By Carlen Altman
Now that Halloween has come and gone, and our scary sexy cat costumes are back in our closets (or the trash, if we're being honest), let's talk about something frightful of a different nature: A forest fire in Indonesia is burning so intensely that its toxic smoke and devastation can be seen all the way from outer space.
The culprit behind this ecological disaster? Palm oil, an ingredient we don't think about much but which is found in half of the packaged products we eat and use everyday (including shampoos, detergents, lipstick and, ironically, in much of the Halloween candy most of us enjoyed this weekend).
Palm oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world, and has many names and forms, including palmate, PKO (palm kernel oil) and sodium lauryl sulfate. If you open your fridge or medicine cabinet, chances are you’ll notice one of these names listed as an ingredient in at least one of the items you own.
Of course, palm oil itself is not causing the devastation we’re witnessing in Indonesia; it's the way human beings are harvesting it that’s to blame. Palm oil loggers often use an inexpensive but extremely destructive tactic called "slash and burn" agriculture, wherein they set fire to the rainforest (rather than cut down trees one by one) so they can quickly burn everything down and create flat land to plant rows and rows of palm oil trees.
As the name suggests, loggers are burning millions of acres of virgin rainforest in the process. The ongoing fire that has resulted from slash and burn techniques is destroying a home to indigenous people, as well as to species like Asian elephants, orangutans, sun bears and tigers.
What's more, the smoke and pollution being left in the wake of this destruction is releasing more pollution and climate-changing carbon dioxide into our planet's atmosphere than the entire U.S. economy. Children are even forced to wear masks to prevent respiratory infections caused by the ongoing fire.
So what’s something we can do right now to stop the devastation happening in Indonesia and help our planet?
1. Look at all the products in your house. See if any of them contain palm oil.
Here is a great tool for figuring this out, and for figuring whether the companies that own the products we buy are committed to harvesting palm oil without using slash and burn techniques.
2. Commit to buying only palm oil products that are sustainably sourced. You can make this commitment at WeBreatheWhatWeBuy.com.
3. Check out "Unseen," an entertaining and informative film all about the palm oil industry produced by the World Wildlife Fund.
4. Know that your voice and purchase power makes a difference. After years of pressure from environmental and human rights activists, PepsiCo (one of the largest companies in the world to use palm oil) came out with a commitment to only sourcing palm oil from sustainable sources by 2020. Our collective voices (and threat to stop giving these companies our money) led to this change.
5. Talk about this issue with your friends. Most people have no idea the products we're buying are contributing to this disaster. Tell your friends what you've learned and post a photo on social media of you with your Palm Oil products with the hashtags #StopTheHaze and #Masihmelawanasap (in Malaysian).
Even if you're half way across the planet from Indonesia, know that your actions truly can make ripples that can change the world.