Week of 10/31/10

Dear EarthTalk: Merino wool undergarments tout themselves as being kinder to the environment than other wools or synthetics. How is this so?

—Stella Cooley, Bangor, ME

Since the 1970s, professional athletes and weekend warriors alike have sworn by base layers made out of synthetic "fibers" that would let sweat-based moisture escape, dry fast and be easy to care for. But such garments don’t come without trade-offs: They tend to get stinky when mixed with bodily odors and, like so many modern technological marvels, are derived from petroleum. Merino wool-based garments function just as well or better—and without the olfactory stigma or carbon footprint increase.

The soft and pliable cousin to the traditional wool our grandparents wore, Merino wool is revolutionizing outdoor wear while helping manufacturers and consumers lower their impact on the environment. This natural fiber, derived from Merino sheep in New Zealand, is soft on the skin, wicks sweat effectively, dries out quickly, is naturally odor-resistant—and is machine-washable to boot. And since Merino can be easily spun into different weights, it is used in a wide variety of clothing types (underwear, shirts, coats) making it a natural choice for layering.

Some of the leaders in the Merino underwear revolution include Ibex Outdoor Clothing, SmartWool and Patagonia, each which sources its wool through Zque, a New Zealand-based certification for Merino producers that adheres to a strict set of sustainability and ethical treatment standards. Qualifying ranches must feed their sheep natural grass and spring water and maintain a low "head-to-hectare" ratio. Upwards of 170 New Zealand Merino ranches have been certified accordingly by Zque as "ethical wool" producers.

Merino wool, derived from Merino sheep in New Zealand and produced under a strict set of sustainability and ethical treatment standards, is revolutionizing outdoor wear while helping manufacturers and consumers lower their impact on the environment.© Rae Allen, courtesy Flickr

Unhappy with synthetic base layers that made him "sweat like a gorilla," cross-country skiing enthusiast John Fernsell teamed up with sheep farmer and mountaineer Peter Helmetag to start Ibex in 1997. "Everything looked the same and didn’t work," says Fernsell. "It was all either Gore-Tex or polyester fleece." The duo set out to find a better choice. With its inherent functionality, style, comfort and sustainability, Merino emerged the victor. Today Ibex sells several different cuts of Merino wool undergarments, including a line of underwear for men and women, long johns for men and women, and boxers for men.

SmartWool, better known for its Merino socks, also makes highly regarded Merino undergarments, such as the mens" Microweight Boxer Brief and three long johns for men and women of varying weights. Patagonia also sells a full line of Merino under- and outerwear. Additionally, many more companies have jumped on the Merino bandwagon, so consumers interested in trying it out now have more styles and varieties than ever to choose from. These products are available directly from the manufacturers" websites or through outdoor retailers including REI.

While Merino undergarments have a lot going for them, they are still expensive compared to the alternatives. But Merino converts insist that the rugged material lasts much longer than synthetic or cotton clothing without sacrificing comfort, style or fit. Scratchy old wool has come a long way indeed.

CONTACTS: Ibex Outdoor Clothing; Patagonia; SmartWool; Zque; REI.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the U.S. military doing to reduce its carbon footprint and generally green its operations?

—Anthony Gomez, New York, NY

American forces generate some 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually -­ more than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Although this pollution occurs globally in dozens of countries, there are tens of thousands of toxic "hot spots" on some 8,500 military properties right here on America soil.© Photodisc

As the world’s largest polluter, the U.S. military has its work cut out for it when it comes to greening its operations. According to the nonprofit watchdog group, Project Censored, American forces generate some 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually—more than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. Although this pollution occurs globally on U.S. bases in dozens of countries, there are tens of thousands of toxic "hot spots" on some 8,500 military properties right here on America soil.

"Not only is the military emitting toxic material directly into the air and water," reports Project Censored, "it’s poisoning the land of nearby communities, resulting in increased rates of cancer, kidney disease, increasing birth defects, low birth weight and miscarriage." The non-profit Military Toxics Project is working with the U.S. government to identify problem sites and educate neighbors about the risks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military manages 25 million acres of land that provides habitat for some 300 threatened or endangered species. The military has harmed endangered animal populations by bomb tests (and been sued for it), reports Project Censored, and military testing of low-frequency underwater sonar technology has been implicated in the stranding deaths of whales worldwide. Despite being linked to such problems, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has repeatedly sought exemptions from Congress for compliance with federal laws including the Migratory Bird Treaties Act, the Wildlife Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. military is taking heed of criticisms in regard to pollution and endangered species management, but it is undoubtedly concerned about climate change, as its effects on the environment could lead to unprecedented natural resource wars and mass migrations of people. And reducing our reliance on potentially hostile foreign oil sources is a short term national security imperative as well. A recent Obama administration directive calls for the DoD to draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. Nikihl Sonnad of the GreenFuelSpot website reports that the Army and Air Force are planning to include solar arrays on several bases in sunny western states. The Air Force is also building the nation’s largest biomass energy plants in Florida and Georgia, and the Navy is building three large geothermal energy plants and funding research into extracting energy from ocean waves.

Some of the military’s R&D into renewables is for battlefield applications. Outfitting troops with the capability to produce their own on-site power from solar and wind sources not only makes sourcing oil less of a necessity but also should serve to reduce casualties from fuel transport operations. Over 1,000 American troops have lost their lives delivering fuel in the past few years alone (in part because enemy combatants often use fuel trucks as attack targets), says Sonnad.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reports in The New York Times that "there is great hope that some of the renewable energy technology being developed for battle will double back and play a role in civilian life." She adds that the armed forces have enough purchasing power to create genuine markets in the non-military world.

CONTACTS: Project Censored; U.S. DoD; Military Toxics Project; GreenFuelSpot.

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