Lean toward green this Fourth of July

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

Independence Day brings back memories of picnics and fireworks. Lots of paper and plastic, coal or gas grilling, and a brilliant light show. Is it possible to celebrate the Fourth and remain green? Let's take it step by step.

Keep it natural

Having a daytime party that makes use of natural outside light is great. Depending on what you have in mind, that may or may not work. Holding your event outdoors works best, avoiding the cost of electricity and lessening the use of air conditioning.

In a hot climate, that may not be desirable. If an evening party is more of what you have in mind, consider using soy candles for lighting. Soy candles are more eco-friendly — unlike petroleum-based paraffin candles that contain up to 11 carcinogenic compounds, labeled toxic air agents by the State of California Air Board.

Solar footpath lights are another green option for party hosts. Buy durable ones and you’ve got automatic night lighting that’s electricity-free.

As for the table, instead of paper plates and plastic utensils, try using dishes from home or compostable plates, cups and cutlery, all of which have become much easier to find in local stores in recent years.

Make sure to label trash cans for compostables, recyclables and trash. (Nothing’s worse than having to dig through your guests’ refuse later to separate the trash and recyclables. Ewww.)

Select cloth napkins over paper. If you must use paper, make sure the items you purchase are made from recycled paper. (Check out the recycled white paper napkins at office stores or club stores, these are eco-friendly; you’ll have to buy in bulk though.

In lieu of paper decorations, flowers from the garden in a simple vase or ceramic pot are a natural touch. Another idea is to try floating soy candles in a bowl of water.

Purchase American flags from the local dollar store to maintain the theme. They can easily be saved for future Fourth fetes.

Fire up with the sun or propane, not charcoal

When it comes to the menu, fresh locally grown vegetables and fruits are best. Avoiding pre-packaged food will not only help the environment, but your waistline as well. If you are grilling, propane gas is a cleaner choice than charcoal says the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club also recommends an electric grill or solar oven for the truly green among us.

If you can't forgo the flavor that charcoal adds, the Sierra Club says to look for "lump brands" of wood made from invasive tree species or harvested from sustainably managed forests. Use a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid which releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs), creating smog.

Go with organic foods, heavy on the veggies

Organic, hormone-free meat is a good choice if you can't give up your carnivore ways. Choose lean meats and trim the fat before throwing that steak on the grill. But as Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society (BVS) notes, there are a many yummy recipes that make use of the grill and don't use meat. Meat production, she notes, contributes more to global warming than all transportation emissions combined.

At past BVS Fourth of July events, Kimber says, "People have brought phenomenal dishes such as Portabello burgers, tropical fruit kabobs, stuffed mushrooms, eggplant slices in batter, grilled pineapple."

Check out these sites she recommends for vegetarian grilling: Vegweb, In A Vegetarian Kitchen withNava Atlas and Vegcooking.

To clean up after your Fourth fete, be green by choosing a natural cleaner such as Orange Plus, which is made with orange oil. SoyClean is another good option.

About those fireworks

As for ending the evening with a big bang and a show of lights, you might think twice. A fireworks show begins with gunpowder and the resulting toxic pollution that then falls to earth doesn't exactly adhere to the standards of the Clean Air Act. The smoke that comes from a fireworks show includes sulfur-coal compounds among other chemicals. The barium that makes the bright green colors in fireworks is radioactive. The copper compounds that help make the blue colors contain dioxin, which has been linked to cancer.

Other chemical elements, such as lithium, lead and potassium nitrate that are often used in fireworks can cause a variety of respiratory problems.

Besides being potentially harmful to your health, fireworks are not great for the environment. Even when they are held over water as they should be, fireworks release perchlorate that can pollute the water and contribute to acid rain. The EPA lists perchlorate as a "contaminant of concern." A rain that follows a fireworks display also can wash many of the pollutants into the water system.

In one study last year, the EPA's National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Oklahoma looked at the relationship between an annual fireworks show and a nearby lake's percholorate levels over several years. The report said that while percholorate levels did increase after the over-the-lake display, the levels slowly dissipated suggesting that microbial organisms consumed the compound.

The EPA recognizes that fireworks are an important part of America’s Fourth of July celebration, says spokesperson Cathy Milbourn. There are state and federal monitors in place that might pick up a spike in particle levels on the Fourth. This information is used for data purposes. Depending on weather conditions and the size of the display, Milbourn says, the EPA believes most particles dissipate.

The EPA cautions that elderly people as well as those with heart conditions and asthma limit their exposure to fireworks and if they attend a display, try to locate themselves upwind. Asthmatics should remember to take their inhalers with them.

The best place to find out about the quality of your air, not just around the Fourth but anytime, says Milbourne, is at AirNow, a website sponsored by among others: the EPA, NOAA, the National Park Service and NASA.

So can there be a Fourth of July without fireworks? One option might be a laser light show that doesn't harm the environment. There's also a new technology that Disney is looking at that is more earth friendly – it uses compressed air instead of gunpowder to ignite fireworks.

Fireworks on the Fourth may be hard to avoid, but you might forego the extra display in your backyard and just enjoy the community show, which carries a lower per person environmental footprint.

Happy Green Fourth!

(Editor note: This story is an updated version of one posted on GreenRightNow in 2010.)

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