DEAR EARTHTALK: What are the major
environmental issues that our next president, be it Obama or McCain,
will have to confront?
GLOBAL WARMING is unquestionably the most pressing environmental issue facing whoever ends up in the White House in January 2009. Not only does climate change impact - and in most cases exacerbate - other environmental problems, it has even wider implications for the economy and society at large. Luckily for all of us, both Barack Obama and John McCain are committed to tackling climate change, although their proposed approaches differ in significant ways.
The non-profit League of Conservation Voters (LCV), America's leading voice for environmental advocacy within electoral politics, would prefer to see Obama elected president given his environmental track record and plans for the future. While both candidates favor instituting a mandatory "cap-and-trade" program (whereby the federal government allows polluters to trade for the right to emit a reduced overall amount of greenhouse gases), Obama is for more strident cuts. He would like to see the U.S. reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by some 80 percent by 2050, while McCain supports only cutting back by 65 percent. Both candidates have authored legislation in the Senate designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although no such bills have come close to passing.
Even though McCain is by far the most forward-thinking of the original Republican presidential contenders on global warming and the need to take action, LCV still gives him poor marks, only a 24 rating (out of 100) lifetime and zero for 2007. LCV says that McCain missed all 15 critical environmental votes last year and that he "repeatedly clings to outdated policies and flip-flops on core environmental issues." By comparison, Obama earned a score of 67 in 2007, because he missed four votes due to campaigning (his 2006 score was 100), and has a lifetime LCV rating of 86.
One area where environmentalists take issue with McCain is his support for expanding the role of nuclear power in cutting fossil fuel use. Obama would rather bolster alternative energy sources like wind and solar power that do not have the nasty side effect of radioactive waste in need of storage and disposal. (McCain also supports the development of new renewables, but not to the extent that Obama is willing to commit).
Some of the other hot button environmental issues sure to occupy the next president's time include: how to best protect the nation's water resources and wetlands; whether to allow more drilling for oil and natural gas both offshore and within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; whether to reinstate the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a Clinton-era law (subsequently overturned by the Bush administration) calling for protection of some 58 million acres of public land from logging; how to meet U.S. commitments on existing environmental laws in international trade agreements; and whether to bring back the so-called "polluter pays" part of the government's "Superfund" toxic waste clean-up program.
While Obama is clearly the greener candidate on most of these issues, the fact that McCain even takes them seriously - and is committed to any greenhouse gas reductions whatsoever - is a plus for environmental advocates exasperated by eight years of green naysaying by the Bush administration.
EARTHTALK: I need to replace my old TV. Can you tell me which
of the latest models is the greenest? I was told that the flat-screen/plasmas
are real energy hogs. What do you recommend?
ACCORDING TO THE WALL STREET JOURNAL's Rebecca Smith, a 42-inch plasma TV set can draw more power than a large refrigerator, even if the TV is only used a few hours a day. This is partly because many newer models don't turn off but go into "standby" mode so they can start up fast later with no warm-up period. "Powering a fancy TV and full-on entertainment system - with set-top boxes, game consoles, speakers, DVDs and digital video recorders - can add nearly $200 to a family's annual energy bill," she adds.
Smith recommends green consumers consider the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) models, which typically uses less energy than comparable plasma sets. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a 28-inch conventional cathode-ray tube (CRT) set uses about 100 watts of electricity. A 42-inch LCD set might consume twice that amount, while plasma could use five times as much, depending on the model and the programming. For the largest screen sizes (60 inches and up), projection TVs are the most energy efficient, clocking in at 150-200 watts - significantly less than the energy a plasma set would use.
"What scares us is that prices for plasma sets are dropping so fast that people are saying, why get a 42-inch plasma set when you can get a 60-inch or 64-inch one," says Tom Reddoch of the non-profit Electric Power Research Institute. "They have no idea how much electricity these things consume."
For its part, the industry is taking some steps to make its products more efficient, and to improve disclosure of energy usage. In June 2008 Sony pronounced its new 32-inch Bravia KDL-32JE1 LCD model "the world's most energy efficient television." Slated for sale in Japan in August 2008 for around $1,400, the new set utilizes fluorescent tubes to create higher levels of brightness with less energy consumption, but still delivers large resolution, a high contrast ratio and a wide viewing angle.
Beginning in November 2008, forward-thinking manufacturers will get a little boost from the U.S. government, which will start awarding the most energy efficient new TV sets "Energy Star" labels to help consumers identify greener choices. TVs bearing the Energy Star label must operate at least 30 percent more efficiently than standard models in both stand-by and active modes. Consumers can see which models qualify by visiting the televisions section of the EnergyStar.gov home electronics page. According to the EPA, if all TVs sold in the U.S. met Energy Star requirements, yearly energy savings would top $1 billion and greenhouse gas emissions would drop by the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.
Of course, the greenest option of all (aside from getting out from in front of that tube and spending more time outdoors) is to keep or repair your existing CRT unit (a digital-to-analog converter will be needed after February 2009 when new signal specifications go into effect). Most CRT sets use less energy than any of the LCD or plasma models, and if it ain't broke, why fix it? Buying a new TV, even a greener one, only generates more pollution in production and transport, and creates waste in junking the old model.
EARTHTALK: I've read that plastic bottles are not always
safe to reuse over and over as harmful chemicals can leach out into
the contents. I'm wondering if the same issues plague Tupperware
and other similar plastic food storage containers?
THE RECENT HUBBUB over plastic containers leaching chemicals into food and drinks has cast a pall over all kinds of plastics that come into contact with what we ingest, whether deserved or not. Some conscientious consumers are forsaking all plastics entirely out of health concerns. But while it is true that exposure to certain chemicals found in some plastics has been linked to various human health problems (especially certain types of cancer and reproductive disorders), only a small percentage of plastics contain them.
According to The Green Guide, a website and magazine devoted to greener living and owned by the National Geographic Society, the safest plastics for repeated use in storing food are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or plastic #2), low-density polyethylene (LDPE, or plastic #4) and polypropylene (PP, or plastic #5). Most Tupperware products are made of LDPE or PP, and as such are considered safe for repeated use storing food items and cycling through the dishwasher. Most food storage products from Glad, Hefty, Ziploc and Saran also pass The Green Guide's muster for health safety.
But consumers should be aware of more than just a few "safe" brands, as most companies make several product lines featuring different types of plastics. While the vast majority of Tupperware products are considered safe, for example, some of its food storage containers use polycarbonate (plastic #7), which has been shown to leach the harmful hormone-disrupting chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) into food items after repeated uses. Consumers concerned about such risks might want to avoid the following polycarbonate-based Tupperware products: the Rock 'N Serve microwave line, the Meals-in-Minutes Microsteamer, the "Elegant" Serving Line, the TupperCare baby bottle, the Pizza Keep 'N Heat container, and the Table Collection (the last three are no longer made but might still be kicking around your kitchen).
Beyond BPA, other chemicals can be found in various food storage containers. Containers made out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE, or plastic #1) - such as most soda bottles - are OK to use once, but can leach carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting phthalates when used over and over again. Also, many deli items come wrapped in plastic made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or plastic #3), which can leach cancer-causing dioxins. Swapping foods out of such wraps once the groceries are at home is advisable.
Containers made of polystyrene (PS, or plastic #6, also known as Styrofoam) can also be dangerous, as its base component, styrene, has been associated with skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue, compromised kidney function, and central nervous system damage. Take-out restaurant orders often come in polystyrene containers, which also should be emptied into safer containers once you get them home.
If your head is spinning and you can't bear to examine the bottom of yet another plastic food storage container for its recycling number, go with glass. Pyrex, for instance, does not contain chemicals that can leach into food. Of course, such items can break into glass shards if dropped. But most consumers would gladly trade the risk of chemical contamination for the risk of breakage any day.
© the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine, 2008
GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION?
Read the column archives at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR