Sunday, August 29, 2010

When going green is a pain in the *@%&

Let's face it--one of the challenges to going green is that some of the things you must do are a pain in the *@%&. It seems selfish to admit this; after all, compared to many of the daily living tasks our grandparents did all the time, or that many people in less developed nations still do, the stuff I want to complain about is nothing. However, I don't think much good will come from not admitting my annoyance, and maybe by talking about it, I will be able to think of ways to overcome the frustration. So here goes:

Green living takes forethought and preparation. Unfortunately, I'm not always as prepared as I would like. On Saturday, we went to Puyallup to get some work done on our car. Originally my husband was going to go alone, while I remained with my daughter taking care of our various Saturday tasks. For a variety of reasons we realized on Saturday morning that we all needed to go (the money to fix the car was in my account, but I needed the card, so I couldn't just give it to hubby; and we still needed some form of transportation once the car was in the shop).

Thus, we set off on Saturday morning rather quickly, without having prepared for the day. Normally, I'd make breakfast for the family in the morning, and we'd carry lunch with us. Yesterday, however, we dropped off the car and hadn't had breakfast, so we went to a nearby McDonalds. Then we decided to visit the Puyallup farmer's market, one of the biggest in Pierce County, while we waited.

In many ways, that was great--we bought lots of fresh produce, at much cheaper prices than at the farmer's markets in Tacoma. I also bought some natural fragrances--gardenia in jojoba oil--at a great price from a vendor, who discounted her products because this is the last farmer's market booth she plans to do for the year.

However, we then needed lunch, which we bought from food vendors at the market, and it was all packed in styrofoam. And we were there so long waiting for our car to be ready that we had to rush to a birthday party that afternoon, for two sisters who are friends of our daughter's. There was no time to carefully shop for presents, so we hurried into Walmart for heavily plastic-wrapped dolls. (There were some really cute handmade items at the market, such as tie-dyed sundresses for little girls, but they were too pricey for our budget, especially since we had to buy for two children).

Thus, we generated a lot more garbage than we might otherwise have done had we been more prepared. (Although I tried to make up for it by collecting the bottles and cans to recycle at both the birthday party and a church picnic today!).

Green living sometimes just takes more work. The watermelon rinds and corn cobs and husks collected at my birthday party two weeks ago have been decomposing in a plastic bag on the deck. I started to add them to the compost pile today. Before I could do that, I had to chop up the rinds and cobs and cut up the husks. And yeah, it got tiring after a while, which is why I started thinking it would be easier to just throw it all away (I didn't).

While I love all my handmade personal care products (hair conditioner and detangler, facial moisturizer, deodorant, toothpaste), it can be a pain in the *@%& to make them. Not that any of them are complicated to make, but the fact that I have to make them, instead of just buying a pre-made product at the store, can sometimes be annoying, especially if I'm tired or I'm in a hurry when I suddenly discover that I'm out of what I need.

And my reusable menstrual pads? Yes, I love them, as I wrote about a few days ago. But I'll admit, there is a bit of an "ick" factor when I'm rinsing out the pads that have been soaking.

So what to do? Well, sometimes you just gotta vent. After that, I think it's like anything that's a pain in the *@%& to do (taxes, say)--remember why it's important. And remember the benefits. It's easier with things for which the benefit is immediate and obvious, such as my personal care products. But "saving the planet" is a long way off from my small efforts. But perhaps I can focus more on the intermediate term. With my compost, for example, I can remember that next spring, my plants will love me!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cheap green tip: substitute flax seed for eggs in baking

By now, I'm sure you've heard about the massive egg recall taking place in at least 14 states due to salmonella contamination. If you're an egg eater in an affected area, you currently have to forego eggs for a while or pay the much higher prices for uncontaminated organic, free range eggs.

Well, I have a cheap green tip for you! It won't help if you like eggs for breakfast, but it will certainly help if you love to bake like I do.

Purchase a bag or jar of milled flax seed, milled meaning pre-ground. (If you purchase whole flax seeds, you'll have to grind them yourself in a coffee grinder). For each egg you want to replace in a baking recipe, add 1 tablespoon of milled flax seed and 3 tablespoons of water to a blender. Blend about one minute until smooth. Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator for up to three days.

You'll notice no difference in the taste or texture of your final product, you'll have added some excellent fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids to your recipe, and as an added bonus, you can give the spoon or beaters to your kids to lick without worrying about making them deathly ill.

Is this really a cheap green tip? I did some calculations, and yes, it is. I buy 12 ounce bags of milled flax seed for $2.99 from Grocery Outlet. According to the serving size information, the bag contains 48 tablespoons, or the equivalent (when blended with water) of 48 eggs. That's an average price of 6.2 cents per (substitute) egg.

Regular, non-organic large eggs range in price across the country from $1.39-3.99 a dozen. That's an average of 11.5 to 33.3 cents an egg. So the milled flax seed egg substitute is much cheaper than regular eggs.

OK, you may not have a Grocery Outlet around. Where else could you buy milled (or possibly whole) flax seeds? I'm pretty sure any store that sells natural foods, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Fred Meyer, will carry it. I've never checked, but it's possible that ordinary grocery stores might have it as well. If you still can't find it, you can always purchase it online (see below).

Will it be as cheap as at a discount store such as Grocery Outlet? I think so, or at least comparable to regular eggs. This is a list of flax seed products sold on Here are my calculations for just the first two:

Hodgson Mill Milled Flax Seed, 12-Ounce Boxes (Pack of 8), for $15.20. That's $1.90 for each 12 oz box, or about 4 cents per tablespoon (and remember, each tablespoon makes one egg).

Flax Usa Cold Milled Flax, 40-Ounce Canister (Pack of 2), for $25. That's 80 ounces of milled flax seed, or about 320 tablespoons. So the price is about 7.8 cents per tablespoon/replacement egg. In both cases, it's still much cheaper than buying regular eggs.

Another added benefit: while you have to use the flax seed/water mix within three days, the unmixed flax seeds themselves can be stored in your refrigerator for a couple of months, or your freezer for even longer (and yes, you must refrigerate or freeze the bag or container once it's been opened. Milled flax seed will go rancid otherwise). Try doing that with a dozen eggs!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A party and plums and an almost non-existent utility bill

Hubby threw a birthday cookout for me this weekend, and we used the same things as for my daughter's bubble party in July: reusable plastic plates and cups and cloth napkins. We also gathered all the leftover corn husks and cobs for composting.

Even better, as snacks, I set out plums and blackberries from the yard. Alas, the blueberries are all gone for the season, but the plums are now ripe and sweet! I realize the mistake I made earlier: I was trying to eat the plums when they turned purple. I need to wait until they're so dark they're almost black. That's when they're perfect!

We received our latest bimonthly utility bill (water and electric). You may remember that our April bill was twice as high as February's, and we discovered in June that they had overcharged us. The credit to our account was enough to wipe out the June bill and give us an additional credit of $91.

This bill was just as amazing. We had successfully brought down the bill from $600 every two months, to $400, to about $250. This bill was $118. In other words, it breaks down to an average cost of usage of only $29 per month, per utility. We're definitely doing something right. Each bill shows a comparison chart to the same billing period the previous year. Our water and energy usage is less than half of what we were using at this time last year -- which was less than half of what we had used the year before. Best of all, given that we still have the $91 credit, we only have to pay $27 of that $118!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's amazing what you discover in your own yard

Sometimes I wonder if I'm so much of a city kid that it takes a long time for me to notice natural things. Or maybe, just maybe, my yard is changing before my eyes.

Last summer, our friends Johnnie and Michele came over when we were planting our garden in the yard, and pointed out that the two bushes near the garden spot were blueberry bushes. I couldn't figure out how I had missed that the year before, since I love blueberries.

Last year most of the blueberries that grew were eaten by the deer as soon as they started to ripen, and those that weren't eaten by deer were rather bitter in taste. It's possible the deer had eaten them all the year before, so we hadn't noticed.

This year, the deer have oddly left the berries alone (and we've seen them running around the neighborhood, so they're still here). Not only that, but the berries that ripened have been nice and sweet. I've already speculated that the deer dislike the smell of the coffee grounds we used to fertilize the garden--which also may be the reason for the improved berry crop. My daughter found a bush in another part of the yard that still bears a tag reading, "blueberry plant." The latter grew no berries, so I definitely think our cultivation of the general area of the two fruitful bushes has had an effect.

My daughter found something else this year: a tree in our year bearing what my neighbor informs me are Italian plums. Again, how did I miss this the past two years? Unpicked fruit trees usually results in rotten fruit on the ground, and I certainly have done my share of raking and yard work! So far, the plums are hard and bitter, even the purple ones, so we'll see if they improve as fall approaches.

And best of all, my husband discovered a blackberry bush when he was mowing the lawn! It's growing up among the shrubs that border our yard, so he's pretty sure they're wild berries that weren't intentionally planted. He used his garden gloves to pull a bunch of braches out of the shrubs and into the yard. Daughter and I collected enough to make two dozen blackberry tarts!

Discovering all this fruit growing in our yard has been a delight. I think of the words from the movie Jurassic Park (used in an entirely different context, of course, but they can apply here): "Nature always finds a way."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Weekend news and basil-mint pesto

Besides swimming, we had other outdoor experiences this weekend. Our good friends Johnnie and Michele are living on Vashon Island this summer and caretaking at a cottage there. It's a pretty rustic cabin right on the water. We joined them for dinner on Sunday evening.

The last time we were there, on July 4th, my daughter and I picked up seashells off the beach (which the kids painted at my daughter's bubble party). This time, the tide was high and there was no beach.

However, there is a long, thick rope hanging from one of the trees in the yard. Michele said it was once a swing, but the seat broke off at some point. No matter: my daughter used the rope to play Tarzan and swing all over the yard.

They also have wild blackberries growing in the yard. I spent some time picking them (mmm, I love blackberries), and I have scratches all over my arm to prove it!

Johnnie and Michele's dinners are usually open potlucks for their friends. My contribution this time was a basil-mint pesto, made from the basil, spearmint and peppermint growing in our garden. It was a big hit with everyone, "addictive," as one woman called it. Here is the recipe I made (modified from this one at Post Punk Kitchen):



-1/4 cup each almonds and pine nuts

-2 c. basil and mint leaves (I cut off two tall stalks each of basil and spearmint, and five or six short stalks of peppermint, and pulled the leaves off the stems)

- juice of one lemon (tip: firmly roll the lemon around on a hard surface for about 10-20 seconds, and the juice will squeeze out much more easily)

- 3 T olive oil

- 2 garlic cloves, chopped

- 1/4 c. grated parmesan cheese

- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt.


- Using my Magic Bullet blender, I chopped up the almonds and pine nuts until they they resembled coarse crumbs and set them aside.

- I added the basil and mint leaves to the blender, along with 1 T of the olive oil, the lemon juice and the garlic, and blended until smooth.

- I added the chopped nuts, the rest of the oil, the parmesan cheese and salt to the basil-mint mixture and blended. The resulting mixture is lumpy.

- I served with whole wheat crackers.

For a vegan variety, you can replace the parmesan cheese with 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast flakes.

Learning to swim

My kid loves the water. She is taking lessons at Tacoma's Eastside Pool, the only pool in the area with Saturday lessons for children her age, as well as the one with the cheapest rates. She took their tot class last summer, and is now in their Level 1 swim class.

We attended a birthday pool party for one of her friends on Sunday. My daughter turned down eating lunch so she could stay in the water, came out of the pool long enough to sing happy birthday to her friend, and then jumped right back in.

I really want her to learn how to swim, in part because I can't. You may have heard about the six teens who drowned in Shreveport, LA last week when they jumped into a river to cool off from the oppressive heat. This article about the tragedy is one of many that notes that nearly 70% of black children in the U.S. can't swim, compared to only 42% of white children, and that African-Americans drown at much higher rates than do whites.

There are many reasons for the racial disparity in swimming ability, including historical segregation and current poverty which made and make it difficult or impossible to have access to pools and opportunities to learn to swim. Add to that the fear factor: when adults never had the chance to learn to swim, they are more likely to be fearful of the water and thus not allow their children to go near it.

My first opportunity in the water occurred when I was seven and my mother signed me up for lessons at the YMCA. There had to be at least fifty children in the class, so the instructors had no time to give individual attention to anyone. Instead, they demonstrated and explained certain techniques, and you either got it or you didn't. I learned to hold my breath under water in that class. (Even in my daughter's class, which only has ten kids, there is little time for individual attention. The instructor works with each child for about three or four minutes, while the rest of the kids play in the water).

My next chance occurred in seventh grade, when I took a semester of swimming as part of gym class. However, the swim teacher was a diabetic who was going through some serious complications, and he missed most of the semester. The substitute who replaced him declared each class "open swim," so we were never taught anything. A friend of mine taught me how to float in that class.

In tenth grade, I also had a chance to take a semester of swimming as part of gym. The swim teacher was well-known as an excellent instructor. But early in the semester, a kid lit up a cigarette in the gym, tossed it on a mat and set the place on fire. The gym, a separate building from the school, had so much smoke damage that they had to close it down for the remainder of the year. We spent the rest of our gym periods doing calisthenics in the basement of the school until it was warm enough to play a few sports outside. I never again had room in my school schedule (high school or college) to take gym.

The rest of my family can swim, but they all learned as adults. After her children were grown and out of the house, my mother signed up for swimming lessons and kept taking them until she learned. My dad and brother both learned to swim in the military. My sister learned to swim in college. Lucky woman, she could take swimming as a credit elective at her university. I didn't have that option.

As an adult, I never took independent swim classes because, I hate to admit, I was worried about my hair. When relaxed hair gets wet it tends to frizz up, which doesn't look so hot when you're a working professional. Straightening it out again requires several hours involving dryers, flat irons and curling irons. As such, swimming lessons seemed like more trouble than they were worth.

During the few times over the years I had the chance to get into a pool, I taught myself how to kick while floating, and I can make it across the shallow end of the pool that way. Still, that's hardly competent swimming. My husband, on the other hand, used to be a lifeguard.

So here's hoping that my daughter's love of the water will continue, and that she will become an expert swimmer. And perhaps her mother will, too. Learning to swim is not a hair challenge anymore, since I no longer relax my hair and don't care if it gets wets, but it is a time and schedule challenge. I would love nothing more, however, than being able to join my daughter in the water.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I visited Alaffia!

I had a meeting in Olympia Wednesday, and since Lacey, WA, the location of the headquarters of Alaffia, is between Tacoma and Olympia, I decided to visit. Their offices are beautifully decorated with African art and large photographs of the women's cooperative in Togo that produces the shea butter and other ingredients for their products, and of the women and children assisted by Alaffia's donations for maternal health and education in Africa.

Unfortunately, the staff was very busy that day and could not give me a tour of their production facilities, but I did get a chance to buy one of their new Beautiful Curls products, their Nourishing Shea Butter Leave-In & De-Tangler (for babies and up). It was $12 for a 12 oz bottle, so a pretty reasonable deal.

After trying it, I still need something stronger--my hair, like my skin, is a desert that sucks moisture up and begs for more--but it worked beautifully to soften and condition my daughter's hair. The best part about it is the heavenly smell, NOT created by synthetic (and often toxic) 'fragrance'! Instead, the product is scented with vanilla flower extract and mango extract. Orders have just started coming in for their Beautiful Curls line of hair care products, so they are not yet in the stores, but the woman who sold me the bottle encouraged me to tell my local stores (in my case, Marlene's and Super Supplements) to carry it. So Bravo, Alaffia!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Safe Cosmetics Act: where do you stand?

On July 21, three Congressional Reps introduced the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 (H.R.5786), "which gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authority to ensure that personal care products are free of harmful ingredients." In many ways, this bill is very necessary and overdue, as "The Story of Cosmetics" video (created by the same makers of "The Story of Stuff") reveals. The Safe Cosmetics Campaign provides information about how the act will protect consumers going forward.

However... The Indie Beauty Network, a coalition of small businesses that create and sell personal care products, opposes the bill, citing the following reasons:

-- Small cosmetic businesses have a history of producing safe cosmetics.

-- The requirements of the law, including scientific testing of all their ingredients and reporting of trace elements found even in natural ingredients, would be onerous to small businesses. They give the example of having to identify and label everything in water, if that is an ingredient of the given cosmetic, noting that water "contains a number of chemicals, including nickel, lead, copper, silver and dozens more — depending on the water source."

-- The law allows individual states to add requirements to the federal law, compounding the burden to small businesses.

The Indie Beauty Network adds that this law would decimate the small cosmetics industry at one of the worst times possible, when we are trying to rebuild the American economy.

Here, however, seems to be the crux of all the above concerns:

H.R. 5786 does not contain an exemption for small business owners. Many laws in this country exempt small companies because compliance would put them out of business without any real benefit to society. The same is true in this case. H.R. 5786 treats the smallest company making 50 products a day the same way it treats our nation’s multi-million dollar companies. While there is an exemption from the annual payment of fees, the testing and paperwork requirements in this bill place burdens on very small businesses that are unfair, overreaching, unnecessary, offensive and intrusive.

What are your thoughts? I definitely think a Safe Cosmetics law is long overdue. However, wouldn't it make more sense to amend the bill to include an exemption for small businesses, than to fight against the bill altogether?

My husband could have worse vices...

... than a fondness for sunflower seeds. He loves them so much, he probably munches on a complete 16 oz bag every two days.

You know the old saying, "Pick your battles"? This is one battle I've chosen not to pick. Yes, it drives me nuts that despite carrying around a cup or bag to spit the shells into, he inevitably leaves a few shells around on the floor, on counters, and under seat cushions, and I hate the way it makes his breath smell. However, I remind myself that of the many vices he could have but doesn't, this one is relative minor.

But one thing I am proud of: he has found a way to put the used shells to good use. He has begun scattering them around the garden as part of our mulch. I have to admit that they don't look bad at all in a natural setting, and it's one more way to help keep the slugs away.