Monday, April 27, 2009

Belated Earth Day Post

Hi everyone. I know I'm a few days late and probably a dollar short for my "Earth Day" post, but these things are applicable 365 days a year, so here it goes. I'll try my best to keep this food-related. :-)

Did you know you can compost even if you live in an apartment or condo? A company called Nature Mill makes automated, completely odorless composting machines that aren't much bigger than a waste basket. They're a little pricey, but if you cook as much as I do, you'll probably reduce your trash by half and you'll have rich compost that you can use in your container garden or donate to the apartment complex for the flower beds. I've been drooling over this thing for awhile but the money just hasn't been there to indulge myself. Let me know if you get one and how it works.

If you're not squeamish, you can also start a vermi-composter for a lot less money. This is basically a big plastic tote that you fill with moist newspaper and a particular breed of worms. The worms can live in the container under your kitchen sink (or some other suitable place) and will eat your food scraps and the newspaper and turn them into rich compost. No worries--keep them well fed and they're not very likely to wander off. Martha Stewart's website has instructions and information on building such a system.

Of course, if you have a house with a yard, you can take composting to a higher level. You can either make a compost pile (which can be smelly and unsightly), or they make contraptions that look like cement mixers and garbage cans that do the job more elegantly. Check out for products and ideas.

Use Fewer Bags When Packing Lunch
I'll admit, I'm guilty of using way too many zip-top bags. In fact, I'm downright addicted to them. They're just way too easy to use to divide-up food for the freezer and ensure things stay fresh in the fridge or in my lunch bag. They also pack nice and flat, which saves room in the freezer. It turns out there are a few products, aside from plastic boxes, that you can use as a substitute. Namely, reusable food and snack bags. You can also purchase or make your own zip bag drying rack and simply re-use your zip bags a few times.

Another thing to keep an eye on is individually wrapped snacks. We've all grown accustomed to those new "100 calorie packs" and individual servings of chips that have been around for years. When you stop and think of the volume of plastic that goes into these things and actually count the number of chips, you'll think twice about grabbing a package off the shelf. Instead, buy snacks in regular bulk packages and divide them up yourself with zip-top bags and reuse them a few times (or buy reusable snack bags). As for the serving size? Check the back of the box. You can usually figure out how much of a snack amounts to 100 calories. Quite often, the food hasn't even been modified to reduce calories for the snack packs. It's just portion control.

I don't have to rave about the cheap reusable shopping bags that are around. You can't go into a store without tripping over a rack full of them and they're usually less than $2, so I'll assume you know about them and probably have your own pile of them, purchased with good intentions. However, if you're like me, you're forgetful and you probably bring your bags into the store only half the time and forget to return them to the car the other half of the time.

To get them back to the car after use, I hang them on the hanger or hook that my coat is on so I have to physically move them to get to my coat. In the winter, this works pretty well (I'll let you know what I figure out for the summer...there are five sitting on the hook from a week ago as I write this). To remember to bring them into the store, I don't put them in the trunk. I leave them on the back seat where I have more of a chance of seeing them. After a few trips in, it'll end-up as part of your routine.

If you *do* end up with a pile of plastic bags due to failed attempts at using reusable bags, you can recycle them. Some cities allow you to put them to the curb. Almost all grocery and big box stores have boxes in the foyer to put them in for recycling. Typically, they get made into the composite decking that you can find at the home center. If you're a crafty person, you might try doing a project involving plarn...plastic yarn made from old shopping bags.

The other shopping issue is those silly bags you use for produce. For larger, thick-skinned items like butternut squash, melons, etc., you don't really need a bag. Just remember to wash it well when you get it home (as you should anyway). If you want to eliminate plastic from your shopping altogether, they make reusable bags for that too out of very thin material that doesn't weigh any more than the plastic ones. Try finding some on Etsy like these or these. seems to be a good resource too.

I'm still looking for a good solution for the deli and meat counter (aside from finding an old-school butcher who still uses butcher paper and masking tape). If anyone knows of products for this, give me a yell.

Reuse Commercial Jars and Bottles
My grandmother used to keep a pickle jar of coffee in her refrigerator...extra from her morning brew. That way, she really only had to brew coffee every other day and could reheat "leftovers" on the off days.

While any coffee junkie and I don't particularly recommend this, Grandma did have a great idea when she reused her glass jars. There are still a lot of things that come in glass jars, glass bottles, and tons that come in plastic ones that are dishwasher friendly (after removing the labels with goo-gone). Instead of buying leftover containers, wash some of the containers your food came in and reuse them. Deli containers are great for this. Instead of buying jugs for iced tea and drink mixes, try an old juice container or soda bottle (you may need a funnel). Just be aware that the plastic that most jars and bottles are made of does break down over time. If it starts to turn white, it's definitely time to recycle it.

Keep Food and Paper Out of the Trash (Even if You Don't Compost)
Many people assume that food and paper is biodegradable and will break-down in the landfill if tossed in with the regular trash. The fact is, most landfills are "capped" every day with soil to prevent leaching of nasty liquids into the water supply. This capping removes oxygen and the necessary "little critters" that cause decomposition. So, the newspaper you throw into the landfill will be completely intact and readable ten years from now and the peel from the banana you ate while reading that newspaper will have that same "rotten banana" smell.

If you're not into composting (most people aren't), garbage disposals are great for getting rid of most food scraps. Just make sure your disposal is made to handle tougher foods (like meat gristle, egg shells, or onion skins before dropping them in. Also, if you have a septic system or other on-site sewage system, check with pros or do a little Googling to find out what kinds of things it can handle so you don't run-up septic pumping bills.

As for the paper, you can recycle pretty much all paper and cardboard these days. In most communities (check yours), window envelopes are okay, staples are okay, shredded paper is okay if placed in a paper grocery bag, and magazines and small catalogs are perfectly okay to recycle. Some communities can even handle plastic and wax-coated juice cartons. There's really no excuse in most places not to recycle 90% of your paper waste or more.

I think that's enough soapbox speaking for today. Now, I'd better go practice what I preach. :-) Even if you can't do it all, any little bit helps. If I've learned anything by trying to make my house "greener" (with very little financial resources to do that), it's that.

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