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Are natural antibacterial sanitizers healthier or more eco friendly?

Q. I know that some of the chemicals in antibacterial hand gels and soaps are not good for the environment, but I recently saw one that uses corn ethanol to kill germs. Are natural antibacterial soaps healthier or better for the environment than synthetic ones? – John, MN

A. Actually, losing the antibacterial soaps and germ phobia altogether is your best, healthiest, and most planet-friendly option—despite the fact that our alarmist culture of clean tells us we need antibacterial sprays and lotions on hand at all times, in every purse, every glove compartment, every backpack. The first reason to avoid them, says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, is an  ingredient called triclosan, commonly used in antibacterial products. Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent and pesticide that’s closely related to dioxin. Translation: It’s been linked to liver and thyroid problems. Awesome.  

The second reason to avoid antibacterial products is that even those made with alcohol increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. What that means, in a nutshell, is that as antibacterial products become more common, some germs become immune to them, then come back with a vengeance in the form of “superbugs.” Trust us when we say that you do not want a superbug setting up camp in your bod. And since study after study shows that washing your hands with regular soap and water is as effective as using special germ-killing products, there’s really no point in buying a bunch of disinfectants you don’t need, whether they’re synthetic or natural.

Of course there are situations where you might justifiably need a quick, convenient way to wash up without water—whether you’re hiking or roadtripping. And yes, if you want to throw a hand sanitizing gel in your diaper bag or camping first aid kit, a bio-based product like ethanol would probably have a slight edge over petroleum-derived, isopropyl alcohol, the more common ingredient in hand gels. We all know corn doesn’t exactly have a pristine environmental record, but it definitely never hurts to reduce your consumption of petroleum-based products, even if by just a smidgen. 

-         Sarah Schmidt

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What's the most eco-friendly form of wool?

Q. Despite the fact that today’s economy is totally un-purchase-friendly, it’s that time of year when all I want to do is buy cozy, soft, wooly things and curl up with a book to wait out winter. Are there any types of wools that are more sustainable or animal-friendly than others? – Lynn, CT

A. Unfortunately, one of the most common types of wool is also the one you really want to avoid: Australian merino wool. Before we get into the why of it all, you’ll want to set down any snack or food item you might happen to be eating.  

Ready? Okay, one of the reasons PETA is vehemently anti-wool is a gruesome wool shearing technique called mulesing. It’s a hide-trimming technique (we’ll ease you into this with euphemisms) that came into practice in Australia when farmers realized that cutting excess flesh from their animas’ loose hides nearly eliminated the risk of flystrike—an illness that results when flies nest in the folds of an animal’s skin. Matt Prescott, PETA head of corporate affairs, put it this way in an email:

“The cruelest type of wool is merino wool from Australia, where farmers painfully carve or clip chunks of flesh from lambs’ backsides.” 

The good news is that mulesing is practiced exclusively in Australia, so it’s possible to avoid wools that came from animals subjected to mulesing. Next time you shop for any wool item, check the label or ask a salesperson where the wool came from. American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, Timberland, Aéropostale, and Limited Brands are several retailers that have pledged not to use Australian merino wools until the practice is eliminated. Which is to say that the 99.9% of tween girls nationwide who wear nothing but Abercrombie & Fitch clothes can feel morally superior in their merino wool sweaters (never mind the company’s quasi-pornographic advertisements).

You won’t be surprised to learn, however, that PETA wants you to do more than just avoid Australian merino wool. “In wool production worldwide,” says Prescott, “animals are sheared by careless workers who are often paid by volume rather than hour, so work quickly, often resulting in animals suffering painful gashes and cuts.” What are your alternatives? PETA suggests you make the full switch from animal-derived materials to plant-derived fabrics like cotton, cotton flannel, polyester fleece, synthetic shearling, tencel, and polartec (a fleece made from soda bottles). Can you do it? Can you go as vegan as Natalie Portman?

Lastly, don’t forget that farmers’ markets often offer hand sheared and died wool yarns. As with most items you’ll find at any farmers’ market, you can rest assured that these have come from healthy, happy animals that were given much more TLC (and space to roam) than your average sheep.

-         Tobin Hack 

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Are there any eco alternatives to conventional unsweetened baking chocolates?

Q. The holiday baking frenzy has begun in my home. I go through a lot of bittersweet baking chocolate around this time of year, but there don’t seem to be any organic or sustainable options at my local grocery store. Are there good ones out there, and I’m just missing them? – Anne, NC 

A. Aw, how sweet of you to make brownies for us! You can send them to the attention of Plenty Magazine Staff, at 250 West 49th St Suite 403 New York NY 10019. We like walnuts, chocolate chips, and coconut flakes in them, okay?

You’ve already taken the most important step toward sustainable baking, which is planning ahead. There are quite a few incredibly eco baking chocolate options out there, but since they’re not all sold at your average grocery store, it’ll take a bit of online detective work to stock your kitchen with them. Luckily, we’ve already done that work for you. And all you have to do in return is bake us brownies.

First, check out Green & Black—a company that really pioneered the ethical, organic chocolate market—known for its rich, pure, dark chocolate bars (how do Maya gold, caramel, almond, and cherry sound?). Happily, they also make an excellent baking bar. Just like all the company’s products, it’s made with beans that are shade grown, organically raised, and fairly traded. It’s got a cocoa content of 72 percent, which should be high enough to satisfy most recipes, and Green & Black has even added a bit of extra cocoa butter to their usual recipe so that the bar melts easily and mixes smoothly into batters.  

Another sustainable, ethical chocolate company we love is Dagoba, which also makes a baking bar. This one is totally unsweetened—100 percent cacao content—and you can order it online. Depending on how many loved ones you bake for during the holidays, it might be worth it to do a little calculating and bulk order for all your cooking needs.  

And, of course, a large part of eating (baking) sustainably is knowing where your ingredients come from and how they get from the field to your plate. If you feel like your understanding of how chocolate makes its way to your kitchen (or why buying organic and fair trade is important) is a little lacking, check out Dagoba’s info page for the lowdown.  

-         Tobin Hack

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Is my PlayStation or Wii eating up energy and costing me money?

Q. Ever since we got our PlayStation last year, I noticed our electric bill has gone up by about $8 or $9 a month. My boyfriend insists that it's a coincidence and that the price of electricity probably just happened to go up a little, but I suspect the PlayStation is the culprit. Who's right? – Marianna, TX

A. As any man who’s married or in a relationship knows, the woman’s always right. This is no exception. You win (duh)—the PlayStation is indeed the culprit. Turns out video game consoles can gobble up electricity as fast as Ms. Pac-Man swallows pellets. The Natural Resources Defense Council just did a report on them and found that Sony’s latest iteration of the PlayStation (the PS3, which came out last year) uses around $134 worth of electricity a year. That makes it the worst of all the latest generation platforms, consuming slightly more than the Xbox 360 ($103/year) and gobs more than Nintendo’s Wii, which uses a wee $10 worth of juice a year. (Anyone who lobbied for the Wii instead of the PlayStation can sure feel smug now.)  

But the report also had one major piece of good news. You can dramatically reduce your PlayStation’s energy consumption—to only about $12 in electricity per year—by simply saving your game and powering down when you’re not playing. Not only that, you can easily set your console to do so automatically; The NRDC has posted step-by-step instructions here. Yes, it’s that easy.

So why don’t consoles come pre-set to power down mode as the default? In the future, they will, if the NRDC gets its way. The organization is working with the industry to put simple energy saving features like auto power-down or sleep mode into new gaming consoles. If this happens, US CO2 emissions will go down by seven million tons a year. And in the meantime, you can save a hundred bucks a year by taking a few minutes to tinker with your set-up menu. Let’s be real: If you’re a true gamer, you know you know how to change that setting in about 2.4 seconds. Just do it like Nike

Now celebrate by treating your honey to your Guitar Hero rendition of “Sweet Emotion,” knowing that your next electricity bill will be a little bit sweeter.

-         Sarah Schmidt

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Which HDTVs use the least energy?

Q. I've heard that some high-definition televisions use as much electricity as a refrigerator. How can I avoid them and choose the most efficient model? – Samantha, MI

A. It’s great that technology allows us to  keep abreast of important news like whether or not our favorite television personalities have clogged pores or are in need of an eyebrow wax, but television comes with a cost.  Some high definition sets are huge electricity hogs and can use as much as 500 killowatt hours a year!  

What, kilowatt hours don’t scare you? What if we translate that into $200 in utility costs? Now you’re listening.

Thankfully, it’s not hard to find a TV that uses less juice. First, the obvious: Go with a reasonably-sized screen. Every additional square inch sucks up a proportional amount of electricity, so don’t buy anything that’s bigger than you really need, says Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. How’s your eyesight? Good enough to pass the DMV exam? And are you planning to put that new TV in the same room as the couch from which you intend to watch it? Good. Then you probably don’t need a 58-inch screen. Next, look for either a rear projection or LCD screen. In a recent report, CNET found that these use less electricity than plasma screens do.  

Finally, pick an Energy Star-rated set. These models, which allow you to choose brightness levels (as opposed to coming pre-set to super-bright) are the most efficient ones available—up to 30 percent more efficient than their non-Energy Star counterparts.  Just be sure you pick the “home” or “standard” brightness setting once you get your new TV out of the box, to make sure you’re cashing in on energy savings. Also worth noting: models in line with the old standards will probably be still on the shelves for a while, and will also carry the Energy Star logo. Print out this list and take it to the store to be sure you’re getting one with the updated standards. Okay, so to review:

Normal size + LCD or rear projection+ Energy Star  = Good.

Giant + plasma + non-Energy Star = Not So Good.

Now you’re ready to start shopping! Or not. One last thing to keep in mind: though the new Energy Start standards are a big improvement, a little bird at the EPA has told us that, thanks to ever-improving tech, even tighter standards are just around the corner. So if you can hold off for another year or two, you’ve got even greener pastures ahead.

-         Sarah Schmidt

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