Archive for June 28, 2011

Soda water maker: a sparkling, green alternative

This is a guest review by Amélie Crosson.
We have a new toy in our house. It sits on the kitchen counter and when you pull a lever it makes rude noises. It’s a carbonated drink maker—a Father’s Day present for my husband, or “The Faj”, as he’s been christened by his daughter. The Faj loves fizzy water, but he also loves the environment, and between lowering the thermostat in winter, pulling blinds in summer and triaging garbage for recycling and compost, he’s been muttering angrily about the environmental footprint caused by shipping fizzy water in heavy green bottles all the way across the Atlantic. Not to mention that bottled water was, for us, a $700-$1,000 a year habit.

I’m not a mail-order person, so once I knew what I was looking for I went directly to the best kitchen supply store in Ottawa, C.A. Paradis. There they sell the old-fashioned seltzer maker dispenser—the comedic prop made famous by Vaudeville and I Love Lucy, but also the more modern Sodastream line of drink makers. They start at C$99 for a plastic model and get sturdier and sleeker in design the more you pay. I went midway and found a smart stainless and grey model that looks elegant on the counter for C$179. Had I wanted a model that carbonates water in glass, as opposed to plastic, bottles, I would have had to pay an extra $100 to buy the Penguin model.

sodastream

The machine is beautiful in its simplicity: nothing to plug in, just insert the CO2 cartridge, fill the BPA-free plastic bottle (supplied) with tap (or filtered) water, screw it into the machine and pull the lever until it buzzes—and yes, it sounds rude. Nearby children will chortle.

One cartridge provides 60 litres of sparkling water. When it runs out, we take the cartridge back to the store, pay $20 and exchange it in for a new one. So after the initial investment of $179, we pay an average of $20 a month for our 60 litre a month habit. This is easily a third of the price of the bottled stuff plus a lot less schlepping and recycling. (N.B. on the Sodastream website the cost calculation is 30c/litre for carbonated water and 88c/litre for flavoured drinks, post machine-purchase).

Two other advantages:

  • Replacement cartridges and all accessories and machines can be purchased on line.
  • You can tailor drinks to your own requirements, making them as fizzy or as euro-flat as you wish.
    sodastream clear

    You can also buy syrups for around C$7 that flavour up to 20 litres of soda (so that adds about 40c/litre to the price of soda, less if you like just a wisp of flavour). I have not tried the syrups, but there is quite a range from regular to diet and the `clear’ range which has no artificial flavours, colours or sweeteners and includes such delicious-sounding flavours as passion-fruit/mango and kiwi/pear.

So, at this early stage, it seems to me that our new soda water maker will help us reduce our carbon footprint significantly, enjoy our fizzy water, and keep the Faj happy. What more could you want?
(if the answer is “more information” then see this dedicated review site for a really full analysis of the various Sodastream machines and product claims).

Washing in the wilderness

Summer is finally here! Where I live, that means cottages, lakes and paddling and, for some, summer camp.

So, what should we be packing for the great summer getaway? And how to keep clean without damaging the environment?

I suspect that the first thing people think about – including those who write camp supply lists – is biodegradability.

All soap – in its pure form – is biodegradable, since it is essentially a detergent (something that grabs onto dirt and loosens it from a surface) that is made from natural sources (traditionally animal fat – now often vegetable fat – and lye, a strong alkali). However, the things that are added to soap, such as fragrance, dye, sudsing agents, etc. may well not be biodegradable. Furthermore, what you think of as liquid soap may in fact be a detergent made from petrochemicals. So biodegradability – or purity in the case of soap – is desirable.

However, biodegradability is not the panacea you might think. A biodegradable product is one that can be broken down by living organisms (usually bacteria). For the process to take place, the product has to come in contact with the bacteria. For soaps, detergents, shampoos, etc. that means they have to meet the soil where the bacteria live…soap will not biodegrade if it remains in water. This is why even biodegradable soaps should be used at least 200 ft away from water sources, to prevent pollution, and why used suds should be buried 6-8 inches deep in soil. This is something that is often overlooked by campers, however environmentally aware.

Another concern is that some biodegradable products contain sudsing agents, etc., that are known skin irritants (such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate) and that we might otherwise choose to avoid. Since ingredient labelling is not compulsory it is hard to make a call on this. My advice is that if companies do not disclose product ingredients, you might want to avoid them.

In fragile, natural environments, for those few fleeting months of summer, why not err on the side of caution and choose products that are as natural as possible? You might not get the lather you expect from your regular products, but maybe you can live without this for short while.

Here are some liquid soap and shampoo suggestions from the Environmental Working Group.

small olivier

I am just about to pick up products from Olivier Soaps, a New Brunswick company which scores a zero (best) on shampoo and soap and which sells both on-line and at a variety of bricks and mortar stores (including at a franchise store in Old Chelsea, Quebec).

Two final pieces of information.

First, a quick note on phosphates and lakes (which are a bad mix). Canada banned phosphates from laundry detergent in the 1970s and in 2010 both Canada and 16 US states banned phosphates in dishwasher detergents. So many of us do not have to worry about that problem any more. (Interestingly, this is an area in which the EU lags North America: it is only this year that the EU banned phosphates in laundry detergents and its ban for dishwasher products will not come into effect before 2015.)

Second a plea NEVER to purchase products containing the anti-microbial agent Triclosan (that means no anti-bacterial soaps, sponges, toothbrushes, baby toys, etc.). Triclosan – which is in up to three quarters of liquid soaps and nearly a third of bar soaps – has numerous harmful effects, including increasing antibiotic resistance, producing highly toxic dioxins and destroying aquatic ecosystems, due to its effects on algae. A very bad choice for the home and an even worse one for the cottage.

Last, but not least, think wash cloth and water when in the wilderness. We do not always need soap to keep clean.

Make your windows sparkle!

When we need to clean something we usually reach for products designed (and marketed) for that purpose. Often, though, there are easier and cheaper solutions already close at hand.

This is a real bonus. I hate the proliferation of half-used bottles in my cleaning cupboard. Every year I swear I am going to pare down to a single multi-purpose (eco) product, then I get swept up by some new offering (which so often disappoints, hence the half bottles).

The two hands-down home cleaning winners are vinegar and baking soda.

vinegar

Both are cheap, non-toxic and versatile: there are entire web pages devoted to their many uses, which include, in the case of vinegar, cleaning windows.

I gave up on chemical window cleaners a while back and have since tried various `green’ glass cleaners. I have not found one that dazzles. So I reverted to the old vinegar and water in a spray bottle (in a ratio of about 1:4, though some argue for 1:1)…couple this with a lint-free cloth and all is good, no? Much as I would like this to be the solution, something seems to be missing. So here are my two key window-cleaning tips.

1. Add a drop – not a large squirt – of dishwashing soap to the spray bottle. The Biovert I reviewed a while back does a good job here. The addition of soap removes any existing films from past cleaners and generally gets rid of dirt better (in my view).

2. Get the right tools. Yes, the cloth should be lint free (a Mabu wood pulp cloth is always a good bet) and, yes, a squeegee can be a good idea (though don’t underestimate the skill it takes to wield one like a professional: for me I just end up with more drips and mess). But my tool of choice for window cleaning is an unconventional one: a Lee Valley flexible stainless steel spatula (a durable bargain at $9.95).
leevalleyspatula
I keep one of these spatulas in the kitchen for flipping food and another in the cleaning cupboard where its flexible, yet very true and somewhat sharp, edge comes in so handy. Spray a bit of vinegar/water/soap on the window, scrape with the spatula and all the caked-on insects and mysterious little splatters (including paint) are dislodged from your glass without the rubbing and sweating that might otherwise be required.

The spatula is also invaluable for removing bits of tape from floors and any other tasks that require precision scraping from hard, flat surfaces. It is safer than a razor and more versatile than a paint scraper. I could not live without it!

Last thing on the windows: some people swear that adding a dash of rubbing alcohol in addition to vinegar and dishsoap makes all the difference…I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

A better way to eliminate static

This is a guest review from Cindy Scott.

Once I found out that regular dryer sheets are laced with animal fat and a cocktail of toxic chemicals, I knew I had to find another way to get rid of the static in the dryer. I looked at a few options, but the one that caught my eye was Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets. Not only are these chemical-free, but they can be reused for 500 loads, so create very little waste. And the fact there is no animal testing is sort of nice too…

Regular dryer sheets eliminate static by coating all items – including the dryer itself – in the same waxy, chemical (and often very fragrant) substance.

staticeliminator

This prevents electron transfer and hence static build-up. Static Eliminator Dryer Sheets address the problem by conducting and equalizing any potential charge between different types of items in the dryer. (For more details on the science and the origins of the product, download an explanation here.)

The whole thing is a bit of a miracle as the `sheets’ just look like two pieces of tube-like fabric. But they seem to do the trick.

static small

I have used them with jeans, t-shirts, running gear, towels and bedding and they work perfectly. The only exception I have found has been a pair of cotton Lululemon yoga pants, which came out clingy, even though the rest of the load was fine… (perhaps it is a reaction with the funky seaweed that Lululemon adds to its fabrics?).

The manufacturer suggests that you wash the sheets after the first 3 or 4 uses to remove the build up of “gunk” from years of chemical and animal fat-laced products. Thereafter, a wash is suggested every four months or so.

The sheets are sold at a number of retailers in Canada and the US. They are also available online, direct from the manufacturer at $16.95 for two. As with many eco products, the up-front cost is relatively high, but the savings occur over the product lifetime. Another piece of good news: they are made by a family firm in Canada. And, if you sign up on the website, they will send you an email reminder when you are likely to need to change your sheets!

Stainless steel food containers

In my post on litterless lunches I promised to revisit the topic of stainless food containers. Now seems as good a time as any, especially as summer means picnics and picnics require robust food containers.

I am pretty much plastic-free in my kitchen these days and I do enjoy that. It is when I see the orange staining on plastics from tomato sauce, that I fully appreciate how deeply food penetrates plastic (and how little I like that thought). So I use glass/pyrex for storing food at home and stainless steel for my kids’ lunches and picnics.

The downside of stainless is mainly the up-front cost. Until recently, it has also been hard to find good stainless containers, but that has all changed of late.

SM small

For a long time now, I have been using containers made by Sanctus Mundo (a local, Wakefield, Quebec company) which are sold through the website Life Without Plastic, as well as in various retail outlets.

My favourite Sanctus Mundo products are the round airtight/watertight containers in various sizes. These have three clips and a silicone seal which together really do stop leaks, even if the containers tumble around in a lunch bag. Yet they are still easy – and satisfying – to open and close.

Hand washing is recommended: I am good about this but still find a few of my seals showing a bit of mildew. However, this does not affect their performance (and replacement lids are available through the website for about $5). The bad news: these containers cost between $15 and $20 each, depending upon the size, so this might be a gradual investment.

Round containers are great for fruit and small items, but if you are thinking about sandwiches or looking at storing leftovers in the fridge, they are not always the best option.

If you are more of a square person, or want a somewhat larger capacity, another great product comes from a Canadian website, Earthly Bound.

Earthly Bound sell sets of 3 square containersin high quality, shiny stainless for $30.

earthly small

These containers are dishwasher-safe, though hand washing is advised for lids (made of #5 polypropylene plastic which has no bisphenol-A and is generally considered among the safer plastics). If you are an anti-plastic purist the lids could bother you, but I don’t worry too much since the food rarely touches them anyway.

The advantage of the flexible plastic lid is that it stays on well and is easy for small and big hands alike. This is not the case with some containers. For example, Kids Konserve stainless containers have lids that are REALLY hard to get on and off (and hence often leak or fall off, since they were never on properly in the first place). LunchBots containers are nice as they have dividers in them, but they have metal lids – without clips – which are also tricky.

Overall, the Earthly Bound sets are good value and straddle the lunch box/fridge divide. I like the versatility. I should mention that I received a set of these for testing, but this has not affected my review.

A final note on provenance: almost all stainless containers are made in Asia. Surprisingly China is not the main source. Many – including Earthly Bound’s containers – come from India (the home of the tiffin box), while others are from Thailand or South Korea (Sanctus Mundo). Life Without Plastics has a note on its website about ethical sourcing of its products.

 

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