Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Laundry - again

Carrie - glad to hear the of the soap . . .

I must say - with pride - that I did two loads of laundry yesterday, another today WITHOUT the dryer! The sun is shining here in Alaska - add a little breeze and I'm loving my clothesline.

This may seem like a silly simple thing - but that is also the JOY!

Your clothes and linens will last MUCH longer. No dryer sheets etc. No lint (which is basically your dryer shredding your clothes). I love it. PLUS - the huge bonus of the fact that I'm not using all the electricity required with a dryer. It is a simple way of reducing my impact on the earth in a way that is truly difficult to measure because there are so many advantages to add up.


I'm one of those freaks of nature who actually enjoys doing laundry, which is a good thing, given how many dirty clothes my little family seems to produce. I've already mentioned how I substitute vinegar for fabric softener, but I confess that my efforts at using a sustainable detergent have not been so lofty, mostly because of the expense of most commercial, sustainable laundry detergents. I've used some samples of earth-friendly detergents, but I always returned to my trusty dye-free, fragrance-free Tide. Enter my friend Mary. She told me about Charlie's laundry soap, which is not only sustainable, but would cost a fraction of what I pay now, per load, to do laundry. This is not something that must be mixed with something else to make homemade laundry detergent. I'm going to try it out - the company promises a refund for dissatisfied customers. If anyone has experience with the laundry soap or other Charlie's products, I'd love to hear about it!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Little Things

When the water in the water table gets scuzzy and my toddler is threatening to drink it, I scoop out the old water and use it to water my plants.

I've emptied countless yogurt-encrusted sippy cups of water into the dogs' water dish.

Against my better judgment, I've spearheaded a used book sale at our church. It's the ultimate in recycling, right? We're reusing paper bags for the sale, too.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Why organic?

Mention organic food in any given social setting, and you're bound to get a mixed bag of responses, ranging from polite inquiry to defensive mumblings. Because it can be more expensive than conventionally grown or raised food, criticisms abound about how organic food is merely food for the wealthy. In many cases, this is true. However, organic food is likely closer to what our great-grandmothers fed their families, before small farms were overtaken by agribusiness. I can only answer the question of "Why organic?" for my family, just as you can only answer it for yours. I choose to view our choice to eat more organic food as a "pay now or pay later" approach, knowing that we're investing in our health now, to avoid paying later with the risks inherent in eating food that is not as safe for us. In addition, I feel that we're paying now by investing in organic farms to ensure their future, and therefore our future of eating safer food. Most, if not all, state food stamp programs allow purchases from farmers' markets, but where does that leave the rest of us, who don't have piles of money sitting around (even though we'd certainly be considered "wealthy" by global standards), but don't qualify for food stamps?

In order to truly understand my family's decision to eat organic and humanely grown food, I would highly recommend reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (reviewed here). I'm sure there are dozens of other books out there that describe the same issues, but I found these to be quite accessible, and also quite convincing. (For shorter reads about organic farming and eating, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. But most of all, here.) Of course, just because a food has an "organic" label does not mean that it's healthy, as much as I'd like to believe that the organic pop-tarts at Costco are going to change my life. And a food does not need to be certified organic to have been grown without pesticides and other chemicals. Organic certification is an expensive, highly regulated process, and many farmers can't afford the certification. The best way to know if food from the farmers' market is organic is to get to know the growers themselves.

My interest in organic food started when I started to wean my son last summer, and started offering him solid food. Organic baby food is relatively easy to find in jars, but I wanted to make most of his food at home, both for the cost savings, but also because I like to cook. I found this list of high-pesticide foods, and made it a priority to at least use organic varieties of those foods as I introduced them to the baby's diet. Then, I learned more about how conventionally grown foods are actually nutritionally different than organically grown foods. Because organically grown plants have to fend for themselves instead of allowing pesticides to do that work for them, they are richer in nutrients as a result. The case for eating organic food ourselves became more compelling. So, this spring we signed up for our very first Community-Supported Agriculture share. Last week, we picked up our first box, and we've feasted on purple kohlrabi, blue potatoes, arugula, green lettuce, green garlic, green onions, radishes, rosemary, and the greens from the kohlrabi, onions, garlic, and radishes. Our friends who have participated in CSAs in previous years have warned us that the first year can be overwhelming, not knowing what to do with all of the veggies. I have to say, I think we did pretty well for the first week. We have two more days to eat some of the lettuce and the radishes before we get our next box, and I'm confident we would not have had any lettuce left at all by now if I hadn't foolishly purchased a gigantic container of organic spring mix from Costco last week before the CSA box arrived. (The spring mix, I swear, has grown with each salad I've eaten, instead of shrinking.) It's another small step, for sure, but we're excited to see what the rest of the summer holds.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Paper Chase

There's a lot of buzz about creating a paperless office. The idea is nice: why waste paper on documents and records, when electronic versions of the same documents cost less and don't kill trees? Unfortunately, it's taking us a while to get there. Paper use more than doubled between 1980 and 2000, as computers made printing easier. Instead of buying a book at a local bookstore, where the book was shipped in a crate with dozens of others like it, we order books online, necessitating separate packaging and invoicing. We print out multiple drafts of documents, justifying the waste by promising to recycle the discarded versions. There is visible improvement in some areas, though. While our pediatrician's office still sends out paper billing statements, its medical record system is completely electronic. Churches and other nonprofits are wising up to the high cost of printing, and they are creating e-mail newsletters and reusable service bulletins. Law firms and closing agents still must print real estate closing documents for recording in court records, and when there is a mortgage involved, those documents are voluminous. But, mortgage lenders are figuring out ways to send electronic closing packages to avoid shipping the documents for closing.

Of course, saving paper means saving costs. These are some small ways that we reduce our paper consumption at home.

  • Reuse everything. I can't remember the last time I wrote a grocery list or a phone message on a virgin sheet of paper, rather than on the back of an envelope or a piece of scratch paper.
  • When paper contains confidential material, shred it and use it for kindling (for the fireplace or charcoal grill) or for mulch.
  • Newspapers can be used for cleaning windows before recycling them. I'm also told that newspapers make good mulch for gardens.
  • Use Catalog Choice to reduce the number of catalogs you receive in the mail.
  • Sign up for electronic statements with your bank and investment services. Often, this choice comes with benefits from the bank, as they are saving printing and postage costs.
  • Consider using electronic documents for household needs: recipes, budget spreadsheets, etc. I have a friend who keeps a running list of questions for her pediatrician on her Blackberry, rather than on paper.
  • Use cloth napkins and reusable cloth rags for cleaning to reduce paper towel consumption.
  • Purchase used books or magazines when available. Instead of sending magazines directly to the recycling bin, try selling them at a used book store, or offer them to a friend for reading before recycling.

Edited to add:

How could I forget? We get paper bags at the grocery store when we forget our reusable bags (for shame - it happens all too often!), or when our grocery order fills all the bags we have with us. I use the paper bags for recycling that does not fit into our two bins, and now I'm saving paper bags for our church book sale. Plastic shopping bags are reused as small garbage can liners and dog poop scoopers.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Social Justice

Our masthead promises that we'll discuss both environmental issues and social justice concerns on this blog. One could argue (successfully, in my opinion), that the two are inextricably linked. But, there are certainly social justice causes beyond the realm of environmental issues that deserve support and discussion.

I think most of us agree that the world could be a better place. Of course, it would be a formidable challenge to find any two people on this planet who agree completely on how making the world a better place should be done, and whose responsibility it is to work on that.

Whatever your values, we believe that it is an important spiritual, emotional, and even financial practice to give. Recently, I've heard some wonderful ideas for encouraging family participation in giving: adopting a work project as a part of each child's birthday celebration, encouraging (or mandating!) friends to participate in work projects, or requiring that nieces/nephews/grandchildren "earn" holiday and birthday gifts through logging volunteer hours. For those unaccustomed to volunteerism as a part of family life, these practices might seem cruel or backwards. Let me suggest, however, that encouraging these acts in children and teenagers is in fact giving them the gifts of perspective, empathy, kindness, and a work ethic that may not be earned in a paying job. In addition to logging volunteer hours, we know families who encourage donations or tithing from a child's allowance income. We feel that this empowers a child to feel like an active participant in his or her community.

So, how does one choose a charity or other worthwhile cause for contributing one's time and energy? Allow us to suggest these guidelines:

  • Start locally. If you know of an organization that is active in your local community, school, or house of worship, start asking questions about what exactly the group does, and how you might contribute.
  • Take some time to evaluate what concerns you most. Just as there is no shortage of problems in the world, there is also no shortage of organizations that need money and volunteer hours to help alleviate those problems. If world hunger and poverty concern you, check out http://www.heifer.org/. If you have a friend or family member living with cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer's Disease, there are organizations that are raising research money to prevent and cure these diseases.
  • Check out Charity Navigator and The American Institute of Philanthrophy. These websites offer search tools and ratings to investigate, among other criteria, the percentage of the charity's budget is used for operating expenses. You may wish to investigate whether a charity is linked to any particular political or ideological group. You will likely not find an organization that meshes with your values completely, but you may find your own personal red flags as you do your research.
  • Don't feel limited by your current financial situation. You may be surprised at the ways you can contribute in a meaningful way as a volunteer, using your time and your unique skills.
  • Learn how to vote with your wallet. There are brands and companies that donate a significant amount of their profits to charity. You may wish to shop for bananas, coffee, and chocolate that are traded fairly.
  • Beware of telemarketing charity solicitations. While many of these solicitations are legitimate, the safest bet is to ask the organization to send you printed material in the mail so that you can review their practices. If the telemarketer refuses to mail materials to you, proceed with caution.


Coop was not all it was cracked up to be. (Haha - cracked up - how punny.) After pages upon pages of waxing philosophical about tractors and cutting hay, I was 2/3 through the book and the chickens hadn't even entered the scene yet. The first part of the book was witty and interesting, but I think all the witticisms were crammed into the first 100 pages or so, because the rest seemed to drag on. Bummer.