Earth-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays

Earth-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays
The holidays are upon us and so is the gift-giving season. Consumerism is not an earth-friendly habit, but we can find some middle ground when we choose gifts that are earth-friendly; things that someone can use to replace disposable or single use items.

Here are a few of my favorite options:
  1. Reusable cotton rounds. These are great for cleaning your face. Just squirt on some of your favorite face wash or wet them and apply soap. Rinse after use and then throw in the washer and dryer. The ones I have, I have used for over a year and they are in great shape. To keep tabs on them as they go through the wash, it’s best to put them in a lingerie bag.
  2. Bamboo toothbrushes. Use these as stocking stuffers or gifts for Hannukah. Bamboo is a much more earth-friendly material than plastic to make toothbrushes, so introducing someone to a bamboo toothbrush is a fabulous idea.
  3. Reusable produce bags. This is my all-time favorite gift. Grab a set of 5-10 bags and that will set someone up for shopping success. Choose a set made from cotton to be the most earth-friendly option. They can be thrown in the wash and when they’ve reached the end of their usefulness, they can be composted.
  4. Beeswax food wraps. Although you can make your own, finding someone who makes these locally alleviates the work and supports a small business. If you can’t find someone locally who makes them locally, look for a seller on Etsy.
  5. Zippered silicone bags. These help to replace the single use version that often go straight into the garbage after being used once. I have several versions of these and they are all fantastic. Different sizes help to accommodate different foods and these are perfect for adding to school or work lunches.
  6. Reusable cloth napkins. The ones that I use are from a seller on Etsy. They are made of two-ply diaper material and are super absorbent. We’ve been using the set I have for at least 5 years and they look practically brand new. These go straight through the washer and dryer and require no ironing.
Remember that with holiday giving, less is more. Consider giving experiences rather than items. Experiences gain in value over time whereas items lose value. Give a gift that creates memories.

I Already Use a Reusable Water Bottle, What Else Can I Do to Reduce Single Use Plastic for Beverages

I Already Use a Reusable Water Bottle, What Else Can I Do to Reduce Single Use Plastic for Beverages
Many of us have adopted the habit of bringing our own water bottle with us rather than purchasing bottled water when we are out and about. If you already do this, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. It's a great step toward sustainability!
If you haven't started using your own water bottle, look into how you could make that change. If you’re looking to purchase a water bottle, the best version will be stainless steel or glass. There are some great insulated stainless steel bottles on the market across a wide price range, so as we move into the warmer months of the year, that insulation factor will come in handy and purchasing one or two won’t break the bank. Beyond that, let’s look around at the other beverages that we might be consuming that are packaged in plastic. 
When my kids were younger, playing soccer, parents would always bring bottles of sports beverages or juice boxes for the kids to drink after games. I thought it was a waste of money and not necessarily healthy, but I didn't ever think about the plastic issue. The sports drinks come in plastic bottles and the juice boxes are either plastic or have a plastic straw in a plastic sleeve attached to the box with glue. Of course the whole bunch of juice boxes or sports drinks was wrapped in plastic as well, so there was a lot there.
Are there drinks that you consume regularly that are in plastic containers? If that is the case, is there a way for you to decrease the amount of plastic that you consume with them? For instance, is the beverage offered in cans or glass instead of plastic? That could be one way you could make a change. I know that for us, one beverage that we drink often is milk. We purchase milk in plastic jugs. This is something I will be looking into changing.
Is there a powdered form to the drink mix that you prefer that could be added to water instead of buying it premixed in plastic containers. I know a lot of people like to add some sort of flavor to their water, so buying small packets reduces the amount of plastic you are purchasing and throwing away. 
Do you purchase hot or iced coffee from a chain store like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts? Have they started back with the ability to bring your own reusable cup? Once that changes back, consider bringing your own cup with you rather than using their single use version. Typically, during the holidays, Starbucks gives out reusable coffee cups, so they want you to use them. Take them up on it. Also, what about getting a reusable straw for that iced coffee. It’s a small gesture, but if lots of people did it, it would make a difference.
The first step in changing a habit is noticing what you’re currently doing and becoming aware of areas in which you need or want to change. So, take some time to observe your current habits and pick one thing you want to change. Make that change stick for 90 days and then move on with the next.

Microplastics - What They Are and What We Can Do About Them

Microplastics - What They Are and What We Can Do About Them

Most of us are aware of plastic waste. We see it all over the place from the discarded plastic water bottle to the plastic shopping bag stuck in a tree. And, many of us are probably aware that the plastic breaks apart over time even if it doesn’t decompose. What we might not be aware of is what happens to the parts of plastic that we can’t easily see. 

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic (less than 5 mm in size). They come from a variety of sources. Many microplastics come from the breakdown of plastics over time into smaller and smaller pieces, some so small that we can barely see them. Some microplastics are even manufactured intentionally and appear as small beads in cosmetics and personal care products. They are added to replace natural ingredients and serve as an abrasive material to help exfoliate the skin or clean teeth. I remember hearing about microbeads in personal care products like facial cleansers but I never realized that the microbeads were made from plastic. I’m not sure what I thought they were made from. I just never thought about it. Thankfully, in 2015, the US banned the use of microbeads in personal care products, but it’s unknown what other countries are allowing their use.

Microplastics are also shed from clothes made from synthetic fibers. This is an area that I was not aware of until recently. Again, I just didn’t think about it but every time we wash our clothes, small fibers and bits are shed and washed down the drain with the wash water. Those small bits then travel on to our water treatment facilities and into our water systems. 

So, what’s the problem with microplastics? 

Microplastics can be inhaled or ingested by all living creatures. Their prevalence is causing problems with all walks of life and their long term effects on health are unknown. The mass production of plastics began in the 1940s and has increased at a phenomenally fast rate. According to Statistica, the production of plastics increased from 200 million metric tons in 2002 to 368 million metric tons in 2019. In 1950, production was just 1 million metric tons [1]. Eight million metric tons are dumped into our ocean annually and of that, 236,000 tons are microplastics [2, 3].

Microplastics, like much of our waste, ultimately ends up in our waterways. It gets washed down our rivers and streams to ultimately end up in the ocean. Sea life consumes the plastics, either mistaking them for real food or inadvertently along with their food. The plastics then cause numerous health issues. Small animals consume plastics which are then transferred to the larger animals (including humans) who consume the smaller ones, and the cycle continues on and on. As a fan of sea turtles, I have known about the dangers of plastic shopping bags being mistaken for jellyfish. The image of a plastic ring from a 6 pack of cans stuck on the neck of a turtle is ingrained in my head. I was not aware until recently that this happened more regularly with smaller pieces of plastic. It just never occurred to me. 

The harm caused by microplastics has not been studied extensively and the study of the harmful effects of microplastics is a relatively new field, but the fact that large marine animals like whales have been found with stomachs full of plastic is concerning. It’s becoming common to find large amounts of plastic in whales that die and end up washed on shores. One article stated that over 80 pounds of plastic was found in the stomach of a whale in the Philippines [4]. Certainly, if an animal is ingesting plastic instead of nutritious food, they will ultimately not be able to survive. 

The effect on marine life is bad enough but what about the effects on humans? A study conducted in 2019 analyzing a series of other studies estimated that humans ingest between 39,000 - 52,000 microplastic particles per year depending on age and sex. In addition, those who consume bottled water on a regular basis ingest an additional 90,000 particles as compared to 4000 particles for those who consume tap water [5]. If you need another reason to stop drinking bottled water, look no further than that last sentence. 

Just last month, a study was published demonstrating that microplastics are present in human placentas [6]. That means that microplastics ingested by the mother during pregnancy are potentially being passed on to the child in the womb. What these plastics will do to our health long term is yet to be seen, but it certainly is concerning.

We need to reduce our consumption of all plastics but single use plastics at a minimum. Here are some ways in which we can do that:

1. Use reusable shopping bags for grocery shopping (including produce bags) and other shopping trips. Whether you reuse the ones that you already have at your house or you make or purchase ones that will last a long time, reducing your consumption of new plastic bags is a good habit to get into.

2. Drink tap water instead of bottled water. If the water you have access to is not suitable for drinking, consider purchasing a water filtration system. Carrying around a reusable water bottle can significantly reduce the amount of plastic you consume which reduces the plastic in our environment. 

3. Purchase clothing made of natural materials such as cotton, wool, silk, hemp and bamboo. Fabric made from synthetic materials like polyester, fleece and nylon sheds small threads and bits that enter our water stream, mostly from being washed. If you have clothes made of synthetic materials, washing them in a bag that catches the fibers is one way to reduce their spread. 

4. When shopping for food, if you have the option to purchase a food in a non-plastic container, do it. Not all foods have this option, but when it is there, opt for the non-plastic version. If you have access to bulk food stores, use them for those items. 

All of these changes are small but can be impactful if many people do them. 



2. Jambeck, J. R., et al. “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean.” Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 13 Feb. 2015, pp. 768–771., doi:10.1126/science.1260352.

3. Erik van Sebille et al 2015 Environ. Res. Lett. 10 124006

5. Cox, Kieran D.; Covernton, Garth A.; Davies, Hailey L.; Dower, John F.; Juanes, Francis; Dudas, Sarah E. (2019). "Human Consumption of Microplastics" (PDF). Environmental Science & Technology. 53 (12): 7068–7074. Bibcode:2019EnST...53.7068C. doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b01517. PMID 31184127.

6. Ragusa, A, Svelato, A, Santacroce, C. et al. 2021 Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta Environment International 146: 106274.

Compostable versus Biodegradable: What You Should Know

Compostable versus Biodegradable: What You Should Know
On a recent blog post, I provided some suggestions on alternatives to new plastic trash bags. You can find that post here. Some of the trash bags were labelled compostable and some were labelled biodegradable. It got me curious about the differences between the two terms, so if you’re curious too, read on.
Although the terms have often been used interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two. The differences become even more important when we talk about their implications to home composting. Biodegradable means that the item will break down naturally over time in a typical outdoor environment. Compostable means that the item will break down over time in an industrial composting environment. So, compostable items are also biodegradable, but items that are labeled biodegradable are not necessarily compostable, at least not in your backyard. 
Compostable products will break down in an industrial composting environment. The key word here is industrial. This does not mean that they will decompose in a backyard compost pile. Industrial composting facilities keep tight control over the moisture and temperature of their materials whereas most backyard composters do not. The rate and which a material will decompose is dependent on the environment in which it is in. If it’s not ideal, decomposition can be very slow or nonexistent.
If you have access to industrial composting facilities, purchasing either biodegradable or compostable products will work well for you, as you will have a place to take them. If you don’t have access to industrial composting, but you have a backyard compost pile, you need to know if these products will breakdown in it. If you want to ensure that a product will decompose in your backyard compost pile, make sure the product is labelled “home compostable”. Otherwise, the labeling is likely for industrial composting facilities. 
Some of the compostable products that I am drawn to in terms of being more sustainable are paper plates and utensils. These are a great alternative to disposable plastic utensils, particularly for parties. When people gather for potluck lunches, parties, etc, disposable dishes and cutlery is the norm. Why not go for the compostable version? It might be a bit more expensive, but it would reduce the plastic being thrown away. I have access to industrial composting, so for me, this works as a replacement for single use plastic. If this sounds good to you but you are planning to put these in your backyard compost, you may not find it to be such a good idea. 
No matter what you decide to purchase, take some time to learn the difference between these two terms so you know what to expect in the long term with the products that you buy. 

Comparisons of 2 Silicone Bags to Replace Single Use Zippered Bags

Comparisons of 2 Silicone Bags to Replace Single Use Zippered Bags
I have known for some time that I needed to reduce my family’s use of single use zippered plastic bags. Our use of them wasn’t egregious, but we could still do better. For the most part, we have been able to swap out reusable containers for zippered single-use plastic bags, but that hasn’t worked well for everything. One example is something to use for freezing ground beef. We buy ground beef in bulk because it is less expensive and then we break it down into amounts needed for meals (typically a pound). In the past, I have used single-use plastic zippered freezer bags. I have also tried hard sided reusable containers, but they take up too much room in the freezer, so I need something that is more compact.
I decided to try some silicone bags to replace the single-use plastic ones. Although it is not the ideal material to use, as it is a manmade material and considered by many to be a plastic, it is a step in the right direction in that it can be reused many, many times before it needs to be replaced.

I purchased silicone bags from 2 different companies. The first bags came in a set of 4 bags of different sizes. They are a thick silicone and have a two-part system. There is the bag itself and the slider that keeps the bag closed. The thickness of the bags leads me to think that they will not be likely to tear and the thickness also allows for the bags to be washed in the dishwasher. The bottom of the bag is pleated, but the bag doesn’t stand up well on its own. The pleat, however, does allow for the bag to hold a larger volume. This set of silicone bags can be purchased here:
The second set I got came in a set of twelve bags; 7 were the size of a typical sandwich bag and 5 that were the size of a typical snack bag. These bags were a bit thinner than the first ones, but they were a one-piece system, so no extra piece to keep it closed. The bags are not pleated, but they hold a good amount of food. They are thinner than the first set and I ripped one of them along the seam with my fingernail. These thinner bags are recommended for hand washing, and they are lighter in weight. I think these will be great for using for packing lunches.
I used both sets of silicone bags to freeze ground beef in since that’s what I was looking for a replacement for. Both bags did exceptionally well, and both worked great during the thawing process. Each bag submerged well in warm water to allow the meat to thaw. I was surprised to observe that both bags seemed to allow the meat to thaw faster than it had in the single-use plastic zipper bags. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation behind it, but I don’t necessarily need to know what that is to know that it works. These bags can be found here:
So, for me, I’m switching to silicone bags which I enjoy using and which are more sustainable than the single-use plastic bags. I’m likely to continue to use a mix of the bags from both companies as I can see pros and cons for each one.

Two Inexpensive Ways to Cover Your Leftovers

Two Inexpensive Ways to Cover Your Leftovers

Growing up, when we needed to store leftovers in the fridge, we would throw on some plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Although I ditched the regular use of plastic wrap a long time ago because I knew it couldn’t be recycled, so not sustainable, I only recently stopped using aluminum foil. Why, you ask? I’ve been a believer in recycling and up until recently, aluminum foil was accepted in our recycling bin for curbside pickup. Whether or not it actually got recycled is a discussion for another day, but now that we’re not allowed to put it in, I was without an option.

So, on went the search for a more earth-friendly substitute. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of my leftover containers are glass and have their own lids, so it’s not very often that I use something else, but when I need something, I need it to work.

I first discovered beeswax wraps from a friend of mine who sent them to me as a gift. The pattern of the fabric was the ocean with turtles, so it suited me well. I used them a handful of times before they were lost. One got eaten by the dog (don’t worry, she’s fine) and the other two were washed with really hot water, so they lost their beeswax. Note to readers – be careful how hot you set the water or learn how to recoat the wraps because beeswax has a low melting point. And, by the way, for those not wanting to use animal products, there are some on the market that are certified vegan. For me, beeswax is fine, so these work for me. The ones I use can be found here:

Check out my YouTube video here.

I liked using the wraps, but there were a couple of things I didn’t like. First, I don’t like that the wraps are square or rectangular in shape. I would rather wraps that are circular in shape as they would fit bowls better, which is what I typically use to store leftovers. As a quilter, I imagine the decision on shape is out of convenience as it’s much easier to cut squares and rectangles instead of circles. Using a square wrap on a round object results in extra fabric being folded up under the bowl. I know, small inconvenience, but I’m looking for a solution that works and that I like. The second thing I didn’t like is that the largest one was not large enough. One of the pans that I use rather frequently is for casseroles and it’s your typical 9”x13” pan. The beeswax wraps are not long enough to cover the edges of the pan.  

Moving away from the beeswax wraps, I discovered stretch reusable lids that are made from silicone. Silicone comes from sand, so I find it appealing from a sustainability standpoint. The lids come in a set of different sizes to fit different sized dishes. They are transparent so that you can see inside the dish and circular in shape so they fit the bowls I’m looking to cover. They appear to be thick enough that I’m not concerned about tearing them. As an added bonus, they make a great noise (think drum) when you tap on them, so my teenage children are entertained. The ones I use can be found here: The lids are hand wash and air dry. I’ve used mine for about 3 or 4 months so far and they are holding up quite well. The only negative I have to mention is that I need some that are larger in diameter. I wanted something to cover the pies I made for the holidays and none of the lids fit the pie plates. 

I’d love to hear what your experiences are on using either the beeswax wraps or the silicone lids. Which one is your preference?

3 Simple Steps to Reduce Your Family’s Food Waste This Month

3 Simple Steps to Reduce Your Family’s Food Waste This Month

A great way to improve your earth-friendly lifestyle is by making a plan to reduce food waste within your home. Food waste is a huge problem around the world and in the US especially. It is estimated that, in the US, up to 50% of all produce is thrown away. The food that is thrown away ends up in the landfill, produces methane, and contributes to climate change. So, food waste is not only bad for us as Americans, it’s bad for the environment. The cost of this waste is estimated to be about $1500 per year for a family of 4. 

Here are 3 simple ways to reduce food waste in your home.

1.       Make a meal plan. Before you head to the grocery store, plan out your lunches and evening meals for a week and list out the ingredients that you will need for each meal. This will allow you to make fewer trips to the grocery store (save gas and energy) and save money not buying things you will not use. Fresh fruits and vegetables typically stay fresh for about a week, so planning out what you plan to cook in a week assures you will use up the fresh produce before it goes bad.

2.       Buy only what you need for the plan. With your meal plan in hand, only purchase what you need for the meals for this week. But, be flexible. You can change your meal plan on the fly if there’s something on sale or it suddenly sounds better to you (boy, those fresh pineapples look great!), but replace a meal with the new idea rather than buying for an additional meal.

3.       Freeze the surplus. If you end up purchasing more than you will use, freeze the extra before it goes bad. This is the case in our house during the summer when we’re members of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. If I receive extras, I go ahead and freeze them ahead of time. This is true for the times when I see green beans on sale as well. If they’re in a bag, I just toss the whole thing in the freezer to eat later. The second most common item I end up freezing is bananas. For me, there’s a very short period between the perfect banana and the overripe one. Overripe bananas go into banana bread or the freezer if I don’t have time to bake at the moment. Make sure to remove the peels before you freeze them so that you can add them directly to your recipe. Strawberries, blueberries, peaches and other fruits can easily be frozen for use in smoothies, breads, etc.  

Following these 3 simple, earth-friendly steps will not only reduce food waste which is good for the planet but will save you money in the long run and get you on a positive start for the year to come. Oh, and if you’re looking to step up your game to throw away less food, consider composting what you can’t use.

How to Wrap Gifts in an Earth-friendly Way

How to Wrap Gifts in an Earth-friendly Way
There can be a lot of waste associated with gift giving, but if we all make a few small changes to our routines, we can put a dent in that waste. One option is to reuse paper you may already have around your house. Growing up, we used to love wrapping gifts in the comics section from the Sunday newspaper. These days, I’m getting a lot of packages delivered to my house that contain packing paper. It’s a bit wrinkled from being stuffed in the box but do some smoothing and it makes a perfect wrapping paper.
Rather than using the plastic bows that come in a plastic bag from the store, why not try your hand at using natural twine or thin cotton rope. Yes, we’re going old school! You can decorate with evergreens if you like, but I’m sure the twine will be sufficient decoration. And, now you don’t need gift tags since you can write the name of the recipient right on the paper.
If you want to continue using decorative paper that you buy on the roll, just look for the kinds that can be recycled. If you can crush it into a ball without it opening up again, it is recyclable. After the gift has been opened, make sure to remove any non-recyclable elements and then stuff into a brown paper bag and add to your recycling bin.
There are several companies that make wrapping paper from recycled materials. Be sure to check them out here:
Another option is to use gift bags or decorative boxes (and reuse them). I have bags and boxes from the early years that we were married without children. Reusing bags and boxes can save you money in the long term if you take good care of them. I have a box of bags and boxes in my basement for just this purpose. Sometimes we have to refresh the tissue paper, but that’s a lot less than replacing wrapping paper every year.
Lastly, I have had some friends recommend using fabric to wrap gifts. As a quilter, I wouldn’t mind getting gifts wrapped in fabric (a gift within a gift), but I’m not sure wrapping gifts in fabric to give outside of your family is useful. If the person is not a sewer or a quilter, do you ask for the fabric back?
No matter how you decide to wrap gifts this year, get creative and find ways to reduce the waste.

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Adventures in Bucket Composting - Part 3

Adventures in Bucket Composting - Part 3
In my previous two posts, I showed how I prepared my two-bucket system from empty cat litter bins I obtained from one of my friends, how I created the initial layers of material, and how I watched it for the first couple of weeks.
After 8 weeks’ time, I observed that the food scraps were nearly completely decomposed and the material appears about ready to be used. Click here to watch the video.

Here are some things I learned along the way:
1. Composting does not have to be difficult.
All of my studying and worrying was worthwhile but ultimately wasted energy. Really, just throw down some food scraps, leaves and paper, and let the earth do its thing. It needs air and it needs moisture, but beyond that, let it be.
2. Your compost bin is very forgiving.
A couple of times when I checked on it, it was too dry, so I added what I thought was an appropriate amount of water. I ended up adding too much…oops. To compensate, I added more brown material and everything got back into balance in about a week. Based on my experience, I think it would be rather difficult to totally screw up your compost bin. Worst case scenario? Dump it out and start over.
3. I can really overthink things.
I think this point leads back to the first 2 points. This really is quite easy. I’m an analyst and a skeptic. I like to read up as much as possible on anything I am trying to do for the first time. This is both good and bad. It means that I don’t typically jump into something without having a clue, but it also means I avoid trying some things if I haven’t spent enough time researching them. Fear of failure anyone? This is a prime example of overthinking things. In the end, I have been successful, and I am confident in moving forward with other composting projects.
My next adventure is going to be building a compost pile in my back yard with the intent to use it to fill and refresh my garden space(s). I’m putting in a couple of raised beds over the winter in preparation for spring planting.

If you'd like to read the previous posts, here are the links.  
Adventures in Bucket Compsting - Part 1 
Adventures in Bucket Composting - Part 2 
Interested in learning more about earth-friendly options? Join my free group here.

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Adventures in Bucket Composting - Part 2

Adventures in Bucket Composting - Part 2
In my previous post, I showed how I prepared my two-bucket system from empty cat litter bins I obtained from one of my friends. Once the initial layers of material were in place, there was not much that I needed to do except keep an eye on it.
Across the next 4 weeks, I checked on my compost routinely – at least twice per week to give it air and mix it up a bit. I used a regular garden trowel to access the material at the bottom of the bucket to bring it to the surface. I tried to make sure to keep the food scraps in the middle of the pile as much as possible, as I had read that’s where they should be.
I also fretted about whether it was too dry or too wet and whether the ratio between browns and greens was right. I added water when it got too dry and added dry materials when it seemed to wet. Not much changed on a day to day basis, but across the weeks, I could see that the food scraps, eggshells and other greens were breaking down slowly.
There were some sprouts that popped up along the way, and I just plucked them out as I saw them. Not being sure what they were coming from, I didn’t consider eating them. I’m happy to indulge in sprouts that are from beans, but the unknown? I’m not that adventurous.
I checked for heat to be generated from my little bucket. Composting in this way should be generating heat, so adding more food scraps and greens when the temperature of the pile seemed to drop helped with this.
Lastly, I added some dried leaves on top of the bin as someone suggested this would help the compost break down better as well as keep down the bugs. I certainly saw a good number of tiny flies in the bin. I will show you what happened in the next post. Stay tuned.

Here's a link to the second video that I did in this series:

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