Sunday, May 29, 2011

Advantages of our move from house to apartment

We moved two weeks ago from the home of military relatives for whom we had housesat for three years while they were overseas. And I am so glad!

Our new apartment has almost everything I was hoping for in greener urban living:

1) Smaller space. Our new apartment has less than one-third of the square footage of our previous home, but unbelievably, more storage--the most I've ever had in an apartment! It will be so much easier to keep this place warm or cool, as the weather dictates, without using as much energy.

2) More walkability. I had hoped to keep my daughter in the same school system, but live somewhere closer to public transportation and other amenities. We had moved from a neighborhood in Boston with a Walk Score of 85 (very walkable) to a house outside of Tacoma with a Walk Score of 7 (where almost all errands require a car), and I found our car-dependency very frustrating.

We lucked out. We not only found a place in the same school district, but it's also one block from public transportation and two blocks from our local town center. Yesterday, my daughter and I walked to the town center to do our grocery shopping, using a large collapsable canvas shopping bag on wheels that I picked up at a yard sale for $1. It was awesome to be able to do something without driving for a change! Our new neighborhood has a Walk Score of 58.

3) Places to play and garden. One of our relatives' selling points in housesitting was that they had a yard for our daughter to play in, whereas in Boston, we needed to walk to a park. That wasn't the case--they have a beautiful, heavily landscaped yard that was totally inappropriate for a young child to play in. And there were no parks within walking distance. (That will soon change, thanks to a Pepsi Refresh grant my town won to build a new playground).

However, their yard did provide us with the benefit of space to garden, and we had a fun two years of growing our own vegetables and herbs.

One of the downsides of moving to an apartment is that we won't have the space to garden anymore. However, I am growing a few plants on our balacony, and I recently learned that some folks are trying to start a community garden in a park that is three blocks from our new home.

But for my daughter, the move is a real blessing. Not only are there two parks within walking distance of our home, our apartment building is one of several that encircles a huge grassy courtyard where tons of kids play. My very social, very active daughter is loving it. As an unexpected bonus, we found out that my daughter's best friend from school lives in one of the other buildings!

Holding on to recyclables? Yes!

I've held on to a bunch of recyclables over the last three years, primarily because I knew that these items could be recycled, but my local municipality didn't take them. And sometimes I wondered if I was crazy--after all, these items added to the junk in my house. Now, however, I think it was worth it.

One set of stuff included #5 plastics and Brita filters, which Preserve, a company that makes razors, toothbrushes and tableware from recycled plastic, accepts back through their Gimme 5 program. You can drop off items for recycling at Whole Foods, but the nearest one for me is Seattle, an hour away. Or you can mail them a box of plastics to recycle, which I did about a year ago. It cost me more than $40, which is just too big a chunk out of my pocketbook. Since that time I've been holding on to my yogurt and Smart Balance tubs and filters, hoping for a windfall.

I received it--but not monetarily. As we prepared to move, someone told us that we could drop items off at the Tacoma landfill, even though we don't live in city itself. There's a fee per each 100 lbs of garbage, but recycling is free. The recycling center at the landfill is amazing; they accept much, much more than my local municipality. I recycled all our number #5 plastics, leaving only the Brita filters. I was able to mail the latter to Preserve for a much more reasonable $9.

A second set of stuff was old shoes. In Boston, I was able to easily drop off old sneakers (which are recycled to make playground materials) at City Sports and the New Balance store. When I moved to Tacoma, I googled "sneaker recycling" and learned (at least according to the Google results) that the nearest place was the Nike factory in Seattle. Again, it doesn't make sense to travel an hour just to recycle.

But last week, I had a meeting at the REI store in Seattle, and I decided to call and ask if they accept shoes for recycling. They do--so I brought the old shoes with me. There is also an REI store in Tacoma, but since I've never shopped there, it hadn't occurred to me to ask. So now I know I have a place to recycle shoes in Tacoma, too!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cheap green tip: A&D ointment for polishing shoes

Or how to repurpose your unused diaper rash cream.

As I've shared before, my green journey started when my daughter was a baby, as I began to think about how to make sure I was doing what was best for her and for the world she would inherit.

One of the areas I researched was shoe polish. Somewhere I read that petroleum jelly (not the greenest stuff in the world, but less toxic than most shoe polishes) was great for polishing shoes, and lanolin was great for weatherproofing your shoes.

My daughter's first year came and went, and she never once had diaper rash. I took a look at an unopened tube of A&D ointment, wondering who I could pass it on to. Then I looked at the ingredients. The first two: lanolin and petrolatum.

Since that time (5 years!), I have used that same tube of A&D ointment (which costs about $5 for 4 ounces, much less per ounce than shoe polish) to polish and weatherproof my shoes. I squeeze a little on the shoe and rub it in with a soft cloth. A little goes a long way, it's much less messy than shoe polish, and I can use the same ointment no matter what color the shoe.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Furnishing a home for less than $600

Three years ago, we moved from Boston to Tacoma to house-sit for military relatives who were being sent overseas. We sold or gave away everything we owned and moved west with only some clothes and personal possessions.

Since we always knew that one day our relatives would return and we'd need to move out, I have spent the last three years collecting items to furnish a household. And since we didn't have much money, I obtained virtually everything second-hand, from thrift stores, yard sales, Freecycle and gifts from friends.

We moved this weekend, and I want to share the costs to furnish our new household room by room.

Living room: sofa, easy chair, two bookcases, a TV stand, a TV, DVD player, two end tables, two lamps: $103.

Dining room: table and chairs, computer desk, computer: $133 (computer was $90)

Master bedroom: queen-sized bed (passed on from a friend), dresser, two nightstands, two lamps, exercise bike, file cabinet: $25

Child's bedroom: twin bed (passed on from a friend), dresser, nightstand, lamp, toy box, bookshelf, TV stand, TV/VCR (since kids' videos are much easier to obtain second-hand than kids' DVD's): $30

Kitchen: Too many items to count. We have a fully-furnished kitchen, including small appliances, dishes, flatware, cookware and bakeware. The only items purchased new were a large Teflon skillet my husband bought (because the stainless steel ones I bought used aren't big enough for some of the stuff he cooks); the Magic Bullet I got at a steal during an after Christmas sale at Costco; a cast-iron waffle iron (which still sticks, even though I've seasoned it four times); and a Kitchen Aid mixer, the only kitchen item I brought with us from Boston. My husband bought it for me during our first year of marriage in 2001, and since my mother has had the same Kitchen Aid mixer for 40+ years, I know they're quality-- so I wasn't about to give mine up!

All other kitchen items were purchased second-hand. Other than the microwave, which costs $20, everything was $10 or less, with most items costing less than $5. Estimated total spent on used items: $120. (New items were $40 + $40 + $20 + $60 = $160).

Household cost
Living room: $103
Dining room: $133
Master bedroom: $25
Child's room: $30
Kitchen: $120 (estimate)

Total: $411

Counting in the new items adds $140 to the total, including $100 spent in the kitchen (I'm not including the 10-year-old mixer, but only what we've purchased since coming to Tacoma), and $40 spent to purchase bathroom rugs and a shower curtain.

Grant total: $551

The best part is, everything works together. I really searched for quality items that were well-maintained rather than worrying about appearance, but everything looks good, too. I purchased a lot of dark wood items, and it happens to match the cabinetry in the apartment. It won't win any awards, but I think we have an attractive, cozy-looking home!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Private vs. public sector: which is better?

First, a disclaimer: I have never worked in the public sector. However, I have always worked in the nonprofit sector, which, while technically private, has a public mission.

The public sector has been trashed in many quarters of late, and thankfully (in my opinion), the trashing is producing a backlash. Many people are starting to realize just how much all of us benefit from the public sector and its services.

I wrote a post a few months ago at the height of the protests in Wisconsin, about how thankful I am for the government and its libraries, schools, safety net, etc. Now some might say about the stories I shared in that post, "Well, OK, maybe the public sector can do well sometimes, but if it's a choice, the private sector will always do a better job." Competition and profit, they claim, will always result in better service.

Not necessarily. Often the same problems that occur in the public sector also occur in the private sector. For every complaint about waiting in line at the DMV, there's a complaint about waiting at home all day for Comcast to show up, to give one example.

But there are also occasions when the public sector does a better job at the exact same service. I'll share two examples from my life in recent years.

FedEx vs. the Post Office

The Post Office--"Neither snow nor rain...": During Christmas week in 2008, a terrible blizzard hit the Puget Sound region. Not being well-equipped for blizzards, many of us were shut-in for days, and my street was one of many that went unplowed.

On Christmas Eve, my daughter and I went out to build a snowman. Our snow-blanketed street was deserted and silent. After a while, we were surprised to hear a vehicle approaching. Soon a U.S. postal truck, producing the only tire tracks on the road, came into view. The truck stopped at our house and the mail carrier delivered two packages for my daughter, one from each grandmother.

Without that delivery, my daughter would have had only one present on Christmas day, the one her father and I gave her.

FedEx--"A blizzard? Get it yourself!": The day after Christmas, my sister called to ask how my daughter had liked her gift, and we told her we never received it. My sister said, "Man, FedEx sucks! I paid extra for them to deliver it on Christmas Eve!"

When I called FedEx to inquire about it, I was told that they weren't going to deliver until the snow melted, and if I wanted the package sooner, I had to go to the main FedEx facility to pick it up. I stood in line at the facility for about two hours that weekend. A Tacoma News-Tribune article later reported that neither FedEx nor UPS had made any of their deliveries during Christmas week, to the consternation of their customers, but the U.S. Post Office had made all of theirs.

Public sector: 1; private sector: 0.

AIG vs. Washington Labor & Industries

I'm a grant writer, so I work on a computer all day. When my right hand started hurting in 2002, while I still lived in Massachusetts, my first thought was carpal tunnel syndrome. However, an Internet review of my symptoms vs. carpal tunnel's (pain rather than numbness in my middle finger, no pain in the wrist, relief rather than aggravated pain at night) made me realize that wasn't the case.

I filed a workplace injury clain at work (for repetitive stress) and was referred to an orthopedist, who insisted despite my protests that I had carpal tunnel. She treated it as such, aggravating the problem by making me wear a wrist brace that increased my pain and giving me a cortisone shot in the wrist that caused my fingers to curl into a fist that I couldn't uncurl.

I demanded to see someone else and eventually was able to see a hand therapist (a subset of occupational therapy) who correctly diagnosed tendonitis and was able to successfully treat it.

AIG--"Let's give you the run-around": However, AIG, through which my employer had our worker's comp insurance, refused to honor the claim because I hadn't accepted the first doctor's (incorrect) diagnosis and (harmful) treatment. It was a full year before AIG finally paid on the claim, after numerous phone calls and letters to them from the HR person at my job, the hand therapy clinic, and me. During almost all our dealings with them, they were rude and incompetent (for example, we'd send a fax, call to ensure they'd received it, and a week later would be told that we never sent it).

When AIG had all those problems during the 2008 financial crisis, needless to say I wasn't surprised.

WA Labor & Industries--"We're thorough but caring": When my thumb started to hurt this winter, due to my previous experience I soon recognized the problem. I went through the same process of filing a claim at work and seeing a doctor, who (as I expected) diagnosed DeQuervain's tendonitis in my thumb.

The state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) handles worker's comp claims in Washington. They've been very thorough in the paperwork my employer and I have had to complete, as well as their follow-up--they obviously don't want anyone to game the system. But they've also been very kind and competent in my dealings with them, and approved my claim in about five weeks.

The public sector wins again!

Why a sweeper is better than a vacuum!

On a recent visit to Value Village, I found a Dirt Devil Sweeper--one of those old fashioned sweepers that uses neither batteries nor electricity, just a pair of roller brushes and your own muscle strength. I don't know what it cost originally (do they even sell them anymore?), but I purchased the used model for four dollars.

I am notoriously lax about vacuuming (just ask my husband!). But I love this sweeper so much, it's inspiring me to use it often. Here, then, are the top reasons why an old-fashioned sweeper is better than a vacuum:

1) No need to unwrap a cord before using--just grab it and go.
2) It takes more energy to push than a vacuum, so it provides a good workout. If you're a busy mom like me who can't get to the gym, household exercise is a plus.
3) It's nice and quiet.
4) It doesn't accidently pull out of wall if you move too far from outlet.
5) No need to switch outlets when you move to a new room or location.
6) No bags to change--just open a small door on the side of the sweeper and dump.
7) It's a very green choice: it uses no energy (other than your own labor), and with no motor, it's unlikely to stop functioning.
8) When I'm finished, I don't have to wrap up a cord again.

None of those reasons are major in and of themselves, but when you add them up--no wonder I disliked vacuuming and love my old-fashioned sweeper!

Memorial Day Update:

Reason #9: When your guests leave late at night, you can use the sweeper to clean the carpet without waking your child or disturbing your neighbors downstairs!