Holy Cow! I Unclogged My Own P-Trap!

>> Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Remember that post where I said I wasn't interested in learning any plumbing skills?

Well, apparently what I meant to say was that I wasn't interested in learning any plumbing skills unless I was seriously annoyed at my drain and my husband wasn't home to fix it.

Since we're in an apartment, the easy thing to do would have been to call the landlord. Afterall, that's the main advantage of living in an apartment, right? You don't have to fix your own problems...But they wouldn't have gotten to it until who knows when, and that just wasn't going to work for the bathroom sink used by my three boys since nothing was going down.

Concerned that one of the boys would leave the water running too long and I'd end up with a flood in the bathroom, I decided to tackle the problem.

STEP ONE: Find the plunger.

Hmmm, I think we left it in Maryland.

STEP TWO: Try unclogging the drain without harsh chemicals.

I went with the old vinegar and baking soda trick. I got a pretty nifty volcano, but the sink still wasn't draining.

STEP THREE: Unclog by hand.

By this time I was ready for extreme measures, so I went to the Internet. In detailed instruction, here is how to unclog your bathroom sink by hand.

In less detailed instruction, here is how I did it. And I'm pretty sure I didn't mess anything up.

  1. Remove everything from under your sink and change into scrubby clothes. This is a dirty job.
  2. Grab a bucket and some rags. Put the bucket under the pipes under the sink.
  3. Turn off the water using the water shut-off valves.
  4. Unscrew the pieces of the P-trap, the curved part of the drain. The pieces are surprisingly easy to unscrew by hand. Lay each piece on a rag to the side.
  5. The instructions I read said you should stuff a rag into the pipe that disappears into the wall to avoid inhaling any methane. This seemed like a smart idea, so I made sure I did that.
  6. Once all the pieces of the P-trap are removed, you should be able to identify where your clog is.
  7. Using a long screwdriver, force a paper towel through the pieces of pipe to remove any clogs and other nasties.
  8. Reassemble the P-trap, making sure you screw everything together snugly.
  9. Test your work by turning on the pipes.
And voila! Thirty minutes of easy work, no harsh chemicals (or if you skip the baking soda/vinegar step, no chemicals at all), and you have a workable sink again.

Now I've got to figure out how to make sure it doesn't get clogged again. Any suggestions?


What Is Your Mission Statement?

>> Monday, March 30, 2009

For a few years, I ran a book club website called The Reading Lounge, so I read several books about starting your own business. Although some of the information in those books varied widely, they all agreed on one thing: If you are going to run a business, you need to have a mission statement and a business plan.

I was thinking about those books the other day in connection to my blog (which I am thinking of expanding into some workshops), and I had the thought, "Why do businesses have a mission statement, but not people?"

A mission statement describes the purpose of a business by defining their overall goals. When the owners of that business have crucial decisions to make, they can refer to their mission statement to help them decide which path to take, where to focus their efforts, and how to invest their money.

Wouldn't individuals benefit from a mission statement in the same way that businesses do?

Without a mission statement, we move through life on autopilot, making decisions based on habit and ease. With a mission statement, we focus our time, money, and efforts on the things that matter to us.

For example, in The Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyzyn relates that when she and her husband got married, they decided they wanted a big family and an old farmhouse in the country with an attached barn. With this long term goal in mind, their frugality never felt like a sacrifice because they knew every penny saved brought them closer to their dreams.

Other examples:

If your mission statement includes having a close, happy family, you will spend your time with your family, rather than putting in extra hours at work.

If your mission statement includes owning your own house, you will put your money into savings rather than spending it on plasma TVs, iPhones, and designer shoes.

If your mission statement includes having a successful business, you will focus your energy on building your business and growing your networks, rather than lounging in front of the TV.

Part of the advice for businesses to create a mission statement is that they clearly define it and write it down. I can think of many situations where I might have made a different choice if I had clearly defined and written down my mission statement.

So my mission is:

  • To raise three kind, creative, intelligent, and happy boys who care for humanity, love God, and have a connection to the earth.
  • To live a sustainable life, including having a "green" home and a bountiful garden. Bees, chickens, solar panels, passive solar design, and within walking distance from entertainment would be pluses.
  • To have a career I enjoy.
The last statement is pretty vague, I know. I'm still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up. But hopefully, the other two statements will help me and my husband as we make decisions in the future.

What is your mission statement?


A Conscious Shopper Is/Is Not

>> Friday, March 27, 2009

Since we still haven't sold our house in Maryland, my family has lived for the past eight months with only half of our stuff. The other half is still in Maryland "staging" our house. Thinking of this fact today, I had two thoughts:

  1. Our house in Maryland looks really beautiful without all the clutter.
  2. Except for missing a few big furniture items, it hasn't been much of an adjustment to cut back to half as much stuff.
Don't get me wrong. I will be ecstatic when our house finally sells and we have all of our belongings in one place again. I miss having a home that actually looks like a home, instead of like we're in transition.

But doing without has made me realize how much of what I own was purchased to fill up space, to make an impression, or to fulfill an impulse rather than being chosen with careful thought.

I know I'm not alone in that. Afterall, recreational shopping is one of America's favorite pastimes. And in general, I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting nice things or wanting to look nice.

But often, we get so caught up in everyday living that we forget to pay attention to the things that matter. We live such fast-paced lives that we don't have time to choose carefully, and we end up with stuff we don't need, stuff we don't use, stuff we don't wear, stuff that doesn't last. And because we bought the wrong stuff in the first place, we end up buying more stuff and more stuff and more stuff.

This cycle of spend, spend, spend is not good for the planet or the pocketbook, but many people are afraid of what will happen if they step off the treadmill and try something new. They fear the hippy stereotype, and they fear criticism from their peers for being "different."

So I'm here right now to set the record straight...

Being a Conscious Shopper means:
  • you think before you buy
  • you are aware of the effects of your purchases on others and on the planet
  • you try to choose the best possible products to meet your needs
  • you live within your means
It does not mean you have to radically change your life (although you might do it by accident). It does not mean you have to make huge sacrifices (unless you want to). And it definitely does not mean you have to look ugly or drab (but you might end up caring a little less about how you look and a little bit more about the world around you).

Most importantly, a Conscious Shopper knows that shopping can never replace real living. So in the words of the New American Dream:

More fun, less stuff!


Book Review: Your Money or Your Life

>> Thursday, March 26, 2009

Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence
by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

Rating: ****

You know that weird thing when you learn something new, and then suddenly you hear it mentioned over and over in a bunch of random places? I can never remember what that's called, but it happened to me with this book.

At the end of the Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyzyn mentions Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez and their former organization, the New Road Map Foundation. I can't remember if she mentioned Your Money or Your Life or if I looked it up later, but I casually added it to my "To Read at Some Undetermined Point in the Future" list.

A couple weeks later, I got an email from the New American Dream announcing the release of an updated version of Your Money or Your Life. Apparently, Vicki Robin was a co-founder of my favorite organization.

Then I stumbled upon a review of it by the guy that writes The Simple Dollar stating that of all the financial books he's read, Your Money or Your Life is his favorite.

The result was that I moved it from my "To Read at Some Undetermined Point in the Future" list to my "Must Read Now" list.

Joe Dominguez, the developer of the financial philosophy described in this book, realized early on in his fast-paced career on Wall Street that he didn't want to be stuck in that kind of job for the rest of his life. He began living far below his means and saving as much as he could until after only a few years, he was able to live completely off of his investment income of $6,000. He left Wall Street and began teaching his philosophy to others in collaboration with Vicki Robin.

In 1992, they published the first edition of Your Money or Your Life, which teaches readers how to live below their means to get out of debt, build up their savings, and ultimately achieve financial independence.

I can't say that this book had the same effect on me as it did on the guy at The Simple Dollar, but I would recommend it to anyone starting out on their frugal journey or looking to improve their relationship with money. The information is presented in a straightforward, step-by-step manner, and their belief that anyone can achieve financial independence is empowering to the reader.

Most worthwhile is the description of money as something you get in exchange for your life energy, leading to the three questions that are the crux of their philosophy:

  1. Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction, and value in proportion to life energy spent?
  2. Is this expenditure of life energy in allignment with my values and life purpose?
  3. How might this expenditure change if I didn't have to work for a living?
Another valuable section of this book was their "101 Ways to Save Money," which for some strange reason, Vicki Robin decided to leave out of the new edition.

My main criticism of their ideas is that they would work best for singles or couples with no children. Some of the methods that they suggest for saving money simply would not work for a family. No matter how frugal you are, you really can't raise children on $6,000 a year.

My other criticisms are minor and personal: I had trouble getting into the book because the first three chapters describe how to set up a budget, something I have always done anyway. Also, I am a stay-at-home mom with no income of my own, and when I asked myself, as they advised, what I would do with my life energy if I didn't have to work for a living, the answer was, "Play with my kids, read a lot of books, blog...Oh wait, I already do that." It would have been more valuable for my husband to read the book, since he's the money maker.

Overall, I think the philosophy behind this book is an important lesson that we could all stand to be reminded of. Are we spending our lives working for things that don't matter? Or are our jobs a means to the ultimate goal of happiness and independence?

Next up on my reading list...Real Food by Nina Planck


Energy Efficiency: Renewable Energy's Less Cool Cousin

>> Monday, March 23, 2009

At the Cool Cities meeting I attended a few months ago, Marjorie Meares of Mathis Consulting Company described the immense energy impact that is possible through a home retrofit.

She related that a typical new nuclear power plant costs $20 billion and has 2,200 MW of generation capacity. She postulated that the same amount of money could be spent to retrofit existing homes to make them more energy efficient. If $5,000 were spent on each home, four million homes could be made more efficient, reducing the energy requirements of each home by 1kW, or 4000 MW for all four million homes.

In other words, the energy efficiency retrofits would save twice as much energy as a new nuclear power plant could produce.

A home energy retrofit is safer than building new nuclear plants, more sustainable than building new coal-fired plants, and cheaper than installing solar panels or wind turbines. And we can do it now, without any new technology or legislation holding us back.

I think the reason energy efficiency doesn't get its fair share of publicity compared to renewables, is that it doesn't seem as cool. Energy efficiency is like the uncool cousin of renewable energy - hidden in the shadow of renewables' sparkly newness.

But for the average person, energy efficiency is actually possible, while installing solar panels on your roof is probably not.

When embarking on an energy efficiency improvement project, you have three possible starting points, depending on your budget and home type.

Do-It-Yourself Home Energy Audit

  • Cost: Free
  • Good for:
    1. People with small budgets
    2. Apartment dwellers/Renters
    3. Owners of a fairly new and well-built home
  • Process: Walk-through your home looking for air leaks and places that are improperly sealed or insulated. Add caulking, weather-stripping, and insulation. Replace high-watt bulbs with lower watt bulbs or compact fluorescent lightbulbs, a poorly performing heating and cooling system with a more efficient one, and old appliances with Energy Star rated appliances.
  • Downside: Unless you have a strong knowledge of energy efficiency and home building, your DIY audit will be minimally effective, but it's a good place to start.
  • For more information: Find a detailed list of suggestions at the U.S. Department of Energy site.

Online Energy Audit

  • Cost: Free
  • Good for:
    1. People with small budgets
    2. Apartment dwellers/Renters
    3. Owners of a fairly new and well-built home
  • Process: Free online energy audits are offered by many power companies. They ask for information about your home and combine it with your energy usage history to create an energy profile with suggestions for improvements.
  • Downside: Without a home visit and walk-through, an online audit can only provide limited information and generic suggestions. But if you combine it with a DIY audit, you can get a pretty good idea of where to start.
  • For more information: Visit your power company's website for details.

Professional Home Audit
  • Cost: $200-$400, or more
  • Good for:
    1. People with old or poorly built homes
    2. Anyone interested in a detailed consult and plan
  • Process: An energy auditor will do a room-by-room examination of your home, including a blower door test and a thermographic scan. Following the tests, most auditors will provide you with an in-depth plan for improving your home's efficiency and will help you prioritize your improvements.
  • Downside: The cost, but the savings from improved energy efficiency should offset the cost of the audit.
  • For more information: You can find an auditor in the Residential Energy Services Network, but to ensure a quality job, it's best to find an auditor by referral.

A typical home retrofit can shave as much as 30% off your energy bill, so decide which energy audit option works best for you and start saving money!


The Wonderful Blogs I Enjoy

>> Saturday, March 21, 2009

“This award acknowledges the values that every blogger shows in his/her effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary and personal values every day.”

Earlier this week, I was awarded my first blog award from Michelle over at An Organized Mess. Wow! I'm so honored...I'd like to thank my readers, who made this award possible. And of course my dear husband and children, who put up with my endless tap-tap-tapping away at the computer. And the environment, for giving me something to blog about. And, let's see...okay, it's not really that kind of award.

According to the rules, I'm supposed to pick fifteen other Wonderful Bloggers to pass the award on to, and then they're supposed to pick 15 other bloggers, and so on and so on.

Well, despite my mild-mannered appearance, I'm a rebel at heart, and I don't like to be told what to do. I'm also not big on chain letters, memes, email forwards, or Facebook apps, so although I'm very very grateful to Michelle for this honor, I'm afraid I'm going to have to break the chain.

I would still like to honor the bloggers whose writing I enjoy, but if I list your blog here, don't feel obligated to pass the award on to anyone else (unless you want to).

Allie at Allie's Answers provides a daily tip to help you green your life and gives product recommendations for great green products (but only the one's she likes per her "if you don't have anything nice to say" review policy).

Arduous might be the smartest blogger I read, but she's down-to-earth enough that I don't mind that she's smarter than me.

Fake Plastic Fish is my hero.

The eco-heroes at The Green Phone Booth were some of my first finds in green blog reading, and are still my favorite.

New Dream Blog and Living Green Below Your Means are both products of my favorite organization, New American Dream. Together they keep me updated on environmental news, New Dream news, and living green on a budget.

You can't go wrong with No Impact Man, even if he is the one and only male blogger in my Google reader.

30threads isn't a blog, but they highlight many of the blogs in the Triangle area, so I always know what's happening around here. I also enjoy New Raleigh, for the same reason.

Closely related is Ginny from the Blog, which is written by one of the creators of 30threads.

The blogger over at Less Is Enough caught national attention when she decided to try eating for a month on $1 a day, but she caught my attention because she's local - she lives in Durham.

Raleigh Eco News is another local blogger, for those who like to keep their reading close to home.

A Chick with a Conscience doesn't blog nearly as much as I wish she would. She's a talented writer and artist who gets me thinking every time she adds a post. Other eco-bloggers who don't post often enough are Green Resolutions and Greening Families.

And last but not least is a new find, Smart Family Tips, who has the best tagline: Save a little time, Save a little money, Save a little planet.

All of you listed here are Wonderful Bloggers, and I want you to know how excited I get every time I see something new from you in my Google Reader.

And to all my friends and family who write a personal blog: Just because you're not listed here doesn't mean I don't love you. I just wasn't sure if you wanted me sending strangers your way to view pictures of your kids...But I get excited when I read your posts too!


Spotlight on Raleigh: Community Gardens, Just Getting Started

>> Thursday, March 19, 2009

My mom loves to get her hands in the dirt. Until I was a teenager, she always kept a big backyard garden, from which we preserved jars and jars of fruits and vegetables for year-round consumption. I have bountiful memories of hoeing and planting and weeding. Tomatoes straight off the vine, peas fresh from the pod, and bright cheery sunflowers watching over it all.

When I was in college and people would ask how my boring summer job at a factory was going, I would reply, "It's kind of like snapping beans." If you've ever snapped beans, you know just what I mean...

Gardening is in my genes, so I've always intended to have a garden. But in my adult life, I have lived in one dorm, one house, one townhouse, and four apartments. Six out of seven of those have been rental properties, and only the house had a yard. I dream about the day when I'll have my very own yard, but I don't know how near in the future it's going to happen, and I'm tired of waiting.

Thus began my search for a community garden...

Unlike other points on the Triangle (which is really more of a deformed hexagon), Raleigh seems to be sadly lacking in the community garden category. Durham has Durham SEEDS. Carrboro has their Community Garden Coalition. Chapel Hill has the Northside Community Garden and the Carolina Garden Co-op. But not Raleigh...

Six Google searches over six months finally led me to the "Raleigh Community Gardens Meetup Group." So far, the group is still in an organizational stage, but I've been impressed at the quality and quantity of start-up gardens being planned in the area. There's buzz about various gardens in the planning phase all over Raleigh.

Through the meetup group, I also discovered an organization called Advocates for Health in Action, "a group of diverse organizations and community members who are shaping the environment throughout Wake County so healthful eating and physical activity are the way of life." They are developing a page on community gardens as part of their site that will include a map of all the community gardens, CSAs, farmer's markets, and pick-your-own farms in the area.

Stay tuned for more information about community gardens planned for the Raleigh area. In the meantime, if you're in the middle of starting up a community garden in Raleigh, be sure to join the meetup and send your needs to Katherine, who's compiling a list, or send the info to the Advocates for Health in Action to be included on their page.


March Round-Up

>> Monday, March 16, 2009

I'm pretty proud of myself this month. It was a five-week grocery trip month, but I still managed to stay close to the overall total budget. The transportation total is up because my husband has been working crazy hours at work so he has been driving a lot instead of walking/taking the bus. And the electricity bill is up because we've been having bizarre weather. An 80 degree day followed by a 30 degree day makes a 60 degree house seem extra extra cold. So I bumped the heat up to 65. Yep, I'm a rebel.

Monthly Spending (budgeted amount in parentheses)

  • Groceries: $746.56 ($500)
  • Transportation: $169.17 ($300.00)
  • Electricity: $120.31 ($150)
  • Water/Sewer: $20.00 ($50)
  • Entertainment/Miscellaneous: $249.31 ($300)
  • Clothes: $18.09 (no set budget)
  • TOTAL: $1323.44 ($1,300)

Trash Report: 4 bags of trash (13 gallon bags); 1 bag of glass, 1 1/2 bags each of plastic and metal, 2 bags of paper (reusable bags about the size of a paper grocery bag). Trash went down but recycling went up. I guess that's okay, right?

Changes I Made This Month:

Goals for Next Month:
  • Lots of info about energy efficiency projects around the home coming up.
  • Plant a small container garden.
  • Get a worm bin.
  • I never made it to last month's Sierra Club meeting, so I'm repeating this goal for next month.
  • I think it's time to take the plunge into organics. I've been doing tons of research (making a price book, calculating year-long costs of different categories of my pantry items, evaluating costs of different recipes, etc.), and by my calculations, I should be able to go organic and still stay in the budget. I may hold off on giving tips until I see how I do, but you can watch out for any spikes in my food bill over the next couple months.


Giving...When There's No Money to Give

>> Sunday, March 15, 2009

This post is my submission for this month's APLS Blog Carnival. The subject is "charities." Check out all of the APLS bloggers on March 20 at Green Resolutions.

Several times when I've told my husband what the topics are for the two blog carnivals I participate in each month, he has responded, "Who comes up with those?!"

I personally enjoy having a topic to write about. It taps into a different type of creativity than just blogging about anything that comes into my head. But this month was different. This month I had trouble coming up with anything to say.

For the record, I'm not saying anything against Green Resolutions, who came up with this topic (and happens to be one of my favorite green bloggers...and I really do think it's a great and unusual-in-a-good-way topic).

But, you see, my problem is that I don't give money to any charities...

I'm not saying never. I've dropped many many handfuls of change (and even a few dollar bills here and there) in the buckets of the Salvation Army, and even in the cups of beggars on the side of the road, although I've been told you shouldn't do that. We used to give to our local fire department every year after they miraculously saved all of our belongings in an apartment fire the first year we were married (and hey, hubby, we ought to start giving them money again...). And when we feel financially secure, we've been known to support our favorite organizations (NPR, New American Dream, Green America, the Sierra Club), who do great good, even if they aren't technically charities.

But the thing is...we give 10% of our gross income to tithing. I know my church is using that money for good, and I think 10% is all any reasonable person should be expected to give. If I were wealthy, I would give much much more, but in the meantime, I'm giving as much as I can. But tithing is not exactly the same as giving to charity.

So as I pondered this topic some more, I began wondering if there are ways to give to people in need and to give back to the community without money. And then I remembered an email I received from Green America a month ago with the subject line: Break Up with Your Bank.

The email was a reminder to me and other Green America members about the ridiculous behavior of many banks in this time of economic crisis. (The bank I use, for example, Bank of America, is receiving a $45 billion dollar bail-out but threw a $10 million dollar Super Bowl Party.) The email then went on to encourage Green America members to switch to a community investing bank.

What is a Community Investing Bank?

To understand what community investing banks do, you have to remember that when you stick your money in a bank, it doesn't just sit there, like valuables in a lock box, waiting for you to come collect it. The bank puts your money to work. They loan it out to people and charge interest, and they invest it. That's how banks make money, and also how they can afford to pay you interest on your savings accounts.

It's a smart system that benefits both the banks and the people who use them, but there's a catch: you have no say in where your money is loaned. Bank of America, for instance, is one of the largest investors in the U.S. in coal mining and coal-powered plants. I'd prefer not to be supporting that, thank you very much.

With a community investing bank, you still have no say in who gets to use your money, but you will have a general idea where it's going. Community investing banks loan to local organizations and businesses, economically disadvantaged people, and often environmentally friendly or socially responsible businesses and organizations as well.

Why should I use a community investing bank?

Green America explains, "Community investing provides the means for low-income people to use their own skills and talents to lift themselves up economically—the money provides loans to start environmentally sustainable businesses, builds schools, or funds critical services like affordable child care. As the saying goes, it’s not a hand out, but a very effective hand up for people who have been disenfranchised by our economic system....Continue to be generous in giving to charity, and then also devote at least 1% of your portfolio to community investing."

Plus, according to the Better World Shopper, changing your bank is the #1 thing you can do to vote with your wallet. And when you think about it, it seems obvious...Banks control where the dollars go, and they manage huge amounts of money. So it does no good for someone to start buying organic cotton clothing if they are still supporting a bank that invests in pesticides. Picking a bank and a credit card that make sustainable and fair choices will greatly magnify your ability to vote with your wallet.

How do I find a community investing bank?

If you live in Raleigh, you're lucky because I've done all the work for you. There's a credit union in Durham called Self-Help where you can open a savings account, CD, IRA, or money market account. If you don't live in the Triangle and would prefer a bank closer to you, you can check the Community Investment Database.

I am also interested in an online bank called ShoreBank Pacific, which is "committed to environmentally sustainable community development." The disadvantage of an online bank, of course, is the inability to withdraw money from an ATM. (The most attractive feature of Bank of America, when we chose it, was it's nationwide system of ATMs). But there are ways to get around that, like keeping a small account open in a nationwide bank for withdrawals.

For more information about community investing, you can read Green America's guide to Investing in Communities.

What else can I do?

What other ideas do you all have for giving to the less fortunate and giving back to your communities if you have no money to give?

Photo by borman818


Vegetarian Recipe: Hummus

>> Saturday, March 14, 2009

The final recipe from the cooking class I taught on Thursday..."Beyond Beans and Rice: Eating Beans to Save Money and Use Your Food Storage."

Hum-Dinger Hummus
from Big Snacks, Little Meals


1 15 oz. can garbanzo beans
1 clove of garlic, peeled (I usually do less garlic)
3 Tbsp. tahini (sesame paste available in health food stores or the international aisle of your grocery store)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lemon, halved
water (optional)
paprika (optional)
  • Open the can of garbanzo beans. Strain the juice and rinse the beans with fresh water. Put the beans into the blender.
  • Add the garlic, tahini, olive oil, and salt to the blender or food processor. Next, squeeze the juice from the lemon into the blender.
  • Put the lid on the blender, and blend away! You're going for a smooth mush. If you need to, stop the blender, and use the rubber spatula to push the ingredients off of the sides and into the center.
  • If the mixture is too stiff, blend in a little water to thin it out.
  • Scrape the hummus with the rubber spatula into a serving dish. You can sprinkle a little paprika on top. It looks cool and tastes great.
I serve this with raw vegetables and pita chips, and yes, we do have it for dinner sometimes. I'd really love to do some of those fancy flavors of hummus you can get at Whole Foods. Anyone have any amazing hummus recipes you'd be willing to send me?

As a side story, I ran out of cheese before the cooking class, so I had to stop at Food Lion on my way there, and as I've mentioned, Food Lion is sorely lacking in the organics, so I got conventional cheddar cheese and Kraft cheese slices.

The next day, there was still a lot of cheese left, so I made grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch with the Kraft cheese slices. First Son is super picky, so I make my boys try anything new before putting it on their plates to avoid wasting food and making myself angry. So I had them try the processed cheese, explaining that it is "weird cheese."

At dinner, I made tacos with the leftover bean burgers from the class, and First Son asked, "Do these have the weird cheese on them?"

"No, it's regular cheese," I replied, meaning cheddar cheese.

"Are you sure this isn't weird cheese?" he asked a few minutes later.

"I'm sure. I didn't use any weird cheese on these."

He studied his taco a little longer. "Then why is this cheese orange?!"

Ha, ha. That made me chuckle, and also reminded me of this amazing potato stand in the market in Cambridge, where I spent a semester in college. They sold baked potatoes with cheese, but my roommate and I always joked that it was really cheese with baked potatoes. We also got a kick out of the fact that the cheddar cheese was white.

Why do Americans feel the need to make cheddar orange?


Vegetarian Recipe: Black Bean Nachos

>> Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Here's another reason to go veggie from Juliet Schor, a board director at the New American Dream:

A study on U.S. consumption from the University of Chicago estimates that if the average American were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent, that would be the equivalent of switching from driving a Camry to a Prius.

And now to continue on the theme of "Beyond Beans and Rice: Eating beans to save money and use your food storage" that I will be teaching at a vegetarian cooking class at my church tomorrow...

Black Bean Nachos

COST: $0.40 per serving (not including toppings)*

2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed)
1 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salsa or taco sauce
1 small garlic clove
8 flour tortillas
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Combine beans, 2 Tbsp. of water, chili powder, salt, pepper, cumin, salsa or taco sauce, and garlic in a food processor. Process until smooth.
  • Heat in a skillet (or even the microwave will work).
  • To prepare tortillas, cut each tortilla into 8 wedges.
  • Lightly brush the tortilla wedges with oil and bake 3-5 minutes.
  • Turn each wedge over and brush with oil again. Bake 3-5 more minutes until lightly browned and crispy.
  • Serve the beans and chips nacho style with lettuce, tomato, and cheese and whatever other toppings you like on your nachos.
*Note that all costs are estimates based on prices in my area. Your costs may vary.


Vegetarian Recipe: Butter Bean Burgers

>> Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Every week, when I think about potential future blog topics, I always include a vegetarian recipe. And every week, when I get a little busier than I expected (or I played with my kids too hard and I'm too tired to blog), the first potential post to go is always the vegetarian recipe. The result being that despite my good intentions, I have posted very few vegetarian recipes to this blog.

Now, that's just not fair to all the great vegetarian dishes in my recipe files considering that eating less meat is one of the top four things you can do to lessen your impact on the environment. (The others are energy efficient homes, energy efficient transportation, and buying less.)

So coincidentally as I was feeling bad about that, greeen sheeep aka EnviRambo blogged last week about going veggie for lent and needing some vegetarian recipes. Plus, I signed up to teach a vegetarian cooking class at my church later this week. So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to devote a few days to recipes.

My focus for the cooking class is Beyond Beans and Rice: Eating Beans to Save Money and Use Up Your Food Storage. Lots of bean recipes ahead...

So long-winded preface aside, here's the recipe I'll be teaching at the class:

Butter Bean Burgers

COST: $.75 per serving (not including buns or toppings)*

2 cups cooked butter beans (or 1 can butter beans, drained and rinsed)
1 small onion, chopped
6 saltine crackers, crushed (or lately I've been using bread crumbs)
1 egg, beaten
1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 c. vegetable oil for frying
  • In a medium bowl, mash the butter beans with a fork.
  • Mix in onion, crackers, egg, cheese, garlic powder, salt, and pepper.
  • Shape into burger sized patties. Makes about 5 patties.
  • Heat oil in a large skillet.
  • Fry patties until golden, about 3 minutes on each side.
  • Serve on buns with the fixin's.

If you glance at my recipe index, you might easily come to the conclusion that 95% of the time, we eat bean burgers around here. Truthfully, we do eat a lot of bean burgers, and I can explain the reason why in one simple sentence: My husband is not a vegetarian.

My dear hubby is a meat and potatoes kind of man. He's happy with burritos (or anything related to a burrito). He enjoys some Italian now and again. Pizza is nice. But if I start throwing in too many nights of tofu or tempeh or any of those other strange vegetarian additions, he starts to protest.

So we eat bean burgers because they are sort of similar to eating meat and they go well with french fries.

*Note that costs are estimates based on prices in my area. Your costs may vary.


Reduce Clutter: Start a Swap Network

>> Saturday, March 7, 2009

This post is my submission for the Green Moms Blog Carnival. The topic is "Green Spring Cleaning." Check out the musings of all the great Green Moms on March 10 at Tiny Choices.

I have a huge pile of stuff in my bedroom. It's taking up one corner, and sometimes creeps toward the center of the room until I fight it back into the corner with a couple of swift kicks. My husband keeps asking me, "Why is that stuff there?" I keep telling him, "I'm going to give it away when I get around to it."

It's almost spring, so now is a good time to work on reducing the clutter. I could sell it on Craigslist, but...I don't enjoy selling things - I'd rather give stuff away. So I could Freecycle it, but...I'd rather give it to someone I know. And that's why I'm starting a Swap Network.

I'm sure I read about Swap Networks somewhere, but when I tried to research the concept for this post, Google was a bust. So maybe I made it up. Either way, I think it's a good idea. :)

(But if I stole this idea from you, please let me know so I can give you credit.)

There are three advantages to being part of a Swap Network, rather than just using Craigslist or Freecycle:

  1. Besides swapping stuff, you can also trade time and skills. For example, I'm hoping to utilize my Swap Network as a babysitting co-op, coordinating babysitting trades and playdates with my friends.
  2. You can borrow and lend, rather than just give stuff away. Say you're a poor college student with a tiny lawn and no lawnmower, and your neighbors are starting to give you the cold shoulder because your lawn has turned into a jungle. (True story, by the way.) Wouldn't it be great to have a network of friends with lawnmowers who would loan you one for a weekend? Or friends with tools? Or a Wii? (Everybody needs a friend with RockBand.)
  3. You swap with people you know, building a sense of community and friendship.
Ideally, you would create a Swap Network with your neighbors, perhaps through your homeowner's association. You could utilize your association's newsletter or website for posting needs and wants. You would get to know your neighbors, and the stuff wouldn't have to travel far.

But since I'm new to the area, and I live in an apartment mostly housed by college students who are constantly changing, I'm going to try the Swap Network with friends from church. My plan is to set up a Ning page where we can post our needs and wants, and then swap the items at church, since we all see each other there once or twice a week anyway.

Sample ads would look like this:

I have a huge pile of baby boy stuff that my kids have outgrown, including an infant carseat, an Exersaucer, a bunch of clothes, and some toys. If you would like any of these things, let me know!

I am going to a fancy wedding this weekend. Anyone have a dress I could borrow?

I would like to learn to knit. Who knows how and would be willing to share their skills? Could we start a knitting group?

I need to spiffy up my wardrobe. Anyone want to be part of a clothes swap?

You get stuff you want, get rid of stuff you don't, trade skills, and make friends. What could be more fun than a Swap Network?


Quick Post on Recycling

>> Friday, March 6, 2009

I try not to blog on Friday nights because I would rather spend that time with my husband, but he's out getting us ice cream, and I haven't had much time to blog this week. So I'm going to get this out quick while I'm thinking about it...

On my recent post about recycling plastics, Emily noted that Ikea has recycling stations for batteries, plastic grocery sacks, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. That reminded me of a few other things about recycling that I think are important. Not related to plastics, but since we're on the subject of recycling...

1. Household Hazardous Waste:

The reason Ikea collects compact fluorescent lightbulbs is they contain mercury, which makes them hazardous waste. There are many other common household items on the hazardous waste list. These items should not be thrown in the regular trash because they can leach harmful chemicals into our land and water. When I looked at the list of household hazardous waste a couple years ago, I was like, "Crap! I've been throwing that out for years!" So make sure you know what's on the list and how to dispose of it by visiting your city's waste management or recycling website. Here are some examples of household hazardous waste:

  • automobile fluids / antifreeze
  • batteries
  • cooking oil / motor oil
  • fire extinguishers (dry chemical)
  • fluorescent light bulbs
  • fuel oil / lighter fluid / kerosene
  • household cleaners /chemicals
  • mercury thermometers
  • paints / lacquers / polishes
  • pesticides / herbicides / poisons
  • photographic chemicals
  • solvents / thinners / wood preservatives
2. Electronics and Appliances

Many electronics and appliances also contain toxic substances and should not be thrown into a landfill. If the items are not reusable and could not be donated, you should check your city's waste management or recycling website for instructions on how to discard those items. In Raleigh, you can recycle any electronics with a cord by taking them to one of the Multi-Material Recycling Facilities. This is especially important to know with the switch to digital for televisions. Don't throw your TV in the trash!

3. Know Your Recycling Program

Not every area recycles the same things, so make sure you know what's recyclable in your area by checking your city's waste management or recycling website. When I first moved to Raleigh, I wanted some clarification on what was recyclable, so I emailed my local waste reduction specialist, and she replied, "We always are happy to clarify rather than get items we cannot accept." The reason is that one non-recyclable item that goes unnoticed at the recycling center can ruin a whole batch of otherwise recyclable items. So please, please make sure you're only tossing things into your recycling bin that can actually be recycled in your area. In Raleigh, that means no bottle caps, no yogurt tubs, no pizza boxes, no paper towels...This is one of my pet peeves...

To summarize...check your city's waste management or recycling website!

(Okay, I didn't quite make it. My husband's been home about five minutes now...)


I Need...Beautiful Hair

>> Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I'm going to admit from the get-go that my vanity was a major factor in this category. I don't have gorgeous commercial-worthy hair, but I still like my hair. A lot. So where I might be willing to make some sacrifices for the environment in other categories, when it came to my hair, I just wasn't willing to compromise. In the end, I found something that worked for me, but boy, it was a long month of ugly hair to get there.

But you have to consider that there is a wide range of hair types. So just because something failed on my hair, doesn't mean it won't work for you. Experiment until you find the right shampoo for your hair type. The bad hair doesn't last forever!

Here are the ingredients to watch out for when shopping for shampoo and conditioner:

  • Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate: These are foaming agents in shampoos and can cause skin and eye irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA) and Triethanolamine (TEA): These ingredients help your shampoo to lather, but they can react with other ingredients in the shampoo (particularly preservatives) to form carcinogenic substances.
  • Phthalates: Phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and the developing male reproductive tract.
  • Parabens: Widely used preservatives, parabens mimic estrogen in the body and may increase the risk for certain types of cancer.
Besides the health concerns, another reason to change your shampoo is the packaging: most shampoos come in a plastic bottle.

The first three Baby Steps here are tips I've picked up over the years from my hairstylist, who is also my sister. She has gorgeous hair. It really is commercial-worthy.


  • Be stingy with the amount of shampoo and conditioner you use. Average length hair only needs a nickel-sized drop of each product. Plus, salon-style shampoos are generally more concentrated than your run-of-the-mill grocery store shampoo, so you don't need much. The less you use, the longer that bottle of super-expensive shampoo will last.
  • When shampooing, focus on the roots. When conditioning, focus on the ends. Using this method, you can get away with using less.
  • Don't wash your hair every day. My sister washes her hair every other day, sometimes every third day. And I'm telling you, she has terrific hair.
  • Supersize your shampoo. Pick products that you can get in bulk containers. The bigger, the better.
  • Check Skin Deep for less toxic shampoo and conditioners. Beth over at Smart Family tips has created an awesome list of products that rate low on Skin Deep and can be found at most drugstores, Target, or Kroger.
  • Try a shampoo bar, and bypass the container completely. Look for a local soap maker at your farmer's market - they often carry shampoo bars. Or try the Burt's Bees Rosemary and Mint Shampoo Bar or a Lush product.
  • Use a concentrated liquid castile soap like Dr. Bronners. You can get Dr. Bronners in giant containers, and since it's concentrated, you only need to use a little bit. Or you can mix it with an herbal water like in this recipe.
  • Go no 'poo. Despite the weird name, all this really means is that you use baking soda to wash your hair, and you don't wash your hair very often, supposedly letting your hair return to its natural state. But first you have to go through a nasty detox phase, where your hair looks and feels awful. If you're interested, you can find out more information about "no poo" all over the Internets, such as here.
  • Use apple cider vinegar as a hair rinse instead of conditioner. Commonly paired with "no poo," apple cider vinegar returns hair to its naturally acidic pH. But you have to tolerate smelling like a salad.

Tips for the Budget Conscious
Baking soda and vinegar are super cheap, but if you want something more mainstream, pick a product that you can get concentrated or in a bulk size. And as always, use less.

Where I'm At
A couple years ago, I experimented with some different "all natural" shampoos and was not impressed. They were too watery, which meant I was going through a bottle of shampoo twice as fast as I was used to. And these were not cheap products. For awhile, I used the Whole Foods brand (but it has sodium lauryl sulfate in it), but mostly I used some nice, but definitely not non-toxic, products my sister would get for me from her salon.

At the start of this month, I picked up a bar of the Burt's Bees Rosemary and Mint Shampoo. I liked it the first day - it made my hair slightly filmy, as if I had put some kind of styling product in it. The second day, the filminess was weighing my hair down, and by the third day, my hair was a greasy mess.

Next, I tried the Dr. Bronner's soap mixed with herbal water. Same thing. I think I might have hard water, which would mean the soap is not rinsing out properly.

During both of these weeks (and the week prior with my regular shampoo), I tried using apple cider vinegar as a rinse. It worked fine and the smell went away by the time my hair was dry, but there were a couple times when I started sweating and the vinegary smell would come back. Overall, I just didn't like it.

Desperate not to have ugly hair, I picked up bottles of Burt's Bees Super Shiny Grapefruit and Sugar Beet shampoo and conditioner from Target. It works great and only scores a 2 on Skin Deep, but it comes in a small plastic bottle with a hefty price tag.

Finally, following a tip from JessTrev, I headed to the Lush store. The great thing about going with Lush is that they have a variety of shampoo bars, so logically there would be one to meet every hair type. And they have sales clerks that can help you pick out what you need. The downside is that Lush is very expensive. And smelly. If you have an allergic reaction to fragrances, this is not the shampoo for you. But the shampoo bar I got is working great, and supposedly it will last as long as three bottles of shampoo, so the price tag isn't as scary as it sounds. If you don't have a Lush store in your area, you can order online.

Photo by


Plastics You Might Not Have Known Could Be Recycled

>> Sunday, March 1, 2009

Trying to green up my personal care products the past few months has included an attempt to reduce my plastic consumption. But plastics are everywhere, and sometimes you just can't avoid buying plastic.

So what to do?...

Now, I want to make it completely clear that recycling is not the solution for the plastic problem. Recycling plastics is down-cycling, meaning that a plastic bottle is made into plastic lumber, not a new plastic bottle. Plus, recycling plastic is difficult, especially if different types of plastics are mixed.

So don't buy something thinking, "I can just recycle this." Reduce your plastic consumption first. Reuse and repair when you can, and recycle last.

Both recycling programs that I have participated in (in Silver Spring, MD and here in Raleigh) have only taken plastic bottles with a narrow neck. That is a very small category of plastics, so what do we do with all the rest of the plastic that enters our homes?

Here are some ways to reuse and recycle plastic that you might not have known about:

  • With their new Gimme 5 program, Preserve has partnered with Organic Valley and Stoneyfield Farms to collect #5 plastics, which are not collected by most city recycling programs. Gimme 5 bins are set up at select Whole Foods stores, or you can mail your #5 plastics to Preserve. Also collected through this program: Preserve toothbrushes, other Preserve products, and Brita pitcher filters.
  • Are you one of those people who leaves the cap on the bottle when you throw it in the recycling bin? I hope not! Most recycling centers do not accept the caps, and if a cap is left on the bottle, they throw the whole bottle out. But now Aveda has started collecting bottle caps! They accept any rigid cap made from polypropylene plastic (if you can bend it with your bare hands, it's not the right kind), and they recycle the caps into Aveda packaging. Just take the caps into an Aveda store.
  • Shipping stores such as The UPS Store will usually take back packing peanuts and reuse them.
  • TerraCycle collects drink pouches, cookie wrappers, energy bar wrappers, and yogurt cups and turns them into bags, backpacks, and planters. The catch is that you have to find someone or someplace that is collecting them.
  • I'm not completely sure if shoes contain plastic, but Nike has a Reuse-A-Shoe program where they collect old athletic shoes and turn the soles into surface material for playgrounds and basketball courts. You can find a drop off location by visiting their site, or mail your shoes directly to a Nike Recycling Center. They can be any athletic shoes, not just Nikes.
  • The Lions Club and the Give the Gift of Sight Foundation have partnered to collect used eyeglasses, which they clean, repair, and distribute to needy people. You can find a Lions recycling center here.
  • CollectiveGood collects cell phones, PDAs, and pagers. Devices that are still in working condition are put back into reuse; devices that are broken are taken apart, the usable parts are collected, and everything else is recycled in an environmentally responsible manner. They also recently launched a program to collect used electronics. You can trade in your old computers, printers, and gaming consoles for money, or donate the value to the charity of your choice.
  • For a small fee, Greendisk will send you a box to collect your computer related waste: CDs, DVDs, diskettes, video tapes, cords, cables, hard drives, etc.
  • Most office supply stores will recycle your old ink cartridges, and many give you a discount on your next purchase if you bring back the old one.
  • You can find a list of other computer and small electronics recyclers at e-Stewards.org.
  • ILoveSchools.com matches teachers with donors of equipment, supplies, and materials. Examples include computer equipment/software, TVs, VCRs, musical instruments, school supplies, sports equipment, and toys.
As a final note, I have to add that you can never underestimate the desirability of your junk. Before you throw anything in the trash, consider if someone else might want it. You'd be surprised how much of your trash could be someone else's treasure!

I would love to add to this list! Anyone else know of ways to recycle those difficult-to-recycle plastics?

Photo by cogdogblog

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