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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How to calculate the true cost of things

I just read this New York Times article about weighing the true impact of shopping and eating habits. In short, it looks at the ways in which eating locally is and isn't the best option from an environmental standpoint.

It was not only an interesting read, but was in line with a series of questions that I've been having lately. The questions all boil down to something I might call true cost. Some true cost questions are easier to find answers to than others.

For instance, I found an answer to the real or fake Christmas tree question in about two seconds flat. But other true cost questions aren't so easy. For instance, we have a very large and old gravity furnace in our house. Our family efficiency expert Nathan has told me that replacing the furnace would make more of a difference than getting insulation, and just yesterday when we were getting the attic insulated (we needed to get insulation to meet Berkeley efficiency standards), the insulation guy told me that both in terms of cost and efficiency, a new heater would make a huge difference.

But is the impact of manufacturing a whole new heater and ducts, putting the old one in a landfill, and properly disposing of the asbestos-covered ductwork really less than just leaving the old one as it is for now? With all those independent concerns, it's a hard question to answer confidently. My guess is that it's a matter of timing. Say, at year 10 of a new heater, the true cost balances out or something like that.

Is there a true cost website? Or does anyone know of a service which will help you figure it out? I have the same question about mattresses, cars, and a number of other items.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Great Green Wrapping Paper--in all colors!

Check out:

Wonderful designs and a good range of recycled and other sustainable wrapping papers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Wrapping it up

I need ideas of "green" wrapping paper for the holidays!!! I refuse to recycle bags of wrapping paper once again come December 26th.

Nathan and Kathryn recently wrapped a present in blueprints, which was fun, but most of have limited access to them. I have definitely thought about newspaper, of course, but we don't get the paper delivered anymore (just read online), and I really hate the look. What kinds of things can be used that are charming, and dare I say, pretty, as well?


Heritage Turkeys

This Thanksgiving we decided to buy heritage turkeys--"old" breeds of turkeys that are being raised. The Slow Food movement has gotten behind this trend as a way to "save" these breeds of turkeys. A few different local stores offered this choice (albeit high-end food boutiques and butchers), but I was pleased to see it as prevalent as it was.
So for the real question--how did it taste? DELICIOUS. Not at all gamey, much more dark meat than usual because these turkeys aren't bred to have abnormally huge breasts, like the widespread, commercially available ones are. (Don't think that I didn't pause to make a joke here, but decided to keep to the high ground...) The meat was moist, very flavorful, and a huge success. It will be what I will be purchasing for years to come.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Locavore is the word of the year

Oxford American Dictionary just announced the winner of its Word of the Year competition, and it's locavore! The word describing the act of cooking with local, fresh, and seasonal ingredients narrowly beat out contenders such as tase (to stun with a taser), colony collapse disorder, and the recently redefined "cougar."

Friday, November 9, 2007

Mangrove Tree Planting

The Planting

On the 27th October 2007, 51 members and 5 teacher advisors of the Sung Siew Secondary School Nature Lovers Club, Scouts and Green or Been went to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary for a mangrove trees replanting project. The team had planted 500 young trees successfully and this broke the Labuk Bay Proboscis Money Sanctuary’s record.

Many mangrove forests which are not protected were destroyed for development purposes. The proboscis monkeys will lose their habitat if the deforestation of mangrove trees continues without control. Thus, we hope the public will have the initiative to conserve the nature by participating in these kinds of meaningful activities.

They went to the replanting site and started with the clearing of ferns at mangrove forest followed by replanting project. All members were very co-operative when planting the 500 young mangrove trees and all had a great time and experiences.

Awareness among students should be raised so that the young generations will learn how to conserve nature in their early ages for a better tomorrow.

About Proboscis Monkey

Proboscis monkeys have large prominent noses. They have large, extended bellies, giving them the appearance of being permanently pregnant. The color of upper bodies of the monkeys are generally in pale grayish-yellow to reddish brown. The fur on their upper back tends to be darker while the lower section of their body re paler. Adult males have much larger nose than the female, the monkeys’ nose will swell and turns red when the monkey is excited or angry. Proboscis monkeys are also known as the “Dutchman Monkey”. Locals thought the monkeys and Kalimantan’s farmer colonial rulers.

Friday, October 26, 2007

a compact guide to CFL

Somehow, in addition to the few other "projects" I have going in life (Planetfesto and two small kids and running a creative agency...) I have found myself helping to coordinate the distribution of 500 free compact fluorescent bulbs for my daughter's girl scout troop to give away in the community. (It's part of a sensational CFL give-away from PG&E through the Sierra Club--500K bulbs in all.)

We were talking about some top points to discuss with people when handing out bulbs, and here are some that have surfaced that I wouldn't have thought of unless I was doing this project...
  • replace the lights you use the most first
  • don't wait until your old bulbs burn out--the CFL bulbs are so much more efficient (80% savings) that it is simply not worth waiting for the old ones to die first.

  • make sure to recycle the CFL bulbs properly when they burn out (with batteries, paint, etc.) because they do contain tiny amounts of mercury. Don't throw them in the trash, or put them in with regular recycling.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Setting organic priorities

I just finished reading this New York Times article about easy ways to go organic. For a long time, I kept a beat-up old photocopy of a chart showing which fruits and vegetables had the most pesticides, but it got lost in the move, and was from 1993 anyway. But it was really useful in considering which produce I should always buy organic (for instance, I now only buy organic or pesticide-free strawberries).

So this article offers a short and sweet summary of five foods that you should always buy organic. The list is milk, potatoes, peanut butter, ketchup, and apples. The only one of those I would have guessed is milk, so this article will certainly impact the way I shop.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Meeting your meat

I used to have this feeling that the less I knew about the meat I was eating the better. Who wanted to dwell on the nastiness that I knew was inherent in the food chain? Why not just buy those little bits of meat wrapped in plastic at the grocery store and pretend that it had never really been an animal.

For a period of about a year I tried hard to be a vegetarian, but became increasingly sluggish, unable to think clearly, and heavier as a result. I seem to be one of those people who need protein, and lots of it.

Over the last year or so I have had an interesting evolution, and education, about what I'm eating. Spurred on by An Omnivore's Dilemma, I've become quite the farmers' market fan. And one of the main reasons is access to wonderful, sustainably-raised meat.

I used to walk by the meat stand and think "who would be foolish enough to buy meat at the farmers' market?", but the deeper I get into the subject, the more I now think about meat from the grocery store in those terms. It suddenly feels very odd to buy meat that I know nothing about--how it was raised, what it ate, how it lived, how it died. Somehow knowing details about all of these topics has made me so much more comfortable with my carnivore-self. And more responsible about how I walk on the planet.

Some things to look for/thoughts/observations. This is a big topic, so I am just scratching the surface here.

  • Cows were never meant to eat corn (or worse, to eat other cows...). Doing such unnatural things are a by-product of the mass industrialization of raising meat, and are for the profit and convenience of these ginormous corporations. It puts huge stress on the health of the animal, and leads to the need for antibiotics. Corn is pure sugar--the combination of feeding cows this much sugar and limiting their physical activity is what produces meat with the marbling of fat throughout. A lot like if we were to be confined to the couch and fed a diet of only Snickers Bars. I buy almost exclusively grass-fed meat now. The texture and taste is really different (and takes a bit of a change in cooking techniques). The bacon I'm getting is so lean that I often have to put oil in the pan to cook it!

  • The fats in meats that are raised that way they are meant to live is much, much healthier for you. I've been eating LOTS of red meat and my cholesterol is lower than ever before. Farmed salmon has higher levels of the "bad" fats than grass-fed meat.

  • Some farmers are working to increase the genetic diversity of sheep, cows, and pigs by raising "heritage" breeds (yes, like heritage tomatoes, only different...). These breeds have almost been lost because the don't have "high yield meat conversions", but do very, very well out grazing. They are hardy, strong, and lovely to have around. Gets us away from monoculture of breeds that perform best economically for the large companies.

  • Feed lots are nasty, nasty places. You don't want anything alive to have to live like that, nor frankly, do you want to eat anything that lived like that. If we are going to be carnivores we need to take responsibility that the animals we eat lived well, and lived in harmony with the environment.

  • A lot of what is passing for well-raised food, isn't. For instance, those Rosie "free-range" chickens are actually raised crammed in a giant barn with tiny door to the outside only opened in the last weeks of their lives--too late for them to have any interest in going out. Chickens have traditionally run around outdoors, eating a wide variety of grain and bugs, helping the soil as they go. I have been searching out eggs from such chickens (hard to find...) and the difference between these eggs and the "free-range" ones from the grocery store is dramatic. The yokes are bright orange and are much stronger--they stand up in the bowl and perfect spheres. If differences can be this dramatic at first glance, how many differences are there on nutritional and toxic levels? I reckon it's pretty dramatic.

  • I don't feel nearly as guilty eating meat.
  • I buy a lot of meat from Highland Hills Farm, for whom I have the greatest respect. One of many small farms nationwide trying very hard to do absolutely the right thing.

(Photo Credit: Courtesy Dave Van Antwerp,, borrowed from the site)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Blog Action Day

I saw this and thought its a good cause :-)


Simply click the link above.

On October 15th, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind - the environment. Every blogger will post about the environment in their own way and relating to their own topic. Our aim is to get everyone talking towards a better future.
Blog Action Day is about MASS participation. Simply click on the icon above for further information on it. :-)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Why I actually like to line dry clothes

I got back on the laundry line drying bandwagon a couple of months ago. Since then, I've had a couple of startled friends declare "That's a line I won't cross! No way." So I had to come up with a reasoned rebuttal.

Here are my top 10 reasons for loving line drying:
1) I get to get out of the house and into the backyard when the kids are screaming, leaving john to cope, and I don't feel the least bit guilty because I am doing it FOR THE GOOD OF THE FAMILY AND THE ENVIRONMENT." I love the couple of moments of sanity.
2) I figure that it must be good for stretching, and for the upper arms.
3) The sun bleaches out all sorts of nasty stains. Need I say more?
4) Our electricity use in August went from 26 Kwh/day to 12.8. (Only changes were CF bulbs and much more line drying.)
5) My nice t-shirts last much longer and the vast majority of things can squeak through without being ironed.
6) Sheets turn out divinely. They are less wrinkly and smell wonderful. A real, natural clean.
7) Laundry goes a lot faster because you don't have the hold up of waiting for the dryer to finish.
8) Clothes that I've forgotten in the washer for a bit too long smell great by the time they are dry on the line.
9) I actually think it is pretty to see cotton blowing in the wind.
10) My mom loved it and there are precious few things that she did that I do now.

Some hints I've found:
-- Dry all clothes that you don't want to fade on a small rack inside. Some things that are a close call I'll hang outside inside out.
-- Some things still need the dryer. I draw the line (hardy har har) at stiff towels. I save up all my towels and do one load with them, which goes in the dryer.
-- Make it easy on yourself...make sure the line is convenient, the right height for you, and that you have a container to easily take things back and forth to the line.
-- I do it when I can...especially weekends. I'm not a purist that "all must be line dried." I figure if I can get to it for most loads, that is good.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Recycle Day

Recently, my school organized a recycle day where every clubs members in the school had to bring their old newspapers from home. It was a competition among the clubs. It was an amazing activity, seeing how everyone was involved and contributed. The Chinese Literary Society won, followed by Christian Fellowship and third place by the English Literary Society. An interesting start for the young generation. :) These photos said it all.

Our Mangrove Planting at the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary at Labuk Bay Sandakan Sabah, will be held on this coming 27 Oct, which involved 50 students and 5 teachers, working together with the wildlife officers. Will update on it. :)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zero Waste Class Parties

Our daughter's stunningly-excellent third grade teacher recently sent out a request to parents to help him become zero waste for class parties. I, like an idiot, said yes. An idiot because I knew the trail would lead me right to Target and Ikea, places I tend to avoid at all costs.

Target had some great little melamine plates, fairly cheap metal forks and spoons, and acrylic juice glasses that should do nicely. I hated to go with plastic, but didn't see any way around it, and at least it will be used for years. (We did a similar thing with our picnic gear for our weekly neighborhood picnic, and now we are waste-free, which is a great feeling.) I am hard on the trail of some cheap cloth napkins to complete the set.

The teacher and I worked out that whatever parents volunteer to host the party now also pop the dishes in the washer and return. (I bought a basket to put it all in to make it easier.) I volunteered to handle the napkins. Hopefully it will inspire other classrooms to do the same.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Missing Sock

I've been thinking a lot recently about my motivations for living a more sustainable life. I started out not really in this camp--drove me nuts then I married John at my advanced age of 33 and he would frown with a superior look that we should get rid of all our Teflon, or that we shouldn't ScotchGuard our new furniture. Not to mention the fact that he washed out and reused plastic bags. Yuck. It was startling how often he was right, however, as verdicts about things like Teflon and ScotchGuard just keep piling up.

When we reached a boiling point over the constant stream of negative news about the environment and we started, and all the research that we amassed behind it, something subtly began to shift. I started making changes not from guilt, but because it's, underneath it all, kinda fun. (And we hope that that spirit gets to people through Planetfesto.) The best way to describe it is that it's similar to that part of my brain that gets lit up after I find the sock that has been missing for months and put the pair finally back together. I wake up excited to go to the farmers' market not because I know that I should, but that it feeds my soul in a way that I find unexpectedly delightful. There is something so connected, and deeply friendly, about looking down at your plate and knowing about almost everything on it--the farmer that grew the corn, the stories about the lamb that you heard from the rancher, that you've picked berries in the field from which the blackberries came from. There's an equal delight that we now have a hard time finding a plastic bag in the house, or that I usually get better mileage in my Prius than John does in his (although that seems to be changing, damn him...). I also love that the kids know where food comes from, get great delight in feeding our worms and hearing the latest news from the eccentric worm guy at the farmers' market, and want to know where something comes from before they eat it.

OK, enough. But I did want to let you know that this is actually getting fun...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Nirvana on an Organic Farm

We just spent the weekend at Emandal, a family camp started in 1908 on an organic farm near Willits, 130 miles north of San Francisco. It's a collection of rustic cabins (read outhouses--but they flush) on the banks of the Eel River. The swimming in the river is fantastic, but best of all, the food is out of this world and all comes from right outside the kitchen door. We had lots of tomotoes, corn, freshly baked bread, pizza from the stone oven in the garden with fresh basil, and lots of ice cream and milk donated by Delilah the cow (who you can help milk twice a day). Chickens, pigs, goats, and even an ostrich complete the farm casting. Wonderful staff, very relaxing, great for kids. They even run weeklong camps for schools for kids to come and work on the farm and learn more about sustainable food and living.

Count us in for next year!

Three Stone Hearth

For those of us who live in the East Bay, I've found a really nice resource, Three Stone Hearth (or as our droll nanny likes to call it "Three Stoner Hearth"). It's completely crunchy (in a charming sort of way) organic, prepared food co-op located in Berkeley. It's hidden away nearly under the University Avenue overpass...right at the foot of the pedastrian footbridge over 80.

The way it works is that a couple of the owners of the nonprofit, along with a set of volunteers, cook an interesting array of foods weekly from very local, organic farmers and then sell it to the public. It's not cheap, but it is the highest quality and delicious. You can also buy unpasturized milk, eggs from chickens who live running around in pastures, and a few other essentials. You can order from them in advance, or can drop in on Wednesday at 5 to see what extras they have available for sale.

They also make a killer fermented Lavender drink that is quite yummy.

The Ball Jar

So now we are trotting home from the Farmers' Market laden with our reusable shopping bags filled with produce in little cotton, how the hell do you store it all?

John has always been a big fan of mason jars--those ubiquitious, one, two, and four cup glass jars with metal sealing tops and rings usually used for canning. We have started to use them more widely than ever. We pop produce that needs to be in the fridge into them. Easy to clean, no plastic yuck-factor transfer. Not very big, however. On the bigger, but not totally perfect scale, are the pyrex glass containers with plastic lids we got at the grocery store. They hold a lot and are airtight, but I do try to hand wash the plastic lid. We are searching for the right containers for the bread we buy at Acme without bags, and for lettuce other large-format veggies.

I recently saw Julia who mentioned some cool little containers she had tracked down at Crate & Barrell that are 100% glass. They are 2 cups in volume and and flatter to fit stuff that won't go into a jar. I just got some...not totally convinced that they are air tight enough to prevent food from taking on other fridge odors, but we'll see.

We had the amazing problem the other night of trying to find a plastic bag for something and not having ONE in the house. A "problem" we've never confronted before...


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Here are some alternatives to plastics. I will share more tips as I find them, as it can be pretty overwhelming to try to quit plastic cold turkey.

Garbage bag alternatives:
Bio Bags, decomposable and compostable. I buy mine at the local hardware store. They are a little thinner than normal garbage bags so I make sure not to load them up too much.

Laundry detergent: I have switched to powdered detergent that is packaged in cardboard. You can also buy some discs that you stick in you washer that work by changing the particles in the water. I had some at one point, but lost them in a move.

Cleaning supplies: I have stopped buying any supplies that come in plastic bottles. Meyer's has a nice powder scrubber, and the oxygen bleach is a natural alternative to bleach and is not harmful to the environment. You can also buy Bon Ami, which also is a good cleaner and it is much cheaper (the oxygen bleach is apparently what raises the price). Also, I have been experimenting with some homemade cleaners.

Kitchen Soap: The natural living store near my house has dish washing soap you can buy in bulk. They also sell reusable plastic or glass bottles to fill up. I have also switched to bar soap in the shower and at the sinks for hand washing.

Lotion: Like my kitchen soap, I was able to find body lotion that I can buy in bulk and I bought a reusable glass jar. Unfortunately I have not been able to find an alternative for my face lotion.

More on Plastic

Once again Nancy and I are struggling with the same issue...

I am just finished reading the book Garbageland by Elizabeth Roythe, and no, it is not a bleak as it sounds. It is a fascinating look at what happens to our garbage after it is put in the truck. The book has changed my perspective and has given me an understanding of what happens to garbage and recyclables. It has also answered some lingering questions that I have, for example, is it okay to leave the plastic windows on envelopes when you recycle them? Yes.

One of the biggest takeaways of the book so far is about plastics. How could I not when the chapter about plastics is titled "Satan's Resin"? I already know that plastics are bad, I don't heat my food in plastic containers, I bring my own bags to the store and I am still trying to figure out an alternative to my Nalgene bottle. What I didn't know was how bad plastic actually are and how they are not really recyclable, they can only be down-cycled. After learning about this Nathan and I decided to cut down on our plastic consumption, how hard could it be, right? We already brought our bags to the store, we don't drink bottled water, and most drinks you can buy in a can. Right.

Once you start focusing on it plastic is used in almost all packaging, and my first trip to the grocery store after the decision was eye opening. My intention was not to go completely plastic free, but just to cut down, so one Monday night a few weeks ago I meet Nathan at Trader Joe's conscious of plastic. A few things I knew I would not be able to avoid buying in plastic, for example bread and cheese, but for the other items I didn't always want to choose the plastic free alternative. The fresh pico de gallo salsa looked way better than the stuff in the jar, but what about the plastic container? The mochi ice cream balls have the plastic tray on the inside. I left feeling fairly discouraged, for it to be so hard for someone who is committed to reducing plastic usage there was no way this was ever going to take hold in mainstream America. Moreover, would I be able to stick it out?

It had only been 4 days and I already had plastic avoidance fatigue. That Friday, however, I had a glimmer of hope at the Mexican restaurant by my work. I went into the restaurant really wanting a toastada, but I was getting my meal to go, so I settled on a burrito that would be wrapped in foil instead of the plastic clam shell container. While I was waiting in line to pay I noticed all of these people holding what looked like a cardboard to go container. I was intrigued. I normally don't like to look like the crazed green fanatic, but I ended up asking the guy at the counter about the containers. Under a new San Francisco law restaurants must reduce the amount of plastic they use, hence the biodegradable soy based take out containers. While I ate a burrito that day, next time I am getting what I want.

Plastic: Satan's child?

The more I read about plastics the more concerned I am about them, from the environmental perspective, our health, and the energy and fossil fuels it takes to create them.

A couple of helpful things we've stumbled about plastic. John found a great site:, rich with information about the true evil nature of those little clear bags and drinking bottles, as well as lots of resources about how to avoid them. We've started to use reusable bags for both produce, as well as shopping bags. They work for most things...I still go for plastic for drippy meat packages. We also just bought all-stainless drinking containers for the kids for water for school. I've been really upset by a lot of the disposible drinking water bottle coverage lately...terrific that the issue is being talked about in the popular press, but disturbing that often the suggestion for a work-around is a plastic reusable bottle, such as Nalgene, as those release toxins into our bodies, particularly as they are washed repeatedly. Go metal! And it lasts forever. Now I need to search out metal containers for lunches.

Also, I wanted to remind everybody about the little story that appear in the news a year or so ago about the prevalence of lunch boxes with lead in the plastic sold widely in the U.S. This story was never widely covered but prompted us to test our lunch boxes. Probably a good thing to do this year as well as so many kids head back to school.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More on the search for the perfect suncreen

I wanted to post an update after I finally tracked down and ordered the UV Natural suncreen so highly recommended by the Environmental Working Group's site. Loads on controvery about it on the net...whether it works well, is too greasy, etc. I bought a large tube (and might have known I was doomed by choosing that size...) and was able to use it for two days before I started to have odd burning, itching sensations all over my face. So much for my skin's appreciation of low-impact ingredients! I want to pass it along to friends to see how they like it. UV Natural's site claims that you need to use VERY LITTLE for it to be highly effective, which is the only way to go unless you want to appear in public as a victim of a hit and run facial lube job.

Just bought JASON's Sunbrella Family 36, and so far so good. A bit on the beach-y side with the smell, but doesn't seem overly greasy, and no allergic reaction so far. It is not as well-rated on the site, but was easy to find! I also like the Obagi Nu-Derm Physical UV Block SPF 32, although it is expensive, fussy to find, and does contains nano-particles. (Interesting discussion of the pros and cons of this at

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Insulation decisions

Joel and I are preparing to put insulation in our attic for the first time. After some initial research, I know more but am no closer to being able to make a decision, as there's no clear winner.

The good news is that there are some useful resources and a number of "greener" options. The bad news is that at least some of that information seems tainted by bias and that makes it really hard to get a real sense of what the true pros and cons of each insulation type are. The GreenHomeGuide is the most useful site about insulation I've found. It has a handy insulation comparison chart, an article that delves into the health and environmental issues with insulation and how each type fares, and a product directory.

And yet, even with all this information, I'm still not sure which will be the best for us and the house. Here's a distilled version of what I've learned so far:

  • Fiberglass: Most fiberglass has formaldehyde in it, which is bad; but there are formaldehyde-free versions as well. I don't know what else is in fiberglass that might be bad though. Is produced through an energy-intensive and somewhat polluting process. May, and this is where the confusion starts because there's a lot of back-and-forth on this one, stand up to moisture and pests better than other options. And it won't burn.
  • Cotton: This is by far the most novel option, since one brand (and maybe more than one?) uses recycled blue jeans. Treated with chemicals to make it fire-resistant and to discourage pests and moisture, but it sounds like moisture may still be a problem.
  • Cellulose: Recycled newspaper is treated with chemicals to make it fire-resistant and to discourage pests and moisture. But there seem to be at least a loud minority that say it's not as fire resistant as it should be.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A cleaner clean

Interesting enough, I have been going down the same track as Kathryn about safer cleaning supplies. Been testing lots of different types...I really like some of the Method products, especially the liquid dish soap. I like Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day dishwashing powder and laundry soap (but I have to find something else as it comes in a plastic bottle...). I did not have good results at all with either Seventh Generation or Wave dishwashing powder. The stuff at Trader Joe's is also pretty good. Mrs. Meyer's also has a good all surface cleaner and a stainless cleaner. The only problem is that they are EXPENSIVE!
I am glad I'm looking into this. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle confirmed my worst fears. "Hazard Warning on Home Cleaners: Study says many use chemicals linked to fertility problems." No wonder kids are going into puberty at such young ages.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Safer Cleaning Products

This is a useful website about safer cleaning products Their findings were reported on today on

Also, for Christmas one year I gave Christy the book, "Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning your Home" by Linda Mason Hunter and Mikki Halpin. It has a lot of useful tips as well as recipes to make your own cleaning solutions.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The suncreen debate

On my list of things to do this summer was more research into sunscreens. It's one of those topics that drives me nuts: increasing reports of how much radiation we are exposed to and the increasing rates of skin cancer, more awareness on my part of highly toxic ingrediants in skin care products, reading about all these highly-effective chemicals allowed in sunscreens in Europe, but not here (but not knowing if there are BOTH effective and safe), etc., etc., etc...all the while slathering the entire surface area of myself and my kids every day.

I was delighted by a recent posting by the Environmental Working Group (my heroes!) with in-depth research on hundreds of sunscreens, rated by both effectiveness and saftey. Some of the things I thought I was doing well, like buying Alba's organics lavendar suncreen for kids, didn't test well at all. Many surprises. I am going to buy their top-rated choice, UV Natural Sport SPF 30+ , as soon as I find it and will report on how it fares on the wearability quotient...greasy and obnoxious vs. well-absorbed.

Complete list at:

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Chipping Nail Polish

I had a mani/pedi last Friday so I my hands and feet would look nice for a wedding I attended last weekend. I go to a place that offers a range of nail polish brands from traditional chemical laden brands toformaldehyde free. They also don't use those gross massage chairs and don't do acrylics. I went for one of the brands that had fewer chemicals than the traditional brands. I was a little disappointed, however, when on Sunday my fingernails had chipped and this morning when I noticed that one of my toenails had chipped, because normally when I get a manicure at this place it lasts five to seven days and a pedicure even longer. Next time I will still resist the urge to use a chemical ladenOpi color and try yet another brand, and hopefully it will just last a little longer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Little Things and Side Benefits

My wife and I try to minimize our impact on the earth wherever we can, though there's always room for improvement. We've done some big things, such as buying a Prius. It's some of the little things, however, that may have a greater ripple effect and might provide cause for some amusement as well.

Among our pet peeves are the wasteful styrofoam and plastic containers many restaurants use for takeout or leftovers. A while back we decided we would simply bring our own reusable containers with us whenever we went out to eat. We knew this would eliminate our use of throwaway containers. It may be having some other positive benefits as well. Other customers see us doing this and say something like, "Oh, what a good idea!" or "I never thought of that. I'll have to start doing that, too!" The restaurant owners see us doing this and realize their customers are very concerned about the environment; hopefully they'll become more serious about seeking out the most environmentally sensitive products. At our local Indian takeout place, which uses organic ingredients, they laugh when they see us coming. Sometimes they even give us bigger portions!

When it comes to food shopping, we've been buying almost entirely organic for a long time. Lately we've added an emphasis on LOCAL. Knowing it's taking a smaller amount of fossil fuels for the food to reach us is only part of the advantage. There is a wonderful, satisfying (dare I say warm and fuzzy?) feeling when you get to know the person who grew the food you are going to eat. We get this feeling at our local Fairfax farmers market, where we buy strawberries from Russ, greens from Dennis, pies and gallettes from Maria, etc.; at Clark Summit Farm in West Marin, where I buy my incredibly delicious Thanksgiving turkey from Liz; and at the awesome Phoenix Pastificio in Berkeley, where Eric makes the most amazing fresh organic pasta, cut to order, and reciprocates our appreciation of his artistry by practically making us part of his family.

Our local natural food store, The Good Earth, has made shopping local much easier. For years they've posted where each item of fresh produce was grown; recently they've added the mileage from here to there. If your favorite store doesn't yet do this, I suggest you encourage them to do so. Also, I think we can have the greatest impact on people who know us. So we talk to owners of restaurants we frequent, making sure they know we prefer and would be willing to pay more for organic, local ingredients, grass-fed beef, etc.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Green or Been

I am a secondary school teacher, teaching in Sung Siew Secondary School Sandakan, one of the best school in the state of Sabah, Malaysia.
When I was introduced to Maxis CyberlinQ Competition 2006, I had to come up with a project to serve the community. By then I was already introduced to SIMCA [Sugud Islands Conservation Area]. Realizing how noble this private organization trying to do their part for the environment, I wanted to do my part as a teacher. So I grabbed the chances through this competition, taking the theme of environment. With it, I was inspired to build a team called 'Green or Been' with many helps from parents and teachers. With the GOB team, consisted of 10 students and two teachers, we started off with many successful projects that overwhelmed me to see how these young generation do care. To name a few of the projects - Most Adorning Class, Recycle Reduce Reuse, Mini Botanical Garden, WWF Day, Green Week, charity to clean the beach and charity at our famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Thats not all, we were the first local school to adopt two babies orangutan named Naru and Sogo-Sogo, and also adopted coral reef named 'Sung Siew Reef'. That didn't stop there, we also joined WWF in their tree planting project. With all these, I'm proud to announce, we won the competition nationally. This is a proof to many that conservation surely can make a difference!
This year, I'm very pleased to get invited to go to Lankayan Island Dive Resort again. The GOB team did a mural painting of Sea Turtle's Life Cycle. The team learnt a lot about conservation of coral reef and sea turtle, besides had great amazing time. It is a very beautiful island indeed.
Our upcoming project is Mangrove Planting at Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, soon in September. I will update that here then :)
Conservation is the way!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Vegetable Box

I have had a hard time buying vegetables since I moved to San Francisco. Trader Joe's uses too much packaging and I often discover part of the vegetables are already bad when I get them home. Whole Foods is too expensive, and Safeway's vegetables look too waxy, and are often just as expensive as Whole Foods. Also, since I live in San Francisco I do not have the traditional warm summer that inspires one to eat summer's bounty. At the end of last summer I realized that I had almost missed out on the entire fruit season. So this spring I signed up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) box. When I signed up for the box I thought my fruit and vegetable problems would be over and I would be a vision of vegetable mastery, but alas, like usual my vision was a bit off.

The CSA I chose does not offer a lot of options for how often and how many vegetables you get, but the online reviews rated the quality and variety of this CSA as high. I am on my 11th week of getting the box and it is the first time I have used all of the vegetables. This is no small feat. For two people the amount of vegetables can be a bit overwhelming. Especially since I do not pick-up the box until Wednesday and I have standing activities on Wednesday and Thursday nights. On Friday nights I tend to be a bit lazy, and it seems like recently every weekend has been an endless crush of weddings, wedding and baby showers, birthdays and graduations. Suddenly, my compost transporter was overflowing and my kitchen smelled of rotting vegetables (I compost at my mom's house, so I only get rid of my compost as often as I see her).

Another problem that I only recently worked through was prolonging the life of the vegetables. While I have always trimmed the extra greens off of the vegetables I still was not getting a very long shelf life. I have recently been trying to cut down on my plastic consumption, I'll talk about this in my next post, and so I was excited that most of the vegetables come without plastic bags. Plastic bags, however, are helpful in keeping things from spoiling the the fridge, and I was unsure of what to do until I discovered the crisper. My greens do not wilt as quickly and my carrots now are not limp after 2 days, in fact, I have a few from two weeks ago.

By prolonging the life of my vegetables I have been able to start using the vegetables when I am at home. I also do not feel as overwhelmed by the sheer amount of product that can go bad. I have started making lists , using the recipes that come with the vegetable box and just adding a few extra vegetables to things that I might normally not. The process is getting easier, and less is headed to the compost heap.

Aside from the obvious benefits of eating locally grown, family farmed foods there are many other benefits I am discovering. The box has made me do a better job at planning what I am going to eat. I no longer wander the aisles of the store after work wondering what I should make for dinner. Instead I get to go directly home from work, and that means I get home earlier and eat earlier. This leaves me with much more time for myself later in the evening. I am also cooking more. I have always enjoyed cooking as a way to wind down from the day, but I tend to get a little lazy when take-out is so close. Having a ton of wonderful vegetables in my fridge inspires me to cook. Another great thing is the money I save. When I cook more I eat out less not only for dinner, but also for lunch, and I am now finding that I have extra money at the end of the week. The final benefit is the few pounds I have dropped, maybe it is because I am eating more vegetable or maybe it is because I am eating out less, but the scale has not been creeping up like it used to.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Finding good lipstick ... a continuing saga

My approach to updating my products has been slow and steady, to swap in new products as I finish the old. This of course goes faster with items like shampoo and conditioner, so it took me a while to get around to checking out new lipstick options.

My old lipsticks (that I still have and wear sometimes, just not on a daily basis anymore) were NARS semi-matte lipstick (here's the listing for the color Catfight) and MAC Satin Lipstick. Both earned a moderate concern ranking, with ingredients linked to cancer, and developmental and reproductive toxicity.

So I hit my local natural pharmacies with makeup sections to see what my options were. There are some brands that Skin Deep lists that I've never seen in a store (for instance, Canary Cosmetics, Alchemy of Color, and Cargo), and I don't like buying lipstick online because finding the right color is already tricky enough in person.

This is about the right time to note that I still haven't found an ideal lipstick. I just can't seem to find a nice red with brown undertones that suits people like me who are a little pale, but also a little olivey, and have dark hair. It seems like most of what I find is either way too pink or so brown that I look like a corpse.

But I have dedicated hours and the backs of both hands to testing healthier lipstick colors. Here's what I've found so far:

  • Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer: For a long time I avoided Burt's Bees Lip Shimmer because it seemed more like lip balm than lipstick, and I assumed it was for the shampoo-once-a-week/no-makeup types. But I tried it and it's a pretty convincing lipstick, plus it tingles (in a good way). The only problem is the color. I had to buy three of them before finding one that I really liked, though at about $5 a pop, it wasn't such a big deal. The Merlot, which I tried first, was much more pink than the top indicated. The color Raisin is pretty good, though perhaps still a little too pink for me. And Coffee, though I originally avoided it (see corpse issue, above), ended up being a lovely shade of brownish red.
  • Bare Escentuals Quick Stick: I tried Nancy's Fig color Quick Stick and really liked it. The color is great and the application is smooth and even. But, even though Bare Escentuals promotes itself as a company that uses natural ingredients, I know that some of its powders (specifically the Mineral Veil, which keeps oily skin from being too shiny) contain parabens, so I thought I should just take a quick look at the ingredient list before charging down there and buying my own. And what I found was a really long ingredient list that included parabens and a few other unsavory ingredients. So sad. I really do hope they ditch the parabens though, because I really like the colors.
  • Sante: This one is a mystery brand. It's available at the Elephant Pharm near my house, the colors are promising, and the price is right, but the store doesn't have an ingredients list and I can't find anything substantial online.

Ingredients of concern

In checking out some of the higher-risk lipsticks in the SkinDeep database, it looks like ingredients of concern in lipsticks include BHA, parabens, and various coloring agents.

Monday, June 4, 2007

What can dog food and apple juice have in common?

Just as my 3 year old was telling me with glee how he has learned to pour apple juice at pre-school, we read this in the WSJ that the US is the largest market for apple juice imported from China...where the regulations about what pesticides and how much are even more lax than here. One of the most heavily-polluted, pesticide-using country in the world is providing the juice our kids are drinking in a concentrated form!

I'm working with the school to serve organic-only juice. "Who's Monitoring Chinese Food Exports" WSJ, (4/9/2007) "China has one of the world's highest rates of chemical fertilizer use per hectare, and Chinese farmers use many highly toxic pesticides, including some that are banned in the United States," according to a report published last November by the economic-research service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Complex World of Tomato Sauce

I was stunned to read the following in Oprah magazine's Feb. 2006 issue:

"Is Plastic Affecting our Fertility?"
"The findings: Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in plastics that mimics estrogen, causes health problems in animals at far lower doses than most people are exposed to every day.

What you need to know: Polycarbonate, the hard plastic that contains BPA, is found in many products, including baby bottles and the inside coating of food cans. Heating and repeated washing can cause leaching, and significant levels of the chemicals have been measured in humans. Of the 115 animal studies reviewed in a recent Environmental Health Perspectives article, 94 showed that even small amounts of BPA can cause fertility problems, hyperactivity, altered immune function, and early sexual maturation. Plastics makers maintain their products are sage (of the 11 industry-sponsored studies, none found evidence of harm), but there are efforts to ban BPA from children's goods. Frederick vom Saal, PdD, the paper's lead author, called BPA "a poster chemical for ADHD" and recommends avoiding foods sterilized in the can, such as tomatoes ("massive amounts of BPA," he says). Also be cautious using clear plastic baby bottles--find out more at"

I've found some interesting organic tomato sauces in glass jars that I've been using in our cooking at home, and we've been ordering much less pizza and spaghetti when out.

My friend Julia has also tracked down how much BPA is in the bottled water we are getting from Alhambra water due to the sterilization process which super heats the bottles, which leech BPA into the drinking water we were buying because we thought it was safer. More on that in further posts.

Friday, June 1, 2007

A pretty problem: Avoiding dangerous ingredients and finding healthy beauty products

Recently I calculated about how much money I'd spent on face, hair, and body products over my lifetime. The number was so shocking that I'm not going to repeat it here, but I will say it was enough to buy a new compact car or a pretty nice extended vacation, one complete with high-thread-count sheets and beachside spa treatments (see there I am, already back to products).

And I didn't get to that number by purchasing excessively expensive products, either. No $100 jars of wrinkle cream made from the tears of ducklings or $60 deep conditioners from top-secret beauty labs in France. Most of my products fall in the $7 to $30 range. Over time though, it really adds up.

So it was already an issue with a lot of personal financial weight when someone recommended the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database, which reviews ingredients in beauty products for general health and safety. According to the Why This Matters article on the website, we apply an average of 126 ingredients to our bodies every day. That seemed high only until I took a look at the back of the bottles I had in the bathroom.

I'd heard the vague rumblings about how product companies put all sorts of unhealthy things in products, how the industry wasn't properly regulated, and so on, but because it seemed like it would open a whole can of worms (it did), I stalled on researching it. Finally I decided that if I was going to continue to spend as much as I do on products, it was worth the effort to get ones that didn't do more harm than good. And once I started looking, I realized that a ton of products, even the supposedly natural ones, had all sorts of stuff that various agencies around the world had deemed unsafe or questionable.

Some of the ingredients I'm now watching out for are clearly not the sort of thing you want in or on your body. Stuff like mercury, lead, and phthalates. But there are also ingredients which studies have suggested lead to health problems, though nothing totally definitive has been published yet.

But my take on it is that I'd rather be safe than sorry. I don't want my vanity to be my undoing. Maybe it's because I had two aunts who died of cancer (breast and ovarian), and it's unclear why. Perhaps it was genetic, but I also wonder if it was something environmental, something that they were exposed or some product they both used.

The database uses a scoring system, with low scores indicating healthier products. You can also look at the risks associated with particular ingredients, and though I started out just seeking the lowest products on the scale, I've since tempered my approach to reflect the health issues I'm most concerned with.

The primary shortcoming of the database is that it's limited. When I go down to one of the natural pharmacies close to me (I'm close to Elephant Pharm, Pharmaca, and Whole Foods), half the products aren't represented in the database. Then it becomes a matter of reading ingredient lists, cross-checking them against my little printed-out list of the worst-of-the-worst.

This whole process takes time and has turned me into that crazy person standing in the cosmetics section staring alternately at my little notebook and the back of a bottle, but if this is something that I'm going to continue to spend the equivalent of cars and vacations on—and it is, because I like smooth, moisturized skin; shiny, pretty hair; and makeup—then I'm definitely going to make sure that the stuff my skin is absorbing daily isn't likely to give me cancer, going to make me have flipper babies, and isn't doing weird things to my hormones.

I thought this would be a good space to share some of the things I've found over the course of my ongoing quest for healthier products. I'll tackle both general issues (Are bad ingredients the key to good products?) and detail what I've found by trying out some of the healthier options I've been able to find. First up? Hmmm, maybe "Lipstick: the continuing saga."

Thursday, May 31, 2007

What to have for dinner?

As if this topic wasn't hard enough to answer already! Recently I've been delving into the world of what we should, and shouldn't, be putting into our bodies. A few rather shocking discoveries that have changed the way I feed the well as some tricks I've figured out in how to avoid them.

I'll start with fish...the good, the bad, the ugly. After having my vegetarian-fish-eating Pilates trainer out for 18 months with mercury poisoning from eating fish, I started to pay much more attention to this area. Basically, you don't want to eat anything big...because they eat everything else in the sea and the mercury from the whole food chain gets concentrated in the fatty tissue. (This problem will only get worse and more and more mercury-spewing coal-fired power plants come into existence.)

And then there is salmon. Wild salmon is fine, health-wise, as they are relatively small. The problem comes in when they are farmed...they are fed pelleted fish from scraps of much larger fish that contain mercury and residual PCBs. Which are then concentrated in the salmon. So you'd think the answer would be to eat only wild salmon.

I thought so too until I read the enlightening New York Times (4/10/2005) article that tested "wild" salmon purchased from a range of stores in New York, including Dean and Deluca. 8 of the 10 samples obtained were in fact farmed, being sold as wild. Digging deeper, it seems that the only safe salmon is from Alaska. Now I am only buying salmon from a boat directly, or smoked salmon from I'm betting that they can't lie about that provenance as easily.

I think this is a good option, but I am looking at it more closely and will report back. I recently was talking with the seafood buyer for The Pasta Shop in Berkeley and she recently found out that much "wild" salmon is actually from the ocean. Still being fed the same problematic feed. Now I need to find out whether there are any ocean fish farms in Alaska...

Great resource: The Seafood Watch list from the Monterey Bay Aquarium