Ask Gaia About Garbage, Bees, and Shampoo

This is the first installment of your new favorite advice column, penned by resident eco-expert and celestial goddess, Gaia. Submit your own question here

"Any eco friendly solutions to plastic garbage bags?"

— Trashed in Toronto
Illustration by Elizabeth Stilwell.

Illustration by Elizabeth Stilwell.

Dear Trashed,

Thank you for this question because the garbage situation around here is the pits, sweet earthling. Before I get to the bags, let’s break down what’s likely in your can. First, you’ve got organic waste — like food and yard trimmings — which makes up almost half of all of our waste. Toronto has a composting program, so maybe you already take advantage of that. If you don’t have access to municipal composting, you could try it in your yard or with an in-home system like this one (at $1000, it's not all that accessible, but hopefully it will spur other, cheaper systems). Recyclables, of course, would go to your recycling program, although cutting down on petroleum-based plastics is always a good idea. Which brings us to your garbage bag question.

What’s left (food wrappers, tamper resistant foils, etc.) should be fairly small but not biodegradable. Therefore, your bag choice comes down to best production and materials and let’s assume it’s going to end up in a landfill. Conventional bags are made of thin polyethylene plastic which does not ever biodegrade. Normally, microorganisms in the soil break down materials (like paper), but when they encounter plastic, they sashay away. Bioplastics (made from corn or potato starch) are an exercise in compromise. Growing corn or potatoes uses water and land resources, but on the plus side, they don’t add to demand for fossil fuels. These kinds of bags are fine for compostables going to a commercial facility, but when sent to a landfill, will degrade and release methane at a rate similar to conventional plastics. If thrown into recycling streams, their presence can actually ruin a whole batch of recyclable materials.

The best option out there is ECOsmartbags, which are made of plastic plus an additive. This ESP-BIO™ additive changes the plastic into a food source for microorganisms, rendering it biodegradable — eventually. Depending on the environment (compost facility, landfill, the ocean), the bag will break down in somewhere between 1 and 7 years. This may seem like a long time, but compared to conventional plastic bags, these guys live hard, die young. Other ways that ECOsmartbags are the dopest include: they are made in the U.S., are shelf stable and won’t fall apart (unlike bioplastics), and will not ruin the recycling stream should they make their way in there.

ECOsmartbags are available here and here.

"Hola Gaia! I have a question regarding bees and honey production: I'm vegan, and I don't want to consume honey because I have many other options and I don't want bees to be exploited because of me... but I know that for a lot of people that's very difficult to understand.

I've met a lot of people who defend honey production because we need bees to pollinate our food, and I always try to explain that bee production doesn't focus on the health of bee hives or in bee diversity, but I still haven't been able to find studies or reports that talk about the connection between honey production and bee colony collapse disorder... if there is such connection. So, my question: is there a connection? If so, can you recommend a book / report / article that talks about it?"

— Bee-Curious in Columbia

Dear Bee-Curious,

Kudos for championing our bee friends! We do need bees, a keystone species, to pollinate our growing foods. In the past decade, researchers have been perplexed over Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which does not appear to be caused by one single reason. There are environmental factors such as invasive pests and viruses, pesticide use, habitat change, and inadequate forage due to the rise of mono-crop agriculture. There are also management practices such as poor nutrition and the stress of transportation in commercial beekeeping. All of these issues, of course, speak to the industrialization of the honey industry.

Did you know that it takes at least eight bees all their life to make one single teaspoonful of honey? Bees make honey by first collecting nectar, which they then store in their honey stomachs. When they are full, they fly back to the hive where they pass it through their mouths to other worker bees who pass it mouth-to-mouth until it evaporates into honey. The honey is then transferred into honeycomb cells and capped with wax. This is meant to be food for the hive through winter, as well as for bee larvae. Taking the hive’s honey is taking something they worked really hard for and expect to keep!

Commercial beekeepers often rob the colonies of their food (to sell) and replace it with less nutritious sugar water. Migratory beekeepers transport their hives around the country to different farms so that the bees can pollinate the crops. This must happen when the farm is growing a mono-crop and lacks a diverse environment for bees to pollinate naturally. This transport stresses out the bees and can contribute to CCD. Even if you are getting your honey directly from a local apiary, the work that those bees do is probably not significantly affecting our food crops (bees generally forage within about a 2 mile radius).

In fact, entomologists have found that native bees (those that prefer pollen and don’t make enough honey to collect) are two to three times better pollinators than honeybees, and are less prone to CCD. They also are more plentiful and more diverse than honeybee colonies, but, being “wild,” cannot be used for migratory pollination. So, how do we encourage these bees gone wild, which actually do have positive effects on the pollination of crops without the drawbacks of commercialization? Bee-Curious, you can let honey defenders know that the best way to keep bees healthy is to encourage native bee habitats like holey woodblocks and pollinator gardens, buy organic produce, and eschew honey for alternative sweeteners.

"Help! Are there any readily available palm-free, non soap-based shampoos on the US market?

I've tried palm-free shampoo bars, but they just don't perform well on my hair since the water in my area is pretty hard. I've tried them with vinegar rinses with no luck—still left with hard water soap residue in my hair.

Any shampoos whose surfactants aren't soap-based?"

— Limp Locks in Los Angeles

Dear Limp Locks,

Thank you for enduring lackluster hair in an effort to avoid palm-oil. For that, you deserve a ten orangutan salute! However, there’s no reason you can’t feel good and protect the environment. Instead of shampoo bars, we recommend you try one of these palm-oil free liquid shampoos:

  • The Fanciful Fox’s sulfate-free liquid soap is formulated for all hair types with lupine protein to strengthen and condition your hair.
  • The Canadian (close enough, right?) brand, Sudsatorium, has thirteen different shampoos, all catering to different hair types and needs.
  • Good4You Herbals has a gentle liquid shampoo meant for normal to oily hair types (we find they work best on thin hair). Another awesome thing about this formula — which is plant-based and gmo-free — is that many ingredients are locally gathered in Massachusetts!

Make sure you vigorously scrub your scalp with your fingers as you wash to loosen oil and rinse clean with warm water. Fluff, fluff, go. 💁