Monday, May 16, 2011

Blogging As Energy Efficient Education

In the old days of teaching, a teacher gave an assignment, the student did it, brought it back and turned it in (no posting on line) and the teacher read it, graded it and gave it back. The End. The focus was on the teacher - what the teacher wanted, what the teacher thought important - and in the end the only person besides the student who read it was the teacher. Grade given. Education bestowed. Is this an energy efficient way to do education? I posit that if a student is going to go to all the trouble to do the work, shouldn't more benefit? Shouldn't there be a ripple effect? Shouldn't we make use of each individual's energy in more efficient and far reaching ways? The new code in education has arrived.

I am loving the freedoms and openness that the Internet and online learning has brought to education. This blog is a case in point. Students decided what they wanted to blog about given that they were taking a course on Ecological Citizenship. They engaged in deciding the statement they wanted to put on the blog site; they set up the schedule and outlined for themselves what they wanted the blog to consist of. Me, the teacher, had only to invite the learning, allow it to be a major part of the course this semester, and participate with the students in exploring the topics they agreed to examine and experiment with in their lives. I got to join them in the exploration. I was mindful that if I witnessed that they weren't putting the effort into their work, it was my job to remind them and find out what the barriers were to doing more engaged learning. In the process hopefully coming up with new strategies to help.

In this way education becomes a very transparent process. Not only am I, the teacher, allowing a different kind of learning to emerge, I am also learning myself. I was excited week after week by the quality of the blog stories that outlined the experiments with their lifestyle changes. I posted mine which paled in comparison. And the public got to witness them as well - as they were posted to facebook and list serve groups. So different than one teacher reading a student's work and one teacher determining whether this student was showing growth and learning. Energy wasted. In this process on the other hand, many got educated as well the professor and the students amongst themselves. They were teachers to each other. I don't know about you, but this sounds alot more fun and certainly more educational.

At every level of education, we need to make our learning real and relevant to making our world a better place to live for all. Blogging is such a great educational opportunity. And in keeping with our Ecological Citizenship course, I believe it was quite energy efficient. YES!


I believe that many people would make the kinds of changes reflected in this blog, if these changes were perceived to be easier.  Truthfully, the changes are difficult to make on the surface because of competing priorities, like family, school, work, and the demands of maintaining all of the things we have - and we have many things.  While these changes require the commitment of time and effort upfront, they become manageable habits, which pay off in the long run.
Even with commitment to change, the people in one’s inner circle, especially in one’s household, can significantly influence the success of such endeavors.  I am fortunate, because my wife Joselle is in full support of my efforts to consume less, buy local, eliminate potentially harmful chemicals from our home, and lessen the overall impact of our lives on the planet.  Therefore, my blog entries inevitably include the perspective of we rather than the perspective of only me.
Bulk Shopping
Bulk shopping was the first change made in our home.  I selected this as a priority because I subscribe to the notion I learned from Bea Johnson of the Zero Waste Home that controlling what you bring into your home is the best way to reduce the waste you produce.  In other words, packaging equals waste.  No packaging results in a significant reduction in waste.  I discovered a wonderful bulk market, which served not only to reduce the amount of waste we produce but also became a resource for me.  The market provided a nice door prize for the neighborhood Earth Day Event that I organized, and my contact person at the market is becoming a wonderful new friend.  You never know what unexpected side benefits new choices will produce.

Organic cotton sacks for packaging flour, sugar, nuts, etc. in bulk store
As it turns out, bulk shopping was harder than my wife and I expected.  After a long, hard day of school and work, Joselle did not always feel like making an extra stop on the way home, and certain items were simply more affordable elsewhere.  So, while we made a bold declaration to shop exclusively at the bulk store, this has not always worked out for us.  However, we are shopping regularly at the bulk store, and we certainly produce far less than a bag of waste each week for two adults, one large dog, and one cat.  Further, we have been consuming the canned and packaged items in our pantry without replacing them.  We are creating room for our new system, which will include using organic cotton sacks for bulk shopping and glass jars for storage.  Our pantry makeover is not complete, but it is well on its way!
Glass jars, which come in a variety of sizes, for storing items in pantry

Farmer’s Market
Next I decided to focus on buying local, so we visited our farmers market.  We have been able to find great sources for local eggs, bread, honey, and soap, as well as some local produce like sweet potatoes and apples.  However, we have not always been successful at finding organic products, which are important to us.  Sometimes small farmers do not go through the rather expensive and time consuming certification process, which is fine with us.  We are willing to trust the word of the farmer about how food is grown on his/her farm.  The challenge for us has been the abundance of produce importers at the local market, who did not grow the food.  I am not comfortable in their ability to vouch for its quality, and I am concerned importers might tell me what I want to hear rather than the truth.  The result is that we purchase less produce at the farmers market than we otherwise might if we had better access to the growers.  We continue to subscribe to a local home delivery service for about half of our organic produce, and purchase the rest between the farmers market, bulk store, and regular grocery.
An unexpected benefit of the farmers market is that I have developed a relationship with Simon, the man who makes the goats milk soap, which is my favorite find thus far.  Simon donated door prizes for my Earth Day project, which helped raise awareness among my neighbors about great local products available through the farmers market.  Additionally, Joselle and I have begun giving the soap as gifts to friends and family.  In fact, we are beginning to get requests for more.
Homemade Ice Cream
Since I am not much of a consumer, my focus remained on food, which is something everyone must acquire.    My food vice is ice cream, and I was not successful in finding a local ice creamery.  I do not plan to give up ice cream anytime soon, so I decided to make my own.  I chose to make ice cream by hand rather than using a machine to decrease my consumption (it’s hard work), save electricity, and perhaps even burn a few calories in the process.
Since my initial ice cream experiment, we have not made any more ice cream.  (I am on a diet, which has resulted in limited ice cream consumption.)  My wife did buy ice cream from the grocery for dessert when her brother was in town.  I did not object.  I anticipate that we will make our own ice cream by hand for special occasions, because this allows us more control over what is in our food, discourages over-consumption, and is fun.  We will continue to by-pass ice cream in the store during our regular shopping excursions...most of the time!
Household Cleaners
Turning my attention to reducing the use of chemicals in our home, I decided to address the chemicals we use in the cleaning process.  As it turns out, we do not regularly use many chemicals, even the “environmentally-friendly” ones we own.  Upon closer examination of the ingredient lists (as well as the realization that not all ingredients are disclosed), I echo my classmate Liz's resolution to replace my cleaners with “homemade, food-grade solutions” whenever possible.  We are going to try soapnuts instead of laundry detergent, and we continue to use the room spray that I made, which smells great and has lasted quite a while.  However, our greatest impact might be on others.  We recently hired a housekeeper at Joselle’s insistence.  (I have mixed feelings about it.)  During the past several weeks, Kathy has become so accustomed to our way of cleaning that she told us she is going to recommend it to all of her clients!

My next area of focus was something even closer to me - my own skin.  Completing a very thorough assessment of my carefully selected hygiene products, I was surprised by all that I do not know about what I am applying to and absorbing through my skin.  Though I already make some of my own toiletries, my intention was to replace a few others with new homemade concoctions.  I found a few recipes and purchased the ingredients, then life got in the way.  As a result, I have not yet tried my new recipes.  The one I am most excited about is a recipe for hair spray, because I am most concerned about breathing the particulates that fill my bathroom when I use hairspray.  The recipe I will try is below:
1 lemon
2 cups water
1 oz. rubbing alcohol
Basically, you boil and strain lemon wedges, cool, add rubbing alcohol, and spritz.  Below is a video demonstration:

If this one does not work, I have seen another recipe for sugar water, which is reported to work well.  I will follow up on the blog with my results.
Lawn Maintenance
Lastly, I felt it was important for me to find a non-toxic way of treating weeds in my yard.  We intend to plant a garden next year, and I want to keep the soil as pure as possible.  My treatment of weeds with white vinegar has been labor and time intensive, but well worth the work in my opinion.  However, I am discouraged by the pervasive use of chemicals I witnessed on a windy day adjacent to my yard.  The way I treat my yard will not change, but my plans for a garden might change unless I feel confident that my immediate neighbors are not contaminating my yard with toxins.
Final Thoughts
This project has been satisfying in many ways.  Since we are acculturated to believe that we need goods sold in stores, resisting the homogenization of American life is quite freeing.  Further, I feel like an advocate for my own health and well-being every time I refuse chemically laden products.  I also love supporting local businesses, because I am investing in the local economy and in the dreams of small business people.  Finally, finding ways to tread more lightly upon the Earth is always important to me.
Like many others, I have consciously been working to live in a more sustainable way for years.  However, I have come to realize that sustainable living is not a destination, to which we will ever fully arrive.  Everything we do has an impact, and there will always be opportunities to improve.  The truth is that the more we improve, the harder it is to identify new opportunities.  One of the greatest impacts we might have is to share with each other.  KP’s use of the Diva Cup prompted many others to give it a try, as did my coffee and honey facial scrub.  Liz’s mantra about “homemade, food-grade solutions” resonated with me and many others, and one of Kris’s entries even got comments from a woman who found our blog accidentally.  My wife and I have decided we must try Karyn’s homemade veggie burger recipe, Coleen’s preferred kitty litter (Cedarific), Nancy’s shower curtain alternative, and Melissa’s shampoo recipe.  Through the blog, our personal changes have rippled outward and created effects bigger than any of us would have individually.  Alone these steps will not solve global warming, but they will create awareness and build community necessary for addressing larger environmental challenges.

MKxBeauty. (2010, February 21). How to: Homemade hair spray [Video file]. Retrieved from
[Untitled image of eco-bag].  Retrieved from

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dog Food

OK, back to my two dogs. I guess since my children are older and I cannot control what they say or do I have to try and control what I can, and that is with what my dogs eat, the shampoo that is used on them and the medications used on them.

I have used many dog foods over the years, often going with one for a while and then changing my mind. I used to use Science Diet but felt that left their stool to lose. Then Eucanuba was tried, but the price seemed high and they did not care for it.

I recently tried the Rachel Ray Naturals dog food that donates profits to humane societies. They seemed to like this but I think it has some fillers or something I don't understand in the ingredients.

My husband picked up the last bag of dog food, knowing what I was trying to do, no filler and natural ingredients that is not outrageously priced. He brought home a brand I don't think I would have chose, called "Lassie Naturals" which has lamb and beef main ingredients and seems to have other good ingredients and no filler. However, he paid almost twice what some of the other foods cost and the dogs are not very excited with it.

Since we have had this brand about a week, I will wait a little longer before I make any other decisions about it, my initial feeling is the search goes on for a good dog food with natural ingredients and no fillers that does not cost a lot. I did recently read about about a different brand on line, but have not checked to see if our pet food store carries it. If anyone has any suggestions please let me know!

New Mop

I found a new mop with a refillable container that I can fill myself with what cleaning solution I want. Additionally, the cloth micro fibers on the mop can be washed and used over and over again. I have used this once on my kitchen floor and was very happy with the mop and my cleaning solution (hot water, vinegar and lemon and a touch of dish soap). Our bedrooms have wood floors and I am still searching for what I want to use to clean them (someday I hope to have the entire house have bamboo or wood floors only).

Not only did the mop do a good job on the floors, with the container for cleaning solution attached I find it much easier to spot clean or quickly spruce up my floor, without having to get a bucket and all the stuff I used to need to clean the floor.

I only wish I had found this sooner since all winter I complained about people tracking in snow and mud. If I had this back then, I just would have had to spray a little and mop it up and done! Or teach my son and his friends who track the snow in to do it!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Poisons and Parabens

So I finally got around to planting my community garden plot. I still have some starter plants inside, but I planted some carrots, lettuce, and chives from seed to get things going.

First there was some prep work to do. I needed to remove the remaining leaves and rake the bed. Even though I did this with gloves on, I still managed to get poison ivy/oak/sumac. I am not sure which. Which I realized when I got to work and was about to embark upon a long test-run for the Ted Talks that Brown was filming.

The Dr. in my life suggested I take Benadryl right away, since I am the sensitive type and the rash was likely to spread (which it did). I went to CVS and procured the sleeping pills. If I can only drink half of a beer before I am tipsy, you can only imagine what Benadryl does to me :)

Normally I might try oatmeal, but there was no time, so I searched for Calamine lotion. When I located the lotion, I discovered that it contained two kinds of parabens among the ingredients and decided to stay away. I had heard that vinegar might do the trick, so I decided to risk the smell and go for that option. It worked for my sunburns this summer, so why not?

I found that within a day my rashes had shrunk. Excellent! I will soon be ready to go back into the garden and chance another exposure. I feel better about that now, knowing I have a remedy at the ready on my desk at work.

If it happens again I will try to tough it out without the Benadryl. I can't imagine a pill that pink is very healthy for me, but who knows? Only the active ingredient is listed on the bottle. Other home remedies for poison ivy include baking soda, banana peel and aloe vera gel. For more info go here.

In other news, I'm on the hunt for a new futon mattress. Mattresses often contain petroleum-based synthetics and fire retardants (which also often contain parabens) that emit toxic chemicals. I usually use a firm futon mattress. I figure I will go with organic cotton rather than a cotton foam mix in order to prevent the petroleum factor. This sounds great, right? It is easy enough to find a futon cover that doesn't have flame-retardants. The great thing is I can find an organic cotton flame-retardant free mattress in Rhode Island. But how do I know that the cotton inside my mattress is fair-trade? How many futon stores advertise whether or not their cotton is fair trade? Perhaps in Portlandia?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Springtime Lawncare

Spring has sprung, and I have been working in the yard to prepare our garden and yard for summer. Many of our current landscaping practices embrace our chemical and resource reduction philosophy. Our rain barrel collects stormwater from half of our roof, and we use the water to sustain all our plantings throughout the summer.

Our backyard compost bin is also starting to bustle after being frozen all winter. Not only does the compost enrich the soil in our vegetable and flowers beds, but we also use a compost “tea” for fertilizing potted plants. Instead of applying plant food, we use rinse water “tea” from our under-the-sink kitchen composter (we simply swish water from the rain barrel in the compost container and pour the mixture around potted plants). The “tea” is rich in coffee grounds, so the mixture also releases a pleasing aroma!

The father of a friend of mine is a chemist working for Terracycle, a company that was founded 10 years ago by a Princeton freshman who started making organic fertilizer out of worm castings (poop) and packaging it in used soda bottles. My friend kindly supplied me with an array of Terracycle products, and I love them! While Terracycle manufactures all kinds of products and packaging (lunch bags, backpacks, accessories) out of traditionally non-recyclable materials, like juice boxes and potato chip bags, I use the worm casting plant food. I don’t use the product often, mostly when planting perennial bulbs in the fall, but this product does wonders for new or struggling plantings.

The only thing still in need of attention in our yard is grubs. I hate them! I’m not someone who needs a weed free lawn, but I also don’t want to see my small yard destroyed by these pests. In the past, we’ve used a pretty nasty chemical to treat a few intense grub infestation, but I was not about to do that again! After doing a just a bit of research, I found an organic product, Monterey’s All Natural Turf Grub Control, which can be applied as a preventative treatment and/or mitigation measure for grubs. The active ingredients include clove oil, peppermint oil, garlic oil, and malic acid. The other ingredients are various clays and acids, all of which register as low threats on the Skin Deep website. I will consider using this product at the first sign of grubs later in the summer and early fall.

In the meantime, I have already implemented some simple, safe preventative measures for grubs as suggested on the organiclawncare101 website. The website suggests letting the lawn dry between watering, because grubs love moisture. I already don’t water the lawn, and in the past few years at least, we’ve received ample rainfall. As a result, our soil is usually very moist. Because grubs winter in the deep soil and surface to eat grass roots in the spring before burrowing back down to a depth of 6-8 inches, I decided to do what I could to keep the top few inches of soil dry. First, I raked up all the thatch (dead grass) from the lawn. Thatch not only holds moisture but it acts as a barrier between birds and grubs. Sadly, I don’t have chickens, so I added a bird feeder to the tree close to where grubs have been a problem in the past. My hope is that dry surface soil and an abundance of birds will keep grubs at bay. In the event that grubs do appear, I vow to not use nasty chemical treatments but will consider using the organic product.

Spring is one of my favorite seasons, and I feel good about keeping my yard beautiful AND safe.

A Little Sun and Skincare Exposure

Spring has finally settled  here in Boston.  The sun is shining, warmth has replaced frigidity, and I found a winning concoction of baking soda, chamomile and apple cider vinegar for my hair. Totally winning all over the place.  Summer is just around the corner, and before I step out into the hot sun, humid weather and beaches, I want to make sure my skin is adequately protected by a sunscreen that is safe for me and the environment. 

Rays from the sun are becoming increasingly harmful to our skin from the depletion of the ozone layer.    According to the EPA: "Reductions in stratospheric ozone levels will lead to higher levels of UVB reaching the Earth's surface. The sun's output of UVB does not change; rather, less ozone means less protection, and hence more UVB reaches the Earth. Studies have shown that in the Antarctic, the amount of UVB measured at the surface can double during the annual ozone hole. Another study confirmed the relationship between reduced ozone and increased UVB levels in Canada during the past several years."

I'm well aware the sun can have damaging effects on my skin, but I have been a little bit naive as to how much it can effect my health. I always surmised that since I don't burn too much, I am at a low risk for skin cancers.  However, the American Academy of Dermatology pushes sunscreen on everybody – no matter your skin type since any sunburn increases your risk of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer.  Year around everyone should use broad spectrum, water proof sunscreen even on days that are cloudy.  Broad spectrum means that it covers both harmful UVA and UVB rays.  In short the UVA rays cause you to age, can penetrate glass and suppress your immune system, making it harder for you to prevent the development of cancer.  UVB rays are the burning rays (B is for burning, A is for aging), and cause sunburn.  Both UV types can cause cancer with excessive exposure. 
Ok now that the cancer talk is over, let’s take a look at some of the ingredients the Academy of Dermatology says for you to look out for when choosing a brand that has broad spectrum coverage.  I cross referenced their list against the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database and found some scary ingredients. 

Octyl methoxycinnamate – or octinoxate rates level 6 out of 10 for toxicity.  It is the most widely used ingredient for UV absorption and filter.  It has been known as an endocrine disrupter, targeting the thyroid, and estrogenic effects are noted in lab animals.

Oxybenzone:  This one is frightening, and is registered as 8 out of 10 for toxicity.  I’m pulling this info from Skin Deep, “Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient associated with photoallergic reactions. This chemical absorbs through the skin in significant amounts. It contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to Centers for Disease Control research.”    Even the CDC doesn’t like it. Reading through the horror of this accumulative ingredient, Skin Deep references many studies, but one in particular stood out.  One 2007 study showed where biomonitoring indicated 96% of 6 to 8 year old girls had detectable amounts of oxybenzone in their urine!  This ingredient is  restricted in Japan, but it gets the greenlight here. 

So effectively, by using many of the leading brands of broad spectrum, water proof sunscreens, I'm trading one environmental hazard for the other.  Either I get skin cancer from the sun, or I risk bioaccumulation and a compromised thyroid from suggested sunscreen brands recommended by the Academy of Dermatology.  Tough choice right?  Imagine how many people lather their babies with these harmful chemicals?  I encourage you to look at the studies on many of the chemicals listed on Skin Deep. 

I started to research the best sunscreen, and am delighted to report on Kabana Skin Care.  This is like the Dr. Bronners soap line without the Godliness. Aside from getting Skin Deeps seal of approval, glowing testimonials, this skincare line is 100% all natural, organic, with a deep commitment to fair trade and sustainable resource extraction for all their products

They also have a section on their website devoted to helping consumers pick safer sunscreens by exposing many of the origins in leading brands of sunscreens.  I thought I would expand more on what I found in Skin Deep here, as it is important for people to know what their skin, the largest organ on the human body is absorbing!

Taken from their sunscreen safety page:

"The FDA approved petrochemical sunscreens are the following: Avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789, Octylmethoxycinnamate, oxybenzone, p-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), Cinoxate, Dioxybenzone, Ensulizole, Homosalate, Menthyl anthranilate, Octocrylene, Octyl dimethyl PABA, Octyl salicylate, Sulisobenzone, trolamine salicylate and recently approved terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, which is also known as Mexoryl SX and marketed exclusively by L’Oreal under the Anthelios brand. L’Oreal owns the patent on Mexoryl.

Consumers should know that all of the petrochemical sunscreens can be absorbed through your skin and into your blood in quantities higher than any other petrochemical contaminant found in our environment, air or food. Petrochemical sunscreens have significant side effects as many mimic estrogen’s effects in our bodies. They often don’t biodegrade, accumulate in the watershed and can damage coral reef ecosystems. All are toxic, and by using these petrochemicals UV damage is traded for a measure of chemical damage instead.

Parents need to know the NONE of the petrochemical sunscreen active ingredients listed above are FDA approved for use on children and babies. In fact, none of these compounds are tested for SPF on children’s skin, so products that use these ingredients and are marketed as ‘baby’ formulas are misleading you."

I personally have no interest in slathering up to a summer of petrochemicals, and am disgusted that many dermatologists approve of their patients putting this on their skin.  Shouldn't they know how these chemicals are absorbed into peoples skin, and what they do?  Petrochemicals come from petroleum, which comes from OIL!  Who wants to put the same chemical compound on their skin as the stuff they put in their car?  This is insanity.

I haven't been able to try any of their stuff out just yet, but am definitely going to do so as their product line is incredibly inexpensive.  You can buy online, or at a few retail markets.  I will most certainly report back to this blog to my findings on this one. I highly encourage people to research what goes into their skincare.  Hope I didn't scare everyone from the sun, and Happy Summer!