Eco-Friendly Driving Habits: A Win for Everybody

May 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Car, Electric Cars, Front Page, Sustainability, Tips

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An electric car charges at a street-side charging station.

An electric car charges at a street-side charging station in Amsterdam. (Source:

These days, it’s not difficult to reduce the carbon footprint while on the go. Not only is the global market for hybrid and electric cars expected to grow through at least 2015, but car makers are coming up with all kinds of ways to inspire eco-friendly driving. For example, Chevrolet is equipping all 2013 models with an “Ecologic Label,” which lets customers know which environmentally friendly features each vehicle has.

But while the auto industry is doing what it can to encourage green living, we still can do more to make car travel as eco-friendly as possible. And you don’t have to buy a hybrid to do so. Here’s how you can make the environment a healthier place from behind the wheel, no matter what type of car you drive.

Drive less. Emissions from vehicles have long contributed to smog and air pollution, but the problem is getting worse. Americans are driving 127 percent more miles today than they were in 1970, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That means the average driver is causing more damage to the environment than in years past. Every time you leave your car parked, not only are you saving money on gas, but you’re doing the environment a favor. There are other benefits to decreasing your mileage:

  • Save time by combining several errands in one trip.
  • Catch up on your reading by taking mass transportation.
  • Give your exercise routine a boost by walking or cycling.
  • Jump-start your social life by carpooling with co-workers.

Keep your car serviced. Not only will proper maintenance extend the life of your car, but it will cut down on air pollution. Have you ever had to hold your breath because you were stuck at a light behind a motorist with smoke oozing out of his exhaust pipe? A technician can let you know whether your car is running inefficiently and give your car a tune-up if it’s not.

Know when to fill up. When the weather’s hot, filling your tank in the afternoon during the steamiest time of the day is one of the worst things you can do because the gas vapors can mix with the heat and sunlight, creating smog. Instead, fill your tank in the morning or at the end of the day. If your area declares an Ozone Action Day, try not to fill your tank at all during that period.

Don’t top off your tank. You may think you’re simply getting as much gas into your car as possible, but in reality you’re wasting gas and money when you continue to force gas into your tank once the nozzle automatically shuts off. Even worse, gas spillage that occurs when you over-fill your tank can evaporate and add to air pollution.

Use green cleaning strategies. Thinking about heading over to the car wash? If you really want to have a positive effect on the environment, consider adopting environmentally friendly cleaning practices. The Environmental Services Division in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recommends that eco-conscious drivers either use waterless car wash solutions that you apply to your car when it’s dry and then wipe off, or take your wheels to a car wash that recycles its water.

When it comes to protecting the environment, little actions can go a long way. And whether your efforts yield you more time, more money or simply a chance to feel good about yourself, it’s a win for everyone.

Laura Adams

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Laura Adams is managing editor of Car Insurance Quotes, a leading online provider of auto insurance quotes and news.

5 Things to Consider When Picking a Spot for Your Urban Garden

August 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Gardening, Slideshow, Sustainability, Tips

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A windowsill makes a great place to begin your urban garden. Photo: Courtesy SnorkMaiden_Creative Commons

A window ledge makes a great place to begin your urban garden. Photo: Courtesy SnorkMaiden_Creative Commons

People who live in an apartment or townhouse don’t usually have the luxury of available green space to start a garden. And those who rent houses and have the green space may not be able to use it to grow fruit and vegetables, since the land doesn’t belong to them. Yet, those in tight living spaces can still get involved with urban gardening by using the space they do have to grow herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Growing a garden not only saves money in the long-term, but it also creates a sustainable lifestyle by reducing the waste and carbon emissions that come from transporting these goods all across the world — and from making trips to the store and back to buy them. Plus it’s a commonly known fact among gardeners that if you grow something, it tastes better!

Your urban garden doesn’t have to be large or diverse in order to bring pleasure and greenery into your home. Even if all you have is a windowsill or some unused room in your kitchen or basement, it can easily be enough to start an urban garden of your own.

To begin, you first need to figure out where you will put your urban garden, and how much space you actually have. You don’t necessarily have to do any measuring if you only plan to grow herbs and/or vegetables, but you do need to consider these factors when picking a spot in your apartment or townhouse for your urban garden:

  • Lighting – It’s best to choose a spot with lots of natural lighting, like a window or a kitchen. However, if you decide to have your urban garden in your basement or in a closet, you would then have to provide artificial lighting with lamps. In this case, you would have to consider outlets and power strips. Whatever the case, make sure your garden gets six to eight hours of sunlight (real or artificial) a day.
  • Heating – With artificial lighting, this isn’t a problem, since the lamps should be enough to keep the soil warm. But, a window that’s too drafty could make the soil too cold for your seeds or your baby plants to grow.
  • Humidity – Some plants require lots of humidity, and if you live in a humid area, this might not be a problem. If you live in a dry climate, however, then a location like the bathroom or the basement may be better. Remember though, if you choose to grow plants that don’t need a lot of humidity, keeping them out of the bathroom is probably a good idea.
  • Away from Pets and Children – Some plants may be poisonous to Fluffy and Fido, and even to humans if ingested. Others may have some sort of special appeal that Fluffy and Fido can’t resist. All plants will probably interest your toddler (what doesn’t?) and he may accidentally damage it or knock it over. If you have pets, putting your urban garden on the floor is probably not a good idea. If you want to grow plants with fruits and leaves that droop low enough for your pets to get a nibble, make sure to hang them from the ceiling so they are well out of reach.
  • Easy to Clean – Pick a spot that’s easy to clean in case dirt or water is spilled, and when leaves shed. Or find an area that could easily be protected with a mat or newspaper. Positioning your garden over carpet may not be a good idea unless you have a particularly old or ugly rug that you don’t mind ruining.

Kitchens often serve as the best place to start a small urban garden, but this still differs from home to home. You have to consider your own situation, what you want out of your urban garden, and what sort of plants you would like to grow. Don’t let living in a townhouse or small apartment hinder you from creating your own urban garden. It doesn’t take much to start one, and you can easily add more plants as you gain more experience.

Learn to grow your own food, and you will be well on your way to living a sustainable lifestyle.

Kaylee Osborne

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Kaylee Osborne is a writer and green living enthusiast. She spends her days writing informative content for Sylvane and spends her evenings bike riding and enjoying delicious local foods in Atlanta, Georgia.

6 Eco-friendly Decorating Ideas to Modernize Your Work Space

May 20, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Business, Eco-Friendly, Front Page, Slideshow, Tips

Eco-friendly decorating can be both beautiful and functional. Photo: © virtua73 -

Eco-friendly decorating can be both beautiful and functional. Photo: © virtua73 -

A clean, organized office can not only change the way people see you, it can also help the environment. These tips will cut your stress, reduce your ecological footprint, and make your office a better place to work.

1. Use a laptop, not a desktop

Size and battery constraints have forced designers to make laptops much leaner and more efficient than traditional desktop computers. A desktop uses eight times the power of an equivalent laptop, and consumes more power when it’s idle than a laptop does when working at full capacity. A laptop saves space and makes your office easier to clean—we’ve all seen  dinosaur desktops caked with dust because they never move—which means they’re probably guzzling power all night as well as during the workday. Laptops are easier to disconnect when they’re not in use.

2. Natural potpourri

Chemical air freshener sprays and plug-ins can be as bad for you as they are for the environment. They’re expensive, they can give your co-workers headaches, and you really don’t want to give your office that pungent, odor-drowning, bathroom-air-freshener smell. To keep your office smelling nice, use cinnamon sticks, citrus fruit peels, homemade potpourri, or organic candles with mellow scents. They’re cheaper, better for you, and classier all-around. Migraine-prone colleagues will thank you.

3. Use a flat-screen LCD monitor

An old CRT monitor is the easiest way to make your office look dull and dated. They crowd your desk space, draw grime with static electricity, and can even cause eyestrain because of the flickering display. Go for a sleek LCD screen—they’re lighter, easier to adjust and clean, and they give your office a much tidier, open feel. Most importantly, they use less than half the energy of a big tube monitor. If you can handle it, also consider switching to a smaller display—it will be easier on your eyes, and a 14-inch display can use up to 50% more power than a 10-inch one.

4. Avoid vampire drain and tangled cords with a single power strip

A hallmark of older computers is the rat’s nest of wires that used to come out the back. Modern machines have only a few, but you can still end up with a tangled sprawl of cables across your desk or underfoot if you’re not careful. They’re unsightly, untidy, and every one of them drains power when it’s plugged in. Organize your cables in a single, organized path to one power strip. That way, when youíre ready to clock out, you can simply shut down the machines and unplug the strip.

5. Go paperless wherever possible

One of the easiest ways to look like you’re on top of things is to avoid a cluttered desk. You can have a labyrinth of folders and sub-folders on your laptop, but keep stray papers off your desk. Communicate by email instead of inter-office memo. Make notes on your word-processor instead of a post-it. Encouraging co-workers to use a file-sharing system like Dropbox can make your operation more responsive and efficient as well as saving paper. When you have to use paper, never throw it in the garbage; get a recycle bin.

6. Buy eco-friendly furnishings

This one will depend a great deal on your taste. If you like a retro look, consider shopping for your office furnishings at a secondhand store (this falls under the “reuse” category of the hallowed “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra). It’s expensive and wasteful to manufacture something new when the furnishings you need are already waiting for you at the thrift store.

If you want a more modern look, there are plenty of eco-friendly options: instead of plastic, buy a glass whiteboard; instead of exotic woods that require rainforest destruction, opt for a desk made of a more common hardwood. Purchase from suppliers who certify their eco-friendly content, and pay attention to the labels.

About The Author

Angela is a staff writer, loving wife, and mother of beautiful twin girls and a standard poodle named Morty. She graduated with her Master of Arts Degree in English from the University of North Carolina. During her time in university, she wrote a number of children’s short stories that focus on a set of curious twin sisters and their dog (go figure).

Angela Taylor

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


Green Cleaning for Every Budget

Lemons are one of the most effective and eco-friendly cleaners for your home. Photo: © Tomo Jesenicnik -

Since World War Two, more than 80,000 new chemicals have been introduced to the market. Consumers come in contact with about 3,000 of these chemicals every day in the form of cleaning products, such as air fresheners, dishwashing detergent, and floor cleaners. These products can be accidentally ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin contact. Unfortunately, cleaning your home with harsh, chemical cleaning products often fills it with more toxins and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than were there to begin with, making your home even less healthy than before you “cleaned” it.

Luckily, there are several ways to ensure that your home stays clean — the green and natural way. It can be difficult to comb through every ingredient on a product label, and it can be expensive to invest in a green-certified vacuum and other cleaning items. Hiring a cleaning service is sometimes the best route to take if pressed for time. Look for a cleaning service that offers an eco-friendly option, which means that they will clean your home with green-certified products and methods.

When choosing a green cleaning service, make sure you hire a service you can trust. Ask for a list of the chemicals and products they use; if the company is not able to provide a comprehensive list, you should look elsewhere. All maids should be trained in green cleaning methods to ensure your house attains a natural clean without any harsh or harmful chemicals.

Do-it-Yourself – With Lemon

If you can’t afford a green cleaning service or would simply prefer to clean your home yourself, there are other options available. Many items you already have in your home can be used as natural cleaners. Lemons, for example, are one of the most effective and eco-friendly cleaners you can use.

With a lemon or two on hand, the DIY tips below will help you clean like a pro:

  • Cut a lemon in half and dip the cut side in table salt. Use the salted side of the lemon to scrub copper pots clean. The acidity of the lemon, combined with the grit of the salt, will remove stains and polish away oxidation.
  • Lemon juice is a great natural bleach. Dilute lemon juice, soak your clothes in it, and lay them out to dry. Your clothes will be white as new in no time.
  • If you have stained counters, let lemon juice set on the counter for a few minutes. Then scrub with baking soda, and watch the stain disappear.

Other natural ingredients, such as vinegar, lavender oil, and water can also help you green-clean your home. Look for recipes on line or at the library, and enjoy cleaning your home the natural, healthy way.

Willow Tolbert

Maid Brigade Cleaning Service

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Tips for Eco-Friendly Hiking and Camping

Tent spots are found not made. Photo: © Kokhanchikov -

Camp at least 200 feet from a water source. Photo: © Kokhanchikov -

There is perhaps no better way to enjoy the warm weather than taking to the woods. Whether you enjoy day hiking, camping, or more extended and remote backpacking trips, the following guidelines will help you protect the outdoors you love so much. Most of these tips apply to parks, forests, and wilderness areas, both locally and nationwide. This list just scratches the surface, though; additional resources are provided at the end of this article. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Trekking into the great unknown may seem exciting and adventurous, but it is always best to learn a few things about the area in which you will be traveling. Those who don’t prepare often end up compensating for poor planning by making decisions that compromise the environment.

How long is the trail? What is the difficulty level? What rules and regulations govern the area? Are dogs allowed? Are reservations or trail passes required? What dangers should you be aware of? What types of animals frequent the area? Check the weather forecast, and plan for emergencies. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return, and don’t leave home without The Ten Essentials:

The Ten Essentials (Okay, Actually 14)

This list was compiled in the 1930s by a Seattle-based organization called the Mountaineers.

A compass is an essential piece of gear for hiking. Photo: © Patrick Lee -

A compass is an essential piece of gear for hiking. Photo: © Patrick Lee -

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. First-aid kit
  4. Matches and fire starter
  5. Pocket knife
  6. Extra food
  7. Water and water purification
  8. Sun protection (sunscreen and sunglasses)
  9. Rain gear and extra clothing
  10. Flashlight/headlamp

Many hikers and backpackers today add the following: whistle, mirror, insect repellent, and emergency blanket.

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints — and Other Tips

When you hike or camp, always leave the area at least as good as — or better than — you found it. Though you might want to take home a flower, rock, or arrowhead as a reminder of your trip, think about the results if everyone followed that impulse. Also, removing natural objects or artifacts from public lands is forbidden by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act.

Small Is Better

Keep group sizes small, ideally six people or less. This will minimize the impact on the area and also help keep noise levels low so that you don’t disturb others seeking the solace of the wilderness.

Stay on durable surfaces


Stay on trails to prevent damage to plant life. Photo: Joe Hennager

Examples include rocks, gravel, sand, firmly packed dirt, dry grasses, pine needles, and snow. Stick to established trails, even when muddy, and walk single file. Park managers design trails to restrict traffic and control erosion. By walking side-by-side, going around puddles, or cutting across switchbacks, you break down the soil at the edges of the trail and possibly also redirect rainwater flows.

If you decide to venture off-trail, spread out rather than walk in line, to disperse your footsteps and decrease your impact on a single area. Avoid creating new trails. If you see footsteps or other early signs of impact, avoid those areas to allow them to “heal.”

At your campsite, try not to create “social paths,” those early signs of trails-in-the-making. Disperse your footsteps between your campsite, the water source, and your cooking and food-storage areas.

Campsites Are Found, Not Made

Opt for an obviously high-use campsite. If you are in the back country and need to camp in a pristine area, do not set up your tent in a spot displaying signs of recent use. Instead, go for a low-use area, and if you stay there more than one night, move your tent to lessen the impact on the grass underneath. Keep your site small, and don’t create structures, “furniture,” or trenches. Camp at least 200 feet from the trail, to avoid distracting other hikers by your presence.

Protect Water Sources

Set up camp at least 200 feet from water sources. Do not wash dishes or yourself in a lake or creek; take care of these duties at least 200 feet away. Even biodegradable soap can harm the creatures that live in and drink from water sources.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

If you brought it into the wilderness, you are responsible for taking it out. This includes toilet paper and hygiene products. Many parks no longer provide trashcans, forcing visitors to take responsibility for their own garbage. A large resealable plastic bag makes a good, odor-minimizing trash bag. Consider repackaging foods to decrease the amount of waste you’ll need to deal with. Strain dishwater, and put crumbs in your trash bag. Discard the water by scattering it broadly.

Don’t Feed the Animals

Be careful not to leave food residue behind on the trail or at your campsite. When animals become dependent on human visitors for food, they rely less on their natural hunting and foraging behaviors. A loss of self-sufficiency puts them in danger once the recreation season is over. Also, food residue draws animals to high-use areas, possibly endangering future campers. If dangerous animals, such as bears, become a nuisance, returning again and again to campsites and trails, wildlife managers may have to put them down. A fed bear is often a dead bear.

Store food in airtight containers, and never eat or store food in your tent. At night, hang your food bag in a tree well away from your tent and well out of reach of any curious creatures (10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk).

Keep Your Distance

If you encounter an animal on the trail, give it a wide berth. Don’t approach or follow it, and never come between a mother and her offspring. If you bring along a dog, keep it well under control so it does not stress other animals. Avoid water sources at dawn and dusk, when animals often go for water.

Be Responsible with Fire

A small stove is safer than a campfire. Photo: © doug Olson -

A small stove is safer than a campfire. Photo: © Doug Olson -

Many public land use areas no longer allow campfires in the back country; check park regulations. A lightweight, portable stove (they get tinier every year) will cook your dinner faster and cleaner than a campfire and will reduce the impact of firewood foraging, as well as your odds of starting a forest fire. If you must have a campfire, use an established fire ring or pit, and remember the Three D’s when collecting firewood: choose only wood that is dead, downed, and detached. Keep your fire small, and make sure it is thoroughly extinguished before leaving it unattended.

Leave Your Site Better than You Found It

Go over the area, looking for any trash, food, or other signs of human habitation. Pack out any trash, even if it isn’t yours.

Think of Others

Help others have a positive wilderness experience. When newcomers are able to experience the outdoors in as pristine a state as possible, they are more likely to become wilderness lovers and environmental advocates. Consider traveling during low-traffic periods, and keep a low profile by not making too much noise. Avoid creating “visual pollution” by opting for subtle colors in clothing and equipment. Yield to others on the trail; hikers traveling uphill have the right-of-way, as do livestock.

Leave No Trace

These tips are just a few of the ways you can be a better steward of our natural areas. To learn more, including detailed guidelines for specific types of environments, such as deserts and coastal areas, read Soft Paths by The National Outdoor Leadership School, or check out the Leave No Trace website.

Leave no trace of your presence behind. Photo: Joe Hennager

Leave no trace of your presence behind. Photo: Joe Hennager

Many of the tips in this article are based on the Leave No Trace outdoor ethics developed by the National Outdoor Leadership School and the U.S. Forest Service.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.

By following these guidelines, you’ll not only lessen your impact on the environment, you’ll also encourage others to do likewise. It is much more tempting to be irresponsible in the wilderness when it is obvious that others have been as well.

Karen Nichols

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

How to Build a Compost Bin in Your Own Backyard

Build this simple, yet sturdy, compost bin in a couple of hours. Photo: J Wasson

Build this simple, yet sturdy, compost bin in a couple of hours. Photo: J Wasson

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and you’ve decided that your family needs a compost bin in your backyard. You could go out and buy one of those really nice, plastic-barrel ones, the kind that sits on a fancy rack and rotates with a spin of the handle. But you don’t have to shell out a couple hundred dollars or experience the frustration of trying to assemble it when you get it home. Build your own. It’s less expensive, relatively simple to construct, and — as important, in my mind — easy to disassemble and repurpose if you ever want to. And it takes you one step further on your green living journey.

I’m always looking for reasons to avoid buying anything new, especially new plastic things. I like to use old stuff when I can; it’s eco-friendly and helps create a sustainable lifestyle. Better yet, I prefer to make my own. But I have to be careful to not get carried away. I tend to over-design, and then over-build, so my projects end up costing twice as much and taking twice as long as yours might. Most people build their compost piles with four stakes and some chicken wire wrapped around the outside. That’s an option, of course, but it’s not raccoon-proof, and that was my first requirement.

Essential Requirements

Well, anyway, I had this compost design in my head for about a month, and I finally got around to building it. First, I listed my essential design requirements:

  1. It has to keep the raccoons out. The patriarch of the local raccoon family and I have had an ongoing battle over my trashcans for 5 years. Right now, I have about 10 bungee cords on every trashcan, but he still figures out how to get inside them and spread the contents all over the place. So, from now on, no more food in the trash cans. All food waste goes into the compost bin, and that bin has got to be tough. It has to have a cover that this miniature Houdini cannot lift, pry off, or dismantle (I fully expect to see him down at the local hardware store buying a jack hammer) while, at the same time, allowing a normal-sized adult human to open the lid and dump in our food waste. <strong></strong>

    This bin is sturdy enough to keep even the most determined raccoon out of the compost. Photo: J. Wasson

    This bin is sturdy enough to keep out even the most determined raccoon. Photo: J. Wasson

  2. It has to last. I don’t want to have to rebuild it every spring because it collapsed when a leaf fell on it. I would like it to outlive me. This is just my theory of construction. A few extra materials and a bit more effort now mean I can forget about it later
  3. It has to be mostly enclosed. For one thing, I don’t want to have to look at it. To me, there’s something less-than-attractive about maggots, flies, and worms romping through rotting food. I know they’re all necessary for a compost pile, but they’re not too pretty in the middle of a flower garden. And for another, if it’s too open, the compost will dry out, slowing the decaying process.
  4. It also has to have openings. Bugs, snakes, and spiders have to be able to get in or out. Worms need access from the bottom. And I want rain to fall into it from the top, because moisture helps the whole process move along.
  5. It has to be easily dismantled. Once a season or so, I’ll need access so I can stir the contents. And once a year, I’ll remove the good soil from the bottom.

Getting Started

Once I decided on my essential requirements, I went looking for the supplies I needed. First, I looked in my yard and garage to scavenge any useful materials. The rest, I purchased at my local lumberyard for less than $100. (For items I already had, I’m giving an estimated cost.)

  • 56 – 8 inch x 8 inch x 8 inch concrete blocks @ $0.95 each (on sale). (I had to bring them home in two loads to save the shocks in my Prius.):   $56.00
  • 2 – 8-foot 2” x 8”s of green-treated wood @ $5.50 each:   $11.00
  • 1 roll of chicken wire fencing, 4 feet x 10 feet:   $8.00
  • 2 pull handles (scrounged from my garage):    $10.00
  • 2 door hinges (also free from scrounging):    $10.00
  • Assorted nails, staples, screws (again, stuff I had around):   $3.00
    TOTAL:    $98.00

Of course, I also had the shovel and hoe to level the soil in our flower garden. These would be additional costs, if you don’t have them already. I also take it for granted that I have a drill, a circular saw, sawhorses, levels, a square, a staple gun, tin snips, and a tape measure to accomplish the rest of this project. If you don’t have these tools, you can rent them at your local rental store — or borrow them from a willing neighbor (but be sure to return them promptly and in great condition if you want your neighbor to remain willing).

A word of caution: If you don’t have basic carpentry skills, you may be better off buying that big plastic barrel that comes in a kit. Handling a circular saw or a drill can be dangerous. You don’t want to end up composting a body part.

The Process

  1. Choose the location. You’ll need to do this before you run off to the hardware store, of course. I chose to locate the box in the center of a flower bed, along a length of wood fence, where I could plant some taller flowers next season to hide it. You can build your compost any size. My surface space was about 48 inches wide by 40 inches front to back. I calculated the number of blocks this would take before making my purchase. If you want a larger or taller box, buy more blocks.
  2. Prepare the ground. It took me about 20 minutes to level the ground. You must start with a flat surface. Use your level to check it. Tamp it lightly. We’re not using any mortar between the blocks, so, if your blocks are set on any slope, they will not stand. Start building. I set the bottom layer of blocks in place, in a rectangle, side by side, with the flat surfaces of the blocks to the inside. I continued to lay the next two layers of blocks on top of those. All that took about another 20 minutes. Note that I don’t recommend using any mortar, so the blocks can be freely removed from any or all sides. Be aware that the blocks will eventually settle, tip, and separate, especially if you only put a light piece of plywood on the top as a cover (which is an option). If you choose the lid design that I used, it will be heavy enough to help hold the blocks in place for a considerably long time.

     Mitered corners give the lid a more finished look. Photo: Joe Hennager

    Mitered corners give the lid a more finished look. Photo: Joe Hennager

  3. Build the lid. I decided to go for the deluxe lid, so I cut the 2 x 8 for the back anchor board and the front face board, both at 46 inches in length. Then I mitered the corners for the front board. I wanted a cleaner look than just toe-nailing a right-angle joint. I then cut the two 31-inch side boards. I matched up their mitered corners on the front to the matching 2 x 8, and on the back to a 2 x 4 that I ripped from the remaining 2 x 8 stock. To assemble the frame, I toe-nailed all the pieces together with some 8 penny galvanized nails and set all the mitered corners with some four inch coated deck screws, just to be safe. Cutting all the pieces took less than 20 minutes, and assembly took another 20.
  4. Attach the hardware. I screwed the door hinges on the back and the pull handles on the front of the lid frame. I laid the whole contraption in place on top of the blocks, placing the last two blocks on top of the back anchor board, and flipped the lid open.
    I cut the chicken wire to fit using a tin snips, then stapled it into place on the underside of the lid. I tapped the staples down with a hammer to make sure the raccoons couldn’t get the tips of their little crowbars under it. I made sure the sharp tips of the chicken wire were also hammered flat to not scratch any skin when the lid was opened and closed. Attaching the hardware and chicken wire took another 20 minutes.

So, it took me a little over an hour to get two loads of blocks home from the lumberyard, and another two hours of building. For about $100 worth of materials, I now had my first compost. It’s a little sturdier than most I have seen, but remember, I have Guido, the 80-pound raccoon to deal with.


Besides being extra strong (and foiling even the cleverest local raccoon bandit), this compost bin is extremely flexible. If the pile of decaying matter isn’t shrinking fast enough, I can turn one or more of the lower-level concrete blocks a quarter turn and allow more air to enter the box. This should cook the contents a little faster if things begin to fill up too fast. And, if we have a lot more yard waste or food waste than I anticipate, I can easily add more layers of blocks to the top of the box. Since the lid isn’t screwed into the blocks, it’s a simple mater to remove it and then replace it on top of the new layers.



Cardboard scraps add carbon and reduce the smell of your compost. Photo: J. Wasson

The process of composting needs air, water, carbon, and nitrogen. The carbon is the dead, brown, dry yard waste, and the nitrogen is the green yard waste and food scraps. You want to have a balance of the two. If you find you are putting in too much food waste, and your compost pile is beginning to smell, just add some shredded paper, cardboard, straw, or fall leaves. These will contribute carbon and air space to the mixture. And don’t forget to stir the mixture every month or so with a pitch fork (or a shovel if you don’t have a fork).

Anyway, the important thing here is not what your compost box or bin looks like, it is that you get some kind of container and start using it. Composting your food waste and yard waste should become as natural as recycling your plastics, tin cans, paper, and glass.

Composting helps reduce the tonnage that goes into landfills, provides a home for many creatures, builds your lawn and garden with amazing nutrients, and gives you the sense that you are giving something back to your good earth.

As we learn more about our compost, we will be passing it on. And, as always, your tips and suggestions are welcome.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Tips for “Cleaning Like Mom” from THE MAIDS Home Services

July 9, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Green Cleaning, Tips

These simple ingredients will make your home sparkle safely. Photo: Joe Hennager

In an attempt to reduce the burden of chemicals in our bodies, we all need to carefully consider the products we use to clean the spaces we live in. Think you have to sacrifice a sparkling clean appearance to get a safely clean home? Not so, according to THE MAIDS Home Services. The following green-cleaning tips, sent to us by THE MAIDS Home Services will help you safely clean and shine your home with ingredients so pure you can eat them (in appropriate quantities, of course!). — Julia Wasson, Publisher

You can undoubtedly find a product for virtually every cleaning need. Sometimes, however, the simplest methods are still best. Dig through your pantry and embrace your inner naturalist with the following solutions from the cleaning experts at THE MAIDS Home Services, a residential cleaning service.

Reach for the vinegar instead of the bleach.

  • A simple yet effective surface cleaner can be concocted by pouring equal parts white vinegar and water into a spray bottle. Not to worry, once dry, the only thing you’ll smell is clean.
  • Remove odors from your home by simmering vinegar on the stove for 30 minutes.
  • Add ½ a cup of vinegar to your laundry’s rinse cycle to help break down laundry detergent – great for family members with skin sensitivities. It also naturally softens your clothes.

Stock up on lemons during your next outing to the grocery store.

  • Run a cut lemon half over chrome faucets, then buff it for instant shine.
  • Sprinkle baking soda on the surface of the other half to scrub away stains.
  • Grind a lemon half through the garbage disposal to freshen.

Baking soda is a wonder cleaner.

  • Like vinegar, baking soda is non-toxic, multi-purpose and inexpensive. Use baking soda as a safe, natural scrubber rather than bleach-based abrasive cleansers.
  • Absorb odors from the refrigerator and freezer by placing a box inside.
  • Avoid clogged drains by pouring ¼ cup of baking soda down the drain and following with one full cup of white vinegar. Do this weekly for the best results.

Courtesy of THE MAIDS Home Services

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Small Sacrifices for a Healthier Planet

One friend gave up flying, another will not.

One friend gave up flying, another will not. Photo: © Steve Mann - Fotolia

It’s no secret — and, sadly, no surprise — that those of us living in industrialized nations are using up more than our share of the planet’s resources and releasing alarming amounts of greenhouse gases. In 2006, for example, the Sierra Club reported, “industrial countries with less than 20 percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than 60 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere.”

Yet, when we talk about making small sacrifices to save our species from extinction — or from future water wars, as the planet heats up and snowfalls all but disappear — most people resist making changes. We all have our limits, certainly. But without making sacrifices now, what quality of life will we leave our children or our grandchildren? What gives us the right to run lights, TVs, and air conditioners with no one in the room? To drive huge, gas-guzzling vehicles with no passengers or cargo? To plant and water lush lawns in the desert? To waste space, resources, water, energy — all of which are in limited supply? …

Making Choices

An environmentalist friend vows never to fly. “I won’t ever see Hawaii,” he says, “but that’s okay.” He doesn’t want his carbon footprint to be that big. And I applaud him for it. But I don’t know that I’ll join him in his aeronautic boycott. My elder son lives in California. If we’re ever to see each other, one of us will have to travel.

A retiree we know refuses to give up flying, but she makes other choices that reduce her impact. She and her husband live in a compact condominium. Though they have the resources to live more grandly, they deliberately choose to live small — and have throughout their careers. She also bikes or walks or takes public transportation, rather than driving where she needs to go. Her goal is to live an eco-friendly life, and other than the luxury of travel, she’s well on her way to achieving it.

Other friends keep their thermostat so low in the winter that I want to wrap myself in a blanket when I visit. They’re used to it, and consider it environmentally responsible as well as economically beneficial. When I visit, I find it hard to keep from shivering. As a young woman, I lived for several years in an old farm house with a single oil burner; the dog’s water froze in the kitchen over night, and I had to wear gloves to do household chores. I won’t do that again, if I have a choice at all. Yet my friends’ conscientiousness inspires me.

Trimming Our Footprint

Joe and I are alone now, with our two sets of kids grown and gone except for visits. So it’s easy to get consensus on what we two can do. Here’s how we are cutting back, trimming our collective footprint, at least for now. And like the increasingly tight fuel standards and tougher Energy Star ratings, we will work to make improvements every year.

No more meat and dairy. Perhaps this is the most significant contribution we are making, and one of the toughest. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the auto industry. The antibiotics injected into and fed to swine, poultry, and cattle are reducing our own immunity. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in milk cows has been shown to be harming our children. And none of this even begins to address the cruelty of mass animal confinement operations. We’re well on our way to becoming vegans. But we’re finding it challenging. (Suggestions will be appreciated.)

Shop for local produce from farmers' markets or your co-op.

Shop for local produce from farmers' markets or your co-op. © Glenda

Become a locavore. We’re not truly locavores; we don’t exclusively eat local foods. But we’re working on it. We’re opting more for locally grown fruits and vegetables, and less for imports from thousands of miles away. We want to help sustain our local farmers and growers, but our choices are limited during the off season — and the off season covers two-thirds of the calendar here.

Buy organic and natural foods. This takes some work. And it isn’t always easy on the budget. But if we want farmers to invest in growing organic and natural foods, and if we want the cost of those organics to come down, then we must support organic farmers and producers with our dollars.

Use only natural cleaners. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in many of the cleaners on the market are unhealthy to breathe. And the harsh chemicals used to scrub our toilets and our tubs are unsafe to touch, let alone drink. If we want the air to be safe for our children and ourselves, we must not use dangerous, gaseous products. If we want clean water for future generations, we must not send toxic chemicals down our drains. We’ll save money, too, as the natural cleaners (vinegar, baking soda, water) are far more economical than other cleaners.

Grow food. We are transitioning part of our lawn into a vegetable garden. We’ve planted peas, beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and squash — all vining plants that we hope will climb the trellis Joe built. If I could, I’d plant fruit trees, but our yard is tiny and doesn’t get much sun.

Composting reduces landfill waste and builds rich soil.

Composting reduces landfill waste and builds rich soil. © Barbro

Compost. All of our food waste now goes into the compost. Our gardens will soon be reaping the benefits of the additional fertilizers. We even recycle tissues, coffee filters, and Q-Tips. Will it all break down? We’ll find out in a few months.

Use less water. This means turning the water off between each dish we rinse, not letting it run as a constant stream in the sink. It means wearing our jeans a day or two longer than we used to and washing full loads, not partial ones. It means shorter showers, or showering together. It means not flushing every time — and purchasing dual-flush toilets when we next replace the ones we have. And it means we are filling up watering buckets rather than carrying a hose to water individual plants. (Yes, a nozzle on the end of the hose would work well, too, but we’re waiting till we have additional hardware needs instead of driving across town to the store for just one item.)

Heat/cool small spaces. We have a large house, which was designed for a lot of people. Our own numbers have dwindled, but the house hasn’t shrunk. So, we find ourselves heating or cooling just one room at a time. The rest of the house isn’t unbearable, but we don’t keep the thermostat set at our preferred temperature. We save a lot of money and resources by using a small space heater in the winter and a window air conditioner in the summer. (Did you know: “Only 2 to 3 percent of the energy produced by burning coal in a power station is eventually used to light a bulb or boil a kettle, because of inefficiencies at every stage of its conversion to electricity, its transmission and ultimate use.” That’s according to the AAAS Atlas.)

Shop with care. Americans in general have a lot of stuff. And we’re no exception. We’re used to finding bargains and getting excited by how much we saved on any given item. But we’re learning to shop more selectively, purchasing only what we really need and seeking the best quality we can afford. We want every dollar to count, and we don’t want junk that will fall apart and head to the landfill before it has time to gather dust. It’s not economical or good for the planet.

Good used clothing can get a second life on someone else.

Good used clothing can get a second life on someone else. © Anthony Hal -

Buy quality used items. We know lots of people who’ve gotten great bargains on used clothes, used cars, used homes, used wood, and used furniture. We’re not big shoppers, but when we need something, we’ll consider the option of quality second-hand goods.

Don’t buy over-packaged goods. We look critically at the containers holding the products that we buy. Can the packaging be recycled? Is it made from post-consumer waste? How many layers of protection are there?

No new gold or gems. We don’t purchase a lot of jewelry, so this particular action doesn’t affect us much. After learning about the pollution associated with mining gold, silver, and precious gems, we won’t be buying jewelry unless it’s used or recycled. (Did you know that six tons of rock must be mined to yield two average gold rings?)

Print less. I used to think I had to have paper copies of just about everything. Those reams of paper took a huge toll on my time and consumed many square feet of space in my office, only to end up in the recycling bin after months and years of neglect. Crazy, eh? And I shudder to think of all the chemicals I used to print those papers, the trees that died unnecessarily, and the money that I wasted.

Here are a few sobering facts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Atlas of Population and the Environment:

The average European uses 130 kilos of paper a year — the equivalent of two trees. The average American uses more than twice as much — a staggering 330 kilos a year. The paper and board industry is the United States’ third largest source of pollution, while its products make up 38 percent of municipal waste.

Replace old appliances. With rebates and incentives, in some states it makes a lot of sense to replace old appliances before they wear out. We’re not quite ready to do that — most of ours are less than 10 years old — but when we do, we’ll buy appliances with solid Energy Star ratings.

Pass stuff on. For 33 years, Joe ran the local university’s surplus system. He’s fond of reminding people that having stuff requires energy. If you rent space, you have to waste good money storing stuff you’ll never use. It requires space that has to be heated or cooled, and whatever you store has to be handled, dusted, moved, repaired… We are selling — or giving away on Freecycle — the things we do not need, passing them on for others to use and enjoy.

NOTE: For a good read filled with helpful suggestions about how to trim the stuff in your life, I highly recommend our friend Greg Johnson’s book, Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons from Living in 140 Square Feet.

Recycle more, trash less. Because we have increased our recycling dramatically, we have reduced what we send to the landfill by about 60-70 percent. Our city requires us to sort recyclables for pick up. It takes time to evaluate every item in our trash, but it makes us more conscious consumers.

Collect rain water. This isn’t legal everywhere, but in our city, we can collect our rain water for watering our garden and flowers. A friend gave us clean, used 55-gallon drums to make into rain barrels. Now, all we have to do is camouflage them so they don’t stick out like sore thumbs at the front of our house where all the gutters run. We are still working on that one.

Lawns should be enjoyed, not poisoned with chemicals.

Lawns should be enjoyed, not poisoned with chemicals. © DMYTRO KRUGLOV -

Refuse lawn chemicals. It’s not worth having a pretty lawn when it comes at the cost of clean water. If you should see a dandelion in our turf, great! I hear they make great salads. In fact, we’d prefer to get rid of our lawn entirely and use our small plot in a more productive way. But that’s for another day.

Use alternative energy. If we get this done, it will be at a significant cost. We’re looking into adding solar thermal panels for heating our water, and setting up a geothermal system. But this is an older home, and retrofitting is expensive. It might not yet be feasible with today’s technology.

Use less gasoline. When we were faced with a long-distance move last year, we had no choice but to replace our old cars with a newer one. We bought a hybrid that gets 46 miles per gallon. It’s not a perfect solution. But we now work out of our home, and we limit our travels. We try to walk if the distance isn’t too great or time is not pressing. We’re toning up on a stationary bike, with plans to hit the actual pavement in the near future (if our knees don’t rebel too much).

No more newspapers. We save a lot of trees by getting our news on line. The down side is that newspapers are going out of business at record rates as consumers turn to electronic media. The world still needs investigative reporters, the likes of which are rarely seen outside of printed publications (with the exception of National Public Radio).

Toss the television. We haven’t owned a TV for about two years, and we rarely miss it. Besides the huge electricity drain, it’s a brain suck. (Ask us how we know. We used to have our brains sucked regularly.)

Our (Current) Non-negotiables. We all draw our own lines somewhere. Joe and I won’t give up our computers. We won’t give up our cars entirely. We won’t say “never” to air travel. And we will take daily showers. Will we always feel so tightly bound to these conveniences? Perhaps not. In the meantime, we’ll do our part by cutting back on the things we can live without.


I started the article by calling the things we do to limit our footprint “small sacrifices.” But as I look over the list, none of these things Joe and I do are sacrifices at all. Some take a bit more time, some take more energy, and they all take discipline. But the payoff — the small reductions in our carbon footprint and the lessened amount of pollution for which we must take responsibility — is well worth any extra effort.

So, I challenge you. Reimagine your own life with a smaller impact on the environment. Cut back on those things you can do without. Trim your household’s waistline. Reinvent your way of interacting with the world. Do what you can — whatever it is, whatever you’re willing to do now, today. Then tell us about it. Let’s learn from each other.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Risky Runoff: From Fish-Roe to Ritalin

“Like the resource it seeks to protect, wildlife conservation must be dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective.” — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

As the recent PBS Frontline story “Poisoned Waters” so vividly brought home, once pure and pristine, our extraordinary natural treasure of beautiful shorelines, waterways, estuaries, lakes, rivers and ponds continues to be polluted by the home and industrial waste that we persistently both knowingly as well as unwittingly contribute to — so much so that it now severely threatens our own health and that of the flora and fauna with which we share our planet. Wreaking havoc on global well being, with animals and individuals becoming ill daily from contact with contaminated water eco-systems, without dramatic and fundamental action, it’s a problem that’ll only continue to grow exponentially. Point blank — our water systems are being altered to the point of no-return by our own selfish human impact.


"With dangers to everyone and everything living and growing now being found in water — we all stand to be negatively impacted." Photo: © mrslevite -

Often invisible to the naked eye, the most destructive elements to our planet’s life’s blood, our water, are hidden, secret, and malignant — agricultural pollution and excrement in runoff waters, chemicals from home waste treatment systems, everyday cleaning supplies gurgling down our drains and flushing down our toilets, lawn care products leaching into the ground water — plastics, lubricants, petro-fuels, body lotions, bug repellents, deodorants, soaps and even the decomposition of the soles of our shoes as we walk and jog all adding to the problem. With dangers to everyone and everything living and growing now being found in water — we all stand to be negatively impacted.

The particulates from our own medicated bodily fluids are so fine that there are no water processing plants in the world that can trap them, and so, to be perfectly frank, your neighbor’s Viagra, your daughter’s birth control, your uncle’s HIV/AIDS medications, your grandmother’s diabetes drugs, your minister’s pain medications, your teacher’s thyroid supplements, your dog’s flea and tick protection, etc., are all ending up in micro doses in the water we all brush our teeth with every day.

The run-off from some agricultural livestock is so densely polluted that it creates dead zones in water masses that not only cannot sustain life, but also kill any life forms that unfortunately find their way into their morass.

Through our toilets or from our tap, we’re discovering that the most refined water processing doesn’t always remove the new synthetic forms of pollutants, and with more and new kinds of contaminants being found in water, we no longer know what’s lingering in the H2O we drink and bathe in. It’s our failure to monitor and control what gets into our water that haunts this life force all over our planet.

Any investment in environmental science and the actions of well meaning politicians and civic groups may solve some of these problems, but until we begin to seriously tackle what are even today insurmountable issues, this same “bureaucracy” may also indefinitely continue to keep the purity of our water tied up in a giant toxic bow of red tape.

The time is urgent and the stakes are high. The danger signs are everywhere and we have mountains of choices that need to be made. There’s no question in my mind that we all need to make small and simple changes because, unfortunately — we’re all polluters — and it’s our shared responsibility to no longer be such.

I suggest that the answers lie within each and every one of us. Daily mindful actions carried out by each and every person — all of us stepping up and taking responsibility to restore what we’ve already lost or are about to lose forever — one person at a time, one family at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time and so on can and will make a difference. As oft quoted, the late anthropologist Margaret Meade emphatically stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

But here is where paralysis sets in — the point where we all become deer caught in the headlights, unable to move this way or that, doomed to the fatal onslaught of our own making. We’ve been taught to believe that it’s only the powerful, the wealthy, the political, the connected that have any real control over our lives and our actions. But again, the perceptive voice of Rachel Carson can powerfully move us beyond our complacency: “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”

So conversely it should also be true that in our present century, only our species can acquire the significant power to reverse the nature of this world for the positive. As the mindful, free-thinking, creative individuals we were born to be, please consider what Rachel Carson tried to instill in us 60 years ago: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” The truth of the matter is however, that somewhere along the way we each self-destroy that power and validate it to “the powers that be.”

Take just a few steps back and fully understand that until only 50 years ago, almost every chemical found under almost every kitchen and bathroom sink in the developed world today existed only in chemistry labs — and now they are part and parcel of products that have been marketed to us as “new and improved,” “germ-fighting,” “antiseptic,” and “essential” to modern life. So when asked to consider what you, as one mere individual, can do to strengthen the environment, consider some of the following and surely you will tap into your own creative nature and develop other mindful adaptations.

For instance, the next time you’re cleaning your kitchen or bathroom, consider sprinkling baking soda onto your nonporous bath and kitchen surfaces instead of chlorine bleach, cutting a fresh lemon in half and using the fruit side as your scrubby pad, wiping down the surfaces and then rinsing them with freshest tap water available (micro-Viagra notwithstanding!) [Note: Also never use anything acidic on marble or similar surfaces. No lemony fresh scent, but no pock-marked counters either.]

You can also do the same thing to your body. (What a bill of goods we’ve been sold by the cosmetics industry!) More than 85% of the active ingredients in personal grooming products have never been tested for safety, and fewer than 5% of ingredients need, by law, to be listed on the package. And that’s cradle to tomb — from baby shampoo to denture cream. And what doesn’t get absorbed by our own bodies gets washed down into the water supply and absorbed by the babies and elderly down the block, the fish and fauna at the beach, etc.

But by thinking mindfully, acting safely, and respecting all manner of life on our planet, you can achieve the same results for less money, less packaging, and less pollution. For instance, by creating a three-to-one paste of baking soda and H2O and massaging it gently all over your face and body, your skin will glow with a new-found polish by eliminating those dead skin cells, leaving your skin soft, tender and smooth. Rinse well with warm water and allow your skin to air dry. Do it every day, and watch your transformation.

Tired of spending $30, $50, or $100 on the newest wonder youth cream at the cosmetics counter? You can revive your skin with [a] spritz of natural olive oil combined with water. Mix one-third olive oil to two- thirds water in a small, clean (recycled) spray bottle to give yourself an exhilarating after-bath all-over body moisturizing treatment. Let it soak in without towel drying.

The above all work well, are super-affordable and harmless to you, to your kids, to the fish and fowl, and to the environment. By simply taking a moment, musing over what has brought us to this toxic abyss, and channeling Ms. Carson, you can start a new eco-movement of your own, do your part for this and future generations, and preserve the precious water systems that would otherwise be altered by your own human impact.

Michael DeJong

OneCleanWorld Foundation

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

©2009 Michael DeJong, author of Clean Body:The Humble Art of Zen- Cleansing Yourself Author Bio Michael DeJong, author of Clean Body:The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing Yourself, is an environmentalist and eco-activist.

DeJong and Joost Elffers are generously donating all of the royalties from each of the books in the Clean Series to the OneCleanWorld Foundation. a philanthropic, not-for-profit organization that supports environmental projects worldwide with grants, technical assistance and/or microfinancing.

Think Like a Pioneer: Turn Your Trash Into Treasure

Comments Off on Think Like a Pioneer: Turn Your Trash Into Treasure

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It’s a mantra for green living that we’ve all heard for years. And while recycling has become more and more mainstream, with even Grandma lugging the blue box out for curbside recycling, and sorting and filtering for her weekly trip to City Carton [recycling plant], Reduce and Reuse have been nearly forgotten in the recycling frenzy.

Melting old crayons can give them new life. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Melting old crayons can give them new life. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

It’s not yet trendy to make noticeable cutbacks and people will definitely look at you funny if you tell them you are making a vase out of a burned out light bulb. But the times they are a’ changin’ and one thing is for sure: Reducing and reusing are equally important components of this three-part commitment to living more sustainably.

We must start thinking harder about reducing and reusing. I feel like I’ve been mouthing the words for years without considering their meaning, comfortable in the fact that I’m doing my part. The truth is we cannot begin to affect climate change by recycling alone; we must incorporate all three of these ideas into our daily routine. Read on for some of our favorite ways to make new stuff from your old stuff.

Crayons, Reborn: This is a fun project to make with the kids. Take your old nubs and remove the paper. Pre-heat your oven to 275°. Place crayons in a mold or lined muffin cups (we used silicon tart cups). Place in the oven for 10 minutes. Allow to cool and unmold. You can also reuse old candle wax in the same manner, just add a piece of wick before the wax sets.

Tin Cans: Covering tin cans is fun and easy and there’s about a million things you can store in them. Use old magazines, tissue paper, typewriter ribbon, or photos to make your desired collage. Then just use plain old school glue and an old paintbrush to paste your collection to a clean tin can. Add buttons, beads, shells, old broken jewelry bits, or anything you can imagine. You can store cooking utensils, pens and pencils, flowers, coins, and all kinds of good stuff in these decorative cans.

Jars & Bottles: My new favorite use for old jars is to shake up oil-based salad dressings. The shaking effectively emulsifies the oil and vinegar and you can store your dressings in the fridge in these jars. Jars can also be used for bath salts, storing nails and screws (old baby food jars fastened to the wall of your garage is a great place to keep all kinds of useful small parts), a jar for your morning coffee, vases, storing beads, keeping leftovers, carrying water to the dog park, packaging gifts, shaking up gravy, and storing bulk nuts.

An old light bulb can become an elegant hanging vase. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

An old light bulb can become an elegant hanging vase. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Old Light Bulbs: Old light bulbs make adorable vases. Hollow out the bulb (instructions are at TeamDroid), then turn it into a pretty vase. Visit Instructables for detailed instructions.

Dry-Cleaning Hangers: A quick survey of area cleaners reveals: YES! Dry cleaners will take back and reuse hangers. They request that hangers be in good repair.

Coffee Cans: Use to collect spare change, or as a scoop for the sandbox or litter box.

Egg Cartons: Use to pack Christmas ornaments, sprout seedlings, store golf balls, or as a palette for paints.

Newspapers: Roll Christmas lights around old newspapers. Shred and use for packaging fragile items. Use as gift wrap. Wash windows — newspapers are the best way [to] get streak-free windows. Stuff into hats or purses while storing to retain their shape. If you have a farm, they can be shredded and used for animal bedding or to create garden mulch.

Plastic Bags: Reuse as a trash can liner or for shopping, as a trash can for your car, for dirty clothes storage when you go on a trip, or for picking up pet poo. Old zip-top plastic bags can be re-purposed for storing pens, pencils, markers, or crayons.

Plastic Bottles and Containers: I love storing cheese (especially hard cheese) in “clam shells” from New Pi’s deli. Refill tiny “travel size” bottles with more lotion, soap, and shampoos for your next trip. Send leftovers home with friends in old sour cream, salsa, and cottage cheese containers; they won’t have to worry about returning your “Tupperware.” Punch holes in the bottoms of plastic containers and use them as planters with the lid placed underneath to catch the drainage. Refill old plastic soap dispensers with bulk soap and reuse old spray bottles for spritzing your plants with water.

Wine Bottles: We made a cute soap dispenser out of an old wine bottle. Mara designed the fun label and printed it on label paper. The topper is a 1 oz. wine pourer. These are sweet gifts. You can also invert this design and hang it by a decorative wire to make a hummingbird feeder. For a pretty table decoration, fill the bottle with a short strand of Christmas lights and decorate with shimmery ribbons, glitter, or beads.

Fabric Softener Sheets: Put them in drawers after using to keep clothes smelling fresh. Get rid of static by rubbing them over staticky clothing.

CD’s: Make coasters by decorating old cd’s and covering the bottom with cork. Use as a paint palette, or bust them into pieces to use as bike reflectors. Visit Jim Watters’ PhotoCreations to see how to make a funky lamp from old cd’s.

Create a funky shopping bag from an old t-shirt. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Create a funky shopping bag from an old t-shirt. Photo: New Pioneer Co-op

Old Mouse Pads: Cut into squares and affix to the bottom of your furniture to protect the legs from scratching up your floor. Cover with fabric to make coasters.

Boxes and Cardboard: Reuse tissue boxes to hold plastic grocery bags.

T-shirt Bag: Take your old favorite t-shirt and turn it inside-out. Cut off the sleeves inside the seam. Get a bowl (I used a 10″ diameter bowl) and trace a half-circle around the neck of the t-shirt. Cut out the half-circle. Sew the bottom shut. Turn it right-side out. I recommend a sturdy small or medium sized shirt for a handy shopping bag size.

Here are some great resources to find free stuff in your community:





Recycling Revolution

Green Living Ideas


Recycle This

Pioneer Thinking


Choose to Reuse, by Nikki & David Goldbeck

Reprinted by permission from The Catalyst, New Pioneer Co-op‘s Newsletter, c. 2009

How to Build a Quick and Easy Vegetable Trellis

Build this simple vegetable trellis in almost no time at all. Photo: J. Wasson

It’s spring in Iowa, and the smell of the moist, black soil calls out to the gardener in all of us. Ever since the first hint of bulbs peeking through the dirt, I’ve been itching to get started planting an organic garden. On Friday, the temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. By Saturday, it was 35 degrees and dropping. The Weather Channel showed a big snowstorm coming in a few hours. I decided I’d better hurry.

I checked the garage to find wood to cut into stakes and a shovel to turn over the soil. I got out my skill saw, an extension cord, and a hammer. Then a friend and I jumped into my son’s Jeep and headed to the lumberyard.

I purchased two, 15-foot-long by 50-inch-wide, steel-grid fencing sections. These had to be flexible enough that I would be able to bend them into an arch, but sturdy enough not to collapse under the weight of vines and produce I plan to grow on them. The panels cost about $35.00 each, so I was now $70.00 into my experiment, plus gas and time.

“Won’t fit,” the kid at the lumberyard had said, watching my friend and me lift the grids onto the Jeep. He wasn’t prepared for our ingenuity. We tied the panels on the roof, padding it with our coats to protect the paint. (Obviously, we didn’t plan very well. If you decide to do this, bring along some old towels or a blanket for padding between your vehicle and the fencing sections.) This was only possible with plenty of rope, another $4.00.

We bought two steel-grid fence panels like this one. Photo: J. Wasson

Have you seen the movie Mad Max? That’s what the Jeep looked like, with the fencing grid curved down over the hood and tied to the front bumper. We would have been well protected should anyone want to throw a cinder block through our windshield. The whole adventure took about an hour — and the lumberyard is 15 minutes away.

Back at my house, we unloaded the sections onto the lawn. I went to work selecting the best location for the new trellis. My wife and I have a small lot — only 40 feet wide — squeezed between very close neighbors. Most of the backyard already has a perimeter of flowerbeds filled with perennials, so we weren’t anxious to disturb them.

We keep the remaining lawn small on purpose, because we both hate to mow. We don’t like the pollution of belching fumes, and we hate the noise. We dislike starting a mower and storing a mower and tuning a mower. If I had my way, I’d rather pave my yard than mow it. My theory on saving the environment from the evils of lawn-mowing is to keep adding flowerbeds.

This year, we’ve decided to plant an organic vegetable garden. (It’s a great reason to rip out some more sod.) We’re working to become more sustainable, and gardening is a great step in that direction. It’s green living at an elemental level.

Because neither of us feels like crawling around on our hands and knees to garden, we decided to build a trellis and see how many vegetables we can grow on vines. We’ll try peas, beans, tomatoes, and squash, and any other climbing veggies we can find. (Got a suggestion? We’d love to hear from you.)

Most of our backyard is shady, so we chose to place the trellis in the center, halfway between a neighbor’s large garage on one side and our other neighbor’s large shade trees. I figure the trellis will get about 6 or 7 hours of sun on a good day.

Bending the fencing creates an arch. Photo: J. Wasson

Constructing the trellis was simple and took no more than half an hour from start to finish (not counting our Mad Max adventure). With the skill saw, I cut 8 wooden stakes out of some scrap 1″ x 2″ lumber. I then drove 2 stakes into the ground about 4 feet apart, parallel to our backyard sidewalk. I took one end of the first panel and butted it up against those stakes, then pushed the prongs on that end into the ground. Then I lifted the other end until the whole panel was standing almost vertical.

Pressing the panel down hard against the first two stakes, I then pulled down on the free end until it touched the ground. This left an arch about 6 feet wide and 6 feet high, giving us plenty of room to walk under and pick the produce yet to come. The prongs on the back end of the fencing held it in place in the sod while I secured it by pounding in two more stakes.

I repeated all this with the second panel, connecting a second arch to the first one. Ta-da! In less than two hours, from start to finish, I had built a 9-foot long, 6 1/2-foot tall, trellis. It was easy enough to do alone, but having an extra person would make the job even easier.

I was going to go ahead and break the sod, but heavy, wet snow began to fall. It was the 28th of March. That’s Iowa for you.

Watch for the further adventures of Joe the Gardener (not to be confused with Joe the Plumber), right here on BPGL.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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The “Green-Clean Challenge” Begins

December 20, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Cleaning Supplies, Front Page, Slideshow, Tips, VOCs

Some old friends called us while driving through Iowa. Could they stop and visit? “Sure,” we said. “Love to have you.” We hung up the phone, scanned the house, and looked at each other in a bit of panic. We had 30 minutes, tops, before they would be at our door.

“If you attack the bathroom,” Julia said. “I’ll handle the kitchen.”

Tools of chemical warfare under the sink. Photo: Julia Wasson

“No problem.” I collected all my weapons: broom, dustpan, brush, mop, bucket, and rags. I felt like a soldier going off to war. Next I gathered my ammunition — the bottles of spray cleaners and disinfectants that would make me an army of one against a very nasty tub and the “toilet from hell.”

This is easy, I thought. I’ll just let those little scrubbing bubbles do all the work. I sprayed down the tub and shower walls with one solution, squirted a thick blue liquid around inside the rim of the toilet bowl, sprayed another blue liquid onto the mirrors, and topped it all off with some foamy white stuff on the sink. While they were soaking away the dirt to make my job easier, I closed the bathroom door to sweep.

I almost didn’t get out alive. My eyes began to water, and my throat began to swell. My chest hurt. I began to feel faint. Was I having a heart attack?

Gasping for air, I yanked open the bathroom door and plopped down in the hallway. It only took a few minutes to recover, but the scare stayed with me.

After our guests had come and gone, I decided to do some research. What I found was that the chemicals in my cleaners had almost done me in. I had carelessly mixed an ammonia-based cleaner with another that contained bleach.

Granted, I shouldn’t have mixed them, but this army of one had not been trained in chemical warfare. According to the Washington Toxics Coalition, the most dangerous chemicals in the world are right under our sinks. They include corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acidic toilet-bowl cleaners.

Does fighting germs require toxic chemicals? Photo: J Wasson

Does fighting germs require harsh chemicals? Photo: Julia Wasson

I read on. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in oven, carpet, and other cleaners containing Toluene, Nitrobenzene, Chloride, Methylene, and Ethylene glycol have been shown to cause asthma, cancer, skin rashes, permanent eye damage, and serious long-term organ damage. I decided it was time for a change.

So I began searching for cleaners that advertised themselves as “organic,” “green,” “natural,” or “eco-friendly.” I’ve been collecting homemade recipes, too. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be testing them all. You’ll get my honest opinions about the products I try. I’m calling it the “Green-Clean Challenge.” Let’s find out together how well the green cleaners really work. Can they do the job as effectively as their chemical-laden rivals? Can they clean our bowls and bathtubs without cleaning our clocks?

If you have suggestions for non-toxic cleaning products you trust, please let me know. Let’s open a dialog about how to clean our homes without harming the environment — or ourselves. Share your tips for a healthy home. If we try them and like them, we’ll publish them. Write to me at

Gotta run. It’s my turn to clean the kitchen.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Don’t Give More, Give Better

December 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Holidays, Tips

Spend time together focusing on each other more than the gifts you give. Photo: ©

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” — Will Rogers

During the nineteenth century, merchants began encouraging a greater focus on holiday gift-giving because, of course, it fostered gift buying. Two centuries later, we are confronted with holidays overwhelmed by consumerism. According to Grist magazine, “Nearly a quarter of all retail goods move out of stores and into homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, we suspect, often into landfills by January).”

For many of us, holiday shopping means dealing with crowds.

For many people, holiday shopping means dealing with the stress of crowds. Photo: ©

Not only do we overspend, we also deplete our time and energy negotiating traffic and crowds, wrapping countless presents, and fretting over questions such as, Did I get more for Betty than I did for Bill? All the stress and anxiety of shopping, combined with other struggles that holidays often bring, leave many of us secretly wishing it were January already.

Whether all this consumption makes for a better life is questionable. Compared to much of the world, most Americans have far beyond what is necessary to meet our basic needs. More stuff means a need for more storage, plus time to clean, maintain, repair, and organize it all, not to mention the stress that such heavy consumption puts on environmental resources and geopolitics.

How can we maintain open and generous hearts, giving gifts that show true appreciation for the receiver without running ourselves ragged and breaking the bank? Can we somehow reclaim the spirit of the holidays, simplifying gift-giving without turning into Ebenezer Scrooge?

A Mental Reboot

Here are a few tips for getting started down the road to more meaningful holidays:

Recall holidays past. Our fondest recollections usually revolve around warm connections with friends and family. Look for ways to foster such experiences this year, rather than the picture-perfect, consumer-driven holidays pushed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones.

Connect with your family to relive old memories and make new ones. Photo: ©

Celebrate your values. Don’t simply change your old holiday habits; replace them with new ones that are richer and more fulfilling. What is important to you about the holidays? How can you make space and time to celebrate those values? Create new holiday traditions or emphasize existing ones you find meaningful.

Explore your connection to stuff. Advertisers target our desire for happiness, youth, success, luxury, status, convenience, and beauty. Will the item you are purchasing actually deliver any of these things for the eventual owner? Opt only for gifts that are truly meaningful.

Avoid advertising. Recycle catalogs and newspaper fliers as soon as they arrive, turn off the television, and stay away from the sparkle of large shopping centers and department stores.

Let value be determined by the thoughtfulness behind a gift, not the price tag. Memorable gifts usually require more thought than money. Shop for presents with the interests of the receiver in mind. A gardener might enjoy a gift basket of seeds and bulbs for spring planting. Cooks will appreciate a collection of unusual spices with tasty recipes to match.

Avoid tit-for-tat gift giving. You don’t necessarily have to give a gift to someone just because he or she gave one to you. A sincere thank-you will often suffice.

Increase altruistic giving. Open-handed giving to causes we care about, without expecting anything in return, can transform our relationship to material wealth. In the spirit of the Millennium Development Goals, many advocacy groups encourage individuals to give 0.7% of their income toward charities that target extreme poverty. You can also give your time: “Buy Nothing Christmas,” a national initiative of the Canadian Mennonites that seeks to revive the original meaning of holiday giving, recommends donating one hour to charity for every $20 you spend.

Children can create their own gifts. Photo: ©

Don’t give things as substitutes for time or to assuage guilt. In the words of Lennon and McCartney, “Money can’t buy me love.” Even the most expensive or thoughtful gift is no substitute for your time and attention.

Explain your decision to friends and family. Be upfront, yet positive. Let your loved ones know that you won’t be taking the usual consumerism track this season, not because you are a cheapskate and don’t care about them, but because you want the holidays to be richer and more meaningful. Be prepared for surprised reactions, or worse.

Be courageous. It is more difficult to lead than to follow. Part of the pressure to consume is the idea that “Everybody else is doing it,” and swimming against such a powerful tide isn’t always easy. Some people in your life may feel threatened by your decision not to go along with the status quo. Avoid coming across as self-righteous, and instead offer alternative ways to show you value the person. Though you may meet resistance, many will secretly envy your new-found freedom, and you will probably find more family and friends following your lead next year.

Guilt-Free Gift Ideas

Here are a few ideas for meaningful and conscientious gifts that won’t leave you in debt until spring:

•    Donate to charity in the name of a loved one. Honor the recipient while also doing your part to create a better world. Many relief and development organizations, such as Heifer International and OxFam, offer ways to donate items needed in developing countries (farm animals, mosquito nets, etc.) through alternative gift catalogs.

Keep the joy of the season by focusing on what's most important — the ones you love. Photo: ©

•    Give coupons. People love to receive free babysitting, household and lawn chores, car washes, a homemade dinner, and so on. Share a useful talent or skill, such as financial planning, resume consulting, or web design. Volunteer to take the recipient on an adventure — a camping, fishing, or canoeing trip.

•   Create something. Anyone can collect family photos, memorabilia, stories, anecdotes, aphorisms, or recipes for a simple album or scrapbook. You don’t need to get too crafty; it’s the content they will cherish. Digital versions also will be greatly appreciated, as would a “greatest hits” arrangement of old family video footage. For children and grandchildren, create a book describing games you played as a child, or write and illustrate a book with the child as a main character. Of course, traditional holiday baking is always popular.

•    Hand down family heirlooms. Why wait until you die to pass along Grandma’s quilt or Dad’s old fishing pole? Let your heirs begin enjoying these precious items now. You’ll also have the benefit of decreasing the number of things needing storage around your own house.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ballgame.

Give an experience, such as a concert, play, or ball game. Photo: ©

•    Go green. Look for recycled or recyclable content, and opt for items with minimal packaging.

•    Look for gifts that create little clutter or waste. Gifts that won’t end up in a corner somewhere include tickets to plays, concerts, sporting events, amusement parks, or ski areas; gift certificates to a favorite local restaurant; movie and ice-rink passes; museum memberships; spa packages; frequent flier miles; and membership to a nonprofit organization the person cares about.

•    Buy durable gifts. These items can be used over again, can be easily repaired, and won’t quickly wear out, become obsolete, or go out of style. Examples include well-made furniture, tools, and clothing in classic styles.

•    Use alternative shopping resources. Seek out alternative gift fairs and fairly traded world markets, such as Ten Thousand Villages. Give fair-trade agricultural products, such as coffees and teas.

•    Don’t overlook vintage. Antique and consignment shops are a great source of unique items.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow.

Plant a tree together and watch it grow. Photo: © Vitaliy

•   Give a seedling that you can transplant together in the spring. Choose a fast-growing tree and watch it develop.

•    Re-gift it. If you have an item you can’t use but that others may value, consider re-gifting — but only if you can avoid offending either the receiver or the previous gift-giver.

•    Opt out of gift exchanges at work. Suggest that your workplace adopt a needy family in the community or contribute to a charitable organization instead.

This holiday season, we can choose not to step into a flurry of shopping and spending that leaves us physically, mentally, and financially drained. By purchasing fewer, but more thoughtful gifts, we save not only money but time, freeing ourselves to connect more deeply with loved ones and celebrate the meaning behind the cultural traditions we hold dear.

We can also contribute to a more just and sustainable world by adjusting our shopping habits in a few simple, but significant, ways. We might even find that more meaningful holidays give us new energy, propelling us through the rest of winter — exactly as they were meant to do all along.

Karen Nichols

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)