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Natural Burial Industry Is Greening End-of-Life Options

From underwater reefs to woodland cemeteries, eco-burials help reduce postmortum pollution

As people grow increasingly concerned about reducing their carbon footprint, a natural byproduct of greener lives is greener exits. That’s where the fledgling green burial industry comes in, catering to the millions who don’t want pollution to be their postmortem legacy. From bicycle hearses to biodegradable urns to burlap sacks, this booming new biz is spurning an end-of-life revolution.

natural burialPhoto courtesy of Memorial EcosystemsA natural burial site at Ramsey Creek Preserve, a green cemetery in Westminster, South Carolina.

Eco-burial options offer an alternative to standard western practices. Of the roughly half of Americans who opt for burial, the process often involves injecting the body with formaldehyde and other solvents to slow decomposition, placement in a wood or metal casket, and a final resting place in a plastic-lined concrete. In a single year, burials in the US require felling of some 30 million board feet of wood for caskets, 90,000 tons of steel, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Cremation, too, comes with it’s own downsides, resulting in emissions of dioxin, hydrochloric acid, and carbon dioxide, among other substances.    

Those in the green burial industry see a different path ahead, one that is less resource intensive and pollution-heavy. One that allows families to be involved in the end-of-life process, and that provides varied choices regarding how and where loved-ones are laid to rest, whether in the middle of the woods or the deep sea.

Sarasota, Florida-based company Eternal Reefs, for example, gives new meaning to the idea of being “one with the ocean." Founded in 1998 by college friends and avid scuba divers Todd Barber and Don Brawley, the company mixes the ashes of the dearly departed with environmentally safe concrete to create “reef balls,” the foundation for artificial reefs.  Eternal reef then casts these burial reef balls into the sea. The porous, pod-like structures, which can be adorned with a small plaque, as well as handprints and messages from loved ones, help marine environments thrive and create natural resting places teeming with life.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Barber said. “You’re not taking up land, which is a precious thing, and you’re eternally nourishing marine life.”

Barber explains that for “a culture that loves options,” alternatives to mainstream burial practices are especially appealing. They can also simply make more sense. Graves require maintenance after all, and with families scattered (and nuclear families no longer the norm), reef balls can help loved ones avoid …more

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A Narrative in Five Parts: Sandhill Cranes

Witnessing an ancient ritual play out by the Platte River

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It is 19 degrees at 6 am in mid-March in Kearney, Nebraska. 
I am in a bird blind at the Rowe Sanctuary awaiting the fly-off
of sandhill cranes. There are hundreds of thousands of cranes –
murmuring, purring, babbling among themselves. It is impossible
to speak above them, and whispering is barely allowed as I await
their fly-off. Last night I witnessed their fly-over and landing,
a majestic sight, one that I would call the 8th wonder of the world.

photo of many cranes on the wing, sunset skyphotos by MarianneClick or tap any of these to view larger

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They had arrived at early sunset, a radiant orange-yellow with
outlines of leafless trees stark against the low horizon. They
came in small noisy groups, then circled in massive numbers,
jabbering, the sky so filled with cranes it was as if a giant surge
of some other life form had consumed everything else, every
thought, every worry; it was a lightness of pure joy. Those
milling flocks of birds pumping their gray feathered bodies,
gliding through the evening sky were a giant bubbling,
talking mass, seeking their night’s sleep as they have for
thousands of years on one of the many sand bars in the
Platte River.

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Now, the morning after, as I await their departure, they are
murmuring again, louder, as a few birds stir restlessly. Still
dark, I know they are nearby, even though I cannot envision
how many there are. Not until the light eases over the Platte
River does this ancient feathered congregation begin to take
form. These are the huddled masses, huge groups tightly bound,
standing in shallow water to avoid predators. Expansive swaths
of cranes have gathered as far as my eyes can see — gray clarifying
into shapes as the sun continues emerging from the horizon.
One large group, just in front of the blind I am in, burnishes
golden as sunlight slowly spreads across the flocks.

photo of many cranes on a marsh

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Suddenly ruffling begins, a stretching of wings, the murmuring
still louder, and thousands of cranes swish into flight, massive wings
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Strawberries, Spinach Top Dirty Dozen List of Produce Containing Pesticides

Report finds pesticide residues often remain on fruits and vegetables even after they are washed

For the second year in a row, strawberries topped the “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-contaminated produce that the Environmental Working Group complies every year. Spinach was a close second on the list of fruits and vegetables to avoid released by EWG last evening.

photo of strawberries with pesticidesPhoto by Jerry BurkeStrawberries topped the "Dirty Dozen" list of pesticide-contaminated foods, bad news for the average American who eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year. 

Given that the average American eats nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year, this isn’t the best news for most of us. EWG’s annual update of its “Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce” — which is based on an analysis of tests run by the US Department of Agriculture — found that the most contaminated sample of strawberries had a whopping 20 different pesticides.

Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign, but others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems. Spinach samples, meanwhile, had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of a neurotoxic pesticide that’s linked to behavioral disorders in young children and has been banned in Europe for use on food crops.

The analysis also found that nearly 70 percent of the 48 different conventional produce samples tested by the USDA were contaminated with residues of one or more pesticides. In all, USDA researchers found 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products in the thousands of fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2016.

The pesticide residues remained on fruits and vegetables even after they were washed and, in some cases, peeled.

For the Dirty Dozen list, EWG singled out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. In addition to strawberries and spinach, this year’s list includes nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. Pears and potatoes were new additions to the list, displacing cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from last year's list.

And in especially gloomy news for a spicy food lover like me, the list has been expanded again this year to highlight hot peppers, especially jalapeno, Serrano, and Anaheim peppers. Though hot peppers do not meet EWG’s traditional ranking criteria, researchers found them to be contaminated with insecticides like acephate, chlorpyrifos, and oxamyl that are toxic to the human nervous system. These insecticides are banned on some crops …more

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Using Nonnative Oysters to Help Restore Native Oysters in the Puget Sound

Conservationists are using nonnative Pacific oyster shells as homes for Olympia oysters

The rubber boots are essential to our endeavor. Mud paints them brown as we squelch our way to the oyster purses; mesh tent-shaped baskets. My family stays on the purses’ edge — any deeper and we risk sinking to our knees — and we pick out our dinner.

The chosen oysters are medium-sized, less stubborn to shuck and best served on the half shell. As much as we prize our bivalves, they aren’t of this place. In fact, 98 percent of oysters farmed in Washington State last year were nonnative Pacific oysters.

person and dog on beach with oyster shellsPhoto by cswtwo/FlickrOnly 5 percent of the Olympia oyster's historic beds remain in Washington State, mostly in protected coves and bays of the southern Puget Sound.

The state’s only native oyster — the Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida/conchaphila), which is the only oyster native to the West Coast and once thrived along coastlines from Southeast Alaska to Baja, California — has stayed out of the shellfish farming limelight for years now. But new restoration efforts using nonnative Pacific oyster shells are making the little Olympia oyster mighty again.

Shorter than your thumb, equipped with an abnormally thin shell, Olympia oysters, called “Kloch Kloch” by Native Americans, are less hardy than their nonnative counterparts. They are happiest in the intertidal zone, submerged and insulated from extreme temperatures until low tide. A hundred years ago they covered up to 20,000 acres in Washington waters, but were driven to near depletion in the 1900s from overharvesting and pollution from paper mills that dumped their toxic effluents, including bleaching agents, into local waters. Today, only 5 percent of their historic beds remain, mostly in protected coves and bays of the southern Puget Sound.

The mainstay of Washington State's oyster industry these days is the much larger Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), first introduced from Japan in 1902 for commercial harvesting.

Though normally a competitor for habitat in the wild, Pacific oyster shells can provide a desirable new home for wandering Olympia oyster larvae. “Oyster shells send out a particular chemical signal that’s recognized as ‘oyster’ by larvae,” explains Betsy Peabody, founder and executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF).

PSRF has been working since 2010 to restore 100 acres of native oyster habitat in Washington by 2020. To date, the organization has restored between 50 to 60 acres, but not for farming purposes, Peabody says. They are working with the Washington Department of Fish and …more

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UN Experts Denounce ‘Myth’ that Pesticides Are Necessary to Feed the World

New report warns of catastrophic consequences for the environment and human health and blames manufacturers for ‘systematic denial of harms’

The idea that pesticides are essential to feed a fast-growing global population is a myth, according to UN food and pollution experts.

A new report, being presented to the UN human rights council on Wednesday, is severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms,” “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics,” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralyzed global pesticide restrictions.”

photo of pesticidesPhoto by IFPRI Images A farmer spreads pesticides in China. A new UN report denounces the the myth that pesticides are necessary to feed the world's population.

The report says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole,” including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning. Its authors said: “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

The world’s population is set to grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050. The pesticide industry argues that its products — a market worth about $50 billion a year and growing — are vital in protecting crops and ensuring sufficient food supplies.

“It is a myth,” said Hilal Elver, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food. “Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we are able to feed 9 billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.”

Elver said many of the pesticides are used on commodity crops, such as palm oil and soy, not the food needed by the world’s hungry people: “The corporations are not dealing with world hunger, they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.”

The new report, which is co-authored by Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on toxics, said: “While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fuelled by the pesticide and agro-industry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics.”

Elver, who visited the Philippines, Paraguay, Morocco, and Poland as part of producing the report, said: “The power of the corporations over governments and over the scientific community is extremely important. If you want …more

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US Activist’s Efforts to Rescue Dogs from Asia’s Meat Trade Draw Both Praise and Censure

Marc Ching is best known for saving dogs from slaughterhouses

When a family in Korea discovered their beloved dog, Cheom Hwa, had been stolen, they were inconsolable. The German Shepherd had been with them since she was a puppy. “She is like my family,” the daughter says to Marc Ching, founder of Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation. "I am the only child so she was like my sister.”

It's a nightmare no dog owner wants to have to go through. In Korea, where Cheom Hwa’s family lives, millions of dogs are stolen every year for their meat, and many are suspected to be stolen pets.

Marc Ching with a rescued dogPhoto courtesy of Animal Hope and Wellness FoundationChing is aware that there are many who disagree with what he’s doing, but he believes his foundation can make a difference in the lives of thousands of dogs.

“The dog meat trade is big business,” Ching tells Earth Island Journal. “China exports meat to Korea. Cambodia exports to Vietnam.”

Ching, an American animal nutritionist who runs an organic pet food company in California, first heard about the Yulin dog meat festival that’s held every year in southern China only two years ago. The stories sounded so horrific that he had a hard time believing they were true. When he flew to China to see for himself what was going on, the atrocities turned out to be even worse. "What they’re doing is beyond inhumane,” Ching says. “It's pure evil. They’ll boil dogs alive, hang and skin them alive.”

Today, Ching is most known for going undercover into slaughterhouses. By posing as a meat buyer, Ching often manages to get access to the kill floor where cages of whimpering animals are stacked on top of one another. The owner, hoping to make a sale, proudly talks up the facility, explaining their slaughtering process and how many dogs they go through on any given day. All the while, an iPhone in Ching's pocket remains on video mode, surreptitiously recording everything.

If he’s caught, best-case scenario: He loses his phone. A previous trip to Vietnam ended with him beaten and nearly killed.

For Ching, the risk is worth it, even if too many of the dogs end up dying on the way to the veterinary hospital. Most are already close to death by the time he gets to them. In an interview with LA Weekly, he talks about coming across a dog with all four of her legs cut off. She died in his arms.

"You will never see, in my opinion, anything more brutal than the dog meat trade,” Ching says.

In the years since his first trip to China, he’s witnessed more than his share of unimaginable cruelty. The horror …more

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A Compelling Chronicle of Our Fraught Relationship with the Polar Bear

In Review: Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

Instead of a “natural history” of the iconic polar bear, anthropologist, wilderness guide and author Michael Engelhard has written a cultural history, showing the evolution of the polar bear as an icon through the ages, meaning something different to different generations and cultures. This is a book about human perceptions, dreams and experiences of the polar bear more than about the Ursus maritimus itself.

three polar bears sitting on icePhoto by Cheryl StrahlIce Bear shows how the lure of the unknown, the exotic, is a recurrent theme in human experiences of the polar bear.

With meticulous details and stories pulled from a wide range of sources, and more than 160 illustrations, the book traces the fraught and intertwined history of humans and this elusive animal.

“Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example,” Englehard writes. “Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred.”

Ice Bear shows how the lure of the unknown, the exotic, is a recurrent theme in human experiences of the polar bear. It tells us how, in Medieval times, the bear was a both a subsistence resource and commodity — its white fur was sought after and wondered at by royalty and those of wealthy standing. Even more famed (and rare) were live bear cubs that explorers managed to bring back (having shot the mother) for animal menageries, where polar bears survived, if not thrived.  Bear baiting was also a popular sport, with the bears (both brown bears and, more rarely, polar bears) tied to a rope and set upon by dogs, with betting on who would win the bloody confrontation. Not for the faint of heart!

photonameThe book includes stories and details pulled from a wide range
of sources, and more than 160 illustrations.

The people of the Arctic were, of course, well acquainted with the polar bear, which they perceived as both magical and dangerous. A man who killed a polar bear had very high status indeed. Englehard describes how myths and legends of Native peoples also prominently featured the wild predator that they equally feared and revered, and considered a …more

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