Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Toxic Laundry: Skip the Fabric Softener


guest post by Jennifer Robbins

If you're like me, you love fabric softener and dryer sheets. They keep your sheets soft, your shirts smelling lovely, and your skirts static free. Unfortunately they can contain just as many toxic chemicals as conventional laundry detergent, which we now know is a lot!

In fact, fabric softener may quite possibly be the most toxic product in your home. It is essentially a toxic cocktail you pour in your laundry. Worse still, many of these fabric softeners are actually designed to penetrate the fibers of your clothes and slowly release over time. So they are slowly releasing their toxic sludge right on your skin. Here are a few of the chemicals that are found in your pastel-colored fabric softener:

  • Chloroform, a carcinogenic neurotoxin
  • Camphor, causes central nervous disorders and is easily absorbed through skin
  • Alpha Terpineol, can cause central nervous damage as well as respiratory problems
  • Ethanol, considered a hazardous waste by the EPA and can cause central nervous system disorders
Do any of those sound like something you want in constant contact with your skin? I didn't think so.

Now, let's talk about dryer sheets. They are basically thin sheets of polyester coated in toxic chemicals designed to make your clothes smell "fresh and clean". And what happens to those toxic chemicals when they are heated up in the dryer? They are released through the dryer vent, adding awful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to our already polluted air. Many of the chemicals I just listed in the fabric softener section are also found in your dryer sheets, as well as Pentane (can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, etc) and Ethyl Acetate (a narcotic considered a hazardous waste by the EPA  that may cause headaches and narcosis). None of that sounds like a good idea to me!

Now that you know why you should say farewell to these products, let's talk about your options. The first is simply eliminating them entirely. They aren't essential to doing laundry as laundry detergent is, so you can cut them out. But what if you loves fresh scented soft laundry and don't want to give it up? You have a few options, actually.
For fabric softener:
  1. Vinegar - Really, all you need is a 1/4 cup of vinegar where you usually added fabric softener and you're good to go. Your clothes won't smell like vinegar after the wash, but if you miss the scented aspect of fabric softener just add a dozen drops of essential oil to the vinegar bottle and shake well before each use.
  2. Vinegar/Baking Soda - this recipe is a tad more complicated but will look and work just like conventional fabric softener without all the chemicals. Mix 1 gallon of vinegar, 2 cups of baking soda, and 2-3 cups of hair conditioner. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months and use 1/4 to 1/2 cup per load as needed.
  3. Green Shield Organic Fabric Softener, Lavender Mint - This is the only fabric softener to receive an A rating from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It's made of natural ingredients instead of chemicals and is virtually the only nontoxic store bought option for fabric softener.
For dryer sheets:
  1. Wool Dryer Balls - You can make these (there are lots of tutorials online) or buy them. Wool dryer balls contain zero harmful chemicals and last for thousands of loads, making them green and wallet friendly! They control the static and keep laundry as soft as a dryer sheet. By nature they are scent-free, but just add a couple drops of your favorite essential oil (I use lavender) before you toss them in the dryer and you have a scented environmentally-friendly dryer sheet alternative
  2. Cotton or Wool Dryer Sheet - If you just miss the fragrance of the dryer sheet, cut up an old t-shirt into a square and add 2-4 drops of essential oil to it. Let the oil dry thoroughly, then use just like you would a dryer sheet. Except instead of throwing it away after one use, you can use it over and over again! Simply add more oil when the smell fades away.
  3. Plastic Dryer Balls - You can buy these at most store these days. They function similarly to the wool dryer balls, but are not known to last as long. They are a great alternative for those allergic to wool.
You may have noticed I didn't give a store bought dryer sheet in that list. That's because not a single dryer sheet on the market received any higher than a D rating by the EWG. That means that literally every product on the market (even those "all-natural" ones) could potentially be hazardous. The good news about that is that any of the 3 options we listed above will save you money and help the environment. Because dryer sheets are single-use items, they are incredibly wasteful. All three of those options will last you multiple loads, which means you won't be spending $6 every 130 loads of laundry like you used to!

I know change can be uncomfortable, but you don’t have to jump all in and change everything at once. Start with eliminating fabric softener and see how you feel. Then maybe give wool dryer balls a shot. Make the conversion to safe and green laundry care complete by using toxic-free detergent. You may find that not only do you feel better by helping the environment, your family may actually feel better physically! So give it a shot. You never know how important this small change might be. 

Interested in more green laundry tips?  Check out Jennifer's companion post here on Act Small Think Big, Toxic Laundry: Skip the Fabric Softener.

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Jennifer is a blogger, professional writer, and reluctant accountant. She loves DIY projects, Dr. Pepper, and searching for treasures in thrift stores. She's kinda crunchy but definitely opinionated. Jennifer resides in small town Oklahoma with her new husband, puppy, and kitty.  You can visit her online at Mrs. Robbins Sparkles. 

Photo credit: sinkdd via Creative Commons

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Toxic Laundry: Your Choice of Detergent Matters


guest post by Jennifer B. Robbins

Did you know that one of the most toxic rooms in your home might just be the laundry room? That's because conventional laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets all contain toxic chemicals!

In fact, according to a survey of selected scented consumer goods by US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health Researchers, many products tested "emitted more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some that are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal laws." That study included some of the most popular laundry detergents and dryer sheets on the market. And if you think unscented products are better, you may be surprised to learn that another study showed that even products advertised as "fragrance-free" still contains many of the same harmful chemicals as their scented counterparts.

So what does that mean? Essentially, it means that with each load of laundry we do with conventional laundry products, we are releasing a potentially dangerous mix of toxic chemicals into the air. That means that not only are we subjecting our bodies to the toxic chemicals by wearing clothes that were washed in them, we are also breathing in the toxic fumes.

And the worst part is many of us have no idea we're doing it! That's because companies are not required to disclose a full list of ingredients on their products. They can include chemicals like Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (an endocrine disrupter that can mimic the effects of estrogen), 1,4-Dioxane (a carcinogen linked to organ toxicity that can contaminate groundwater), and various sulfates (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate & Sodium Laureth Sulfate for examples, which are known skin irritants). But you would have no idea these chemicals are in your products because none of them are listed on the labels.

Thankfully, there are several organizations out there doing the dirty work for us. You can check the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to find out what exactly is in your favorite laundry detergent, and see what rating they are given (A - F based on the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients). For example, the detergent I used to use received a D rating. The label of the detergent listed ingredients as "biodegradable surfactants (anionic and nonionic), enzymes". The actual list of ingredients is far too long to list here but includes several ingredients that have been linked to cancer, vision loss, and other serious problems. Scary, huh?

Now that we know the dangers of toxic laundry detergent, how can we avoid it? Here are a few options: 

Make your own laundry detergent. There are tons of high-quality recipes out there. I shared my favorite on my own blog recently. It's a powder form that I store in reusable mason jars, so not only does it keep chemicals out of my laundry, it keeps plastic containers out of a landfill. It also ends up being much more economical (you could save $100s a year). If you'd like to try some other recipes, check out the links below. Please be sure to check if the recipe works for HE washers (most do) and if it is compatible with cloth diapers if you use them (some aren't).

Buy safe laundry detergent. I know I've just gone on about the dangers of conventional laundry detergent, but it is possible to find safe ones. The EWG has nearly a dozen laundry detergents with an A rating. The three listed below are also certified green and animal cruelty-free, as well. (Word of warning: they are a little pricey, which is why DIY detergent is my go-to laundry choice.)

Try Soap Nuts. I've actually never tried this method, but people swear by them. Soap Nuts are 100% natural dried fruit that gets your laundry clean with zero scent or chemicals! The outer shell of the soapnut contains saponin, a natural substance known for its ability to cleanse and wash. To use them, simply put 5-6 nuts in the muslin bag that should comes with your purchase and wash your clothes as usual. This bag of nuts will usually last 5 to 8 loads; until the nuts turn gray. The nuts are totally biodegradable, so you can use them as mulch in your garden when they're no longer useful for your laundry! A few tips about soap nuts:

  1. Buy seedless nuts. Soap Nuts are sold by weight, and the seeds do not help in the cleaning process. So buying seedless means you are getting more of the outer shells, which is what actually does the cleaning.
  2. Buy in bulk if possible. The more you buy at once, the cheaper each load is.
  3. Do research before you buy. There are lots of variations of Soap Nuts, and lots of different vendors. Don't buy the first thing you see! Check out reviews, find out where the nuts come from, and make sure you are getting a quality product before you buy.

It may seem like a small change, but when you think about how many loads of laundry you do a year, switching to a non-toxic laundry detergent could make a huge difference! You would be eliminating not only your family's contact with toxic chemicals, but also the amount of toxic chemicals being released into the air. Imagine if everyone stopped releasing all those hazardous VOCs into the air daily. What a huge effect such a small change could have. 

Stand by for Jennifer's companion post Toxic Laundry: Skip the Fabric Softener, coming next week! 

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Jennifer is a blogger, professional writer, and reluctant accountant. She loves DIY projects, Dr. Pepper, and searching for treasures in thrift stores. She's kinda crunchy but definitely opinionated. Jennifer resides in small town Oklahoma with her new husband, puppy, and kitty.  You can visit her online at Mrs. Robbins Sparkles. 

Photo credit: Bonnaf via Creative Commons

Monday, June 2, 2014

Teaching Our Children About Giving to the Homeless & Needy

guest post by Kristen Chipman

Ask my close friends about how I get all fired up whenever I see injustice and they’ll probably laugh and shake their heads. It happens ALL. THE. TIME. However, being a stay-at-home-homeschooling-home-business-running mama, my time for combating injustice is limited, to say the least. And with many issues, I don’t even really know what to do or how to go about helping those who need our help. But, there are smaller injustices and needs that I can meet. Even more than my desire for to help, though, is the fact that as a mom I really want to raise my girls in an environment aware of the small things that we can do to make a difference in other people’s lives.

So for years now, we have made a point to serve the homeless and needy in whatever small ways we can, wherever we have lived. I don’t remember when exactly it was, but it started as conversation in the car with my girls, after passing a homeless person holding a sign. I started talking about how some people don’t have a family or a place to live like we do. It wasn’t an easy conversation, necessarily, but all the best conversations usually aren’t the easy ones.

My girls were sad – I specifically remember my younger daughter getting a bit teary as I talked about what it meant to be homeless and how hard it can be to be homeless. But then… They asked what they could do to help! So we talked about how we can do some things to help, like giving a few dollars, or buying a meal and giving it to a homeless person, and they began to understand that they could do something too! It was then that they started to get excited about helping others.

I began out by giving them a few dollars each to give to the homeless we encountered on the road. They would – and still do! - pull out their money excitedly whenever we would stop somewhere where we could give.

We also stopped at drive-throughs a few times, and I let the girls choose things that they thought would be good to eat. Sometimes, even a hot McDonald’s coffee can make a difference. And that’s something that I think is important for children to understand.

In more recent years, my girls have their own “Giving Money” that they try to keep with them whenever we’re out, and we’ve bought more copies of Nashville’s The Contributor (a newspaper that those in the homeless community can purchase to sell at a profit, which helps them to become self-sufficient) than I can count. Since returning to central Florida last year, we have continued our efforts, although in somewhat different ways, as we live in a small town and don’t always have the opportunity to give money or buy coffee.

As they’ve gotten older, the conversations about the poor and homeless have grown, as well. We’ve touched on and talked about mental illness, addictions, and not having a support system of family and friends. We’ve talked about how we don’t judge what those we give to do with what we give – even if they throw away the food we give, I try to always remind my girls that our DOING is the important thing, and the choice that is made afterward is one that is in the hands of God and those we give to.

So here are some quick thoughts to get you started:

  • Have that conversation, even with little ones. It’s important.
  • Let your child do the giving. It’s empowering and fosters good will.
  • Bananas or banana chips, cold water bottles, crackers, instant coffee packs – all of these things are easy to carry and easy to give.
  • Let your child choose some of their clothes to give to a needy family. Habitat for Humanity can give directly to needy families sometimes, as can other groups.
  • Volunteering at a local community garden is a great way to give back that requires nothing more than a little time.
  • Pool with a few other families and make “goodie bags” for the homeless: fill them with toiletries from the Dollar Tree, washcloths, a few dollars, or whatever you want. Then make a trip to give them out in an area where you know there are a lot of homeless.
  • Give your child $10 to purchase things to donate to a local shelter or food bank while you’re out shopping. Diapers, canned goods, wipes, hand sanitizer, and toiletries are all good options.

These are all small things, but they can make an impact – both in the lives of those you give to, and in your children’s lives. Watch your kids get excited about helping others. Watch their faces light up. Watch the recipients'. Seeing that - it’s the very stuff of life, I think. 

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Enthusiastic coffee-drinker, homeschooling mama, and photographer (who sometimes moonlights as an artist and poet), Kristen loves heart-to-heart conversations and sharing deep belly laughs. Mama to two giddy, growing girls, and wife to a man who missed his calling as a comedian, she is learning to love the beautiful mess that is her life. She can be found constantly posting crazy things about her kids on Facebook and editing at all hours for Plaid Llama Studios, the photography business she runs with her husband, Thomas.

Photo credit: Edd Sowden via Creative Commons

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BYOB [Bring Your Own Bag]

{image by Robert S. Donovan via creative commons}
guest post by Anna Meade

Change is hard. We are all busy people with busy lives, and it can be ridiculously challenging to make adjustments amid our insanity. This resistance is why I stopped making life-changing resolves. It's too hard. Too overwhelming. Consequently, every successful long-term change I have made has started with a short-term decision. I HAVE to start by saying, "This is what I'm doing right now, and this is why, and this is how." Then in the next moment, I choose again, then again, then again...

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Southeast, many in the US became astoundingly aware of the precarious nature of our oil and gas industry. I decided I could walk around angry at the way our fossil fuels are managed (which I still do... let's face it), or I could start gradually changing my dependence on petroleum products... one decision at a time.

Plastic bags stood out as the largest petroleum-based indulgence that I chose regularly. While the price of oil soared, I challenged myself to 30 days of not accepting a disposable plastic bag from any store. My husband got me a fabulous reusable bag for my purse. It wraps up tightly, and hardly takes any space when not in use. If I forgot to bring this bag, or needed more bags than I brought, I would just push my cart of items to my car and make the best of things.

I almost got through those 30 days without accepting a bag! The only exception was a strange situation in which I was told I MUST use the store bag so my purchase looked legitimate. How ridiculous!

This short-term resolve led to an eight-year streak of decisions that I still make every day. I discovered that I can carry lots of things. Bags are just not nearly as important as we believe. In 2005, I discovered resistance to this lifestyle. The eye-rolling in the checkout lane of the grocery store... the perplexity of baggers who couldn't look at each bag and make a new decision about how to fit my groceries... BUT, in the last 8 years, these responses have changed dramatically. Now baggers ask if I brought my own, and cashiers offer me a discount for my decision to reuse bags.

It took many people like me, making a daily decision to reuse bags, that has turned it into a cultural norm. One small thing that, when repeated over time, is changing our society. This result is occurring even in parts of the world (like mine) where the government is not taking an active role in the process. People are doing it in their everyday. People like you and me! 

Small changes can make a difference. We are already seeing it happen. Together, our small acts achieve greatness.  

A Few Bag Facts

(see CleanAir.org for these and more facts about waste and recycling):
  • Every year, Americans use approximately 102.1 billion plastic bags, creating tons of landfill waste. 
  • Plastic bags do not biodegrade. Light breaks them down into smaller and smaller particles that contaminate the soil and water and are expensive and difficult to remove. 
  • Less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000. The recycled product can be sold for $32. 
  • When the small particles from photodegraded plastic bags get into the water, they are ingested by filter feeding marine animals. Biotoxins like PCBs that are in the particles are then passed up the food chain, including up to humans.

What do you think about reusable bags?  What do you love about them, and not-really-love about them?  I have to confess, this is one easier solution that I find difficult -- while I own several reusable bags, I always forget to bring them from my car into the store!  But I love Anna's idea to, when she forgets her bags, simply load her items back into the cart and forgo plastic bags anyway. 
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Anna Meade is an idealist turned cynic turned hopeful. She is learning to thrive amid the perpetual in-betweens. A seasoned listener and observer, she found her voice through art journaling and painting. Her life dreams are to break boundaries, build bridges and roam free. She tells stories at annameadearts.wordpress.com

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Cost of Idling Cars

My son recently started at a childcare, attending for a few hours each morning.  And although he's only been going a short while, I've already noticed that many parents leaving their cars running while dropping their kiddos off.  While I can see the need for this in the depths of winter, it's May.  It's warm.  So I find this behavior curious.  I also wonder how much fuel is wasted and how emissions are increased by this phenomenon.

So, I did a bit of research -- and made few surprising discoveries along the way.

Idling's Waste

First, some not very surprising but still quite troubling statistics.  According to the HCF, Americans waste millions of gallons of gas each year via voluntary idling -- this means that any idling that is not a direct result of waiting in standing traffic, such as at stop lights or on backed up roads.  In fact, we may be wasting as much as 3.8 million gallons of gas per day through voluntary idling.  And that translates to 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide being needlessly emitted -- again, per day.

If we collectively eliminated five minutes of voluntary vehicle idling everyday, we'd save 1.4 billion gallons of gas and 13 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year

That's  a lot. 

Translating that into individual family financial figures, the HCF states that by eliminating just five minutes of voluntary idling, families driving vehicles with small engines would save $113 annually, and those driving eight cylinder engines would save $241 annually.

And that's only by eliminating five minutes of voluntary idling.  I know that it takes me about five minutes to drop my son off at childcare -- if I left my car idling for that time, at the end of the year I'd have spent (conservatively) nearly $4,000 on wasted fuel.  Ouch.

The Myths of Idling

There is a myth floating around that leaving your car idling for a short period of time is more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly -- one that I believed.  And while this used to be true, our advancing technology has since turned it into fallacy for today's modern vehicles.  If you are allowing your car to idle for more than 10 seconds, you are only inflicting unnecessary wear and damage upon the car, wasting gasoline, and creating more emissions.  Oops.

Okay, so what about cold weather idling?  Well, apparently leaving your car idling for minutes at a time to warm up the engine is also inefficient.  A cold engine only needs about 30 seconds of idling to warm it sufficiently, and driving will warm it much better than idling.  And for very, very cold engines, using an engine block heater is much more effective -- in practice as well as financially and environmentally.

Conclusion: The Elimination of Voluntary Idling Saves

So . . . I don't know about you, but I feel both convicted and empowered.  I'll definitely be altering my car's cold weather warmups this winter, and am excited at how much money we could save by simply turning off our cars when we're not driving them, on top of the benefits to the environment and, as a result, to our health.  A big problem with an easy answer?  I'm all for it.

What about you?  Were you as unaware of the cost of voluntary idling as I was?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

The Hinkle Charitable Foundation: Anti-Idling Primer
Green Action Centre: Myth Busted -- Idling Wastes Fuel!
South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control: Engine Idling (PDF)
Environmental Defense Fund: Attention Drivers! Turn Off Your Idling Engines

Monday, May 12, 2014

Ditch Disposable Coffee Cups

Coffee.  It's near and dear to my heart.  And, as a writer, one of my favorite happy places is the coffee shop.  Delicious lattes, even more yummy ambiance, and a squashy couch in which to set pen to paper. It was my mostly-guilt-free pleasure.

Until statistics concerning the consumption of disposable cups filtered into my consciousness, that is.

Did you know that (quoted from betacup) . . . ?:
  • 58 billion paper cups are thrown away (not recycled) every year
  • 20 million trees are cut down in the process of manufacturing paper cups
  • Amount of water used in the process is approximately 12 billion gallons

I didn't.  Awareness about the rather vast amount of cups I used a single time before tossing had never crossed my mind.  And this doesn't even factor in plastic or styrofoam cups.

I also didn't know that because of the fact that many cups for hot beverages are manufactured using polyethylene wax, they are not able to be recycled.  In addition, these kinds of cups create big problems for marine birds and fish, and also release methane (a greenhouse case -- hello, climate change) upon decomposition (source).

That's a lot of trees used solely for paper cups.  And I have to wonder -- how much money is spent creating these one-time-use cups?  I couldn't find any statistics on this, but would love to learn the answer if you know it!

The rather excessive use of disposable cups is probably not our biggest problem as a culture that tends to consume without too much thought as to its effects -- but I think that it is a great place to start becoming more aware of these effects, because the fix is pretty painless.  You're probably already thinking it: reusable cups and coffee mugs, of course.

A number of coffee shops already serve drinks for customers staying in the cafe in ceramic mugs.  Even more have washable mugs available for use, even if the baristas don't automatically use them, so be sure to inquire when you order.

Even better, invest in your own reusable mug.  The ones I've seen usually run between $7 and $20 (USD), and many coffee shops, eager to reward those who help them cut down on cup costs, offer discounts for patrons who bring their own mugs.  These discounts can easily help you recoup your investment in the mug and then some.  And you don't even necessarily need to purchase a travel cup -- instead, bring along a mug from your home kitchen cupboard.

Extra perks: you feel good about the super-easy and positive impact you're having on the planet, and you get to have a stylin' mug to boot.  Also, in my opinion, lattes taste better in a reusable mug -- those disposable lids add an unfavorable plastic taste that I'd rather avoid.

And please remember: as always, making sustainable-for-you changes is about progress, not perfection, and certainly not about self-flagellation over mistakes.  I definitely forget my mug at home sometimes, but that doesn't negate the efforts I've made, the successes I've seen, and the heightened heart-centered awareness that I enjoy.

Over to you -- what are your thoughts on using paper cups versus reusable coffee mugs? 

Welcome to Act Small, Think Big!

There's an unsettling queasiness stirring in my gut.  It's been there for some time, although I've ignored it for most of that span -- maybe for almost twenty years, when I was researching fossil fuels for a middle school science presentation.  And I learned that things didn't look good, environmentally.

I showed my parents, my teacher.  They said that maybe things would get bad, but it wouldn't be for ages and ages.  They didn't seem worried, so I shoved my own concern aside, ignoring its swirling.

But that gnawing feeling in my belly refuses to be ignored any longer.  Because that time when things will "get bad" as a result of our impact on the environment?  I -- and a lot of other smarter and more science-y folks -- think that those times are nearly upon us.  That we have remaining only a very narrow window of opportunity to heal our wounding of the earth.

Okay, fine, we're not in a good way.  But now what?

If you're anything like me, the prospect of "saving the planet" is, um, a little daunting.  Especially when you consider that, although we in the western world have the majority of the ability to make a difference, our lawmakers and leaders seem bent on ignoring the copious warning signs -- and we have been left with little recourse or response, other than how we spend our money.

What's a lone westerner to do?

Obviously, one person is not going to be able to make a lot of difference, no matter how hard he or she works.  But what if a bunch of us, a big bunch of us, made small, sustainable, and collectively impactful choices? 

It's my belief that, in this way, we really might be able to (gulp) "save the planet."

That is what Act Small, Think Big is all about -- providing bite-sized tips to help you make changes that will not only make a positive, healing impact on the world, but also often save you some money or improve your health to boot.  How's that for a win win?

Also -- please note that these tips are not intended to provoke undue guilt or perfectionism or anything of the sort.  It's about doing our best to make a positive difference for ourselves, our children, and generations to come.  Progress, not perfection, okay?

Watch this space for new ideas.  And if you'd like share your own tip for Act Small, Think Big, I'd love to hear from you!  Send me an email with your idea here, with "Act Small, Think Big guest post" as the subject line.

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