are the new nutrition standards for school lunches that have some students boycotting their cafeterias and discarding the food? — Melissa Makowsky, Trenton, NJ
Indeed, some 31 million American kids participating in the federally supported National School Lunch Program have been getting more whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables in their diets — whether they like it or not. The change is due to new school meal standards unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last January, per the order of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new standards are based on the Institute of Medicine’s science-based recommendations, and are the first upgrade to nutritional standards for school meals since 1995 when low- and no-fat foods were all the rage.
The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) believes the new standards represent an important milestone in efforts to improve the dietary habits and health of increasingly obese American kids. “Schools’ misguided reliance on processed foods for speedy, low-labor cost production, industry’s $1.6 billion in child-targeted advertising and a lack of faith in our children’s dietary curiosity [have] created a generation of ‘picky eaters’ with dull palates,” reports the group. “With nearly 17 percent of America’s children now clinically obese and a staggering 32 percent overweight, the time is long past to address the unhealthy food environments our children live in.”
The new standards limit calories per meal to 850 for high school meals, 700 for middle school and 650 for elementary and more than double the mandated minimum servings of fruits and vegetables while reducing the sodium, saturated fats and trans fats in school kids’ diets. Whole-grain foods, beans and dark green and orange vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes have replaced things like pizza and French fries as staple items in schools that follow the program.
Of course, not everybody likes the changes. Lunch strikes, Facebook protest pages, Twitter campaigns, YouTube parody videos and other means have been utilized coast-to-coast to voice opposition to the healthier meals. Some affected cafeterias blame the new smaller portions and healthier fare for causing as much as a 70 percent drop-off in school lunch program participation since the new standards took effect.
Psychologists understand that kids may not come around to new foods right away but will eventually eat them — so the federal government and most participating schools are sticking to their guns. And the USDA says that if a school “encounters significant hardships employing the new calorie requirements, we stand ready to work with them quickly and effectively to remedy the situation with additional flexibilities.”
The benefits of the new standards far outweigh the costs. “School meals can help children develop healthy eating habits — or they can prime them for a life of poor health and unnecessary suffering,” says EWG.
EWG lauds the new standards for significantly expanding access to and appreciation of nourishing food. Whether they can help shift eating norms across the country remains to be seen, but regardless, millions of American kids will likely now get their healthiest meals of the day on a tray in their school cafeterias.
CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org; National School Lunch Program, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/; Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/governance/legislation/cnr_2010.htm.