My bookshelf: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough

Cradle to Cradle examines industry, consumerism, product life cycles, and supply chains from a design perspective. Our current production model uses a “cradle to grave” process, creating things from resources and designing them to serve their function and then be tossed out. However, as we are well aware, trash really doesn’t go “away” and we’re consuming our natural resources at an unprecedented rate without adequately replenishing them. The cradle to cradle production process tries to eliminate harmful waste, and overall negative environmental impacts, by taking into account what will happen to the product after it’s done being used. And beyond that, thinking about how that product can be most effectively remade into other products or used to provide nutrients to different supply chains.

I highly recommend this book as an engaging and easy to read introduction to environmental issues caused by mass consumerism. The authors propose that we find solutions to environmental problems not by figuring out how we can be less bad or do less harm, but by how we can do good and improve the environment through our industry activities. What they propose is tough, which is one of the things I like about this book. They are challenging designers and producers to design, create, produce, and dispose better; the solutions might be difficult and might cause friction against traditional methods, but that is not a reason to give up.

Additionally, the authors use processes and design elements from nature on a functional level and theorize how we can apply them to our own activities. This is relevant to us because we’re the only species whose activities of overuse or over production have massive ecological ramifications. So, how can we shift our processes such that our industries provide nutrients and benefit our environment similar to how plant and animal species do.

A unique feature: One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it’s the perfect camping or backpacking read. The book isn’t made of wood pulp paper, but rather a polymer that makes it waterproof.  Seriously, I did the test when I bought it and ran it under the kitchen sink!

Under the kitchen sink!

Where to buy:, of course. But you can always check out your local used bookstore for a copy – that’s where I acquired mine!

My Sister’s Favorite Non-Toxic Products

This is a list of my sister’s favorite products, which she gave me to share with all of you! She focuses on using whole ingredients as much as possible, since these offer more versatility than a product created for one specific use.

Jojoba oil

Desert Essence Jojoba Oil

It’s great as a face or body moisturizer, although it can be a little more expensive than other oils. Jojoba is actually a plant wax that is a liquid at room temperature and it’s the closest plant-based “oil” to our own sebum. It can be combined with Red Raspberry Seed oil or any essential oil.

Suggestions from my sister: “I use jojoba oil and Red Raspberry seed oil mix in the morning on my face. And mix castor oil with jojoba oil and rosemary essential oil for my scalp at night.”

Plus, a suggestion on where to buy Red Raspberry seed oil: Berry Beautiful

Olive oil for oil cleanse

If you don’t know anything about oil cleansing, Wellness Mama has a great blog article about it, and actually published a piece too.

Suggestions from my sister: “I rub olive oil over my face and neck, then use really hot water on a washcloth, and press it on my face – it’s awesome.”

Please note that what type of oil works best depends on your skin type; some find olive oil too heavy, but other people feel it works great for their skin!

Andalou Naturals Apricot Probiotic Cleansing Milk for Dry Sensitive Skin

A creamy, not bubbly, cleansing milk feels amazing on my dry skin.

Andalou Naturals Body Butter Nourishing Kukui Cocoa

Great smell and absorbs well.

Desert Essence Conditioner Fragrance Free

Desert Essence Facial Scrub Gentle Stimulating

Gentle, but exfoliating.

Lavera Trend Sensitive Soft Eyeliner

My sister uses the brown one and I use the black. The brown also works well as an eyebrow pencil if you have light auburn eyebrows like me.

Kiss My Face Bar Soap Pure Olive Oil Fragrance Free


Giovanni Sugar Scrub Hot Chocolate

This is also one of my favorite sugar scrubs. It goes on well and it doesn’t leave your skin too oily or tacky (and doesn’t leave the shower floor slippery). And, despite being Giovanni, it’s surprisingly simple and non-toxic!

I hope these suggestions were helpful and I apologize for the lapse in writing!  Thanks everyone!

Plastics: health risks for humans and our environment

My previous post in this series provided an overview and history of what plastics are and how petroleum-based plastics became widespread in their use today.

Petroleum-based plastic use is a hot button issue. It’s discussed not solely within environmental circles anymore, but has made its way into the public narrative and mainstream media coverage. This is because the cumulative impacts from decades of using plastic is becoming more apparent and harder to ignore. Plastic, like many things I talk about in this blog, poses a threat to our environment and our own health.

I want to clarify that I’m going to use the term ‘petroleum’, since that is primarily what plastic is made from, but it’s also made from coal and natural gas. These substances are cut from the same cloth – they’re carbon-based sources of energy known as fossil fuels.

What are the environmental concerns with plastic?

Peanut the turtle earner fame on social media for being a prime example of the devastating impact of plastic on wildlife.

Plastic is made from petroleum: This is a non-renewable resource and comes with a bundle of its own environmental and health concerns. Drilling and fracking operations contribute to climate change, use massive amounts of water and energy, and produce toxic waste. Petroleum, and coal, is environmentally destructive and poses a threat to human health along its entire supply chain from extraction to disposal.

Gritty details on plastic:

— Since mass production of plastic started during the 1950s, we’ve created a total of 8.3 billion metric tons

— Of that total, 9% has been recycled & 79% sits in landfills or goes into the ocean (6.3 billion metric tons becomes waste)

— 5-12 million tons of plastic enters world’s oceans annually

— Researchers predict that by 2050 the ocean will have more plastic than fish by weight in it

Plastic doesn’t break down: Plastic takes about 400 hundred years to degrade, which means most of the plastic we’ve ever created is still around. It’s also been breaking into smaller pieces over the years. We’re just filling up our planet with plastic. And it just looks gross. Plastic trash ends up on our beaches, our forests, our parks, our sidewalks, and almost every outdoor space. It detracts from the benefits of being in a natural environment and it’s an extra burden on these ecosystems.

Plastic is hazardous to wildlife: Animals are caught in plastic containers, physically disabling them or causing growth problems. Animals also ingest pieces of plastic, which accumulates in their bellies, leading to malnutrition or simply leaving little space in their stomachs for real food. Toxic chemicals in plastic can also cause problems for animals, which I’ll address in the next section. Marine animals are one of the most vulnerable populations, as the majority of plastic waste eventually makes its way to the ocean.

What are the health concerns with plastic?

Well, as I said before, plastic is made from petroleum: While I’ve outlined environmental and health concerns separately, they aren’t really separate issues in reality. What is bad for the environment is almost always bad for human health, and vice versa. Petroleum poses a health threat all along its supply chain – extraction, production, use, and disposal.

Toxic chemicals in plastics are a major health concern for both humans and animals. These chemicals leech out of plastic and enter our bodies.

Phthalates and BBA are two well-known chemical additives in plastics that pose a threat to our health. These substances are called endocrine disrupting chemicals, which mean they mess with your hormones. The endocrine system is incredibly important for normal biological functions – it’s involved in growth, development, mood, metabolism, and sleep. Chemical that interfere with normal functioning can cause a huge range of problems including obesity, developmental problems, learning disabilities, diabetes, birth defects, and more.

Heat is a catalyst for chemical leeching, which is why you’re not supposed to use plastic containers to heat food or store hot food in plastic containers. Unfortunately, many people still don’t know this and continue to heat food in the microwave using plastic Tupperware. More concerning is using plastic bottles to feed infants warm milk – young children are especially susceptible to the effects of toxic chemicals.

Whilst the production of throwaway plastics has grown dramatically over the last 20 years, the systems to contain, control, reuse and recycle them just haven’t kept pace. (Guardian, 2017)

While the studies are limited, there does seem to be some promising evidence of certain bacteria and fungi that can actually breakdown certain forms of plastics. However, the incredible abundance of plastic creates a challenge for using these methods – can we really process all of the plastic in the world fast enough? We’re producing and discarding plastics at such an astonishing rate.

My next post will cover alternatives: this includes how you can reduce your own use and how you can work to reduce plastic in our world on a broader scale.


Update on my life

Dear readers, I generally don’t post about personal events, but I have some very exciting news that may impact how much time I can spend on this blog.

Last week I started a new job at PCC Community Markets as their Social and Environmental Responsibility Program Manager. For any of my readers who don’t know me personally, and simply found my blog because of the content, I have been searching for a job in my field for the past year. I’ve also been wanting to work at PCC for a long time, so this is a dream come true for me!

What does this mean for my blog?  Mainly, I will post less frequently. I’m committed to keeping up with this blog, but I don’t have as much time to dedicate towards developing and publishing posts. I will feel things out over the next couple months as I settle into my new job and assess how much time and energy I have for researching and writing.

Currently, I’m in the middle of writing the next piece for my series on plastics, so stay tuned for that guy as soon as I finish it up! Thank you for your patience and support!

Plastics: Introduction and History

In this series on plastic, I’m going to cover the history of plastic, the environmental and health concerns associated with it, and explore in detail some specific uses of plastic that are particularly worrisome. I started this series with a post on microbeads in personal care products, so now we’re going to step back and look at plastic on a broader scale.

In our world today, I don’t think there is a single individual left who doesn’t own at least one item made from plastic. It’s literally everywhere, and its presence has become a source of significant environmental damage, health concerns, political contention, and has even instigated niche lifestyle philosophies.

This is a famous quote from the 1967 film The Graduate

While plastic is useful in some applications, our heavy reliance on it as a material has detrimental consequences. It also represents a deeper, more fundamental, problem in our society – our hyper-consumerist culture in which cheaply made crap is mass-produced, used, thrown out, and replaced. We consume SO much stuff, and the majority of it breaks quickly so we have to go out and buy more! Annie Leonard has an amazing video about this on her website The Story of Stuff, which I recommend everyone check out.

So, what is plastic?

Technically, plastic is any polymer material. Without going into too much chemistry here, these polymers are long chains of carbon atoms, sometimes with attached oxygen, nitrogen, or sulfur. Cellulose is a naturally occurring polymer. Plastic can be made from renewable materials, but most commonly, it’s made from petroleum or coal.

There are many different categories of plastics depending on their shape, form, and function. As a result, some plastics take more energy to make, are harder to reuse or recycle, and require more petrochemicals in their production than others. PET, a plastic used for water bottles or food containers among other products, can be recycled to some degree, whereas soft and pliable PVC (polyvinyl chloride) contains higher levels of toxic chemicals that can contaminate the recycling stream. For more information about the use, recyclability, and toxicity of different plastic types, visit the website Life Without Plastic.

History of Plastic

History fact: In the United States, John Wesley Hyatt invented the first commercial synthetic polymer in 1869 as a replacement for ivory by building upon previous work involving chemically treated cellulose from cotton fibers.

The late 1800s and early 1900s marked the dawn of the age of plastic. Polymers from natural substances were the first step, but in 1907, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, an entirely synthetic plastic from coal tar derivatives and formaldehyde. Bakelite was heat resistant and could be molded into different shapes, making it extremely versatile; radios, phones, kitchen appliances, and even children’s toys started being made from Bakelite.

DuPont and Dow are two companies still around today that led the way in expanding plastic production throughout the 1920s and 1930s. DuPont introduced Styrofoam and nylon stockings, two unique applications beyond what Bakelite could do as a rigid plastic..

Bakelite radio

Widespread use of plastic started during WWII with natural resources being expensive and scarce for both civilians and the military. Synthetic versions were created as cheaper and easier to produce alternatives. Popularity of plastic increased after the war, with new and cheaper products flooding the market. Many of the products first introduced were actually created specifically for the military, but since companies didn’t want to lose money, they found ways to market these products to the public. Saran wrap, for example, was originally used in a spray form application for military aircraft to protect their exteriors from the elements. Dow Chemical, the owner of Saran, obtained approval for their product to have contact with food and began marketing a solid version to consumers as a method of food storage. As we know, Saran wrap has been an extremely successful product and is a staple in almost every household.

While before the war, conservation and thriftiness was valued, the decades after ushered in a wave of hyper-consumerism in which spending and accumulating stuff became fashionable. And plastics offered individuals of lower and middle classes the ability to purchase affordable and seemingly high-end products. Partly manufactured demand through marketing and availability combined with actual consumer demand for these new products drove the accelerating plastics industry through the 1960s and onward.

Today, we use plastic to make and package millions of products and it’s almost impossible to avoid. Plastic is cheap, lightweight, and easy to produce. It is not, however, a sustainable material. My next post will address this issue, through examining the environmental and human health impacts of plastic.



My Bookshelf: Silent Spring

The book: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I’ve mentioned this book in another post, but it very much deserves its own spot on the series My Bookshelf. This book is an essential read for anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the ecological and health impacts of toxic chemicals.

This is my old, heavily used copy, printed in 1964.

Written in 1962, Carson was the first person to identify clearly the connection between our own health and our environment’s health. Silent Spring focuses on DDT primarily, but this pesticide is a vehicle for her broader message: the entire contamination of our world caused by an intense drive to control and manipulate nature to suit our immediate needs and accelerate economic growth.

Carson’s writing is unique, because she communicates scientific evidence and data through powerful stories that describe concrete experiences and occurrences in our natural world. Her writing is not fiction, but is intensely descriptive and captivating.

Silent Spring opens with a tale about a town in which the people fall ill, and all the plants and animals around them slowly wither and disappear, leaving a silent wasteland.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the birth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.

The following few chapters give a detailed description of the chemistry and toxicity of several different pesticides including arsenic, DDT, Chlordane, Aldrin, and phosphates.

The next two chapters focus on pesticide contamination in water and soil. This is a primer for the subsequent several chapters, which describe the aerial spraying of pesticides in the United States, and the impacts of pesticides on birds, insects, plants, and humans. Carson cites specific instances of spraying and describes the aftermath that scientists found – dead house pets, birds falling in convulsions from the sky, dead salmon washing up on riverbanks, and lasting impacts on reproductive health in wildlife populations.

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?

The ending chapters turn their attention to the human health risks of exposure to pesticides, primarily in terms of rising cancer rates. Carson highlights the connections between exposure to toxic chemicals and the development of breast cancer and leukemia.

The final chapter of this book focuses on alternatives to toxic chemicals for pest management. Additionally, Carson argues for a fundamental reworking of our relationship with insects and nature, to foster appreciation and understanding of biological systems and to work in harmony with ecological processes, rather than continually fighting against them for man’s dominion over nature.

The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails. Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us.

I will be honest; this book can be a tough and sometimes heartbreaking read. Carson does not sugarcoat the travesties of toxic chemicals. However, I still think this is an incredibly important book.

You can find this book on Amazon, with a range of buying options:

I would also recommend checking any local used booksellers for copies!

Soaps: reading labels and recognizing safe or unsafe soaps

When you’re trying to find safer products, it’s often helpful to understand how the product is made and what ingredients are common or expected to be found in that product. This is true for soaps and soap-related products like body or face wash.

So, in this post, I’m going to go over how soap is made and what ingredients you should look for or avoid in your soapy products.

Soap is made through a process called saponification, which is the chemical reaction of oil/fat, lye, and water. Lye, also called sodium hydroxide, dissolves in water, and is extremely dangerous. It’s capable of causing severe burns within seconds of skin contact. However, during the process of saponification, when the right proportions of ingredients are used, the chemical is neutralized and you’re left with a completely safe substance!
If you’re switching away from toxic chemicals, you want to find a soap that has natural moisturizers, is free of petrochemical fillers, and made from real vegetable/plant oil, not petroleum based surfactants. (Surfactants dissolve oils on your skin).

Petrochemicals in soap
Sodium Lauryl or Laureth Sulfate (SLS or SLES): Surfactants
Propylene/ethylene/butylene/ polyethylene glycol: Solvents to help soap dissolve in water and allow it to penetrate the skin
Di-, Mono-, Tri-, ethanolamines (DEA, MEA, TEA): Foaming agents

Soap that doesn’t have the glycerin removed is best, or at least, one that doesn’t have the glycerin replaced by nasty synthetic chemicals. If you want to learn the more intricate details about glycerin in soap, go to the bottom of this post.

When you’re looking for a good soap, you want to avoid petrochemicals that are harsh surfactants and detergents. The box to the right here shows some of these types of ingredients that are good to avoid. So what should you look for? Think about these questions when evaluating soap:

  • Is the soap made from natural oils like coconut oil or olive oil?
  • If there are colors or fragrances, are they artificial or derived from natural sources?
  • Are the extra ingredients lots of petrochemicals or naturally derived substances?

Additionally, it’s helpful to know what ingredients are common in safe soaps. You may find any of these following things listed on the label:

  • Sodium hydroxide (or potassium hydroxide): Lye
  • Saponified [oils]: This is another way of expressing oils/butters that have been through the soap making process
  • Sodium palmate/ sodium palm kernelate: Saponified palm oils
  • Sodium cocoate: Saponified coconut oil
  • Citric acid: Natural preservative that comes from citrus fruits
  • Tocopherol: This is a form of Vitamin E
  • Oils/butters, honey, glycerin: Natural moisturizers
  • Botanicals, extracts, essential oils:  Natural sources for fragrance and color
  • Sea salt, clay, mud, sea kelp: Usually used for exfoliating or mineral content
  • Sodium chloride: AKA table salt; used to remove glycerin from soap or to make the bar harder

Check out my post Tips for Evaluating Product Safety and Reading Ingredient Labels for more comprehensive information on spotting and avoiding petrochemicals in products.

I recommend checking out soaps at local natural stores, craft fairs, or farmers markets. There’s a world of difference between a good handmade soap and Dove or Lever soap. My sister makes her own soap, so I’m pretty lucky to get awesome handmade soap from her. She sells her soap once a year at a holiday craft fair in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle. You can check out her website here: Anna’s Homemade Soap. She may eventually start selling online, but for now you need to contact her directly about purchasing her soap.

To start, I would suggest checking out these companies:

*Palm oil has a significant ecological impact: its cultivation requires clearing large patches of land, making it a significant contributor to deforestation in the regions its grown. Desert Essence uses only certified sustainable palm oil, which isn’t perfect, but it’s probably better than conventional.

A note about glycerin

One byproduct of the soap making process is glycerin, which is a humectant. This means it draws moisture from the air and helps the skin retain moisture. Many companies choose to remove glycerin from soap, because they can make more money by selling it as a separate product. Glycerin itself has a wide range of applications from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. I have a big bottle of vegetable glycerin I use in many DIY projects.

In commercial soaps, the glycerin is usually replaced with petrochemical emollients or “moisturizers”, which is why these soaps often dry out your skin. Thus, the connection between dry skin and soap became ingrained into our culture and our perception of personal care. Soap is not inherently drying though, and handmade, or non-petroleum soaps, are actually very moisturizing and great for shaving and washing your face.

I’ve noticed the many non-toxic or “natural” soaps also have glycerin removed. I think the ingredient “sodium chloride” is how you spot this practice, especially when it’s listed in conjunction with glycerin, indicating they had to add glycerin back into the product. However, sodium chloride is sometimes used to just increase the hardness of the soap bar. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is used to separate the glycerin from the soap – but what I’ve noticed is that when salt is added for mineral or exfoliating purposes, it’s listed as salt or sea salt, not sodium chloride. My deduction is that salt referred to by its chemical name in an ingredient label indicates its use in a chemical process. With these soaps though, the replacements are plant-based moisturizers like shea butter or olive oil, so you don’t have the problem of dry skin. I don’t know why these companies do this, especially if they just add glycerin back into the product.

Soaps labeled as “glycerin soaps” are ones with significantly high glycerin content, specially designed to be moisturizing.

I would advise caution when it comes to commercially made soaps, even if they contain glycerin and saponified palm/coconut oil. Synthetic glycerin from petroleum could be used as a replacement for naturally created glycerin, and I don’t think there are requirements for labelling where it comes from. If you’re vegan, this is also an issue because many companies use a mix of vegetable and animal derived glycerin; unless the product is vegan, or is clearly made from saponified plant oils, or the glycerin is listed as vegetable glycerin, it might be difficult to tell its source.