Toxic chemicals in Christmas decorations may presage growing consumer toxic concern

It is tough to conduct reliable polling on consumer environmental health concerns but there is some evidence to suggest that some consumers are becoming more concerned about toxic chemicals in household products. Thus a study by the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based nonprofit environmental organization, which recently found toxic substances in common Christmas decorations, may be a caution flag not only for the decor industry but also for packaging materials, paper and plastic toys, and many other household products. If, as a brandowner, you are not certain that your products are free from toxic substances then this year may be a good year to find out, before someone else finds out and publishes the results.

GallonDaily is not endorsing the methodology of, the program of the Ecology Center which conducted the testing. They have assumed that the presence of particular elements, particularly bromine, chlorine, lead, antimony, and tin, indicates the presence of hazardous flame retardants. They also assume that the presence of these substances indicates that hazardous substances will be released from the Christmas decorations into the household environment or into people who come into contact with the decorations. While not implausible these are not necessarily correct assumptions. However, such is the world of ngo and media testing for toxic substances in household products. If the brandowner does not have a quick and scientifically supported rebuttal then the product may be consigned to the scrap heap of toxic substances in the court of public opinion. There may also be concurrent damage to the brandowner’s reputation.

Highlights of the testing included:

  • high levels of lead in a plastic poinsettia wreath and a decorative tree, with the lead in the tree being in the metal part of the ornament
  • high levels of bromine, which may be from flame retardants, in a couple of garlands
  • high levels of antimony, possibly also from flame retardants, in garlands
  • high levels of chlorine in a garland and also in part of some decorative antlers
  • high levels of tin in placemats and garlands, with the placemats being of particular concern to GallonDaily because they are the kind of thing that youngsters may chew on. Some organotin compounds are suspected endocrine disruptors or may be neurotoxins.

The complete study report, which includes retailer and brandowner names, may be accessed through a link at

Business columnist predicts top sustainability advancements for 2015

It is not often that GallonDaily sources information, much less predictions, from the business press but there are some things that the scientific press just cannot provide. As this time of year is the season for annual predictions, and because a predictive column in the UK newspaper The Guardian caught our eye and reflected at least some of our opinions, we decided to take the plunge into the world of columnists. Not that Aman Singh is just an ordinary columnist but is a New York based member of Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose team and the founder of Singh Solutions, an advisory firm that offers CSR and sustainability reporting and communication strategies services. Her predictions for 2015 include:

  • more businesses will recognize that climate change is real
  • companies will align their strategies with the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’
  • businesses will switch from advocacy to activism
  • there will be more big supply chain disruptions
  • there will also be a growing focus on future-proofing – ensuring your long-term viability as an organization, as an economic contributor, as a consumer, as an employee, as a leader and as an informed decision maker.

Both examples and explanations are provided in the original article which can be found at

Companies which wish to be leaders in, and to benefit from, the global sustainability movement could do much worse than to consider these five areas during their 2015 strategic planning sessions.

Potential problems with carbon offset projects in developing countries

The idea of undertaking projects, such as forestry projects, in developing countries to offset greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries such as Canada has been around since the beginning of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and has been implemented by a significant number of organizations. A new report from the California-based Oakland Institute suggests that this approach to climate change mitigation could face some serious social responsibility challenges.

The Oakland Institute report, The Darker Side of Green: Plantation Forestry and Carbon Violence in Uganda, reviews carbon offset projects undertaken in Uganda by Green Resources, a Norwegian-registered plantation forestry company. and points out that there is mounting evidence that these land acquisitions for climate change mitigation—including forestry plantations—severely compromise not only local ecologies but also the livelihoods of the some of the world’s most vulnerable people living at subsistence level in rural areas in developing countries. Among the findings:

  • upwards of 8,000 people in rural Uganda face profound disruptions to their livelihoods, including many experiencing forced evictions.
  • villagers across Green Resources’ two land acquisitions in Uganda report being denied access to land vital for growing food and grazing livestock, as well as collecting forest resources central to their livelihoods.
  • many local people also describe the pollution of land and waterways by agrochemicals used in forestry plantations, resulting in crop losses and livestock deaths.
  • many of those evicted, as well as those seeking to use land now licensed to Green Resources, report being subjected
    to physical violence at the hands of the police.
  • they also allege that private security forces have been involved in this criminal behaviour, although the role of Green Resources itself is not known.

The report introduces the term “carbon violence” to give context to the diversity of structural, social, political, economic, and cultural harms connected with the way carbon markets have evolved in some developing countries, Evidence presented demonstrates how subsistence farmers and poor communities carry heavy costs associated with the expansion of forestry plantations and global carbon markets.

GallonDaily suggests that, while situations such as that described in the Oakland Institute report almost certainly do occur in association with carbon projects in developing countries, they are not a necessary or desirable part of such projects. At its fundamentals the situations described in the report are not fundamentally different from some of the charges levelled against Canadian mining company activities in developing countries. Corporate social responsibility programs, possibly including ones similar to that which the Canadian government is now encouraging mining companies to implement, may be a part of the solution. In the meantime Gallondaily suggests that it is in the best interest of companies investing in developing country carbon offsets to take a close look at the offset projects to ensure that they are not causing the kind of social, environmental, and criminal disruptions described in the Oakland Institute report.

The 15 page report, The Darker Side of Green: Plantation Forestry and Carbon Violence in Uganda, is available at

Natural gas fuel may not be much better (or better at all) than coal

A research report from scientists at the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California and Intellectual Ventures, a patent consolidator and research house in Bellevue, Washington concludes that “if there is substantial methane leakage, natural gas [power] plants can produce greater near-term [global] warming than coal plants with the same power output. However, if methane leakage rates are low and power plant efficiency is high, natural gas plants can produce some reduction in near-term warming. In the long term, natural gas power plants produce less warming than would occur with coal power plants. However, without carbon capture and storage natural gas power plants cannot achieve the deep reductions that would be required to avoid substantial contribution to additional global warming.”

The finding is not surprising to many in the environmental science community but it should be cautionary to some in the environmental ngo and political communities who have been pushing natural gas at least as an interim replacement for coal.

The methodology for the Carnegie study is interesting. The researchers developed a power plant GHG emissions model, and used a schematic climate model  to investigate the radiative forcing and resulting global mean temperature changes (ΔT). This model considers the pathway from emissions of GHGs to global mean temperature response. The generating plants included in this study are single natural gas and coal fired power plants with capacity of 1 GW. The major emissions from power plants occur during operations; construction emissions are relatively small in total life-cycle emissions, and relatively similar for the two types of plants, so they are ignored.

The analysis is complex with several key variables. For example, both natural gas and coal can produce significant methane emissions, the former from avoidable, but not always avoided, leaks in the distribution system and the latter from much ore difficult to avoid leaks directly from the coal bed. The study makes numerous conclusions but overall indicates that “if there is substantial methane leakage associated with natural gas supply, then natural gas plants can produce more warming than a comparable coal plant during the period of operation’. In the best case, if the methane leaks are addressed, then “the best natural gas plant with a zero methane leakage rate still produces about two-thirds of the century-integrated warming [ie over a hundred year time period] as does the best coal power plant”.

The researchers note that “many well-publicized GHG emission targets require much deeper cuts in emissions than can be provided by natural gas. For example, California’s AB32 regulation calls for 80% reductions in emissions below 1990 levels by mid-century. Many power plants built today could still be operational in mid-century; this raises the question of the extent to which natural gas can help in achieving these policy objectives. If natural gas is to play a long-term role in electricity production in a world with greatly constrained carbon emissions, then carbon capture and storage may be an essential component of future natural gas systems”.

The article concludes “natural gas is thought of as a ‘bridge’ fuel by some policy makers—a temporary fuel to be used until a transition to near-zero emission technologies becomes more feasible. Thus, natural gas is promoted as a way to decrease near-term emissions as we make a transition to energy systems that deeply cut longterm emissions. However, if methane leakage rates cannot be maintained at very low values, near-term climate benefits may be small or non-existent. There is potential that, relative to coal, the deployment of natural gas power plants could both produce excess near-term warming (if methane leakage rates are high) and produce excess long-term warming (if the deployment of natural gas plants today delays the transition to near-zero emission technologies. Thus, achieving climate benefits from the use of natural gas depends on building high efficiency natural gas plants, controlling methane leakage, and on developing a policy environment that assures a transition to future lower-emission technologies.”

The article is published in Environmental Research Letters, a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, and can be found at 

Ontario Auditor General focusses on some environmental initiatives

It is not too often that the Auditor General of Ontario focusses attention on the environmental aspects of government initiatives but the OAG’s 2014 report, released today, reviews both Ontario’s Smart Meter program and source water protection with follow-ups on Drive Clean vehicle emissions testing and Metrolinx regional transportation planning.

With respect to Smart Meters the OAG finds:

  • the smart metering program, involving homes and businesses, was rolled out without nearly enough planning or monitoring.
  • as a result, the government has not met its targets for reducing peak electricity demand.
  • the difference in peak and off-peak rates has not been significant enough to change consumption patterns.

With respect to source water protection, the OAG finds:

  • fourteen years after the crisis in Walkerton, the locally developed source water protection plans envisioned by the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry and legislated under Ontario’s Clean Water Act, 2006, are not in place to ensure the first level of defence for the safety of drinking water for Ontarians.
  • situations of non-compliance with the Nutrient Management Act, 2002 and its regulations, and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change’s weak enforcement activities, increase the risk that source water (water that flows into water treatment plants and wells) in Ontario is not being effectively protected.
  • there is a high likelihood that spills from industrial and commercial facilities may also pose a significant threat to water intakes in the Great Lakes, but source water protection plans do not currently address them.

The OAG also finds that only a third of the recommendations on regional transportation planning in the 2012 Annual Report have been implemented. For example, Metrolinx, after consulting with stakeholders, has provided the Ministry of Transportation with an investment strategy to fund projects within the Regional Transportation Plan. The other recommendations are requiring more time to be fully addressed, such as defining the business model under which the Union Pearson Express will operate to ensure that it will be a viable and sustainable operation. In conjunction with the provincial government and transit providers, Metrolinx still needs to develop a strategy for implementing better fare integration among GTHA transit systems.

On Drive Clean vehicle emissions testing the OAG found that most of her recommendations have either been implemented or are in process.

It is reasonable to expect that the Government will act on the Auditor General’s recommendations on smart meters, source water protection, and regional transportation planning. At least the first two of these are likely to have cost implications for business.

The OAG’s report and media summaries can be found at

Ten low environmental impact Christmas gifts

We first published this article in the Vol. 15, No. 9, December 7, 2010 edition of Gallon Environment Letter. In case it inspires readers to give lower environmental impact presents this holiday season we are reprinting it here.

As we approach gift season GL’s editors thought we might share some suggestions for low environmental impact Christmas gifts. Not surprisingly, these are mostly gifts that involve services rather than durable goods – a switch which we see as key to increasing sustainability. So, without further ado (another low impact thing, as far as we can tell),and in no particular order :

  • theatre tickets to a local theatre. We have never seen or done a LifeCycle impact on theatre, but it seems to us that cultural activities such as theatre likely have lower environmental impact per dollar spent than almost any material goods. If you cannot find a local theatre with tickets, or season tickets, for sale, then an alternative may be an educational course for your friends or relatives.
  • museum tickets. With family admissions now often exceeding $20, and sometimes much more, the gift of admission to a museum or art gallery makes a very nice holiday gift. Art will appreciate it too.
  • a season of Community Shared Agriculture. Right across Canada many small farmers are offering CSA programs, where they grow the food and all the members get a share. Many CSA farmers will sell an entire season and, if one share is too big, they will sell a half share. This means that your friend or relatives will get from 12 to 20 weeks of locally grown, often organic, vegetables that will taste better than anything that can be bought in the supermarket.
  • local food products are always a good choice. Food is a necessity and, in GL’s opinion, food production presents one of the most sustainable economic development opportunities for Canada. Depending on where in Canada you live, the following ideas might help you find a sustainable gift: on the east, west, or south (Great Lakes) coasts, look for smoked seafood such as smoked mackerel, smoked trout, or smoked salmon. Many fishmongers can help you choose a delicious local smoked fish product that does not require refrigeration (as far as GL knows, Santa’s sleigh does not carry any kind of refrigerant).
  • garden seeds and planters for growing of food plants. If your friends or relatives are not yet into gardening for food, then a book, a few packs of seeds for vegetable production, or a couple of mini-greenhouses for seed germination can get them started. If they already grow their own tomatoes, then an electric seed starter mat which warms the seed tray from the bottom can help. Search for seed starter mat on Google or Yahoo Search or inquire (by phone, to avoid driving) at local seed supply companies or nurseries. Growing your own food is a pretty sustainable thing to do, and getting the seeds started early can help increase production.
  • transit tickets or passes. All environmentally aware folks know that buses, trains, and coaches are far better than taking you car. Why not encourage you parents, relatives, or friends to use public transit by giving them a bus or train pass. If they are not in a situation where they can use transit regularly, gift them a bus tour or train pass to visit somewhere they would find interesting. Most coach tour operators as well as Via Rail Canada offer short and longer tours to all kinds of neat places. Trains and buses are usually lower environmental impact, and a more pleasant way to travel, than taking your own car.
  • a heated mattress pad or electric duvet along with an automatic turn-down thermostat if they do not already have one. GL is a big fan of electrically heated bedding. At night one can turn down the home heating thermostat by as much as 8 or 9 degrees if one has a warm bed. In most homes it takes far less energy to keep the bed warm, literally only a few watts per hour, than to keep the whole house warm. Yes, we know a hot water bottle might be better but we like an electric duvet, available in the US from bedding retailers but in Canada apparently mostly from EBay – look for Sunbeam brand – but heated mattress pads are also excellent and cheaper than the electric duvet. Your gift recipient will only save money and the environment if they turn down the house temperature overnight so if they do not have one get them an electronic thermostat as well as the heated bedding.
  • a romantic night in a local hotel. ‘Nuff said! But hotels exist and the environmental impact of another occupied room is pretty small! Many people say they never explore their local tourist sites unless they have visitors. For over 40 years, the London Free Press (London, Ontario) has offered a “Shunpiker Tour” which highlights local art, culture, old-fashioned general stores and other places to see and things to do within a short distance away. Staying in a local hotel is a great way to explore the local sights.
  • a gift certificate at a store that you know provides things that the recipient will like. Believe it or not but GL is not a big fan of gift certificates. But we have to say that giving a gift certificate so that the recipient can buy something they will use is far better for the environment than giving them something for which they have no use. So we endorse the current trend towards gift certificates as long as the giver puts some thoughts into the store in which the recipient would find value. If it is an older person or someone who can make good use of the gift of communication, then consider a long-distance telephone gift card. We particularly like the series offered by VOX, which is Bell Canada in disguise, but other brands are probably just as good. The environmental impact of a telephone call is very low and the social benefit seems to us to be very high.
  • trees for the garden or for a public space are another environmentally helpful gift idea. Although it is obviously not possible to plant trees in Canada during the Christmas holiday season, many nurseries and garden centres offer gift certificates that can be used to plant a tree when Spring arrives, or you can just pledge to deliver the tree when the season is appropriate. We don’t recommend giving a potted Christmas tree or garden tree at Christmas time. Even if the tree survives the often dry and hot conditions inside the home it is unlikely to forgive you for the transition to the cool damp conditions that will exist outdoors in the Spring.

Beyond our 10 more sustainable gift suggestions we also recommend the gift of service. If it is someone who lives alone, offer to visit their home, bring and make a meal and join with them in eating together on four, six or twelve occasions during the year or if you are driving, fill up the car and offer a ride to the grocery store. If it is a couple or family, offer to bring a meal or help them with the household chores. If it is a child, offer to play games with them or help them with puzzles or school work on a specific number of occasions and for a specified length of time in the coming year. If you have skills that the recipient would find valuable, offer to teach them, help them exercise, maintain their home, or even babysit for a number of occasions during the year. Give them a number of coupons for the activity you have chosen that they can redeem with you so that you and they will know that the obligation is real and will be delivered. Helping each other has to be one of the cornerstones of a more sustainable 21st Century society.

Above all, enjoy the holiday season and help your friends and family enjoy the holiday season and the year ahead.