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Surprisingly Sustainable: Oktoberfest’s Green Side

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Some celebrations are almost synonymous with waste. Picture the plastic-bead-strewn streets of New Orleans after Mardi Gras, or the mountains of plastic packaging and wrapping paper after Christmas. For the environmentally conscious, the incredible wastefulness of these occasions is enough to make a Scrooge out of even the most festive individual.

Surprisingly, an environmental hero has arisen from a most unlikely holiday. A celebration that seems to have no other purpose than excessive drinking. No, not St. Patty’s Day (although there are ways to go green then, too!). Friends, we’re talking about Oktoberfest.

Yes. Really.

The Environmental Oscars

Here’s a tidbit that might shock you — it certainly surprised us. Oktoberfest — the real one, that is, held in Munich, Germany, each autumn — is one of the most environmentally friendly events out there. So much so, in fact, that it was awarded the Environmental Oscar in 1997 for its efforts to be as minimally wasteful as possible.

How have Oktoberfest organizers achieved this? Three main aspects contribute to their environmental success:

Disposing of Disposables

In 1991, the city of Munich banned disposable servingware. No more paper plates, no more plastic forks. Instead, food was served on real plates, with real silverware. Drinks were served in glasses, rather than plastic tumblers. This one change reduced waste at the annual festival by over 90 percent. It’s an encouraging statistic for festivals worldwide, especially those that think that waste-free celebrations are beyond their capabilities. After all, Oktoberfest is hardly a small-time operation; it hosts six million visitors each year. If they can go without one-time-use tableware, surely your next backyard barbecue can too!

Organics & Recycling

Gray water from washing all these dishes doesn’t just go down the drain, either. In almost half the festival tents, gray water is reused to flush the toilets (I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this everywhere). Reusing water like this drastically reduces the need for fresh water, and ensures that Oktoberfest gets the most use out of every drop. Much of the food served at Oktoberfest — including the meat — is also organically sourced. And while we could definitely make a strong case for reducing the amount of meat eaten at the bacchanalian beer fest (each year, attendees devour tons of sausages and almost 500,000 chickens), choosing poultry that’s been organically raised does make a huge difference.

Renewable Rejoicing

Since the year 2000, streetlights, toilets and all other public areas of the festival have been powered by renewable energy, making the festival one of the greenest in terms of how it powers its raucous celebrations. This attitude of environmental awareness has filtered through to its vendors, too — approximately 60 percent of them have followed suit and also chosen renewable power sources.

Oktoberfest is one of the purest festivals out there when you look at pure intent. It was originally celebrated to mark the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to the Saxon-Hildburghausen Princess Therese on Oct. 12, 1810. These days, it’s a chance to celebrate good beer, great brats and dudes in lederhosen. But the way Munich has focused on creating sustainable Oktoberfest celebrations is an example to all of us that life needn’t be dour and stark to be eco-friendly. In fact, quite the opposite.

Your Own Green Event

So, how can you bring a little of Munich’s environmental sensibilities to your own Oktoberfest celebrations — or any other party, for that matter? It is possible, even if you can’t use gray water to flush your toilet or suddenly switch to renewable energy:

Use e-vite sites like Green Envelope or Paperless Post to create online invites instead of mailing paper ones.
Follow Oktoberfest’s lead and ditch the disposable plates, cups and silverware. If you’re worried about tipsy guests breaking your good dishes, pick up an inexpensive set at Goodwill or Value Village. It’ll likely be the same price as (or cheaper than) disposable stuff, and you can reuse for many parties down the road. Just remember to wash well before use.
Provide bins for compost, recycling and garbage. Often just providing guests options for eco-friendly waste disposal is all you need to do to decrease the amount of waste your party produces.
If you’re going all out for the celebration, rent a costume instead of buying one. Good lederhosen don’t come cheap, and cheap ones won’t last long. Get into the spirit by renting a costume that’ll help you dress the part without taking up space in your closet the rest of the year.
If it’s in your budget, offer your guests organic refreshments and food — organic and/or local chickens, sausage and even beer if you can find it!

We hope you have a fantastic time celebrating good beer, great friends and the crisp arrival of fall. Happy Oktoberfest!

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Surprisingly Sustainable: Oktoberfest’s Green Side

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5 Strategies to Choose the Right Solar Panel Installer

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As solar energy explodes in popularity, there are more solar installation crews mounting solar panels on rooftops and tinkering with home electrical panels. Having the right solar panel installer can really make or break the experience of going solar.

When improperly installed, roof leaks are one of the most common complaints from solar homeowners. By contrast, solar systems can be installed in ways that don’t void roof warranties and actually help protect the roof from the elements. I’ve seen homes where the solar panels protected the roof from hail damage and the panels remain unscathed.

The technical expertise, solar equipment quality and solar system warranties all vary widely by the installer. The good news is that there are many reputable solar installation companies across the country to choose from. Here are some things to look for when finding the winners.

Some solar panel installers are more experienced than others. Photo: Shutterstock

1. NABCEP-Certification Installer

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certifies energy installers, including solar PV technicians. The requirements include passing a written test and having a certain amount of solar installation field experience. Although certification doesn’t guarantee good workmanship, it does ensure a certain level of knowledge and experience. Ideally, your solar installation will be overseen by a NABCEP-certified professional or, even better, have a NABCEP-certified crew member on the job.

2. Good Company Reputation

When looking for a solar panel installer, find one with a successful track record. If you have friends and acquaintances with a solar system, find out if they were happy with their installer.

Online consumer reviews are another way to find out more about a company. Solar Reviews is a useful source of information on solar installers and equipment, based on consumer reviews.

It’s also good to find out if the solar installer outsources its labor. If so, the quality of the installation might be less predictable.

3. Ideal Solar Equipment Options

In most areas, there are at least two reputable solar companies to choose from. Getting multiple bids can improve the quality of the finished product and possibly the out-of-pocket cost. For example, some installers take a one-size-fits-all approach to solar system design, while another company might customize your installation based on your needs, goals and the property. If installing your solar system is more complicated, it is especially helpful to find an installer that customizes your solar system design by selecting the best equipment and installation approach.

For help comparing options, EnergySage is funded by the Department of Energy and provides a suite of online tools and resources that assist consumers in researching and shopping for solar. Another service, UnderstandSolar, links solar shoppers to top-rated solar installers for personalized solar estimates. Various installers commonly offer different technology options to their customers. Perhaps you are willing to splurge on some sleek solar panels because they have such a long warranty or you want an inverter with backup power supply when the grid is down. By speaking with different solar panel installers, you can familiarize yourself with the different equipment choices.

4. Comprehensive Solar System Warranty

Various solar equipment comes with different manufacturer warranties, and installers often guarantee their work as well. Because solar is a pretty hefty investment, it is wise to protect yourself with a warranty.

Workmanship warranties can vary widely between installers but often last between one to 10 years. The solar equipment has additional warranties that are provided by the manufacturer. Solar panels typically have an equipment guarantee for a certain length of time in addition to a power performance guarantee for energy production. Other components, such as the inverter, can have very short warranties of just a few years or ones that last 25 years. Make sure you are clear about warranties before signing a contract with a solar panel installer.

5. Turnaround Time

Because solar energy has exploded in popularity in recent years, many solar installers have jam-packed installation schedules for months. If you want a solar system installed soon, it is wise to ask what their schedule looks like before signing a contract.

Keep in mind that the timing of when the solar system is installed impacts the availability of the 30 percent federal tax credit. For example, if you install a solar system in February, you need to wait much longer to use the tax credit than if you installed the system in November.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

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5 Strategies to Choose the Right Solar Panel Installer

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Chart of the Day: Health Care Spending as a Percentage of GDP

Mother Jones

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This is apropos of nothing in particular. I was over at the World Bank site fiddling around with some stuff and happened to look at their chart for health care spending. There’s a good case to be made that as GDP rises, the share devoted to health care also rises. This is because richer countries have more “spare” income and health care is what they spend it on.

But Sweden and Switzerland have per-capita GDPs as high as ours, and they still spend a whole lot less. The sooner we start reining in the growth of health care spending the better.

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Chart of the Day: Health Care Spending as a Percentage of GDP

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Trump’s Tweets Threaten His Travel Ban’s Chances in Court

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump began the week with a barrage of early-morning tweets blasting the courts for blocking his travel ban executive order. But in doing so, he may have just made it more likely that the courts will keep blocking the ban.

These tweets followed upon several from over the weekend about the ban and the terrorist attack in London, including this one from Saturday evening:

In January, Trump signed an executive order banning nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, as well as halting the refugee resettlement program for 120 days (and indefinitely for Syrian refugees). When the courts blocked it, rather than appeal to the Supreme Court, Trump signed a modified version of the order. The new ban repealed the old one, reduced the number of banned countries from seven to six, and added exceptions and waivers. Still, federal courts in Maryland and Hawaii blocked it, and now the Justice Department has appealed to the Supreme Court to have this second version of the ban reinstated.

The biggest question in the litigation over the ban is whether the courts should focus solely on the text of the order or also consider Trump’s comments from the campaign trail, and even during his presidency, to determine whether the order uses national security as a pretext for banning Muslims from the country. The president’s lawyers argue that the courts should focus on the text of the order and defer to the president’s authority over national security. Trump’s tweets Monday morning and over the weekend make it harder for the courts to justify doing that.

The travel ban is supposed to be a temporary remedy until the government can review its vetting procedures. But Trump’s tweets make it appear that the ban itself is his goal. Trump repeatedly and defiantly uses the word “ban” when his administration has instead sought to call it a pause.

The tweets “undermine the government’s best argument—that courts ought not look beyond the four corners of the Executive Order itself,” Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security and constitutional law at the University of Texas School of Law, says via email. “Whether or not then-Candidate Trump’s statements should matter (a point on which reasonable folks will likely continue to disagree), the more President Trump says while the litigation is ongoing tending to suggest that the Order is pretextual, the harder it is to convince even sympathetic judges and justices that only the text of the Order matters.” And once the courts start looking at the president’s statements, it’s not hard to find ones that raise questions about anti-Muslim motivations.

Even the president’s allies acknowledge his tweets are a problem. George Conway, the husband of top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, responded to Trump on Twitter by pointing out that the work of the Office of the Solicitor General—which is defending the travel ban in court—just got harder.

Conway, who recently withdrew his name from consideration for a post at the Justice Department, then followed up to clarify his position.

Trump may soon see his tweets used against him in court. Omar Jadwat, the ACLU attorney who argued the case before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, told the Washington Post this morning that the ACLU’s legal team is considering adding Trump’s tweets to its arguments before the Supreme Court. “The tweets really undermine the factual narrative that the president’s lawyers have been trying to put forth, which is that regardless of what the president has actually said in the past, the second ban is kosher if you look at it entirely on its own terms,” Jadwat told the Post.

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Trump’s Tweets Threaten His Travel Ban’s Chances in Court

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Der Spiegel Just Published the Minutes From Trump’s Contentious Meeting With G7 Leaders

Mother Jones

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German magazine Der Spiegel has been given access to minutes from a contentious meeting of G7 leaders in Taormina, Sicily, at the end of May, in which they applied last-ditch pressure on President Donald Trump to stay in the Paris climate agreement.

The meeting came toward the end of Trump’s first trip abroad as president—and became an opportunity for world leaders to intensely lobby the American president before Trump’s final decision on whether the United States would leave the historic climate accord.

The leaders told Trump in no uncertain terms that if the United States abandoned the agreement, China would be the direct beneficiary.

“Climate change is real and it affects the poorest countries,” said Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French president, at the outset of the private conversation.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau then told Trump that the success of repairing the ozone layer proved that industry could be persuaded to act on harmful emissions, according to the account.

Then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up China: “If the world’s largest economic power were to pull out, the field would be left to the Chinese,” she said. According to Der Spiegel, Merkel added that Chinese President Xi Jinping was preparing to take advantage of the vacuum left by America’s exit. Even Saudi Arabia, she added, was preparing for a world without oil.

Trump was unmoved. “For me,” the president reportedly said, “it’s easier to stay in than step out,” adding that green regulations were killing American jobs.

As it became clear Trump would not budge, Macron admitted defeat, according to this account.

“Now China leads,” he said.

The account adds fresh details to the president’s fraught European trip. Following the meeting, the G7 broke with tradition to release a statement where six nations reaffirmed the Paris climate agreement, without the United States. The president also caused a diplomatic scuffle in Italy after accusing Germany of being “very bad” on trade and appeared to literally shove aside a leader of a NATO ally.

In a Rose Garden ceremony last Thursday, Trump announced that the United States would leave the historic Paris climate agreement—promising to “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.”

In response to the president’s announcement, President Macron of France released a video statement, saying, “If we do nothing, our children will know a world of migrations, of wars, of shortage. A dangerous world.”

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Der Spiegel Just Published the Minutes From Trump’s Contentious Meeting With G7 Leaders

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Chart of the Day: Islamist Terror Attacks in London

Mother Jones

Plus the March attack in Manchester. This is raw data. Draw what conclusions you wish from it.

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Chart of the Day: Islamist Terror Attacks in London

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Donald Trump Is the World’s Biggest Asshole

Mother Jones

In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in London, our president decided the best thing to do was revive his personal feud with the mayor of London:

Here’s what Sadiq Khan actually said:

Khan was obviously telling Londoners not to be alarmed about the increased police presence they would see today. Fox News carried it, so I’m sure Trump heard the whole statement.

Five years ago Dick Cheney set a new world record for being an asshole. Donald Trump now holds that record.

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Donald Trump Is the World’s Biggest Asshole

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Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

Mother Jones

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Bob Keane has studied whitebark pine, a coniferous tree of the high country, for more than thirty years. Still, when asked to describe a whitebark to someone who’s never seen one, he takes a breath and pauses for a moment. “Gosh,” he says.

The shape of the tree is very distinctive, Keane says. Instead of growing cone-shaped like other conifers, whitebarks branch like hardwoods. “A lot of the undergrowth is very small, so you see these open park-like stands of beautiful spreading trees,” he says. This shape is an adaptation that shows Clark’s nutcrackers flying past that a tree below has many nutritious cones and might be worth a travel stop.

Clark’s nutcrackers cache thousands of whitebark seeds, dispersing the pine across the high country, where the tree is a keystone species. Whitebark pine is one of the first trees to break ground after a fire, thanks to those nutcrackers, and it stabilizes soil and snowpacks at timberline. Living a millennium or more, whitebarks shape the West’s high mountain ecology in countless ways.

But the whitebark is going extinct and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency) hasn’t given the species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In April 2017, two conservation organizations from Montana lost a lawsuit against the agency for its failure to list the pine. No one—not the plaintiffs, defendants, or panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—questioned the precariousness of the tree’s fate. At question was how the agency prioritized which species it protects. Species, the court ruled, could be passed over because the agency didn’t have the necessary funds. As the story of whitebarks demonstrates, extinction has as much to do with politics as it does with biology.

The whitebark pine is an iconic tree of the West’s high mountains, ranging from Wyoming’s southern Wind Rivers to northern Alberta and British Columbia. In the fall, in a whitebark pine forest, “there are tons of cones and it is alive with animals, just alive,” Keane says. “You don’t see that with subalpine firs.” Researchers have found that whitebark cones feed more than 100 animal species and, in Glacier National Park, 40 percent of the understory plants in whitebark pine communities grow only there. The tree’s fatty, protein-rich seeds are an important food for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies; when the seeds run short, the bears eat more meat.

The whitebark pine faces intertwined threats that have killed the trees across much of their historic range. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot imported white pine blister rust, a fast-moving European fungal disease that kills whitebarks, to the West in a tree shipment.

And a century of fire suppression has imperiled whitebarks, too. The shade-intolerant trees rely on fire to open areas; without fires, trees such as subalpine firs shade out whitebarks. Often, Keane says, permanently stunted pines linger in the shadows of those new neighbors. “You’ll see an overstory of subalpine fir, but an understory of tiny whitebark pine saplings that are probably older than the canopy,” he says.

Meanwhile, native mountain pine beetles have taken out swaths of whitebark pines weakened by overcrowding and drought; a 2009 beetle outbreak killed whitebarks across more than 3,000 square miles. Exacerbating blister rust’s spread, wildfire suppression, and pine beetle outbreaks is an ever more pervasive threat: “The fourth big one is climate change and how climate change is interacting with all of these things, ” says Amy Nicholas, endangered species listing coordinator for the agency’s Wyoming field office.

Conservationists have requested federal protection for whitebark pines under the ESA for more than 25 years, beginning in 1991. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the pine was likely to go extinct across much of its U.S. range in as little as 100 years, or less than two generations. Yet instead of listing whitebark pine as endangered, the agency listed the tree as a “candidate” species, essentially waitlisting the species for help.

The reason came down to a funding shortage: listing whitebark pine as endangered would have required the agency to devote resources to saving it. Without enough money to care for all disappearing species, the agency focuses on listing species that are part of legal settlements, for example.

As a candidate species, whitebark pine got a listing priority number, based on how likely it is to go extinct. In 2011, whitebark pine received one of the highest priority rankings, yet other species were being federally protected and whitebark pine was not.

Two Montana-based conservation organizations—WildWest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies—sued the agency, arguing that by prioritizing candidate species ranked lower than whitebark pine, the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t following its own guidelines for deciding which species to protect. The conservation groups felt species should be given help in order of biological need.

The court ruled in favor of the agency. While pointing out that current policies on listing seemed inadequate when “dealing with the potential life or death of an entire species,” the court concluded that the agency was not required to make decisions based on its candidate species ranking system. “Scarce funds and limited staff resources may prevent FWS from taking immediate final action to list or delist a species,” the presiding judge wrote.

According to Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, the agency often makes listing decisions based on finances. “This is a systematic problem that the Fish and Wildlife Service has had for decades,” Parenteau says. He points to persistent resistance from Congress and some Republican administrations to fully fund the service’s endangered species listing program.

Financial considerations do not factor into whether a species gets listed, but rather in what order and when, agency biologist Craig Hansen says. “The listing budget is given to us by Congress and has an annual cap,” Hansen says. “We can’t pull funds from other programs to list.” The service’s funding woes have led to a backlog of organisms waiting to be listed, such as northern California’s Sierra Nevada red fox, which in 2016 included just 29 remaining adults.

These rust-resistant baby whitebarks are part of the U.S. Forest Service’s collaboration with NGOs trying to save the species. Bob Keane

In 2016, to stop the constant backlog of candidate species waiting to be listed as threatened or endangered, the Obama administration drafted a streamlined process that prioritized the most imperiled species backed by the best available science. It wasn’t adopted by the Trump administration.

Matthew Koehler, executive director of plaintiff WildWest Institute, grows frustrated talking about the whitebark case. Koehler believes the funding shortage that stalled the whitebark’s listing is part of a strategy by Congressional members in both parties to tie the service’s hands. “Then, the same members of Congress complain that the ESA doesn’t work or that it moves too slow,” he says.

Indeed, this past February, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., led a Senate hearing to “modernize the Endangered Species Act,” arguing in a statement that the ESA has not been successful enough and causes economic harm.

Funding is only one of the ESA’s difficulties, though. Court battles also stymie species’ recoveries. For each species, a listing decision takes years, followed by litigation from whoever opposes the outcome. “It isn’t just a bunch of scientists sitting around a table saying ‘let’s list this species,” says Parenteau. And still, species such as the whitebark disappear.

And then there’s climate change. Congress wrote the ESA in the 1970s, long before scientists understood the profound ways in which greenhouse gases affect species and their homes. The ESA is designed to address discrete problems: overgrazing, point-source pollution, exurban development. In its revision of ESA listing guidelines, the Obama administration acknowledged as much: the agency could have put off working on species endangered by climate change, including whitebark pine, since it has less power to help them.

With our existing environmental laws, whitebarks may yet survive in the northernmost parts of their range in Canada, Parenteau says. “But in the southern part of its range, unless we get serious about climate mitigation, it’s probably doomed anyway,” he says.

In any case, listing isn’t necessary for the feds to take action: Almost all whitebarks occur on federal public land, where the government can take steps to protect the species without listing, Parenteau says.

Indeed, having given up on the ESA for now, the WildWest Institute is seeking other pathways to whitebark protection. The organization is supporting a bill introduced to Congress to designate public lands in the northern Rockies where whitebarks live as wilderness. “We see wilderness designation as a way to protect that entire ecosystem,” Koehler says.

When pressed to make predictions for the longterm, Keane says areas where whitebarks used to flourish will probably eventually burn. By then, though, there will be no source trees left for birds to find seeds to spread to freshly burned areas. Instead, he imagines, shrub herblands will grow.

Still, unlike Parenteau, Keane is optimistic about the climate extremes that whitebarks can survive, if the trees get help. He’s part of a new collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and two NGOs – American Forests and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation—that’s working to restore whitebarks in the West. The group’s even developing rust-resistant seedlings. “Whitebark pine doesn’t even start optimum cone production until it’s 200 years old,” he says. “What we want to make sure is what we’re doing now, 100 years from now we will see the fruits of our labors.”

“If we do nothing,” Keane says, “we are making sure that it will be so low on the landscape, we will probably name the ones we see, there will be so few of them.”

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Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

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The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs

Mother Jones

People love to complain about the wastefulness of meal-kit delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. The baggies that hold a single scallion! The thousands of miles of shipping! The endless cardboard boxes! Those problems are annoying, but ultimately they’re not environmental catastrophes: The baggies don’t take up all that much landfill space, the cardboard boxes are recyclable, and it’s not clear whether shipping meal kits is less efficient than transporting food to grocery stores and then to homes.

But there is a much better reason to criticize meal-kit companies—and as far as I can tell, few people are talking much about it. That’s surprising, because it’s actually the biggest (or heaviest, at least) thing in every meal-kit box: the freezer packs that keep the perishables fresh while they’re being shipped. Blue Apron now sends out 8 million meals a month. If you figure that each box contains about three meals and two six-pound ice packs, that’s a staggering 192,000 tons of freezer-pack waste every year from Blue Apron alone. To put that in perspective, that’s the weight of nearly 100,000 cars or 2 million adult men. When I shared those numbers with Jack Macy, a senior coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s Commercial Zero Waste program, he could scarcely believe it. “That is an incredible waste,” he said. The only reason he suspects he hasn’t heard about it yet from the city’s trash haulers is that the freezer packs end up hidden in garbage bags.

Given that many meal-kit companies claim to want to help the planet (by helping customers reduce food waste and buying products from environmentally responsible suppliers, for example), you’d think they would have come up with a plan for getting rid of this ever-growing glacier of freezer packs. Au contraire. Many blithely suggest that customers store old gel packs in their freezers for future use. Unless you happen to have your own meat locker, that’s wildly impractical. I tried it, and in less than a month the packs—which are roughly the size of a photo album—had crowded practically everything else out of my freezer. Two personal organizers that I talked to reported that several clients had asked for a consult on what to do with all their accumulated freezer packs.

As Nathanael Johnson at Grist points out, Blue Apron has also suggested that customers donate used freezer packs to the Boy Scouts or other organizations. I asked my local Boy Scouts council whether they wanted my old meal-kit freezer packs. “What would we do with all those ice packs?” wondered the puzzled council executive. (Which is saying a lot for an organization whose motto is “be prepared.”)

The meal-kit companies’ online guides to recycling packaging are not especially helpful. (Blue Apron’s is visible only to its customers.) Most of them instruct customers to thaw the freezer packs, cut open the plastic exterior, which is recyclable in some places, and then dump the thawed goo into the garbage. (Hello Fresh suggests flushing the goo down the toilet, which, experts told me, is a terrible idea because it can cause major clogs in your plumbing.) The problem with this advice is that it does not belong in a recycling guide—throwing 12 pounds of mystery goo into the garbage or toilet is not recycling.

To its credit, Blue Apron is the only major meal-kit service to offer a take-back program: Enterprising customers can mail freezer packs back to the company free of charge. But Blue Apron spokeswoman Allie Evarts refused to tell me how many of its customers actually do this. When I asked what the company does with all those used freezer packs, Evarts only told me, “We retain them for future use.” So does that mean Blue Apron is actually reusing the packs in its meal kits, or is there an ever-growing mountain of them languishing in a big warehouse somewhere? Evarts wouldn’t say.

Now back to that mystery goo, which, in case you’re curious, is whitish clear, with the consistency of applesauce. Its active ingredient is a substance called sodium polyacrylate, a powder that can absorb 300 times its weight in water. It’s used in all kinds of products, from detergent to fertilizer to surgical sponges. One of its most common uses is in disposable diapers—it’s what soaks up the pee and keeps babies’ butts dry. When saturated with water and frozen, sodium polyacrylate thaws much more slowly than water—meaning it can stay cold for days at a time.

Meal-kit companies assure their customers that the freezer-pack goo is nontoxic. That’s true. But while sodium polyacrylate poses little to no danger to meal-kit customers, it’s a different story for the people who manufacture the substance. (Meal-kit companies typically contract with freezer-pack manufacturers rather than making their own.) In its powdered state, it can get into workers’ lungs, where it can cause serious problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in 2011 that workers in a sodium polyacrylate plant in India developed severe lung disease after inhaling the powder. Animal studies have shown that exposure to high concentrations of sodium polyacrylate can harm the lungs. Because of these known risks, some European countries have set limits on workers’ exposure to sodium polyacrylate. Here in the United States, some industry groups and manufacturers recommend such limits as well as safety precautions for workers like ventilation, respirators, and thick gloves. But on the federal level, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have any rules at all. (The companies that supply freezer packs to Blue Apron and Hello Fresh did not return repeated requests for information on their manufacturing processes.)

Beyond the factory, sodium polyacrylate can also do a number on the environment. In part, that’s because it’s made from the same stuff as fossil fuels—meaning that making it produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, a team of Swedish researchers found in 2015 (PDF). It also doesn’t biodegrade, so those mountains of freezer packs sitting in the garbage aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So to review: Freezer packs create an epic mountain of garbage, and their goo is not as environmentally benign as meal-kit companies would have you believe. So what’s to be done? One place to start might be a greener freezer pack. That same team of Swedish researchers also developed a sodium polyacrylate alternative using biodegradable plant materials instead of fossil fuels. A simpler idea: Companies could operate like milkmen used to, dropping off the new stuff and picking up the old packaging—including freezer packs—for reuse in one fell swoop.

A little creative thinking might go a long way—yet none of the companies that I talked to said they had any specific plans to change the freezer-pack system (though Hello Fresh did say it planned to reduce its freezer pack size from six pounds to five pounds). And when you think about it, why should they fix the problem? Heidi Sanborn, head of the recycling advocacy group California Product Stewardship Council, points out that the current arrangement suits the meal-kit providers just fine. “It’s taxpayers that are paying for these old freezer packs to sit in the landfill forever,” she says. “Companies are getting a total freebie.”

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The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs

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James Mattis Doesn’t Really Fit In With the Trump Administration

Mother Jones

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From our Secretary of Defense earlier this evening:

Oh snap. Do you have any more shade you’d like to throw at your boss?

He seems to have a firm grasp of who he works for, anyway.

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James Mattis Doesn’t Really Fit In With the Trump Administration

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