Drink a “Green” Beer on St. Patrick’s Day

greenbeer.jpgBecause my usual St. Patrick’s Day activity of planting peas is not happening this year, I think I’ll drink a green beer. And no, I don’t mean a Coors Light with green food coloring added. I mean a beer brewed by a company that uses environmentally-responsible practices. Want to join me? Sierra Club published a list of “green” beers in honor of today’s festivities.

Our personal favorite, New Belgium Brewery (check out their web site–it’s a really cool use of Flash and you could spend quite some time playing there, if you’re on a boring conference call or otherwise looking to procrastinate!), made the list, so I think I’ll be enjoying one of the season’s last Frambozen this evening.

What a fun way to support companies that tread lightly on the Earth–drink beer! Cheers 🙂

Excellent articles on making sound environmental choices…

There have been a couple of articles in the past month about how to make good choices for the environment that I thought I’d share…

The first is from Ask Pablo, Salon‘s new column on environmental issues. Pablo tackles the question of whether bottles or cans are more environmentally friendly (you might also note my comment, where I briefly took to my soapbox to talk about how bad HFCS, an ingredient in all conventional sodas, is):

Since consumers are ultimately responsible for the production of a can or bottle through their purchases, the embodied energy and resulting emissions are their responsibility as well. Consumers have little control over what happens to the materials after they discard them, so we will attribute the emissions reduction from recycling to the demand side of the recycling system rather than the supply (rewarding consumers who purchase recycled-content materials or packaging).

Full article here.

The next one is from Slate, an excellent online daily that covers a range of popular topics. This one tackles the environmental impact of OJ from concentrate vs. not-from-concentrate. The answer may surprise you:

In the end, not-from-concentrate orange juice sold by the carton comes out slightly ahead of frozen OJ sold by the canister in terms of energy use. As a green consumer, your worst choice would be to buy juice that’s been rehydrated by the supplier, then placed in cartons (such as Minute Maid Original). If you prefer juice from concentrate, whether for the lower price or more Tang-y taste, it’s better to rehydrate it yourself.

Another Ask Pablo, this time about the impact of discarding incandescent bulbs in favor of CFLs:

There are several reasons to get rid of those incandescent bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Incandescent bulbs turn less than 5 percent of the electricity they use into light; the rest is wasted heat. Besides being annoyingly inefficient, this can increase summertime air-conditioning costs and present a higher risk of fire. CFLs, on the other hand, are over three times more efficient, meaning they put out the same amount of light but use one-third as much electricity; they also put out much less heat.

And finally, not to plug my own blog, but ToysNaturally reviewed an article by Sierra Club head Carl Pope about how globalization has contributed to environmental abuses and lack of safety in toys:

Pope’s article attempts to explain how top-of-the-line companies like Mattel and Fisher-Price ended up as major culprits in the 4 million toys recalled in 2007. He sums it up in a few words: “In today’s globalized economy, top companies have lost control of the quality of the goods that display their logos. They are powerless to prevent a recurrence onf the toxic-toy tragedy–and they are terrified that their brands could be dragged through the mud when the next epidemic of dangerous products strikes.”

Food for thought, eh?

Fashion, Glamour and the Cost of Makeup

I’ve been blogging a lot lately about the true cost of certain things (conventionally-produced food, daycare, cars, etc.), and all the crazy hubbub of the Oscars got me thinking (with a little help from Suzanne) about makeup. Her post about the absurd amount we spend on make-up and other beauty products is a great read if you’re interested in this topic.

Sure, I love makeup. We had a rare date night to celebrate DH’s birthday last week and I spent a good 20 minutes painting my face for the occasion. As we were walking up the sidewalk to dinner, Matt commented that I looked fantastic, but he was glad that I didn’t wear makeup every day. I, too, like that makeup is not a daily part of my routine, not only because it takes forever to apply, but because when I do put it on, I see my daughter eying me very closely and I want her to grow up feeling like her natural, unpainted face is the most gorgeous thing on Earth instead of her feeling like she has to cover it up to be beautiful.

When you add the expense of good makeup, the environmental impact of the sometimes scary ingredients in makeup, and the impact it has on how we as women feel about ourselves, I feel pretty fortunate that Burt’s Bees lip gloss & moisturizer (with sun-screen) are the only daily part of my fashion routine.

What beauty product(s) can you not live without?

Make it from Scratch: Make your own compost!

I was hoping to start my own carnival of sorts with “Make Your Own Monday,” but it looks like the folks over at Stop the Ride have beaten me to it with their Make it from Scratch Carnival. So OK, I’ll play and cross-post at BlogHer 🙂

I’m starting with something that I’ve been doing for some time, which I know, strictly speaking, is not playing by the MIFS rules (sorry). But I’ve had a lot of questions recently about compost, about how to fertilize without chemicals, and I’ve seen a lot of comments posted on green blogs that indicate that people are confused and bewildered by trying to compost. So my first installment in the Make it from Scratch carnival is making your own dirt, i.e. composting!

What is compost?

Compost is, literally, fertile dirt. That is to say, not the barren gray top soil you’ll find on a building site or in a conventional farmer’s field. This is the good black stuff that smells sweet and makes nice little crumbly clumps. It contains the perfect balance of nutrients that your plants need to be healthy and that the microorganisms and beneficial insects like earth worms–key components of healthy soil–need to thrive.

You can make your own compost using common kitchen and yard wastes that would otherwise go in the landfill using a process Mother Nature has used to recycle things in the natural world since time began. Want a list of things you can put in the compost bin? Plantea lists 163 of them! Then you can use it in place of expensive mulches and chemical fertilizers. As a mulch, compost helps retain moisture and shade a plant’s roots. As a soil amendment, compost breaks up heavy clay soils, allowing more water and air to penetrate to the root zone of garden plants and, if added in high enough quantities over time to keep the organic matter of the garden soil at 4-5%, can provide sufficient nutrients for even nitrogen-hungry vegetable growth.

Read more

NoMeatPo Week Wrap-Up

Some of you may have noticed a cute little piggy in my sidebar this past week in honor of NoMeatPo week, a challenge set up by the League of Maternal Justice, Green Mom Finds, and BlogHersAct Canada to see if families could reduce their overall meat consumption in the month of January and completely avoid meat for the last week of the month.

Anyhow, this wasn’t much of a challenge here at ChezArtz since, with the exception of a strange foray into cooking a turkey at Thanksgiving, we’ve been vegetarian as a family since, well, before we were even a family! But I wanted to take an opportunity to talk about this topic and to share a good, easy vegetarian recipe that was a hit with the whole family this week.

Matt & I both became vegetarians when we were in college mainly out of a distaste for meat (or, more specifically, for handling it raw and cooking it).  Interestingly, as the years have passed and we’ve done more research on it, it has become a lot less a matter of taste (although as the turkey at Thanksgiving proved, that part of it has not diminished!) and more a matter of world view. Doing any amount of research into the way meat is raised & processed in this country will give you pause to consider your Big Mac just as doing any amount of reading about the environmental impact of industrial-scale agriculture will make the prices at the local farmer’s market seem a little easier to swallow.

So we’re vegetarians because we think it’s healthier for ourselves, for the air we breath, the soil we stand on, and the water we drink. We’re vegetarians because we oppose the politics-as-usual that creates policies that allowed corn until just recently to be sold for less than it could be grown for, that gives our tax dollars to companies that do things the wrong way at the expense of both the consumer and smaller companies that try to do things the right way when it comes to our food. We’re vegetarians because we think it tastes better and we think we can live more sustainably as vegetarians than we could as carnivores.

And with that, I will step down from my soapbox and give you my recipe for Broccoli-Tofu Stir-Fry, adapted from  Moosewood Restaurant Cooks At Home:

Mix the following ingredients in a small bowl and set aside:
2 T garlic chili sauce (the original recipe uses hoisin sauce)
1 2 inch piece of ginger, grated (I added this)
2/3 c water
3 T rice vinegar
3 T soy sauce
1 T cornstarch

Throw a cup of basmati rice in the steamer to cook and then cut up 2 cloves of garlic, 1 small fresh chile, 1 cake of tofu, 1 head of broccoli, and a bell pepper into 1 inch pieces. Heat 2 T oil in a wok over medium heat and fry the garlic & chili for 30 seconds before adding the tofu. Stir fry the tofu until golden, about 10 minutes. Remove the tofu and then add the vegetables and stir fry until just tender, adding 1/3 c lime juice and a little extra water if they start to stick (did I mention that I reduced the oil in this recipe so that it’s Weight Watchers friendly too???).  When the veggies are done, throw in the tofu and the bowl of sauce and cook untl the sauce thickens, about 3-4 more minutes.

Serve over rice. Moosewood suggests topping with peanuts, but I think cilantro or scallions would be good too!

Lead Paint in Toys: RC2 Settles Class Action Lawsuit

On Tuesday, RC2, the company that produces such brands as Lamaze Toys, Learning Curve Toys, and The First Years, settled a class action lawsuit brought against them as a result of the Thomas the Tank Engine recalls this past summer and fall. As you may recall, RC2 was forced to recall many trains with red and yellow paint in June and then, upon further testing, recalled additional toys from the line in September.

I’ve been very interested to watch the fallout from the various toy recalls this past season for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that I firmly believe that consumers created this pickle in the first place by demanding such insane quantities of cheap toys. How else can that demand be met except by reducing standards and off-shoring production so that the toys can be built by cheap labor overseas? Despite our collective culpability in this issue, we can also be part of the solution by being more selective about where we purchase toys and the types of toys we purchase. If the number of “Safe Toy Lists” I received via email this past year is any indication, consumers are now motivated to do a little bit more research into their toy purchases.

The second reason I find this interesting is because this issue shed light on the ridiculously low standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Now I see companies like RC2 coming up with their own standards because they go burned so badly in 2007. RC2 has instituted a “Multi-Check Safety System” that includes the following (taken from their web site):

  • “Increased scope and frequency of testing of both incoming materials and finished products, including testing of finished products from every production run
  • Tougher certification program for contract manufacturers and paint suppliers, including evidence that toy safety standards and quality control procedures are in place and operating effectively
  • Mandatory paint control procedures for contract manufacturers, including certified independent lab test results of every batch of wet paint before the paint is released for production
  • Increased random inspections and audits of both manufacturers and their suppliers, including semi-annual audits and quarterly random inspections for key suppliers
  • Zero tolerance for compromise on RC2 specifications reinforced by mandatory vendor compliance seminars and signed agreements”

It’s just too bad that they didn’t implement these more rigorous standards before they sent all those lead-laden James trains out into the world. Unfortunately, not all companies have jumped on the safety bandwagon. Even after all the bad press, the demands for safety, and the various recalls in 2007, there are several new safety recalls from the past week including:

  • Wooden “My First Kenmore” Play Stoves purchased at K-Mart & Sears (I’m as guilty as anyone of thinking wooden toys are better/safer/more educational. This recall, while related to lead paint like the wooden Thomas recall was, reminds us that all wooden toys are not equal and that something is not necessarily safe or natural just because it’s made out of wood!)
  • Toy Race Cars sold for a dollar at various discount stores (proof that you get what you pay for?)
  • Cranium Game recalled due to lead in the dice (this one just breaks my heart because I love the Cranium games, it’s an American company, and, frankly, they just should have known better!)

The good news is that so far there have been no reports of injury from these particular recalls, so perhaps this was just the wake-up call we as consumers, and the industry that supplies us, needed to come up with safer alternatives for our children.

Consumer Reports: 20 Free Ways to Save Energy

I’ve used Consumer Reports quite a bit since we got pregnant with Gabriel four years (!!) ago, but even I was suprised and impressed when my Green Life tip from Sierra Club for today was to check out Consumer Reports’ 20 Free Ways to Save Energy report.

There is some additional content that is available to subscribers only (haven’t had time to check that out yet, but hope to this evening!), but the tips that are available to the public are sound. Some of these tips have been around for a while, but some of them are ones I hadn’t thought of and I look forward to implementing them.

They also provide a few low-cost bonus tips that include trying out CF light bulbs (which I highly recommend!) and, one that I’m definitely up for trying, buying low-E film to cover your windows. Sure is cheaper than replacing them! We have low-Es at the new house, but we’ve been thinking about tinting to protect the flooring & furniture, but I hadn’t looked in to whether we could choose an option that would make our home even more energy efficient. Definitely food for thought!

What it really costs…

So it’s tax time (at least for us!) and we’re also in the process of assessing finances now that we’ve been in the new house for a while. That’s led me to ponder what things really cost. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about things in terms of the following:

  • What it costs me to work (which, after a week like this, is probably A LOT!!!)
  • What it costs to live sustainably (spurred in part by my search for a new car and in part by an assessment of our spending on things like cloth diapers, compact flourescent lightbulbs, and organic foods that cost more than the convetional versions, but have a real value to us)
  • What we really get enjoyment from with regards to spending money and what we spend for purely convenience reasons (of course, we want to make cuts in that second category).

The facts of our situation are that, frankly, I don’t want to work much longer, but I have nearly a third of an acre of bare dirt that needs landscaping, a car that is in the shop getting $1200 of repairs but will inevitably still need to be replaced in the next two years, and two children that need me more than I need to work.

Work

So what does it cost? For every scheduled hour I work (my “office hours” are basically 8-3 Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday), I pay $22 an hour in child care between Gabriel’s preschool and Lily’s sitter. Wow. That’s a lot. When you consider another $12.40 an hour in taxes, I’m paying more per hour than many people make gross. OK, so I’m lucky that I have a great salary, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that although I can add a little “whew!” factor in for getting the mental stimulation of work, the extra spending money, and a little break, our family also pays. It pays on days like yesterday when I worked until 10pm. Sure the hours after 3pm were pure profit because I wasn’t paying childcare, but they were also hours that I talked on the phone while I was watching my kids (how else do you think Gabriel ended up face down drinking muddy puddle water???) or while I should have been planning a delicious and nutritious dinner for them (they ate boxed Mac N Cheese, organic & whole-wheat, but not exactly ideal!), or while I should have been sharing some much-needed down time with my husband, who also has a TON going on at work right now and is not just resting on his laurels waiting around to help me with my insanity.

Transportation

The car payment on my current car ($0) is just right, especially if I hope to ever stop working. But, the car is not gas-efficient (at about 30mpg, it’s better than many, but not as good as a Hybrid!), and as I mentioned it’s in the shop getting things like a new “cabin air filter” (???), dashboard light bulbs (which cost $0.02 a piece, but $115 in labor to install!) and a timing belt. But how do you calculate what the real cost is of a gallon of gas? Do I need to factor in the price of the war(s) in the Middle East? The cost to the environment not just of drilling for the stuff, but for burning it up? The cost to our health and the health of our children when the cheapest “food-grade” preservatives, skin emollients, detergents, candles, air fresheners, perfumes, or fertilizer on the market are made of by-products of the processing of crude oil and at the same time allowed in some cases to be marketed as “natural” or at the least “safe” because they were, at one point, a million years ago, tangentially a plant?!?!

With this in mind, if the strength of my convictions were the only thing at play I’d probably ditch the car altogether and go for a bicycle, but honestly that Prius is looking more and more affordable to me at the moment!

Food

I’m fairly sure I’ve both blogged and gabbed about how everyone ought to find local sources for their food, organic when possible, at least fresh & unprocessed when not. But what does that really cost? So let’s talk about the dollars first, and the politics second, shall we.

Time for full disclosure: We pay a lot to eat primarily organic & local food. We’ve tried various things like food preservation, CSAs, and buying bulk/unprocessed to lower the cost of our grocery bill and the fact of the matter is we spend $1200 on average per month for a family of four to eat organic. If you survived on that organic whole-wheat boxed Mac-N-Cheese, frozen organic pizzas, and other processed foods, it would quickly go up from there. I do things like making my own yogurt, preserving all of our jams and most of our fruit juice, and making my own big-ticket items like sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. Oh, and we don’t eat meat, so if you added the cost of organic meat to this bill, it wouldn’t be cheap. Of course, I’m basing this average cost on the past year, which is a year that included a lot of visitors, a huge move, and no vegetable garden (because of the move), so perhaps I’ll find that amount going down in the future, but I doubt it will move much.

But what does it cost to eat the conventional American McMeal? Well, according to Michael Pollan, author of previously mentioned The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it takes 10 calories’s worth of oil to produce each calorie of commercial #2 commodity corn (we’re not talking sweet corn here, we’re talking about the high-fructose corn syrup, food additives, and animal feed type). That corn goes in ever-increasing quantities into our processed foods (soda is approaching 100% corn these days and McDonalds McNuggets have more corn than chicken in them) and into feeding the cows that produce the beef that some of us eat.

The chemically intensive way that corn must be farmed to produce at the rate required for a farmer to make a buck strips the land of nutrients and pollutes the local groundwater, not to mention the barrels of oil that it uses. And even with the chemical-heavy methods, corn farmers are not able to sell their corn for as much as it costs to produce it, creating a cycle of subsidies (talk about costing the regular old tax-payer like you & me!!!), debt, and, more and more frequently, farmers who either lose the farm or have to take a full-time job elsewhere to make ends meet.

I prefer to look at this from the vantage point of how it benefits the local economy & environment to support local food even if its cost is a bit higher. First, the feeling of community fostered by a CSA or a trip to the farmer’s market is a sweet reminder of a simpler time. That in and of itself makes shopping local worthwhile. Then there’s the aspect of supporting that local farmer so that he or she won’t have to sell out and start growing commodity corn. I also like the idea of my dollars staying here in Colorado instead of wandering as far as New Zealand. And how about connection to the land and insurance that your kids won’t grow up thinking that their produce, like too much of their other food, comes from the factory. Oh, and the taste, the taste, the taste! And did I mention variety? I think I’ve made my point…

Environment & community aside, let’s look at the health costs. What does it cost your pocketbook to pay for fad diets, stomach stapling, or treatment for diabetes or heart disease (these last two are on the rise at about the same rate as obesity in this and other first world nations)? What does it cost your quality of life?

So what’s my point in all this, besides working it out in my own head? For me, personally, the cost is a lot more complex an issue than the amount that I pay at the checkout or the check I write to the sitter each week.  I’d like for us as a culture to be done with turning a blind eye to the true costs of the products we use, the food we eat, the gas we pump into our cars, and the time we needlessly spend away from our children, and start thinking of the real costs to the environment, to the Earth, and to our collective consciences.

If you’re still with me at this point, you either totally agree, or are about to send me a virtual fire bomb 😉 Either way, thank you for reading and letting me vent about what things cost.

Crunchy? Yes, right down to my socks!

After blathering on about how great my Nellie’s Dryer Balls are, Matt alerted me to one drawback to our ban on Bounce: crunchy socks. OK, it’s not just socks. Underwear too. And my PJ pants, and some of our newer jeans…It seems that the chemical softeners in Bounce and the like just can’t be replaced by a pair of little knobby balls (which, by the way, Gabriel calls “meatballs” even though he’s never seen or tasted a meatball in his life!).

Oh yeah, it all softens up once you’ve put it on and worn it for an hour or two, but when I signed up to be crunchy, I never thought my socks would be too…

Bounce Be Gone!

I have been threatening to ban dryer sheets from our household ever since Lily developed a nasty rash when she was tiny due to a combination of dryer sheet perfume and hot summer weather. Today I’m happy to report that the deed is done and the Bounce sheets are no longer going to be on the shopping list.

For the past three weeks (and that means approximately 24 loads of laundry!), I’ve been using two products from Gaiam in hopes of reducing the chemical burden of our clothing and reducing the waste of all those discarded (non-compostable) dryer sheets:

  • Static Eliminators –  These nifty little clothes remove pet hair and static.
  • Dryer Balls – These funky little balls soften clothes and allegedly reduce drying time.

Those of you who read TreeHugger know these dryer balls are not without controversy. They are made from PVC, which means their production puts bad stuff like dioxin into the environment. I can’t help thinking, though, that the relatively small amount of PVC is better for the environment than boxes upon boxes of dryer sheets and I know that the sensitive skin in this family is benefiting from our new-found lack of yucky laundry chemicals.

And these things really work! No static, even in fleece PJs. Towels and jeans are as soft as before and with no “slick” dryer sheet feel. This should eventually improve the absorbency of our towels and reduce the chemical build-up that can make them go sour faster too.

If I get really brave, I might forgo my Seventh Generation Laundry Detergent altogether and try out the Wonder Ball. This little guy works by reducing the surface tension of the water in your washing machine, thereby cleaning without detergent! I might have to wait until we’re done washing cloth diapers before I’m brave enough to try these!