June 29, 2012

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 that wine cannot be wine without sulfites. Sulfite-free wines have a short shelf life 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. Since 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.





June 25, 2012

Natural Pest Control

Pests can cause trouble both inside and outside your home, but the last thing you want to do is expose yourself and your family to the noxious chemicals most commercial pest control products contain. The simplest, and not to mention cheapest and healthiest, thing to do is use natural methods to eliminate pests. Here's how.

First, remember that prevention is the best form of pest control. Sweep up crumbs, vacuum, and wash dishes before they attract any unwanted guests.

If no matter how tidy you keep things the ants keep marching in, try one of these ideas:
  • Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons of liquid soap with a quart of water in a spray bottle and spray the ants. This concentration is safe enough to use on plants. 
  • Place bay leaves, cloves, lemon juice, cinnamon, coffee grounds or cayenne pepper at the ants' point of entry. All these produce odors found offensive by acute-smelling ants. 
  • Mix borax and sugar (so the ants will bring the borax back to their nests) and sprinkle along the ants' trails. 
  • A spritz of vinegar will eliminate ants' scent trail, so go ahead and give an extra spray while cleaning green
  • Sprinkle baby or talcum powder on the ants, their scent trail, and at their point of entry. 

If your problem is fruit flies, start by taking care of how you store your fruit. Fruit flies lay their eggs in overripe fruit, so store any fruit about to become overly ripe in the refrigerator. Then try the following:
  • Leave out a glass of either apple cider vinegar or white wine (fruit flies apparently like both) with a bit of detergent mixed in. The flies will die shortly after taking a drink. 
  • To make your own fly paper, boil together water, sugar, and corn syrup and spread the mixture on heavy paper or cardboard. Leave the traps out where the flies tend to congregate and they'll soon be stuck. 
  • Fruit flies don't like basil, so try keeping a basil plant in your problem area or spray a mix of basil oil and water around your kitchen. 

If you're pestered by mosquitoes, start by removing any sources of standing water. Change the water in birdbaths, fountains, and any other garden water features at least twice a week. Then try the following repellents:
  • Mosquitoes dislike the scent of marigolds, lemongrass, rosemary, mint, and clove. Incorporate some of these plants in the outdoor areas you use the most. 
  • Mosquitoes also dislike lavender so try using its essential oil on your skin and/or keeping the fragrant plant in your favorite outdoor areas. 
  • A dab of vanilla extract on your pulse points can also help keep mosquitoes at bay. 

If you do happen to get stung, try one of these all natural bug bite remedies.

If you have a wasp problem, you can create a simple and effective trap with an old soda bottle. Cut off the top third of a 2-liter bottle. Turn the cut off top over and place it into the rest of the bottle so the bottle neck is facing downward. Use tape or a stapler to firmly and tightly attach the bottle neck to the rest of the bottle. Fill the bottom of the bottle with soda, fruit juice, or jam. Wasps will enter the bottle and become trapped. Clean and refill the trap daily until there are no more wasps.

Slugs can be a gardener's nightmare. Any tactic used to eliminate slugs must be safe enough to use on the plants they love to munch. Your best bet may, believe it or not, be beer. Place a few small bowls (or tuna cans or pie plates) of stale beer in the areas of the garden where the slugs are most active. The slugs will crawl in and drown. The trick is to make sure the container is pushed into the soil enough so that the beer is about an inch lower than the soil. The slugs must fall in and be unable to get out, not just take a sip, get buzzed, and keep on eating your plants. You can also create a slug trap with fruit rinds. Start by cutting a grapefruit, orange, or lemon in half and scooping out the flesh so only the rind remains. Place the rind, skin side up, where slugs are most apparent. Let the rind sit overnight. Then lift the rind and dispose of the slugs you find underneath. Repeat this process until there are no more slugs.

Here are a couple all-purpose garden pest repellents:
  • Mix one or two crushed garlic cloves, a teaspoon of chili powder, a tablespoon of dish soap, and a cup of water. Spray the mixture anywhere flies, aphids, and beetles are bothersome. This solution is safe enough to be sprayed directly on plants. 
  • A simple mix of dish soap and water (about a tablespoon of soap to a gallon of water) sprayed directly on pests can help take care of aphids, mites, and thrips. 

As for mammal and bird pests, red pepper spray makes plants less palatable. Mix cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce with water and a teaspoon of dish soap (dish soap helps remedies stick to plant leafs) and spray any areas being damaged by squirrels, mice, rabbits, deer, or birds.


June 22, 2012

Keeping Green at Work

Workplaces account for nearly half of the nation's energy usage. The fact is that many people spend more time at work than they do at home and even some of the most eco-conscious among us start to let their green ways slide once they get to work. But by making the same green choices at work as you do at home, you can make your workplace healthier, more comfortable, and more conducive to productivity.

First consider how you get to work. If possible, try walking or biking to work. Otherwise, check out public transportation options or organize a carpool.

Rethink how you print. First, consider if something can be read online or emailed rather than printed. If you have to print, print only the specific text or pages you need and print on both sides of paper. Keep misprints for scrap paper. Print addresses directly on envelopes instead of printing mailing labels.

Keep electronic files, which are easier to organize and backup.

Reuse office supplies whenever possible. Does a paper clip really lose its usefulness after a single use? Paper clips, envelopes, folders, and such can typically be used multiple times.

Make sure to put all recyclables in the correct receptacles. If your company doesn't already have a recycling program, start one. You may even consider composting. Is there a garden nearby that could use the compost you and your co-workers produce?

Save electricity just as you do at home. Turn off lights not in use, take the stairs, and unplug electronics like cell phones and laptops once they are charged. Change your settings so your computer and monitor automatically go into power save mode when not in use. Before leaving for the day turn off your computer and unplug the adaptor.

Replace the light bulb in your desk lamp with an energy-efficient bulb and it'll use 75 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer. If you're the only one working in your area, use localized lights instead of lighting up the whole area or entire floor.

Check that all air vents are clear of any furniture, equipment, boxes, or office supplies. Blocked air vents can use up to 25% more energy to pump air.

Bring an air-cleaning plant or two into your workplace to improve air quality. 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.

Bring your lunch from home in reusable, non-plastic containers. By preparing your own food you'll be better able to avoid preservatives, reduce waste, and save money. Also, remember to bring a reusable mug, cutlery, and napkin. You’ll reduce waste and feel indulged.

Talk to those in charge of purchasing about switching to eco-friendly office products and recycled paper. Also suggest green cleaning products (check out greencleaning.ny.gov/Products.asp for a full list of EcoLogo or Green Seal products). By using green cleaning products and equipment (e.g., micro-fiber mops and cloths, HEPA-filter vacuums) your company can vastly improve indoor air quality.

If at all possible, work from home at least once a week. Technology today makes telecommuting a viable option for many workers. You'll save yourself time and the environmental impact of your commute. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, not using your car for just two days a week can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 1,600 pounds per year. Telecommuting makes employees more productive and saves companies money (on the resources you would have used in the office). Alternatively, consider working a consolidated workweek – four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days.

Finally, make going green in the office a team effort. Gather like-minded individuals together to work on making your workplace a green workplace. Check out Energy Star's posters and tip cards to help you spread the word. You can even strive to make your building an Energy Star qualified building




June 19, 2012

Green Laundry

Laundry. I know . . . ugh! But it has to be done. And it's no surprise that, with all we need to launder, the washing machine and dryer guzzle a serious amount of resources. Home appliances account for 20% of home energy use and the washer and dryer come behind only the refrigerator in energy usage. With just a few simple steps though, you can not only green up your laundry, but save money and make your clothes last longer.

First, only wash full loads. This doesn't mean overfill your washing machine; clothes still need to move freely in the washer in order to get clean. If you must run a small load, set the water level accordingly.

Cold water rinses detergent out just as well as warm or hot water, so always select the cold rinse option on your washing machine. Most laundry can also be washed with cold water, so give it a second thought next time you go to wash something in warm or hot water. Using only cold water for washing clothes will save you at least $100 a year.

You can treat laundry stains the all-natural way with ingredients you already have at home. Most stains can be sprayed with a mix of equal parts water and distilled white vinegar. Lemon juice mixed with a little cream of tartar is also an effective stain remover. Gently rubbing a little salt into a fresh stain can help keep it from setting in.

Most laundry detergents these days come in concentrated form which is greener than non-concentrated options because they use less packaging. It's a little known fact that you really shouldn't use the manufacturer's suggested amount of detergent. Use ½ to ¾ of the recommended amount and you will save money, reduce the amount of suds polluting our waterways, cut down on detergent bottles sent to the recycling center, and get your clothes just as clean if not cleaner than before. Un-rinsed detergent on your clothes can actually attract dirt!

Many laundry detergents contain ingredients that are harmful to you, your clothes, and the environment. Opt for an eco-friendly laundry detergent that is plant-derived rather than petroleum-based, biodegradable and free of phosphates, brighteners, dyes, or artificial fragrances. Adding half a cup (quarter cup if you have a front-loading machine) of baking soda to the wash helps boost your detergent's cleaning power. Adding it to your washer's rinse cycle will help rinse clothes better, ward off hard water stains, and make clothes feel softer.

Fabric softeners can also contain harmful ingredients. Plus, they can build up on clothes, reducing their longevity. The simple solution is to swap fabric softener with a cup of distilled white vinegar during the rinse cycle (or in the softener cup if your machine has one). Vinegar neutralizes the water's pH, rinsing the detergent out better, eliminating static cling, reducing lint buildup, and leaving your clothes softer.

Chlorine bleach is a highly caustic substance that can cause eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. It can also be harmful to the environment. An inexpensive, and much better smelling, alternative is lemon juice. Lemon juice is a natural bleaching agent and can be used just as you would bleach.

Next time you're in the market for a washing machine, check out Energy Star certified models. These machines typically use 18 to 25 gallons of water per load, compared to 40 gallons for older washers. Today's washing machines are about 90% more efficient than they were 30 years ago, so if your washer dates back to the 80's, you probably want to shop around for a new one. You'll save about 7,000 gallons of water a year.

Green up the clothes drying process by avoiding the dryer altogether. Hang laundry on a clothes line or drying racks and clothes will last longer, household energy usage will drop, and you'll save up to $75 a year.

For the times you do use your dryer, make sure it is running efficiently. Check the exhaust vent every so often to make sure it closes tightly and clean the lint filter after every load. If doing more than one load, try to do one right after the other to take advantage of leftover heat. Also, ditch the dryer sheets which are loaded with chemicals that can actually contribute to the breakdown of certain fabrics.

Next time you are in the market for a dryer opt for one with a good moisture sensor that will automatically stop the machine once clothes are dry. It'll help you avoid over drying which wastes energy and wears on clothes.

Reduce how much you have to iron by hanging clothes up immediately after the wash is done. If you use the dryer, take items out immediately, smooth them out, and fold and store them neatly. Less ironing means less energy used, less wear on your clothes, and less work for you.

When the process of dry cleaning started over 200 years ago solvents like gasoline and naphtha were used. Over time other, not necessarily safer, solvents were developed for cleaning clothes. Today, 80% of all dry cleaners use perchloroethylene (perc) – a synthetic liquid solvent described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “toxic chemical with both human health and environmental concerns.” Luckily, there are alternatives. Click here for some green dry cleaning options.

The simplest way to cut back on laundry is to wear clothes more than once before washing. Lots of items (e.g., cardigans, jackets, jeans, some dress clothes) can be worn multiple times before really being soiled. In fact, the best way to preserve jeans is to wear them at least a few times before washing them inside out and hanging them up to dry.

Green laundry is not an all or nothing proposition. By implementing just a few of these suggestions, you can make a significant difference – in your carbon footprint and in your wallet.




June 15, 2012

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 coming into season: apples, beets, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, oysters, peaches, peas, potatoes, radishes, raspberries, snap peas, spinach, squash, strawberries, 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 the summer. Your taste buds, wallet, and planet will thank you!




June 12, 2012

U.S. EPA Urges You to “Pick Five”

Pick 5 is the U.S. government's official web portal to make your environmental action count. Pick at least 5 eco-actions you can take where you live, and watch the green grow around the world! Register your choices and share ideas and inspiration with others who have done the same – all from one easy location! For ideas, go to epa.gov/pick5. 



June 8, 2012

Natural Remedies for Bug Bites and Sunburns

Break out the flip flops, pack the beach tote, fire up the grill . . . summertime is here! Along with all that fun in the sun can come some of the not so pleasant parts of summer – bug bites and sunburns. Here are some all natural home remedies to relieve your pain, itching, and swelling so you can get back to enjoying your summer.

Bug Bites
Most insect bites and stings will heal on their own, but you'll still probably have to take measures to alleviate swelling and itching.

First, make sure to clean the skin around the bite or sting thoroughly with soap and water or with rubbing alcohol. If you are stung by a bee, make sure to remove the stinger first. Applying ice immediately can help prevent or reduce swelling and itching.

My personal go-to remedy for bug bites is vinegar, particularly red wine vinegar (although friends tell me other types work just as well). Applying vinegar immediately after a bite eliminates itchiness and prevents swelling. If vinegar alone is not enough, try applying a paste of baking soda and vinegar.

Other natural home remedies for bug bites include:
  • Rubbing the insect bite with soap. 
  • Dabbing toothpaste on the bite. 
  • Rubbing the inside of a banana peel on the bite. 
  • Applying tee tree oil to the sting. 
  • Rubbing the bite with the cut side of a freshly cut onion slice. 

Besides being easy and effective, all these natural remedies are safe to use on even the smallest members of your family.


Sunscreen
Of course we should all be using broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen every day, but sometimes sunburns do happen. If it happens to you, try these all natural remedies for relief.

Aloe vera lotion and gel is probably the most popular sunburn soother. It is antibacterial and helps stimulate the immune system. Aloe vera can be very soothing as it helps your skin heal.

Vinegar can help relieve the pain of sunburn. Dampen a cloth or towel with distilled white vinegar and apply it to the sunburned skin for about 20 minutes. Repeat as necessary. Adding half a cup of baking soda to your bath can also help sooth your skin.

Lotions, creams, and oils with antioxidants like vitamin C and vitamin E cream can help heal damaged skin. Creams and ointments with Calendula, a healing plant with antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and antiviral properties, can also help sunburned skin heal.

Finally, check the Environmental Working Group's sunscreen guide to find the right sunscreen for you and avoid future burns. 



June 5, 2012

How to Save on Cooling Costs This Summer

Summertime’s warmer weather is finally here to stay a while. As temperatures rise, so do home cooling costs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), heating and cooling costs account for 49% 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 simple steps you can take to lower your home cooling costs by as much as 30%.

Set your thermostat higher. For every degree over 78 degrees you'll save 5% to 8% 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 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% 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 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% 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!


June 1, 2012

Natural Ways to Prevent and Eliminate Weeds

Gardening can be an incredibly enjoyable and gratifying experience. Yet, even those with the greenest of thumbs have to admit that it can be frustrating at times, especially when it comes to weeds. No one wants to see the fruits of their labor overrun by weeds, but you don’t need to reach for the Roundup just yet. You already have several natural, inexpensive ways to avoid and eliminate weeds at your disposal.

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. 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.”