Quick Start Guide to Going Green

Being green is good not only for the environment but your health and your wallet as well. Seeing as there’s so much benefit, you probably want to get right on it. Here’s a quick start guide to getting green:

Clean Green. Ditch those expensive, smelly, chemical-laden cleaning products in favor of cheap, non-toxic solutions you can make right at home. Put distilled white vinegar in a spray bottle to create an all-purpose cleaner you can use on glass, mirrors, doorknobs, appliances, counter tops (just avoid using it on marble), toilets, showers, and bathtubs. Add a little baking soda for extra scrubbing power. Spray your kitchen countertops with undiluted vinegar and then 3% hydrogen peroxide to disinfect. This combination is as effective as bleach at killing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, but is safe enough to use on produce without so much as an aftertaste. As for your wood furniture, just mix two parts olive oil with one part lemon juice and apply it to your furniture using a soft cloth. You’ll save money on cleaning supplies, keep the plastic bottles they come in out of our landfills, and avoid harsh chemicals (many of which are known carcinogens) that can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritations.

Drink Green. By using a faucet-mounted water filter you can save money previously spent on bottled water (which is often no cleaner than tap water), cut down on plastic bottles, and improve the smell and taste of your drinking water by removing chlorine and bacterial contaminants. Drinking enough water every day is essential for staying healthy If you have a ready supply of clean, good-tasting, inexpensive water, you will be more likely to drink those recommended 8 to 10 cups a day.

Travel Green. Choosing to walk or bike in place of driving will save gas money, prevent ozone-depleting exhaust, and benefit your heart health. Public transit is another green, wallet-friendly option.

Eat Green. Buying only organic produce is not an option for anyone and knowing which organic produce is worth the extra cost can be confusing. The Environmental Working Group offers a great resource with its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of the 12 conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides, along with a list of the 15 cleanest fruits and vegetables. According to the EWG, you can lower your pesticide consumption by nearly four-fifths by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and instead eating the least contaminated produce. You can print out a wallet-size list or download the iPhone app at http://www.foodnews.org/. You will spend your grocery money more wisely, send a message to the food industry about how you want your food grown, and cut harmful pesticides from your diet.

Garden Green. No food tastes better than the one you grow yourself. Pick up a compost bin from Home Depot, Target, Sears, or possible even your town’s Department of Public Works, and you are well on your way to growing your own organic produce. Using compost you create from food scraps and yard waste keeps organic materials out of landfills, saves you money on commercial fertilizers, and nurtures your soil for growing diet-healthy vegetables.

The Case For Organic Cotton

Cotton, “the fabric of our lives”, is everywhere . . . clothing, towels, bedding, housewares, toys. But unfortunately cotton is as environmentally damaging as it is abundant. Cotton is considered the world's “dirtiest” crop due to its excessive use of insecticides. By excessive I'm referring to the fact that 16% of the world's insecticides are used on the 2.5% of land used to grow cotton. In the U.S. cotton growers are responsible for 25% of pesticides used. Some other unpleasant facts that may have you itching to get out of those cotton clothes:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled seven of the top 15 pesticides used in U.S. cotton production as "possible," "likely," "probable," or "known" human carcinogens. The World Health Organization considers the insecticides Aldicarb, parathion, and methamidopho to be the most acutely hazardous insecticides to human health – the three also rank in the top ten most commonly used in cotton production.
  • It takes almost a third of a pound of synthetic fertilizers to grow enough cotton to produce a single t-shirt. Nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major factor in increasing the greenhouse gas N2O. N2O is 300 times more potent than CO2.
  • Many pesticide residues have been detected in cottonseed hull – a secondary crop (i.e., the unusable leftover from the cotton plant) sold as a food product. As much as 65% of cotton production ends up in our food chain, either directly through cottonseed oil or indirectly through the milk and meat of animals given feed that contains cotton seed.
  • Cotton production uses massive amounts of water. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to grow enough cotton to produce one pair of jeans.
  • Ninety-nine percent of cotton farmers in the world live in developing countries, leaving the poorest and most disenfranchised among us to bear the brunt of cotton productions' negative health and environmental impact.

Organic cotton production, on the other hand, avoids the toxic chemicals that are so harmful to human health and the environment. By buying products made of organic cotton you support sustainable farming practices and humane treatment of workers and help keep harmful chemicals out of the environment and our food supply.

Organic cotton production still accounts for less than one percent of global cotton production, but it has seen significant growth in the past few years as more companies have started to offer organic cotton products. Consumers, with our power of the purse, can continue to drive that change to healthier production practices. Yes, organic cotton products are often more expensive than those made of conventional cotton, but when you consider the impact on human and environmental health it is certainly a justifiable expense. Plus, the more we support organic cotton, the more products will become available and the lower prices will drop.

You don't have to run out and replace all your cotton clothing and linens, but next time you do need something new consider the organic option. With more companies like Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Pantagonia, H&M, and Banana Republic offering organic cotton products you now have more choices than ever.

What to Look For in “Green” Cleaning Products

A clean home is a healthy home. Right? But how healthy can home cleaning products be if they make your eyes sting, irritate your skin, and/or are labeled poisonous? Green cleaning products get your home clean without harmful chemicals that are hazardous to the environment and your health. Just make sure to take a careful look at those labels to ensure you are truly getting a healthier product and not being duped by the latest company to jump on the green marketing bandwagon.

Start by looking for products certified by EcoLogo or Green Seal. To earn the these labels cleaners must meet certain health and environmental standards dealing with things like toxicity to aquatic and mammalian life, biodegradability, possible soil contamination, the risk of microbial resistance, labeling and packaging standards, and human health. Not all green products will be certified so use the following guidelines for selecting your own green cleaners.

Select products with 100% plant-based ingredients rather than the ambiguous “natural” label (after all, cyanide is natural). Look for products with primary active ingredients like tea tree oil, sodium borate (borax), soy, citrus oils, hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, and eucalyptus. These substances come from renewable resources, are biodegradable, contain no- or low-VOCs, and should not cause skin or eye irritation. Just take care to not use products with pine or citrus oil on smoggy or high ozone days because compounds in the oils can react with ozone in the air to form the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde.

Avoid products containing any of the following:

  • 2-butoxyethanol (also listed as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether) and other glycol ethers
  • Alkylphenol ethoxylates like nonylphenol ethoxylates, octylphenol ethoxylates, nonoxynols, and octoxynols
  • Ethanolamines like mono-, di-, and tri-ethanolamine
  • Quaternary ammonium compounds, which are usually listed as alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride (ADBAC), benzalkonium chloride, or didecyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride
  • Hydrocloric acid
  • Sodium acid sulfate
  • Fragrance

It's also advisable to pass on any products containing dye. It's an ambiguous ingredient that could mean a multitude of things – many of which are unsafe.

Take a products packaging into consideration as well. Look for lightweight packaging (the less packaging the better) made from recyclable and/or recycled materials. Choose pump sprays over aerosols and look for dispensers that help limit unnecessary exposure. Concentrated formulas help cut down on packing as do products that can be used with refillable dispensers.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid the harmful chemicals often found in household cleaning products is to clean your home with all natural products like vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, and baking soda. Check out Cleaning Green and Cleaning Green Supplement: Lemon and Baking Soda to learn more.

Eating Seasonally This Summer

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.

Now that summer is in full swing, we here in the northeast can look forward to the following fruits and vegetables coming into season: Beets, Blueberries, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cantaloupes, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Onions, Peaches, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, Raspberries, Strawberries, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelon.

Eating seasonally is a great reason to try new foods. Check out the seasonal recipe guides from Allrecipes, Epicurious, The Food Network, and Cooking Light. Martha Stewart's Seasonal Produce Recipe Guide, in addition to offering seasonal recipes, 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!

Greener Insulation

Properly insulating walls and attics is a great way to save energy and money on heating and cooling costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even stated that insulation saves 600 times more energy each year than all of the compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), Energy Star appliances and Energy Star windows in use combined.

Owens Corning (the company with the Pink Panther mascot) now offers a greener, less-itchier way of insulating your home. In January the company started replacing all of its traditional pink fiberglass insulation with a new product called EcoTouch. R-values, installation methods and prices remain the same, but the new insulation is formaldehyde-free and made from over 70% recycled glass content. Consumers don't need to wear a dust mask during installation and it shouldn't leave skin feeling itchy. EcoTouch Pink Fiberglas Insulation will be available nationwide by fall 2011.

This transitions is most likely a (delayed) response to green insulation pioneer Bonding Logic. Bonding Logic's UltraTouch insulation is made from used blue jeans. It uses no harmful chemicals during the manufacturing process and does not emit any chemicals that can harm indoor air quality. While it's a shame that it took Owens Corning a full decade longer to come out with formaldehyde-free insulation, it's great to have another green home improvement product on the market.

Natural Remedies for Common Skin Problems

For every skin problem there's several products out there claiming to be the cure all. Yet, we know that everyday personal care products can be loaded with harmful ingredients. Those suffering with skin problems such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea have enough to be concerned with without having to worry if treatments contain carcinogens, hormone disruptors, or harsh ingredients that will only worsen their condition. Taking the natural approach to soothing skin troubles helps keep toxic chemicals out of your body and avoids the severe reactions some aggressive treatments can cause.

The best way to start treating acne is from the inside out. Make these healthy skin behaviors habits: eat healthy, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, limit stress (the healthy diet, sleep, and exercise will help), never sleep with makeup on, wash your pillowcases regularly, wash your hands regularly, and avoid touching your face. Then, try these natural remedies for acne.

Apple Cider Vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is rich in alpha-hydroxy acids – the main ingredient in a lot of exfoliating and anti-aging skin care products. While it's not as strong as a lot of acne products on the market, it is fairly strong. So it's advisable that you try a patch test (apply to a small patch of skin and wait 24 hours) before using apple cider vinegar on your face. If the patch test shows no adverse reaction, mix one part vinegar with eight parts water (you can always adjust the ratio as needed) and apply to clean skin with a cotton ball. Allow skin to dry completely before moisturizing as usual.

Calendula. Calendula is used to treat a variety of skin irritations, from minor cuts and burns to dry skin and acne. Calendula has both antibacterial and antiviral properties so it soothes inflammation and speeds up healing. It is so gentle it can be used on all skin types. Look for creams and lotions containing calendula or use cooled calendula tea as a toner after you wash your face.

Tea Tree Oil. Tee tree oil is probably the most popular natural acne treatment available. It is very potent with anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It works by killing the bacteria that causes acne breakouts. Pure tea tree oil is very strong (a single sniff will leave your eyes burning), so it must be diluted. Start with mixing just a drop or two with a tablespoon of water and adjust as needed. Apply diluted tea tree oil with a cotton ball after washing your face. Allow skin to dry completely before moisturizing.

Witch Hazel. Witch hazel, thanks to its anti-bacterial tannin acid, makes a great astringent for acne-prone skin. It is strong enough to clear up acne-causing bacteria, but gentle enough to not disturb skin's natural pH balance. Apply witch hazel undiluted as a toner after cleansing.

Acne Scars
Aloe Vera. Aloe vera has been used for its healing properties for centuries. Over time aloe vera can help lessen the scars left by acne. Wash your face with a cleanser containing aloe vera and then apply aloe vera gel as a spot treatment.

Honey. Over time honey can also help fade acne scars. Opt for raw and natural honey. Apply honey to scars as a spot treatment at night. Honey can also be used as a facial mask to soften skin. Simply spread all over a clean face, allow to dry for 20 minutes, and then rinse it off with warm water.

Dry Skin
Drinking plenty of water and consuming a diet rich in magnesium, essential fatty acids, vitamin C, and beta-carotene can help make skin less prone to dryness. Try foods like oranges, mangoes, carrots, dark leafy greens, almonds and walnuts, and fatty-fish like wild Alaskan salmon. For topical treatments try:

Fruit. Foods like pineapple, papaya, and pumpkin are rich in alpha hydroxy acids – a natural exfoliator that helps slough off dead skin. For an all natural AHA mask, simply mash or puree the fruit and apply it to a clean face for 20 to 30 minutes before rinsing with cool water. Then moisturize as usual.

Honey. Honey is a great, all natural emollient. For a skin softening facial mask, apply a thin layer of honey (raw and natural is best) all over, allow it to sit for 20 minutes, and rinse with warm water. You can also apply honey to chapped lips and rough heels and elbows at night.

Oil. Nutrient-rich oils like olive, grapeseed, and almond oil all make great moisturizers. You can massage oil into dry skin for a few minutes before going about your usual cleansing routine. You can also add a few drops of oil (olive, grapeseed, almond, or vitamin E) to your regular moisturizer to boost its effects.

Sugar. Sugar mixed with oil (any of the aforementioned oils will work) makes a great skin softening scrub. Simply mix equal amounts of fine brown sugar and oil, massage into rough, dry skin for a few minutes, and rinse. Moisturize as usual.

Yogurt. The lactic acid in yogurt makes it an effective, yet gentle exfoliator. Apply plain Greek yogurt to a clean face and allow it to sit on the skin for about 20 minutes. Then, rinse with tepid water and moisturize as usual.

There are few effective natural remedies for eczema. So it is especially important to focus on prevention. To reduce flare ups keep skin well hydrated with creams or ointments containing low water and high oil content. Apply moisturizing treatments to damp skin immediately after bathing and continue moisturizing throughout the day as needed. Avoid some of the most common eczema triggers: heat, stress, scratchy fabrics like wool, harsh soaps and detergents, and environmental allergens (i.e., pollen, mold, dust mites, and animal dander). These natural remedies may help sooth skin completely or at least lessen your need for stronger over the counter treatments.

Calendula. Calendula is used to treat a variety of skin irritations. Calendula has both antibacterial and antiviral properties so it soothes inflammation and speeds up healing. It is so gentle it can be used on all skin types. Look for creams and lotions containing calendula or use cooled calendula tea as a toner after you wash your face.

Chamomile. Chamomile, with it's anti-inflammatory properties, is a common natural remedy for eczema and psoriasis. Apply cooled chamomile tea to skin with a clean cloth 2 to 4 times a day or opt for moisturizers and other skin treatments containing chamomile.

Flaxseed. Flaxseed is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids which help boost the immune system and fight inflammation. Flaxseed is often recommended to treat inflammation-based skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis. Start with one to two tablespoons of cold-pressed flaxseed oil, taken with food, daily.

Oily Skin
It's important to avoid the instinct to over clean oily skin. You don't want “squeaky clean” skin. Stripping skin of all its natural oils kicks oil production into overdrive leaving you worse off than when you began. If this is not the case, try the following remedies to soak up excess oil.

Apple Cider Vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is rich in alpha-hydroxy acids – the main ingredient in a lot of exfoliating and anti-aging skin care products. While it's not as strong as a lot of acne products on the market, it is fairly strong. So it's advisable that you try a patch test (apply to a small patch of skin and wait 24 hours) before using apple cider vinegar on your face. If the patch test shows no adverse reaction, mix one part vinegar with eight parts water (you can always adjust the ratio as needed) and apply to clean skin with a cotton ball. Allow skin to dry completely before moisturizing as usual.

Baking Soda. Adding baking soda to your liquid facial cleanser can help soak up excess oil. Simply add a small pinch of baking soda to a quarter-size amount of face wash, gently massage into skin, and rinse.

Egg. One of the simplest and most effective homemade facial masks you can make is an egg mask. Beat a single egg white, apply it to your face, let it sit for 15 minutes, rinse with tepid water, and allow your skin to air dry. Your skin will immediately feel firmer and look fresher.

Lemons. Lemon is full of collagen-boosting vitamin C and natural fruit acids that can help eliminate excess oil and balance out skin tone. Mix equal parts lemon juice and water, apply to your face, and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes before rinsing with tepid water. Alternatively, if your skin can tolerate it, you can slice off the quarter end of a lemon and rub the cut side of the lemon onto your skin for a few minutes. Then allow it to sit on your skin for 10 minutes before rinsing.

Milk. Whole organic milk makes a very gentle cleanser that can help balance skin's pH level. After cleansing your face, apply milk with a cotton ball, allow it to dry for 20 minutes, and then rinse with tepid water.

Psoriasis can be difficult to treat – naturally or otherwise. It is important to focus on prevention. Start by avoiding the most common psoriasis triggers: dryness, cold, stress, alcohol, and smoking. Keeping a food journal can help you identify any food triggers. Make sure to keep skin moisturized and avoid picking and scratching. Hopefully, these measures will keep flare ups to a minimum. When psoriasis does flare up try these natural remedies to sooth skin and lessen your need for over the counter treatments.

Aloe Vera. Aloe vera has been used for its healing properties for centuries. Apply aloe vera gel to irritated skin to sooth and heal.

Chamomile. Chamomile, with it's anti-inflammatory properties, is a common natural remedy for eczema and psoriasis. Apply cooled chamomile tea to skin with a clean cloth 2 to 4 times a day or opt for moisturizers and other skin treatments containing chamomile.

Daily baths. Taking a daily bath with bath oil, colloidal oatmeal, or Epsom salts can help remove scales and calm skin. Avoid hot water and harsh soaps. Use lukewarm water and mild soaps that contain added oils and fats.

Flaxseed. Flaxseed is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids which help boost the immune system and fight inflammation. Flaxseed is often recommended to treat inflammation-based skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis. Start with one to two tablespoons of cold-pressed flaxseed oil, taken with food, daily.

Sunlight. Exposing skin to limited amounts of sun can help treat psoriasis. Too much sun can make psoriasis worse, so it's best to start with a single short session a few times a week. Keep a log of your sun exposure and its effect on your skin to help you determine if sunlight is an effective treatment for you and what amount works best for your skin.

There's no cure for rosacea, but lifestyle modifications can help reduce symptoms. Start by avoiding the most common triggers of rosacea: sun exposure, emotional stress, hot weather, wind, and strenuous exercise. The most important thing to remember is to keep skin cool and calm. Rosacea sufferers should avoid washing with hot water and skincare products that contain harsh ingredients or drying agents like alcohol.

Keeping a food journal can help in identifying food triggers. Alcohol and spicy foods are two very common triggers. Following an anti-inflammatory diet may also help ward off rosacea symptoms. The basic tenets of an anti-inflammatory diet are as follows: eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; minimize saturated and trans fats; consume omega-3 fatty acids from foods like Wild Alaskan Salmon and walnuts; limit refined carbohydrates (i.e., white flour and sugar), processed foods, red meat, and full fat dairy foods; eat plenty of whole grains; and stick with lean sources of protein. To learn more check out Dr. Andrew Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Pyramid.

When rosacea symptoms do flare up some of these natural remedies may help sooth your skin and lessen your need for strong prescription creams.

Green tea. We've all heard that drinking green tea can help ward off cancer and heart disease, but new research suggests it may be a good topical treatment for rosacea. Green tea is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Its greatest benefit appears to be that in can reduce the skin’s reaction to ultraviolet light, thus helping to reduce sun-triggered flare ups.

Lavender. Lavender has been used to treat skin problems for hundreds of years. When applied to skin the essential oil of lavender can help reduce inflammation and shrink blood vessels.

Licorice. Licorice extract is a strong anti-inflammatory that can help reduce redness. A 2006 study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that licorice extract products helped improve results in patients already using prescription rosacea creams.

Rose Hip Oil: Rose hips, the dried fruit of the rose, are abundant in vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, riboflavin, and folate. The vitamin C in rose hip oil helps strengthens capillaries and reduces redness. Rose hip's anti-inflammatory properties help stimulate the immune system to fight rosacea. Rose hip can also help fade scars. Even skin creams containing rose can be helpful because they calm and sooth the skin.

Supplements. Alpha-lipoic acid and coenzyme Q10 are promoted for their ability to reduce inflammation in the body. And 100 mg of zinc sulfate three times a day is the most often prescribed supplement for reducing the symptoms of rosacea.

The Great Energy Challenge

As the world population quickly grows (we'll hit seven billion any day now), so does our need for energy. How do we keep up with this growing demand in a responsible, equitable, and sustainable way? That is the question National Geographic is hoping to address with its Great Energy Challenge.

The Great Energy Challenge is program designed to help people understand the current energy situation and how they can be part of the solution.

Check out The Great Energy Challenge website to:

The site also allows you to share your progress with others joining the challenge. You can share your Personal Energy Meter score and challenge your friends or follow the journey of nine households around the world as they embark on the energy diet.

The Great Energy Challenge is a fun and interactive way we can join together to make a positive impact on the current energy crisis.

Click here to take part in The Challenge today.

A New Energy Efficient Light Bulb

By now everyone knows that compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs use less energy (about 75% less) and last longer (up to ten times longer) than standard incandescent bulbs. Yet many people resist making the switch because they don't like the cold, bluish-white light they cast or how much time some of them can take to light up completely.

Luckily, the next generation of light bulbs has arrived. GE recently introduced the Energy Smart hybrid Halogen-CFL light bulb which combines the instant brightness of halogen technology with the energy efficiency and longer rated life of CFL technology. It casts the same kind of warm glow as an incandescent bulb and is even shaped like a standard bulb, but it lasts eight times longer than incandescent bulbs.

Click here to learn more about these new bulbs and the U.S. phase out of traditional incandescent bulbs.

The Lowdown on “Natural” Sweeteners

Whether looking to drop a few pounds, maintain an already healthy lifestyle, or manage a chronic disease like diabetes, many people try cutting calories by using artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes.

Artificial sweeteners (e.g., Aspartame/Equal, Neotame Saccharin/Sweet 'n Low, Sucralose/Splenda) are synthetic sugar substitutes, some of which are derived from natural substances such as herbs or sugar itself. There is a lot of debate over artificial sweeteners and there has been for decades. There are various health concerns, but none have been scientifically proven true. Some argue over the taste of various artificial sweeteners, but that's really a matter of personal preference. The real problem with artificial sweeteners is that they do not trigger the same sense of satisfaction in the brain as sugar – so they never quite satisfy a sweet craving, leaving you wanting more.

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are typically promoted as healthier than white sugar or artificial sweeteners. Yet most substances labeled natural sweeteners do undergo at least some processing and many vary little from sugar nutrition- and calorie-wise. To clear up any confusion and help you make the best choice for you, here is the lowdown on natural sweeteners:

Agave nectar or agave syrup. Agave is made from a plant native to Mexico and Central America. Proponents of agave say that it metabolizes more slowly than sugar and doesn't cause blood sugar spikes. But how fast or slow agave metabolizes depends on how it is processed and the modern process of producing agave nectar is less like the method used by the indigenous people of Central America and more like the process of converting corn into high-fructose corn syrup. The big upside to Agave is that even though it has a similar amount of calories as sugar, it is much sweeter so you can use far less (one-quarter to one-eighth the amount of sugar) to achieve the same level of sweetness as sugar.

Honey. Honey is an all natural sweetener that's been used for centuries. While honey does contain more antioxidants than white sugar, it is not as antioxidant rich as dark and blackstrap molasses. Plus, it carries 33% more calories than sugar. So, if your concern is calories and/or blood sugar, then sugar actually makes a better choice than honey. Honey is not without any health benefits though. Studies suggest that honey helps boost the growth and activity of the good bacteria found in fermented dairy products like yogurt, which is helpful for those who want to promote digestion and support the immune system.

Maple syrup and molasses. Maple syrup and regular molasses contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to the zero nutritional value of sugar. Blackstrap molasses is the only natural sweetener with significant levels of nutrients, including calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and selenium. As with agave, maple syrup and molasses are so sweet that you can use lesser amounts to make food as sweet as it would be with sugar. When substituting molasses in a recipe you can typically use one-half to three-quarters of the amount of sugar called for.

Stevia. Zero-calorie stevia comes from the stevia rebaudiana plant and is 250 times sweeter than sugar. Up until a couple years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not allow stevia to be sold as a food ingredient. There were concerns that stevia might cause reproductive problems and infertility and animal and lab tests suggested high doses of stevia result in mutations that may lead to cancer. Newer research concluded stevia was safe to use as a food ingredient and in December 2008 the FDA lifted the ban on stevia. Since then there has been a barrage of stevia-sweetened products on the market. While not everyone is entirely convinced of stevia's safety, proponents point out that it has been used in Japan, South America, Australia, and New Zealand for many years without any obvious problems. Even if you are convinced of stevia's safety, there is another downside to consider. Stevia, like those aforementioned artificial sweeteners, doesn't satiate like sugar and can leaving you wanting more despite its extreme level of sweetness.

As with most things in life the key is moderation. For most people any sweetener, sugar and most artificial sweeteners included, is fine in small doses. Products like agave and molasses can satiate your sweet tooth with lesser amounts than sugar allowing you to cut calories. If your main concern is blood sugar or you have type 2 diabetes, stevia may be a better option since it has a negligible effect on blood glucose and can even enhance glucose tolerance.

Taking Off Your Shoes For a Greener, Cleaner Home

Think of all the different surfaces you walk on getting to and from work or even just running a single errand. On any given day you probably tread on pavement, dirt, grass, and the grimy floors of public buildings. When you return home the soles of your shoes carry in not just dirt, but several pollutants and allergens as well.

A regular pair of shoes, after just 14 days of wear, hosts a slew of bacteria, including E. coli. In the largest study of its kind, the California State Department of Public Health found an average of 22 pesticides in the dust of homes studied. Another study found that coal tar, a carcinogen used in products like driveway sealant, is tracked into homes from driveways and parking lots. And even though it's been removed from paint and gasoline, lead is still remarkably prevalent in the environment and can be tracked inside (along with mercury and other heavy metals) on people's shoes. The buildup of pollutants is even greater in homes with carpeting because carpet traps pollutants and is usually not cleaned well enough and often enough to prevent buildup.

Infants and young children, with their proximity to the floor, tenancy to put things in their mouths, and developing nervous and immune systems, are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of toxins being brought into the home on shoes.

There is an extremely effective measure everyone can take to cut their exposure to pollutants being tracked inside. Take off your shoes! Eighty-five percent of the dirt in homes is tracked inside on clothing, shoes, and pet paws. By taking your shoes off at the door you can avoid 70% of the allergens and pollutants being tracked into your home. Having a shoes off policy makes your home cleaner and healthier and saves you time and energy vacuuming and dusting. Plus, it's simply more relaxing to walk around barefoot or in cozy sock or slippers.

Worried about how to ask guests to remove their shoes without coming off as a shrew who covers all their furnishings in plastic? A simple sign on the front door can be a big help. There are several simple “Please Remove Shoes” signs available. Or, you can go with something humorous like this "Life is full of choices. Remove shoes or scrub the floor." sign. It also helps to have a specific place to take off and place shoes. Leaving a basket of various clean and comfortable-looking slippers by the door helps send the no shoes message while also providing a considerate amenity to you guests.

So kick off those shoes, put up your feet, and enjoy your greener, cleaner home.

Tell The EPA: No More Toxic Air

Mercury is so toxic . . . just 1/70 of a teaspoon can contaminate a 20 acre lake. Imagine the damage 50 tons can do.

Coal-fired power plants emit over 50 tons of mercury into our air every single year, more than any other source. Today, mercury exposure is so widespread in our country that as many as 1 in 6 women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels high enough to put a baby at risk of mercury poisoning.

There are no restrictions on the amount of toxic mercury that utility companies can emit. But, at long last, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a critical rule to reduce the emission of mercury and other toxic chemicals that power plants are now able to freely dump into our air.

The Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxins Standard is the most important clean air rule since 1990 – and the EPA is predictably under tremendous pressure by the coal industry and other polluters to weaken it. Now, the EPA has asked us, the public, to weigh in on this critical rule.

Tell the EPA you support this landmark rule to stop the unlimited emission of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxins into our air. Submit a public comment now.

For decades, the electric industry has successfully fought requirements to reduce these toxins. They've kept releasing mercury into our air, where it finds its way into the vast majority of our lakes and waterways, into our fish, and then into our bodies, where the poison accumulates, causing deadly diseases and impairing fundamental brain functions like the ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn.

According to the EPA, reduced emissions from this new air toxins rule will save as many as 17,000 American lives every year by 2015, and will prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma. We must put our support behind this lifesaving new emissions standard!

Tell the EPA to uphold this rule and protect Americans from dangerous air pollution. Submit your public comment now.

A Greener Glass of Wine

If you're trying to eat green, you're opting for local, seasonal, and/or organic foods whenever possible. If you like to drink wine, it would make sense to seek out organic options fitting with your green lifestyle. But the whole idea of organic wine is not as clear cut as it is with organic foods.

For a wine to be USDA-Certified Organic it must be made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and cannot contain any preservatives, including sulfites – synthetic additives used to purify and stabilize wine.

That's all fine and good, but most winemakers (and many wine drinkers) will tell you – wine cannot be wine without sulfites. Sulfite-free wines have a short shelf live and many lack the intricate characteristics of good wine. Wine is probably the only product where the organic label is actually considered a drawback.

Many vintners do use organic grapes simply because it makes for a better product. They do not, however, undergo the costly organic certification process because they still need sulfites to bottle an age-worthy wine and the organic wine label adds little (if any) value to their product. Some of these winemakers will label their wine as "made with organic grapes." To use this label, the winery and its farming practices still need to be certified organic by the USDA and the wine must contain a lower amount of sulfites (150 parts per million compared to the 350 parts per million maximum of other wines).

So, while you won't see a wide assortment of organic wines filling the wine shop shelves, you are likely to see more bottles labeled biodynamic or sustainable – meaning the winemakers ascribe to sustainable farming methods and use indigenous or organic yeasts in the fermentation process. Biodynamic wine must have a sulfite level lower than 100 parts per million.

More and more vintners today follow biodynamic practices in their wine making. Sustainable wine making processes (i.e., natural fertilizers and pest management, cover crops, no GMOs) simply make for better wine. Biodynamic wine making is nothing more than a return to European vineyard traditions. Some even argue that it will eventually become an industry standard. It really is a win-win situation – biodynamic wine is better for the environment and is a better quality wine. There is even an added health benefit. Because organic grapes have to fight off disease themselves they develop higher levels of resveratrol, the heart-healthy antioxidant found in wine, making biodynamic wine better for your health as well as the planet's.

Green Home Improvements

A home is a continual work in progress. There is always something to rearrange, repair, replace, update. With some careful planning and a little creativity you can bring the same eco-consciousness you use in your everyday lifestyle choices to your home improvements.

Whatever your home improvement project, start by considering what materials you can obtain used or salvaged. Check online for sources of salvaged building materials near you or visit one of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores which sell new and gently used building materials, appliances, furniture and home improvement items that have been donated. You can even check Craigslist for used flooring, fixtures, housewares, and tools you may need for your project. You’ll save money and help keep these items out of landfills.

Fortunately, environmentally-friendly home products are becoming more popular. So, if you are buying new materials you have several more options for green materials than you would have had just a few years ago.

For countertops there are several great-looking green options, including green laminates which are made from recycled materials and formaldehyde-free substrate, paper composite countertops made from post-consumer recycled paper and a resin binder, and highly durable countertops made from recycled plastics. For more details on green countertop options, check out the U.S. Green Building Council's Buyer’s Guide to Green Countertop Materials.

Carpets made of wool (a renewable and biodegradable resource) and other natural materials (such as plant fibers, jute, and seagrass) are greener options than traditional carpet which is made of synthetic materials and backed by SB latex, a petroleum product that contains the toxin styrene and is a suspected carcinogen. Keep an eye out as more companies come out with eco-friendly options made from recycled products like recycled plastics and organic materials like corn.

Bamboo is a good-looking and durable green flooring options. It comes from trees that have stopped giving fruit and grow back much quicker than old-growth forest trees. Other durable green flooring options include cork and natural linoleum (a long lasting material made from natural ingredients such as linseed oil, wood resins, cork, limestone, and jute).

Paint is a great, inexpensive way to give a room a whole new look, but traditional paints contain harmful contaminants that are damaging to human health and the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paints, stains, and other architectural coatings are the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles. When looking for low-VOC paints seek out products certified by a third party such as Green Seal and make sure that the VOC levels are measured after the tints are added. For wood and concrete stains, opt for soy- or other plant-based stains. If you're feeling adventurous, try paint made of earth-based materials like clay and lime.

Many home improvement projects can even serve the added purpose of reducing the carbon footprint of your home. Updating or replacing drafty windows, adding insulation, upgrading to energy-efficient appliances, and switching to high-efficiency water fixtures are all great green home improvements. For more ideas check out 13 Steps to A Greener Home.

Green Gift Giving

Wondering what to get dad for Father's Day? Not sure what a freshly minted graduate might want or need? Running out of thoughtful birthday gifts? Why not think green next time you need a gift. Even if your gift recipient isn't very eco-conscious, you can still give a gift that they'll find useful and that you can feel good about.

Some green gift options:

Experiences. Sometimes the best gift you can give is your time. You could plan a scenic hike that includes a gourmet picnic, take someone to a concert or show, or offer to teach something you're an expert at (cooking, knitting, computers, etc.).

Provide a service. Green clean their home. Babysit for the day or for a night out. Cook them an organic dinner.

Classes. Give your foodie friend the gift of a cooking class or the fitness fanatic in your life a session of their favorite yoga class. If your loved one is really into a sport like tennis or golf, buy them a one-on-one consult with a pro to help them improve their game.

Charitable donation in the person's name.

CSA Farm Share. Give the gift of local, seasonal food that comes straight from the farm. A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is basically a membership to a farm that includes a parcel of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. Find a CSA near you at http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.

National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. For $80 this pass provides up to four adults access to federal recreation sites that charge an entrance fee for a year. Learn more at http://www.nps.gov/fees_passes.htm.

State Parks Pass. Many states offer some sort of pass that grants access to most or all state parks. Click here for a list of all fifty states with a link to their official state park website and information on their state park entrance pass program.

Plants. Give an air-cleaning plant (some of the most effective are philodendron, English ivy, spider plants, dracaena, Chinese evergreen, bamboo or reed palm, and peace lily) or herbs in decorative pots.

Clothing and accessories made of organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp.

Sheets or towels made of organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp.

Cast iron skillet. This durable and versatile cooking tool can be a great replacement for questionable non-stick cookware.

Food containers made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, Pyrex, bamboo, or stainless steel to replace plastic containers which may be unsafe.

Home Water Filter. Filtered tap water is purer than bottled water, not to mention less expensive and better for the environment.

Fair Trade, Organic, Shade-Grown Coffee. Eco-friendly coffee, a reusable coffee filter, and/or reusable coffee mugs would make a great gift basket for the coffee lover in your life.

Organic, fair-trade chocolate.

Eco-Friendly Wine.

Organic Beer.

Organic beauty products made without synthetic fragrances, dyes, parabens, or pthalates.

Jewelry, accessories, artwork or housewares made from recycled materials and/or made by local artisans.

Once you've selected your green gift, opt for wrapping paper and a card made of recycled paper. Or, even better, use materials you already have on hand like fabric or the newspaper comics to wrap gifts and make a homemade card or send an online card.

How to Save on Cooling Costs This Summer

Summer is here. And as temperatures rise, so do home cooling costs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), heating and cooling costs account for 49 percent of the average home energy bill. But before you break into a sweat just thinking of that bill, rest assured knowing there are some very practical and simple steps you can take to lower your home cooling costs by as much as 30 percent.

Set your thermostat higher. For every degree over 78 degrees you'll save 5 to 8 percent on cooling costs. Few people will notice the difference between 78 degrees and 80 degrees, but doing so can result in significant savings. When you leave home for more than an hour, set the the thermostat to 85 degrees or more (the room will cool down in 15 minutes once you get back) for even greater savings.

Close off rarely used rooms. Close doors and air vents going into these rooms so you don't waste air conditioning cooling a room no one uses.

Install a programmable thermostat. A programmable thermostat allows you to preset temperatures for different times of the day, so you can leave temperatures higher when you're out and cooler when you're home (reverse during the winter). A programmable thermostat is relatively inexpensive ($30 to $50), easy to install, easy to use, and can save you 10 to 20 percent on your heating and cooling costs.

Use a fan. By circulating the air a fan can make a room feel 4 to 6 degrees cooler. On very hot days a fan can supplement air conditioning and allow you to raise your thermostat a few degrees. On milder days a fan may be all you need to keep cool. They don't actually change the temperature though, so turn them on only when you're in the room.

Open and close your windows wisely. When temperatures drop in the evening open windows to let cool air in (you can help things along with window fans). Then, once the sun is up and temperatures start to rise, close windows and shades. Also, use kitchen and bathroom ventilating fans carefully when the air-conditioner is running. Use them only for the amount of time truly necessary or risk blowing your nice, cooled air right out into the neighborhood.

Use window treatments to block the sun. Keeping shades drawn or blinds down in rooms that get direct sun can cut down on the amount of heat entering your home during the day.

Consider exterior sun blockers. Awnings and shade trees are two other options for blocking the sun during the day. If you decide to plant trees, make sure to plant deciduous trees on the sunniest sides of your house. This way you'll get shade in the summer, yet can still use the sun's warmth in the autumn (when the leaves fall) and winter.

Keep the air flowing. Make sure there is nothing, like draperies or furniture, blocking air vents. If you do find that your cool air is being wasted blowing up behind curtains, there are inexpensive plastic air directors you can pick up at the hardware store to direct the flow of air out into the room.

Use heat producing appliances during cooler hours. Try to avoid using the stove (especially the oven), dishwasher, and clothes dryer during the hottest part of the day since these appliances generate heat and can increase room temperatures. Now you have a reason to put off the laundry and barbeque!

Keep air filters clean. Check air filters once a month and clean or replace them when necessary. Doing so can save you 5 to 15 percent in heating and cooling costs.

Fix leaky ducts. Keep your air-conditioning running efficiently by checking for and repairing any leaky ducts. Leaks are most likely to occur near the return plenum, where branch ducts meet the trunk line, and where ducts attach to outlets. Also, make sure air ducts are properly insulated, especially those that pass through the attic or any other unconditioned areas. Save any major duct repairs for a HVAC professional.

Seal air leaks. Check the seals around doors, windows, and anything else that passes through a ceiling or wall (pipes, electrical conduits, kitchen and bath vents, etc.) and use weather stripping or caulk to repair any leaks.

Have a happy, safe, and cool summer!

Natural Ways to Avoid and Eliminate Weeds

Gardening can be hard but extremely rewarding work. No one wants to see the fruits of their labor overrun by weeds. There are natural alternatives to chemical weed killers though.

First, focus on getting your lawn and garden as healthy as possible. The more healthy plants you have and the thicker your grass, the less room there is for weeds. Make sure to plant native species whenever possible. Native plants are better suited for persevering against the weeds of the local area. Then provide your plants with optimal soil conditions. Aerate soil before planting and fertilize with compost. Lay down newspaper to block weeds – it's organic, can be turned into the soil the following spring, and is less expensive than plastic. Strengthen your lawn by mulch-cutting and leaving the clippings (they're a great source of nitrogen) on the grass. And make sure to cut high – weeds get choked out and the lawn’s root system becomes hardier. For an all natural and safe pre-emergent weed killer try corn gluten meal. It has been shown to inhibit the growth of dandelions, crabgrass and several other annual weeds.

Even if you take every preventative measure, there's always at least a few weeds bound to show up. Start with the cheapest, most natural weed killer – your own hands. Pull weeds by hand or with a hoe or spade. There are also several different tools available to make removing weeds by their roots easier. Some other all natural weed killers to consider:

  • Boiling water. Pour boiling water (you can re-purpose cooking water) on a weed and it will shrivel up within a couple days. This is a great way to clear a grouping of weeds popping out of or around driveways, walkways, and sidewalks. Take care though . . . boiling water will kill any plant it comes in contact with as well as the underground roots of nearby plants.
  • Salt. Salt (any type will do) is a serious plant killer. You can sprinkle just a small bit at the base of a weed to get rid of, but then the soil will become unsuitable for future plant growth. It's best to use salt on gravel walkways and driveways (just sprinkle it on) to keep anything from growing there for several months. Avoid using salt on concrete because salt erodes concrete surfaces.
  • Vinegar. Spraying vinegar directly on weeds will kill the leaves and cause them to shrivel up within a few days. Young weedlings will likely die all together, but more established weeds will need to be sprayed a few times before being completely eliminated. Avoid spraying vinegar directly on the soil since it also kills beneficial microorganisms which would ruin the soil for any future plant growth.
  • Rubbing Alcohol. Rubbing alcohol can be used the same way as vinegar. It too can ruin the soil, so make sure to only spray the leaves of the weed.
  • Soap. Add a few drops of liquid dish soap to any of the above ingredients to make it more effective. The soap breaks down the surface of the plant boosting the weed killer's absorption and thus its ability to do damage.
  • A Combination. Your best bet is a combination of ingredients. Mix a gallon of vinegar with one cup of salt and two tablespoons of dish soap. Spray this combination directly onto weeds or pour on entire areas where you want to eliminate plants completely.

Finally, you have two additional options for dealing with weeds. One: If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. Common weeds such as dandelions, purlsane, chicory, and violet are all safe to eat and are actually quite tasty. Click here to learn more. Two: If you can't beat ‘em, enjoy ‘em. Accept weeds as part of nature. As A.A. Milne put it, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”