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Buying “green" can be confusing! Many products claim to be “natural," “eco-friendly" and “biodegradable." But what in the world does that mean? Unfortunately, because there's no standardized definition for any of these words, they're actually meaningless. In fact, many companies intentionally use vague words like these to market their products as if they're better for you and the environment than they actually are.

Here are 13 of the most reliable eco-labels in the market. What makes them so good? They've been defined by independent institutions or nonprofit organizations that have set meaningful criteria that companies must prove they've met in order to use the eco-label in question. When you shop for anything from produce to mattresses, look for these “third party" certifications to back up the claims a company makes regarding the environmental and human health benefits of their products.

1. Organic

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) collaborated with scientists, consumer groups, environmentalists and the agriculture industry to set standards for the meaning of the word "organic." Products labeled "100 percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. Products meeting either set of requirements may display the USDA Organic seal on their packaging. Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients may use the phrase "made with organic ingredients," but may not use the organic seal. Processed products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients may not use the term organic other than to identify the specific ingredients that are organically produced in the ingredients statement. Overall, when it comes to food, the organic label, while not perfect, is the best indicator that no or minimal pesticides, hormones and antibiotics were used for growing and processing.

2. Green Seal

For more than 25 years, this nonprofit, science-based organization has developed certification standards to minimize the environmental and health impacts related to cleaning products, coffee, paint, windows, even sticky notes. To earn the Green Seal, a product must meet rigorous evaluation and testing objectives, as must the facility where it is manufactured.

3. SCS (Scientific Certification Systems)

SCS certifies environmental claims related to recycled content, certified organic ingredients, water efficiency and sustainable forestry. SCS certifications meet international environmental labeling standards as well as guidelines issued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for responsible environmental marketing.

4. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

FSC sets standards to ensure that forests are being managed in an environmentally responsible way, and that products like timber, paper and furniture are made sustainably.

5. LEED

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) label represents a green building rating system for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. A program of the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

6. ENERGY STAR

This label, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, indicates homes and buildings, plus appliances, computers, lightbulbs, copiers, printers, furnaces and many other products that meet strict energy-efficiency guidelines that help save energy and money and protect the environment.

7. Veriflora

Developed by SCS (see above), this label is awarded to flower growers who do not use "extremely hazardous" or "highly hazardous" agrochemicals. The Veriflora label also indicates that growers are converting to organic and sustainable crop production practices. The standard contains extensive water and ecosystem protection measures to ensure that farmers are not damaging surrounding wildlife or habitats. In addition, it requires growers to provide a fair, equitable and safe workplace for their farmers.

8. Fair Trade Certified

This label demonstrates that the farmers and workers behind Fair Trade goods were paid fair wages and have opportunities for better health care, housing and education. The Fair Trade label is attached to coffee, chocolate, cocoa, tea, fruit, rice, sugar, spices and a variety of clothing and crafts produced in developing countries.

9. Certified Humane Raised and Handled

This label provides independent verification that the care and handling of livestock and poultry on farms enrolled in the program meet high-quality, humane animal care standards. These include access to clean and sufficient food and water; sufficient protection from inclement weather; and enough space to move about naturally.

10. Leaping Bunny

Leaping Bunny is the certification program of the Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics. The mark certifies that companies have not tested their products on animals during any stage of development. The company's ingredient suppliers make the same pledge. Look for the Leaping Bunny label on cosmetics and personal care, household and cleaning products.

11. Marine Stewardship Council

The Council's eco-label indicates seafood that comes from certified sustainable and well-managed fisheries. Look for it on fish and shellfish.

12. Demeter

This label represents the Demeter Farm Standard, which indicates that a farm is organically farmed, GMO-free and also operated to promote soil fertility, animal welfare, conserve water, protect biodiversity and managed to follow the cycles of nature. Look for it on wine, tea, juice, pasta, sauces and many other foods.

13. NON-GMO Project Verified

This label indicates that products bearing it have been produced according to the best available practices for avoiding genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). It does not promise that a product is "GMO free" because there is always some risk that seeds, crops, ingredients and products have been exposed to GMOs somewhere along their growing or production cycle. It does, however, create a powerful incentive to seed breeders, farmers, processors and manufacturers to adopt practices that reduce use of GMOs while giving consumers a way to limit their exposure.

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From bamboo utensils to bamboo toothbrushes, household products made from bamboo are becoming more popular every year. If you have allergies, neck pain or wake up constantly to flip your pillow to the cold side, bamboo pillows have the potential to help you sleep peacefully through the night.

In this article, we'll explain the benefits of bamboo pillows and how they can help you on your journey to better sleep. We'll also recommend a few of the best pillows on the market so you can choose new bedding that's right for you.

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As the UK cleans up after being lashed by the remnants of Hurricane Bertha, which brought summer flooding and travel disruption, it is also reaping the benefits of a boost to the country’s wind industry brought by the storm, with output hitting near record highs.

A surge in wind power say clean energy outstrip coal in the UK. Creative Commons: Tom, 2010

Wind power met almost 16 percent of the UK’s power demand on Monday morning, and 13.1 percent of demand over the preceding 24 hours.

The strong performance meant wind power output exceeded coal power—which accounted for 11.3 percent, according to trade body EnergyUK.

It also took output to levels close to the record set during last December when wind energy met 10 percent of electricity demand throughout the month and peaked at 17 percent of demand.

The UK has broken a series of wind records over the past 12 months, and last week new government figures confirmed that 2013 had seen around 15 percent of electricity in the country come from renewables—7.9 percent of which was provided by onshore and offshore wind turbines.

The plentiful supply of wind energy is also helping to pick up the slack this week as French energy companies EDF was forced to shut down four nuclear reactors in the UK.

The reactors are expected to remain closed for eight weeks—after a fault was found in a boiler unit—but National Grid have said the closures should not affect the UK’s energy supply.

It told the Financial Times:

Demand is low at this time of year, and a lot of wind power is being generated right now.

This is an ironic turn of events, with critics of renewables arguing that surges in output caused by weather conditions create problems as renewable energy can not provide a reliable supply.

They argue such sources of energy will also fail to deliver the needed steep emissions reductions as back-up power capacity is still needed.

But the National Grid has said it can manage high levels of variable renewables, and this week’s events have shown that large reactors and generators can also suddenly go offline with no warning.

As recent government figures have show, in 2013 the load factors from onshore and offshore wind actually exceeded or equaled that of gas at nearly 28 percent.

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On Aug. 4, an approximately 580 acre impoundment failed at a Canadian gold and copper mine near Likely, British Columbia. The breach at Imperial Metal's Mt. Polley mine dumped an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of toxic mine waste into the surrounding environment. On Aug. 5, Landsat 8 acquired an image of the mine showing that grey sludge from the tailings dam has entered Polley Lake, saturated the entire length of Hazeltine Creek and entered Quesnel Lake more than five miles downstream of the failed impoundment. 

BEFORE: Mt. Polley Mine and Quesnel Lake, British Columbia, Canada: A Landsat 8 satellite image acquired July 29 shows the pond intact and Hazeltine Creek barely visible. Source: USGS/Landsat

The spill has prompted drinking water bans throughout the region, since the pond contains a slurry laden with arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and other toxic metals and compounds.

AFTER. The pond has breached and grey mine waste can be seen entering Quesnel Lake over five miles away. Credit: USGS via SkyTruth

The president of Imperial Metals, Brian Kynoch, claims that the water in the tailings pond is "near drinking water quality" and expressed disbelief that the impoundment could fail so catastrophically, despite the fact that Canadian officials had issued multiple warnings to Imperial Metals for exceeding water quality standards for effluent and exceeding the permitted wastewater levels in the pond.

Local citizens anticipating the arrival of a salmon run now fear the worst for the environment and tourism, especially as they begin to document dead fish in Quesnel Lake. 

Environmental groups across North America will be watching this story closely given the similarities to the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, the world's most productive wild salmon fishery. Tailings ponds at Pebble mine would cover a surface area 13 times larger than the Mt. Polley impoundment and would have similar earthen dams taller than the Washington Monument.

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A case going before the Ohio Supreme Court could have a major impact on distributed generation in the state, while raising questions about corporate separation and possible conflicts of interest for regulated utilities.

The PUCO’s recent decision holds that customers who provide excess electricity to the grid are entitled to the full value that would be charged under the electricity part of their bills. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) recently confirmed that net-metering customers are entitled to the full value of the electricity they feed back into the grid from renewable energy and other distributed generation technologies.

However, FirstEnergy and American Electric Power (AEP)’s Ohio utilities are trying to reduce the amounts customers will get for that excess electricity. The utilities, along with Dayton Power & Light and Duke Energy, also raised other objections to the rules.

On July 23 the PUCO denied FirstEnergy’s third request for rehearing. AEP’s Ohio Power Company has already appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Ohio. FirstEnergy has not yet announced whether it will appeal as well.

Power in and power out

Net metering is a way for customers who produce some or all of their power to avoid overcharges for electricity they do not need. Those customer-generators may have solar panels, wind turbines, certain types of combined heat and power systems or other types of on-site generation.

Net metering also provides a way for those customers to get compensation for any excess electricity they feed into the grid. In those cases, Ohio law says customers are entitled to the value of “that electricity.”

The big question in the PUCO case is what that value is.

Because of a 1999 deregulation law in Ohio, customers have a choice of which company provides their electricity. Electric distribution utilities are still regulated monopolies, however.

The regulated utility handles all the billing, but customers’ bills have two main parts: distribution and generation.

Ohio customers’ electric bills have two main parts: distribution and generation. Image by Kathiann M. Kowalski.

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Distribution includes the equipment and work the utility does to carry and deliver electricity to its customers.

The other main part of customers’ bills covers electricity generation. If the utility is not the generation provider, it transmits payment to the electrical services company.

The PUCO’s recent decision holds that customers who provide excess electricity to the grid are entitled to the full value that would be charged under the electricity part of their bills.

Most of that charge depends on the market value of energy, which fluctuates. The rate also reflects a fixed “capacity” price, which is determined from annual auctions by the grid operator, PJM.

“It’s about 15 percent of the generation portion of the customer’s electric bill,” said FirstEnergy spokesperson Doug Colafella.

The utilities say customers producing excess electricity should only get the energy part of the electricity rate, and nothing for capacity. That’s how things have been handled so far, Colafella said. “We’re saying let’s follow the original rules that were put in place.”

“If a customer generates excess power, essentially they would be credited just for the energy that they produced and didn’t need,” Colafella explained. Including capacity would require larger payments.

“The PUCO is now saying that we would have to credit that kind of customer an average of about 15 percent more,” Colafella observed.

Utility company filings cite a 2002 Ohio Supreme Court case, which held that customers providing excess electricity to the grid should not get reimbursed for amounts covered by the distribution portion of the bill.

“The court stated that the net-metered customer did not contribute to the cost of PIPP [low-income support] charges, transmission, distribution, etc.,” explained Dan Sawmiller at the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Inasmuch as the Court holding said that customers were entitled to the full generation rate, that would include capacity and energy.”

The PUCO said that its rulemaking decision complies with both the 2002 court case and the Ohio statute.

“[E]lectricity supplied to a customer-generator includes components such as capacity, demand, and energy,” the PUCO wrote. Its July decision confirmed rulings on the issue in January and May.

The PUCO also noted that Ohio law bars utilities from charging higher retail rates to net-metering customers than they would pay without their own generation.

Not compensating for part of the electricity charge could result in a different rate.

“The net metering rules require utilities to provide net metered customers compensation for electricity delivered to the grid at the same price that the utility would charge (including capacity and energy) for delivering electricity to the customer,” said Lawrence Friedeman, vice president for regulatory affairs and compliance at IGS Energy in Dublin, Ohio. The company promotes the development of distributed generation projects.

“IGS supported the Commission’s net metering rules because they provide reasonable compensation to distributed generation resources and enable them to compete on more level footing with traditional power plants,” Friedeman said.

Encouraging distributed generation with reasonable compensation for electricity going into the grid is “good public policy,” Friedeman stressed. “Distributed generation projects are on-site, reliable and local, energy efficient, and are cleaner than traditional power plants."

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Potential windfalls

Both camps in the net metering dispute see the other side gaining an unfair advantage if their position prevails.

“For most customer-generators there is no way to ascertain whether they have contributed to a reduction in capacity costs,” Colafella said. “If they don’t provide capacity, they should not be paid for capacity.”

On the flip side, any excess electricity fed into the grid can be sold to other customers. Those other customers would almost certainly pay the full generation rate, without getting any discount for capacity.

“There’s certainly the potential for a windfall” to utilities, said Martin Kushler, a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

Conflicts of interest

Indeed, Ohio’s four large electric utilities have unregulated affiliates that sell electricity.

“It creates this very direct conflict of interest,” said Kushler.

The less customers can get for electricity they put into the grid, the longer it takes to pay off the capital costs for their own generation. Less financial incentive to choose those technologies would reinforce demand from existing electricity suppliers.

“This seems to get into even more issues of corporate separation—yet another attempt by an Ohio distribution utility to make its generation affiliate more profitable,” Sawmiller agreed.

Similar reasoning explains why FirstEnergy and other utilities supported the recent rollback of Ohio’s energy efficiency standard, Kushler said. “Arguably, at least under traditional regulation, the utility would have some obligation to minimize costs to their customers.”

However, that’s not what happened with Ohio Senate Bill 310, he says. The new law, signed by Gov. John Kasich (R) in June, freezes the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for two years and then scales them back significantly.

“Energy efficiency was saving electricity at about 2 cents a kilowatt-hour—far cheaper than any source of supply—and yet the vested interests were successful in decimating Ohio’s energy efficiency policy,” Kushler said.

So far, three of Ohio’s four electric distribution utilities have said their energy programs will continue for at least part of the freeze period under SB 310. FirstEnergy is the exception.

“At this point we have not made any decision as to whether we’re going to make any changes to our current plan,” Colafella said.

“I would be totally shocked if they do anything but cancel those programs,” said Rob Kelter, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “It would negatively affect FirstEnergy customers, but it would help their unregulated affiliate sell more electricity.”

Meanwhile, on the federal level, FirstEnergy’s ongoing FERC challenge aims to exclude demand response from the results of May’s capacity auction for 2017-2018.

“We believe that removing these demand resources from the capacity market is going to provide vital compensation for essential physical assets like nuclear, coal, [and] gas base load plants,” Colafella said. “It’s going to help foster properly functioning capacity markets.”

“Demand response presents absolutely zero reliability concerns,” Sawmiller noted. “It won’t freeze like a coal plant did during the polar vortex. In addition, it’s incredibly cheap. This applies downward pressure to capacity prices, lowering electric bills for all customers.”

“If FirstEnergy is able to reduce the amount of demand response that goes into these auctions, it will raise prices for customers,” Sawmiller added.

“Having demand response bid in lowers the price for all the generators that bid in,” Kushler agreed. Conversely, keeping demand response out would raise the auction’s closing price. In Kushler’s view, FirstEnergy’s attempt to exclude it is yet another “classic conflict of interest.”

ACEEE, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

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