Week of 12/07/2008

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that palm oil, common in snack foods and health & beauty products, is destroying rainforests? If so, what can consumers do about it?

—Emma Miniscalco, via e-mail

It's no wonder that worldwide demand for palm oil has surged in recent years. Long used in cosmetics, palm oil is now all the rage in the snack food industry, since it is transfat-free and therefore seen as healthier than the shortening it replaces.

But to produce palm oil in large enough quantities to meet growing demand, farmers across Southeast Asia have been clearing huge swaths of biodiversity-rich tropical rainforest to make room for massive palm plantations. Today palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest. Indonesia's endangered orangutan population, which depends upon the rainforest, has dwindled by as much as 50 percent in recent years.

The clearing of these forests is a big factor in global warming, given how much carbon dioxide (CO2) trees store when left alone. Once forests are cut, tons of CO2 heads skyward where it does the most harm. Also, when not replaced by palm oil plantations, rainforests help maintain water resources by absorbing rainfall and then releasing it into streams and rivers, thus minimizing flooding and soil depletion.

Today palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries. Pictured here: A swath of Indonesian rainforest already cleared (foreground); Another swath being prepared by burning (background).
© Netaholic13, courtesy Flickr

Simply boycotting palm oil and the products containing it may not help, as reduced demand could force the companies behind the plantations to instead initiate more intensive timber harvesting and a widespread conversion of the land to agriculture, which would add a heavy pollution load onto the already compromised land, air and water. It is up to the countries involved in palm oil production to regulate the industry and budget sufficient funds for enforcement. But with huge profits coming in from the sale of palm oil, public officials in Indonesia and elsewhere are loathe to clamp down on their golden goose.

Several of the largest palm oil producers have joined forces with banks and nonprofit groups to try to green up the industry. In 2003, some 200 commercial entities in the global palm oil supply chain met and established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote the growth of palm oil in an environmentally friendly manner. RSPO works to develop definitions and criteria for the sustainable production of palm oil, while facilitating the adoption of more green-friendly practices throughout the industry. The group celebrated its first shipment of "sustainable palm oil" to Europe this past November.

Despite progress, many green leaders are skeptical that RSPO has the teeth to make a positive impact on the fast-growing palm oil industry. Greenpeace International considers RSPO to be "little more than greenwash," pointing out that at least one RSPO-certified producer—United Plantations, a supplier to Nestlé and Unilever—is deforesting Indonesia's vulnerable peat land forests. And Sinar Mas, another major RSPO player, has cleared tropical rainforest all over the country for its palm oil plantations, and is still expanding rapidly. Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on deforestation throughout Indonesia so that the RSPO and the government can take stock and then proceed accordingly.

CONTACTS: RSPO; Greenpeace.


Dear EarthTalk: Which is better for our environment: to use dryer sheets in the dryer or liquid fabric softener in the wash? It seems they both have properties that are not very green.

—Deborah, via e-mail

Liquid Fabric Softener or Drier sheets…what to do….? Look in health food markets for natural essential oil- or vegetable-based liquids from Seventh Generation, Ecover and others — or Maddocks
Static Eliminator, a non-toxic, hypoallergenic reusable dryer sheet. Better yet, says Green Guide, add either a quarter cup of baking soda or a quarter cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle (but not with bleach).
© bookgrl, courtesy Flickr

If you're concerned about the health and safety of your family members, you might want to stay away from both conventional dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners altogether. While it may be nice to have clothes that feel soft, smell fresh and are free of static cling, both types of products contain chemicals known to be toxic to people after sustained exposure.

According to the health and wellness website Sixwise.com, some of the most harmful ingredients in dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener alike include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), limonene (a known carcinogen) and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), among others.

Since fabric softeners are designed to stay in your clothes for extended periods of time, such chemicals can seep out gradually and be inhaled or absorbed directly through the skin. Liquid fabric softeners are slightly preferable to dryer sheets, as the chemicals in dryer sheets get released into the air when they are heated up in the dryer and can pose a respiratory health risk to those both inside and outside the home.

For those who don't want to give up the benefits of fabric softeners but are afraid to risk exposure to potentially toxic chemicals, National Geographic's Green Guide recommends adding either a quarter cup of baking soda or a quarter cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle. Either one will soften clothes, while the latter will also address static cling. (Be sure not to mix either with bleach, though, as resulting chemical reactions could cause noxious fumes.) If eliminating static cling is your top priority, try drying natural-fiber clothes separately from synthetic materials. The combination of cotton and polyester is often the culprit behind static cling. Better yet, reports Green Guide, line dry synthetic clothing, as it tends to dry fairly quickly anyway.

A few companies have heeded the ever-increasing call for greener, safer ways to soften clothes and reduce static cling. Seventh Generation's Natural Lavender Scent Fabric Softener and Ecover's Natural Fabric Softener are both good choices that rely on vegetable products and natural essential oils instead of harsh chemicals to get the job done.

Another safer option is Maddocks" Static Eliminator, a non-toxic, hypoallergenic reusable dryer sheet made out of a proprietary, chemical-free polynylon. The Canadian company Maddocks originally developed the material to rid industrial-scale mechanical systems of explosion-inducing static electricity, but soon realized that it could benefit consumers as well, who can now buy the sheets—each one is good for some 500 wash loads—from natural foods retailers as well as from several online vendors.

CONTACTS: Sixwise.com; The Green Guide; Seventh Generation; Ecover; Maddocks" Static Eliminator