On the finca where I volunteered in Costa Rica, we spent five mornings a week working in the vegetable garden or tending to the coffee and banana plantation. Before the farm changed hands eighteen years earlier, the owners cultivated it with an industrial agricultural mix of pesticides and fertilizer now common around the globe. With those additions withdrawn, the plants struggled, but by rebuilding and inoculating the soil, the new owner eventually created a productive organic farm.
Work finished, we’d leave the organic plots and return to the volunteer house, where we’d wash the kitchen counters, clean the bathrooms, or mop the floors. To clean up after cockroach visitors, someone might spray the counters with Mr. Muscolo disinfectant—or use floor cleaner with a long warning in tiny print on the label.
Surfaces doused in chemicals we couldn’t pronounce, we might cut fruit and lick our fingers, or wash nonbiodegradable dish soap down a PVC tube that took the waste into the soil or a creek running through the property. At home, I clean just about everything from floor to ceiling with white vinegar, but they didn’t sell that at the market in town. I rationalized leaving the finca’s established practices unquestioned by telling myself my stay was only temporary. I would go home to my own green cleaning practices before long, and I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all.
I recalled the finca’s disconnect this past week when my permaculture design class watched The Story of Stuff (2007) by Berkeley activist Annie Leonard. She points out an obvious, yet unheeded fact: toxic chemical inputs result in toxic chemical outputs. For example, neurotoxic flame retardant additives remain in the finished products of our pillows, couches, and mattresses. Perhaps most alarming, human breast milk has one of the highest concentrations of toxic compounds given our position in the food chain.
After the film, the class had a lively discussion about the products and foods we do and do not buy, but one woman commented that there is no way to avoid toxins because we all drink water. Even purification filters contain silver-impregnated activated carbon and other additives that could possibly have health effects tantamount to the pollutants they’re designed to remove.
Our exposure to pollutants remains pervasive and insidious because when it comes to synthetic chemicals, rather than following a precautionary principle, the FDA applies a standard of innocent until proven guilty. Thus a generation of children drank from hard plastic Nalgene bottles and other containers until research demonstrated that a key ingredient in that plastic, bisphenol A (BPA), disrupts our endocrine systems. Now “BPA-free” plastic contains triphenyl phosphate (TPP), which may pose an even greater health risk. Still, because that risk hasn’t yet been demonstrated to the FDA’s satisfaction, today babies drink from sippy cups and bottles made with chemicals that could cause health problems for multiple generations. My classmate calls this the “cycle of regrettable substitutions.”
At cafés in Costa Rica, I had to specify that I wanted tap water, or servers would bring that pinnacle of marketing miracles: an expensive plastic bottle of tap water shipped from somewhere else and billed as safer than tap water. (Does that sound repetitive and illogical? Oh, yeah.) I’ve seen various statistics about bottled water, but the production of one liter requires around three liters of water and one-third liter of fossil fuel, and Americans alone throw away tens of millions of plastic water bottles every day.
I found it disconcerting that a large amount of recyclable material in Costa Rica wound up incinerated, yet global plastic recycling options aren’t great either, as recycled plastic can’t return to its original form. Instead it “downcycles” into something like polar fleece or carpeting, and unprofitable plastics “recycled” in the U.S. often travel to the developing world’s incinerators, out of our sights and minds. A staggering amount becomes garbage in the marine food chain, our misconceptions about clean water resulting in the contamination of our oceans.
The permaculture class ended the week by hiking along Leona Creek in the Oakland hills, a large stretch of which runs underground and through unnaturally straight concrete culverts installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The water in these culverts flows as a sickly trickle through thick algae, the result of fertilizer runoff from home gardens, places often more toxic than a typical agribusiness farm. In its more natural, unengineered form further downstream, the creek meanders through pools, over rocks, and along lush tree-shaded banks, all essential to a healthy riparian ecosystem. But it carries the same dissolved chemicals, wending their way toward the Bay.
Simply making personal choices to avoid toxins isn’t sufficient for the same reason that manufacturing with toxins isn’t wise: everything is connected. All of us live both up- and downstream from each other, up- and downstream from the consequences of our future and past decisions. Old-school pollution mitigation dictates that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” but individual bodies of water comprise one global body on our finite planet, and we all drink what any one of us adds to the mix.
It’s not enough to refrain from using pesiticides in our own yards but stand by while our neighbors douse theirs; to use our own reusable water bottles but remain silent when events distribute free disposable bottles; or to hold our tongues as we cook on chemical-covered counters because it feels uncomfortable to start a conversation. It’s time to speak up and become catalysts for a coordinated societal plan of action.
Did you know gardens are more diverse, more resilient, and easier to maintain when you attract pests’ predators rather than trying to eradicate the pests themselves? Honeybee colony collapse disorder has been directly linked to neonicotinoids in pesticides, and bees pollinate 70% of the top human food crops, supplying 90% of the world’s nutrition. This site includes activist resources for community organizing.
My Plastic-Free Life
Beth Terry is a living example of how to become more mindful about consumption, find plastic-free alternatives, save money, build community, and help the planet. Beth leads by example through her personal choices and also tirelessly organizes; one of her campaigns convinced Brita to make its filters recyclable via the Gimme 5 program.
The Freecycle Network is a worldwide movement to connect people in need of items with people trying to discard those items. Rather than putting a usable tool, DVD, baby accessory, article of clothing, or other item in a landfill while someone else buys a new version of the exact same thing (with all of the production waste and pollution that new manufacture entails), Freecycle helps connect people to make free exchanges.
Good Guide: Green, Healthy, & Safe Product Ratings
This project out of UC Berkeley uses scientific data to rate products based on health safety, environmental impact, and social responsibility. Take this one with a grain of salt; a lot of synthetic chemicals haven’t been tested—not containing anything proven dangerous doesn’t mean all ingredients have been proven safe.
This database provides consumers information to avoid everyday exposure to toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products.
Teresa K. Miller, 2014
* Photos taken from water.epa.gov and concordontap.org
* Thanks to my classmate Sam for her comment on water quality and regrettable substitutions, which inspired this post, as well as her suggestions of Good Guide and Skin Deep.