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Archive | Consumer Safety

Six must-see documentaries about sustainability and the environment

6 must-see documentaries

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth made waves around the world when it burst onto screens in 2006. It won the 2007 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and spurred the creation of non-profit organisation Climate Reality Project, which unites people around the world to share the message of climate change.

Film is a powerful medium to share important messages about the environment, sustainability and human or animal rights. Here are six documentaries that turn the spotlight on important environmental and ethical issues facing us today. Continue Reading →

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Superannuation: still one of you biggest opportunities to change the world

If you’re of working age, the chances are you have thousands of dollars at your disposal that could be used to build a better world.

Your superannuation builds up little by little with each pay cheque.  Yet many of us are not aware of what the money does before we collect it in retirement.  Has it been invested in companies that contribute to climate change?  Are we passively funding something that goes against our values? Continue Reading →

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You can stop antibiotic resistance: here’s how


What is antibiotic resistance?

There are a lot of things that ordinary people can change about our lives to reduce the negative impacts of modern existence. Sometimes it’s as simple as re-using a jam jar before you throw it away, and sometimes it’s a complex and rewarding project like growing your own veggies or sourcing stuff like clothes and appliances second-hand. But this week, Otter investigates a choice that could literally mean the difference between life and death: whether, when and how you use antibiotics.

When we think ‘sustainable living’ the things that come to mind tend to be environmental issues like climate change and pollution, animal welfare and biodiversity, plus the labour rights and working conditions of the people who make our stuff. Health experts and scientists have fought to convince us that antibiotic resistance should be considered at least, if not more, important than these issues. Last year the director of the American Centre for Disease Control gave the public this grave warning:

Without urgent action now, more patients will be thrust back to a time before we had effective drugs.  We talk about a pre-antibiotic era and an antibiotic era.  If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post antibiotic era.  And, in fact, for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.

He’s not kidding around. Cases of antibiotic resistance are on the rise everywhere. In Australia treatment-resistant and incurable  gonorrhoea has been reported. In some parts of the country up to 80 per cent of Staphylococcus cases, which can cause horrific skin infections, fail to respond to first-line antibiotic treatment.

If that’s not scary enough, consider that some experts believe we could lose most or all of the benefits of antibiotics within 20 years. This would mean not just a catastrophic rise in deaths due to infectious disease like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and syphilis, but also an end to many of the lifesaving modern medical procedures we’ve come to take for granted.  The University of Technology, Sydney recently released a report for the media that characterises antibiotic resistance as a natural disaster.


Antibiotics are necessary for:

  • Open heart surgery
  • Safe childbirth
  • Kidney dialysis
  • Organ transplantation
  • Industrial-scale food production
  • Cancer chemotherapy
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Hip and joint replacements

Bacteria can produce a new generation in as little as 20 minutes, making their rate of evolved resistance to environmental toxins (like the substances we use to make antibiotics) extremely efficient. This is why taking the entire course of prescribed antibiotics is so important (more on what else you can do later). You might start to feel better after a couple of days, because the medication has killed off most of the bacteria causing your illness. But the ones left are tougher than the dead bacteria, which we can tell because they are still alive. Unless you completely wipe them out, there is a chance they will evolve into a new strain that doesn’t respond to the antibiotics you were taking.

The ease with which individuals can mistakenly nurture new bacterial threats within their bodies also underscores the upside of antibiotic resistance: if we act now, there is much that can be done to prevent the problem from getting worse. Unfortunately, antibiotic knowledge in the wider community is low, and few people understand what needs to be done. A National Prescribing Survey found that 65% of Australian workers believe antibiotics are effective against colds and flu, a myth that results in thousands of unnecessary prescriptions every year.

So what can you do? There are three main areas in which your actions can make a difference.

dracula sneeze

Good hygiene

This is basic stuff we all get taught in Kindergarten, but it’s critically important to help stop the spread of bacteria in the first place.

  • Stay at home if you’re sick. Soldiering on might make you feel personally virtuous in the short term, but it’s a false economy that puts the community at risk.
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water. Avoid products, either personal care or for cleaning your home, that contain antibacterial ingredients like Triclosan. They are no more effective than traditional cleaners and may contribute to resistance.
  • Use tissues when you cough or sneeze. If there aren’t any around, sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand.
  • Avoid touching your face, and wipe down shared surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards regularly.


Proper antibiotic use

From the Centre For Disease Control:

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about antibiotic resistance.
  • Ask whether an antibiotic is likely to be beneficial for your illness.
  • Ask what else you can do to feel better sooner.
  • Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.
  • Do not save some of your antibiotic for the next time you get sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.
  • Take an antibiotic exactly as the healthcare provider tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect.
  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
  • If your healthcare provider determines that you do not have a bacterial infection, ask about ways to help relieve your symptoms. Do not pressure your provider to prescribe an antibiotic.

And finally, talk to those around you. Make sure your family uses antibiotics properly, and understands the very real and pressing risk of resistance. Antibiotic misuse is a community issue, and we can only prevent it by being aware of our duties to the most vulnerable: newborns, the elderly, and immunocompromised people are most at risk of developing incurable infections. Take your responsibility seriously, and make sure antibiotics aren’t a happy blip in the history of our species.

Photo Credit
Shawn Oster, Pills (CC)
gif from
Dracula sneeze courtesy of the University of Arizona Health Service
lamentables, antibiotics (CC)
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Green washing or greenwashing? Laundry chemicals exposed

are these chemicals being greenwashed

Chemicals. What does the word mean for consumers? Is your laundry powder sold using greenwashing claims? Should you be worried? Using laundry detergent as a case study, Eleanor Robertson puts chemicals under the microscope.

The word ‘chemical’ is powerful. Say it, and we tend to picture 44-gallon drums full of mysterious green sludge, perhaps labelled with skull and crossbones. These images and associations are echoed in advertising for many products, which use the terms ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’ to imply that they’re healthy, green, and non-toxic.

Is this accurate? Well, not really. So what’s the story?

What is a chemical?

In order to determine what substances we should care about when we’re buying things, it’s essential to understand what the terms on product labels mean. Many products advertise themselves as chemical-free or ‘natural’, but these terms don’t have an agreed-upon meaning. Plus, items like laundry powder aren’t required to list their ingredients on the package, so it can be hard to figure out what’s actually in them.

In the strictest sense of the word, everything is made of chemicals. A chemical is just a compound, or an arrangement of molecules, that science has named. Everything can be described in chemical terms — including things we think of as natural like air, food and water — so calling something ‘chemical-free’ is meaningless and misleading.


All the chemicals in that banana were formed by natural processes, but if you isolated any single one and compared it to the same chemical produced by humans in a lab, they’d look exactly the same. This is why the term ‘no synthetic chemicals’ doesn’t tell you much either.

What really matters

Usually when we buy products that make claims of ‘natural’ or ‘chemical-free’, we’re looking for something else: we want to know that what we’re purchasing isn’t going to make us sick, or harm the environment. What we’re really after is products that are non-toxic.

Buying products that are less harmful to people and the planet is obviously very important, which is why it pays to be a little skeptical of products that make environmental claims. Defining something as non-toxic is hard, because toxicity is related to quantity – which means that in large amounts almost everything is toxic to humans. That includes water. In terms of environmental impact, even Earth-friendly cleaning favourite Bicarb soda has issues: the Solvay process, an industrial procedure used to synthesise Bicarb, is not environmentally neutral.

It’s simply impossible to rely on eco-claims made on the product packaging, unless it’s been independently certified by a credible third party. Good Environmental Choice Australia, or GECA, certifies some laundry products — most are commercial rather than domestic, but if you like to buy in bulk it may be worth checking out.


What’s in my washing powder?


To dig a little deeper into what we use to wash our clothes, I checked out the ingredients in three supermarket laundry powders: one brand name that made no eco-claims, one brand name that did make eco-claims, and one supermarket own brand. While this isn’t a representative sample or a scientific test, it did turn up some interesting points. The ingredients for these laundry powders came from their Materials Safety Data Sheets, not the packaging. Not all laundry powders have MSDS available — try Googling the product and brand name along with ‘MSDS’ if you’re interested. I also investigated one recipe for ‘chemical-free laundry detergent’ from a popular eco lifestyle blog.

To determine how safe each ingredient is, I used the Environmental Working Group’s substances database. EWG gives substances an A-F ranking according to five criteria: Asthma/Respiratory, Skin Allergies and Irritation, Developmental & Reproductive Toxicity, Cancer, and Environment.

Regular brand (no eco claims)

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium sulphate


Sodium carbonate


Pentasodium triphosphate


Sodium silicate


Sodium tridecyl benzene sulphonate


Sodium carbonate peroxide


Tetrasodium pyrophosphate


Sodium hydroxide


Eco Brand

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium carbonate


Sodium lauryl sulphate


Disodium citrate


Sodium disilicate


Carboxymethyl cellulose


Alkyl polyglucoside


Supermarket own brand

Ingredient Ranking
Sodium carbonate


Protease (enzyme)


Sodium percarbonate


Chemical-free detergent recipe

Ingredient Ranking
Castile soap (olive oil-based vegetable soap)


Borax (Sodium borate)


Washing soda (Sodium bicarbonate)


The best-performing detergent in our non-representative sample was the supermarket own brand, with none of its ingredients ranking below B. The regular brand had ingredients ranked A-F, but more of its ingredients were ranked A than the eco brand, whose ingredients ranked A-C. Surprisingly, the borax used in the ‘chemical-free’ recipe rated F. Since 2010, the European Union has required products containing borax be labelled ‘May damage fertility’ and ‘May damage the unborn child’.

SPOTTED: Ridiculous eco-claims

  • No Sodium Chloride

Product contained three other types of sodium.
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate-free

Product contained Sodium coco sulphate, which is basically the same thing.
  • Plant-based

Product contained one plant-based essential oil. All other ingredients were minerals.
  • Free of harsh detergents

Contained Sodium coco sulphate.
  • No negative environmental effects

Ingredients were listed vaguely with words like ‘degreasers’ and ‘surfactants’, making this claim impossible to assess.
  • Just like Granny used to wash

I doubt Granny used potent biocide and possible cytotoxin Methylisothiazolinone to wash her clothes.

Takeaway messages

  • Chemicals make up everything we come into contact with. ‘Chemical-free’ is a buzzword, and stops us from rationally assessing which chemicals are better and which are worse.
  • Be skeptical of claims made on packaging unless they are backed up by a credible eco-label. It is very easy for products to create the impression that they’re safe for people or the environment when they are not.
  • In our example, the detergent that made eco claims was better than the one that didn’t, but even it contained a few nasty surprises.
  • The Home branded detergent had the fewest nasty substances, showing that products without eco-claims can sometimes be better than those with. However, which detergent is most effective is another question altogether!
  • If you’d prefer to make your own detergent, try a laundry liquid recipe with low health and environmental impacts.
  • Another good option is to try out soapnuts. These are the dried husks of the Sapindus fruit, which are compostable and contain safe, natural surfactants.
Photo credits:
Test tubes: Horia Varlan (cc)
Banana ingredients: courtesy of James Kennedy
Washing line:bies (cc)


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Ancient suds, modern miracle: Replace every product under your sink with Castile soap


What if you could replace a whole cupboard of cleaning products with one simple, environmentally preferable, animal friendly soap? Lucia Holding looks at the wonders of Castile soap.

A couple of weeks ago I took the first steps on my journey towards a home with no nasty, harsh products. Everyday household cleaners, beauty and self-care products can be quite toxic, and without even knowing it we could be polluting the planet. But don’t panic! There is a way to avoid the damage. The answer is simple: Castile soap.

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Otter’s tips for the Easter Bunny. Phew, there’s a handful!

Green eggs , not Easter eggs

Green Eggs (Flickr/Normanack) Copyright. Creative Commons License.

Easter is around the corner. A trip down the now colourful foil-filled aisles of the supermarket is all we need to remind ourselves that this holiday is now upon us. But with all these delicious offerings at our fingertips, how can we pick the eggs and Easter buns that will satisfy our tastebuds and our values, without the hassle? We’ve brought together the advice from a handful of guides to good eggs – many of of which can be found at your local store. Continue Reading →

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What’s the beef?! Meat Free Week put meat ‘on the table’


Photo: Australian War Memorial Collection

Melissa Dixon from Meat Free Week speaks to Otter about the impact of meat on our health, the environment and animals, and how we can change our meat consumption habits.

Ok, let’s get this on the table. We’re going to talk about meat. No, not slow roasted pork belly, wagyu beef or red duck curry, but rather how much of it you eat and what it’s doing to your health, and the health of the planet and its animals. And here’s the thing, after you’ve read this, we’re hoping you’ll want to talk about meat too.   Continue Reading →

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Your quick and easy guide to a natural clean

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 2.15.00 PM

Cleaning products are essential in every home – but regular commercial products often contain toxic chemicals that can harm you, your family or the environment. And the plastic packaging is hard to or re-use or recycle. Why not make your own? Your conscience will be as clean as your spotless home! 

Making your own cleaning products doesn’t have to be pricey or difficult. You’ve probably already got a bunch of ingredients that will clean your home safely, cheaply and naturally. What have you got lying around your fridge or pantry?

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