How to: Reduce your paper towel usage by 99%

Peeps, listen up. Eliminating (well, almost) paper towels from your house is one of the easiest things you can do to reduce your waste and wastefulness. You do not need paper towels to dry produce, to wipe down kitchen counters, or to wipe up anything. Yes, they are convenient and compostable, but why not use something reusable instead?

Here’s how I did it. I replaced paper towels with a combination of dish towels, bar towels, and rags cut from old shirts. They don’t get gross and smelly because I treat them just like single use paper towels; once they’re dirty, I put them in a mesh laundry bag in the pantry and wash them weekly separately from clothes in hot water. That’s it. 

I have only one roll of paper towels that my parents left behind and the only time I use them is for draining grease off fried food. This occurrence is rare because we kicked the bacon habit, but I did recently discover that cauliflower Parmesan is even better than chicken parm, and yes, I fry it like Cook’s Illustrated recommends. 

Last week's laundry: cloth napkins, cute dish towels, tshirt rags, bar towels, and a washable dust cloth.   

Last week’s laundry: cloth napkins, cute dish towels, tshirt rags, bar towels, and a washable dust cloth.   

Please give it a shot. Next time you want to wipe off the counter or do whatever else people do with paper towels (I don’t even remember anymore!), grab a dish towel rather than a paper towel. Let me know how it goes!

In the News: Target Announces Sustainable Product Standards

Last month, Target announced a new program in which it will rate products based on their transparency, ingredients, and environmental impact.  According to Target’s website, the 100 point system will be implemented first on personal care, beauty, household cleaning, and baby care products.

Given how big of a reach Target has, this is big news: zillions of customers, average Americans (as opposed to the average Whole Foods shopper), with more sustainable and less toxic affordable products at their fingertips.   Continue reading

Toxic Air Fresheners

I hate air fresheners.  Hate hate HATE.  All they do is cover up smells with other sickly smells.  Seriously people, there are better ways to make your home or car or garbage cans more olfactorily pleasing.  (Is that a word?)

Taylor and I recently came in close contact with a hawaiian scented Febreeze thing that was meant to cover up garbage stench in our building. A few minutes later Taylor was turning pink and having a hard time breathing.  Meanwhile, I was shuddering at the thought of all the hormone disrupting chemicals in those things.

A little research when I got home told me that the only “ingredient” in that air freshener is “fragrance,” which we’ve talked about before. Fragrance is a catch-all term that may include tens or even hundreds of different ingredients.  Fragrances are proprietary, so companies don’t have to disclose what is in them. Additionally, the government does not have any safety regulations in place for air fresheners.

So how do we know what’s in them if the ingredients aren’t disclosed? Continue reading

My Lovely Green Flame Retardant Free Couch

Our wireless is down right now at home.  The internet that magically comes out of the modem still works, so it isn’t Comcast’s fault (for once!) but my cheap-o refurbished router seems to have kicked the bucket in the middle of a streaming a James Bond movie.  Sad, because we didn’t get to finish the movie, but actually not so sad at all because we’re finding the lack of wireless to be quite refreshing.

In my daily perusal of The Kitchn this morning, I spotted this little piece on a family who has decided to ditch all technology pre-1986.  This is pretty extreme, but I get it.  I don’t like how America’s tendency is to come home from school or work and immediately flip on the TV or browse the depths of the internet (keep me away from the food blogs) for hours instead of doing something, anything.

In our living room, we have a couch, but no TV. (It’s in the bedroom, not hooked up to anything, not even Netflix.) How many American families do you think have a living room that isn’t arranged around the TV? We’re probably one of the few.

I like to sit on my couch and read or even just look out the window. It’s the first couch I have ever owned and I plan to keep it for a long time, so I took great care to find an affordable one that wasn’t going to poison me.

That’s right, toxic chemicals!

A year ago, flame retardants (FRs) were all over the news. The crusade against flame retardants, chemicals put in furniture to slow fires, was led by environmental health scientist Arlene Blum.  Her research in the 1970s contributed to the ban of carcinogenic flame retardants such as the molecule brominated tris in children’s pajama fabric. The tris family of flame retardants didn’t just go away though; they continued to be used in couches, notably by Ikea until quite recently.

TDCPP, or chlorinated tris. Yum.

Since the 1970s, Blum has continued to study flame retardants. She found FRs in 85% of couches purchased in America between 1985 and 2010, mostly polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and halogenated organophosphates such as TDCPP, a relative of the tris from the 70s. Scientists have known for a long time that these chemicals cause cancer.  Some PBDEs were even banned in 2005 because they mimic the thyroid hormone in the human body and bioaccumulate.  These chemicals are persistent, resisting breakdown in the environment, and so are the couches that are filled with them. Continue reading

DIY Pottery Barn Style Sheer Curtains

I have been sitting on this post for over a month now. Seriously. Bad Genoa. I made curtains for our new apartment right after moving in, but I have had an unusually tricky time writing about it. Curtains aren’t a difficult DIY in the cutting and sewing sense, but they are harder on the wallet than you might expect.  Two apartments in a row now I have made my own curtains, and both times I spent way more than I intended to.

So here it goes. I would like to begin this post with a disclaimer: DIY curtains are rarely economical.  They’re the sort of project for somebody who knows exactly what they want, but can’t find it in a store.  If you’re planning on saving a bunch of money by making your own curtains, hopefully my Monday morning quarterbacking of this project will help. Either plan carefully, or make a trip to Ikea.

The new place has west-facing wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling windows in both the bedroom and living room, and we are only a stone’s throw away from the next building over.  I found the ease with which I could watch my neighbors eat dinner to be a little creepy, so curtains were a priority.

IMG_1046

Before curtains. Hi neighbors!

Continue reading

The Tomato Project: An Introduction

We are in the midst of tomato season right now, which means I am busy stockpiling oven roasted tomatoes in my freezer to use as sauce base for the rest of the year, but my sister told me yesterday that even during the summer she only buys canned tomatoes.  In bulk, she says, they are the cheapest option, and they taste pretty darn good.  I was aghast at the idea of consuming so much BPA, but Mark Bittman made the same point in the Times this past weekend in his piece “Not All Industrial Food is Evil.”  Bittman doesn’t even mention BPA! Canned tomatoes do taste better than the hydroponically farmed ones in supermarkets in the winter, but this is August.

My sister is stubborn, and we argued for a while about the cost of canned tomatoes vs. the risk of BPA exposure.  She is committed to living on the cheap, and will probably never switch away from canned food, no matter how toxic, unless a cheaper option is presented.  And as Bittman points out, canned tomatoes are dirt cheap thanks to the international market.

Home canned tomato sauce, yum! I wish the lids of Ball jars weren’t also lined with BPA/BPS.

My mind is blown by how difficult it is to avoid foods packaged with BPA. You have to really TRY, and in my experience, you pretty much have to spend either a lot of money or a lot of time (i.e. buy organic tomatoes in fancy jars or can your own).  I don’t think that this doesn’t have to be the case, though.  Living in a city, I have a lot of options for buying food, and I bet that I can find cheap, non-BPA tomatoes in bulk for at least a reasonable price.

…and so the tomato project was born.  I am going to be living in this city for a while, and I certainly buy lots of groceries, so I think it will be worth the time to study sources of tomatoes and other major foodstuffs in the city of Pittsburgh. Plus, I need to prove to my sister that it is possible to live cheaply and avoid major, um, not-so-beneficial food additives.

Here’s how this is going to work: I am going to visit all of the places in the city I can think of from which I can buy tomatoes (fresh, canned, jarred, or otherwise) and document them with my camera. I don’t have a car, so everywhere I go will be accessible by public transportation. I plan to check out:

  • Giant Eagle Market District (standard grocery store chain)
  • Whole Foods
  • Trader Joe’s
  • East End Food Co-op
  • various farmer’s markets
  • Pennsylvania Macaroni Co (huge Italian specialty store)
  • Costco

In my assessment, I will be considering:

  • Price (by weight)
  • Packaging*
  • Source (domestic or international)
  • Organic (or not)
  • Additives (sugar and other unnecessary additives are a no go)

*Note: I do not consider cans designated “BPA free” to be ok if they don’t say what replaced it.  Most BPA free plastics use BPS instead, which is a structurally similar molecule with similar endocrine disrupting properties.  It just hasn’t gotten as much publicity yet. 

While I am investigating tomatoes, I am going to research a few other major foods as well. I most often shop around for dairy and nuts because they are expensive.  Because of the high fat content in dairy products, it is important to me to buy organic (and hormone free) because many toxins, especially pesticides, partition into fat rather than water. Nuts I would prefer to buy in bulk because it is usually cheaper and saves packaging, but I have found that the nuts in the bulk bins at Whole Foods are much more expensive per pound than the packaged ones because the bulk bins are stocked with “fancy organic pecan halves” whereas the packaged ones are just pieces and almost half the price. (Whole Foods is probably set up like this just to trick conscientious shoppers.) Finally, I’d like to find the cheapest and least packaged way to buy unbrominated unbleached and preferably organic flour.

The project will start this weekend, and probably will take a while.  In the meantime, the next post in the tomato project series will be an exposé on the threat of BPA with the purpose of convincing you that you should want to pay more to avoid it. Hopefully I will soon be able to prove that you don’t have to.

 Any thoughts, questions, or suggestions for other foods I should look into? Leave a comment!

A Chemist’s Response to “How Junk Food Can End Obesity”

This post is for Steph, who wanted to know what I though about the Atlantic’s July/Aug cover article. 

Last March, my mother was oh so excited that McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes were back, but I spoiled her fast food party plans with this info graphic on the ingredients in one of those processed premixed cup-full-of-chemicals.

Just look at this image, and you will never want one again, not because of the calories, carbs, fat, and sugar, but because of all that other crap in there too. I prefer my milkshakes made with good old ice cream and milk, hold the polysorbate 80 please.

As an environmental chemist and foodie, I have a lot to say about David H. Freedman’s Atlantic piece “How Junk Food Can End Obesity.”  His main argument is that we can solve the obesity crisis in America by putting pressure on the fast and processed food industry to be healthier, rather than shunning it altogether.  The nineteen page article also devotes a significant amount of space to disparaging the grassroots real food movement and getting the science of common food additives disturbingly wrong. Continue reading