Monday, December 22, 2008

Resistance is Futile: Greene Eating

I've gotten a jump start on my 2009 Resolutions here at Greene HQ.  Turns out that the simplest, easiest, most obvious thing is the one thing I wasn't doing.  In fact, I was opposed to doing it.

What's that, you ask?

Menu planning.

It just seemed, oh I dunno - boring.  Confining.  Planning menus meant admitting that I was the only person responsible for feeding myself and three other people every day, day in and day out, except when Franklin stepped up to guest chef on the weekends.

But since I've started planning, my life is better.  And so, here's my list of Ten Reasons to Love Menu Planning:
  1. Without any real effort, we've cut our grocery spending by about $25/week.  Our bills were inching up, slowly and steadily, to $125/week and often more, not counting Franklin's forays to pick up the paper and a few necessaries on the weekend.  And not counting the $12 spent on locally delivered milk, cheese and eggs.  My weekly bill now averages closer to $90 - including holiday indulgences.
  2. Our bills will continue to shrink.  The first week I spent a mere $65 - because I planned around what was in the pantry and freezer.  I've always stocked up on some things at sale prices - mostly granola bars and cereal - but now I'm using the same principles for menu staples.
  3. My weeknights are far less stressful.  Instead of standing in the kitchen in a panic every night around six, I know what to do.  And it's easy to think to defrost something the night before when I'm looking at my weekly list of menus - no more coming up with a Plan B because the chicken is frozen.
  4. We're eating more varied meals.  In a pinch, I reach for whole wheat pasta.  Freddie won't eat it, and Franklin would rather not eat it every night.  But a little bit of thought has turned up more meals that the whole family enjoys.
  5. Shopping is faster.  This is huge.  I started menu planning when my daughter was about six weeks old.  Shopping while wearing my daughter in her carrier is enough of a challenge.  If I had to think about what we needed?  Forget it.  We'd be eating take out every night.
  6. We're eating healthier ... errr ... we will be.  One of my biggest challenges is getting veggies into our diet.  We all voluntarily eat fruit, and we're not opposed to vegetables.  But when you're a novice cook, it can take some doing to plan balanced meals.  Over time, I think I can easily push our veggie consumption way up.
  7. I don't even think of eating out.  Okay, that's not entirely true.  But I used to long to just walk down the street to a restaurant, where they'd have variety and someone else to do the dishes.  By planning everything in advance, I rarely get the urge to eat out.  In fact, eating out seems harder than eating in - the opposite of my old thinking.
  8. Freddie is learning to cook.  Cooking with a four year old has its challenges, but I'm amazed at how much he can do.  This is the best part of the process.  B.M.P. (before menu planning), he was playing alone in his room, out of my sight - or maybe parked in front of the TV or maybe begging for Goldfish crackers and string cheese under foot - while I cooked.  Now?  He's stirring something and telling me that he's "bein' a Top Cef."  Menu planning allows me to think about how he can help and plan accordingly.  As a bonus, he seems to always eat what he cooks - not true of meals that I prepare without his involvement.
  9. I'm learning to cook.  Yes, I cooked before this.  But I didn't really know how to do much.  By planning, I can evaluate what I know and what new challenges I can take on, slowly expanding my skill set.
  10. It's green!  Okay we're still not subsisting entirely on a diet of locally grown veggies and probably never will.  And we'd already reduced our reliance on take-out dramatically.  But now I'm learning how to reduce our reliance on convenience foods, choosing less processed options.  And that is a huge step for me - a step towards healthier, less chemically intense products and meals.
In a month, there have been just two nights this completely fell apart.  One night, I had picked out a new recipe that required putting the skillet in the oven to finish the dish.  Our skillet isn't oven-safe.  D'oh!  I tossed together something else and Franklin used the ingredients from the abandoned dinner over the weekend.  (He really is quite the cook.)

Another night we were off to have our family picture taken for the church directory and honestly?  I fed the toddler, nursed the infant and decided that the adults would have to fend for themselves.

I'm pretty amazed that it's gone this well.  In addition to meal planning, we've turned out homemade cupcakes for Freddie's birthday (the cupcakes were a mix, but the frosting was from scratch); chocolate chip cookies from scratch and banana bread from scratch.

Resistance is futile.  Menu planning has changed my life.

Now what else have I been refusing to do?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fern Versus The Families

I could write about how Franklin and I are sometimes at odds on green matters, but the truth is that we're more or less in accord.  (Yes, I think Franklin is a bit generous with the indoor heating and he's baffled by my reliance on pre-packaged convenience foods.  But we're pretty much in sync overall.)

The people who challenge us are our extended families, in equal measure.  While my brother-in-law is excited to be receiving a Sigg, my little sisters - women I love beyond measure - are hopeless shop-a-holics, doing their part to keep the consumer economy afloat.  They scoffed at the idea of alternative gifts and much prefer their coffee in paper cups and purchases in store-issued bags, thanks very much.  About their only eco-savvy activity is trading paperbacks back and forth.

As for my husband's family, that's not so much a case of wanton waste, but of a cultural emphasis on gifting.  It's unthinkable to show up to someone's home without piles of presents, regardless of whether they're needed or desired.  And they have set ideas about the right amounts of money to spend.  A few days ago it hit me like a bullet - his aunt had spent a fortune on wedding silver for us (no, we didn't ask for it; yes, it's lovely; no, we never use it) at a time when her husband was scraping together freelance work and they couldn't afford to replace their only car.  This is a sense of obligation that runs deep and defies logic.

The outcome of all of this is as follows:

1.  Gift giving is frequently catalog ordering, one-step removed.  If we're trading Amazon links for our desired gifts, we're not quite in the spirit of things.  Why don't we just buy ourselves new coffee mugs and let my sister pay for her own sweater?

2.  Most creative gifts end up at Goodwill.  My sisters often choose things that I find charming, but they're rarely functional items that I keep forever.  We loved our daffy, hand-painted margarita glasses - but faced with paying to store our belongings during a long distance move a few years back, they got the boot.  The real beneficiary of their generosity is the local thrift shop - and that's too bad.  I suspect my efforts meet the same fate.

3.  We're just swapping gift cards.  This is almost worse than #1, though it's less wasteful than #2.  In recent months, we've bought some cool place mats from Crate & Barrel and a small television set from Circuit City thanks to gift cards.  But we still have $500 or more of unredeemed gift cards in the desk.  Franklin argues that it's wrong to use them for gifts for others, though last year I did just that.  (We had $15 left on a Pottery Barn card that went towards books for Freddie.)

4.  We're ignoring what's really meaningful.  The only gifts my mother has kept through the years are the ornaments her children made in elementary school.  When my grandmother died, I was amazed to learn that she still had some felt-and-bead monstrosities I'd sewn with my inexpert little hands decades back.  I believe they went on her tree every year, in places of honor.

My mother has finally declared that all of this is silly, and that we ought to be jointly supporting a charity.  She started out by dispatching my super-shopper sisters to find gifts for a few residents of a local nursing home.

I have hopes that my husband might be able to reach a similar deal with his brother.  My husband's parents find this idea ridiculous; again, it's cultural and therefore we're hesitant to push too hard.

I'm happy to exempt children from this, mostly because each year I've been able to find unusual and clever creations from museum gift shops and local artists.  My red-headed niece received a purple tutu last year; this year she's getting her name embroidered on a pink cupcake apron, both courtesy of small businesses.  It takes some pre-planning, but I feel like those gifts are worth giving.

In our own little home, our Christmas has gone quite green, with an emphasis on celebration and seasonal activities rather than on mindless gift giving.  But it's sometimes tough to get beyond your four walls.  

With each passing year, Franklin and I have simply pulled back.  We're spending less on gifts and we're trying to put as much thought as possible into them.  But I often feel like a miser at this time of year.

Lots of green bloggers seem unfazed by their family's reactions, but to be perfectly honest, it still represents a struggle for me.  Do we just keep on violating our values and judgment - or do we rock the boat?  So far we're going with incremental change - but we might be at the logical limits of how much we can do without Having The Talk.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Three Pantless Years for F. Greene

Franklin looked at me over dinner last night.  "I think I need to buy some pants."

After some reflection, we concluded that it has been about three years since Franklin last purchased a pair of trousers.  While his current job isn't super dressy, his collection of khakis is getting a bit less than workplace appropriate.

While this sounds praiseworthy on some level, it actually reflects how very wasteful we once were.  On Saturdays, we woke up and went shopping.  Not every Saturday - but often enough.  The result was troves of clothing, vast reserves that we've yet to run through.  Did we have the money?  Not really.  Did we need it?  Obviously not.  We just bought the stuff anyhow.

Franklin's trousers are probably wearing out in part because he now commutes on mass transit and foot.  It's rougher on clothing than our previous car-based travels.  If we were still driving to work, maybe our conversation wouldn't have taken place.

For us, the wake-up call came when we moved four hours away.  Franklin went first, to a small sublet, while I stayed behind to sell our old house and pack up our worldly goods.  Seeing just how many worldly goods we'd amassed - and having to pack, ship and store those goods while we waited for our new house to be completed - served as good incentive to have less stuff.

It's amazing when you stop buying things how very long you can go without needing a replacement.  In fact, I suspect Franklin will go a few more weeks - probably months - before he actually buys those pants.  Once you break the habit of shopping, it's actually hard to start again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Very Little Greene

Little Miss Fiona Greene is here, and she's adorable.  Franklin, Freddie and I are all smitten.

But with the arrival of the littlest Greene, I'll confess that our household has become less green.  Here's a quick rundown of our challenges - and triumphs!
  1. Diapers:  We agreed to use BumGenius sized diapers starting with size one, meaning that we'd need to rely on disposables for the few first weeks.  I bought Seventh Generation size newborn diapers to start us off.  They were a huge disappointment - Fiona kicked them off!  The shape is less contoured than many conventional diapers, and it's tough to fold them to avoid the belly button and cover the bum.  On the upside, they do wonders for diaper rash - all of the conventional diapers we tried left her red and rashy.  She's finally filling out her size one BumGenius collection, though, so we're feeling a little less trashtastic.
  2. Breastfeeding:  Triumph!  I bought one book and one pack of gel pads for those first few (painful) days, plus a tube of lanolin and we're in business.  It's amazing how much easier it is to leave the house and handle midnight feedings when all of the equipment is, er, attached.
  3. Driving:  I knew we'd drive more with baby on board, but I hadn't accounted for the following:  my daughter hates the stroller.  Hates it.  She loves her sling and her Baby Bjorn, but if I'm carrying her, I can't carry a bag of groceries, much less all of the gear required to take a baby out for a few hours.  (And, of course, if I'm on foot, I'm more likely to be out for more than an hour - it's a twenty minute walk to the store.)  I've yet to track our travel, and I'm hoping we'll adjust back to our 25 miles/week pattern within the next month.
  4. Clothing:  We've been showered with little pink togs!  That's great for our bank account, but not so nice for Mother Earth - especially since they all came wrapped in pretty pink paper.  Still, about half of her wardrobe is hand-me-downs or thrift/consignment shop finds.  It's so easy to do with newborns that it's just crazy that more people don't trade clothing or at least buy it second hand.
  5. Laundry:  We're back to using the dryer.  Franklin is doing more of the wash, and he's not about to fuss with the drying rack.  In any case, our eight pounds of baby girl generates a lot of wash - even I'll admit that it would be a strain to rely on the rack for everything, especially with the grey, overcast fall we've been having.  But I must say, I'm really uncertain about the impact of all that water used washing cloth diapers!
Still, we've made some positive changes.  We're now getting all of our milk and eggs locally, from a dairy that delivers.  We share a box with a neighbor, keeping our delivery fees lower.  And returning glass bottles?  It's the best thing.

And we're working on replacing more of our cleaning products with the basics.  We cleared a clogged drain with baking soda, vinegar and boiling water.  Cheap, clean and guess what?  More effective than Drano.

So it hasn't all been two steps backwards.  But it does make me very aware that if you're not thinking green, baby's ecofootprint is far, far bigger than those little bitsy feet could ever suggest.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Love is the Drug

When breastfeeding goes wrong, it can go wrong fast.  As a clueless first time mother, I failed hard.  By the time I figured out that we had a problem, our son was being admitted to Children's Hospital, dehydrated and jaundiced.

Freddie is laughably, blessedly healthy now, but I'll never forget those horrible first few days of confusion and uncertainty, followed by that endless night in the hospital.  I pumped breast milk and supplemented with formula whenever I fell short.  By the time he was a few months old, it was over - Freddie was on Enfamil full-time.

Fiona is a few weeks old now, and I'm relieved to report that breastfeeding is going just fine.  Here's what's different this time:
  • I took a fabulous breastfeeding class before I delivered.
  • My delivery nurse was a certified lactation consultant who made sure we got off on the right foot.
  • Our hospital encouraged rooming in, meaning that Fiona and I fell into a rhythm from the first.
  • The maternity ward was filled with lactation consultants who were helpful and available.
  • I came prepared with the best book ever - Breastfeeding Made Simple.
And despite all this, the most important difference was me.  I was fiercely determined not so much to breastfeed, but to follow my instincts.  With Freddie, I knew something was wrong but kept thinking it was just new parent nerves.  With Fiona, I knew things were going right from the first.

Which makes some parts of my experience baffling.  While our hospital was, overall, pro-breastfeeding and very helpful, a number of nurses clearly were biased in favor of formula.  The second night, after my daughter had lost a lot of weight, one nurse bullied me into feeding her some formula.  I'm strong-willed and mule-stubborn, but she managed to put me into a full-scale panic.  Since she came on duty at 11 p.m., it wasn't as if I had access to a second opinion.  I gave Fiona a taste, but as soon as I had, it hit me.  This is wrong.

So I checked with a lactation consultant in the morning, and our pediatrician when he visited and even though two more nurses tried valiantly to convince me to supplement, I politely ignored them.  "She's lost 7% of her birth weight.  Maybe you can give her some formula?"

"I think we're fine."

"We don't want her to lose too much weight."

"I think we're fine.  Thanks so much."  Cue big smile.

And don't get me started on the nurse who compared formula to dessert.  Would she tell me to feed my 4 y.o. a hot fudge sundae after he eats his waffles and OJ every morning?

Because we live in a big city, our nurses were from every corner of the Earth.  I wonder if some of that had something to do with it.  The lactation consultants were women like me - white, educated, vaguely hippie-ish if you looked beyond the scrubs.  Some of the nurses looked at me like I was a crazy, vaguely hippie-ish privileged white woman.  

They're probably right.

Except that they're SO clearly wrong about breastfeeding.  Because my daughter is thriving.  She gained back her birth weight plus five ounces by her two week doctor's appointment, and now ranks in the 75th percentile for weight.

And we're managing without any special gear or equipment.  Well, I did send Franklin out for those gel packs.  But after the first few days, I haven't even needed them.

Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful that formula exists, because feeding Freddie was a challenge.  Between having no maternity leave and a disastrous start to breastfeeding, if not for formula, he might have been truly sick - or worse.

But I wish every mother would have the chance to breastfeed successfully.  Because I am so in love with my darling daughter, and this feels like the ultimate expression.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Save the World Decisions

A few years ago, when the economy was booming and gas cost less than Pepsi, a colleague of mine commented on reports of a hybrid Hummer:

That's not a save-the-world decision.

He was right, of course.  And it turned out that the Hummer Hybrid was just a rumor.  (Never fear - the 2009 Cadillac Escalade is available with the, ahem, green technology.)

But at the time, I remember thinking to myself:  What is our responsibility to make save-the-world decisions?

We've reduced our footprint dramatically, and on the occasions where I do opt for the less green, sometimes even wasteful choice, should I feel guilty?

Or should making a certain number of save-the-world decisions - sacrifices, really - allow us to choose places to be wasteful?

Here's my dilemma:  I've decided to boycott conventional chocolate candy.  Diane's Big Green Purse had me fairly alarmed about the ills of conventional chocolate - mostly that child labor is involved in cocoa production, but also a host of environmental considerations.  I couldn't imagine handing out Hershey bars at trick'or'treat, knowing that kids the same age as our revelers had slaved to make it possible.

Instead, I decided we'd hand out little toys - Matchbox cars - and something other than chocolate.  Our neighborhood is small; we know most of the toddlers who will trick'or'treat on our street before retiring to the community center.  If we do get a bunch of older kids, we've got a few dozen Hershey bars left over from Freddie's last school fundraiser that will almost certainly suffice.  (Yes, I know - I just said I couldn't imagine.  But they're in our pantry, and really, it's even less reasonable to toss them in the trash.)

Instead, I bought animal cracker packs, stickers and Chinese paper yo-yos, plus little cellophane bags to put them in.  I spent about $18.  And I argued with myself the whole time.

Is this really any better than $10 worth of candy?  Well ... the kids will have the Matchboxes forever; I'm planning to raid Freddie's excess of Play-Doh minis for the few girls in our 'hood.  So it's not disposable.  And the Chinese yo-yos can be recycled.

Speaking of the yo-yos, Fern - Chinese!  It's all made in China.  True.  I'm part of the problem.  But if I can't splurge now and then, I'll go crazy!  We rarely drive, we recycle like mad, I'm super careful about our energy use and do my best to make green choices in our regular consumer habits.  Can't we have a holiday?

At what cost, Fern?  What if those yo-yos were put together by prison labor in China?  $3.99 for 30 yo-yos?  No economy of scale makes consumer goods that cheap without adverse impact.  Yes.  You're right, inner voice.  They're wasteful and possibly dangerous.  But I want them, I want them, I want them!  I want to be the cool mom this Halloween, not the one handing out one tiny pack of spelt pretzels.  I'm already the mom who wraps presents in the comics and sends whole wheat everything in Freddie's lunchbox.

And anyhow, Inner Voice, THERE WAS NO GREEN ALTERNATIVE!  I suppose I could've bought Annie's Cheddar Bunnies in individual packages, but they're not enough of a treat to meet my criteria - 'round here, most kids eat those on a daily basis.  Animal crackers work because our under five crowd is easy to please.

I suppose I might have Franklin scoop up a handful of Dum Dum pops from the corner store.  They're manufactured about eight hours away - not local, but not Cote d'Ivoire, either.  And the Spangler Candy Company is family-owned, which makes me feel a smidge better about this overindulgence.

It's not a save-the-world decision.  It's the opposite, and I made it knowingly.

File this under "Green Guilt," while I renew my commitment to cloth diapering, second-hand finery and trying to source more of our food locally.

I have a lot of packaging to make up for.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Are You Okay with Hand-Me-Downs?

My neighbors, a group of people for whom I am deeply grateful, recently threw us a surprise baby shower for Fiona.

We live in an interesting place - there's a fair amount of job security, given that many of our neighbors work for the federal government or are active duty military.  (The latter group has a job security that is downright terrifying.)  But our incomes are relatively modest when you consider the cost of living in the nation's capital.  And so while most of us are two-income, professional families that appear to earn quite a bit, our lifestyles are by no means lavish.

This isn't the kind of 'hood that attracts people longing for the Glamorous Life, either.  I suppose some of our neighbors could've stretched and a fancier 'burb, but it would've meant living outside the beltway.

Most of us are at least a little bit green, though it's inconsistent.  The only family of hardcore vegetarians includes a shopaholic mom; the only family that really eats local also commutes via car.  

But in recent days, a number of neighbors have asked how I feel about hand-me-downs.  

My attitude?  Bring 'em on!

Could we afford to kit out our kid?  Of course!  But why?  If there are perfectly good kid clothes sitting in someone else's closet, I'm more than willing to dress Fiona in secondhand finery.  Much of her baby clothing has come second-hand already, through the local thrift store and my favorite consignment shop.

But here's what puzzles me - if they're asking it must mean either:

1.  They admire and respect my personal style and approach to dressing Freddie and don't want to interfere with our sartorial decision-making.

With a glance down at my well-worn, $3 clearance rack maternity khakis from pregnancy #1, I can safely conclude that's not it.

2.  Some people consider hand-me-downs inappropriate or even insulting.  Or something.

Looking back, I remember my mother disliking the hand-me-downs we received from a pair of cousins.  But then, my cousins were allowed to adopt trendy, more adult styles a few grade levels earlier than we were.  When we were all still in little girl sundresses, I seem to recall wearing quite a few of Hester and Hattie's things.

Other than issues of appropriateness, I can't fathom a reason to say no to 2T tee shirts.  Should some of the tees declare Fiona a diva, princess or spoiled brat, I'll simply tuck those in the back of the box to be returned.

So ... I don't get it.  Why would someone object to gently used kids' clothing?  I'll probably still splurge on a few special occasion outfits and the like, but that's easier to do if most of her gear comes free of charge.

Why would anyone turn down such painless generosity?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Greene Housekeeping

I've been reading Ellen Sandbeck's Green Housekeeping with a cautious eye.  While I've been happy to switch to Method and Seventh Generation substitutes, I'm hesitant to ditch all of my green cleaning products in favor of white vinegar and baking soda.

Call me cautious, but the bottom line is that I'm new to running a household, and often feel overwhelmed.  This is what makes me easy prey for the big consumer product companies and their over-processed, over-packaged chemical fiestas in the cleaning aisle.

There is something about Green Housekeeping's tone that can make you crazy - at least if you're a novice like me, prone to feeling guilty.  But I'm happy to report that I got up the courage to try one of her suggestions, and it worked like a charm.

While our dishwasher is just a year old, I've never been sure how to clean it.  Other than wiping it out a few times, I've pretty much just put in dirty dishes and hoped for the best.  But after 14 months of hard service, it was undeniable that our clean machine needed some TLC.

So I grabbed Ellen's book and looked up her suggestions.  Here it is:

Fill a bowl with two cups of distilled white vinegar.  Place it on the bottom rack of the dishwasher and run a regular cycle.

Success!  It was easy, fast, cheap and impeccably green.

She has another suggestion for cleaning out a garbage disposal using vinegar and baking soda.  I'm going to try this one next week.  (I used up the last of my white vinegar on the dishwasher.)  
I'll also be taking a quick glance at the products I didn't buy to do these jobs - my local grocery store sells a $4 bottle of something designed to clean garbage disposals and a similar product for dishwashers.  Can I count those towards our financial savings?

Hmmm ... not sure about that.  But we can certainly count them towards a greener planet.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ditching the Disposables

Crunchy Domestic Goddess issued a "ditch the disposables" challenge for September and October.

I was initially at a loss as to what to ditch.  While we haven't gone paper-towel free, we've cut down our use dramatically.  (And switched to sustainable, paper-from-paper for what we do use.)  But just thinking about the DtD challenge has me thinking differently.

Officially, we're ditching purse-pack tissues in favor of handkerchiefs.  Franklin asked me to buy some; my brother-in-law carries them faithfully.  And since Freddie's requests for a tissue are often, er, non-productive, I figured it would be an easy switch, and one that reduced our reliance on a heavily packaged product.

So far?  Easiest green thing we've ever done.

But here are a few other disposables on which we've reduced our use:
  • I was an early adopter of Lysol wipes for quick cleaning; while I've switched over to rags, I've been in the habit of keeping the wipes on hand.  I realized the other day that I've all-but-stopped using them and wouldn't miss them if they were gone.
  • Ding, dong the Clorox ToiletWand system is dead!
  • After weeks of the Diaper Debate, we've ordered three cloth diapers to test out.  Assuming they work, we'll buy more.
  • I'm keeping a handkerchief in our bathroom, reaching for it instead of a tissue almost every time.
Combined with our other ditched disposables - over the last year, we've taken to using refillable Sigg canteens and travel coffee mugs, reusable shopping bags and (mostly) refillable containers instead of plastic baggies and wrap - it feels like we're really cutting down on our garbage generation.

There's always more to do, but for the moment, it feels like we keep managing to find simple, straightforward and logical things to do to make a difference.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One Small Step for the Potty, One Giant Leap for the Greenes

When I first embarked on the greening of the Greenes, I agonized over costs.  Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid is nearly three times as much as Ajax; don't get me started on Burt's Bees shampoo or Tom's of Maine toothpaste.

I was willing to do it, regardless.  My family has given up so much recreational shopping that spending a little bit of extra cash to protect the Earth for our children is a sound investment.

But thanks to a bunch of other blogs and Diane's Big Green Purse, the light bulb finally switched on.  (Must've been a CFL.)

For the past few years, I've been cleaning our toilets with the Clorox Toilet Wand system.  I had an irrational fear of dirty toilet brushes.  And cleaning the toilet seemed like this huge job of work - hours of scrubbing, surely.  This nifty system made it so easy - just pop on a new head, swish and then toss the head into the trash.


The chemicals!  The waste!  And, as Franklin pointed out the other day, we've cut down on our trash so dramatically that the used heads lingered in our bathroom wastebaskets for at least a week, often more.  Not really an improvement on a dirty toilet brush.

And then I did the math.  It costs $5 for a box of six replacement heads.  (Let's not even consider what I spent for the wands initially.)  That's effectively 83 cents per cleaning.

Yesterday, I nipped out to Ikea and spent 99 cents on a toilet brush.  (Was there a greener, recycled plastic option?  Dunno.  I'll wrestle with that in a few years when we replace the brushes.)  That brush, plus a sprinkle of Bon Ami, will get the job done for a fraction of the cost.  Let's say I use the brush for two years, or about 100 toilet cleanings.  I suspect I'll go through about $3 worth of Bon Ami in the same period.  

That is FOUR CENTS per cleaning - or a savings of 79 cents every week.

Over the course of year, that's $40.  Multiplied by our four bathrooms?  $160.  No wonder Clorox advertised their ToiletWand system so aggressively.  They talked me into parting with a lot of cash!

I'm starting to get it.  I knew we couldn't afford to NOT go green, but I'm delighted to realize that we can save money, along with the planet.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Somehow, the good people at Grandin Road decided I was a likely prospect to purchase items such as a $200 inflatable haunted house to go on our lawn, and so they sent me a catalog.

We don't have a lawn.  We have a sidewalk in front of our rowhouse.

Anyway, while I'm not about to buy something so dramatic - where we interested in decorating, it would be all cardboard cut-out tombstones and $5 worth of reusable cobweb - it did make me think that we haven't wrestled with what to do about my favorite holiday of the year.

Since I've been reading Diane's Big Green Purse, I'm well aware of the problems presented by major chocolate manufacturers.  In brief, beyond the obvious packaging, there's the real environmental impact of deforestation and the problems of child labor on cocoa farms.

All of a sudden, I can live without my Reese's peanut butter cups, thanks.

But what do I do about Trick'or'Treat?  Veggie Mom, my neighbor who tends to be so health-obsessed I fear her boy is going to rebel by sneaking out to McDonald's as a teenager, opts for pretzel packs.  I considered hitting Whole Foods to see if I could find fair trade organic chocolate in single-servings, but that clashes with my cheap gene.

The drugstore has bouncy balls that look like eyes and plastic spider rings - but is that stuff any higher up on the moral ladder than snack-sized Snickers?  After all, betcha those gew gaws were all Made in China under, ahem scrupulously monitored working conditions.

I've got a few weeks to wrestle with this one, but it does feel like there's no truly green way out, other than skipping the holiday entirely.  

And that is just NOT an option.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Electrify My Life, Please!

We drive a Jeep.  Not very green of the Greenes, right?  But we drive our Jeep Liberty all of 25 to 40 miles per week.  And since we have outdoorsy habits - notably Franklin's kayaking - and a growing family to haul, we will not be accomplishing these things in a Prius.

Because we're usually on foot, on Metro or on city bus, I don't feel so bad about our gas guzzling behemoth in the garage.  And, truth told, our Jeep Liberty isn't exactly a Hummer.  But when I was in the dealership over the summer, I was disappointed to hear that there were no plans in the works for anything more eco-friendly.  I figure plenty of Jeep drivers are also using them to haul bikes and kayaks and the like, and have an interest in saving the natural world so we can preserve our playspace.  Instead, the eager sales associate told me, they'd introduced the higher mileage Compass.

Meh.  Mileage is nice, but it was such a modest improvement that it didn't excite me.  And the style?  A little too soccer mom.

A few weeks ago, I was back at the dealership and noticed that Jeep had introduced Flex Fuel models - but only on their Grand Cherokee and Commander models, otherwise known as Very Big and Obnoxiously Oversized.  I'm not sure if the Grand Cherokee would fit into our garage.  (My best guess?  I could squeeze it in, but would then be forced to shimmy out through the optional sunroof, as the doors would be pressed up against the walls.)  As for actually acquiring Flex Fuel, at the moment we'd have to drive more than 20 miles each way to accomplish that task, so it pretty much torpedoes the idea.

As for the Commander?  I've been for a ride in a Commander, purchased by a safety-obsessed friend weeks after her firstborn came home in a Grand Cherokee that she decided was too small.  I felt like I ought to be invading a sovereign nation in that monster.  I'd have to park it in the distant reaches of parking lots, next to RVs and school buses.

The picture seemed bleak.  When I considered future car options, I found myself suggesting things like the Ford Escape Hybrid.  Franklin, whose dad worked for Chrysler back in the days of foot-powered Flinstone engines, would frown.

But then today, in the midst of misery on Wall Street and Franklin's job in peril, Chrysler announced that they're working on a Jeep EV for release sometime in 2010.  (The photo above is nabbed from their site.)  Check out all the details here at the Jeep EV site.  It's stylish and faithful to the Jeep legacy, and while we'd probably sacrifice some of our cargo room, it is apparently planned as a four-door model - one for each of the Greenes! 

We're optimistic that our current Jeep can carry us through to 2010 - it's really only a little more than a year away, and we've got less than 85,000 miles on our current ride.  Heck, if we can drive that thing until 2012, I'm happy to do so.  But I'm delighted to hear that eco-friendly options are coming from my favorite manufacturer.

Because 400 miles on 8 gallons of gas?  That sounds reasonable to me.

Raising Kids, Raising Cash

I'm all about fundraising.  Change in the world takes money, and it's not like there's enough of it for things that matter.  We give generously when able.  Heck, I've worked as a fundraiser and I know that giving can be transformative - for the donor and the receiver.

And I want to be supportive of Freddie's nursery school.  Really, I do.   Many of the families that attend the school have less than we do.  But I just can't do it.

Here's why:

Actually, that part of my problem comes in the spring, during candy sales.  The fall fundraiser that we're opting out of is slightly less problematic.  The cakes and pizzas are at least made by a Maryland-based bakery.  But they still arrive, over-packaged and with questionable ingredients.  I might not always use 100% organic ingredients when I bake, but I'm certain that we're at least generating far less packaging waste.

No Impact Man reported that 40% of municipal waste is packaging.  Walking Freddie to school on garbage days, I've little doubt of that.  We go to some lengths to recycle cardboard and paper, even the bitsy bits that are easy to overlook.  (Franklin, especially, is a champ about this.  He's been known to fish things from the garbage can and shoot me looks.)  We buy less.  And if I see something that is absurdly over-packaged, I'm quite likely to pass it up in favor of something less bundled.  Second-hand stuff, of course, comes with virtually no waste.  But most of the world isn't listening, and we see garbage galore.

I've considered suggesting alternate fundraisers, but I realize exactly how much work they are.  When many of the kids involved are infants, it's tough to argue for a read-a-thon.

So instead of selling cakes and pies and candy bars, we're just going to write a check.  It feels a bit lazy.  I'd be among the first to volunteer Freddie to hit up his adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents for donations in support of a walk-a-thon, but I'm not inflicting pricey lemon bundt cakes on the extended.

Actually, my Big Plan is to suggest that the elementary school - where Freddie will move next year for pre-kindergarten - do a trash-a-thon.  My friend Y's daughters do this, asking others to pledge for every bag of garbage the class fills.  They make a nice dent in tidying up their corner of the urban landscape, and betcha that those kids get the Don't Litter message loud and clear, as well as a very real sense of how much waste we generate.

It will take some selling on my part, I'm certain.  There's a general attitude of dislike and frustration towards fundraising.  Why don't they just raise the tuition?  one dad complained to me.  And I'm often left blinking, wondering why they'd want me to sell a dozen cheesecakes instead of just asking me for cash.

This year, they're getting the cash.  Like it or not.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Trouble with Toys

A few days ago, I was shopping for a birthday gift for my cousin.  In one of those funny things that happens in families, she's actually just a few months older than Freddie.

So Rachel was turning four, and because I like Rachel and her parents very much, I was attempting to find a gift that would satisfy everyone - my 4 y.o. cousin, her busy parents, my not-so-secret green tendencies.

And what I found was that even toys that appear to foster creativity really do more to straight-jacket it.

I didn't buy the Barbie Sticker Maker - but I almost did.  A sticker maker seemed like a good idea - Rachel loves to draw and color and has recently discovered Barbies.  But the opportunity to create was so narrow.  It was all about coloring in an existing design, adding a few finishing touches.  Most of the work came pre-packaged; complete.  The verb "to make" seems woefully misplaced here - it was more like a fill-in-the-blank template than an invitation to imagine.

As I started looking at the other toys, I realized how few items were truly intended for open-ended play.  Even the race cars that Freddie loves seems programmed to do what they do on TV, imitating races that we see on the Speed Network.  It's not the end of the world, I suppose - the inclination with race cars is, of course, to go very fast while making "vroom, vroom" noises, even if you've never seen a race televised.

But in general, there are very few toys that require a heavy input of imagination and a huge number of toys that encourage children to follow directions.  Even Play-Doh comes in kits that encourage you to use the provided molds to create a finite set of objects.

I ended up buying Rachel a craft kit consisting of many giant, oversized pipe cleaners, but even that came with directions about how to make a tiara.  I hope she knows it's okay to make a lasso or a tree house or a doll cradle with them, too.

After we attended a 3 y.o.'s party, I was beginning to think that maybe I was a nut for thinking that way.  Every other guest bought a gift with more direction - LeapFrog learning books and the like - while we gave a relatively modest truck and book about trucks.  Was I just missing the point?  Were kids more into toys that told them how to have fun?  Was I the lame parent without a clue?

Let's leave open the possibility that I'm clueless and lame, but I'm not sure that I'm wrong.  On Saturday, Freddie turned down the chance to go to the big park with the train and the carousel to visit the local park.  He played catch with Daddy and we all took tree branches and turned a large, fallen branch into a drum of sorts.  Freddie ran in circles until he was exhausted, then we took him home, where he ran into some neighborhood friends and decided to run in circles with them for a while, too.

Freddie has toys - as he would say, a lotsa toys.  But we're doing our best to keep them creative toys that don't dictate how they are to be used.  It's getting tougher with every passing year, but so far, we're not doing so bad.

We'll see what happens closer to Christmas.

O Mop, You Rock!

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my disappointments with things that were supposed to last actually falling apart.  Top of the list?  The snapped handle on my Method o mop.

As it happens, a quick email exchange with the company resulted in one coupon for a brand new o mop being dispatched almost immediately, along with a few consolation coupons for my trouble.  I went to Target, calmly explained that yes, the FREE coupon meant that I got the $24.99 Method o mop for $0, and came home to continue my campaign against dirty.

Since then, I've also resolved a problem with my Starbucks refillable mug.  This time I just used a toothpick to shove the plastic ring back into place and whaddaya know?  Good as new.

Then Franklin trumped both of my modest accomplishments by solving the problem of Freddie's tricycle by writing to Radio Flyer and having them send us two new wheels to replace the damaged ones on Master Greene's beloved ride.

A year ago, I'm fairly certain we'd have just pitched and replaced all three items without any effort at repair and/or replacement from the company.  But this is a different day, and here's why:
  1. As a family, we're committed to making what we have last.  This means that while it's okay to enjoy our stuff, we also have to take care of our things and recognize that having stuff - bikes and mops and mugs - is a sort of stewardship.
  2. As a family, we've decided that we want things in our life that aren't things.  This means that we have to be fiscally responsible, even conservative.
  3. As individuals, we're willing to stop and think about alternate ways to solve problems that don't involve hopping in the car and driving to Target.  This means we have to evaluate how urgent the problem is and be willing to go without for a few days while we find a solution.
While the whole "The Greenes are buying less" bit is bad news for corporate America, I can honestly say that it is good news for companies like Method and Radio Flyer.  They've earned our loyalty, and the dollars that we do spend in those categories are far more likely to go to them.

So here's to the o mop and the good people at Radio Flyer.  And whoever made those toothpicks that saved my coffee cup.  While our culture is still too obsessed with throwaway convenience, it's nice to know that it's not always that way.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Diaper Debate

Franklin and I tend to agree on parenting issues in the big picture sense, but lock horns on the details.

And with parenting?  It's all in the details, baby.

Fiona is due any day now, and I'm still Very Interested in Cloth Diapering.  It never crossed my mind with Freddie, but right now it seems logical and practical.

Franklin argues that if I master breastfeeding and he figures out how to make baby food from scratch, we'll be way ahead of the game.  (Freddie was on formula after a few months and while we fed him organic, it was all store bought in jars.)

He also contends that using Seventh Generation diapers is several notches up from where we started with Freddie.  To my surprise, my new go-to guide,  Diane's Big Green Purse, suggests that even if cloth has an edge, they don't necessarily win by a landslide.

So here's my list:

In favor of cloth diapering
  • Even if it's only slightly better than the alternative, it is better to keep all that waste out of the landfills.
  • Laundry is something that I really don't mind doing.  I'd rather do laundry than almost any other household chore.
  • We have a high efficiency washing machine and can use our a drying rack on our roof deck to minimize the energy used.
  • Cloth diapers have come a long way, and look and act like disposables - only you get to keep and re-use them.
  • None of our local stores sells 7G diapers.  That means we'd have to make special trips to stock up, or order them from
  • Even if we buy the Cadillac of cloth diapers, we'll probably save money.

In favor of Seventh Generation diapering
  • After Franklin's four weeks' paternity leave, I'll be on my own for hours and hours and hours with the baby.  And our toddler.  Keeping up with laundry might be an issue - even without the added burden of washing cloth diapers.
  • Cloth diapers have to be washed every two or three days, and can't always get mixed in with other things.  Even though our washer is efficient, it doesn't have a setting for smaller loads, so the impact might be greater than I imagine.
  • Fiona will go to part-time childcare in January so I can start a (real) job search.  Our childcare center doesn't accept cloth diapers, so she'd be making the change at least part-time anyway.
  • Franklin's right - I want to put my energy into breastfeeding.  I know that can be a challenge.
  • We spend a lot of time outside of our home, traveling mostly on foot and mass transit.  While some women are brave enough to cloth diaper on the go, I'm not sure I'm her.
You see - it's pretty much even.

This morning, Franklin said, "Would you please just buy a cloth diaper and try it?  Otherwise you'll just keep debating it."

He's right, of course.  (This is also a clear signal that Franklin Greene has had it up to HERE with my pro and con lists and just wants me to decide.)

So I've decided to order a cloth diaper and take the let's see how it goes approach.

Only trouble?

Which cloth diaper!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Upside of Being the Greenes

Even in these days where Franklin's job security is questionable and my own income is non-existent, I take comfort in the little things.  

It's a gorgeous early fall day in DC, the kind of day where opening the windows is all the temperature control required.  Freddie was charmed by the many squirrels scampering for nuts on our walk to school this morning.  The Farmer's Market opens in 30 minutes, and I'm going to buy a dozen eggs so we can have omelets this weekend.

And the amazing thing?  It's enough.  

While Franklin and I walked to the Metro this morning, we reflected that neither of us has any desire for the Finer Things.  I don't want jewelry or sports cars or works of art.  Franklin agrees.  And while we've both turned it over in our heads, we truly don't want those things - they're not desires we're quashing.  They're simply longings that we don't have.

What's valuable in our lives right now is time with each other, time with our children and the fact that we live in a neighborhood where we can walk outside and find pretty much anything we need - a pinch-hitter of a babysitter, a playmate for Freddie, help hanging a mirror, a decent microbrew, a good book to read.

The bottom line?  Going green isn't about saving the world.  It's about saving ourselves.  We want less.  We need less.  And somehow, that has allowed us to make space for more.

I struggle with the price tag on Seventh Generation laundry detergent and Tom's of Maine toothpaste.  But I never doubt our desire to make our ten year old couch last another decade, or to remain a one-car family.  (In seven years together, we've never had two!)  And I don't long for this season's designer duds or fancier dishes.

And so while I'm still on edge - at nine months pregnant, I certainly can't find a full-time job right now, and Franklin getting the pink slip would jangle our nerves - it's nice to be the Greenes.  We like the simple stuff, and I wonder if that's really the linchpin of going green -  of wanting things in your life that aren't things and of valuing people over possessions.

We're not saints.  We're highly flawed.  But I feel like we're on the right path, and even in these turbulent times, there's a lot of security in knowing that a drop in purchasing power is not going to cost us our happiness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Wish List

In our old life, we had a messy house.  We barely managed to do our laundry.  Many a day started out by running down to the basement, hoping to find clean socks in the dryer.

Not good.

In our new life, I discovered how to run a household.  And I found pleasure in the simplest things, like the discovery that Clorox Bleach did indeed whiten whites.

Franklin's undershirts, Freddie's socks, a stack of onesies saved for Fiona ... no challenge was too great.

Then I learned that bleach was bad, and switched to the Seventh Generation substitute.

It's not the same.

Don't get me wrong.  I feel much better cleaning Freddie's tub toys with the greener, less toxic variety.  But even adding the hot summer sun to the equation doesn't get the job done.

So what's less green - going through more men's undershirts and little socks, because really there's a point where they just can't be worn anymore, or protecting the local waterways?

I guess I'll try a few more old school remedies to bleach out stains, but if all else fails, I'm granting myself an exemption for a very small bottle of the hard stuff.  I can't stand the thought of pitching all those clothes when I know how pristine bleach rendered my whites.

Small Grid Living, Part One

I have a personal rule of thumb:  if it can be accomplished within walking distance, behave accordingly.

This was the primary factor motivating my choice of personal physicians.  If I hadn't liked them, I'd have switched - even if it meant driving.

At the time I looked for a pediatrician for Freddie, no one within easy walking distance seemed to be available, so I went with a recommendation for a doctor who turned out to be an absolute rock star.

Except then I realized that there was a practice just down the street that I'd somehow managed to overlook.  I obsessed.  I angsted.  I finally convinced myself that proximity trumped bedside manner and logged on to our insurance company website to make the change.

Where I discovered that the closer practice isn't covered under our plan.


Frugal Versus Green

While the Greenes aren't actually feeling the pinch in our pocketbooks just yet, the economic downturn has us on edge.  Franklin is stressed at work, and I was talking with a neighbor about the anxieties of being over-reliant on one income in a housing market where even a modest home carries an astronomical mortgage.

Yup, our income might be stable, but our confidence is badly shaken.

It's not a completely bleak picture.  Franklin and I sat back the other night and reflected that what we value is life isn't stuff.  Not being able to take off for a week in the Greek Isles or drop $1,000 at the mall on Saturday isn't worrisome.  Heck, I'm okay if we can't go any farther than the local park.  I might be allergic to the mall.  It would be great to be able to keep on affording our trips out to the local ice cream place and bagel shop on the weekends, but again, I could give them up and not be heartbroken.

But it does shake my confidence in some of our green choices.  Faced with buying gift wrap yesterday, I bought the clearance aisle, non-sustainable version.  Okay, there was only one sustainable choice, and it wasn't kid-friendly anyway.  But I couldn't bring myself to spend $6 instead of $2.50.  (I'd already used the Sunday comics for the other birthday party we went to this week.)

I've been meaning to buy hand soap pumps for ages.  Yesterday, I found one at Target made from "recycled glass."  But it had no indication of how much recycled glass.  And since it was made in China, just like everything else on their shelves, I didn't feel like 20% or even 50% recycled content justified paying $2.50 more.  The one I bought cost $7 on clearance.

Then I went to CVS and bought Purex laundry detergent at a rock-bottom sale price.  Combined with a coupon, I got it for $1.50/bottle for 39 loads.  That's cheap.

In a week where I've discovered that Tom's of Maine deodorant costs twice as much as Secret, and Tom's of Maine toothpaste costs four times what Aim costs, well ... I'm anxious.  I know what the right choices are, but I'm not sure that I can justify the price tag attached to every one of those right choices.

It's not a happy place to be.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is It or Isn't It: GreenRoom Eco

A few months ago, I went on one of my famous organizing sprees.  It involved having shelving installed in our office closet, and then purchasing a variety of binders, folders and other office equipage to hold all of our stuff.

The result is that I am fabulously organized - sort of.  But as I did this, I worried about whether or not my solutions were sustainable.  I know I could've achieved similar ends by opting for shoeboxes and second-hand file folders.  But I wanted it to be organized visually, and that's harder to do second-hand.  Plus, the amount of time it would've taken to find appropriately-sized folders at my local Salvation Army store?  I have free time, but I don't have that kind of free time.  And yes, I wanted my shiny new shelves to look good, too.  I am not beyond vanity.

So most of my purchases came from Target's stylish and sustainable GreenRoom Eco collection.  I'd forgotten about it until I happened to walk through the store this morning and spot their new designs.  They are, in a word, gorgeous.  I want them, even though I have nothing to write, wrap or store.

Seeing the designs made me wonder, though - how green was my paper?  They claim that they use 100% post-consumer paper (at least on the giftwrap I looked at today) as well as soy-based inks.  But their website feels a little thin, and I've never seen them anywhere except for Target.

I'm not questioning their claims - just wondering how deep the company's blood runs green.  Are they manufactured using sustainable processes?  They seem to be designed by a company called Clementine Paper, headquartered in Venice, California.  But there the trail runs dry.

And so I wonder, as I file another month's worth of paid bills and depressing quarterly statements from our investment accounts ... is this GreenRoom Eco line slightly greener than everything else?  Significantly greener?  Or about the same?

Inquiring minds want to know, but have no more time to Google search.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Knowing Green

While I've yet to buy her book, I love the site Diane's Big Green Purse.  She writes about how we can go greener by effective use of our purchasing power.  It's a message that makes a lot of sense to me.  It takes years and years and years to change and enforce government regulation, but we can become better educated, more thoughtful consumers almost immediately.

Except that trying to buy green truly makes my eyes cross.  In a few categories - paper products, for example - I feel like the guidelines are straightforward and the products readily available.  If they're more expensive, we've offset the increase by using rags instead of paper towels and handkerchiefs instead of tissues.

But cleaning products?  I'm lost.  And while Skin Deep's database makes some decisions easier, I'm often frustrated to discover that companies using organic ingredients and signing the compact against animal testing aren't necessarily producing the safest products.

Diane recently did a post calling for clearer standards so consumers could make intelligent decisions.  But what interested me was the summary she posted of an Eco Pulse study on how shoppers think about the green factor of their purchases:
  • Half said that a company's environmental record is important.
  • Less than a quarter said that they'd actually chosen one product over another because it was greener. 
  • Only 7% could name the product.
So not great news, but progress, right?  At least there's more awareness than there was once upon a time.  But there's also a lot of confusion, and having tried to become an educated consumer, I can completely understand. 

What's so interesting to me about this is that it's a huge market.  If you've heard about Chris Anderson's The Long Tail:  Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More, you've heard about the idea that a niche product can be a big, profitable hit because of the lower costs associated with the changing marketplace.  The study was sparked by noticing how many of Amazon's sales were driven by fairly obscure titles.  You could never find them on the shelf at Borders, but there's plenty of demand out there to drive sales.  The same goes for Netflix.  Yes, it's more convenient to have movies come to our mailbox.  But more than that, they readily turn up the arthouse foreign flicks that Franklin prefers.

Back the eco part of the story.  My family is inclined to be brand loyal.  I tend to buy the exact same things, week after week after week, stocking up when they're on sale and making changes only after a lot of thought.  In a very few categories, I'll buy one of two or three products, but I'm not the woman standing in the grocery store with a calculator and a coupon file.  Okay, I have the coupon file, but I only clip them for brands we routinely buy.

As I become more frustrated by the difficulties of buying green, I'm simply favoring new brands.  The staples of our household are no longer Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, but Seventh Generation, Green Forest, Method, Burt's Bees (even though they're owned by Clorox) and Tom's of Maine, along with a few other alternative brands and products.

Because there's no organic market within walking distance, I buy most of these products at our local Target and Giant.  I'm perfectly willing to figure out where to buy the greener product and behave accordingly.  But I move slowly - I changed our cleaning products first; I'm just working through our health and beauty products.

But a green certification process?  I would change 90% of our shopping decisions immediately.  We greened our paper in a matter of weeks thanks to this guide from the National Resources Defense Council.  

So here's our household's answer to the study:
  • A company's environmental record is one of the most important issues for our purchasing decisions.  Whenever possible, my dollars go to good corporate citizens.
  • We routinely choose greener products over others, and sometimes delay purchasing decisions because nothing seems quite green enough.  This especially applies to our consumables - paper, cleaning products, healthy & beauty - but increasingly also applies to our clothing and even major purchases.
  • Can I name them?  You betcha!  Besides Seventh Generation, Method, Tom's of Maine and Burt's Bees, there's also Simple and Keen footwear, Sigg bottles ... and counting.
The message to corporate America?  Get greener.  It's the only way into my wallet.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Victory! Except Not.

Recycling is a bit of a mystery here.  Our Home Owners' Association uses a privately contracted garbage service, who in turn subcontracts to a recycling service.  When I called to ask what they'd pick up, the Clueless Receptionist at the garbage service replied, "Everything."

FG: Everything?  That doesn't make any sense.  Aren't there certain numbers or other restrictions?

CR:  Ummm ... lemme check.

***Hum to yourself to mimic bland hold music.***

CR:  Hello, ma'am?  I checked.  You can put in anything.

FG:  Lightbulbs?  Aluminum foil?  Yogurt cups?

CR:  I think so.  

I rolled my eyes and hung up the phone, and have been putting anything in the bin that seems to have a reasonable chance of being recycled.  

But I've been angsting lately about yogurt cups.  You see, I love Yoplait yogurt.  Is it the healthiest thing for me?  No.  

Is it better than a large wedge of lemon cream pie?  Yes.

Would I happily shove my entire head into a lemon cream pie if I thought no one was looking?  Umm ... yeah, okay.  Some days I'd do it in front of a live, televised audience.

So Yoplait Light has been on my list of foods I buy despite their General Mills, big food background.  It helps that I can buy them in virtually every store within walking distance of our home, too.  And they run coupons.  Did I mention I'm a sucker for coupons?

Freddie has developed an affection for their banana flavor, and I've taken to sometimes sending one in his lunch box.  At not quite four, he's getting wise to the fact that other kids have far more tempting treats packed in their sacks.  If twice-weekly yogurt will stave off the inevitable requests for choco-sugar-coated-gummi-bombs, bring it on.

Here's the victory part:  Yesterday, Freddie gleefully reported that he'd washed out his yogurt cup.  When I opened Stripey, his tiger-shaped lunchbox, what did I find?  The regular assortment of refillable juice box, plastic dishes and lids, plus one Yoplait yogurt container.  He crowed about the same achievement to Franklin at bedtime.

Wahoo!  My child has been paying attention!  He knows that yogurt containers go to the left of the sink, so they can be rinsed, dried on the mat on the right side of the sink and recycled.  He gets it!


The downside?  While I've since confirmed that our recycler probably recycles yogurt containers - they collect for the county next door, a progressive place that instituted extensive plastics recycling a few years back - it appears that Yoplait containers might still be problematic.  Some of it is their hazardous-to-animals inverted shape (apparently squirrels and skunks peek in and end up wearing them as hats) and some of it is the type of plastic from which they're made, which some sites suggest is the least desirable type.

It's probably time to suck it up and switch to Stonyfield Farms.  They have lemon.  And, if I buy the big container, banana, too.  Plus, we already buy Recycline toothbrushes, one of several products made from Stonyfield scrap.  Only trouble?  It would mean driving about 20 miles round trip to fetch them.  We're tragically far from a decent organic market.  Stocking up on cereal and such is easily done, but yogurt?  Yikes!

Our Home Owner's Association is asking our management company to ask the garbage company (who will probably have to ask the recycling company) to clarify what they take.  When they finish whispering down the alley, I'll have to make a decision.

Or, you know.  Paint the containers and convince Freddie that they're better for stacking than Legos.  If my kid is schooling his teachers to segregate garbage from recyclables, he might just go for it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I'll Have A Green Christmas

On the heels of my vow to go slow, I find myself musing about the holidays.  They're still four months away, but with baby Fiona arriving smack in the middle, I'd like to be a bit ahead of the curve.

Over the past few years, Franklin and I have hit on one of the best ways to quietly go green that I can think of, especially if your families tend to find your views on environmentalism a bit pointless.

We resist buying anything that we need for ourselves or the house until the holidays roll around.  Because my family asks for gift ideas - and is delighted when we send them the Amazon link - this means that we manage to acquire high quality items.  While it's not truly green - they're still buying, wrapping and sometimes shipping the gifts - it is a few notches above receiving unwanted and unnecessary stuff.  So far, this year's list includes:
  • Decent salt and pepper shakers;
  • A lemon zester;
  • Placemats and cloth napkins;
  • Wine glasses;
  • A wagon for Freddie.
Could we do without or find second-hand versions of the above?  Absolutely!  But if you're going to get gifts No Matter What, then this is a reasonable way to limit your personal consumption.  Plus you can always work in eco-sneak gifts - cloth napkins, for example.  And since my family tends to buy The Good Stuff, I'm comfortable knowing that their purchases are things that we'll have for decades.

With Franklin's family, we've taken a different approach.  They tend to buy things that They Believe You Must Want.  Franklin's aunt spent a fortune on a complete set of gorgeous, lovely silver place settings that we've used exactly once.  It was, in many ways, a terribly thoughtful gift given by a woman who is still flummoxed by the fact that Fern Doesn't Care About China.

I suppose we can consider the silver a family heirloom, but other gifts in the series - the Special Occasion Cake Stand (what, as opposed to my every day one?) springs to mind - have been busts.

Luckily, it turns out that my in-laws are happy enough to buy gift cards.  Whenever we contemplate a major purchase - like the 15 y.o. television we've just replaced, or the decent kitchen knives that we hope to someday acquire - the process begins several months or years ahead with gift cards.  It's a nice compromise.  And if it's not exactly green, well, again, it's slightly better than receiving another set of dessert plates.

While we feel like we've beaten back the worst of the holiday beast, there are a few other tricks up my sleeve for this year:
  1. I'm choosing green gift wrap.  We're not at the reusable fabric gift bag stage as a family, but I've noticed how many manufacturers now offer paper-from-paper.  We put our gift wrap into the Abiti Paper Retriever bin at Freddie's school, too.  I'm also trying to buy gift wrap that is non-seasonal ... solid silver, blue, red, etc.  This means that any left over is used in short order.
  2. I'm buying eco-sneak gifts whenever possible.  My brother-in-law wants a Sigg.  When I see what's on my siblings' lists, I might be able to think of some other creative ways to green up our giving.
  3. Fabric ribbon, baby.  My mother-in-law has been using the same bits of fabric ribbon for years now, and it's by far the best idea ever.  If I see it heading for trash while visiting my side of the family, I can always take it back.  And while we have very limited storage space, my shoebox full of ribbon bits is not a problem.  While I don't necessarily have coordinated sets of matching bow and paper, it's amazing how quickly it dresses up a package.
  4. I'm crafting found gift tags.  Gift tags are one of those things that never quite work for me.  They're expensive, and for some reason, I never have matching tags to coordinate with everything else.  My aunt uses prior years' holiday cards as tags.  I'm planning to do that and also keep an eye out for other things that come our way - junk mail, etc. - that could easily have a second life.
It's not much, but as I said, I'm dedicated to not taking on any more major initiatives - unless you count cloth diapering and breastfeeding a newborn - between now and year's end.

And who knows?  Maybe I'll figure out a few more things to add to this list between now and then.

Slowing Green

When families set out to go green, I think it's important to think about pace.  While it often feels like we don't have the luxury of taking our time, I'm also inclined to argue that transforming our habits will never be achieved overnight.

If we want to make change in our lives and the wider world, we need to allow our new habits and practices to settle in and become not just deliberate, virtuous acts, but the way we go about existing on this Earth.

More importantly, we need to give others in our households and our lives a chance to catch up.

The Greenes have changed so much in the past 16 months that it's easy to think that we can change just as much every year.  But if we did that, well, in another few years we'd be living off the grid in a cabin, waking every morning to forage for berries and check our fishing lines.

That's not the goal.  At least not for us.

So I'm going to stop looking for new things to do and start looking for ways to do things better.  I accidentally tossed a plastic bread bag into the garbage instead of recycling it this morning; when confronted with an invasion of ants, I sent Franklin to Home Depot for traps rather than to Whole Foods for peppermint oil.

This summer has been incredibly fun and relaxing, but as we head into fall - and Fiona's impending arrival - I do feel a need to slow down, evaluate and relax.

We're doing better, and sometimes it feels reflecting on our progress and giving ourselves time to relax into the changes is more important than imagining the next step.

Silent Green

Here's something that I will never understand:  if your product is reasonably eco-friendly, why not shout it from the Top of Someplace Very High?

That Adirondack chair on the left is coming to our home very soon.  Okay, not him.  Two of his friends are on order, hunter green in color, fruity cocktails not included.

Our lovely chairs started out life as humble milk jugs.  Over in Syracuse, Indiana, some smart folks figured out how to make durable plastic lumber from objects destined for landfills.  The result is no-maintenance furniture that does some good for the planet.

But they do it very, very quietly.

After tracking down a local dealer and confirming that Poly-Wood chairs are indeed as nice as they look online, and hearing that many customers were pleased with them, I placed our order.  I mentioned that I'd stumbled on them while reading about recycled building materials.  The store manager looked at me blankly.  "They're made from old plastic bottles," I explained.

"Oh.  I had no idea," she answered.  "People just seem to like them."

So maybe she wasn't the most eco-aware soul on this planet.  And hey, she already had my Visa card.  

But as she processed the sale, I flipped through the catalogs.  Sure enough, there was no mention of Poly-Wood's green cred on any of their promotional materials.  It's visible on their website, but it didn't seem to be positioned as the brand's major selling point.  (I hustled home worried that perhaps I'd confused Poly-Wood with some other material and had accidentally ordered furniture made from new materials.)

Maybe they don't talk it up much because their manufacturing might not be scrupulously green - I don't know.  Extruding pellets of recycled plastic sounds unavoidably toxic.  But it's a challenge that any manufacturer of new stuff faces, and plenty of companies - Simple Footwear, for example - do a nice job of admitting that they're flawed but improving.

Of course, Poly-Wood's materials weren't the only thing that drew us to the chairs.  We need something durable that can sit outside year-round, in ice and snow and bleaching heat.  and because it lives on the fourth floor roof deck of our rowhouse, we wanted something that wouldn't blow away.  It proved to be an impossible list to satisfy second-hand.  (I considered cast iron except that they were tough to find second-hand, tended to give off more of a delicate-perching-for-tea vibe than a crashing-out-with-a-beer-vibe and utterly failed the maintenance free test.)

But I drove more than fifteen miles - in my part of Metro DC, that's nearly forty minutes - to visit the dealer, by-passing plenty of cheaper, more convenient options.  (Target, Home Depot ... you get the idea.)  So I'm a bit dazzled that the store manager was completely unaware that the stuff was powerful enough to lure me across the county line into the more polished part of town.

Maybe that's just it.  Maybe some people - the kind of people who spend $10,000 and up on Outdoor Dining Room sets and install an extra wine refrigerator next to their Kalamazoo Custom Outdoor Kitchen would prefer not to know that their furniture has a past.

Me?  I'm planning on telling everyone who visits about the clever material used for the Adirondacks.  Whether they want to know or not.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Grocery Post

Our grocery bill has been inching up, but only partially because of the general increase in prices.  As we've gotten greener, we've been opting for foods that seem to be healthier, more organic, less processed.  Here's what's in our cabinets nowadays:
  • Kashi cereals - Franklin and I are both fans, and Freddie doesn't even know what a Cheerio is - he calls them "Heart to Heart" after the similar Kashi product
  • Barbara's Bakery cereals - Freddie loves their Wild Puffs, and I find they offer a reasonable compromise between Fruit Loops and oatmeal
  • Fantastic World Foods vegan chili mix - Nope, we haven't gone vegan.  Heck, we haven't gone vegetarian.  But it turns out that in some foods, we don't know the difference and finding a slightly healthier version means we can eat it more often.
  • Morningstar Farms vegetarian sausage patties - This is a new one.  Franklin is a huge fan of breakfast sandwiches, even though he knows they're Not a Good Idea.  And so he invented his own savvy substitute, switching out the meat for the meatless.  He tells me it's a bit like eating a falafel breakfast sandwich, but not in a bad way.
Add in lots of fresh produce and most weeks, I'm still stunned at the check-out.

Our grocery bill has dipped, however, thanks to the fact that we're eating less meat and much less red meat.  We're also buying far less junk food.  So the total impact is less than it could be.

And yet, I'm wondering how green many of these foods truly are.  While I'm fairly confident that Kashi and Barbara's are good corporate citizens, I was surprised to realize that Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg.  Why am I surprised that big food has a big reach?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Keeping Baby Greene

Miss Fiona Greene is scheduled to join our family in a few more weeks, and we're hoping to welcome her in a reasonably eco-savvy fashion.

While I'll admit, I splurged for a $25 goldfish bunting - wasteful, frivolous and insanely cute - for the most part, I've been doing my best to practice sane, Earth-friendly parenting even before baby makes four.  Top on my list?  Mastering breastfeeding.

When Freddie was born, I was so busy trying to cram prenatal check-ups into my hectic work schedule that taking a breastfeeding class seemed an unthinkable luxury.  Silly me.  Freddie was a lousy latcher, I was completely clueless and because he was born just days before Christmas, the hospital lactation consultants weren't on their regular schedule.

Add in a pair of in-laws so taken with their first grandchild that they camped out in the hospital making me squeamish about trying, a mild case of jaundice and we were headed for disaster.  We spent Christmas Eve Eve in our local children's hospital, watching frail Freddie squirm in an isolette, complete with an IV for yes, he was now badly jaundiced and dehydrated.

The story ends well - Freddie quickly recovered and ended up in the 99th percentile for height and weight just a few months later.  He's still there.

But what I learned from my experience is this:  when breastfeeding goes wrong, it can go really wrong.  If you don't know your resources and options up front, it can be not just difficult, but dangerous.

Luckily, I finally found a good lactation consultant who mopped my hysterical self off the floor and taught me how to use a rented, hospital-grade pump.  But this time around, I'm setting out informed and determined.

What I can't decide, though, is how much stuff I need.  We have the Boppy and I kept my nursing bras.  But should I stock up on Lansinoh now?  How about breast shields or pads?  I can't imagine investing hundreds of dollars in nursing wear.  But what about that $35 Hooter Hider?  Is it as frivolous as a wipes warmer, or the best thing since California Baby shampoo?

I'm looking at breastfeeding for all the right reasons - health benefits, mother-baby bonding, convenience - but also because it's gotta be the lowest eco-impact option - even if I buy a bunch of stuff.

But I can't help wonder - should I order some of the gear before I need it, assuming I can always pass it on if it proves unhelpful?  Or should I just sit back and be confident that I'm so much more prepared this time, and know when to ask for help?

I'm inclined to do the latter, but there's still about a month to go.  I might just buy that Hooter Hider yet.  

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Light at the End of the Tunnel May or May Not Be a Train

We're nearing the end of another dismal week on Wall Street.  Our investments are bloodied and bruised.  Our home's value isn't falling, but we couldn't sell it if we tried.  And the prospect of starting a job search shortly after Fiona's impending arrival fills me with anxiety.  Are there any jobs left?

But what's most interesting to me about today's news is that the markets were driven lower in large part due to retailers' reports that more families curtailed spending on non-essentials.  In other words, Wal-Mart did okay; all those upscale chain stores at the mall, not so much.

I suspect that many of us who have gone green rarely darken the door of the local MegaMall.  It's just not a place that has much that we want or need.  My local Target anchors a decidedly modest shopping mall, but unless I'm cutting through to my doctor's office on the other side, I just about never go.  And when I did venture into the mall by my mother's house, lured by a coupon, I bought Freddie two things I find tricky to find secondhand - new sneakers and a pair of jeans, all for less than $40.

Apparently, my behavior is bad for America's bottom line.

But the simple truth is that I am so much happier now that our weekends don't revolve around going to stores and acquiring things - a staple of the early days of our marriage and into our first days as parents, complete with lunch out at FatBurger.

We may be shopping less, but I'm confident that we have more.  More time, more space, more sanity, more money in the bank and most importantly, more choices because we've defined what's important to us - and a new sofa every three years does not make the list.  More years on our life because we're active and eating better and living with fewer chemicals, too.

But if going green puts the economy in the red, then do I really want every family in America do behave as conservatively as the Greenes?

Let me review our retirement portfolio for a minute.

If we go back to a robust economy, where everyone has plenty of discretionary cash, what's the environmental impact?  Then again, if we languish in a recession for too long, the Greenes will be living quite close to nature indeed as Franklin's job could be in jeopardy.

I want to see the good in high gas prices, more families choosing to shop second-hand or not shop at all and all the other choices that are getting so much press lately.  But I fear that this bust is just the precursor to a boom - a boom that will herald a return to the bad old days, plump up our IRAs and do a little more damage to Mother Earth.

Is a robust economy incompatible with eco-sensitive lifestyles?  Say it isn't so.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Greening our HBA: A Job of Work

Going greener seems to divide into two categories.  

First, there are the Biggies - the major, sweeping lifestyle changes that usually require an output of thought, time and cold hard cash.  For us, last year's Biggie meant moving to a home served by excellent mass transit where most of our regular needs can be met via foot, bus or train.  Future Biggies will probably include adopting some solar technology and possibly replacing our (rarely-driven) Jeep with a lighter-on-the-planet, but still family-and-outdoor-activity-accommodating ride.

Then there are the Dailies - the habits that you can change slowly, that seem like they don't require much thought, that feel like they ought to trouble you none.

But as we begin the process of Greening our HBA, it feels like it would take less effort to install solar panels on the roof.  Myself.  While eight months pregnant.

Here's the trick:  Merely buying a product labeled organic doesn't do it.  My sister's favorite moisturizer looks like it's got green cred: Alba Botanica Sea Moss moisturizer.  And it's available at my local Target for a mere $15.  But it also rates a dismal 7 - or high hazard - at the Cosmetic Safety Database.

While I accept that nothing we ingest or apply is without consequences, it's dazzling - the same company can have products that rate all over the map, and some companies that look greener and safer are actually more hazardous than mainstream brands.

On my next trip past an organic market with a robust health & beauty section, I'm off to read labels.  Too bad I don't have a portable CSD to tote along.  This is gonna take some doing.