Week of 11/26/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find green-friendly gifts for friends and family this holiday season?

—A.L. Burger, via e-mail

Reconciling one’s green values with the urge to shop has never been easy. Most environmental groups today decry Western consumer habits as wasteful and a major cause of ecological degradation in a shrinking world. And many people, environmental issues aside, believe that the rampant commercialism we’ve all come to expect at holiday times cheapens what should be a reflective or sacred time of year.

Our buying habits are not easy on the wallet, either. According to the Center for a New American Dream (CNAD), 60 million American families carry an average credit card debt of over $7,000 and pay more than $1,000 a year in interest and fees. Further, says CNAD, "A record 1.6 million Americans declared personal bankruptcy last year."

For those who ply an ethic of moderation (for whatever reason) but still have to show up at a half-dozen holiday parties with something for under the tree, there are now more green-friendly (and affordable) options than ever before. Steer your web browser to any number of online merchants offering items from clothes, bed-and-bath and organic baby products to food, the latest books and "gifts that give back," such as tree-planting kits and "fair trade" crafts that support economically disadvantaged communities in developing countries. A few popular sites include the Green Home Environmental Store, Global Exchange’s Fair Trade Online Store, The Eco-Store, Abundant Earth, and Gaiam, among others. A visit to Co-Op America’s National Green Pages Online is one quick path to a treasure trove of such options.

While these stores all specialize in decidedly "green" items, many environmentally concerned consumers simply want to buy from mainstream retailers but want to feel confident their money is going to companies that are "good corporate citizens." If you better fit that category of consumer, pay a visit to Alonovo.com, which provides information on companies" social and environmental records alongside thousands of products for sale in partnership with Amazon.com. The website can also simply be used as a research tool to get the lowdown on companies before heading out to downtown or the mall. Alonovo rates companies in five different areas: social responsibility, workplace fairness, environmental issues, customer relations and overall business ethics. If you do buy from the site, the company shares from 20 to 40 percent of its profits with environmental and other nonprofits that you as a customer can choose.

Some other options include Consumer Reports" Greenerchoices.org, which rates mainstream products from cars to electronics based on environmental criteria, and Co-op America’s Responsible Shopper, which features detailed reports on various companies that market "green" consumer products. Of course, you need not buy anything if you have a little more time (and items to re-use and recycle) on your hands than money. Sherri Osborn, the family crafts guide at About.com, offers up a healthy listing of "101 Great Gifts to Make" for any season, complete with links to instructions and materials needed.

CONTACTS: National Green Pages Online; Alonovo; Greenerchoices.org; Responsible Shopper; About.com’s 101 Great Gifts to Make.

Dear EarthTalk: Several of my neighbors have installed outdoor wood furnace boilers to heat their homes instead of relying on oil or natural gas. But is all the smoke these boilers create good for my health?

—Susan MiHalo, Michigan City, IN

As the price of fuel has risen in recent years, more and more homeowners across North America are turning to alternative ways of heating their homes. While some might opt for forward-thinking alternatives—like tapping solar, wind or geothermal sources of energy—others prefer to step back to perhaps the oldest source of heat, burning wood. For those with easy access to firewood and the need to heat a large house or multiple buildings, outdoor wood furnace boilers are an obvious, though potentially noxious, choice.

Outdoor wood furnace boilers, also known as outdoor water stoves and outdoor wood furnaces, usually consist of a wood-burning firebox surrounded by a water reservoir or "jacket." Ideally a tall chimney vents the unit of the sometimes-copious amounts of wood smoke generated. The combustion of wood in the firebox heats the water in the surrounding jacket, which is in turn pumped via insulated underground pipes into one or more nearby buildings.

Once inside a building, the heated water warms the home via radiators or a heat exchanger duct system. Outdoor wood furnace boilers also typically provide hot water for the home. And, unlike with indoor wood burning stoves, no smoke gets into the house.

While this may all seem well and good, such boilers often become bones of contention between neighbors, as the wood smoke produced can cause hazy banks of smog over entire neighborhoods. According to environmental toxicologist Uni Blake, wood smoke is a complex mixture of chemicals and particulates. It contains carbon monoxide and other organic gases, particulate matter, chemicals, and some inorganic gases. Some of these compounds, such as aldehydes and phenols, are toxic, while others, like benzoprene and cresols, are known carcinogens, Blake reports.

The U.S. and Canadian governments have yet to issue any regulations regarding the manufacture or usage of outdoor wood furnace boilers, so perturbed neighbors don’t have much of a legal leg to stand on. But several American states and a few Canadian provinces have called on their capitals to regulate the emissions of these boilers, so time will tell whether or not any formal rules are put into place.

Forward-thinking manufacturers are not waiting to find out, however, and have been busy retooling their units to help maintain optimal combustion conditions and better disperse waste smoke. Meanwhile, owners of outdoor wood furnace boilers can use their units more responsibly by limiting operation to wintertime when neighbors are more likely to be indoors with their windows shut, choosing and burning dried wood so as to minimize the moisture that leads to the creation of smoke, and installing taller chimneys to help disperse the smoke away from nearby homes.

CONTACTS: Washington State Department of Ecology’s Fact Sheet on Outdoor Wood-Fired Boilers, Washington State Department of Ecology’s Fact Sheet on Outdoor Wood-Fired Boilers.