I want to buy lumber that has been responsibly harvested, but there seem to be several standards of certification. How do I know which one is best?
The two main standards of lumber certification in the U.S. market are issued by the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
SFI is the lumber industry's own standard of certification, and SFI licensees may opt for self-evaluation over scientific third-party assessment.
According to EcoTimber, a sustainable logging company based in San Rafael, California, SFI promotes practices that “fail to renew intact ecosystems, instead converting them into long-rotation agricultural plots.”
In contrast, FSC requires that accredited third parties certify that a company curbs chemical and pesticide use, fosters biodiversity and watershed health, and treats workers and communities justly. For a list of 537 companies that are FSC-certified, see www.fscus.org/certified_companies.
WATER TEMPERATURE FOR WASHING DISHES
Help settle a dispute. I think that warm dish water (with soap, of course) and warm rinse water do as good a job cleaning dishes as water that is as hot as you get with a standard water heater. The reason it matters to me is that one can set the water heater to a lower setting and save energy. What do you think?
Lower water temperature will save energy and money, but reduce sanitization. If this is a concern, use appropriate detergents to disinfect your dishes. A vegetable oil-based soap and chlorine-free sanitizer work well with lower water temperatures and are environmentally friendly. Allow your dishes to air-dry to avoid using a towel that can transfer germs.
While dishwashers use high water temperature to kill germs and effectively sanitize, it is a painful idea to subject your bare hands to these conditions when washing dishes manually. But you may not actually save energy by avoiding the dishwasher. A booster heater, which raises the temperature of water in dishwashers, allows you to lower your water-heater temperature—typically to 120 degrees—while keeping dishwasher water hot enough for detergents to clean effectively.
The ideal solution is to use a fully loaded, full-size dishwasher with a phosphate-free detergent. (Smaller washers can mean multiple loads, using more water and energy.) Minimize pre-washing and rinsing (most modern dishwashers actually operate better when dishes are scraped but not rinsed).
Due to growing concern about responsible electronics recycling, we are revisiting a question from our Fall 2004 issue. Computers and cell phones are a ballooning source of waste in America, but without stringent regulation or transparency in the recycling process, it's difficult to know how best to dispose of them. So what should we do with all those old electronics?
First of all, don't just throw them in the trash! Computers, along with most other electronics, contain heavy metals and chemicals, including cadmium, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and lead, which threaten groundwater if left in landfills. Lead is also a component of monitors and television screens.
As we wrote in the Fall 2004 issue, there are plenty of electronics recyclers claiming to safely process them. Unfortunately, 50 to 80 percent of all electronic waste is exported to Asia, and, although responsible recycling of e-waste does happen in developing countries, there is no way to be sure where your computer is headed after it leaves your desk.
While there is no federal legislation holding computer producers responsible for their disposal, Massachusetts and California have banned computer and TV monitors from landfills, and California has added a recycling fee to the cost of new electronics. In the private sector, The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition introduced the Takeback Campaign that led both Dell and Hewlett-Packard to start recycling programs.
Some recycling companies have made their process transparent. The Basel Action Network (BAN) has published a list of “E-Stewards”— recyclers promising to meet BAN's criteria for sustainable and socially just disposal of used electronics. Although there is no audit process, BAN's list (http://www.ban.org/E-waste/Pledge/Locations.html) is the best resource right now.
If you live in California or Massachusetts, you can find information about responsible disposal from your town's sanitation department.
Finally, eBay has teamed up with Intel and other computer manufacturers to launch the Rethink campaign, an online clearinghouse for responsible disposal of e-waste (http://rethink.ebay.com). The site offers opportunities for donation and resale as well.
As a consumer, of course, the best way you can minimize your old computer's impact on the environment is to extend its life. Whenever possible, consider upgrading your current PC instead of buying a new one. Reusing your old machine for data storage, playing mp3s, or networking can stem the tide of old machines headed for the landfill. Consider donating a machine that is only slightly obsolete to charity.
When you do buy a new machine, consider a flat-screen model; the chic new screens use less lead and energy (although slightly more mercury) than their clunky counterparts.
—Meredith Dearborn, with thanks to Cyril May of Yale Recycling
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a wallet guide that lists produce most likely to contain pesticide residue and the fruits and vegetables least likely to harbor contaminants. You can download the guide at .
According to EWG studies, the most-contaminated fruits and vegetables are peaches, strawberries, apples, nectarines, pears, cherries, raspberries, imported grapes, spinach, celery, potatoes, and bell peppers. Produce least likely to contain pesticides includes sweet corn, avocado, cauliflower, asparagus, onion, peas, broccoli, pineapple, mangos, kiwi, and papaya.
The more fat in a particular food, the more likely that the toxin level is high, since fat stores chemicals. And foods with thin, exposed skins and a high water content, such as blueberries, do soak up and store toxins.
Try planting your own organic garden. If the prospect seems overwhelming, start small with a few potted tomatoes and herbs. Visit for some helpful tips.
Another strategy is to join, or start, a buying group to purchase organic foods at discount rates through a co-op, or buy in bulk from a store.
Try to buy meat and dairy that are local and organic, free-range or natural. Buy wild salmon, not the farmed fish that is full of PCBs and wreaks havoc on the environment. Try sardines—a low-mercury, economical fish. See the website for a list of high-mercury-content fish to buy wild or avoid altogether.