Monday, November 30, 2015

What's That Smell?

by LeAnn Siefferman

Ever wonder why your waffle iron had an odor the first few times you plugged it in? Or where that “new car smell” comes from?  You may be surprised to learn that many of our daily olfactory encounters are in fact manufactured bouquets of chemical compounds, with ingredients known to be hazardous to human health.

Take for example non-stick surfaces. Highly fluorinated chemicals (HFCs) are used to create a variety of oil and water-repellant surfaces, from frying pans and microwave popcorn bag linings to raincoats and stain-resistant carpets, and they are toxic to animals and humans. These harmful chemicals off-gas emissions when heated, migrate from surfaces with use, affix themselves to inhaled house dust particles and can enter soils and groundwater via landfill leachate. The pollutants then make their way into our bodies through the air we breathe, water we drink, and the food we eat.

HFCs have not only been linked to a number of health issues, such as endocrine disruption, obesity and cancer, they are scientifically recognized as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, meaning these harmful compounds build in concentration as they move up the food chain and do not break down over time. In fact, HFCs have managed to migrate into and through the biosphere, showing up in remote locations such as in the tissue of Arctic polar bears.

You may want to sit down to process what you have read thus far, but before doing so, make sure your chair, couch or ottoman is free of brominated flame retardants. To figure this out, you want to first look for a TB 117 label. This label is indication of compliance with Technical Bulletin 117, adopted in 1975 by California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Home Furnishings and Insulation. TB 117 stated that furniture must meet an open flame and smoldering cigarette test. To pass this test, fire is contained and suppressed through the heavy use of brominated flame retardant chemicals (BFRs) applied to the furniture’s foam core.

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Chemicals commonly associated with the TB 117 label include known mutagens, carcinogens, and are linked to neurotoxicity, decreased IQ, hyperactivity and endocrine disruption. Similar to HFCs, you are exposed to BFRs by way of dermal absorption, inhalation of contaminated house dust, and ingestion of contaminated foods. Like HFCs, these flame retardant chemicals are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. While BFRs are still in use, their application is no longer required by law. In 2013, California changed TB 117 to TB 117-2013, whereby all furniture produced after January 1, 2015 is required to have a label indicating whether or not the furniture contained chemicals known to be hazardous to human health.

Amidst growing evidence linking highly fluorinated compounds and brominated flame retardants with significant health concerns, these chemical compounds are still in frequent use today. Federal legislation currently allows for the use of chemical compounds in consumer products before knowing the extent of their impact on the environment. Extensive scientific research has produced links between commonly-used chemicals and human health, yet legislation has not been updated to reflect these findings.

The good news? While plenty of headlines suggest that the contents of your home could be killing you, there are numerous ways in which you can mitigate your exposure, and your children’s exposure, to harmful chemicals. Below are several resources for reducing and removing sources of toxins in your home:

  • There are many safe alternatives to non-stick cookware. (And if you are a Southerner like me, you will be happy to learn that your grandma’s cast iron skillet is on the safe list.)
  • Not sure if your couch contains flame retardants? Check out the Duke University study that will test the contents of your couch for free.
  • While currently there are no safe methods for the disposal of flame retardant furniture, research is ongoing to determine possible options, and sofa cushion exchange programs make it possible to reduce your exposure in the meantime.

While it is financially unrealistic to replace everything at once, start small changes now that, overtime, make a big difference.

Challenge: take a quick inventory of your kitchen, closet or living room. What cookware do you have that might contain toxic non-stick coatings? Can you find a TB-117 or TB 117-2013 label on your furniture? What alternatives could you consider, or have you already considered? Post below what you find and what you plan to do, or have already done, to minimize exposure to identified toxic chemicals in your home. 


LeAnn Siefferman lives in Orlando, FL and currently works full time as Puppy Program Manager for Canine Companions for Independence. She will be applying to the Harvard Extension School's ALM in Sustainability program this spring. She will be leaving her job to start an internship with the City of Orlando's Office for Sustainability beginning in December. LeAnn has a BA in Studio Art from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Introducing Permaculture: A Follow-up to "INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective"

By: Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

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INHABIT: A Permaculture Perspective is a movie showcasing some of the key leaders and projects of the permaculture movement in New England and abroad.  The film shows many beautiful scenes of life in rural and urban setting. But what is Permaculture?

Permaculture is a philosophy that was born out of an Australian garden. It is a practice of sustainable agriculture whose 12 “principles” or guidelines are a framework for creating intuitive system assessments.

In my 2013 article for the Valley Advocate “ Permaculture Goes Public” I explain that “Permaculture revolves around three goals: caring for people, caring for the Earth, and giving a fair share to everyone. Incorporating elements of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, sustainable development, forestry and natural building, permaculture is a way of thinking holistically about natural systems.”

The twelve principle of permaculture are simple common-sense type statements, accompanied by a saying or phrase that sums up the idea of the principle. Each principle is a key to maximizing sustainability and balance within an ecosystem.

The twelve principles are:
  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy 
  3. Obtain a yield 
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback 
  5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services 
  6. Produce No Waste 
  7. Design From Patterns to Details 
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate 
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions 
  10. Use and Value Diversity 
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal 
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change
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In the movie INHABIT we see some great examples of urban permaculture including a number of permaculture examples within the state. In fact Massachusetts is one of the states leading the nation in Permaculture initiatives and education. UMass Amherst has a devoted Permaculture garden that won the 2012 White House Champions of Change Award.         
Permaculture started in the rural garden and its practitioners are overwhelmingly agriculturalists. However, increasingly permaculture is being used in urban areas, within businesses and at the management level. Permaculture explores worker owned co-ops and non-traditional management styles as well as helping to improve the effectiveness of traditional businesses .

Permaculture it is not a passive philosophy -- it is active and solutions based. It hopes to be a blueprint for human success in a time of climate change. Across the world, permaculture is proving that it can be helpful with giving communities localized food security, cleaner water and better understanding of local systems.


Kathleen Ahamed-Broadhurst

Kathleen is a writer and photographer with a focus on travel, the environment and global public health. She is a certified Permaculturalist as well as an Area Director for the historic Fenway Victory Gardens. Currently she is a master’s degree candidate in Sustainability at Harvard Extension. You can follow her on Instagram @kat_abroad

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Behind the Scenes Look at Textile Production

A Behind the Scenes Look at Textile Production

by Harvard Extension Environmental Club member Kate Bauer

In anticipation of HEEC’s upcoming green exchange event: “TheTrue Cost Documentary Screening + Panel on Sustainable Fashion", I wanted to share my experiences with trying to understand some of the history and craftsmanship behind textiles. I volunteered with two different women’s organizations that focus on promoting local customs and fair wages for members of their communities. In Guatemala, I took part in the process of backstrap weaving, and in Ghana I learned how to batik. The organizations are called Trama Textiles and Global Mamas, respectively.

 A backstrap loom is a “simple” device that attaches to a fixed point (a wall, a tree, etc.) on one end and encircles the backside of the weaver on the other end. While men in Guatemala may operate typical foot pedal looms, the women use backstrap looms. Because of the nature of the set up, the width of the finished panel is approximately the width of the weaver’s hips. Pieces can be sewn together to create larger swaths of fabric for clothing, baby wraps, bags, and more. These pictures show my initial pattern set-up and then loom preparations for the actual weaving.

Batik is a dyeing process using wax resistance as a means to create layers of color on a piece of cloth. Fabric is initially dyed with the pattern’s lightest color. A hot wax stamp is applied where the artist wants that lightest color to remain in the finished product. The fabric is then dyed with the next darkest color in the pattern, and the wax process may be repeated. Later, the wax is boiled off revealing the layers of color and pattern that had been applied in stages. These photos depict my bi-colored batik: first dyed blue, then stamped, re-dyed green, boiled, and finally hung to dry.


About the Author


Kate Bauer holds a certificate in Environmental Policy and International Development and enjoys reading and traveling to understand the geopolitical implications of the textile industry. She hopes to spend a little time working on an organic cotton farm someday and is happy to be a part of the HEEC community.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Neighborhood Watch: Look Out for the Green Guys

by HEEC Member Amanda Rich

After visiting Arnold Arboretum or other beautiful tree-lined parks during the fall, it’s somewhat easier to see the direct correlation between increased tree canopy and environmental benefits.  Trees provide a nurturing habitat for wildlife, reduce soil erosion and water run off, provide cooling benefits/ shade, and provide air filtering and carbon sequestration capabilities[1].

But what of the social and economic benefits directly related to the “triple bottom line” of sustainability?  According to a Baltimore, Maryland study published in Landscape and Urban Planning, a 10% increase in tree canopy corresponded to a 12% decrease in crime.2  An even greater decrease in crime rate was seen when comparing public land to private, indicating the significant need to maintain trees in parks and other public urban areas[2].

Increasing tree canopy provides a well-kept look to neighborhoods, encouraging time outdoors and positive social interaction.  Trees and park settings have a calming effect; green surroundings have the capability to reduce stress, increase relaxation and improve cognitive performance[1].  A study conducted in Chicago, Illinois associated increased presence of trees with reduced mental fatigue, irritability, and aggression[3]. Significantly less violence was reported inside the homes of residents with more greenery than those without trees[3].

Image Credit:

Trees encourage a stronger sense of community, and many urban areas are struggling to maintain a green canopy.  Do your part to provide new trees with the care they so desperately need!  Great sites such as are available for volunteers to identify newly “orphaned” trees in local neighborhood(s) and receive the assistance they need from green organizations.

Adopt a tree!

[1] Konijnendijk, C. C., Nilsson, K., Randrup, T. B., & Schipperijn, J. (Eds.). (2005). Urban forests and trees : a reference book. Berlin: Springer.

[2] Troy, A., Morgan Grove, J., & O’Neil-Dunne, J. (2012). The relationship between tree canopy and crime rates across an urban–rural gradient in the greater Baltimore region. Landscape and Urban Planning, 106(3), 262–270.

[3] Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001). Aggression and violence in the inner city: effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33(4), 543-571.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Harvard iLab Team Launches App for Socially Responsible Shopping

Green Spotlight on: DoneGood, by HEEC Vice President Lacey Klingensmith

We recently sat down with Scott Jacobsen, one of the co-founders of DoneGood, which launched out of the Harvard iLab Venture Incubation Program. DoneGood is an app for socially responsible shopping that makes it easy to find businesses that share your values while raising money for local causes.

HEEC: When did sustainability become an important issue for you and why?

Scott: Before coming to Harvard, I was working for the Children's Defense Fund, a child advocacy group in Washington, D.C.  At my favorite sandwich shop, they would always put things in plastic to-go containers and there was no recycling, which really bothered me. I talked to the owner about this several times, but nothing was ever done, so one day my colleagues and I were going to make signs and picket outside of the restaurant...but then I got to talking with my co-founder Colin, who was also frustrated by the lack of transparency around sourcing of clothes, and we started to wonder: why is it so difficult to find businesses that share our values? Maybe there is a better way than picketing…

HEEC: How did DoneGood initially get started, and what makes it unique?  

Scott: My co-founder Colin and I talked about creating a place for people to go and easily find products and services that aligned with their values, but we both had full time jobs and didn't have relevant experience. We started asking ourselves some questions like how do you know if a place is really doing good, and not just greenwashing? So we talked to a lot of business owners and discovered that there are many organizations out there doing great work, but consumers may not know about it because these organizations don’t have the channel to communicate to the motivated base of consumers who would value their sustainability efforts and be willing to spend 10-20% more on products that are sourced locally and made fairly. What we uniquely offer is bringing together all of this information into one resource that helps consumers find and support their local good businesses.

HEEC: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a venture startup, and do you have any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

Scott: I used to make good money and could go out to eat whenever I wanted, but I can’t afford to anymore, and that's OK. I’m house sitting in order to live in a place for free. You have to be willing to put your creature comforts aside and invest your money in growing the company. My advice is to never give up. Hussle. Push through walls because there will be hard times but you've got to keep pressing forward.

HEEC: What’s your vision of an awesome, sustainable future?

Scott: I would like a sustainable future in which everywhere you go, there are options that are very clear and transparent to help you make good choices!

Learn more and download the app at

Hyperlocavores Take CSA to the Next Delicious Level

“Did you know ginger and asparagus could be grown in Massachusetts?!”

Green Spotlight on: Cuisine en Localeby HEEC Member Amanda Rich

                Image credits: Cuisine en Locale                                                      

Cuisine en Locale restaurant executive chef Sean O’Brien excitedly spoke of hidden gem ingredients that many local residents are simply unaware can be sourced from the New England area.  Maximizing their offerings to customers by using amazing seasonal flavor combinations, your average pesto elevates to a mind-blowing level of toasted pepitas, pressed squash seed oil, aromatic garlic, and zesty ramps.  

Initiated by business owner JJ Gonson ten years ago as a personal chef service and catering business, Cuisine en Locale has since expanded to include a “farm to fridge” meal delivery service and bar lounge open for Monday night tacos and small plates on weekends.  Declaring their primary mission to utilize only locally sourced ingredients,  Cuisine en Locale maintains a continuous relationship with local farmers and farming cooperatives.  Giving their customers the ability to practice the mantra of “knowing where your food comes from” is an amazingly simply concept, yet it is often overlooked as long-distance food distribution becomes more routine.     

While other restaurants are shipping large pallets of produce cross-country, Cuisine en Locale is reliant on the rapid change of seasonal ingredient availability.  Often unsure of what may arrive week to week, the chefs collaborate and utilize their creative element to develop spontaneous weekly menus.  Culinary imagination is necessary to locate substitutes for flavors we often take for granted; India black peppercorns are set aside for the array of local hot chili peppers, Mediterranean olive oil takes the back burner for locally pressed sunflower and squash seed oils, and citrus is replaced with the acidic flavor of wood sorrel.  Operating a business [where the ingredient supply and menu changes weekly] is extraordinarily challenging, but kitchen manager Sandra Aronson explains “if you provide yourself with enough cushion and your customers with enough options, you will never be at a loss.”

For the extraordinarily busy patron looking to wean themselves off of processed foods and take out, Cuisine en Locale’s “Once a Week” food delivery service is the equivalent of having a personal chef in your kitchen.  Similar to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, Cuisine en Locale provides the amazingly delicious link between local farms and hungry customers desiring more than another fast food meal.  Patrons can opt to have their meals delivered via eco-efficient bike delivery, or can pick up their weekly food at a variety of locations.  “Once A Week” menus have included seasonal arrays like grass-fed chuck roast tenderly braised with North Star Farm chipotles and Valicenti tomatoes, roasted Red Fire Farm carrots topped with garlic eggplant puree and Mapleline Farm heavy cream, and Sofia’s Greek yogurt cheesecake with Green Mountain Orchard blueberries and Maine sea salt.  Sign me up!

Cuisine en Locale
Once Lounge (open Monday taco night, Thursday-Saturday cash bar)
156 Highland Avenue, Somerville, Massachusetts 02143
617.285.0167 |