6 Things Zero Wasters Need to Know About US Supermarkets

So I’ve been with Whole Foods for a good 4 months now, and I think I can safely say that I’ve learned and seen enough to write a post like this. Because zero waste people make a lot of assumptions about the way supermarkets and grocery stores work – either in good faith, or because we assume that store policies are logical, which they aren’t sometimes – and I’m here to set a few things straight.

1. Most of how the modern supermarket functions is due to lawsuits.

Americans are a litigious people. We sue at the drop of a hat, and even the most ridiculous claims have the chance of settling out of court, granting the plaintiff a handsome sum of money. But we’re litigious because we also have a long and storied history of being screwed over by business interests, a history that is just as American as apple pie. See: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; the meat-packing industry of late 19th century Chicago; current working conditions of Amazon warehouses.

Part of my orientation involved a 90-minute safety walk around our store, in which one of the assistant managers went over every square inch of the building to outline best practices for emergency exits, eyewash stations, where to put things, and so on. But the subtle language he used made it clear (to me, at least) that these procedures were less about employee and customer safety, and more about avoiding lawsuits, theft, and wasted money. For instance, if someone falls in the store, we are not allowed to help them up – they could sue and claimed we worsened their injuries. Or when taring for an imprecise amount – like butcher paper in the meat department – we always over-tare due to somewhat recent legal action taken against the company for overcharging on weighted items.

Most larger businesses that have been around for a few decades are like this, though, and the vast majority of laws on the books concerning business, public safety, and food handling are because of about 170 years of litigation of consumers and employees against businesses.

When it comes to supermarkets in particular, though, such troubled history sets the stage for the rest of this post.

2. They depend 100% on plastic and disposables.

I’m not kidding. I knew a lot of stuff got thrown away in the process of running a store, but I had no idea until I started working at one. As a floater, if I’m working in a department that involves handling an edible product in any way, I need to wear disposable plastic or latex gloves, and I’m to discard them before handling something else (if I have the opportunity to do so). In this way, I can go through dozens of disposable gloves over the course of a shift, sometimes even most of a box. And I’m just one employee, at one store, at one market chain, handling food at only the final stage of a long assembly line of processes that gets your purchase from the farm to your grocery bags.

Even Whole Foods’ much beloved salad/olive bars and bulk bins use up huge amounts of plastic just to get the stuff from the truck to its final destination out on the floor. For one, bulk product does not actually get packaged in large containers. The biggest olive containers we have, for instance, come from two-gallon buckets of very heavy duty plastic. Some of them come in smaller bags that weigh maybe only a pound or three, and some just come in larger consumer-sized containers.

Without even 5% of the disposable plastics we’re required to use to do our jobs, the store would not be able to function. There would just be no legal way to handle product without it.

3. Everything you return to the store gets thrown away.

Don’t ever, ever return something to a grocery store unless it’s gone bad, because it will end up in the landfill. We cannot put it back on the shelf, even if its been unopened. In fact, if you can compost it at home, do that instead. It’s probably not worth the $4 return.

4. There is little to no auditing of employee waste.

Every department has both black, green, and sometimes blue bins behind the counter, but no one’s there to make sure that they both aren’t treated as garbage bins, and emphasis from management on proper sorting is nonexistent (at my store, at least). Speed of service is valued above anything else at Whole Foods, so during rushes, especially, garbage ends up in whichever receptacle is closest. We have a composting program, but how it works is completely esoteric – we lump stuff that’s mostly compostable together, and set it outside with the other mostly compostable stuff at the loading dock. Where it goes or how they’re able to pick out the thousands of plastic drink cups, straws, gloves, rubber bands, twist ties, milk jugs, juice bottles, and produce stickers is beyond me, and I think, beyond everyone else I work with.

On to of that, there’s really no one to tell us to be more frugal with the tools we have on-hand to accomplish our work with, especially if wasting more translates to being able to do more faster. In the meat department, thawing shrink-wrapped shipments of chickens or racks of bison ribs is done with an industrial sink full of running water. Sometimes it’ll be running for over an hour just for one batch, wasting hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons our precious California water. Or in the juice department, where even the smallest problems are solved by throwing away the first cup and lid and using another one, or using a plastic bag. (And that’s not even mentioning how much waste juicing produces. It’s really almost equivalent to killing an elephant for its tusks or a deer for its antlers and leaving the body to rot. Most of the nutrients is left behind in juicing – it’s truly just a gross status symbol.)

5. Even stuff that looks like it would have been packaged in less plastic is sometimes packaged in a lot of plastic.

During the holidays, all of our drip coffee at the coffee bar came in small baggies of pre-measured grounds that we had to cut open individually, pour into another bag, weigh, and re-measure for use in our industrial coffee maker for the dispensers we have on the counter. At the bakery, all of our “fresh baked” bread comes frozen, shrink-wrapped, and sandwiched between layers of parchment paper (no grocery store actually makes its own batters or doughs on-premises) before being put on baking sheets and thrown in the oven, to give just a few examples.

6. Keeping product topped up is to make you feel better.

Keeping a product topped up – that is, making it look like there’s plenty of it on the shelf – most times has nothing to do with keeping it in-stock in the case someone wants to buy it, and more to do with making the customer feel good. 

This is how a lot of stores wind up throwing so much stuff away – the need to keep shelves and displays immaculately organized and full ensures that there’s more to toss into the garbage bin when the whole display meets its sell-by date.

What does this have to do with customers, though?  Psychologically speaking, a business like this instills in the customer a sense of comfort when they are visually reassured that there is no shortage of goods for them to buy. This is why so much effort is spent on keeping every square inch of shelf full of something, and as I can assure you, doing that with a good ten or twenty thousand different products is a maddening game of physical, logistical, and financial tetris. Because who wants to shop at a store where what you want is out of stock? Or where shelves sit empty because everything sold? Consumers want what they want, when they want it – if that means throwing away 10 pounds of smoked brisket every evening because the display would look bad if one of the warmer trays sat empty for more than a couple hours, then so be it. Spoilage is cheap; customer discomfort is not.

These are all big problems, I’m sure you all can agree. Even Whole Foods, supposedly one of the leading environmentally-conscious companies in the US is up to its eyeballs in environmentally-destructive bad habits with no monetary or legal incentive to change.

The consumer culture we have is ruthless in its hunger for more, for cheaper, and for comfort; the litigious culture we have is ruthless in its conniving greed, its paranoia, and its short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

Most of the problems with the US supermarket, though, has to do with how we understand the concept of sanitation and consumer safety. I’ll dedicate an entire post to that at some point in the near future, but for now, suffice to say, nothing will change if health codes stay the same. I don’t know if we can change them without some major industry shake-up – much of what we want as zero wasters would be considered a step backward, and would be a very hard political sell to anyone, not just policymakers. But I suppose, if you insist on something to do, write to the appropriate people in appropriate places, and write them often. Study the health code, and relevant laws. Familiarize yourself with previous litigation to see how this bloated legal machine came to be.

And while you’re at it – Whole Foods recently, quietly, decided not to let customers use personal cups at their coffee or juice bars. It was a decision that came down from corporate, I heard, and had nothing to do with a lawsuit. So please write them, and please get angry, and please remind them that every other goddamn coffee shop on the planet lets you use your own cup. Thanks.

Going Analog Side Quest: Ditching the Smartphone Part 1


Behold, ye olde smart paper.

Another goal I haven’t talked about in terms of going analog is that I eventually want to get rid of my smart phone.

It is, quite possibly, one of the greenest things the average person can do, up there with swearing off air travel: the digital and physical infrastructure required to keep the behemoth mobile market afloat is inexcusably enormous. Three years ago it was estimated that 48 million tons of electronic gadgetry is thrown out annually, and of that, about 155 million cell phones every year. (And who knows what that number is now.)

And that’s just the physical products themselves. What about all the throwaway technology required to build, market, and house the apps that make smart phones what they are? The throwaway peripherals: the plastic cases, the dongles, the portable batteries, the bluetooth products? What about the planned obsolescence involved in pushing a new model every 12-18 months, with making phones harder and harder to take apart and fix, and by sheer complexity alone, making them more fragile pieces of hardware overall? What about the infrastructure required to bring you all that stuff “in the cloud”?

Our phones are the very tip-top of an iceberg of gross unsustainability, runaway “progress”, and human suffering. (Yes, human suffering – if you’ve ever found yourself nodding in agreement at the damning assessments of the diamond industry, then you’ve no leg to stand on here. Especially since this sort of digital infrastructure is also contributing to orders of magnitude more ecosystem destruction than the diamond trade. But of course, it’s easier to hate something you can’t afford and don’t think you need.)

Are basic mobile phones an ideal solution? Of course not – but their comparative simplicity makes them more durable, their battery life much longer, and by virtue of not being every single piece of entertainment and tool we’re likely to use in our day-to-day, they’re not out of our bags or pockets nearly as often, and therefore the opportunities to break them even slimmer. They’re also not money-makers for the companies that produce them, so there’s no pusher man trying to get you to upgrade at every chance he gets.

Unfortunately, my Android phone is a major set-piece in my life right now, and like with any good drug, it’s going to take some time to wean myself off of it.

First, it might be a useful exercise to remember how I used to do things before smart phones. And it wasn’t that long ago that I started using them: in fact, I was using a regular mobile phone when I graduated college 5 years ago.

How did I navigate NYC without Google Maps? I wrote down addresses and got good at drawing tiny maps the size of post-it notes that told me everything I needed to know (and nothing more) about my destination’s location. I also didn’t worry about getting lost. Besides, it turns out that using maps is actually better for your brain than using GPS.

How did I find out good places to eat on the fly? Most of the time, I didn’t – I took more chances, asked around, or left my apartment with a plan, and had every bit as much of a good time as I do now, and discovered many little gems along the way.

How did I use social media? Well, I didn’t. Or barely did, and barely do. Personally, I’m of the opinion that most social media acts more like metastasized cancer than not, and I’m not fond of it. I avoid Twitter whenever possible, abandoned Facebook years ago, use Pinterest once in a blue moon as a Google image search substitute, and rarely directly interact with other people on Tumblr, and won’t miss it should it disappear. The only one I would miss is Instagram, but I can browse that on my computer anyway. Almost all of the meaningful connections I’ve ever made online were via forums, or other early Internet 2.0-style social websites. Instantaneous online interaction with strangers does to me what a ride in the Vomit Comet does to folks with no aptitude for space travel.

How did I keep myself entertained during long trips, or while sitting in waiting rooms? First of all, I don’t need to be “entertained” every minute of every day, and if I feel the itch to do so, then I nip it in the bud, because that’s a one-way ticket to misery. So, I take a note from the generations of playbooks that came before me: sit patiently, look at my surroundings, read a book, draw a picture, people-watch, grab a drink, strike up a conversation, listen to music, daydream, meditate, take notes, look at my calendar…

Hey, speaking of calendars, the point of this post was really to talk about ways in which I’m keeping organized without the use of any calendar or memo app:

It’s this radical new thing called an organizer.

Or technically, a traveler’s notebook.

The traveler’s notebook is an increasingly popular format of notebook, as it’s 100% customizable, and due to it’s extremely simple binding system, you’re not limited to proprietary inserts. All you need to make your own is a pair of scissors.

In fact, why not just made the whole darned thing? (Which is tempting; the only frustrating thing about mine is that it does not accomidate 8.5×11″ paper folded in half; pre-made notebooks take 210x110mm size paper, which… doesn’t correspond to any western paper sizes, no matter how you fold them.)

I’ve only had mine for a few months, and I already don’t go anywhere without it. It carries all of my drawing supplies, an insert of blank pages which I use for note-taking and as a monthly calendar, and I have another booklet in there of grid paper which I use to thumbnail comic pages. It’s not meant to go in a notebook system like this at all so it was a little awkward at first, but I can’t imagine carrying a bunch of smaller books now. Also, I tried making my own insert of grid paper, but the ends chafed at the band a lot so I’ll need to put it with a cover that’s made from a tougher paper or cardstock next time. My current booklet should last me… years, though.

As for the calendar, I’m able to fit an entire month on a single side of paper, with each day getting its own row. It looks like this:


And so on. Seeing as how most of what I need to mark down is repetitive in nature, I’ve got a lot of little codes that makes it easy to fit several tasks for a single day on one of those little rows. So, for example, Nov 1st might look like this:

N01T: C4080 PI4081, ITS | 10-4

That means on Tuesday, November 1st, I need to color (and finish) page 4080 of my comic, pencil and ink page 4080, finish a chapter of my story, of which ITS is the abbreviation, and work from 10am to 4pm at my new job. Of course that’s all way too much for me to do in one day, but it’s an example of how much information I can cram into so little real estate.

What about calendar reminders, you might be asking? Well, how about glancing at my calendar in those empty, entertainment-less moments throughout the day instead of compulsively looking at my (nonexistent) Twitter feed or checking my email?

Up next: an everyday carry post! Because I haven’t done one yet at ALL, which amazes me, seeing as how I was doing “systems” posts for a while there, and this would definitely fall under that umbrella.

Also next: probably a post on the Fear of Missing Out.

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

PVDSA’s Garish May Production Collapse – Caracas Chronicles
Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum and gas company, has taken a hit to their daily oil production to the tune of 120,000 barrels. As the article states, this means that they “just declined by an amount similar to an entire (if small) petrostate’s production, in just one month.” The country is in crisis mode, complete with food shortages and rioting. At this rate, Venezuela could run out of oil within a few years.

Cows  on Antibiotics Release More Methane – Conservation Magazine
“Antibiotic use and overuse in livestock has long been controversial, as it has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans. Livestock are regularly given antibiotics to keep them healthy in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions, or even to boost their growth. Now, a study published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has documented for the first time that antibiotics given to cows also increase the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane from cow dung.”

Design For The One Percent – Jacobin
Jacobin on the role of “starchitects” like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid and their works in a world full of government corruption, sketchy labor practices, and tremendous income inequality.

The dot on my forehead: how we understand the crisis is part of the crisis – Bayo Akomolafe
A Nigerian psychologist and activist on being participants in crises instead of observers: “It was something I heard one dissident professor say when I was an undergraduate studying psychology in a Nigerian university. He didn’t quite say it; he whispered it. When the white men came, they brought us schools and the bible, he intoned. And then we gave them our own stories. That colonial Faustian pact made us orphans in the world, erasing the sky and the lands and the mountains we had learned to speak with, and replacing that intimacy with the more appropriate gesture of staring at them through the microscope. Through the interstices of a ledger. Through the plot device of development and prosperity for all.”

The SNAP of Doom – The Daily Impact
Apparently SNAP/EBT benefits have not been going out to all of its intended recipients lately, and the mainstream news is not reporting this. Millions of Americans are just a few SNAP dollars away from a full-blown famine, and regardless of whether you think this is some grand conspiracy or simply the terrible result of a few cascading computer failures, this really does nicely illustrate just how few clothes the emperor is wearing. (As for a question of how do we feed people when the government can’t or won’t? Three words: Food Not Bombs!)

What I’m Reading: A Friday Link Roundup

The Bernie Fade Begins – Counterpunch
Counterpunch on late-stage Bern symptoms.

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist – Medium.com
An essay on just how the internet – mostly social media – has learned to manipulate you into being little more than a gambling addict. (Which is why I’m disappointed that the Zero Waste Bloggers Network communicates almost entirely over Facebook, which I am very happy to not be using anymore. A forum would have been better, in my opinion.)

Are Quinoa, Chia Seeds, and Other “Superfoods” a Scam? – Mother Jones
A short piece on why we pay attention when shit gets the “superfood” label… despite cheaper, more local, and more common vegetables having the same health benefits.

Unnecessariat – More Crows Than Eagles
There’s an epidemic going on in the US that nobody’s talking about: suicide and drug overdose rates have skyrocketed in rural America. Anne Amnesia, the blog’s author, has coined them the Unnecessariat, a demographic of the white, working-class poor for whom there are no activist organizations, no talking points, and not even the murmurings of a national dialogue. We’ve let them fall through the cracks, and while Trump pays lip service to these underserved populations, he is just as likely to cast them aside after he has their vote.

Solar Devices Industrial Infrastructure – Sunweb
A lengthy and very informative post on why solar is not green, is not sustainable, and is not likely to be a viable alternative to fossil fuels. The primary reason? Every step of manufacturing and maintenance requires fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-powered industrial infrastructure, and there is no evidence that a solar panel can be made without the use of fossil fuels at any point during the manufacturing process (including in the manufacturing of related tools and equipment), and that if it can, that the energy ROI is above zero.

Leaked figures show spike in palm oil use for biodiesel in Europe – The Guardian
“Steep rise between 2010 and 2014 shows link between EU’s renewable energy mandate and deforestation in south-east Asia, say campaigners”

Why doesn’t the US have right to roam laws?

We’d never given this issue much thought, but the idea of private property remaining accessible to others who will act responsibly as passersby is an interesting one. If nothing is damaged and the goal is simply to get from one place to the other, or enjoy nature without borders, then why not? Ken Ilgunas writes […]

via Private Property in the US — Raxa Collective

I MADE YOUR CLOTHES – FASHION REVOLUTION — Artisan Lifestyle Brand and Fair Trade Manufacturer

The collapse of Rana Plaza, and the hundreds of deaths it brought about, has been presented to the world as exposing the ruthlessness of third world manufacturers, and the lack of conscience on the part of their big label customers—the brands with which we are all familiar. But it also reveals something deeper, something as […]

via I MADE YOUR CLOTHES – FASHION REVOLUTION — Artisan Lifestyle Brand and Fair Trade Manufacturer

People Will Not Buy Zero Waste Until They Can Afford It

For those of you who’ve gone on the record and said that going zero waste “isn’t expensive”, I want you to answer two questions:

How much money does your household make in a year, and where do you live?

The answers you give can mean the difference between bamboo and plastic toothbrushes; shrink-wrapped non-organic produce and farmer’s markets; municipal recycling programs or none at all. The answers you give can mean the difference between access to a grocery store period… or being awash in a gray sea of convenience stores.

accessinfographic595 I make well-below the poverty line in annual wages (despite being a college graduate who is overqualified to work in most basic positions), and if I didn’t have family willing to take me in, or a spouse to support me (which he can do in a very limited capacity until I am a legal resident of Canada), I would be homeless. If this makes you uncomfortable, good. I say this to remind you that there are millions of people in my shoes, and worse – we are not merely statistics for you to prattle off at university lectures or on message boards. We are real people, and surprisingly enough, many of us are very concerned about the environment, but our lack of stable work or housing means that most conventional – by US standards – activism is beyond our reach. (And for me as an anarchist, I’m not interested in most reformist activism anyway. I want to see entire institutions burned to the ground, and buying $30 water bottles won’t accomplish that.)

The thing is this: when we talk about zero waste being cheap, who is it cheap for? And where? When we talk about it “saving” the environment (even though personal lifestyles have never won a single victory in the history of eco-justice movements), who’s environment will it be saving?

Part of the reason – actually, the main reason – that I’m pro-littering when it comes to areas dominated by middle- and upper-class people, no matter what region or country, is because this undermines the NIMBYism inherent to much of the mainstream conception of what it means to be environmentally-friendly and “sustainable”. It undermines the stock we put in the very notion of lifestyles at all – for some reason, we have it in our heads that making the right purchases and taking pretty pictures for our blogs is all we’ll ever need to do to reverse climate change. When we blow this particular category of action out of proportion, then of of course caving in and buying a bag of potato chips or cuppa joe in a paper cup feels like you’ve let down the entire world.

In my piece on littering, I recall the history of just how the world’s actual polluters got us to start blaming ourselves for their messes:

…Keep America Beautiful, obviously the first and most influential of the anti-littering movements, was founded by a group of key players in the beverage industry, who were beginning to see bad publicity when their products were turning up on roadsides and in ditches all over the country. […]

So like any good capitalist, these businessmen sought to hand the responsibility over to the unwitting public, rather than deal with the repercussions of their manufacturing practices, or – god forbid – face government regulation. According to them, “People start pollution, [and] people can stop it.”

Zero wasters who want to see an end to the convenience store and what it represents have their hearts in the right place… for the most part. But they fail to perceive and understand the world beyond their own backyard, from the comfort of their chic, urban apartments or mortgaged single-family homes. When I first read Zero Waste Home, there was no mention of who the book was for – though the cover could have told me – and yet, its content assumed that I had access to a Whole Foods, and access to the disposable income to shop there. Among other things.

The ironic part is that I do – and that’s precisely because I don’t make enough to pay rent. If I did, I’d have no money to buy any food with!

To be quite blunt, attempting to do some zero waste shopping here in Vancouver the other day is what spurred this post. I wanted to buy some oil, so I looked at the prices at the two stores I know sell bulk EVOO, and they were phenomenal. $12-15 per 100ml is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a staple that gets used on a near-daily basis. Or how about peanut butter: I could pay $6 for a little over a cup of peanut butter from the grinding machine at WF, or I could buy four times that much for $8 from a local co-op even though it comes in a plastic jar.

It’s a no brainer.

East Vancouver is not a food desert by any means, and for that I’m grateful. But Glendora, the California city where I’ll be living with my mother for a little while, is. There is no walking in Glendora, no curbside pick-up for recyclables, the transit options are pitiful, there is no infrastructure to support bicycling, and the nearest farmer’s market is in the next town over. I will need to get into a car to buy groceries, or I don’t buy groceries at all.

Out of sheer necessity, my zero waste efforts will be curtailed tremendously. I will be throwing recyclable materials in the garbage. But most importantly, I will buy food where it is feasible for me to do so. If that means Stater Bros., then unfortunately, Stater Bros. it is. At least I’m not stuck trying to feed a family from the local 7-Eleven.

What would happen if, every time we were tempted to denigrate ourselves over a single soda can or candy wrapper, we instead decided to remember that millions of people in the US (and Canada) have no choice in the matter? That, instead, we started talking about ways to put an end to food deserts and poverty-stricken communities’ reliance on convenience stores? Or talked about how ridiculous it is that we’re willing to pay $7-8/lb for salad bar cherry tomatoes or hummus because the plastic clamshell or tub would weigh too heavily on our conscience? (To say nothing of how a clamshell of tomatoes gets a more visceral reaction than, for instance, US foreign policy.)

I’m sure some of you are wondering why it is I continue to blog under the term “zero waste”.

Honestly, this is because I still believe in it – nature has no concept of waste, and neither should we. It is the only mark of a truly holistic community of organisms and resources. Just because I believe that most other lifestylers are misguided in their understanding and intentions, I’m not going to give it up.

To me, zero waste is about habits. It’s about fighting capitalist culture through the language of garbage, by-product, and so-called “innovation”. It’s a way to foster healthy boundaries in my work and relationships. It’s a way for me to understand myself as a steward, not an owner, of things. It’s a way to reject the encroachment of consumerism and voyeur culture on my life. It’s a way for me to reject the notion of disposability in every facet of life and society: no person is disposable, no thought or feeling is (or ought to be) disposable, no action is disposable. There is no throwing anything “away”, whether opinions or onion skins, and we need systems – cultural habits – in place to ease their decomposition and re-use.

If zero waste means little more than a hoard of $15 canning jars and an Apartment Therapy house tour, I’m going to go on record to say that you’ve got your priorities all mixed up.

A Few Notes on Oil Pulling, A Few Notes on Oil

Calicut, Kerela

Coconuts being laid out to dry before processing in Kerala. Flickr

If you’re the kind of person to read this blog, you probably know what oil pulling is. But in the off-chance that one of you doesn’t: oil pulling is when you use coconut oil (or some other oil, but coconut is by far the best) like mouthwash. Except you do it for 15-20 minutes instead of 2, and you needn’t do it vigorously at all. Just kind of… move it around between your teeth.

I’ve started doing it this week, and I really like the way my teeth and mouth feel afterwards, but one of the thing that other oil pullers claim just has me face-palming, now that I’ve seen the phenomenon for myself: that the oil/spit wad turns whitish by the time you’re done, and this is because of the “toxins” it’s pulled out.

I gotta say, this is complete bullcrap. Coconut oil is an oil, and if you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, you’ll be well familiar with another way in which oils are frequently turned white: emulsification. So no, this isn’t a visible sign that you’re detoxing – there’s no proof that this happens when you oil pull anyways – you are literally just making an oil and spit aioli in your mouth. So no need to fret if you accidentally swallow some, no need to start gagging because the idea of reintroducing those “toxins” freaks you out. It just ain’t happening.

The other thing I wanted to note, if someone reading this is interested in trying it out, is be sure the oil is melted before you use it. The texture of a huge wad of cold coconut oil in your mouth is just so wrong that I did gag a couple times with my first go at it. So what I did was scoop some into a metal spoon, hold the spoon over one of the burners on my stove for a few seconds so that the oil melted, and then let the spoon cool down a little bit before taking a gulp.

Want to try it? Here’s how to do it and some of the (empirically proven) benefits: Should You Try Oil Pulling?

A worker and oil-extracting machine in Sri Lanka. Flickr

And a note on coconut oil in general: one of the ways that the oil is produced is with the use of solvents, namely a chemical called hexane: “Conventional coconut oil processors use hexane as a solvent to extract up to 10% more oil than produced with just rotary mills and expellers.” There’s little to fear on the consumer end, though, as hexane evaporates quickly, and it mostly only poses a problem if inhaled. But, from a worker standpoint, working with hexane can be dangerous and result in poisoning. But it’s not just coconut oil that this stuff is used for: “n-Hexane is also used as a solvent in the extraction of oil from seeds (soybean, cottonseed, flaxseed, safflower seed, and others). It is sometimes used as a denaturant for alcohol, and as a cleaning agent in the textile, furniture, and leather industries. It is slowly being replaced with other less toxic solvents.” (Both of these quotes are from Wikipedia.)

From Nutrition.About.com:

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require foods to be tested for hexane levels — probably because the chances you’ll experience any meaningful exposure from food is highly unlikely. You’re much more likely to be exposed to hexane through gasoline fumes, quick-drying glue and cleaning solvents than you are from any amount of foods you eat.

Hexane is a solvent made from crude oil. In the food industry, hexane is used to extract the vegetable oil from plant seeds such as canola, soybeans, sunflowers and corn because it is more efficient and less expensive than squeezing out the oil with presses.

The hexane is removed from the oil before it is bottled and sold, but there is always the potential for some hexane residue to be left in the oil.

The FDA hasn’t established a limit on hexane residues in foods, however it has set limits for residue levels in hops and fish meal protein. Since it isn’t something foods are usually tested for, it’s difficult to know how just how much hexane might be in any foods you buy.

It’s also unknown how much foodborne hexane might cause a problem, although current research indicates it would take magnitudes more hexane than what is possibly found in the diet.


Hexane is toxic and exposure to large amounts of it can cause neurological damage. This mostly occurs when workers are exposed to hexane at oil refineries and other places where hexane may escape into the air. Current toxicology research focuses on industrial and airborne exposure to hexane, so it’s not clear how much hexane exposure from foods would be dangerous.

The EPA has estimated that consuming less than 0.06 milligrams hexane per kilogram of body weight is probably safe. For a 200-pound person (97.7 kilograms), that would be about 5.8 milligrams per day. A typical diet, even one with a lot of hexane-extracted vegetable oil, would fall very far short of that. For example, the oil in the Swiss study with the most hexane contained 0.13 milligram hexane per kilogram of oil, so a 200-pound person would have to consume over 40 gallons of that oil to even come close to 5.8 milligrams hexane.

Is it difficult to avoid hexane? Most hexane exposure comes through the air, however if you wish to eliminate hexane residues from your diet, you can choose foods that are “100-percent organic” and oils that are expeller-pressed rather than solvent-extracted. Expeller pressing is not as efficient as hexane extraction so oils made this way are going to be more expensive. Keep in mind that labels that state the product is made with organic ingredients may still use ingredients that have been exposed to hexane.

So if you’re going to buy oils, definitely be sure to buy organic or expeller-pressed. Not only is it better for you, but it’s healthier for the workers who have to do all the back-breaking labor to produce those bottles of oil for us. Though if you’re worried more about your and your family’s exposure… well, honestly? I don’t see much of a point if you’vestill got a car that runs on oil. It’d be about as silly as an alcoholic giving up rye because of concerns about alcohol poisoning!

Or, interested in saying “screw it” to the whole production process? You can try making your hand-pressed oil at home with a few basic kitchen tools!

Interview: “Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century”

This is a podcast episode from the New Books Network, which is a series of podcasts that interview authors of interesting new books in just about every field imaginable.

The featured book in this episode, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century, is about something that the vast majority of western environmentalists (yo, zero wasters, you’re very guilty here too) are either willingly or unwittingly ignorant of: the historical relationship between monied western countries and those in the developing world in terms of the 20th century environmentalist push.

Just to sort of set the scene for this history, the modern environmentalist movement, and even the World Wildlife Fund, was founded by a prominent eugenicist and colonialist. 

So if you’re interested in “””sustainability””” or whatever, please for the love of kale, listen to the podcast. Or better, get the book.

Today, sustainability is all the rage.  But when and why did the idea of sustainable development emerge, and how has its meaning changed over time?

Stephen Macekura’s new book, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2015) explores this question by connecting three of the most important aspects of the twentieth century: decolonization, the rise of environmentalism, and the pursuit of economic development and modernization in the Third World.  Macekura, who is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Indiana University, demonstrates how environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attempted to promote environmental protection in the post-colonial world, then, after failing to do so, challenged the economic development approaches of the United States, World Bank, and United Nations.  The book reveals how environmental activists initially conceived of “sustainable development” as a way to link environmental protection with Third World concerns about equality and justice in the global economy, but how, over time, the phrase’s meaning moved far away from this initial conception.

In addition to exploring the idea of “sustainable development,” Macekura also examines the growth and limits of the environmental movement’s power. He pays close attention to how international political disputes have scuttled major global treaties over issues such as climate change; he also documents the evolution of international development politics and policy since 1945. In sum, Of Limits and Growth offers a new history of sustainability by elucidating the global origins of environmental activism, the ways in which environmental activists challenged development approaches worldwide, and how environmental non-state actors reshaped the United States’ and World Bank’s development policies.