Week of 11/12/2006

Dear EarthTalk: The marketing of soda to school kids was a big item in the news this past year. What's so bad about soda and where can I find healthier alternatives that still have the "fizz?"

—Chase Abromovitch, via e-mail

Soft drinks can be found most anywhere in the world, but nowhere are they as ubiquitous as in the United States, where 450 different types are sold and more than 2.5 million vending machines dispense them around the clock, including in our schools. The American Beverage Association says that, in 2004, 28 percent of all beverages consumed in the U.S. were carbonated soft drinks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises a 2,000 calorie-a-day limit as part of a healthy lifestyle, and no more than 10 to 12 teaspoons of sugar. However, between 1994 and 1996 Americans were averaging about 20.5 teaspoons a day, or 68.5 pounds of sugar a year. Over the past 16 years, the amount of sugar in American diets has increased by 28 percent, with about a third of it coming from soft drinks. A single 12-ounce can of soda has around 13 teaspoons of sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.

Some nutritionists say that consuming high-fructose corn syrup causes weight gain by interfering with the body's natural ability to suppress hunger feelings. Currently, 64.5 percent of adults over the age of 20 are overweight, 30.5 percent are obese and 4.7 percent are severely obese. According to Dr. Sonia Caprio, a Yale University professor of pediatric endocrinology, "The reality is that there is epidemiological work done in children as well as adults that links obesity and Type 2 diabetes with the consumption of sodas."

In response to such concerns, the nation's largest beverage makers—including Cadbury Schweppes, Coke and Pepsi—agreed in May 2006 to halt nearly all soda sales in public schools. Beginning in 2009, elementary and middle schools will sell only water and juice (with no added sweeteners), plus fat-free and low-fat milk. High schools will sell water, juice, sports drinks and diet soda. Diet sodas use artificial sweeteners, which add little or no calories, though some, such as aspartame, have been embroiled in controversy for years over their questionable health benefits and even possible links to cancer.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, lauded the move in a an appearance on The Early Show: "Soft drink companies have been marketing what we call liquid candy in high schools and some middle schools for many years now. It will be great to get rid of them."

For those who can't do without their soda pop, natural varieties are growing in popularity and can be found at most health food markets. Many use cane juice to sweeten, because it is less processed but has many of the nutrients found in sugar cane. Others add no sweetener and instead let the real fruit ingredients do the job. Popular brands include: Steaz, a less carbonated but flavorful drink available in eight flavors; R.W. Knudsen fruit spritzers, which contain only sparkling water and natural flavors and juices and come in 16 flavors; Santa Cruz Organic sodas, which taste like fresh fruit juice with light carbonation and are made with organic ingredients in 10 flavors; Izze, which offers seven flavors that contain 100 percent pure fruit juice and sparkling water; and WaNu beverages, which taste like slightly less carbonated mainstream sodas.

CONTACTS: American Beverage Association, www.ameribev.org; Center for Science in the Public Interest; www.cspinet.org/new/200605031.html.


Dear EarthTalk: What is the most environmentally friendly way I can wash my car: doing it myself or going to the local car wash?

—Jim, Denton, TX

Few people realize that washing our cars in our driveways is one of the most environmentally un-friendly chores we can do around the house. Unlike household waste water that enters sewers or septic systems and undergoes treatment before it is discharged into the environment, what runs off from your car goes right into storm drains—and eventually into rivers, streams, creeks and wetlands where it poisons aquatic life and wreaks other ecosystem havoc. After all, that water is loaded with a witch's brew of gasoline, oil and residues from exhaust fumes—as well as the harsh detergents being used for the washing itself.

On the other hand, federal laws in both the U.S. and Canada require commercial carwash facilities to drain their wastewater into sewer systems, so it gets treated before it is discharged back into the great outdoors. And commercial car washes use computer controlled systems and high-pressure nozzles and pumps that minimize water usage. Many also recycle and re-use the rinse water.

The International Carwash Association, an industry group representing commercial car wash companies, reports that automatic car washes use less than half the water of even the most careful home car washer. According to one report, washing a car at home typically uses between 80 and 140 gallons of water, while a commercial car wash averages less than 45 gallons per car.

If you must wash your car at home, choose a biodegradable soap specifically formulated for automotive parts, such as Simple Green's Car Wash or Gliptone's Wash "n Glow. Or you can make your own biodegradable car wash by mixing one cup of liquid dishwashing detergent and 3/4 cup of powdered laundry detergent (each should be chlorine- and phosphate-free and non-petroleum-based) with three gallons of water. This concentrate can then be used sparingly with water over exterior car surfaces.

Even when using green-friendly cleaners, it is better to avoid the driveway and instead wash your car on your lawn or over dirt so that the toxic waste water can be absorbed and neutralized in soil instead of flowing directly into storm drains or open water bodies. Also, try to sop up or disperse those sudsy puddles that remain after you're done. They contain toxic residues and can tempt thirsty animals.

One way to avoid such problems altogether is to wash your car using any number of waterless formulas available, which are especially handy for spot cleaning and are applied via spray bottle and then wiped off with a cloth. Freedom Waterless Car Wash is a leading product in this growing field.

One last caution: Kids and parents planning a fundraising car wash event should know that they might be violating clean water laws if run-off is not contained and disposed of properly. Washington's Puget Sound Carwash Association, for one, allows fund-raisers to sell tickets redeemable at local car washes, enabling the organizations to still make money while keeping dry and keeping local waterways clean.

CONTACTS: International Carwash Association, www.carcarecentral.com; Simple Green, www.simplegreen.com; Freedom Waterless Car Wash, www.freedomwaterlesscarwash.com; Puget Sound Carwash Association, www.charitycarwash.org.