Archive for At home

A month ’til Christmas…

I feel slightly faint writing about Christmas, since I am so far from being organized. But my kids are definitely on the case, so I had better get started.

Last year I wrote about finding ways to reduce the waste associated with Christmas wrapping. This year I want to continue that conversation and highlight a particular product that might help.

Wrag Wrap is a UK company that makes lovely, reusable fabric gift wrap. The Christmas wrap selection is super, as indeed are the other offerings: these are definitely a cut above a charity shop scarf if you are looking to move away from single use wrapping (though I would still advocate using ‘found fabrics’ for wrapping in addition).

Thoughtfully, as you will see from the picture, there is even a wrap that matches this site almost perfectly.

Nicky and Louise, who own Wrag Wrap, have put a huge amount of thought and effort into creating a product that works for the environment but also works for demanding ‘wrappers’.

They examined what exactly people look for in wrapping paper and determined, for example, that the crackle was extremely important: so ‘crackle wrap‘ was born.This is a three-layered quilted wrap that makes a noise not dissimilar to paper when you manipulate it.

Another rather appealing wrap is made from repurposed festival tents (festi-wrap), sewn into functional sizes in the Midlands. I am told it was hard work going round all those festivals harvesting older tents that would otherwise have gone to landfill … but what a great idea.

The fabric for most of the wraps and gift bags that the company make is a mix between virgin and recycled polyester (Repreve). Again, this is something the pair thought hard about. Textile production can be pretty nasty in itself (I plan a post on this very soon), so just using any old fabric for the wraps wasn’t good enough for them.

Repreve is a polyester that is made from plastic bottles. Currently the wraps are about 45% Repreve, but the aim is to move to 100% recycled fibre once supply, price and quality have all been assured (there is heavy demand for recycled polyester at present which can lead to corners being cut: Wrap Wrap have tracing measures in place to guard themselves against ‘cheating’ by their supplier).

Helpfully, for all those of you who were not schooled in the Japanese art of fabric wrapping – furoshiki - the Wrap Wrap website offers not only instructions, but also nifty stretch wraps which are like large, elasticated christmas crackers that even I can handle. And wraps come with integral ties as well as matching fabric message card holders (like old fashioned luggage labels): the website provides a printable message card template.

Really, they have thought of almost everything.

So what is the downside? First, many of the wraps are made in China for reasons of cost and raw material availability (Repreve is processed in China). But the quality is high and these are not heavy items to ship so the footprint doesn’t suffer too much from shipping emissions.

Mostly it’s the price that might put people off: wraps run from about £6 to £10 (plus a flat £1.99 shipping), depending upon the size. Although this is in line with furoshiki cloths on other websites, it does make it unlikely that you will wrap everything in one of these from the get go.

But if you love great wrapping, you might think about building up gradually (and using old scarves or the like for other gifts as you amass your stash). Happily, if you don’t live in the UK, you won’t be denied this opportunity: Wrag Wrap ships via Royal Mail international, charging you actual rates (unlikely to be much more than a few pounds as mail is pretty good value in the UK).

Of course, if you want a stash you are going to have to grab back the wrap as soon as you give the gift. Given how nice these things are, that might result in fisticuffs….I’ll leave you to figure that one out yourself. Better, perhaps, to consider the wrap an integral – and very nice – part of your gift and share the love.

[Note: I was sent samples of the wrap for review. My Christmas tree will thank Wrag Wrap for that!]

The rush to wrap

So, Christmas is almost upon us. The excitement in my house is palpable.

While I, too, am getting in the holiday spirit, I am also mindful of the many tasks that lie ahead. Inevitably I will put off wrapping until the last minute; I’ll be up late, late on Christmas eve for sure.

One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases is of my beloved grandmother rushing around with a basket, collecting and neatly folding wrapping paper for reuse the following year. At the time I viewed this as a bizarre annoyance. Now, of course, I do the same.

Except I can’t collect the paper from my own presents, because I typically don’t use any. I have become a massive fan of fabric wrapping. It’s much quicker (critical at 2am on Christmas morning), less wasteful and the materials can easily be stored year on year.

I use lengths of fabric, old scarves and, to the extent that I have them, proper Japanese furoshiki cloths. There are numerous fancy ways to use cloths for wrapping, but I tend to opt for the basic method of cross-tying the diagonal corners. Not creative, but functional.

I also maintain a stock of fabric bags. My mother in law made a buch of drawstring bags a while back and I have guarded these with my life. I have also added to my stock from the dollar store and elsewhere, though it is hard to find large-size fabric bags at a reasonable price (and I am too lazy to make them myself). If you are prepared to invest a bit here, Etsy has a huge range of options, of course.

If I run out of fabric bits and bags, my next choice is to use old pictures stored up from when my kids were in kindergarten. If you are a parent and your kids were lucky enough to have a teacher who liked paint (and mess) you will almost certainly have brought home stacks and stacks of artwork which you will have had a hard time throwing out. At last a win-win solution: home-made wrapping paper!

There are a number of other great options, including decorated newsprint or brown paper bags. If you are more organised and patient than me, you can make these look really fancy. See this TreeHugger post for some great suggestions (if you can handle the slow scrolling through pages, which I hate, on TreeHugger posts). The point is that you can give attractive looking gifts and still conserve resources (the big factoid from the net is that if every US family wrapped just 3 gifts in recycled materials, we would save the equivalent of 45,000 paper-covered football fields).

My last plea: please don’t use that shiny plastic wrap. It screams out land-fill even as it sucks up needles from your tree with its static field.

Now I have to go and wrap….Merry Christmas!

Hours of fun for the whole family

What I love about summer is having more time: for friends, for feasting and for family games.

The family game thing is tough, though: some love them, some hate them. Personally I am in the former camp but my husband is usually a reluctant participant. Not so with our new family favourite, Pucket.

We discovered Pucket in the UK this summer. It is a wooden board game that originates in France and has recently been reintroduced in the UK by a charming fellow (a supreme Pucket master) called Dave.

To win the game you have to sling all 8 of your pucks (akin to backgammon pieces) through a small opening in a barrier in the centre of the Pucket board, with a catapulting rubber band. The challenge is that your opponent will be aiming at the same hole at the same time from the other side, leading to frequent clashes (which bear names such as cardinal’s revenge and neptune’s kiss in Pucket lore).

If it sounds confusing, I assure you it is not. Try watching this youtube video of the masters at work.

Pucket’s beauty lies in its simplicity and universal appeal. In a matter of seconds anyone from a pre-schooler to a game-on granny can get going. And while each individual game lasts only a matter of minutes, Pucket is addictive (you always think you can do better) so a whole afternoon can be whiled away with serial Pucket challenges.

So, I hear you ask, what makes Pucket an eco product (that works)? The answer is a bit sketchy because, on the negative side, the boards come from India which means they consume a good deal of transportation fuel. Dave and his partner Ben are upfront about this and have chosen to respond to this issue by favouring sea transportation over air freight. They also offset their shipping emissions.

On the plus side, the boards are handmade by artisans and the company uses only fair trade suppliers (externally verified). They are doing their best to ensure that the wood that is used is sustainably sourced. And the boards should last a long, long time (assuming no destructive player rage).

Pucket is available at a number of shops in the UK and on line for delivery worldwide through the website at a cost of £40 (about $60). Delivery in the UK costs £7. Delivery to North America is a relative bargain at only £14.50 (about $23), giving you an all-in north American price of about $85 which could be worse, given the fun you will have.

And the best news is that for a limited time (until the end of 2012) ecoproductsthatwork readers can get a discount of £3.50 with the code MFPAFD, just click here to get started.

Terms of Entombment: Keeping your cool without air conditioning

This is a guest post from Amélie Crosson

I grew up in Washington, D.C.: a sweltering soup from June-September. My husband grew up in Ottawa: a sweltering soup from time to time in July. It’s normal that we should have different approaches to summer living — and air conditioning.

As far as I’m concerned, living in Ottawa is like inhabiting a binary universe: a city of Winter and Not Winter. So when summer finally comes I expect Ottawans, including my husband, to welcome and relish hot weather. Yes, it’s hot. Isn’t it great?

Um, No.

While most Ottawans are uniquely stoic about -30C weather, when it comes to +30C, not so much. Some people retreat to their lakeside cottages, a very sensible approach if available. Others retreat indoors and turn on the air conditioning.

Both my husband and I hate air conditioning. I hate the artificial chill, the smell and the roar of it. I’m as likely to sigh in bliss exiting an air-conditioned building as others are entering it. His objections are environmental. So we both agree that air conditioning is a technology of last resort, to be used only when octogenarians are visiting, children disappear for extended periods to friends’ air-conditioned houses, or night three of no sleep threatens to push our cranky quotient toward marital break-up.

To delay the moment, my husband has a house cooling strategy that is meticulous in its execution. His first line of defence against heat and humidity is to lock them out. We adopt a vampire-like existence. Doors, windows and blinds are only opened at night and closed back up in the early hours before the sun burns off the coolness of morning. His usual admonishments about turning off lights take on a sterner tone. Without even realizing it we speak with hushed voices as if our breath might heat up the house. Use of the stove and oven is discouraged in favour of whatever can be grilled outside.

It can be a harsh regime: no one likes living in a tomb, especially when it feels like you’ve just emerged from the long, dark life of enclosure imposed by winter. Can’t we just be hot? And how are we supposed to cook pasta on a grill? Entombment is one thing, carb-deprivation is a sacrifice of greater magnitude.

But his approach is undeniably effective. Our house, through entombment, lots of insulation, a thick canopy of mature maples and ceiling fans, is a delightfully cool oasis. And at night and in early morning, with the windows thrown open, we can hear the cicadas, the cardinals leading the birdsong chorus, and squirrels chittering their strategy to lay waste to our lilies once and for all. They are the beautiful sounds of summer, unless, of course, they are drowned out by the drone of the neighbour’s air conditioner…

Ant invasion

It’s summer. It’s hot. And I don’t know who is happier: me or the ants.

Though I am known for my love of heat and humidity, it is possible that the ants would take the prize – were it not for the new ant remedy that I am zealously employing. Together with a tube of caulking, it seems to be keeping the nasty little things under control. The cat’s bowl is no longer a feasting station and even my outside ants have moderated a bit.

So what is the secret? Sweetness and borax.

There are several recipes on various websites for home-made ant killer. The one I am using is quick, easy and cheap to make. It consists of:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons of borax

You just boil everything together for three minutes and then place in suitable containers (lids, pots with holes) in your trouble spots. I actually make half quantities as it goes a long way and lasts well in a jar. 

I am not quite sure I have the consistency right. Some websites suggest dipping cotton balls in the solution and leaving these out, but my gloop is too syrupy to do that. And I don’t see hoards of ants sucking it down as others claim to do, but it still seems to do the trick. So far my cat does not seem to have been tempted to chow down on it.

In case you are wondering what borax (sodium borate) really is, see here. It is a `salt of boric acid’ that comes from dried up lake beds. It is not generally very irritating to humans but, nonetheless, it is not something that should be treated casually. Within the last two years the European Commission categorized it as a substance of very high concern for its possible negative effects on fertility. And Health Canada warns against its use in cosmetics, as I mentioned in my posting on moisturizers.

It is typically sold for laundry and cleaning purposes and is marketed as an eco product, despite its toxicity. If you are still comfortable with using it (I have to admit that, in the battle against ants, I am), it is available in bulk in a number of eco stores or, in Canada, through the website for $10.79 for 2kg (that would kill a lot of ants).

FYI: most commercial ant traps use boric acid as their weapon too. They just charge you more to put very tiny amounts of it in dinky metal or plastic containers that will end up, sooner or later, in the land-fill.


Rechargeable (and cool) LED lights

pebble light

I am a little hesitant to write this review. Not because I don’t love the product (I do), but because it can hardly be said to fulfill a pressing need. (Unless, of course, you are someone who is desolate without funky design items round your house.)

The product in question is an DeLIGHT sold by Toronto-based YUP Inc. (tagline: pioneering an eco lifestyle).

This is a rechargeable LED accent light that comes in two cool shapes: the pebble (my favourite) and the glow, which is more pointy.

The lights themselves are very light-weight, being made of robust white plastic with a matt finish that makes them look organic when lit. They are entirely portable and can be used indoors or outdoors, even in the depths of the Canadian winter, I am told (for ice fishing, perhaps?).

You simply charge the batteries for about four hours and then the ultra-efficient LED light will remain illuminated for more than 16 hours straight (up to 29 hours, according to YUP’s proprietor, VJ). Using the light’s handy remote, you can choose a single color or rotate through 10 cool colours, including a flickering orange that suggests a candle burns inside.

The LEDs are supposed to last for 50,000 hours (so 2,500 charges, if you get 20 hours from each charge). The batteries seem to work well and the good news is that they are regular rechargeable AAs so you can replace them if they are getting sluggish. Mine don’t keep their charge for very long if I don’t use the light, but that is a general problem with rechargeable batteries.

The lights are available largely through the company’s website. They are not cheap at $69.99 each (both shapes) with $15 per light shipping (to Canada and the US: dispatch is quick and efficient). The good news for ecoproductsthatwork readers is that you can get 15% off any light purchase you make before 30th June, using the coupon code ECOPROD.

I am just hoping that the reasonably high price tag means that pebbles and glows will actually stay the distance.

So, there you have it: a guilty pleasure or a nice gift for your favorite friend. Maybe you could even share one with your neighbour: that would cut down on the eco-stress.

Candle conundrums

Along with yoga, candles seem to offer a ready solution to the pressures of modern life. They promise a quick mood change: workaday to romantic, harried to harmony.

But navigating the world of candles, and making sure that you aren’t creating more problems than you are solving, can be tricky.

In the good (?) old days, candles were made of paraffin wax (unless you happened to keep bees as a hobby). Indeed, as a kid I spent many hours creating various shaped and perfumed candles from paraffin wax for my poor, long-suffering mother.

But, as you all no doubt know, paraffin is a waste product from the oil industry and is really no good for us at all. It burns `dirty’, leaving black soot and possibly formaldehyde and benzene in your house and your air. Perfumed paraffin candles are the worst: more oily, more toxic and more sooty (not to mention the cloying chemical fragrance).

What is more, cheap candles often contain lead in their wicks. The lead is supposed to help them burn more evenly. Unsurprisingly, this is not at all good for you, especially if you are young or pregnant.

For reasons known only to itself, and its dwindling number of staff scientists, Health Canada has not banned lead in candles. It does, though, offer advice about how to spot the toxin. Just untwine that wick a bit (hope the candle is not shrink-wrapped), see if there is a metallic core and, if so, rub it against a piece of paper. A grey mark indicates lead. Simple!

[A concern-assuaging aside here: Ikea candles (who hasn't bought those big bags of tea lights?) do not contain lead, though most are made from paraffin wax.]

If you want to eschew paraffin, there are three options: palm wax, soy wax and beeswax. All are marketed as eco alternatives, which is a tad misleading, to say the least.

Palm plantations in south east Asia are notorious for causing deforestation and habitat loss (see my posting on lipstick). And bringing the raw materials for candles half way across the world is not a green solution.

Soy, by contrast, can be grown domestically. But this is not always the case. If soy wax is imported from Latin America, the problems of deforestation can be just as acute as with palm oil.

Soy candles are cleaner and longer burning than paraffin wax, drips can be cleaned up with soap and water and works well with perfumes. But, on the negative side, much soy is genetically modified (doesn’t bother me hugely: others feel strongly about this) and its cultivation tends to involve lots of pesticides and insecticides as well as causing soil degradation.

Soy candles are also very soft and have a low melting point. They may go rancid and cannot be made into tapers or pillars (unless adulterated, and the suspicion is that much soy wax is, indeed, adulterated). Lastly, the wax yield of soy is low, around 10 times lower than that of palm, so you need much more land to grow the soy, to make the wax, to pour the candle, to make you relax. Not ideal.

If you do want to go the soy route, be sure to choose a local maker – In Canada there are several options including Pine Creek Hollow (Ontario) Willow Tree (Saskatchewan) or Natura (Alberta) – and ask where their soy comes from.

Last, but by no means least, there is beeswax, the longest burning and most natural wax. Fans claim it smells of honey. As an apiarist’s daughter (yes, bees as well as pigs), I think beeswax candles smell of beeswax. That is a lovely, heady smell, richer than honey, by far. The wax is usually yellow, varying with the residual impurities from honey extraction, but can become almost white when fine-filtered.

The main concern about beeswax is the price (typically high…see this post on why there is no such thing as cheap beeswax).

Bees don’t seem to mind having their wax taken away, despite the effort they put into making it. (For a fascinating description of how this miracle happens, see here.) But it does take approximately 6-8 lbs of honey to sustain a bee to make a pound of wax. This is is why beekeepers often leave the wax cells (having sliced off the top and extracted the honey) so the bees can reuse, rather than rebuild their honeycomb from year to year. This maximizes honey yield. Breeding cells are now melted down more often than they used to be due to high levels of disease amongst bees and a desire to keep everything clean, according to my father (thanks, Dad!).

Anyway, as you can see, I could go on about bees and wax, as well as pesticide use and the nightmare of bee colony collapse, forever. But I will stop.

For a good summary of the merits of different types of wax, see this site, which also sells nice beeswax candles. And if you are addicted to tea lights, remember that the aluminum holders are readily recyclable. Or if you choose the plastic ones, you can reuse them with cup-less tea light refills.


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