April 29, 2011

Green Ways to Save Money

I’ve always been a big reader and over the years I’ve read a healthy amount about how to be environmentally conscious. One of my biggest pet peeves about a lot of the advice out there is how unrealistic it is for regular people who don’t live in a major city, make a ton of money, or have many shopping options beyond Wal-Mart or Target. I read one book that could have been summed up on a single page with “go to this website for ridiculously overpriced ‘green’ cosmetics, this site for $100 organic t-shirts, and this centrally-located-in-places-where-you-can’t-even-afford-the-parking store for $200 worth of essential oils required to clean green.”

Green is simple. Green is easy. Green is cheap! Here are some of what I consider to be the best ways to save green while being green.

Stop buying cleaning products. You can clean your whole house with a few simple products like vinegar, baking soda, and peroxide. Cut up old t-shirts and towels for rags and you’ll save on paper towels and sponges as well. Cleaning green saves you money, reduces waste, and eliminates the need for chemicals that are harmful to you and the environment.

Prepare your own food. Pick up a morning coffee and buy some lunch and you’re easily spending $10 a workday. That adds up to about $200 a month, $2,400 a year! Invest in a thermos and brew your own coffee and you’ll break even after about a week. Plus, you’ll save all those throwaway cups. Pack a lunch (in reusable containers) and you’ll save money, avoid preservatives, and eliminate unnecessary waste (think of all those ketchup packets and napkins in take-out bags). Keep a stainless steel bottle of home-filtered water handy and you’ll save money on bottled water (which is often no cleaner than tap water) and cut down on waste.

Buy less. Instead of buying new books, CDS, DVDs, and video games, see what’s available at the public libraries in your area. Library consortiums allow you to borrow from the libraries in several neighboring towns. Used books stores are also great and often have more than just books. If there are none available in your area, Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble all offer used books as well.

Make your junk someone else’s treasure. Instead of throwing out clothes, furniture, appliances, tools, sports equipment, toys, books, and housewares, try selling them. Have a yard sale, use Craigslist or eBay, and check out local consignment shops. You’ll make money, while keeping those items out of landfills. Another option is to organize a swap with friends. Narrow it down to a category like clothes, home goods, or children's items, set a date and time, put out some snacks, and prepare to swap! Donate any goods you can’t sell or swap. Freecycle is a great online nonprofit that helps you to donate to people in your community.

Drive Less. We’re lucky that our family can get by with just one car. My husband takes his bike to the bus stop for work and I work from home. Now, I know this isn’t an option for everyone. But really think about it. Do you absolutely need as many cars as you have or any at all? Are walking, biking, carpooling, or public transportation options? Consider not only the car payments, but the money spent on insurance, gas, and maintenance. Check with your auto insurer. Some offer discounts for using public transportation (you’ll have to provide receipts) and/or for keeping low mileage on your car. Driving less will save you money, prevent ozone-depleting exhaust, and (if you walk or bike instead) improve your health.

April 27, 2011

Cleaning Green with a HEPA Filter Vacuum

Allergy season has begun and is expected to be longer than usual this year. Using a HEPA filter vacuum can provide some relief by reducing the amount of allergens inside your home.

HEPA stands for high efficiency particulate air. Essentially, it means you can clean the air as you clean your floors and upholstery. A lot of older vacuums kick up more dust than they clean. HEPA filters are designed to trap very small particles, picking up pollutants, dust, and allergens that would normally remain in the air. It is even thought that HEPA filter vacuums can reduce the level of PBDEs (harmful compounds found in many everyday household products) in a home.

A trademarked HEPA filter removes at least 99.97% of particles such as dust, animal dander, smoke, lead, mold and other allergens. It is important to make the distinction between true HEPA filters and "HEPA-type" or "high-efficiency" filters, which are widely advertised, but can actually be up to 55 percent lower in efficiency than true HEPA filters.

True or absolute HEPA filters must be able to trap at least 99.97% of particles of .3 microns to earn the HEPA label. True HEPA filters will have a serial number attesting to such a performance level. If you are in the market for a HEPA filter vacuum, check the label for a serial number and air cleaning test results before you buy.

HEPA-type or HEPA-like filters may closely resemble true HEPA filters, but they do not have to meet the same standards as true HEPA filters. These vacuums tend to cost less, but they are not as effective at cleaning the air as true HEPA filter vacuums.

A true HEPA filter vacuum is another great tool to have in your green cleaning arsenal.

April 25, 2011

Organic vs. Grass-fed Beef

Can't decide what cut of beef to get for tonight's dinner or this weekend's barbeque? How about the organic selection? Or grass-fed beef? What's the difference? Which is healthiest? And what about taste!?

Grass-fed beef comes from cows raised on pasture, the natural grass and shrubs diet of cows. Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and more nutritious than beef from grain-fed cattle. It contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid, and beta carotenes. Cattle raised on pasture tends to be leaner, making the meat less tender. Grass-feed beef is said to have a “gamey” taste. While many of the farmers that raise cows on pasture are organic or use limited amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics, such standards are not required to earn the grass-fed label.

For beef to be certified as organic, cattle must be raised on organic feed and have access to the outdoors. Organically-raised cattle cannot be treated with or fed antibiotics, growth hormones (which are strongly connected to cancer in humans), or genetically modified foods. Unless it is labeled grass-fed, organic cattle is fed organic grains (most likely corn). Therefore, organic beef is not as nutritious as grass-fed beef. What many people do not realize is that cows are natural grazers biologically designed to forage for plants, so feeding them grains, even organic grains, wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. There is also the environmental impact of all the fossil fuel energy used to grow the corn to feed cattle. As for taste, organic grain-fed beef tastes similar to the traditionally-raised beef to which most people are accustomed.

Health-wise, grass-fed beef would be one's best bet. Although not as clear-cut, grass-fed beef also seems to be the better environmental option. Finally, when it comes to taste, you'll have to try it out for yourself. I'm sticking with my veggie burger!

April 22, 2011

Eating Seasonally This Spring

Buying local is a great way to get fresh, healthy food that hasn’t been chemically modified to keep its appearance after traveling half way around the world. Buying local means buying seasonal . . . purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season in your area. By buying in season you get the freshest, best-tasting produce at the best price, while eliminating the environmental damage caused by shipping foods thousands of miles.

You can better plan your meals around what’s in season with the seasonal produce guide available from Natural Resources Defense Council.

With the arrival of spring, we here in the northeast can look forward to the following fruits and vegetables coming into season: apples, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, arugula, beets, bok choy, chard, collard, cress, dandelion, kale, mustard greens, sorrel, turnip, lettuce, mushrooms, parsnips, peas (snap and snow), radishes, rhubarb, spinach, sprouts, and strawberries.

Eating seasonally is a great reason to try new foods. Recipe sites like Allrecipes, Epicurious, Food Network, and Cooking Light all offer recipes by season. Martha Stewart, as always, goes above and beyond with her Seasonal Produce Recipe Guide. In addition to seasonal recipes, it lets you know what produce is in season, what to look for when selecting a particular type of produce, and how it should be stored.

Try eating seasonally. Your taste buds, wallet, and planet will thank you!

April 21, 2011

Green Mail

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) recently came out with a series of “Go Green” stamps. Each of the 16 Forever stamps promotes a different green action, such as planting trees or adjusting the thermostat.

These stamps, along with all USPS stamps, envelopes, boxes, labels, and stamped postal cards, are Cradle to Cradle certified. Cradle to Cradle “is a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles.” This means that not only can products be safely recycled, but the amount of energy and water used in production is also a consideration.

Electronic options, such as email or online applications, are always greener, but it's good to know there is a greener option available if you must snail mail.

April 20, 2011

How Green Are You?

Take the 5-minute quiz at practicallygreen.com and find exactly how green you are now. The quiz results include a personalized plan for how you can be more green and up your score. If you're looking to join a community of like-minded individuals, practicallygreen.com also allows you to share your personal action plan, view other members' goals, and share each others' progress and achievements.

April 18, 2011

Green Schools

A growing number of schools across the country are taking the initiative to go green. It's an enterprise I consider crucial in today's world. Let me explain why.

First, consider schools' carbon footprint. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 50 percent of the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed when machines are turned off. Imagine what's happening in schools! Now add in all the faucets left on by small children, the paper carelessly wasted by students of all ages, and the countless recyclables being tossed in the trash and that is one major footprint.

Then, there's the impact on children's health and their (closely related) ability to learn. According to the American Lung Association, schoolchildren miss more than 14 million school days a year because of asthma exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. A major contributor to that poor air quality is the toxic chemicals in the cleaning products used to clean schools. EPA studies show that poor indoor air quality can reduce children's ability to perform mental tasks involving memory, calculations, and concentration. While some environmental factors can be an impediment to learning, other can help bolster learning. Studies show that students in classrooms receiving the most daylight during the school day perform up to 20 percent better on math tests than children in classrooms with artificial lights.

Green schools strive to reduce their ecological footprint, while making the school environment more conducive to learning and all around healthier for students and staff.

Here are some ways you can help green up your child's school.

Pack lunches in reusable containers to avoid plastic and reduce trash.

Have your child walk, bike, or ride the bus to school if possible. Alternatively, you can organize a carpool.

If driving, don’t idle your car at the school's pick-up/drop-off area.

Ask your child's teacher if the school has a formal policy about unplugging computers and turning off lights at the end of the day and during down times like lunch and recess.

Volunteer to make signs for your child's teacher reminding children to turn off the faucet when they're done washing their hands.

Donate an air-cleaning plant to your child's classroom. NASA spent two years testing 19 different house plants for their ability to remove common pollutants from the air. The most effective plants were proven to be philodendron, English ivy, spider plants, dracaena, weeping fig, golden pothos, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, and snake plant.

Offer to help your child's teacher with green projects and activities, such as nature walks (children can keep a journal of what they observe), making recycled crafts like milk carton birdhouses, growing plants in the classroom, planting a tree outside the school, or starting a recycling program.

Be an example for other families. Check out Raising A Green Kid for more information.

Ready to go bigger? Organize a group for these green school initiatives.

Start your school's PTA or Wellness Committee (any school receiving federal funding for lunch programs is mandated to have one) on a get green campaign or establish a separate Green Team or Eco-Committee. The Green School Initiative offers a variety of resources to get you started.

Take the individual measures you've taken to a school-wide level. Encourage all parents to pack waste-free lunches and carpool. Install air-cleaning plants throughout the building and develop an energy conservation policy for the entire school.

Implement a no-idling policy for all cars and buses.

Seek out transportation companies with bio-diesel, clean diesel, natural gas or hybrid school buses.

Replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent ones. Consider the installation of skylights.

Start a school recycling program.

Opt for eco-friendly, non-toxic cleaning products. Many of the products used to clean school buildings contain toxic chemicals that pollute the air and threaten children's developing respiratory systems. Look for products with the EcoLogo or Green Seal label (a list is available at greencleaning.ny.gov/Products.asp), use micro-fiber mops and cloths, and convert to high efficiency equipment such as HEPA vacuum cleaners.

Convert to environmentally-friendly school and office supplies. At the very least, try to avoid products made of PVC or #3 plastic.

Go to epa.gov/iaq/schools/actionkit.html for a free Tools for Schools Action Kit. The step-by-step guide shows schools how to carry out a practical plan to improve indoor air problems at little, or no, cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff. The Kit provides best practices, industry guidelines, sample policies, and a sample IAQ management plan.

Make sure school grounds are maintained using Integrated Pest Management to reduce the use of chemical pesticides.

Consider a garden as a school-wide project. A school garden can be used in a variety of lessons – from art to science.

Remove vending machines and any other sources of processed foods from your lunch room. Promote fresh produce instead. This may involve that school garden or a CSA or Food Co-op program available from local farmers.

Green your school events. Cut back on disposable paper products and opt for reusable decorations.

For fundraisers, try selling energy efficient light bulbs, crafts made from recycled materials, or experiences instead of wrapping paper or candy.

Green up the curriculum. Earth Day Network's national GREEN Schools Campaign, in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and The Clinton Foundation, offers a variety of resources, including free K-12 environmental lesson plans and activities.

The Earth Day Network's goal is to green all U.S. schools within a generation. Help make that goal a reality by helping to make your child's school a Green School.

April 15, 2011

The ABC’s of Being Green

Always remember the three Rs . . . Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Every piece of advice about being green resonates back to at least one of these basic tenets.

Bike or ride the Bus instead of driving.

Clean green with homemade cleaning solutions made from simple and natural ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide.

Donate goods you can’t recycle or sell. Freecycle is a great online nonprofit that helps you to donate to people in your community.

Eat produce from the Environmental Working Group’s 15 Cleanest Fruits and Vegetables in place of produce from the Dirty Dozen list.

Filter your tap water with a home filtration system instead of buying bottled water.

Go outside! Turn off the TV and video games and let your kids explore outdoors. Check out state and national parks in your area and the variety of family friendly activities most of them offer.

Hit the local library or used book store for books, CDs, and DVDs instead of buying them new.

Install timers to automatically adjust your thermostat when you’re sleeping and out of the house.

Juice up your cell phone with a car charger. Or, when using the computer, charge your phone using the USB port. Both options will save energy compared to using a wall plug.

Keep rain water for a variety of non-potable uses, such as watering plants or washing your car, by installing a rain barrel.

Launder your clothes with ½ to ¾ of the manufacturer’s suggested amount. You’ll cut down on waste and get your clothes cleaner.

Make the most of each car trip by combining as many errands as you can. Save time and gas.

Nurture your skin with personal care products that are safe for your health and the environment.

Opt for energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs.

Purchase energy-efficient appliances to replace your old ones as they wear out.

Quit topping off your gas tank. It’s bad for your health and the environment.

Recharge your batteries (you’ll, of course, have to buy the rechargeable kind) instead of using disposable batteries.

Shower instead of taking baths. Try to keep it to 5 to 10 minutes.

Toss food scrapes and yard refuse into a compost bin to make your own organic, nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Utilize what you already have before buying anything new. Don’t just “shop your closet”. Shop your entire home. Go a step further and organize a swap (of clothes, shoes, and accessories; or home goods; or kid toys; or books and movies) with your friends.

Visit farmers’ markets in your area and support local farmers while getting super-fresh, locally-produced food.

Wash with fragrance-free soap. Opt for fragrance-free body wash, hand soap, shampoo, and moisturizer to avoid chemicals that are harmful to your health and the environment.

X April 22nd on your calendar. It’s Earth Day. Volunteer for events organized in your community. Can’t find any organized volunteer opportunities in your area? Get together with friends for a community clean-up of your own.

Yank out your stash of reusable shopping bags whenever you go shopping.

Zap away less energy by unplugging appliances, like toasters and coffeemakers, when they’re not in use. “Standby usage” accounts for anywhere from 6% to 26% of a homes' electricity use.


April 14, 2011

Green Kids Books

The adorable aardvark Arthur returns to book stores this month in Marc Brown's Arthur Turns Green. This new book comes (after a 10 year hiatus) just in time for Earth Day. Practicing what it preaches, the new Arthur tome is printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink.

Books are a great way to introduce concepts of environmentalism to even the youngest of children. My pre-schooler and I are big fans of Jeanine Behr Getz's Think Green!. The illustrations by Jenny Nightingale are fun and each page contains a simply stated idea about how kids can be green, such as “Green is . . . Freddy turning off his TV and light to save electricity before he leaves his room.”

Most little ones I know love character books. If that's the case with your child, you may want to consider Dora Celebrates Earth Day! by Emily Sollinger, the Handy Manny book Think Green by Marcy Kelman, or No Place Like Earth with Mickey and his clubhouse gang by Susan Amerikaner. You can also join Little Critter (I love this odd looking little guy) as he plants a tree, makes a climate control machine, and helps the polar bears in It's Earth Day! by Mercer Mayer.

For the over 4 set, there's Judith Angelique Johnson's Eco series: Eco-Neighbor's Guide to a Green Community, Eco-Student's Guide to Being Green at School, Eco-Shopper's Guide to Buying Green, and Eco-Family's Guide to Living Green.

I love Dr. Seuss. So, my absolute favorite green kids book, with a message for everyone big and small, is hands down The Lorax. First published in 1971, the story chronicles the plight of nature spokesperson Lorax (who speaks “for the trees because the trees have no tongues”) against the greedy Once-ler (representing industry). It's a beautifully illustrated story with a poignant message. The educational campaign The Lorax Project provides discussion questions, activity sheets, and lesson plans for educators. There's even going to be a Lorax movie. The 3D CGI film will be released on March 2, 2012, Dr. Seuss' birthday. I hope the movie is a fitting tribute to a man who was so far ahead of his time in teaching children about preserving the environment.

April 13, 2011

The Just Eat Organic Rap

As if you needed any more reason to eat organic . . .

Check out Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg and the Stonyfield Moms in their Just Eat Organic music video. Informative and thoroughly entertaining.

Earth Day 2011

The 41st annual Earth Day will take place on April 22nd. Find organized Earth Day events in your area on the Earth Day Network's web site.

The Earth Day Network's year-round mission is to broaden, diversify and activate the environmental movement worldwide, through a combination of education, public policy, and consumer campaigns. Their campaigns include greening schools, promoting green economic policies, creating green jobs and investment, and promoting activism to stop air and water pollution.

Visit EarthDay.org to learn how you can make every day Earth Day.

April 12, 2011

Does Nonstick Cookware Really Cause Cancer?

Nonstick cookware is great for easy-clean cooking and baking that requires little or no cooking oil. Yet, no amount of convenience is worth contaminating your food with a known carcinogen. The information out there can be confusing, but it's important to get the facts straight . . . does nonstick cookware really cause cancer?

All the hullabaloo revolves around a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that is used to bond the nonstick coating to cookware. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled PFOA as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans." Studies by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) show that high exposure to PFOA “can have a harmful impact on health and can damage the liver, cause developmental and possibly reproductive problems.” Now add to that the studies that show PFOA to be present in the bloodstream of 9 out of 10 Americans and in the blood of most newborns and my morning eggs no longer look so appetizing.

Before going any further, it's important to note that nonstick cookware is not the sole exposure source of PFOA. Furniture, cosmetics, household cleaners, clothing, and packaged food containers can all contain Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs), many of which break down into PFOA in the environment or in the human body. Some of the most popular PFC brand names are Teflon, Stainmaster, and Scotchgard. Check out the Environmental Working Group's Guide to PFCs to learn more about the health concerns associated with PFCs and how to avoid them.

Back to nonstick cookware and PFOA. There are measures you can take to avoid or at least reduce the amount of PFOA being released. First, only use nonstick cookware with medium heat (350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. Add water or oil to cookware to absorb heat before turning on a burner or the oven. Wash nonstick cookware by hand using nonabrasive cleaners and sponges and avoid using metal utensils or stacking pots and pans to avoid scratching. If any of your nonstick cookware does become scratched, toss it or (for a slightly more eco-friendly option) bring it to a scrap metal yard.

You can also rotate out any nonstick cookware with pieces made from other materials. Health Canada has a great overview of the benefits and risks of various cookware materials. I think it's best to have an assortment. Personally, I use stainless steel pots, a cast iron skillet (this is my go-to cookware piece), ceramic and Pyrex baking dishes, and silicone bakeware.

Just be wary of any of the new “green nonstick” cookware coming onto the market. In 2006, the EPA and eight major U.S. companies, including Teflon-maker DuPont, launched the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, where the companies committed to reduce their use of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, and to work toward eliminating it completely by 2015. Most recently these companies have been rushing to market replacement chemicals they claim are safer. These new chemicals, known as C6 chemistries, are a lot like PFOA (also known as C8) in that they persist in the environment, are extremely toxic to aquatic life, and can cross the placenta to contaminate babies before birth. Unlike PFOA, there is practically no information on their health risks. I'd steer clear until more information becomes available.

April 11, 2011

Decline of The Butterfly

The world butterfly population is on an ominous decline. Many butterfly species are on the verge of becoming or have already become extinct. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 23 species in the country as endangered or threatened.

The declining butterfly population is a more serious problem than many people realize. Butterflies are an important part of the ecosystem. They play the critical role of pollinator in plant reproduction. Plus, their extinction upsets the natural order of the food chain.

The decrease in the global number of butterflies is also an indication of some much greater problems going on in the world today. Some of the factors contributing to the declining butterfly population include the destruction of their natural habitat due to real estate development (about 6,000 acres a day), deforestation, global warming, and the widespread use of pesticides (especially those used for genetically modified crops).

There are now several organization dedicated to preserving butterfly populations. Many groups focus on restoring habitats, but some scientists are going as far as raising butterflies in captivity to be reintroduced back into their natural habitats.

One of the best known groups dedicated to the plight of the disappearing butterfly is Monarch Watch. In 2005 the group launched its Monarch Waystation program to encourage individuals, businesses, and local governments to plant indigenous milkweed in gardens, parks, zoos, and nature centers and around schools, businesses, roads and other unused plots of land. Milkweed is vital to butterflies. Female butterflies lay their eggs on its stems and leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they feed exclusively on milkweed. Monarch Watch has already helped establish more than 1,000 waystations in 43 states. To learn more, visit http://monarchwatch.org/.

Even if you don't plant an official waystation, milkweed is always a great addition to a garden. Your flowers, and the butterflies, will thank you.

April 8, 2011

Cleaning Green Supplement: Lemon and Baking Soda

In Cleaning Green I dubbed vinegar and peroxide the workhorses of the green cleaning arsenal. Most of your home can be cleaned with these two all natural disinfectants. Lemon juice (a bleaching agent) and baking soda (good for scouring) are two other all natural and non-toxic ingredients that are great for cleaning all over your home.

Cleaning with Lemon

  • Use lemon juice (bottled or fresh) to clean non-marble countertops. Just wipe on the juice with a cloth before rinsing with water. Pour extra juice on stains and wait for them to disappear before rinsing.
  • Lemon juice or half a lemon can be used the same way to clean a stainless steel kitchen sink. For extra cleaning power, mix in a bit of salt and scrub gently before rinsing.
  • Bleach stains on dishes, cutting boards, and other surfaces by pouring lemon juice on the stain and allowing it to sit before sprinkling baking soda and scrubbing.
  • Lemon can clean, shine, and remove rust stains from brass, copper, and stainless steel. Simply sprinkle half a lemon with salt and use it as a scrubber. Continue adding salt and buffing until all stains are removed. Finish by rinsing with water and buffing dry with a cloth. Note: Only use lemon on solid brass, never on brass plated.
  • Shine aluminum by buffing it with a cloth wet with lemon juice or half a lemon.
  • Add a teaspoon of lemon juice to dishwasher detergent for extra grease-cutting power.
  • Make easy work of cleaning the inside of the microwave by heating a mixture of lemon juice and water for a minute before wiping down the inside of the machine.
  • To freshen up the garbage disposal toss some lemon peel into the disposal while running hot water.
  • Make your own furniture polish by mixing two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice.
  • To remove rust stains from clothes, pour lemon juice on the stain and then rub in cream of tartar. Let the mixture sit until the stain disappears. Then launder as usual.
  • To bleach white clothes, soak them in half a cup of lemon juice mixed with a gallon of hot water for at least an hour. Then launder as usual.
  • To bleach white shoes, rub lemon juice all over the shoes and place them in the sun until dry.
  • Pour lemon juice anywhere you wish to repel ants.
  • Mix equal parts lemon juice and water for an all natural air freshener.
  • When cleaning with vinegar you can always add a bit of lemon juice to neutralize vinegar's strong scent.

Cleaning with Baking Soda

  • Keep a container of baking soda in the refrigerator, freezer, or any cupboard to prevent odors.
  • Sprinkle baking soda on anything you want to deodorize, including (but not limited to) garbage containers, hampers, gym bags, sneakers, and the dishwasher.
  • To remove odors from carpeting or upholstery, sprinkle the area with baking soda, let stand for at least twenty minutes, and vacuum. Repeat as necessary.
  • Remove tea stains on teapots and cups by soaking stains in a mixture of ¼ cup baking soda and 1 quart warm water overnight before washing.
  • Degrease dishes, ovens, and other surfaces by sprinkling baking soda on the grease and rubbing with a dry cloth. The baking soda will soak up the grease making it easy to rinse messes away.
  • To remove food burnt onto pots, pans, and grills, sprinkle with baking soda, add hot water, let soak overnight, and wash as usual.
  • Clean and polish silver, stainless steel, and chrome with a paste made of 3 parts baking soda mixed with one part water. Simply rub on the paste, rinse with warm water and dry with a soft cloth.
  • To remove scuff marks or grease spills from floors, sprinkle with baking soda and wipe clean with warm water.
  • To clean bathroom floors, mop with half a cup of baking soda mixed in a bucket of warm water and rinse.
  • Clean walls and laminate furniture with a damp cloth dabbed in baking soda. Think Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.
  • Give laundry detergent a boost by adding half a cup of baking soda to the wash.
  • Clean toys with a solution made from 4 tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in 1 quart of water. To clean stuffed toys, dust on baking soda, let it sit for 20 minutes, and dust off.

April 7, 2011

Microwave Popcorn: A Health Risk?

I have to admit that even someone as neurotic as me had trouble mustering up enough concern about microwave popcorn causing cancer. And then Wayne Watson showed up.

You see, Mr. Watson really loved popcorn, I mean really, really loved the stuff. So much so that he consumed at least two bags of microwave popcorn every day for over 10 years, taking deep inhales of that yummy butter smell every time. Then in 2007 a lung specialist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver diagnosed him with the first (and only) reported case of popcorn lung in a consumer of microwave popcorn (i.e., a non-factory worker).

So what does this mean for your next at-home movie night? Chances are you are not consuming such vast quantities of microwave popcorn (tests showed that the fume levels in Watson's home were comparable to those found in factories). And it's not the actual popcorn that can be harmful, but the chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags – the stuff Watson was so fond of inhaling.

The major culprit was diacetyl, a chemical used to give popcorn that butter taste. An alarming number of factory workers who regularly inhaled diacetyl on the job have become disabled or have died from severe lung disease. Most popcorn manufacturers have stopped using diacetyl, but the “newer, safer, butter substitutes” aren't proving to be any safer, with some being just as toxic as what they replaced, or even newer – most are actually just another form of diacetyl.

Then you have perfluorooctanoic (PFOA), a chemical coating used in microwave popcorn bags, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified as a “likely carcinogen.” Also, not very appetizing.

I don't know about you, but even if I know I'd never get popcorn lung just knowing about these chemicals and the harm they can inflict on people and the environment is very unappetizing indeed. But luckily for us, there is an incredibly easy and inexpensive way to avoid the chemicals in microwave popcorn. Buy a bag of kernels (less than $3 at the grocery store) and a stack of brown paper lunch bags (I found them at 50 bags for a dollar). Place a handful of kernels in the bag, fold over the opening of the bag a few times, and pop in the microwave for 2 or 3 minutes (until the popping slows down). Pour on some REAL butter (or, as I prefer, olive oil) and your favorite toppings (e.g., salt, Parmesan cheese, cinnamon and sugar, chilli powder, etc.), shake it up to distribute the flavor, and enjoy. That works out to about 8 cents a bag! If only all health concerns could be resolved so deliciously!

April 6, 2011

Homemade Beauty Treatments

We’ve gone over how nasty chemicals are being found in our personal care products and how the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database can help you find products with no (or at least fewer) carcinogens, allergens, and endocrine disruptors. I’ve even provided a list of my favorite products that are easy to find, moderately-priced, and have a low hazard score in the EWG’s database. If you’re ready to go a step further though, there’s another option that’s easier and cheaper with NO hazard score . . . homemade beauty products!

Here are some of my favorite all-natural beauty products that you can make at home. I don’t like getting too fancy, so most are very simple recipes that require little more than a trip to the pantry.

  • Mix 1 part olive oil with 2 parts canola oil to create a makeup remover that will help prevent wrinkles and leave your skin feeling super soft.
  • Instead of AHA products to even out skin, try rubbing either the pulp of an orange slice, a pineapple slice, or mashed strawberries on your face. Leave on for 20 minutes before rinsing with lukewarm water.
  • For super soft skin apply half a mushed up banana to your face for 20 minutes.
  • Add a little sugar, oatmeal, or wheat germ to your regular cleanser for some added exfoliation.
  • Lemon juice or witch hazel can be used to dry up a pimple. You can also mix them with water to create a toner.
  • If you start breaking out, try applying a paste of baking soda and water for 10 to 15 minutes before rinsing with cool water.
  • Gently rub a mix of brown sugar and olive oil on your lips for a yummy lip exfoliation. Follow up with a soothing lip balm. I’m a big fan of Burt’s Bees myself.
  • After shampooing, rinse your hair with apple cider vinegar followed by cold water. It’s worth putting up with the smell (it goes away once your hair is dry) for this kind of shine.
  • If your hair is thick and prone to dryness, you can coat it with olive oil for a half hour before shampooing once or twice a week. Note: There are a lot of different recipes for homemade hair masks. I can’t really comment on them other than to say anything involving honey on your hair is not a good idea. At least not long, thick hair like mine. Learn from my homemade beauty faux pas!
  • I always keep pure Vitamin E oil (check the label to make sure it’s not mixed with soybean oil or other diluting ingredients) on hand. It’s great for dry lips. When my skin gets especially dry in the winter, I add a couple drops to my regular night cream. Sometimes, after my morning moisturizer, I dab a tiny (and I mean teeny tiny; the oil slick look is not pretty) bit on the very tops of my cheeks for a subtle sheen.

April 4, 2011

A Greener Cup of Coffee

Americans drink over 400 million cups of coffee a day leading to 58 billion paper cups in the trash every year. And that’s only part of the damage the tremendous coffee industry inflicts on the environment. Here is how you can reduce the carbon footprint of your next cup of Joe:

Brew your own coffee at home. You’ll save money, a disposable cup, and all those unnecessary accoutrements (lid, plastic stirrer, cup sleeve, etc.). You can brew your favorite blend and know exactly what you’re getting in each cup – no synthetic creamers, syrup, or other artificial ingredients. Just avoid coffeemakers with single-use "pods.” They are extremely wasteful. A much greener and less expensive option is to purchase a permanent filter for your coffeemaker (they run less than $10) or use a French press which requires no filter and uses even less energy.

Re-purpose coffee grounds. Coffee ground make a nitrogen-rich addition to your compost. They also make great plant food and can be used to keep ants, snails, and slugs away.

Bring your own mug. If you do go out for coffee, remember to bring your own reusable mug. It’s much more enjoyable to drink from and many coffee shops will give you a discount for bring your own mug. Starbucks has a nationwide policy of giving a $0.10 reusable mug discount on any beverage.

Opt for Fair Trade and Organic. To have their product certified as fair trade coffee growers must practice sustainable farming techniques and ensure living wages and safe working conditions for workers. Fair trade protects the environment and people. Many fair trade coffees are also organic, which means they are grown without using harmful chemical fertilizer or pesticides.

Choose shade-grown coffee. Go a step beyond fair trade and organic by choosing shade-grown coffee. Some coffee growers strip huge areas of the rain forests down to the bare ground, destroying the local ecosystem, in order to plant more coffee shrubs. Shade-grown or bird friendly coffee is harvested from shrubs grown in the natural shade of rain forest trees. The beans mature more slowly creating a richer flavor. Shade-grown coffee needs less fertilizer, prevents soil erosion, requires few if any pesticides, and promotes biodiversity.

Ask your local coffee shop to stock Fair Trade, Organic, and Shade-Grown options. Remember, it never hurts to ask. The more people that do, the more likely businesses will listen. Starbucks will brew a French press of fair trade coffee for anyone who asks.

Give the gift of greener coffee. Next time you're stuck for a gift idea, consider giving eco-friendly coffee, a reusable coffee filter, and/or reusable coffee mugs. The three together would make a great gift basket for the coffee lover in your life.

Now raise your (reusable) mug and lets toast to that greener cup of coffee!

April 2, 2011

Understanding Egg Labels

When you go to buy eggs for this year's Easter festivities will you opt for the least expensive kind? The white ones for better dyeing? What about when you want an easy, inexpensive and nutritious breakfast? Do labels like Cage-Free or Omega-3 Fortified influence your decision or confound you? The following is a rundown of the labels you may encounter in the grocery aisle and what exactly they mean about what you're getting in your omelet.

Certified Organic: Organic eggs must come from chickens that live in a cage-free environment, have access to the outdoors (even if it is a very small space), and are fed an organic vegetarian diet free of animal by-products, commercial fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically engineered food. Due to the high cost of obtaining organic certification, organic eggs can cost about $4 a dozen.

Free-Range or Free Roaming: Unlike organic eggs which must undergo a third party verification process, there are no set standards to qualify eggs as free-range. Free-range means nothing more than that the hens were un-caged with at least some access to the outdoors. In theory, free-range eggs should be more nutritious because the chickens are outside absorbing Vitamin D from the sun and (as natural omnivores) eating insects for protein. But since the USDA has no certification process for free-range eggs, one has no way of knowing how much outdoor space hens were given or if they ever even took advantage of the opportunity to go outdoors. Free-range eggs can cost up to $5 a dozen.

Cage-Free: This label indicates that hens were un-caged, although most likely within a barn or warehouse. There is no guarantee that chickens had any access to the outdoors. This term is not regulated by the USDA and there is no certification process. Cage-free eggs average just over $3 a dozen.

Omega-3 Enriched/Enhanced: This label means hens were fed either fish oil or flaxseed. Since this label is unregulated, there is no way to know how much omega-3 is in these eggs. They average over $3 a dozen.

Certified Humane: To qualify for the Certified Humane label, egg producers must leave hens un-caged (although no outdoor time is required) and able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are also requirements for stocking density and the number of perches and nesting boxes, but none regarding what they can be fed. About two-thirds of cage-free eggs carry the Certified Humane label. Compliance with Certified Humane standards are verified by a third-party.

Vegetarian-Fed: This label simply means the hens were raised on feed free of animal by-products. Eggs with this label are not commonly found in supermarkets.

Natural or Naturally Raised: Anyone can put this label on their product. There are no regulations for labeling eggs as natural.

Hormone Free: Another superfluous label. All eggs are hormone free since the practice of using hormones in poultry was banned in the 1960s.

Finally, although they average about 50 cents more than white eggs, brown eggs are not nutritionally any different. Eggshell color is determined by the type of chicken.

So, at the end of the day many egg labels don't give you a definitive answer about what is in that carton. A free-range egg from a local farm and a free-range egg from the chain supermarket down the street can be two very different eggs. If you are going to cough up the extra money for eggs, your best bet is to go with organic. They have fewer antibiotics and chemical residue and tend to have higher levels of omega-3 and vitamin E. Organic is a certified label so you are guaranteed that these egg producers have met set standards. Plus, these farmers tend to be more environmentally-conscientious.