Earth Island Institute logo, tap or click to visit the Institute home page

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News

Latest News

The Environmental Impact of Essential Oils

A look at how resource-intensive essential oils are made and disposed of

Essential oils have enjoyed a boom in sales over the last decade as Western consumers search for alternatives to chemical-laden products that are toxic both to their bodies and to the planet. Since the first recorded essential oil blend was recorded in Egypt in 1,500 BC, people around the world have been using essential oils for their perceived medicinal properties. A market research study by Grand View Research estimates that the global essential-oils market is expected to reach $11.67 billion by 2022. Such a high level of demand raises two vital questions: Where are all these essential oils coming from, and what is their impact on the environment?

photo of essential oil bottles Photo by Kate WareEssential oils, which are popularly used for their perceived medicinal properties, require significant quantities of plants for production.

To begin with, in order to produce a single pound of essential oil, enormous quantities of plants are required: 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, 6,000 pounds of melissa plant, 1,500 lemons, and so forth. According to Nicole Nelson, marketing coordinator for herbal distribution retailer Mountain Rose Herbs, due to a variety of factors, large amounts of produce are needed to produce oils. For example, some oils are more difficult to extract because instead of being externally secreted by the plant, the oils are stored in tiny cavities or ducts within the plant. Other oils provide small yields in general. For example, Bay Leaf can be expected to provide a 3 percent yield during distillation, whereas Rose Petals typically provide only a .006 percent yield. “Weather can also greatly affect the amount of oil that a plant produces from year to year,” Nelson adds.

In light of this, it’s important to understand how plants for these resource-intensive products are farmed. The majority of popular essential-oils companies source their raw materials from corporate farms that turn out large quantities of plants. As with the cultivation of products on many large farms, pesticide usage is common. And there are currently no organic certifications specifically for essential oils, which large companies like YoungLiving and DoTerra cite as a reason for foregoing organic certification all together.  In the end, consumers are left largely on their own when it comes to discovering which pesticides are used on crops that are used for essential oils — especially since most companies aren’t voluntarily giving up that information.

One solution to large, corporate farming is wild harvesting, but this too …more

(0) Comments

Dozens of Laotian Elephants ‘Illegally Sold to Chinese Zoos,’ Says Wildlife Investigator

Laos accused of breaking CITES treaty to protect endangered species, China of encouraging live animal trade

Dozens of elephants from Laos are being illegally bought by China to be displayed in zoos and safari parks across the country, according to wildlife investigator and film-maker Karl Ammann.

photo of elephants in Laos Photo by Garrett ZieglerElephants at the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. Wildlife investigator and filmmaker Karl Ammann says he stumbled upon an illicit trade in elephants between Laos and China earlier this year.

According to Ammann, so-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about £23,000 before being walked across the border into China by handlers or “mahouts” near the border town of Boten. Thereafter they are transported to receiving facilities, which buy them from the agents for up to £230,000 per animal. “That is a nice mark-up,” says Ammann, “and makes it exactly the kind of commercial transaction which under CITES rules is not acceptable.”

Ammann and his crew stumbled on the illicit trade between Laos and China earlier this year, while investigating the sale of 16 Asian elephants from Laos to a safari park in Dubai. None of the elephants had the necessary permits for export. The translocation was stopped by a direct order from the new Laotian prime minister at the last moment, while an Emirates Airlines Cargo 747 was already on the tarmac in Vientiane, the country’s capital.

“We then looked into the background of these elephants and met with several of the owners of the elephants, as well as the local agent who arranged this sale,” explains Ammann. Delving deeper, he and his investigative team discovered that the trade in live elephants from Laos mainly involved China, with almost 100 animals ending up in Chinese zoos and facilities.

Many mahouts told Ammann on camera that their elephants are captive-bred but have been sired by a wild bull elephant. To avoid stud costs, mahouts in Laos tie captive-bred females to trees in the forest so that they can be mated with wild bulls. Under Cites Appendix I, an elephant with a wild parent in an uncontrolled setting is not considered captive-bred and therefore may not be sold commercially.

Almost 100 Asian elephants are believed to have been sold from Laos to China over the past couple of years. Chunmei Hu, an animal welfare advocate in China, says she has already established that six zoos — all government-owned — have a confirmed 38 elephants from Laos, with 50 more likely to be Laotian. …more

(0) Comments

Planting Resilience to Climate Change

In Honduras, coastal communities are embracing native plants as a means to mitigate climate impacts

Aurelia Arzú inspects the cocoplum patch and reaches in to pluck the ripest fruits. It’s early in the year, and the season is just beginning, so the bush is loaded with edible, plum-sized fruit ripening from yellow to pink in the unrelenting afternoon sun.

Arzú bites into the cocoplum, quite literally eating the fruits of her labor. Together with other local Garifuna women, she planted cocoplum, seagrape, and other native coastal plants on and around the sand dunes in an effort to halt their advance and prevent further displacement of Santa Rosa de Aguán community residents.

photo of Honduras native plantsphoto Sandra Cuffe Aurelia Arzú inspects a cocoplum bush planted by local Garifuna women, selecting the ripest fruit to eat.

“It fills me with pride to see this and to know that the women helped protect our community,” says Arzú, looking out at the burgeoning vegetation.

Arzú's footprints crisscross the sandy expanse, tracing a path from the Caribbean Sea lapping at the northern coast of Honduras to the dunes now dotted with cocoplum and seagrape. Twenty years ago, the area looked nothing like this. Where there are now dunes, there used to be houses. One of the three main streets in Santa Rosa de Aguán once ran roughly where a narrow beach now separates the dunes from the sea, says Arzú.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch and subsequent flooding altered the landscape and coastline. A year or so later, wind whipping in from the sea began to shape sand dunes, and the dunes started to advance into the community. Between the flooding, altered coastline, and blowing sand, hundreds of local residents were displaced, forced to relocate to other settlements and communities. The advancing sand swept through a row of houses, as well as the entire northwestern tip of the community. Today, however, the vegetation planted around the community by Garifuna women helps hold the dunes at bay and creates a natural barrier offering some protection from future storms and coastal erosion.

Honduras has the distinction of being one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. In the face of such great risk, Santa Rosa de Aguán is just one of several coastal communities taking action to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change. Their solution isn't high-tech or even high-cost: it's native plants and trees.

Honduras tops the list of countries that have been most vulnerable to extreme weather events over the past two decades. Each year, Germanwatch, …more

(0) Comments

The US Is Unprepared to Clean Up Arctic Oil Spill

Coast Guard issues warning as House considers opening Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling

For months now America’s climate denying President, Donald Trump, has been manoeuvring to open up the Arctic to oil drilling, in another act of defiance against his predecessor, Barak Obama.

photo of coast guard in Arctic Photo by Coast Guard News A US Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. The Coast Guard has warned that the US is unprepared to clean up oil in the icy Arctic waters.

Back in April, Trump signed an executive order to extend offshore oil and gas drilling to large parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans.

“We’re opening it up…. Today we’re unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs,” Trump said as he signed the America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.

The executive order instructed the Interior Department to re-examine policies put into place by Obama, who in one of his last acts as President had restricted offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic until 2022. Obama had banned drilling in both areas saying they were “simply not right to lease.”

As Trump signed the order his Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, told reporters “We’re going to look at everything. A new administration should look at the policies and make sure the policies are appropriate.”

Last month, the White House made further attempts to overturn the Obama administration’s five-year plan forbidding oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

Interior Secretary Zinke said in a speech: “There’s a consequence when you put 94 percent of our offshore off limits. There’s a consequence of not harvesting trees. There’s a consequence of not using some of our public lands for creation of wealth and jobs.”

Then earlier this month, the Trump administration granted Italian oil company Eni the right to drill exploratory wells off the coast of Alaska. As InsideClimate News reported “Eni’s leases were exempt from Obama’s ban because the leases are not new.”

In response, Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “An oil spill here would do incredible damage, and it’d be impossible to clean up.”

And now in a devastating uncompromising rebuke to Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the head of the US Coast Guard has agreed with the Center for Biological Diversity: The United States cannot successfully clean up an oil spill in the Arctic.

Admiral Paul Zukunft, who was the Federal on-scene coordinator for the Deepwater Horizon oil …more

(0) Comments

Pennsylvania Nuns Build Chapel in Middle of Cornfield in Effort to Block Pipeline

Catholic order files religious freedom lawsuit to keep Atlantic Sunrise pipeline off their land

Catholic nuns in Pennsylvania are resisting plans to build a $3 billion pipeline for gas obtained by fracking through its land by creating a rudimentary chapel along the proposed route and launching a legal challenge, citing religious freedom.

photo of climate march Photo by Mark Dixon Catholic nuns in Pennsylvania have built a chapel and filed a legal challenge to stop the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline, which passes through their land. A local activist group, Lancaster Against Pipelines, has pledged to mount a vigil at the chapel if the nuns lose their case.

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ order has filed a complaint against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a bid to keep the pipeline off their land. The nuns’ lawyers argue in court papers that a decision by FERC to force them to accommodate the pipeline is “antithetical to the deeply held religious beliefs and convictions of the Adorers.”

The Adorers, an order of 2,000 nuns across the world, have made protection of the environment central to their mission. The plan for the pipeline “goes against everything we believe in — we believe in the sustenance of all creation,” Sister Linda Fischer, 74, told the Washington Post.

The 183-mile Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is “designed to supply enough natural gas to meet the daily needs of more than 7 million American homes by connecting producing regions in northeastern Pennsylvania to markets in the Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states,” its website says.

It is an extension of the Transco pipeline, which runs more than 10,000 miles from from Texas to New York, and will carry gas extracted from the Marcellus shale region since fracking was permitted by the state.

photoname Photo by Adorers of the Blood of Christ A section of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is planned to run under land owned by
the Adorers. Earlier this month, the nuns dedicated an outdoor chapel at the site.

Williams, the company building the pipeline, wants to pay farm owners to allow it to dig up land, install the line, and return the land to farm use. It has offered compensation for lost crops and regular inspections to ascertain if the pipeline affects agricultural output.

About 30 landowners who refused to do a deal with Williams now face being forced to comply by …more

(0) Comments

Northernmost Population of Italian Wall Lizards in North America Discovered in Boston

Species is the first known lizard to make its way to the city

On a warm, sunny, late June afternoon, Colin Donihue, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in the department of organismic and evolutionary biology, spots a greenish-colored lizard scrambling into a large compost pile in the Fenway Victory Gardens, a seven-and-a-half-acre public gardening area in Boston. He carefully stalks the reptile, then moves into position with his lizard noose — a collapsible, 14-foot-long graphite pole with a loop of thread on the end.

photo of Italian wall lizardphoto Tim BeaulieuColin Donihue holds an Italian wall lizard in a public gardening area in Boston. The species is the first known lizard to live within the city.

Siting the lizard in a pile of dead twigs and branches, Donihue slowly maneuvers the tip of the pole toward the skittish animal. While he had spotted a few other lizards earlier, he was unable to get close enough to catch them. The pole trembles a bit, but he manages to slip the tiny noose over the lizard’s head. As he lifts the animal off the compost pile it flops around wildly like a fish on a line. As Donihue gently wraps his hand around the feisty creature, it opens its jaws wide to try to bite him before eventually settling down.

“All right, it’s a male,” proclaims Donihue. “Podarcis siculus, the Italian wall lizard.”

The lizard is quite colorful, mostly green on its back with a line of dark brown patches down the middle and along its sides, and a whitish belly. He can tell it’s a male by its relatively large size, as well as its triangular-shaped head and wide jaws.

Had Donihue caught this lizard in Italy or adjacent Mediterranean countries, its natural home range, or even in New York City or Greenwich, Connecticut, where they’ve been introduced and have managed to thrive for many years, it would have been no big deal. But this is the first time these animals have ever been documented in Massachusetts. In fact, there are no known lizards of any type in Massachusetts, so this is quite a surprising discovery. “It’s really incredible that they’re this far north,” says Donihue. "This is their northernmost range in North America and certainly the coldest climate they're found in."

Elizabeth Bertolozzi, vice president of the Fenway Victory Gardens, had emailed Donihue photos of lizards she had seen in her garden plot last fall, which he identified as Italian wall lizards. “I first found out about them in an email …more

(0) Comments

California Lawmakers Extend Controversial Climate Program

Environmental groups divided on bill, which extends state's carbon market to 2030

California lawmakers extended the state's climate legislation Monday night, in what is being considered a victory for Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to lower greenhouse emissions.

The legislation, a package of bills that extends California's plan to address climate change, passed with a supermajority in both the Assembly and the Senate, insulating it from any legal challenges. The bill passed the Senate 28-12 and was approved 55-21 in the Assembly. Eight Republican lawmakers in the Assembly voted in favor of the bill, and three democrats voted against it. In the Senate, one Republican joined the Democrats voting for the legislation.

photo of oil refinery Photo by Thomas Hawk Environmental groups have divided on the bill, which will extend California's cap-and-trade program to 2030.

Brown's signature on the bill will extend the world's second-largest carbon market to 2030.

"Tonight, California stood tall and once again, boldly confronted the existential threat of our time," Gov. Brown said in a statement. "Republicans and Democrats set aside their difference, came together and took courageous action. That's what good government looks like."

However, as Inside Climate News reported, not everyone is celebrating:

When Brown last week announced the legislation to extend the program, three vocal factions emerged: Republicans pleaded with the governor to back away from the proposal, saying it would hurt California's economy. Progressive environmental groups—including may representing polluted minority communities—bashed the proposals as a giveaway to polluters, particularly the oil industry. Other influential environmental groups applauded the legislation, saying it represented a reasonable balance that represented the best change for moving the program forward.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, speaking in opposition to the bill, said the laws represented a "regressive" tax that would not make any impact on climate change. "We could shut down the entire state of California and it would have no effect on the global climate," Vidak said.

Sen. Vidak is not alone in speaking out against the bill. The extension of AB 398, the state's cap-and-trade program, is being criticized by more than 50 California leading environmental organizations for making concessions to industry and consulting with the oil and gas lobby. The extension on the cap-and-trade program has very few changes. It still allows big polluters to continue buying permits to emit more greenhouse gases and bars some separate regulations on refineries.

"This bill makes a bad cap-and-trade system even worse," Adam Scow, California director for Food & Water Watch. "It was written with oil …more

(0) Comments

Older →

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author


Four issues for just
$15 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!