Tag Archives: Environment

Eco-Saturday: Incense energy audit

Want to find all the spots in your house that are making your furnace work overtime? Grab a stick of incense and a lighter and spend a few minutes performing a sort of informal energy audit. Here’s how:

1. Shut off the furnace and any fans you might have running.
2. Raise all the blinds and pull back the curtains.
3. Light a stick of incense. Holding it very steady, pass it around the edges of all your windows, doors leading to unheated spaces, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Use a slow, steady motion, and pull the stick away from the burning end rather than pushing toward it. As you move, watch the smoke. It should rise smoothly from the burning end of the stick. If it shimmies, pulses, or otherwise appears to be disturbed, you have an air leak that needs to be sealed. (You’ll also want to pay attention to the burning end, taking care to keep it from touching curtains or other flammable materials, and be sure to have something handy to use as an ashtray as you work.)
4. Make a note of all the places you found leaks, and find an appropriate method to seal them.

If you find leaks around windows, the easiest solution is to seal them with plastic film; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also insulate the panes themselves with bubble wrap or make Roman shades out of blankets to put an extra layer of warmth between the great outdoors and your living space. You can plug leaks under doors with an inexpensive DIY draft stopper made from rice and fabric remnants. You can buy insulating shields for electrical outlets and light switches, but I prefer to make my own for free out of the polystyrene trays that come with meat and some produce at the grocery store.

You won’t find every single source of wasted energy with a stick of incense, but in the absence of a professional energy audit — which can get pricey if your utility company doesn’t offer them for free — it’s a good, inexpensive jumping-off point to help you identify some of the most easily mitigated culprits. A stick of incense and an a little elbow grease can go a long way toward reining in high heating bills.


Eco-Saturday: Buy better quality

As I was sealing my Birkenstocks a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing something positive for the environment for years without even thinking about it: When I shop for items I plan to use every day, I buy the best quality I can afford.

My everyday shoes are Birkenstocks. The clogs I wear every day are at least 16 years old; I’ve also found Doc Martens and Justin boots to be durable and comfortable for rough-and-tumble situations where clogs won’t work.

My trenchcoat is a London Fog. I bought it on sale in 1998. Every time I think it’s too stained or too dingy to go another season, the dry cleaners work another miracle on it, and I get another year out of it.

My work jacket is a Walls farm coat I bought for $40 at a hardware store in Vega, Texas, when I went out there to work on a historic preservation project in 2006 and discovered the jacket I’d brought along was too thin to stand up to chilly November winds in the Panhandle. It’s showing its age now — the corduroy collar is worn down, and the canvas is starting to fray a bit at the cuffs — but for a jacket that’s had a decade of hard use, it’s in remarkably good shape and still keeps me warm when I’m working outdoors.

In the kitchen, I have stainless-steel pans that date to 1981 and cast-iron skillets I’ve owned since 1997. Cast iron lasts forever, and you can buy skillets for next to nothing at antique stores and estate sales. Don’t be afraid of a little surface rust; if you scrub them down and season them properly, your grandkids will still be using them 50 years from now.

The advantage of buying good quality products is similar to the advantage of buying used: You’re avoiding the environmental impact of making something new. Opt for classic styles, perform routine maintenance as appropriate, and you’ll minimize your environmental footprint and save money at the same time.

What products have you found durable over the years? Feel free to share your recommendations in the comments. As always, my recommendations are based on personal experience; I wasn’t compensated for this post; your mileage may vary, etc.


Eco-Saturday: Buy used furniture

Used furniture is one of my favorite forms of recycling. While I purchased a couple of new pieces during my big redecorating project last year, much of the furniture in my house was used when I got it.

My coffee table and end tables came from the Herrin City Library, which sold off or threw out much of its original furniture during an expansion many years ago. The clock in my bedroom came from the same source, and I think that might be where Mom picked up those great lamps that grace the end tables, too.

This cute mid-century bookshelf came from an antique shop on Main Street here in Cape. I expect it will hold up considerably better than the 3-year-old particle-board shelves it replaced:


I went looking for mid-century dining furniture at Annie Laurie’s but wound up falling in love with this uber-’70s table and chairs, which came with an extra leaf:


The set was too cool to pass up, so I bought it and declared the dining room a ’70s zone — a look I punctuated with a metal faux-woodgrain shelf I found hiding under a layer of unfortunate contact paper at a little shop on Spanish Street:


A can of WD-40 and a little patience yielded a nice nostalgia trip, as Mom displayed her houseplants on similar shelves when I was little. Mine serve as a sort of holding pen for stuff that lands on the dining table and for whatever reason can’t be put away yet. About once a month, I look over the contents of the shelf and determine which items are ready to go to more permanent locations.

To my way of thinking, used furniture has three big advantages over new:

1. It’s already here; nobody has to cut down another tree or pull another barrel of oil out of the ground to produce it.

2. With the exception of valuable antiques, used furniture tends to be cheaper than comparable new items. I gave $85 for my dining table and chairs — about $400 less than the IKEA set I was considering, and probably more durable.

3. The antique stores here in Cape are all mom-and-pop operations located in historic buildings, which means when I shop there, I’m not only keeping more of my money in my community, but I’m also contributing to the upkeep of a historic property. WIN.


Eco-Saturday: Clean your refrigerator coils

Several weeks ago, I picked up a special brush designed to clean the coils on a refrigerator.

I don’t know how big a difference this really makes — I’ve read articles saying it’s a miracle move that will increase your refrigerator’s efficiency by umpteen percent and/or keep it from burning your house down and killing you, and I’ve read articles saying it’s a total waste of time that won’t make any difference at all. The EPA says it’s a good idea, at least for older models, so I gave it a shot.

Couldn’t hurt. Might help. Either way, it was a good excuse to buy a pointy brush suitable for retrieving the wayward cat toys and dog biscuits that seem to find their way into otherwise unreachable locations.

Pointy brush. If I'd had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we  wouldn't have lost so many kibbles under the stove.
Pointy brush. If I’d had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we wouldn’t have lost so many kibbles under the stove.

The hardest part of the whole project was cleaning off the top of the fridge so I could pull it out from the wall without knocking anything off. (You probably don’t want to know what’s up there.)

I couldn’t remember whether the coils were on the back or the bottom of our refrigerator, so I started by running the brush underneath it just to be sure. No coils, but I extracted an impressive quantity of dust, dog hair, and cat kibbles. Bleah.

Once I’d cleaned underneath, I pulled the refrigerator out from the wall, got on a stepstool, and ran the brush down the back to clean both sides of the coils.

Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.
Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.

They weren’t terribly dirty, but cleaning them wasn’t terribly hard, either, so I’ll file this one under “probably worth the effort.” Our refrigerator is less than three years old, but if yours is an older model, I’d upgrade that assessment from “probably” to “definitely.” At worst, you’ll have a cleaner kitchen.


Eco-Saturday: Grow your own sprouts

I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.

What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.

That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.

In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.

Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.

Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You'll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.
Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You’ll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.

Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:

1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)

2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.

3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.

4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)

You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.


Eco-Saturday: Reusable produce bags

I read an article the other day that said reusable shopping bags are harder on the environment than their disposable cousins, mostly because they take a lot more resources to produce and would have to be used anywhere from 26 to 327 times, depending on the material involved, to make up the difference. That’s unfortunate, given that most people use them a couple of times and then forget about them.

Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, I bought a shopping bag that was supposed to be unforgettable because it’s designed so you can turn it inside out, cram it back into its little built-in pocket, and stick it in your purse or use the attached carabiner to clip it to your keyring.

I bought it, used it, poked it back into its little pocket, stuck it in my purse, and walked out of the local health-food store today with a disposable plastic bag full of groceries because I forgot I had my “unforgettable” bag.

Even though I had to move said bag out of the way to get to my credit card.

While standing there thinking what a shame it was I didn’t have any bags with me because I’d made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stop at the health-food store on my way to the lumberyard.

File that one under Midvale School for the Gifted, I guess.

With all that in mind, I certainly wouldn’t have spent money on reusable nylon-mesh produce bags, but I got a set free when I bought the Mother Earth News archive a couple of weeks ago, so I figured I might as well use them.

Action shot of one of the bags.
Action shot of one of the bags.

They’re a nice product — well designed, with a little drawstring at the top — and I like the fact they’re made of a fine mesh that lets air circulate around whatever’s in them, meaning leafy greens are less likely to turn into slime overnight.

This is a lousy picture, but you can see the approximate size: Four of the five bags in my set are big enough to hold standard-sized bunches of cilantro, parsley and green onions.
This is a lousy picture, but you can see the approximate size: Four of the five bags in my set are big enough to hold standard-sized bunches of cilantro, parsley and green onions.

That said, even if you’re much better at remembering your bags than I am (which is likely), I’m not convinced they’re worth $4 for a set of five. Especially not when those awesome little Clementine oranges are in season right now, and they almost always come in plastic mesh bags you can save and use in place of disposables. I’d recommend doing that. I’d rather have $4 worth of oranges than $4 worth of bags I’ll probably forget and leave in the car, y’know?


Eco-Saturday: Use the right burner

If you own an electric range, here’s a way to use just a little less power without expending any effort at all:

Use the correct burner.

This seems like a small thing — and it is — but it takes zero effort, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by not doing it, and if it shaves a penny or two off your power bill, why not?

Most electric ranges have four burners — two large and two small.

If you’re cooking something in a big skillet or stockpot, use one of the big burners. If you’re cooking something in a small skillet or saucepan, use one of the little burners.

If you’re not sure which size is best, before you turn on the stove, set your pan on a big burner. If you can see the burner sticking out around the bottom of the pan, move to a smaller one.

If you’re using a large pan, it makes sense to use a large burner. You want the bottom of the pan to heat evenly, and you don’t want to end up throwing food away because it didn’t cook right. But when you use a small pan on a large burner, you end up heating more of the cooktop than you need. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s website, SmarterHouse.org, using a six-inch pan on an eight-inch burner wastes more than 40 percent of the electricity produced by the burner. (Bonus points if you can figure out how they arrived at that number.)

Food won’t cook faster or taste better if you heat an inch of empty space all the way around the pan. That hot surface protruding from under the edge of the pan just wastes energy and creates a hazard in the form of an exposed hot surface.

SmarterHouse offers several other good tips on saving energy in the kitchen, such as using an appropriately sized pan (putting a big pan on a big burner to cook a little bit of food is no better than putting a small pan on a big burner), keeping your appliances clean and well-maintained, and considering which appliance is most appropriate for whatever you’re making. I’ve touched on some of that in previous blog entries, but SmarterHouse goes into more detail. I think it’s well worth the time to click on over to their site and look around.


Eco-Saturday: Eat in season

We’re reaching that drizzly, chilly, depressing time of year when all the tomato vines are dead, most of the herbs are fading, and the farmers’ markets are winding down.

When the weather sucks, it’s tempting to buy the out-of-season produce that finds its way into the grocery store every winter.

Try to resist the temptation.

Out-of-season produce is almost always shipped in from some other country where the growing seasons are longer. To survive the trip without spoiling, it has to be picked early — before it’s ripe — and the varieties capable of traveling long distances are bred for durability, not flavor, so you’re going to end up paying extra for an inferior product that’s wasted a ton of fuel getting here.

Rather than subject yourself, your bank account, and the environment to that, look at what you can do with frozen and canned vegetables and whatever happens to be in season.

The Mother Earth News Almanac, which I reviewed on here last week, has a couple of good winter recipes, including an utterly divine potato-cheese soup I’ve made too many times to count.

Root vegetables (carrots, onions, turnips, radishes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) are good this time of year and likely didn’t have to travel very far. Winter squash is also in season now, and mushrooms are grown year-’round.

If you like meat, try putting a roast or a few chicken breasts in the Crock-Pot with a can of beer and several cloves of garlic and cooking it overnight. If you don’t eat meat, dried beans are a good option — just soak overnight, simmer in the Crock-Pot all day, and serve over couscous for an easy, high-protein meal.

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, collards, turnips, cabbage) are in season. Slow-cook the kale, collards, or turnips, or shred the cabbage, fry it with bacon and onions, and spice it up with a little sriracha.

Apples and cranberries are also in season at the moment; grab some of each to make cranberry sauce. Many other fruits are available frozen or canned and work well in cobblers.

If you just can’t give up salads, use spinach or sprouts (easily grown on the countertop) as a base and add mushrooms, a handful of nuts, some bleu cheese, and maybe a diced Granny Smith apple or some thinly sliced radishes. Raw turnips also make a good addition to salads if you julienne them first.

And, of course, you can always find canned and frozen ingredients to get your family through the winter. Our favorites include chili; posole; gumbo; minestrone; green-chile stew; smoked sausage with canned sauerkraut; and Philly sandwiches made with frozen tricolor pepper strips.

Food doesn’t have to suck just because the weather does. Pay attention to what’s in season, and don’t be afraid to buy weird-looking roots you see at the grocery store. Between Google and Pinterest, you should be able to figure out what they are and how to use them.


Eco-Saturday: A visit with an old friend

I got word a while back that The Mother Earth News had updated their excellent book The Mother Earth News Almanac, originally published in 1973. I’ve owned a copy of the original since the early ’90s, when I borrowed it from my parents’ bookshelf and sort of accidentally on purpose forgot to give it back. (I made it up to Mom by ordering her a copy on eBay a few years ago.)

The magazine itself has been flashy, glossy, and overrun with yuppies for about 25 years, but every time I’m ready to cancel my subscription, I get the new issue and find at least one useful idea hidden among the photos of solar-powered McMansions and artisanal cheese recipes. (This month’s issue has an article on making soap from homemade lye. WIN.)

Because the magazine has changed so much since 1973, Mom and I were a little skeptical about the Almanac. Would it still be useful, or would it be one of those shiny, photo-driven publications they sell to people who think “off the grid” means you canceled your cellphone’s data plan?

I spotted a copy at Lowe’s yesterday, flipped through it, and put it in the cart.

Last night, while I was canning cranberry sauce, I got out the old edition and compared the two. Here are my general impressions of the new one:

* It’s faithful to the original. Some of the writing has been tightened a little bit, and some prices have been removed because they’re obviously out of date after four decades, but the tone remains the same.

* The book is still organized by season, but it now includes a functional table of contents with a page number for each entry. The original edition gave the page number for the beginning of each season, followed by a list of the items included in that section. The new Almanac is much easier to navigate.

* A few spots have been rewritten entirely. For instance, the entire section on recycling has been replaced with a longer, more in-depth section containing current information. At a moment when I’ve been feeling a bit uncertain about the direction we’re all headed, it was good to see that updated entry, compare it to the original, and consider how far the environmental movement has come in my lifetime.

This new edition feels like a visit with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time: comfortable and familiar, with a lot of time spent reminiscing about good times you had together ages ago and a little time spent catching up on what’s happened since then.

I like it.

Highly recommended.


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.