Meatonomics & Sometimes Vegan

When I was a freshman in high school, I read Fast Food Nation in English class and I didn’t eat a hamburger again for years. I went for hotdogs and chicken fingers instead, which aren’t exactly the greatest alternatives, but everything about a burger was wrong to me. I don’t even remember anymore what part of the beef story convinced me to quit burgers cold turkey (hah), but that book certainly did it. I still sort of feel weird when I eat one, even when I make it myself from grassfed beef.

I just finished reading another book that is going to change my diet a lot more than Fast Food Nation ever did, and it’s called Meatonomics. Written by lawyer David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics explores the “rigged economics” of the meat and dairy industries.  It hits hard in all the areas that get to me; sustainability, humane treatment of animals, and corporate control of consumption.

I really enjoyed reading Meatonomics because it is well researched and clearly written. Each chapter has a thesis sentence, subtitles on almost every page, and a bulleted summary of important points at the end. Everything is described in economic terms, which usually means unfathomably large sums of money, but the quantification is powerful. Simon also devotes a significant portion of the book to outlining solutions to the problems he describes, and they’re not absurd. And finally, of course, I learned a ton reading this book. I’m going to recommend it to my vegetarian economics-major sister, to my sometimes-vegan other sister, and to my parents: read it, because our family has fallen for a lot of the problems described in Meatonomics. Continue reading

Environmental Book Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

I’m usually skeptical of pop science journalism, but I decided to give Dan Fagin’s Toms River a go after coming across a grumpy amazon review complaining that it was too scientific.

Toms River is about chemical pollution and its consequences in the coastal New Jersey community of the same name, focusing on a childhood cancer cluster that made big headlines around 2000.  However, this isn’t just the story of evil chemicals that hurt innocent people; Fagin’s narrative, punctuated with historical background on chemical manufacturing, toxicology, epidemiology, and molecular genetics, is organized like a mystery novel but with an unsatisfying, anticlimactic ending.  It’s a true story after all, and the intricacies, flaws, and knowledge gaps in law and science make it almost impossible bring the responsible parties to justice.

Continue reading

My Lovely Green Flame Retardant Free Couch

Our wireless is down right now at home.  The internet that magically comes out of the modem still works, so it isn’t Comcast’s fault (for once!) but my cheap-o refurbished router seems to have kicked the bucket in the middle of a streaming a James Bond movie.  Sad, because we didn’t get to finish the movie, but actually not so sad at all because we’re finding the lack of wireless to be quite refreshing.

In my daily perusal of The Kitchn this morning, I spotted this little piece on a family who has decided to ditch all technology pre-1986.  This is pretty extreme, but I get it.  I don’t like how America’s tendency is to come home from school or work and immediately flip on the TV or browse the depths of the internet (keep me away from the food blogs) for hours instead of doing something, anything.

In our living room, we have a couch, but no TV. (It’s in the bedroom, not hooked up to anything, not even Netflix.) How many American families do you think have a living room that isn’t arranged around the TV? We’re probably one of the few.

I like to sit on my couch and read or even just look out the window. It’s the first couch I have ever owned and I plan to keep it for a long time, so I took great care to find an affordable one that wasn’t going to poison me.

That’s right, toxic chemicals!

A year ago, flame retardants (FRs) were all over the news. The crusade against flame retardants, chemicals put in furniture to slow fires, was led by environmental health scientist Arlene Blum.  Her research in the 1970s contributed to the ban of carcinogenic flame retardants such as the molecule brominated tris in children’s pajama fabric. The tris family of flame retardants didn’t just go away though; they continued to be used in couches, notably by Ikea until quite recently.

TDCPP, or chlorinated tris. Yum.

Since the 1970s, Blum has continued to study flame retardants. She found FRs in 85% of couches purchased in America between 1985 and 2010, mostly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and halogenated organophosphates such as TDCPP, a relative of the tris from the 70s. Scientists have known for a long time that these chemicals cause cancer.  Some PBDEs were even banned in 2005 because they mimic the thyroid hormone in the human body and bioaccumulate.  These chemicals are persistent, resisting breakdown in the environment, and so are the couches that are filled with them. Continue reading

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Dear Interwebs,
I am sorry to have neglected you for almost all of July, but I have been very busy.  The month started out with a little vacation in Wisconsin, during which I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and liked it enough to want to tell you about.

Taylor and I have spent the rest of the month moving into a new apartment (together!), which has meant a lot of cleaning, organizing, furnishing, etc. I have a few new DIY project to write about!  Luckily T and I have fairly similar design aesthetics, but we are still in hypothetical furniture land, which has meant eating dinner on weird pieces of furniture and piling clothes on the floor.  I struggled with both of these issues until this week, obsessively trolling craigslist for a dining room table and dresser that I both like and can afford.  This is the main reason why I have been such a terrible blogger.  Craigslisting is difficult!

However, Taylor (via Henry David Thoreau) has cured me of my #firstworldproblems obsession with finding just the right table right now. Taylor has been reading Walden aloud to me while I sew, and I have realized that I am being silly.  A man who has more things does not necessarily have more.  I, like Thoreau, would rather patch my clothes (or wear jeans so loved they are full of holes) than buy new ones.  Simple living it is, and furniture will come later. Besides, we don’t want to clutter up our living room with stuff we don’t need.

But I digress. I want to tell you about Michael Pollan’s most recent book and why you should read it.   Continue reading

Product Review: Safe and Effective Shower Products that we LOVE

Guess what everybody? After a few flops, I’ve finally found a few body products that I like!

Finding safe, effective, and affordable body products has been quite a challenge.  (If you missed why I am doing this, read this.) Many of the most promising looking products are stupidly expensive, and cheaper ones tend to be the most toxic.  Walking into the body products section of Whole Foods is so intimidating when I don’t know what I want, and we have spent hours standing in those isles looking up the safety of products/ingredients on our phones before buying anything.  Hopefully this post will help save you some shampoo isle angst. Continue reading

My Organic Urban “Guerrilla” Container Garden

Living in a rented apartment with only north facing windows has made gardening a little difficult, but my plant babies are off to a good start for the summer.

IMG_3665

I’ve tried to start simply, but it’s hard not to try to grow everything.  I’ve got a variety of herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, green chile, and cucumber started, as well as a spider plant and a small sick avocado tree. (Help, anybody?) They’re all growing in pots on the cement back patio of my apartment building.  When we move to our new condo in July, I intend to put the tomatoes and other sun loving plants on the rooftop deck, where they will hopefully get full sun and not bother anybody (this is the guerrilla part). The rest will go on our little west-facing balcony.

Tomato baby!

Tomato baby!

We started our seedlings indoors with a grow light, which we still use to grow lettuce. We chose a fluorescent T5 lamp with a reflective housing. Fluorescent lights do contain mercury, but they are the most affordable, and the T5 is the most efficient of them all.

We used Burpee’s Growing Pellets for our seedlings, and we hated them because they dried out and compacted easily, harming the roots of the plants.  They’re ok for very young seedlings started in eggshells or other similarly small containers, but growing herbs or anything in them for more than a few weeks is bad news.

To keep my plants happy in their big containers, I mixed my own soil using a combination of organic potting soil from Home Depot, worm castings from Whole Foods (will hopefully be able to use my own soon!), and perlite.  I tailored the contents of the soil to the preference of the plants.

My go-to guide for container gardening has been Gayla Trail’s Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces, which I have had checked out from the library for at least three months. It’s an amazing book. I love that it tells you which kinds of plants grow best in containers, and which you can plant together.

Creeping Red Thyme from a local garden market

Creeping red thyme from a local garden market

I think my two favorite aspects of container gardening are that I can move my plants around easily and that there is no weeding.  We had a late frost last weekend and just moved the plants indoors for two nights.  It’s also pretty easy to repurpose containers as pots, such as our lettuce growing in Earthbound Farms Organic salads greens bins (first picture, on the left).  10-12″ plastic pots are only a few bucks at Home Depot, but I’ve found quite a few discarded by the side of the road.

Any advice for my first urban container garden?