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Month: May 2014

Coke and Pepsi Bow to Public Outcry and Will Drop BVO from Drinks

Written by: Lee Ann Rush

Awhile back I wrote about eight food additives that are banned in numerous foreign countries but, thanks in large part to the FDA’s cozy relationship with the US government, still used in foods processed in the United States. One of these is brominated vegetable oil (BVO), a substance originally patented as a flame retardant, which is found not only in flame-resistant upholstered furniture, but also in products such as Powerade, Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Fresca, Fanta and other citrus-flavored soft drinks, where it functions as an emulsifier. BVO in furniture has been shown to accumulate in the human body, where it can cause problems such as neurological impairment, thyroid hormone anomalies, reduced fertility and early puberty. BVO taken orally in soft drinks, of course, is perfectly safe (if you believe the FDA, that is).

Due in large part to a petition on the website launched by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teenager who questioned the marketing of BVO-laden sports drinks to athletes, PepsiCo eliminated BVOs from its Gatorade brand last year (they continued to use them in carbonated drinks). On May 4, Coca Cola announced that it will follow suit and drop brominated vegetable oil from its Powerade sports drinks. The very next day, both Coke and Pepsi issued statements that they are working toward eliminating BVOs from all of their drinks. This is encouraging news, and clear evidence that even the behemoth food manufacturers will pay attention when consumers voice their objections and vote with their wallets. (Sales of soft drinks in the United States have been declining in recent years as people become more health-conscious.)

Of course, both companies continue to trumpet the safety of their products, and neither will admit to deep-sixing BVOs because they can be harmful to humans. Of course not, because that could open the door to liability in the event of personal injury litigation. Coca Cola, which will replace BVOs with sucrose acetate isobutyrate (an allegedly safer emulsifier also used in inks, lacquers and cosmetics) and glycerol ester of rosin (a/k/a ester gum, a common food additive also found in chewing gum and cosmetics), claims that its plan to completely phase out BVOs from its products by the end of 2014 stems not from any safety concerns, but rather to achieve consistency in the ingredients it uses in its drinks manufactured and distributed around the world. Is that so? While I’m not buying the company line, I’m happy they’re finally taking some positive action. PepsiCo stated that it has been working toward totally eliminating BVOs since it dropped them from Gatorade in January, 2013, but has provided no target date for their disappearance from the company’s ingredients lists.

This is certainly encouraging news, but there’s still a very long way to go if we want our food supply to once again consist of real foods. To that end, the next March on Monsanto Day is scheduled for May 24, 2014.

What Can We Do with All These Plastic Bags?

Author: Lee Ann Rush

In a recent piece, I discussed the pending legislation in New York City that would impose a ten-cent per bag fee on those customers of the city’s grocery stores and other retail establishments who, rather than providing their own shopping bags, choose to avail themselves of the “non-reusable” plastic or paper bags at the register to contain their purchases. While I agree wholeheartedly that the uncontrolled proliferation of plastic bags is an unsightly and expensive scourge on our environment, I disagree that all of these bags are “non-reusable.” True, they are made from petroleum products, are usually tossed into the trash, and take centuries to biodegrade, but, unless they’re ripped or punctured, plastic bags can absolutely be reused and repurposed. By doing this, we can cut down on the huge volume of plastic bags (estimated at 400 billion) dispensed in the United States annually, and help the environment in the process.

I’ve read all sorts of suggestions about reusing plastic bags. Some involve cutting them into strips and weaving them into “fabric,” fusing them together with a steam iron (for what purpose I’m not quite sure), or braiding strips of them to make jewelry; all very nice ideas for some, I’m sure, but not very practical for me. What follows are several ways that I actually reuse the various bags that find their way into my house. First, when I’m going shopping at a store that offers a credit for reusing their bags, I try to make sure to bring some along. The credit may only add up to a quarter or so, but I feel that I’m saving a bit of the environment along with a bit of money. Because these bags tend to be very flimsy, you can only reuse them for shopping a couple of times before they’ll develop a hole or tear. At that point, you can either double them up and use them for garbage, or, if they’re completely destroyed, throw them out. Yes, they’ll still wind up in the landfill, but think of how many plastic bags you’ve kept out of the landfill by reusing them!

Large plastic bags from home stores and department stores are excellent as kitchen garbage pail liners. You’re not only repurposing the bags, you’re buying fewer of those expensive Hefty kitchen bags that, lest we forget, also take centuries to decompose. Regular grocery store bags are the perfect size to line average-sized wastebaskets, and the smaller bags from places like drugstores work very well to line small wastebaskets. They not only help prevent the baskets from getting grungy, but make emptying them very neat and easy. The small plastic bags are also great for those obligatory clean-ups while you’re walking you dog, although I prefer the opaque black bags from places like liquor stores for that purpose (picking it up is bad enough; I definitely don’t want to see it again!).

I’ll share more suggestions about reusing plastic (and paper) bags soon. Meanwhile, please make it a practice to bring home as few new bags as possible.

Are Corn-Based Biofuels Worse for the Environment than Gasoline?

Environmentalists and others concerned about the problem of global warming have for some time considered plant-based biofuels to be one of the cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels. In fact, the Obama administration has touted biofuel made from the residue of harvested corn as a clean alternative to oil that will help to reverse climate change, and the EPA has poured more than a billion dollars into the research and development of these plant-based fuels, known as cellulosic biofuels. However, a recent study funded by the federal government and released last week in the journal Nature Climate Change throws a wrench into the theory that biofuels are better for the environment, concluding that corn-residue biofuel releases seven percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than gasoline in the short term. Ouch!
While all agree that biofuels are indeed better for the environment in the long term, the newly-released study claims that they won’t even be able to meet the standard set in a 2007 energy law to qualify as renewable fuels. This finding was a blow to the biofuel industry, which expects that about half of the market in cellulosic fuel will be corn residue-based, and immediately criticized the research as flawed and simplistic. The study was an attempt to quantify the amount of carbon lost to the atmosphere when corn residue (stalks, leaves and cobs) is removed from the fields to be used in making biofuel instead of staying on the ground to replenish the soil naturally. The study concluded that the process of removing the corn residue from the fields contributes to global warming, no matter how much is removed.

Biofuel producer DuPont was quick with a rebuttal. “The core analysis depicts an extreme scenario that no responsible farmer or business would even employ because it would ruin both the land and the long-term supply of feedstock. It makes no agronomic or business sense,” according to Jan Koninckx, DuPont’s global business director for biorefineries. DuPont, currently in the process of completing an Iowa facility costing over $200 million that will produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol from local corn residue, has funded its own study, which concluded that DuPont’s Iowa-made ethanol may prove over 100 percent better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Does that finding surprise anyone?

Adam Liska, lead author of the federally-funded study and assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, admits that he “knew this research would be contentious.” While the EPA claims that Liska’s study “does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol,” a 2013 Associated Press investigation of the EPA’s own corn-based ethanol analyses found that they “failed to predict the environmental consequences accurately.” Who’s right? I wish I knew.

By: Lee Ann Rush

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