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Is bottled water healthier or safer than tap?




Q. I know bottled water is an environmental no-no because it generates plastic and because energy is required to ship it around, but is it any healthier? I feel sort of guilty about it, but I do want to make sure I’m not drinking a bunch of chemicals. –Wallace, North Dakota 

A. There’s really no reason to think bottled water is healthier or more pure than tap. In fact, recent testing suggests that bottled water is, in the case of some brands, just tap water poured into plastic. Beverage companies aren’t required to disclose the origins of their water, or the results of any in-house testing they do for contaminants (except in California). That means that they can pretty much fill those resource-and-energy-hogging plastic bottles with any old H20, slap a picture of a mountain on it, and charge you an arm and a leg for it. The Environmental Working Group just tested ten brands of bottled water and found everything from arsenic to chlorine to fertilizer residue in them. Some brands were completely indistinguishable from municipal supplies, and contained byproducts of the disinfectants used in tap water. Funny thing, that.

The bottled water industry, not surprisingly, contends that a study of ten brands is not big enough to represent the market as a whole, but the fact is that there’s no law preventing companies from bottling ordinary tap water and selling it as something more special. Your tap water may be just as good as bottled water—and it’s literally 1,900 times cheaper on average. If you want to make sure you’re drinking the purest water possible, you’re better off investing in one of the dozens of kinds of filters on the market. And yeah, we know, sometimes you’re away from home, you’re thirsty, you forgot your trusty reusable bottle, and you find public drinking fountains more reprehensible than the thought of increasing your carbon footprint a smidgen. Sometimes it does make sense to go for that bottle of water. We won’t tell. No need for massive guilt trips. Just keep in mind that you’re only paying for convenience, not for exceptional purity of the water.

-         Sarah Schmidt 

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


Email your questions to Tobin at Ask Plenty

What's the difference between genetic engineering and selective breeding?




Q. I just read your story on GMOs and organic crops; what's the difference between cross pollination/grafting/selective breeding that farmers have been doing for centuries and genetic modification?  Just curious, because it seems like farmers have been screwing with genes for a long time now. – Joe, NY

A. You’re right, Joe. Farmers have used selective breeding for ages to increase the robustness and output of their crops and to produce and encourage other desirable traits. But there are some pretty huge differences between the techniques they’ve traditionally used and the high-tech ones being implemented today on mega farms that produce GM corn, cotton, soy, and canola (the four crops largely converted to GM technology so far). Put it this way: If traditional selective breeding is like two people with two different sets of genes being paired up by a matchmaker who thinks they’ll have pretty, healthy kids together, then modern high-tech GM breeding is like Victor Frankenstein slicing ‘superior’ body parts out of fifteen different corpses and using them to sew together his powerful, yet frighteningly unpredictable, monster. 

Whoops. Did that sound slightly unscientific and/or possibly biased? Then don’t take it from me—take it from Craig Holdrege, director of The Nature Institute. He explains that the most critical difference between natural and GM breeding is that natural breeding crosses only organisms that are already closely related—two varieties of corn, for example—whereas, in contrast, GM breeding slaps together genes from up to 15 wildly different sources. Here’s how he explained the convoluted GM breeding process to me in an email:

To make a GM plant, scientists need to isolate DNA from different organisms—bacteria, viruses, plants, and sometimes animals (or humans if the target gene is a human gene). They then recombine these genes biochemically in the lab to make a "gene construct," which can consist of DNA from five to fifteen different sources. This gene construct is cloned in bacteria to make lots of copies, which are then isolated. Next, the copies are shot into embryonic plant tissue (microprojectile bombardment), or moved into plant tissue via a particular bacterium (Agrobacterium) that acts as a vector. After getting the construct copies into the embryonic plant tissue, whole plants are regenerated. Only a few plants out of many hundreds will turn out to grow normally and exhibit the desired trait—such as herbicide resistance.

Or take it from Joe Mendelson, director of the Center for Food Safety. Here’s how he put in it in an email: 

The difference is pretty large. In regular cross pollination, the species being crossed have to be related . . . basically respecting their common evolutionary origin. But with GMOs, you can take any gene from any species and splice it into a crop. So you get fish genes in tomatoes or the like.

And it’s not just cotton, corn, soy, and canola that are being genetically modified anymore—GM alfalfa and GM sugar beets are on the way. Many food safety activists are, like Holdrege and Mendelson, concerned about the effects these six major GM crops will have on ecosystems, on agricultural production, and on our bodies. All that aggressive lab work, they argue, has the potential to bring consequences we can’t anticipate. Genetic modification has certainly upped agricultural output, which is a plus when food prices are high and many parts of the world are experiencing or are at risk for famine. But because almost all of us eat GM foods and produce every day, you’re wise to ask tough questions about the relatively new and largely untested technology. 

-         Tobin Hack

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


Email your questions to Tobin at Ask Plenty

Can I recycle newspaper with art supply paint on it?




Q. I’m an art teacher, and we use a lot of newspaper that ends up with tempera paint on it. Can we recycle it just like regular newspaper?  What about regular drawing paper with tempera paint on it? Thanks for the help. – Tami, CT

A. Unfortunately, no, you can’t recycle those contaminated papers as you would clean ones. But here’s what’s interesting—it’s not for the reason you’re probably thinking, according to Trey Granger of eco-resource guide Earth 911. Assuming you’re using water-based tempera, the paint itself isn’t the problem—it’s the water. Once newspaper—or any paper—gets wet, the fibers are ruined and paper mills will no longer be able to recycle it. The same goes for watercolors, finger paint, and poster paint. Paper with oil or latex paint on in should also probably be put in the trash, but you’ll want to check your local regulations to be sure. That’s always a good idea for tough recycling questions; usually the best way to find answers specific to your town is to track down your local recycling coordinator. He or she probably works for either the department of sanitation or the public works department.

-         Sarah Schmidt 

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


Email your questions to Tobin at Ask Plenty

What's so eco about hemp?




Q. What’s so eco about hemp? Is it just crunchy granola potheads who are into it, or is there actually an environmental reason to choose it over other materials and fabrics? – Ben, VT

A. Dude—totally awesome question. Stuff made out of hemp is like, stellar, because it’s good for the earth and you can like, smoke it.

Actually, sorry, that’s not even partly true. Go ahead and try to smoke your hemp pants, but you’ll get about as high doing that as you will smoking your organic cotton “save the whales” t-shirt. What you will be doing when you invest in hemp clothing and other items—from iPod cases to backpacks—is lightening your environmental footprint, and supporting a truly sustainable industry.

Hemp can be grown with “relatively little water,” according to Hillary Mendelsohn, author of Thepurplebook Green: An Eco-friendly Online Shopping Guide. That’s no small thing, in dry times like these. And the plant requires almost no pesticide at all, thanks to its natural pest resistance. Stacked up against conventional cotton—it takes about a third of a pound of chemicals to make a single non-organic cotton t-shirt—that’s pretty dope. But don’t take my word for it: Check out Senior Outrageous Correspondent Barry Lank’s musical ode to hemp. 

We should mention, though, that while buying hemp is planet friendly, it’s not the most patriotic thing Americans can do these days, economy-wise. That’s because when you buy hemp products, you’re buying imports from other countries. Believe it or not, US law forbids raising hemp in this great land of the free. Ah, well. Someday.

-         Tobin Hack 

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


Email your questions to Tobin at Ask Plenty

Cheap ways to lower energy bills in the cold season




Q. Last winter my energy bill shot through the roof, so this year I want to be ready for the cold weather. What are some easy, cheap things I can do to make sure my bills don’t skyrocket in December? – Felicity, MA 

A. If you took high school physics—or if you’ve ever been stuck sleeping in an overheated attic during a holiday reunion while everyone else is tucked comfortably into beds on the second floor—then you know that heat rises. This fact of nature is one of the most important things to keep in mind as you winter-proof your home. 

First, insulate your attic hatch or door, so all your precious heat doesn’t sneak upstairs to pool uselessly around your suitcases, extra lamps, and boxes of old clothes. (And then, for the love of all things uncluttered, just donate those clothes to Goodwill already).

Second, adjust the thermometers on each floor of your home so that most of the heating is being pumped into the bottom floor(s). Surely as Tiny Tim's Christmas cheer worked its way into Ebenezer Scrouge’s cold, cold heart, that heat will work its way up to the top floor of your home in no time.  

And third, if you have ceiling fans that you can adjust so that they push air down (that’s the opposite of up), turn the things on, stat. They’ll encourage the cozy heat in each room to move down to where you can enjoy it from your perma-perch on the couch. Lower your thermostats accordingly.

For more tips and info on home insulation and winter-proofing techniques—like sealing up doors and windows—check out this Energy Star guide. Then take the big bucks you’ve knocked off your bills, march yourself to the nearest mega-mall, and do some patriotic shopping.

-         Tobin Hack 

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


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