Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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Earlier this week I blogged about Maine governor Paul LePage's recent weird comments about the chemical BPA. "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen," remarked LePage, scientifically. "So the worst case is some women may have little beards." Uh-huh.

Tempting though it may be to blame a comment this embarrassing on temprorary insanity, a great piece in the Boston Phoenix suggests otherwise. Turns out LePage has hired some lobbyists for out-of-state drug and toy industry groups to help him form his opinions on environmental and kid-safety legislation.

Shortly after he was elected last year, LePage released a "wish-list" of environmental and health regulations he hoped to roll back. LePage said the ideas in the document came from small business owners in Maine. But it turns out that the wish list was actually the work of Ann Robinson, head of the corporate lobbying group Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios. Robinson's clients have included PhRMA and Merck. Also the Toy Industry Association of America, which fought Maine's proposed BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups last year. Robinson served as co-chair of LePage's transition team and is currently his head advisor on regulatory reform.

In addition to Robinson, LePage also hired Patricia Aho, a lobbyist with the law firm Pierce Atwood, as his deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Robinson and Aho are not exactly unbiased when it comes to regulations:

Lobbying disclosures on file with the state Ethics Commission show both PhRMA and Merck paid Robinson to defeat the KID-SAFE PRODUCTS ACT, a 2008 law that phased out toxic chemicals in toys, car seats, baby clothes, and other children's products. The AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE and drug maker ASTRAZENECA paid Aho to do the same. The governor's wish list calls for "revisions to prohibitions of chemicals and materials in products" saying that "if the state is going to regulate consumer products at all, it should only do so when clearly justified on risk-benefit or cost benefit basis." 

Meanwhile, the Lewiston Sun-Journal reports on questions surrounding LePage's recent dismissal of Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the former the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who testified last year that BPA should be banned from kids' products. A spokesman for LePage insists that her firing wasn't because of her support for the BPA ban, but, understandably, some people are not convinced.

For more on LePage's efforts to undo decades of environmental legislation (including his attempt at making sure corporations don't have to go to the trouble of recycling) read the full pieces in the Boston Phoenix and the Lewiston Sun-Journal.

Urban Homestead™?

Via's Sustainable Food blog, I just learned that the phrase "urban homestead" (think chickens, canning, and vegetable beds) is no longer up for grabs. A Pasadena-based group called the Dervaes Institute has trademarked it:

In what can only be described as a blatantly capitalistic move, the Dervaes Institute has successfully registered as trademarks such generic terms as "urban homesteading," "freedom garden," and "grow the future." Despite the claim on the Institute's Web site that the Dervaes "believe in giving freely to others," they recently sent out a barrage of letters to Web sites, bloggers, and authors that use these terms, informing them that they are legally required to either attribute these terms to the Dervaes Institute or replace them with supposedly more generic terms like "modern homesteading" or "urban sustainability projects."

Dervaes has forced Oakland's Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers fascinating-sounding classes on topics like cheesemaking, quail farming, salami making, and coffee-bean roasting, to disable its Facebook page. Another one of the group's targets was a homesteading class at offered at the Santa Monica Public Library.

The weirdest part? Aside from the trademarking shenanigans, the Dervaes Institute seems like a pretty cool organization. The people behind it appear to be a family that decided to grow their own vegetables, and got hooked. Now they maintain a useful blog and website and run workshops geared toward urban homesteader (that's right, I said it!) wannabes.

Anyway, the irony of these folks claiming to have invented, and now own, the concept of self-sufficiency is just too blatant even to comment on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to my backyard where I'm planning to build a chicken coop so I can have some eggs .

 Via OC Weekly.

Today, the Bangor Daily News reports on Maine governor Paul LePage's weird comments on the chemical bisphenol A. Last week, LePage remarked:

"Quite frankly, the science that I'm looking at says there is no [problem]," LePage said. "There hasn't been any science that identifies that there is a problem."

LePage then added: "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards."

Quick, someone call JAMA! We have a scientist in the house, folks.

Unfortunately, bizarre though LePage's comments may be, he's not the only one confused about BPA, as I reported in my piece on BPA in canned foods. The FDA can't seem to make up its mind on the issue, despite National Institutes of Health's finding that BPA is of "some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures."

Also, I don't want a beard, even a little one. Just saying.

From Econundrums reader Holly comes this question:

City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I've become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?

This question irks me every time I throw a take-out salad container into the recycling. Will my leftover vinaigrette contaminate the whole bin? And if it does, will the recycling plant decide it's not worth the effort to clean and simply throw it into the trash instead?

I decided to call Recology, the company that runs San Francisco's recycling program, to ask about the fate of dirty food containers. According to Recology spokesman Robert Reed, most facilities won't throw away a container simply because it's dirty. And it's not a giant deal if containers have little food residue on them (say, the yogurt your spoon couldn't extract from the plastic cup).

But here's the interesting part: The cleaner your containers, the more they're worth on the recyclables market. Municipal facilities first sort recycling by type (paper, several kinds of plastic, tin, etc.), and then by quality. Workers separate clean recyclables from soiled ones, into bales. "If the bale is lower quality, there is less revenue coming back into the system from the sale of recyclables, which helps pay for the program," says Reed. The takeaway: By providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money. 

Jennifer Berry, a spokeswoman for the recycling experts over at Earth 911, agrees. "It's a consistent refrain that I hear from recyclers that the 'cleaner' the product, the more it's worth and the more desirable it is."

Soiled containers are particularly problematic in communities where plastic and paper are transported together, since paper can easily absorb oil and other residue. But dirty plastic-only streams decrease cities' revenue, too. To wit: Frank Cvetovac is the operations manager at Epic Plastics, a manufacturer of plastic goods that buys its materials from municipal recycling facilities. One of Epic's regular suppliers doesn't have a very clean stream. "We offer them 25 or 30 percent less than market value, since we have to do so much work on our end to get it into usable shape," says Cvetovac.

That said, Berry and Reed agree that you should follow your city's guidelines on cleaning out containers, since facilities' equipment and capacity vary widely. But in general, you don't have to get all Lady MacBeth about it. "Remember that you don't have to get items clean enough to store food or eat from—so you don't necessarily have to use so much water that they are sterilized or completely grime free," says Berry. You might consider running containers through the dishwasher if you have one. If not, use a spatula to get most of the gunk out before you chuck it in the bin.


This week, I'm reporting from outside Savannah, Georgia, on my first-ever hunting trip. We're after invasive feral pigs, which have proliferated over the last decade in much of the southeastern US, competing with native species for food and wreaking havoc on land with their rooting. I'm hanging out with Jackson Landers, who aims to whet American appetites for invasive species like hogs, lionfish, geese, deer, and even spiny iguanas by working with wholesalers, chefs, and restaurateurs to promote these aliens as menu items. Read "Feral Pig Diaries Day 1: Moonshine and Teen Swine" here, and "Feral Pig Diaries Day 2: Do Hogs Like Supermarket Danishes?" here. My introductory post (wherein MoJo takes a field trip to the shooting range) is here. A word to the squeamish: The Feral Pig Diaries do contain a few graphic images.

After having seen zero pigs (well, except a dead one) during the first few days of my Feral Pig Diaries project, I couldn't wait to get to Ossabaw, a mostly uninhabited island, 20 miles off the coast of Savannah, with a major hog problem. Ossabaw's 26,000 acres of dense forest, salt marshes, and sand beaches is usually closed to the public, but the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was nice enough to arrange a trip out so I could see the pigs and the trouble they've caused firsthand.

My friend Caroline and I set out early from her parents' place, just outside Beaufort, South Carolina, and met David Mixon and Ed Van Otteren, both biologists from the DNR, in a supermarket parking lot. We followed them to this dock, hidden away at the end of a winding drive in the tiny coastal community of Pin Point, Georgia (birthplace of Clarence Thomas!).

We made the 20-minute trip to the island in this little boat, threading our way between barrier islands, where the Ogeechee River empties out into the ocean.

The day was cold and damp, but we hardly noticed since we were busy gawking at the birds: cormorants, horned grebes, bufflehead ducks, and a whole mess of scaups overhead that changed direction with the wind every few seconds. Especially cool was a bald eagle perched on top of a pole on a marshy island (left.)

Also cool was the driver of our boat, DNR wildlife technician Andy Meadows (right), who has lived on Ossabaw for 11 years. His only (human) neighbors are a few other DNR staffers (including a full-time hog shooter) and 98-year-old Eleanor Torrey West, the only remaining member of the family from which the DNR purchased the island. "Miss West," as she's known, lives in a mansion on the island's north shore, where she keeps a pet hog named Paul Mitchell, named (I kid you not) after the hair products guy because it has a cowlick.

I asked Andy if there was a good chance we'd see a hog, and he assured me that he sees them every day. Although pigs were first introduced to the island in the 1500s by Spanish settlers, Ossabaw's current hog population is the result of centuries of mixing with domestic pigs. Ossabaw wasn't always uninhabited; it was farmed till quite recently. At one point before the Civil War, the island held four cotton plantations and 1,200 slaves. 

Once docked at the island, we climbed into a truck with Andy, and David and Ed followed in another truck behind us. From a narrow causeway, we saw a marsh full of bird action: great blue herons, snowy egrets, wood storks, wood ducks, oystercatchers, and one little pied-billed grebe who was making a racket. After the jump: a gory-ish image (but it's not too bad).

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