Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Family Camp & Greenwashing

Grammy & Grampa taking a break while building our camp
Today, my family met out at our lakeside camp in New Hampshire.  My grandparents built the camp in the 1950s.  Some of the lumber used to build the camp was made at my father's sawmill.  When my grandparents died, my parents bought the camp and later deeded it to my siblings and me.  It's a spectacular place right on the lake with a mountain and lots of conserved land on the other side of the lake.  This year there are two baby loons, and we heard the loons calling on and off all day.

The lake is precious to us, and we want to protect it and keep it clean.  But somehow toxic products pop up at our camp every year--potential threats to the cleanliness of the water--not to mention our own bodies.  Septic systems (and sewage treatment plants) are not designed to remove all toxins.  So these chemicals can end up in our water supplies.  Lakefront properties are more likely to pollute as there is a shorter distance from leach fields to water.  And old camps are notorious for having archaic septic systems such as holding tanks that can overflow, or even an old car body for the septic tank--really!

We were gathered on this gorgeous day at the camp to clean it and do repair work before my cousins arrive for a visit.  My mother was cleaning with a commercial cleaner that stunk up the camp.  She taught me to clean with vinegar and yet there she is with a toxic, pine-perfumed cleaner she'd found under the sink going at all the kitchen cabinets.  I acted indignant which did not help (I regress about 30 years in her presence), and I stayed outside weeding until she was finished.  There was also white vinegar which I mixed with water and used to clean walls, floors, and windows.

Poster Product for "Greenwashing"
When I looked under the sink, all kinds of toxic products had grown there since last year.  This included fabric deodorizers, furniture polish, chlorine, and ammonia.  All unnecessary in my opinion since there are nontoxic alternatives (see recipes page).   Another product under the sink was "Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner."  I think of this product as the poster product for "greenwashing."  Doesn't this name sound wonderful?  "Simple" implies that there are very few ingredients so it should be good for the environment.  And the word "green," well, nuf said.  They do not list their ingredients on the label, but it does say, "Non-Toxic" and it has the Good Housekeeping seal which provides a warranty for effectiveness, not safety.

I looked up the MSDS (materials safety data sheet) for Simple Green and found it is mostly water with other ingredients of 2-butoxyethanol, ethoxylated alcohol, tetrapotassium pyrophosphate, sodium citrate, fragrance, colorant.  There's nothing simple or green about this product which is labeled as "non-toxic." 

I'll just stick to the first ingredient after water--which is plentiful fodder for this discussion as you'll see.  The ingredient 2-butoxyethanol has several other names including butyl cellosolve.  Many products use this chemical including glass cleaners.  The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration states that 2-butoxyethanol exposure can produce a variety of symptoms, health effects, and can affect eyes, skin, respiratory system, the central nervous systems, hematopoietic system (production of blood), blood, kidneys, liver, and lymphoid system.  I know there may be a relatively small amount of this chemical in Simple Green, but I don't know at what point it will affect me.  And if I am exposed to a bunch of other cleaners with similar or reactive ingredients, my chances of becoming ill from exposure increase.

"Greenwashing" is defined as a company spending lots of money on advertising and trying to convince us that a product is green, while they spend very few resources on trying to actually be green.

A 2010 Greenwashing Report by TerraChoice states that more than 95% of consumer products claiming to be green were found to commit "greenwashing."  Products that are tested and certified by a reliable third-party such as EcoLogo and Green Seal, make it easier to know which products are safe for you.  Careful, however, as it is possible to actually buy a "green-sounding seal" on-line for as little as 15 bucks.  How about "Green as a Frog" seal, "Pure as the Driven Snow," seal or "Sunshine in a Bottle" seal?  We could make up all kinds of catchy names for a seal that sound environmentally friendly, but don't mean a thing!  When a reputable seal is not available on a product, note if they provide a list of all ingredients--they'll tell you if it's a complete list if they have nothing to hide.  You can also check out the National Institutes of Health Household Products Database.  And of course, you can search for the MSDS on line to see for yourself what ingredients are in the product.  Can't pronounce an ingredient?  Don't buy the product unless it explains what it is and it sounds safe.

Check out the recipes page on this site to find recipes for nontoxic cleaners made with simple, green ingredients that work and won't kill you.   Vinegar, baking soda, and glycerine soap just aren't that scary! 

Next time I go out to camp, I won't be cleaning, I'll be swimming, canoeing, or just sitting on the deck enjoying the sounds and view.

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