Thursday, April 21, 2011

Plastic-wrapped feet

It always warms my heart when I see people making use of reusable mugs and containers, and I'm also grateful when stores promote their use.  Those who have followed us for a while, or who know me personally, may know that I've had my share of arguments with some Starbuck's franchises about reusable mugs.  While that's a discussion worthy of its own rant blog, suffice it to say that I take issue when an establishment refuses to fill your reusable mug, but will happily sell you a new one of their own.

Speaking of Starbuck's, I was in New York City this past weekend for the Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society awards and presentations, and on my way back home, I noticed a lovely display of mugs at Starbuck's as I passed through Terminal 3 at the JFK airport yesterday.

Wall of mugs at JFK
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin
"shrink your footprint"?
photo ©2011 Christopher Chin

When I was younger, my Crayola 64 box of crayons featured colors like burnt sienna and marigold.  Future versions of this iconic boxed palette may likely include something along the lines of "eco-green", so that young would-be designers would know what colors go best with a campaign intended to give the impression of environmental awareness.

I glanced towards the counter, a mere three feet from the wall of
plastic-wrapped toothpicks at restaurant in Las Vegas
Photo ©2010 Christopher Chin
mugs offering to "shrink your footprint", and I saw something I'd never before even imagined.  I was bewildered and looked more closely as I tried to comprehend the hypocrisy before me.

While I'll happily complain about plastic-wrapped straws, plastic-wrapped plastic utensils, or even individually wrapped toothpicks, I never thought I'd see apples choking beneath a layer of plastic film.

Starbuck's counter at JFK Terminal 3
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin
As I stood in disbelief and wavered between stupefaction and anger, I wondered whose bright idea this was.  There was something inherently asinine about that, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it at first.  Eventually, I decided that it is because apples naturally have a resilient and washable skin.  Wrapping an apple in plastic wrap is just wasteful and silly.  It's akin to purchasing a reusable bag like the ChicoBag, and having the checkout clerk try to put it into a single-use plastic bag.  "Um... excuse me... I don't think I need a bag for my bag.  Thanks."

My best guess is that this Starbuck's somehow thinks that the apples may appear cleaner or more sanitary if they are wrapped in plastic.  I'm not sure about you, but I'm guessing that most people will probably still wash the apple after they unwrapped it.  They would probably at least take a napkin to it, or rub it on their shirt or pant leg.  Either of which is what most people do with apples that are not [gasp] wrapped in plastic.

If you buy one of those apples, I dare you to just unwrap it and eat it.  I'll bet that every intuition in your body will urge you to wash it before you sink your teeth into it.

plastic-wrapped apples
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin
Better yet, just believe me and DON'T buy that stupid plastic-wrapped apple.  If someone is keeping track (as they probably are), then buying one of those things will validate their idiocy.  Vote with your wallet, send a message, and don't buy that plastic-wrapped apple.  If we exercise our choices this way, they'll see that the excessive waste actually causes a reduction sales.

But it's not just plastic-wrapped apples you need to keep an eye out for; we should be expressing our choices every time we purchase something.  If you have a choice between a simply presented item and a similar item which is overpackaged, we hope you'll send the right message by choosing to avoid the latter.

As for the Starbuck's at JFK, I just thought of another reason for the plastic wrap.... Perhaps they thought we could reduce our "footprint" by wrapping our feet in plastic.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Now that's a water fountain!

One of the keys to comfortable travel is to stay well hydrated. Most savvy travelers know this and drink plenty of water while on the road and inflight.

Since increased security measures have been put into place at most major airports around the world forbidding the transportation of outside liquids in aircraft cabins, most people have turned to bottled water, which they are forced to purchase after passing through airport security.

However, as I'm sure you're aware, anything purchased in the "sterile" (i.e., "secure") area of the airport is significantly more expensive than its pre-screened counterparts. A simple solution is to bring an empty reusable water bottle or reusable mug through security and then fill it on the other side. Sometimes, however, water fountains produce a only a mere trickle, and even when they're working at full pressure, the bottle must usually be held at a sub-optimal angle and can only be filled partially.

I've sometimes resorted to bringing my water bottle to the restroom to fill it in the sink. Ahhh... automatic faucets. One problem with automatic faucets, such as those commonly found in airport restrooms, is that they only produce one temperature of water. It's nice to have warm water to wash one's hands, but the idea of filling my bottle or mug with tepid water just doesn't appeal.

Global Tap fountain at SFO
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin
If only there was a faucet-like fountain from which I could fill my water bottle or beverage container. . . .

Much to my surprise and excitement, I've found just the thing! Just the other day, as I was returning from the Dive and Travel Expo in Tacoma, I found a new Global Tap fountain in the International Terminal of San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Traveler refilling a plastic water bottle
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin
What I especially like about this is that it promotes re-use. Even if you don't have an aluminum bottle or reusable mug, you can reuse almost any other container. Juice bottles, soft drinks, and even single-use water bottles can all be RE-used. Almost any container can be used to hold water.

In the few short minutes that I spent admiring the Global Tap fountain, three people made use of it, including one who refilled her Costco brand plastic water bottle.

Lindsay McMahon refilling her Sigg bottle
Photo ©2011 Christopher Chin

Yet another of those three, Lindsay McMahon, stopped to chat with me. She is a frequent traveler, and is proud that her Sigg bottle has been all around the world. She raised an interesting point during our conversation, and estimates that over the years she has saved thousands of dollars by reusing her water bottle instead of purchasing bottled water.

It's always nice when doing the right thing is easy on the wallet as well as the planet. So, save yourself a few dollars, save yourself some time, and forgo the single-use bottle.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Radioactive waste in the oceans is hardly a new threat

Since an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and damaged two nuclear reactors,
Image via Flickr user karin.noso.
the world has been attempting to show support and condolences for a country that is very much in need. It’s almost a month later, and the death tolls continue to rise while the full extent of the damage is just being realized. Unfortunately, the news continues to get worse…. Recently, it was revealed that radiation from the nuclear plants had been leaking into the ocean (the leak has since been stopped), sparking fears of contaminated seafood and prompting the government of Japan to set limits, for the first time, on the amount of radiation permitted in fish.

While this is undeniably quite frightening, most people fail to realize that there is a similar threat located much closer to home — just 20 miles off the coast of San Francisco. The waters surrounding the Farallon Islands were used by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) as a nuclear waste dump for almost 30 years. It is estimated that 47,500 55-gallon steel drums were dumped in the vicinity from 1946-1970, most of which have been sitting there for 50 years and are now corroding (and are therefore essentially a ticking radioactive time bomb).

If the idea of a huge nuclear waste dump just outside of one of the US’s major metropolises isn’t terrifying enough, consider this: the exact location of the drums is unknown. The environmental hazards associated with them are currently unknown. It is thought that it would be riskier and potentially more hazardous to remove them than to leave them undisturbed. According to an article in Mother Jones Magazine entitled You Are What You Eat: A Glowing Report on Radioactive Waste in the Sea, radiation was found in parts of edible fish from the Farallons at levels up to 5,000 times higher than background radiation (a level that includes natural radioactivity and the plutonium spewed into the environment from years of atmospheric testing of atomic weapons).

Image via Flickr user Panegyrics of Granovetter.
To add to that, the Farallons aren’t the only place in the U.S. where our oceans were used as radioactive waste sites: there are over 50 known ocean dumps, stretching down the east and west coasts of the United States, where radioactive trash was dumped from 1946-1970. The largest dumps are in the waters surrounding New York, Newark, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco – all of which are prime fishing areas that serve the top 20 cities in the country. Of course, dumping radioactive waste into the ocean wasn’t only a US pastime – European countries dumped just as much in the waters of the Atlantic.

It’s impossible to say which poses the more imminent threat to the ocean environment and the organisms that live in it — the nuclear disaster in Japan or the radioactive dumpsites in US waters — mostly because very few studies have ever been conducted to determine the extent of the danger of the radioactive dumpsites. In fact, the Mother Jones article previously mentioned goes on to point out that the EPA and the AEC have tried to keep the dumpsites hush-hush, and have actively kept any such investigation from happening. Only $250,000 has ever been spent studying the existing dumps since 1974, while $30 million has been given to scientists looking for a way to stash high-level waste beneath the ocean floor.

Clearly, the nuclear disaster in Japan is of the utmost importance at the moment, not only because of the radiation that’s been leaked into the surrounding environment, but for the millions of citizens of Japan who’s lives and health are currently being threatened. However, it is also important for everyone to at least be aware that radioactive waste in the oceans is not a new threat, by any means – it’s something our government exposed us to in the past, and has dodged any responsibility for ever since – and there is no evidence whatsoever that the contamination of seafood out of Japan right now is any worse than what we’ve already been exposed to by our own government.

Nuclear power has long been a source of controversy within the environmental movement, but in my opinion, its risks far outweigh its benefits. For more information on the dangers of nuclear power and radioactive waste, please check out the Nuclear Information and Research Service at their website:

Contact the author of this post at

This blog is cross-posted from the Rainforest Action Network's youth action blog, RYSE.