Cleaning Up

May 20, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1

Channing, who is apparently sick of vacuuming, recently hired our friend Brian to clean our tiny abode once every two weeks. Brian started on Wednesday (and did an excellent job). His one-man cleaning operation isn’t necessarily “green,” but he does ask that his clients supply their own cleaning products. So, I, of course, supplied him with some earth-friendly alternatives to the usual industrial stuff.

Commercial soaps and chemical cleaners are loaded with harsh chemicals, some of which are endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive problems and breast and prostate cancer, some of which irritate the lungs, liver, and kidneys and can cause lasting damage, and some of which cause headaches, depression, and weakness. Many commercial household cleaners and detergents contain petroleum-based solvents. During the process of refining crude oil to create these petroleum products, a ton of toxins are released into the environment. And, as we all know, continued reliance on oil—a finite resource—as fuel for cars and in its numerous uses in manufacturing is causing not only significant environmental degradation but a whole lot of political grief. Finally, one of the primary ingredients in commercial cleaners is phosphate, which does not break down as it runs from our drains into the sewers. Phosphate from wastewater has found its way in quantity into our streams, rivers, and lakes, where it causes rampant algal growth that is devastating to the freshwater ecosystem (not to mention smelly and ugly).

Before Brian’s visit, I stocked up on baking soda and lemon juice (both on the OK-to-buy list because I can also use them in cooking). We already had a large bottle of distilled white vinegar, a box of Borax, castile soap, and rubbing alcohol. These are the building blocks of do-it-yourself eco-cleaners—and they are all available at the grocery store for cheap.

With supplies gathered, I wrote a little cheat sheet for Brian, telling him which stuff to use where:

Kitchen

  • Most surfaces in the kitchen can be cleaned with castile soap and water and a towel or rag.1
  • Use vinegar on the cooktop. Straight vinegar applied with a rag works well.
  • A half cup of vinegar mixed with a gallon of water can be used to clean the kitchen floor and all of the other tile floors in the condo.

Dining Room

  • Use equal parts olive oil and lemon juice to clean/shine the hutch (which is unvarnished wood). Apply with a rag.
  • We have Windex for the dining room table and all other glass surfaces in the house. We don’t have paper towels, but old newspaper or a rag should work fine.2

Bathrooms

  • To clean the toilets, mix two parts Borax with one part lemon juice. This mixture should also work to clean the stains on the shower floor. For the shower, scrub the mixture on the tile, let it sit for 30 minutes, then scrub clean with water.3
  • A vinegar and water mix in a spray bottle can be used to clean the sinks, tub, toilets, shower, and any other place where mold might grow.4
  • Wipe/shine faucets and toilet seats with rubbing alcohol (on a rag) after cleaning.

1. I had already mixed a little bit of castile soap with water in an old spray bottle (which previously contained a commercial, eco-friendly cleaner). Channing and I use this simple all-purpose cleaner on a regular basis, primarily in the kitchen but also to dust most surfaces around the house. Castile soap, made with vegetable oil, is a surfactant, and I find it extremely effective at removing dirt and stains from countertops. We’ve also used undiluted castile soap to wash pots and pans by hand, and I think Channing is using it as body wash these days. The stuff is good for everything.

2. Windex is awful. It’s full of ammonia, which in concentrated doses can burn the skin, irritate the eyes, and damage the lungs. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life bought a bottle of Windex, and yet, for the last eight years, I’ve had at least one in my house at all times. Once we finish this bottle, we will start making our own glass cleaner. Here is the recipe: ¼ cup vinegar + ½ teaspoon castile soap + 2 cups water. In the meantime, if you know how we can responsibly dispose of the Windex we have (less than half a bottle—yippee!), I’m all ears.

Regarding the newspaper, Channing told me a few years ago (when he was watching How Clean Is Your House? every Saturday at 11:00 a.m.) that we should use only newspaper that is at least three days old to clean glass. Otherwise, you’ll end up with black streaks on everything.

3. I only recently discovered the wonders of using Borax in cleaning. It is excellent at removing stains from surfaces. My box of Borax says that if you sprinkle a quarter cup in your toilet, brush it around, and let it sit for a half hour, you’ll have the cleanest bowl of your life. Borax can also be used in the laundry as a bleach or on carpet to remove tough stains. You should be able to find it at the grocery store.

If you don’t have Borax on hand, a mix of 4 parts vinegar and 1 part baking soda can be used to clean the toilet. It bubbles quite a bit, so I usually mix it in the toilet. Then, I let it sit for 15 minutes or so before I start to scrub. Baking soda, a gentle abrasive, is almost as amazing as Borax. I’ve started using it to remove stuck-on food from our stainless steel pots and pans—works like a charm.

4. Vinegar is a natural mold killer and our go-to bathroom cleaner. The mix in our spray bottle is equal parts vinegar and water.

For more information about making your own cleaning products, I’d recommend the following books:

Reneé Loux, The Balanced Plate: More than 150 Flavorful Recipes That Nourish Body, Mind, and Soul (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006), pp. 145–152

Diane Gow McDilda, The Everything Green Living Book: Easy Ways to Conserve Energy, Protect Your Family’s Health, and Help Save the Environment (Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2007), pp. 66–67

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April Savings!

May 17, 2011

Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (or, at least, the moment I’ve been waiting for): I spent significantly less in April 2011 than I did in April 2010. Twenty-two percent less. Hundreds of dollars less.

The numbers for last month surprised me because I felt like I spent a ton in April. I spent the first weekend of the month in New York City, where I ran a half marathon with my sister and her mother- and sister-in-law. After the race, I splurged on a massage at the hotel spa. When I returned home, I registered for another session of yoga. Then, mid-month, Channing and I took a trip to Kansas City for his birthday, and I paid for our hotel stay and a fabulous, fun, and expensive birthday dinner at The Majestic—plus beers and food at the Royals game and his birthday present: tickets to a couple shows at Wolf Trap this summer (Bela Fleck in July and Bruce Hornsby in August).

And yet, I saw a 31 percent drop in my “other” expenses compared with April 2010. My notes from last year show that I indulged my spring yen for shopping with a trip to the Reston Town Center. I also paid a large credit card bill, which included the steakhouse dinner I gave Channing for Valentine’s Day 2010 and a ridiculously pricey trip to DSW.

Oh, wait. I forgot about taxes. Last year I plopped the government’s bill on my low-interest-rate credit card. I am still paying that debt a little at a time. This year, I had the IRS withdraw the (slightly smaller) amount directly from my savings account—I didn’t even bother noting the transaction on my monthly ledger (which is for checking only). I’m leaning toward paying off the remainder of last year’s taxes from my ever-increasing savings too. Seems like a smart option.

One of the biggest benefits of the No Stuff Experiment is it’s made me think a little more about several aspects of life that I otherwise wouldn’t pay much mind. In the money department, I’ve started to pay attention to not just whether I have money to spend but also where that money is going. And not just where money is going but where it is going compared with last year. I’ve noticed that if I don’t drop a couple hundred dollars on clothes and accessories at the town center at the beginning of the month, I can pay for Channing’s birthday trip out of pocket, rather relying on my credit card. Keeping credit card expenses down helps me meet my monthly saving goals so I can make large federal tax payments without much worry. It also allows me to pay my car insurance bill in March (which made my April 2011 car expenses 62% less than they were in April 2010).

Just two weeks after “Why I Shop,” my hankering for a mall trip has passed, I don’t miss the new clothes and shoes I opted out of this year, and I’m decidedly more financially stable. Nothing wrong with that.

What I Buy

May 10, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 2

Next time I enter Ann Taylor or flip through the Patagonia catalog, what will I find? Clothing, shoe, and accessory manufacturers have a variety of textiles to choose from: natural, renewable fibers, such as cotton, rayon, linen, wool, and silk, and synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. And the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of all of these materials have a pretty huge impact on the earth.

I’ll start with cotton, which makes up the lion’s share of my everyday wardrobe. (I’d guess it makes up a pretty good portion of yours too.) Cotton, which has been cultivated for use in clothing for thousands of years, is native to the tropics, but today it is grown in China, the United States, India, Uzbekistan, Australia, and some African countries. Two and a half percent of the world’s farmland is devoted to cotton, and 25 million tons of the crop are grown every year. It is one of the world’s most heavily irrigated crops and also one of the most heavily fertilized and sprayed: a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are required to grow just one pound of cotton. In 2000 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on cotton, making it the most heavily sprayed crop behind corn. These chemicals find their way into our waterways, killing fish and birds, and even into feed for cows raised in factory farm lots. (Beef and dairy cattle consume about 3 million tons of cotton meal annually.) And, in the United States hundreds of cotton farm workers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses each year.

By 2003 nearly 80 percent of cotton grown in the United States (which is the second-largest producer of cotton in the world—China is the first) was genetically modified (GM). There are 131 million acres of GM cotton in the world—it is everywhere except in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, where farmers can’t afford the fancy, expensive seeds. Monsanto developed the two kinds of modified cotton seeds popular today: one is Roundup Ready, i.e., bred for herbicide resistance, and one is insect resistant, i.e., bred to repel the tobacco budworm, the bollworm, and the pink bollworm (but not the infamous boll weevil). So, one type of seed encourages the indiscriminate use of herbicides, but the other reduces the need for pesticides. Huh. There are numerous cons to genetically modified products, even those that don’t find their way into our food.* For one, growers who have purchased GM cotton seeds from Monsanto’s distributor, Delta and Pine Land, have been required to sign a contract saying that they will not save and replant the seeds the next season, which obviously increases the financial burden on the farmers. For an outline of additional cons of genetic engineering, see the Center for Food Safety website. (If you want to hear both sides of the story, also visit the Monsanto website.)

Among the other popular fabrics in my wardrobe are wool (sweaters) and synthetics (exercise clothes). Conventionally grown wool comes from sheep raised in inhumane conditions, on small, overgrazed pastures. Because these conditions increase the sheep’s vulnerability to parasites, the animals are regularly doused with pesticides. The raw wool is again treated with pesticides before it is spun into yarn in order to kill any remaining ticks, lice, and mites. Organic wool is a more eco-friendly option; it’s free of inorganic pesticides, hormones, and dyes, and probably comes from sheep that have generally been better treated. And, like conventional wool, it is naturally fire-retardant, durable, and wrinkle-resistant.

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum by-products in an energy-intensive process. A variety of pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide, are emitted during production of these fabrics. I choose running shorts and shirts made with synthetics because they’re quick-drying and wick sweat away from my skin—which makes for a more comfortable run during Virginia’s hot and sticky summers. These fabrics are also pretty durable. I’ve been wearing the same couple pairs of running shorts since college! Of course, this means that once I toss them, they’ll sit for another few hundred years in the landfill without degrading—and once they start degrading, they’ll leach additional chemicals into the soil and groundwater. The good news is some bright minds out there have developed synthetics made from recyclables, like soda bottles. I even have some long underwear made from recycled polyester. You can buy recycled-fiber clothing from Patagonia and other members of the Textile Exchange.

More eco-friendly fabrics to consider incorporating into your wardrobe are hemp, linen, and bamboo rayon. Hemp and linen, both derived from plants that grow quickly and require few pesticides and herbicides, are in some ways the most eco-friendly fiber choices. But, neither hemp nor textile-grade flax (the source of linen) is grown in the States, so all hemp and linen clothing you find in stores here has traveled from countries such as China, Romania, Hungary, and Poland. Like hemp and flax plants, bamboo is quick-growing and requires few fertilizers and pesticides during cultivation. Plus, it is naturally antimicrobial and moisture wicking, meaning finished clothes don’t need to be treated with additional chemicals to introduce these properties. The downsides to bamboo are, first, turning stalks into textile-grade fiber is energy- and water-intensive and, second, as the demand for bamboo has increased, farmers have begun to cultivate it in monocrop fields, which endangers biodiversity and degrades the soil.

Creating finished clothing from any of these fibers requires a host of energy-sucking machines: machines that prepare the raw product for shipment to factories, machines that turn the raw product into thread, machines for weaving and knitting the thread into fabric, and, finally, machines for sewing and assembly. In addition to the energy use are the myriad additional chemical inputs. Fabrics are dyed in a multistep process, involving scouring (in an alkali) to remove impurities and bleaching (with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine) to prepare the garment for dye. The dying itself usually involves benzene, heavy metals, and formaldehyde. Then the fibers are treated with more formaldehyde to make them soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and antistatic. (Formaldehyde, by the way, can cause respiratory problems, burning eyes, cancer, and allergic-contact dermatitis.) Lucky for us, most of the toxic chemicals used in the production of clothing are rinsed or leached out by the time the products hit the stores. So, only the low-wage workers in the textile factories (i.e., sweatshops) and anyone who drinks from water sources nearby are affected by the toxicity and the waste.

Just to put the amount of chemicals in perspective, here are some stats from Stephen Yafa’s Big Cotton: 3/4 pound of chemicals are applied to every pair of jeans and 1 1/4 pounds are applied to every set of queen-sized sheets. Oh, and here’s another crazy stat for you, this one from The Story of Stuff: A single cotton t-shirt generates at least five pounds of CO2 before it gets to the retailer. Distribution and care for the t-shirt over its lifetime will likely double that number.

The best way to limit the impact of your clothing is to make do with what you already have or buy used or recycled. Talk to your neighbors about good consignment shops in your area. Check out your local Freecycle. There are even a bunch of vintage clothing stores online: Etsy, Posh Girl Vintage, Rusty Zipper, to name just three.

*Make no mistake, though. Cottonseed oil made from GM cotton seeds finds its way into a wide variety of processed food products sold in American grocery stores. Check your labels.

Sources and Related Reading

Solvie Karlstrom, “Guide to Greener Fibers,” NRDC Smarter Living, November 20, 2009.

Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Shanti Menon, “Green Fashion: Beautiful on the Inside,” NRDC Smarter Living, February 11, 2010.

National Labor Committee, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation, Parts 1 and 2, YouTube video, from a documentary filmed in 1996, posted by “nicnet,” January 26, 2010.

Andrew Olsen, “Problems with Conventional Cotton Production,” Pesticide Action Network, May 2, 2011.

Stephen Yafa, “The Shirt on Your Back,” in Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (Viking: New York, 2005), 270-304.

Why I Shop

May 4, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 1

It’s warm outside. The trees are in full bloom. The birds are chirping. Momma ducks are escorting their babies in and around the lakes. Spring has sprung, and I’m ready for a new wardrobe.

What did I wear last May? All of my warm-weather clothes look tired to me. I’ve been hanging onto many of my t-shirts and blouses for several years now. And what happened to all those skirts I thought I had? I’m in need of what one New York Times blogger termed “the modern-day ritual of renewal.” She was specifically referring to Christmas shopping, but I’d argue that just about any kind of shopping can serve to rejuvenate the spirit—if only for a short while.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have at least one foot in the anti-consumerist camp. But lately I have been noticing all the good things about shopping (namely, new clothes!). I guess you could say I have “consumerist ambivalence.” This is the term used by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who wrote a book about the evolution of the modern-day consumer, Spent. He writes, “Consumerist capitalism produces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modern life and almost everything that is appalling about it.”

In his book about the history of shopping, I Want That! Thomas Hine writes that buying material goods is a way for people to express and empower themselves. Through shopping, consumers exercise their freedom to choose—and their ability to forget what they have and keep choosing. We can alter our identity with new clothes and new gadgets, which in turn fill our cravings for progress, excitement, and accomplishment. In the market or mall, we can commune with our peers and get a sense of what’s popular. What goods are available? What are others buying? Most often we purchase stuff that’ll help us blend in with a crowd, or to indicate that we are part of a particular crowd. Hine describes this as “creating a community of taste.” He writes that by choosing certain fashions we are exercising the privilege of participating in culture, in history. How are you going to convince anyone you lived in the 80s, if you don’t have the jellies or neon leg warmers to prove it?

Miller argues that we don’t actually need the jellies. In Spent, he writes that we buy particular goods and services in order to display desirable personality traits, such as physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality. These are the traits we’ve found best attract the support from kin, friends, and mates necessary for our survival. But, in fact, we have evolved to glean evidence of these traits through observation and conversation, without taking stock of a person’s historical wardrobe. Miller calls this the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: Consumerist capitalism “makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits.”

It seems like Americans are falling prey to this delusion. Hine writes, “Most people are able to convince themselves, at least temporarily, that it is absolutely crucial to buy items they don’t really need. Indeed, our economic health depends on shoppers’ ceaseless lust for the inessential.” That “lust” is certainly what prompts me to hit the mall. I’ve witnessed so much rebirth, regrowth, and renewal in these first weeks of spring that I’m anxious to participate in the most reliable way I know how: acquiring new stuff.

Of course, I will not actually go shopping—at least not for new stuff and not at the mall. And, in the next two months, I will certainly find some other, creative ways to satisfy my yen for freshness and novelty. (I do have strawberries, asparagus, and English peas to play with all of a sudden.) All I really mean to say in this rambling post is that shopping, buying, and consumption aren’t inherently or entirely bad. In fact, as Hine put it, “Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life.” As such, we should take our choices and our participation in the consumer economy seriously. We should pay attention to what we buy and why.

Relevant Reading

Thomas Hine. I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Geoffrey Miller. Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York: Viking, 2009.

Juliet B. Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Juliet B. Schor. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.