Category Archives: Eco-Saturday

Eco-Saturday: Take your workout outdoors

In light of recent political events, I suspect the environment is going to need all the help it can get, and I strongly urge all of my readers to take every action you can to shrink your ecological footprint. To that end, it might be worth your time to search my archives or visit my Eco-Saturday, Vegetarian Friday and Tiny-House Preparations Pinterest boards to find ideas you can incorporate into your lifestyle.

This week, my Eco-Saturday suggestion also falls into the category of self-care, and it’s a fairly simple one to implement: Take your workout outdoors.

In the winter, it’s easy to look out the window and decide to skip the workout or move it indoors. Sometimes this is wise: If I can’t squeeze in a workout before I leave for work, I’ll hit the treadmill when I get home, because I don’t want to go jogging alone in the dark. If the snow is too deep or the streets are too slippery for a trip out on my Schwinn, I might put in a few miles on the stationary bike in my basement. But those indoor workouts always carry a heavier ecological price than a ride or run on the trail. The bike’s electronic display and tension controls sip a little power as I ride; the treadmill’s motor gulps it. More often than not, I could shave a few cents off the power bill and spare the environment a little strain if I simply made time to exercise outdoors.

Outdoor workouts come with an extra health benefit, too: This is the time of year when the days grow shorter, and your exposure to sunlight — which helps regulate moods — decreases, so any time you can spend outdoors will help offset that and reduce your chances of slipping into seasonal depression.

She is SO sick of my crap.
She is SO sick of my crap.

Today, Lillian and I incorporated an errand into our 45-minute walk with Ron and the rest of the pack. In her stylish new sweater, which reminds me of a certain Time Lord’s scarf, she helped me deliver a little Whovian-themed care package to the gentlemen responsible for installing the TARDIS in front of U.N.I.T. — er, Cape Girardeau Police Department — headquarters.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Check your supplies

This post could fit under either Eco-Saturday or Tiny Tuesday, as it conserves both materials and space. You might already be doing it; if you’re not, it won’t cost you anything except a little time, and it might save you a few dollars.

Many years ago, I decided to boycott Wal-Mart. I really wasn’t sure I could pull it off, as I’m prone to work on projects at odd hours and frequently ended up having to make Wal-Mart runs to buy supplies or materials for whatever I was doing. Without the convenience of 24/7 access to paint, basic hardware, and whatever else I might need to complete a project, how would I get by?

Among other things, I discovered I was terrible about buying duplicates of things I already had, simply because I didn’t bother to check before I shopped.

Sometimes a project calls for a specific item; for instance, I made some repairs to my dining-room floor today and found a certain type of screw worked best for the job. If the item I need is a specialty item I’m not likely to have on hand, I’ve no compunction about going to the hardware store. But more often than not, I can make do with whatever I have.

When I quit shopping at Wal-Mart, I had to improvise. If I needed inch-long screws at 3 a.m., I had to remember where I put the leftovers from my last project. I spent a lot of time rifling through my toolbox and using up odds and ends I already had instead of going out and buying more just because I was too lazy to look for my existing stock.

This saved me money, obviously, and it allowed me to reclaim some storage space. It also saved resources: the materials to make whatever item I’d decided not to buy; fuel to get it from the manufacturer to the store; fuel to drive to the store to pick it up.

Over the years, this has become habit. Very rarely do I buy new items without checking first to see whether what I have will work — even when I’m shopping during normal business hours.

If you’re looking for a way to help the environment and your pocketbook, I highly recommend taking an inventory of the stuff you have on hand so you’ll know what you already have and won’t waste money and resources buying new every time you need something.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Fall garden chores

We’re sneaking up on the first frost of the year, which means it’s time to start putting the garden to bed.

This is always a bittersweet task for me — more bitter than sweet, because I’ve never liked winter — but prepping the garden for winter ensures it’s ready to go in the spring, and this year, I have a long list of projects to work on.

I’ll share more specifics about some of these tasks as I go, but today, I’d like to offer a general overview, in case you’re looking at a soon-to-be-dormant garden and trying to figure out what to do before the next planting season. Your garden’s specific needs may vary, but here’s my to-do list for the next 25 weekends:

* Make compost. Not sure how? Click here.
* Buy six more fire rings. These will become raised beds.
* Harvest seeds. Instructions here.
* Harvest the last of the produce and pull out the old plants.
* Rake leaves. If yours are from safe trees, compost them. We don’t have that luxury, as our house is flanked by pecan and walnut trees, so we’ll have to let the city take ours.
* Plant daffodils and tulips.
* Winterize the pond.
* Winterize the quail pen. The Great Stuff I used to seal it when I built it is wearing out, and the polystyrene panels are degrading a bit, so I’ll have to hit the hardware store for replacements.
* Fence the berry patch.
* Treat the strawberries with coffee grounds. Supposedly this will ward off slugs.
* Inventory beekeeping and gardening equipment.
* Buy flagstone and install more paths.
* Mulch between paths.
* Mulch strawberries.
* Build raised bed in the front yard.
* Prune rosebush.
* Map next year’s garden.
* Order seeds. Two good sources: Seedsavers.org and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.
* Start plants. Check the USDA planting-zone map and consult your seed packets before you schedule this.

Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.
Harvesting seeds: Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.

Harvesting seeds is one of my favorite fall chores. This year, I’ve brought in tomato seeds, which are drying on paper towels on top of the refrigerator as we speak; Trail of Tears beans, which need to be removed from their pods; and a newcomer to the garden this year: zinnias.

This doesn't really look like an hour's worth of work, does it?
This doesn’t really look like an hour’s worth of work, does it?

I spent the better end of an hour the other day separating zinnia seeds from chaff. It’s tedious work, but there’s something hopeful in the act of saving seeds — a sort of contract between the plants and their caretaker. The seeds contain the promise of spring; saving them is an act of faith in that promise and a statement of intention: “I’ll be back to tend you in a few months.”

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Toaster oven

In my relentless march toward a tiny house somewhere off the grid in New Mexico, I’ve spent a big chunk of the past year experimenting to see which appliances are expendable, which are helpful but not absolutely necessary, and which are completely non-negotiable. (More on that in a future Tiny Tuesday post.)

About a year ago, as part of my experimentation, I bought a lower-end toaster oven similar to this one and started using it in place of my regular oven.

Small but mighty.
Small but mighty.

Even if you bake regularly and are absolutely committed to using a full-sized oven for cakes, cookies, Thanksgiving meals, etc., you can do the environment (and your power bill) a big favor by using a toaster oven instead of your regular oven as often as possible.

I cook most of our meals at home, and for just about everything I make, I’ve found the toaster oven equal, if not superior, to the regular oven. Its compact size means I don’t need to preheat it, which saves me time and money every time I bake. I always hated preheating, partly because it took extra time, and partly because I resented the fact the heating element was drawing power for 10 minutes without giving me anything in return.

The smaller size also means you’re not wasting money and energy heating a lot of empty space around your food. If I’m just making a small fritatta for the two of us or a few break-and-bake cookies to soothe a craving, I don’t need to heat five cubic feet of space. Instead, I use the toaster oven to get the same results in roughly one cubic foot, thus knocking down my energy consumption for that meal by about 80 percent.

Two other ways the toaster oven saves resources, neither of which would have occurred to me before I bought it:

1. The smaller space means I cook smaller batches, thus reducing the risk of having more leftovers than we can eat. (This also helps with portion control, as I don’t end up eating more than I need just because it’s there.)

2. Most toaster ovens come with a timer that shuts off the oven when the time is up, reducing the likelihood of wasting food by burning it.

A toaster oven won’t work for every household or every project. But it’s a nice option, and one I’ve used far more than I expected.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Check your tire pressure

Have you checked the air pressure in your car’s tires lately?

According to the EPA, you can boost your fuel economy anywhere from 0.6 percent to 3 percent just by keeping your tires inflated to the level recommended by your owner’s manual.

Properly inflated tires last longer, too, which helps conserve money and resources in the long run.

There are dozens of pressure gauges on the market. Invest in one and use it regularly to keep your car running efficiently and safely.
There are dozens of pressure gauges on the market. Invest in one and use it regularly to keep your car running efficiently and safely.

It’s a good idea to check your tire pressure regularly all year, but this time of year is especially important, because changes in temperature affect air pressure, and I’ve seen tires that were inflated to the correct level on an 80-degree afternoon drop by 5 psi or more overnight because the temperature dropped. A couple of years ago, we went to visit Ron’s family in central Illinois, which is about two planting zones north of us. The weather was warm when we left Southeast Missouri that morning, but thanks to a cold front moving in from the north, the temperature dropped about 40 degrees in the span of 200 miles, and as we headed home that night, the low-pressure warning light came on about 15 miles from my in-laws’ farm. We pulled into a gas station and discovered all four tires were running at 30 to 35 psi — well below the recommended pressure of 40.

Half a percent might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly — especially when you consider the cumulative environmental impact of millions of cars rolling around on underinflated tires — and it’s well worth the five or 10 minutes it takes to check your pressure a couple of times a week and top it up as needed.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Make your own TV dinners

TV dinners are a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re quick, cheaper than fast food, portion-controlled, and easier than hitting a drive-through when I don’t have the time or energy to cook. Some of them actually taste good, and some taste fairly awful but conjure up fond memories, which makes them pretty good comfort food. But all of them have three major drawbacks:

1. Most of them are high in salt, fat and starch and low in fiber — not a great nutritional choice.
2. Even the cheap ones are expensive relative to the amount and quality of food you get.
3. You’re basically paying for convenient packaging — and most of that packaging can’t be recycled for one reason or another (cardboard is too dirty, paper is coated with plastic, plastic is a type nobody accepts, etc.)

A couple of friends who have embarked on fairly elaborate fitness programs solved all of the above problems by purchasing reusable plastic trays and creating their own pre-portioned meals to keep in the freezer and warm up as needed. They were so pleased with the results that I cribbed their idea and had Ron order a bunch of the little trays with translucent snap-on lids from Amazon.

These aren’t gourmet meals I’m preparing. If I have some leftovers that will freeze well, I divvy them up into trays. Sometimes I dress them up a little bit — for instance, leftover diced potatoes today became loaded mashed potatoes, which teamed up with prefabbed veggie burgers to make a couple of quick freezer meals.

This isn't haute cuisine, but TV dinners never are.
This isn’t haute cuisine, but TV dinners never are. As my late grandmother used to say, “It’ll make a turd.” Good enough.

While I was in the kitchen, I cooked a pound of capellini, divided it among six trays, and topped each serving with a little marinara sauce from Viviano’s and a handful of shredded mozzarella. Again, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s nutritionally similar to a Weight Watchers meal and costs about 50 cents a serving to throw together.

It took me about 15 minutes to throw together eight quick, single-serving freezer meals.
It took me about 15 minutes to throw together eight quick, single-serving freezer meals.

Other meals that freeze well in small portions: curry; red beans and rice; spaghetti with browned butter; chili mac; and chicken with gravy (which I warm up and serve over toaster waffles). If you’re vegetarian or vegan, those freezer containers will pay for themselves fast. Vegetarian convenience food is unconscionably expensive.

If you’re concerned about microwaving in plastic, you might want to invest in Pyrex freezer containers. I use the plastic trays because they’re lighter, cheaper, and take up less space in the freezer, but if I ever jump on the no-plastic bandwagon, I’ll upgrade my containers. Right now, my focus is reducing waste and improving the nutritional content of the meal. Baby steps.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Walk more; drive less

I spotted the chalk message pictured above — an adaptation of Philippians 4:13 — this week on Themis Street while taking literal steps to reduce my environmental footprint.

I knew walking instead of driving was good for the environment, but it’s something I didn’t start doing much until this spring, when the Subaru broke down and I refused to shell out $8,000 to repair it. We still have two other cars, but mine is nearly 9 years old, and I’d like to pay off some other bills before I replace it, so I’m trying to make it last as long as possible.

We don’t walk everywhere, of course. There are days when it’s too hot, our schedule is too tight, or for whatever reason, we just don’t feel up to it. But we’ve started walking to work several times a week, and on our day off, we often wander around town on foot, running errands or just checking out places we haven’t seen.

To maximize safety and comfort on my walks, I’ve found the following helpful:

Athletic shoes. Buy good ones designed for running or walking; they’ll last longer and prevent injuries.

If applicable, a good sports bra. Opt for medium-impact or better; it’ll save you a fortune in Tiger Balm and massage therapy.

A golf umbrella. Keeps off the rain without turning you into a lightning rod.

A backpack. If you’re carrying anything, a backpack will keep your hands free and distribute the load comfortably.

I could write a whole post on nighttime risk management (and would be happy to do that if anybody would find it helpful), but for most people, if you’re planning to walk after dark, I’d recommend the following:

Use the buddy system. One person is a much easier target than two.

Plan ahead. Walk your intended route at least once in the daytime, and drive it at least once at night to make sure you’re aware of trip hazards, poorly lit areas, potential hiding places for ne’er-do-wells, or other issues.

Wear light-colored or reflective clothing.

Carry a light. I like Mini-Maglites because they’re bright, sturdy and double as makeshift Kubotans.

Trust your instincts. If you get a bad vibe, get the hell out of there. NOW.

Speaking of bad vibes: Whovians, you cannot believe the number of weird little statues in this town. I spotted this particular flight of suspected Lonely Assassins on my way to work the other day.
Speaking of bad vibes: Whovians, you cannot believe the number of weird little statues in this town. I spotted this particular flight of suspected Lonely Assassins on my way to work the other day.

I’ve really enjoyed walking more the past few months. It’s good for the planet, good for your body, and good for your mental health. Kind of fun, too. You never know what you’re going to see when you slow down and take a closer look at the places you pass every day.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Reusable containers

One evening about 10 years ago, I looked at my motley collection of plastic food-storage containers — some stained, some cracked, some missing lids, and some permanently infused with strong odors that limited what I could store in them — and got fed up.

In a moment of frustration or clarity (or maybe both), I tossed out the whole mess and took myself to Target for replacements.

I came home with three white Corning soup mugs with vented plastic lids and a big set of Pyrex containers with lids in assorted sizes and shapes. All of the containers were heavy, stain-proof, odor-resistant, microwave-safe, freezer-safe, dishwasher-safe, and — with the exception of the lids — oven-safe. This meant I could bake a small casserole or batch of lasagna in them, snap a lid on, and stick them in the fridge or freezer to warm up in the microwave later.

I don’t remember exactly what I paid for the set, but I want to say it cost about twice what I’d have paid for good-quality plastic containers in similar sizes. Given the limited lifespan of plastic containers — I’ve never managed to keep a set going longer than three or four years — they’ve paid for themselves and kept a lot of plastic out of the landfill.

I did notice the lids on the Corning mugs were starting to get brittle with age this spring, so Ron contacted the company to find out where we might be able to purchase replacements. A Corning rep emailed him back, asked for our address, and sent us three new lids at no charge. I was impressed; I haven’t seen a company provide customer service like that since Tupperware did that lifetime-lid-replacement warranty in the ’80s.

I’m completely sold on the merits of tempered-glass containers with plastic lids, but if you can’t afford them, reusable plastic containers are certainly better than disposables. I focus a lot on portion control to make sure I’m getting the right balance of nutrients to support my lifestyle, but I try to avoid excess packaging, which means I usually buy in bulk and then divide up the food into single-serving containers I can take to work. IKEA’s 17-piece Pruta set, which I picked up for $4.99 last time we were in St. Louis, is really handy for this, as it has a nice mix of bigger containers (good for packing fresh fruits and vegetables) and little ones (ideal for single servings of salsa, crackers or pretzels).

I still use disposable storage bags now and then — usually for freezing big or awkwardly shaped items — but I’ve been phasing them out gradually over the last decade, and I can’t say I miss them. If you’re not already doing it, I challenge you to replace one plastic bag per week with a reusable container and see how quickly you can reduce your environmental footprint.

Emily

P.S.: As always, nobody paid me anything or gave me any free product to get me to write this post; these are just my personal experiences with stuff I’ve bought and liked.

Eco-Saturday: Safety razor

About a year and a half ago, I posted some rather pointed observations concerning the hair-removal industry’s environmental impact. If you want to read it, click here, but the tl;dr version is that razor companies create a financial disincentive for people to make environmentally responsible choices, and even the best modern options use an unconscionable amount of plastic.

I wasn’t quite willing to give up smooth legs, but I decided there had to be a better way, so I bought myself an old-fashioned safety razor for $20 and learned to use it.

A year and a half later, I haven’t severed my Achilles tendon in the shower, and I can’t say my legs are any more prone to razor burn than they’ve ever been; if anything, I do less damage because using a safety razor requires me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m doing, which invariably results in fewer injuries.

The pros:

1. Minimal waste. Instead of throwing away a big plastic cartridge or an entire razor every time a blade gets dull, I’m just throwing out a single blade (which could be recycled if I could find somebody willing to take a potential biohazard), and the packaging — which consists of a small cardboard box and tiny paper envelopes like you see above — is completely recyclable.

2. Minimal expense. Instead of paying the better end of $20 for five cartridges, I can buy 100 double-edged blades for the same money. I don’t necessarily recommend this right off the bat (you’re better off buying a sampler pack from Amazon so you can try several brands first), but once you’ve found your brand, you’re looking at 20 cents to replace a blade instead of $4. That’s like getting your razor to buy you a cappuccino every time the blade gets dull.

3. Durability. Reusable plastic razors are good for about a year. Meanwhile, I’ve heard of guys using safety razors they inherited from their great-grandfathers.

The cons:

1. The term “safety” is relative. Safety razors were so named because they were substantially safer than straight razors. Slip while shaving with a straight razor, and you could sever an artery. Slip with a safety razor, and you’ll end up with a cut about a millimeter deep. You’ll bleed, but you won’t bleed out. Avoiding bloodshed altogether takes a bit more patience, skill, and attention to technique than that Venus you’ve been using, but don’t let that scare you off; I am hopelessly clumsy, and I’ve cut myself maybe a half-dozen times in the past 18 months. The trick is to read the directions, watch an instructional video or two on YouTube, and take your time.

2. Time. It takes at least five to 10 minutes longer to shave with a safety razor than with whatever you’re accustomed to using now, so plan for that.

Given all that, after 18 months, I’ve come to the conclusion that safety razors are like stick shifts: Once you get used to having one as your daily driver, it just feels awkward and uncomfortable to use anything else.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Water-heater blanket

One of the easiest home-improvement projects you can do to reduce your overall environmental footprint will take maybe 15 minutes and set you back less than $25: Install a water-heater blanket. The U.S. Department of Energy reports you can save $20 to $45 a year with this simple project.

A water-heater blanket is basically a small roll of fiberglass insulation with plastic backing that’s cut to the approximate size of a 60-gallon household water heater. It typically comes with several feet of very sticky, heavy-duty tape and a set of instructions for installation. You should read the instructions before you start, obviously, but the upshot is that you wrap it around the water heater — taking care not to block the thermostat or any vents — and tape it in place. That’s really all there is to it.

Because water-heater blankets are made of fiberglass insulation, you’ll want to wear gloves and long sleeves while you work so you don’t end up with itchy arms and hands.

I installed a blanket on our tired old water heater last fall to knock down our winter gas bills. (I took pictures at the time, but they subsequently vanished into the ether, which is what I get for not posting projects as soon as I complete them.)

The old water heater, which was installed in 1988, was having trouble holding proper temperature, and the blanket helped reduce that problem for a few months until we could afford to replace the whole appliance.

If you can afford a new Energystar water heater, by all means, get one. We finally did this spring, and we’ve enjoyed warmer showers and lower energy bills ever since. But if you’re stuck with an old one, you’ll find that $15 to $25 you spend insulating it will pay for itself and make your life a little easier in the meantime.

Emily

P.S.: Tip from my mom, copied from a comment below: “And if you have an electric water heater, put it on a switch and turn it off after everyone has showered. 20 minutes before you’re going to shower or do laundry, turn it back on. I can’t begin to count the $$ we’ve saved over the past 15 years doing this, and the inconvenience is minimal. I turn on the water heater as soon as I come home in the evening and we turn it off after the last shower that evening. Bills are MUCH lower.”