Category Archives: being green

a minimalist in the kitchen: going plastic free with Chemex coffee

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Last Christmas I was gifted a Chemex coffee maker from a family member.  Turns out it has been one of the best gifts ever!  It’s the simplest thing, a simple glass carafe that has the ability to make delicious coffee.  No plastic, no complicated machinery, no expensive and unnecessarily packaged coffee grinds.  A paper filter, some coffee grinds and some hot water are all I need to make a delightful home brew.  I have written before about the unnecessary evils of a lot of the modern coffee machines out there on the market today.  Plastic pods, aluminum bonded plastic, and excessive packaging are being used to market a sense of simplicity to consumers.  Why on earth do people correlate creating an abundance of waste with simplifying?

Here is my beauty in all it’s glory:

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The Chemex coffee maker was invented in 1896 by German chemist Peter Schlumbohm – the company has a great deal of history and has won a ton of design awards since its creation over a century ago.  Great design lasts, as evidenced by this simple coffeemaker.  I will have to say I prefer the Chemex to the French press method of coffee making – the Chemex filter removes any bitterness in flavour from the coffee (which was an issue with the French press), and it is so much easier to clean!

What do I love best about my Chemex?  I will admit it is the simplicity of the entire process.  I also love that making pour over coffee in a glass carafe requires no plastic at all.  And the fact that it makes a delicious cup of coffee, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

 All opinions in this post are my own and I have received no compensation for reviewing this product.

putting eco-guilt into perspective

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I’ve been trying these past few weeks to put less pressure on myself about a few things.

The pressure I was putting on myself to reduce my plastic consumption became a sort of obsession. I was spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about what I would be buying at the grocery store and guilting myself endlessly if I was consuming plastic unnecessarily.

Sometimes all we need is a little distance to put things into perspective.

We went on a weekend trip to Whistler, and while I did take my reuseable shopping bags with me, I didn’t spend a ton of time fretting over the plastic bag my loaf of bread came in.

I had an epiphany while shopping in the Whole Foods bulk section recently. I saw a lady working there who was refilling some of the giant bulk bins from tiny plastic clamshell containers. In other words, the good I was doing by eschewing plastic packaging was being undone by the fact that the store was simply creating the garbage rather than me.

Which means that some of those warm fuzzy feelings I was having about making less wasteful choices might be pointless. As were the feelings of guilt I was having over the few packaging items we don’t seem to be able to avoid.

My point? Guilting ourselves into doing anything for the greater good is not sustainable in the long term. Better to focus on the positive and do what we can with the resources we have. So no more guilt. It’s not productive or conducive to a happy life.

We’ve had a lot to celebrate this past month (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and Mother’s Day) and we’ve been celebrating in our usual environmentally conscious fashion. We’ll continue to focus on experiences rather than stuff when it comes to celebrating special events in our lives, and do our best to reduce the amount of waste we are producing. But without the side of eco-guilt.

are you Vancouver’s greenest family?

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VancouverMom.ca is sponsoring a contest this month in honor of spring, Earth Day, and all thing eco-friendly.  Here’s my submission!

How many kids do you have?

We have two boys.

How old are your kids?

Our children are ages 4 and 7.

What municipality do you live in?

We live in downtown Vancouver, in the heart of the city.

List three small things your family does.

  • We make our own household cleaners from vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda instead of using dangerous, chemical filled alternatives.  It really is possible to clean your entire home effectively with water and these three simple items!  We also refuse chemical-laden personal care products and make our own wherever possible – this means avoiding cosmetics and personal body care items that contain toxic ingredients and making our own alternatives from simple household ingredients.
  • We use reusable drink and food containers (glass and stainless steel) to eliminate our use of single-use packaging.  Buying in bulk at the grocery store allows us to avoid unnecessary packaging and we transfer our purchases from our reusable bags to glass containers in our pantry when we get home.  I carry my own stainless steel water container and coffee mug with me everywhere I go, and my kids have stainless steel lunch boxes and water bottles that they take to school for zero-waste lunches!
  • We buy all of our clothes from thrift store (except underwear!) and donate clothes back to charity when they have been outgrown or are no longer loved – this promotes recycling and eliminates the amount of waste that is generated from the creation of new clothes.  We also recycled when it came to cloth diapering our youngest child and bought his cloth diapers used off Vancouver’s local Craigslist site- and then sold them on Craigslist when he potty trained!

Tell us about one big green thing your family does.

The biggest thing we do to be the greenest family we can be is to limit our consumption of everything – whether it is toys, clothes, and even food, we question our need for all things and buy only what we need.  We also avoid buying items (including food items) that are unnecessarily packaged, which means refusing plastic packaging wherever possible and using reusable produce bags, reusable shopping bags, and buying as much of our clothing and household items as are necessary from the thrift stores around our city.  We have even managed to limit the size of our home (our family of four lives in a cozy 800-square foot condo in downtown Vancouver), which has allowed us to limit our consumption of energy and has allowed us to minimize our environmental footprint even further.  We have chosen to stay in our small home rather than upgrade our lifestyle and our consumption levels.

How do you get your kids involved?

If you asked my children, they wouldn’t be able to tell you how we are living differently from anyone else.  They are young, and so living this way of refusing consumption and striving to be environmentally sensitive is really the only way they know.  My kids understand that buying from thrift stores is a form of recycling, and it is a bonus that money also happens to go a lot further there.  They also are involved in our grocery shopping and love picking out organic produce to put into our reusable bags.  We have successfully managed to involve our children in living a green life, and they do not feel as though they are missing out on anything by living this way.  In my family’s opinion, limiting our consumption and striving for environmental consciousness leads to a richer life, full of experiences rather than stuff.

one of our favourite things to do: hanging out at the beach

one of our favourite things to do: hanging out at the beach

learning about farming at Qualicum Cheeseworks in Parksville

learning about farming at Qualicum Cheeseworks in Parksville

Tell us what you love about living a green lifestyle.

I love meeting other people who have similar values when it comes to environmental sensitivity, and I am finding that it is becoming easier to do so now thanks to social networking and the internet.  Thankfully, many people are aware nowadays of the urgency around considering the environment when making purchases and using different products.  I particularly enjoy reading about other families who are striving to live in a way that is sensitive to our environment, as I find it inspirational and further motivating.  I also love the feeling I get when I discover new ways to limit our environmental footprint – I am truly an eco-nerd!

yes, we're goofy.  but we're also green!

yes, we’re goofy. but we’re also green!

If you’d like to enter the contest for Vancouver’s greenest family, be sure to check it out online at VancouverMom.ca.  The deadline for entries is midnight, April 24, 2013.  Best of luck!

a healthy body: detox your deodorant

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The weather here in Vancouver is taking forever to warm up.  Spring has not yet arrived, and as such, I’m spending more time indoors than I would like. Of course, more time inside usually translates to more time spent plugged in: I will admit to spending more than my fair share of time on th Internet, with a particular focus on Pinterest. I use Pinterest primarily for recipes and meal ideas, but I have recently started looking there for inspiration with regard to natural body care.

You know, like homemade deodorant and other fun stuff.  Yes, I’m serious.

I’ve tried commercially-made “eco-friendly” deodorant in the past, without much success. The product I tried literally gave me a painful rash under my arms, which led me to turf that particular product pretty quickly. That was a few years back, and I hadn’t tried again. Until recently.  I found a very simple recipe on Pinterest last week, and I simplified it even further.  Here it is:

Mix two Tablespoons of coconut oil (I like organic) with one Tablespoon of aluminum-free baking soda (I use Bob’s Red Mill) until mixture is smooth and consistent. If you like, you can add a few drops of essential oils of your choice.  Store in a clean, wide-mouth jar (for easy access) and apply a pea-sized amount to each underarm each morning.

natural deodorant made from coconut oil and baking soda. what could be simpler?

natural deodorant made from coconut oil and baking soda. what could be simpler?

That’s it! So simple, right?  Another alternative to using baking soda would be arrowroot powder, but I just happened to have baking soda on hand at home. I might try the arrowroot powder version next time. I’ve heard some people have had luck using coconut oil alone, but I haven’t tried that yet either.  Baking soda does a great job of managing bad smells and coconut oil is naturally anti-bacterial, so it’s a great combination for a deodorant, and one that forgoes a lot of nasty chemicals. I’ve been using the above mixture for the past week, and I can honestly say, it works!

Now you might be asking yourself why I would go to the trouble of making my own deodorant. Well, I’ll explain.

Most commercially available deodorants and anti-perspirants contain aluminum, parabens and phthalates.  Phthalates have been linked to increased paraben absorption by the body, while both both parabens and aluminum have been linked to increased estrogen production within the body.  Increased estrogen production can cause cancer cells to form, both in the breasts and other parts of the body.  Propylene glycol is another chemical that is found in many commercially made anti-perspirants and deodorants, and has been found to cause damage to the heart, liver, and central nervous system.  And let’s not forget Triclosan. An antibacterial agent that was first defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a pesticide, Triclosan is commonly found in commercially-prepared deodorants. Triclosan has also been named as a possible carcinogen.

All of these chemicals would be best avoided for everyone in as many applications as possible.  Both my mom and my grandma had breast cancer, so I am all about actively reducing my own risk for developing cancer.  Many of the aforementioned chemicals are found not only in deodorants and anti-perspirants but in cosmetics and many bath and body products, so be sure to check your cosmetics cases and under your bathroom sink for any offenders!  There is a great database from The Environmental Working Group called Skin Deep that clearly outlines the toxicity levels of nearly 80,000 personal use products.  Be sure to check it out for the products you already use and before adding anything new to your beauty arsenal.

Have you tried making your own deodorant?  Do you have any favourite all-natural beauty recipes? 

plastic project: complete yet neverending

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Last year around this time we were asked by environmentalist and filmmaker Taina Uitto, author of the blog Plastic Manners, to collect our plastic for an entire year.  We finished our plastic collection project last week.  Finishing the project was such a liberating feeling – our plastic lived with us in the bathtub of our second bathroom for the duration of the year, with a handful of pick-ups spread out over the course of the project.  As you can imagine, having several months worth of plastic staring back at you from your bathtub gives one a feeling of desperation and depression – desperation because I became desperate not to contribute any further to the amount of plastic trash we are creating, and depression because plastic is everywhere and while my efforts to limit my family’s plastic consumption were significant, we did still manage to accumulate a lot of plastic.

Here's our pile of plastic.  That's Taina bravely sitting in the middle of the pile of plastic garbage, and gives a sense for the volume of the pile.

Here’s our pile of plastic. That’s Taina bravely sitting in the middle of the pile of plastic garbage, and gives a sense for the size of the pile.

Our plastic collection was not limited to non-recyclable plastic, but included recyclable plastics as well.  Plastic is tricky – recyclable plastic is often down-cycled into inferior products and not all plastic is recycled, so ALL plastic has to be considered trash.  I feel like our family is reasonably conscious of our plastic consumption, and yet we still managed to collect 12-13 large black garbage bags full of plastic over the last twelve months.  We use our own reusable shopping bags and reusable produce bags, so there was not a lot of plastic shopping bags in the collection, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of packaging waste and a lot of garbage.  I never thought about how much of our plastic packaging isn’t recyclable.  Think of all the plastic that you toss in the bin every day that can’t even be recycled: plastic wrap on our cucumber, plastic bags on bread, plastic wrap on any food item you will find in your grocer’s freezer.  It just never seems to end.  I’m grateful that our family has been eating very little meat over the past year, as the few pieces of styrofoam that we added to our plastic collection seemed particularly offensive.

Why is plastic so awful?  In essence, anything that is plastic today will be around pretty much forever.  Plastic does not biodegrade, and a lot of plastic garbage makes its way into the oceans where it can seriously harm and even kill wildlife.  Birds and fish often mistake plastic in the ocean for food and will ingest it, which ends up being deadly.  Filmmaker Chris Jordan has created an eye-opening short film on the tragedy of wildlife plastic consumption in the Pacific called Midway : Message from the Gyre.  After watching that film, I have not been able to think of my plastic consumption in the same way.  Plastic does not go away.  Ever.  It just moves around the planet in different, and often lethal forms.

Plastic garbage from our local beach - we picked up an entire bag of garbage in less than ten minutes.

Taking action against plastic pollution!  We visited the beach recently and picked up an entire bag of plastic garbage in less than ten minutes.

What can we all do differently to minimize our plastic consumption?

Refuse plastic:  Consider the plastic you consume regularly and find non-plastic alternatives.  Use reusable shopping bags, produce bags and bulk bags.  Try to buy grocery items with as little plastic packaging as possible – this will mean spending most of your grocery dollars in the produce and bulk sections, but both the planet and your waistline will thank you!

Reduce your plastic consumption:  Reducing our consumption of plastic and asking ourselves if we really need another piece of plastic in our lives is an important environmental responsibility.  Using what we need and not a lot more will go a long way in reducing our output of plastic garbage.

Reuse what you have: Find a use for the plastic items you already own, and don’t buy any more!  One idea is to reuse your plastic bottles to contain your homemade cleaning supplies or find a soap dispensary that sells soap in bulk, and refill your cleaning bottles when they are empty.

Recycle:  When you have been refusing, reducing and reusing your plastic, you should have much less plastic waste than when you started.  Recycle what plastic you do have left to prevent it from going into the landfill or making its way into streams and oceans.

What are you doing to challenge your use of plastic and reduce your plastic consumption?  I’d love to hear from you!

striving for zero waste: Valentine’s Day is for earth lovers

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Valentine’s Day is not normally a large celebration in our household.  Usually the kids get some sort of small treat or toy, we send the kids to school with Valentines for their friends, and I might do some baking that day to celebrate with the kids.  Having spent nearly an entire year now collecting our household plastic, I will tell you that conspicuous consumption on Valentine’s Day is completely unnecessary.   There are many ways to honour Valentine’s Day without breaking the bank or polluting the planet.

Origami Valentine's heart

Origami Valentine’s heart

Tell your friends, family and significant other that you don’t need flowers for Valentine’s Day.  Roses and flowers are big business on Valentine’s Day, but not very thoughtful to Mother Earth.  Flowers purchased as gifts often come wrapped in plastic and other packaging, which is often not biodegradable and ends up in the landfill.  If you or your loved one has their heart set on flowers, consider giving a living plant grown locally or even a small potted herb for your sweetheart’s kitchen.  Even better, ask your sweetie to accompany you on a nature walk and keep your eyes peeled for flowers making their appearance this Spring in one of our many local parks.

Make paper valentines for school age children to share with their friends.  Have kids make their own valentines from paper supplies you already have one hand, or (if you are feeling pinched for time) buy plastic-free valentines from the stores.  Most years I will make valentines for the kids classmates at home, but this year we bought our valentines at the drugstore.  Luckily enough, we found some cool, fun ones that had no plastic packaging to them.

Valentine shark

Valentine’s shark – made by my oldest child at school last year, we are using this cute guy for decoration this year!

Plan for experiences rather than gifts.  Since Valentine’s Day falls on a weekday this year, we celebrated early by taking our family out to a restaurant for dinner on Saturday night.  We don’t often go out for dinner with the kids due to their early bedtimes, so it was nice to get dressed up and have a fun night out.  The kids had a lot of fun putting on their dress clothes and my youngest little guy even wore a tie!

Buy your Valentine’s candy in bulk and refuse the packaging.  No Valentine’s celebration would be complete without candy!  Or at least that’s what my kids tell me.  We are lucky to have a cool candy store just up the street from us, that sells candy in bulk.  The Candy Aisle is a cute little shop on Robson St (600 block) with lots of bulk candy options, and they even sell Mason jars and lids if you are wanting to buy your candy plastic free!  I popped into their store yesterday to ask about bringing my own jar to buy candy in bulk, and the lady working there confirmed that would be fine.  Hooray for plastic free candy!

Valentine's candy in mason jar - photo courtesy of Etsy

Valentine’s candy in mason jar – photo courtesy of Etsy

I like to celebrate most holidays and events enthusiastically – this past weekend we celebrated Chinese New Year (Gung Hei Fat Choy!) and Family Day (the first ever in BC!) without much ado and we managed to produce very little waste.  On a positive note, we made a weekly grocery trip to our local Whole Foods yesterday afternoon and after spending $80 on groceries, we came away with only one piece of plastic packaging (from the deli).  Small victories are worth celebrating too!

How will you celebrate Valentine’s Day this year?  Are you going to make Valentine’s Day a zero waste celebration?

striving for zero waste: not buying Starbucks’ $1 reusable cup

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I was in a Starbucks in downtown Vancouver this past weekend, buying a snack for my kids.  I wasn’t buying a coffee for myself, as I’d made my own coffee at home and was drinking out of my stainless steel travel cup.  As I ponied up to the register to pay for a slice of banana bread, the young man behind the cash register tried to enlighten me on the subject of Starbucks’ new reusable, $1 plastic cup.  The premise behind the cup is that customers pay $1 for this reusable cup (with lid), then the cup can be used 10 times and is to be recycled within 30 days.  The cup and lid are themselves made of polypropylene plastic (#5).  Starbucks’ suggestion is that these cups can be recycled at the local level, and that their use will limit the demand for customers who like to drink their hot beverages from double-layered paper cups, hence further limiting Starbucks paper waste.

starbucks reusable

Photo courtesy of Treehugger.com

My first reaction to hearing about this product was outright horror.

I pointed out to the barista that I already carried my own stainless steel cup with me (and have done for the past two years), as I enjoyed using it and preventing further waste as I visited Starbucks.  The barista countered that the concept of reducing paper cup waste was “amazing,” and that the fact that this reusable cup was inexpensive meant that it would appeal to a broad number of people.  He further stated that this idea was a “great step for the Starbucks company,” as it would reduce the amount of waste Starbucks produced.

I was agog.

Sure, in premise, the concept of a cup that can be used 10 times is of greater environmental benefit than a cup that is used simply once.  However, when things are inexpensive (like for example a $1 cup), we are more likely to construe them to be disposable and we are less likely to be dispose of  them in a considerable manner.  Sadly, Starbucks does not seem to recognize that not only will people purchase this plastic cup and then forget to bring it for subsequent uses, but that in all likelihood, these cups will end up in the trash more often than they will end up being appropriately recycled.

If we think of all the plastic, “throw-away” things in the world that are available to us, isn’t this plastic cup from Starbucks just another one of them?  Why isn’t the suggestion of adding plastic to the waste stream on such a large scale offensive?  While the goal of reducing paper waste is commendable for any company, to simply replace the paper waste with plastic waste is extremely short-sighted and frankly, abhorrent.

I’m going to continue to use my stainless steel, reusable travel mug whenever I frequent my local Starbucks.  How about you?