Archive for March 31, 2011

Keeping those wrinkles at bay

I am sure I am not alone in struggling to make sense of all the claims of the skincare companies. I have tried various green face care products and found that many are not as green as I would like (they still contain dyes, toxins, etc.) and that others are simply too greasy or don’t last long enough.

The ingredients that are completely off-limits for me are: methyl and propylparaben, sodium lauryl sulphate (beware here, though, as the similar-sounding sodium lauryl sulphoacetate is apparently OK) and propylene glycol (essentially an anti-freeze). Do check ingredients and see what the products you choose contain. The fact that you picked them up from the `natural health’ section of your grocery store or a healthfood store does not mean that they are without these toxins. (The best overall reference on skincare products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.)

For a long time, now, I have been using products by the German company, Lavera. I love their Faces Wild Rose line for dry and mature skin.

lavera wild rose

This is not the top of their range (price-wise) but I think it does a great job at a good price (about $20-30). Smells nice, feels nice and lasts a long time (well beyond the use-by date which is stamped on every item). For an even lower-priced facial experience, try their Basis line, which they advertise for the whole family. It was the Basis moisturizing day cream that originally sold me on the line and I still use the foaming cleanser on a daily basis.

Lavera also sells makeup and hair care products, which I will come back to another time.

Although Lavera makes its products in Germany, the carbon issue does not seem too pressing for me. The items are light and last a long time. They can be purchased on line throughout North America (no duties for Canadians, but prices are quoted in US$) and at a growing number of stores. The Lavera website is also informative about ingredients and their toxicity.

The vexed problem of lighting

I think that pretty much all of us are aware of the energy-saving CFL option for our lights. I have a number of CFLs installed, but CFL bulbs can only go so far. They are eco products that only sort-of work.

On the design front they are pretty ugly and the light they emit, while improving, is far from ideal. They are not great for dimmers (even the special dimmable ones are not very responsive and they often buzz). They don’t come in all the many shapes and sizes that my fixtures require. And there is the problem of mercury when they are broken or disposed of (do wrap them and take them to a designated recycling point).

So what to do, if we want to – or have to – green our lighting? Here in Ontario, as of next year, incandescent bulbs are to be outlawed. I find this quasi-unbelievable given that contractors all round town are still installing fixtures for which only incandescent bulbs are available. Maybe that is why people are currently stockpiling.

The future of lighting has to lie in LED technology. LEDs are essentially tiny lightbulbs illuminated by the movement of electrons (see here if you are interested in how they work). They create very little heat and have a hugely-long lifetime. BUT, they are currently expensive and limited in their efficiency. They work well for low-level or accent lighting but not, on the whole, for whole room lighting.

There are exceptions, though. About 3 years ago I replaced my old-style 6 inch recessed spotlights in the kitchen with some fantastic LED lights which look good, are dimmable and give a bright light. It’s not exactly mood lighting but it is great for the kitchen and, as I said, can be dimmed to about 20-30%. The product I am talking about is the LR6 from Cree lighting.

The Guts of an LR6 small

These are not cheap (currently they retail at about $80 on Amazon: here in Canada they were a special-order form my electrical supply shop), but they are easy to install (the bulb and housing are integrated) and they really do work. They use about 10W for a good, bright light so the energy savings are significant and they are designed to last for 50,000 hours (nearly 6 years of continuous lighting). Shame they do not come in more different formats. At present Cree only caters to 6″ housings, presumably because there is not enough space in smaller housings for the number of LEDs that are required to create a bright light.

More recently I bought Sylvania Ultra LED dimmable bulbs in soft white at the local grocery store. These look more or less like normal light bulb, work OK and cost a relatively modest $25 (non-dimmable are closer to $15). I have mine in a fixture where the bulb lies horizontally, which is not great as the light does not cast in all directions, as an incandescent bulb does. They do dim, but buzz a little bit when they do (not enough to be annoying) and the light is fine, not wonderful. So, if you are nervous about CFLs these would seem to be a good option.

Let’s just hope there is more lighting innovation around the corner. I will keep you posted if there is.

One last thing, though. LEDs, like most things, vary in quality according to price. The influx of poor quality LEDs threatens the whole market (have you, like me, bought LED Christmas tree lights that are great until they fail in year 2 and you end up with a string of useless plastic?). For more information on why many LEDs do not fulfil their promises see this informative article or this blog post that describes LED options in some detail.

Dishwasher essentials

Although it seems quite counter-intuitive, it has been shown that washing in a dishwasher may be more environmental than washing by hand (typically using excess hot water). Now, that depends, of course, on the type of dishwasher you have and how full you fill it. Realistically, though, we all love our dishwashers and are not going to give them up, so we need to think about how we can use them better.

Conventional dishwasher powders can be a nasty cocktail of chemicals, including petroleum-derived fragrances and phosphates that pollute waterways. But, the truth is, that most people will continue to use these unless they can find a detergent that really works. There is nothing more miserable (or unecological) than unloading the dishwasher and finding that you have to rewash it all. A few bad experiences and most everyone reverts to conventional products.

The eco-question that I am most often asked by friends is which dishwashing powder I use.

So here’s the answer: I am a long-time devotee of Seventh Generation Free and Clear Automatic Dishwasher Powder. I have tried numerous other powders and gels (including the gel from Seventh Generation) and have never had anything close to the success rate I have with this product. In fact I would go as far as to say that I am completely happy with it. I like that it has no chlorine, phosphates, fragrances, petroleum-based products, etc. in it. I like that it is a powder (shipping liquids unnecessarily is something that really bugs me, as you may have noticed in many of my posts). I like that it comes in a paper box that can be recycled (plastics recycling is always somewhat hit-and-miss, it seems). Most of all, I like the fact that it works (in my machine – which is a Bosch) and my dishes come out sparkling.

free and clear small

I do not even use commercial rinse-aid any more. This is another questionable, and also expensive, product that can be readily replaced by white vinegar. No effort, no mixing, just fill your dispenser with vinegar the same way you would with rinse-aid. And there you go.

I hope these items work as well for you as they do for me. Who knows? Maybe dishwasher/powder pairings are highly specific.

I love my showerhead!

We all know that saving water is good and that saving hot water is even better. But most of us really enjoy taking an all-embracing hot shower. What to do? I have the perfect answer for you: install an American Standard FloWise 3 function water-saving showerhead.

This is a good-looking showerhead that has 3 settings, turbine spray at 1.5 gallons per minute (gpm), full spray at 2.5 gpm and a combination spray at 2.5 gpm. (Low flow is classified as anything 2.5gpm or under; most low-flow heads deliver the full 2.5gpm). Each time you turn it on, it defaults to the 1.5 gpm setting (so no chance of you forgetting and using 2.5 gpm by mistake). The three settings are a bonus if you need to `sell’ the idea of a lower flow shower-head to your reluctant partner. You can tell them that they will still be able to have an abundant shower.

small showerhead

The truth is, though, that the default setting of 1.5 gpm is thoroughly satisfying; I would be surprised if anyone ever uses other settings.

This showerhead does all the other things you might want (tilts, has a rubber surface to prevent lime build-up, etc.), is easy to install (just unscrew your old one and screw this one on) and can be had for only about $40 on Amazon. If you think that you could save about 5 gallons of hot water per day (based on 10 minutes of household showering using a regular low-flow head), that is a price well-worth paying (in my opinion).

Need a new roof?

Now that the snow has thawed, it might just be time to replace your roof. But what to use?

Asphalt shingles have many draw-backs. They absorb heat in the summer, causing more energy to be used for cooling, and they don’t last long in the harsh climate in which I live; they may have to be replaced as often as once every 10 years. It is hardly surprising, then, that approximately 11 million tonnes of asphalt shingles are dumped in land fills every year in the US alone (recycling is possible, but not widespread). So there our petroleum-derived ex-roofs sit for centuries as we worry about what is going to protect us from the elements in the years to come.

We faced the roofing dilemma a couple of years ago and ended up using a product called Enviroshakes. This is a composite roofing material, 95%-derived from reprocessed post-industrial polymers. It comes in the form of separate shakes which have to be nailed on. This adds to the cost, for sure, but the product is warrantied for 50 years, so you could save money in the long term. An added bonus for us is that Enviroshakes are made here in Ontario.

small enviroshakes

I really like the way our roof looks – like weathered, grey-brown, cedar shakes – and we have had lots of compliments on it. You won’t get the cedar smell or that blonde look that cedar has when it is first installed, but you will get a fine-looking, long-lasting roof and the happy knowledge that you used recycled materials instead of virgin wood. We are only 2 years in, but the roof looks good as new and we have had no problems with leaks or shifting or anything like that.

Low maintenance table mats

I am a big fan of cork. I have a lovely un-varnished cork floor in my office, right under my feet as I type. It is sealed with natural vegetable wax so has the feel of a wine cork, rather than a semi-hard floor.

But it is my cork place mats that really get me excited. I have many messy eaters in the family so cloth place mats are not for me. They would be in the laundry every day (OK, so my napkins are there anyway). Many funky placemats are made out of vinyl. You can tell that as soon as you open the shrink-wrap and get assailed by the hideous off-gassing. Even if you find mats which are not made from vinyl, they often have semi-spongy undersides which quickly accumulate mould and mildew if you happen to pile them up when they are even slightly damp.

cork mat small

Cork mats solve all these problems. They look good, they feel good, they can be easily wiped and do not mould, and they are made from a renewable resource. You can even try sending them off to the city compost when they are past their useful lifespan (they will, eventually split at the edges as they are quite thin). The ones I have are from a Canadian company called Jelinek which produces many cork products and runs a wine cork recycling programme. Their place mats come in rectangles or ovals and are ridiculously cheap at around $1 each. I love them!

Taking the litter out of lunches (part 2)

So now you have the right lunch bag, what should you put inside?

The next thing you have to worry about are containers for all the drinks, fruits, veg, sandwiches, etc.

Stainless and aluminium water bottles are now ubiquitous. They are much more healthy and long lasting than plastic alternatives. Generally, stainless seems to be safer that aluminium, because aluminium is lined and it is hard to be sure about the chemical content of the liner. But stainless bottles are heavier.

Pretty much all bottles are made in China, but some are longer-lasting than others and have tops and stoppers that can be replaced independently, which is a good thing as the plastic is more likely to leak over time than the metal. Overall, though, once we are rid of plastic bottles, we should be better off. Juice cartons (mini tetra-paks) are something else to avoid in lunch bags. Although they can be recycled in a few facilities, they are one of the most energy absorbing and complex things to recycle.

If you are buying a flask for hot food, look for the ones with metal inside. These impart less taste to the food (who wants to taste plastic or yesterday’s soup?) and are easier to clean. They aren’t fabulous insulators, but they are robust. Food will stay hotter if you remember to pre-warm the flask (fill it with boiling water and let it sit for a while).

Air tight (and mess-proof) stainless containers are non-breakable, easy to clean, very long-lasting and don’t stain or retain food odours. They come in many sizes and shapes, including an oval that works well for sandwiches and split compartment containers that can take many separate items. The downside is that they are expensive to buy. Most are in the $15 range but will last as long as your child does not lose them, especially if you keep them out of the dishwasher. I will post a full review review of stainless containers in the near future. Not surprisingly, they are not all created equal.

Petunias small

My favourite bit of lunch kit is the snack pouch (largely because these come in many pretty fabrics). I get mine from an Etsy store called Petunias. They are nylon-lined and have velcro closures. They can be wiped out easily and wash well. What more could you want? (OK, you could make your own from recycled fabrics, but I’ll leave that up to you).

Taking the litter out of lunches (part 1)

I hate everything about making school lunches for my 4 kids, but I do rise to the challenge of producing litterless lunches. I even admit to getting a little satisfaction when all the little containers are ready to go and I can sit down and have my morning coffee.

The challenge starts with the lunch bag:

1. Avoid vinyl lunch bags at all costs. Vinyl is one of the most toxic plastics in common use. It produces toxins during manufacture, during its lifecycle and when it is disposed of. Many lunchbags are either made of vinyl/PVC or lined with it.

2. Neoprene bags are attractive because they offer some insulation and are stretchy so fit things in well. From an environmental perspective, neoprene is somewhat better than vinyl but it is usually made from petroleum products (sometimes mined limestone) and is often stuck together with toxic adhesives. A company called Greensmart has designed a product called neogreene which uses fewer resources and is considered to be non toxic, but still looks and feels like neoprene. I have one of their lunch bags and it works pretty well. There are a number of shapes on offer but the colours are a bit odd.

3. Fabric bags are a good bet, especially if they are made from recycled material. There are numerous web pages devoted to providing patterns to make your own lunch bags. If, like me, you only sew when things need mending or when there is no easy alternative, you might like to try the sturdy bags made out of recycled bottles at this site. I have not tried them but they look good and the colours are fun.

small lunchbag

4. Old fashioned metal lunch boxes last a long time but are really inflexible when you want to stuff them with lots of separate containers.

5. Brown paper bags may seem like a good idea and can be composted or recycled, but paper is energy-intensive to make and not infinitely recyclable, so better to use a reusable bag.

For the same reason, if you are in the habit of sending a napkin with lunch, make sure it is made out of fabric and can be washed. This way it can double as a place mat to keep desks, etc. clean as well.

Can any eco-dishwashing soap really tackle the tough jobs?

The answer is: yes. But so many people I know have guiltily headed back to conventional products after trying eco-soaps that are watery and ineffective.

Ecover’s various dishwashing soaps do a really good job, are widely available and are generally in the mid-upper band of the price range. Since they are pretty viscous, a little goes a long way. The main problem with them, for those of us who are based in north America, is that they are all manufactured in Europe (albeit in an eco facility, that uses only green electricity, has a green roof, etc.). Now, shipping heavy liquids across the Atlantic does not make much sense and is costly in carbon terms. So I have tried a number of the products that are made closer to home.

Here in Canada, my favourite product is made by a Montreal company called Bio-Vert.

small bio vert

It comes in two scents, citrus and green apple. I prefer the former but that is a matter of opinion. Bio-Vert has an informative website and, as far as I can make out, a pretty strong commitment to green products. Post-consumer recycled materials are used in packaging and the company is presently undertaking a full life-cycle assessment of all its products. Best of all, this dish-soap really works, even on tough pans.

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