I’m Back on Mondays with Marlo

  • March 2, 2015 9:10 pm

I had the exciting chance to go back on Marlo Thomas’ show and answer questions about everything from organic food on a budget to what three common household chemicals are surprisingly toxic. Check it out.

Q&A: New Year’s Resolution Ideas

  • December 26, 2012 9:25 am

Question:

Alexandra,

New Year’s is here and I’m looking for simple ways to green my life. Do you have some ideas?

Thanks,

Ron

Answer:

Hi Ron,

Happy almost New Year! I’m glad to hear about the changes you want to make for 2013. Simple steps add up, especially if we all take them. One easy way to go green is via the food you buy, cook, and eat. In my book The Conscious Kitchen, I have ten food commandments I suggest. Perhaps you will find resolution ideas in them.

1. Eat less meat. When eating beef, seek out and choose grass-fed. Other meat and poultry should be carefully sourced.

2. Just say no to bottled water. Drink (filtered) tap instead. This will save money, too.

3. Buy local organic or sustainably farmed fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget that coffee and tea come from plants, and wine is made from grapes; choose sustainable versions.

4. Eat only the least contaminated sustainably harvested wild or well-sourced farmed seafood.

5. Always consider packaging when shopping. Choose items packed in materials you can reuse or that can be recycled in your municipality. Buy bulk items instead of overpackaged goods. Always shop with reusable bags.

6. Cook at home. Often. And serve on reusable dishware, not disposable. Clean with eco-friendly products.

7. Avoid plastic as often as you can.

8. Try composting, even if you live in a city, or a house without a yard.

9. Whenever possible, reduce energy use in the kitchen by choosing efficient appliances, cooking methods, and dishwashing practices; don’t leave appliances plugged in when not in use; ask your electric company for alternative energy sources like wind power.

10. Spread the word. Educate everyone you know. Green your office kitchen, your kids’ school kitchen, your friends and relatives’ kitchens. Make noise; together we can make a huge difference.

Happy 2013!

Alexandra

Q&A: Are candles safe to burn?

  • December 5, 2012 9:50 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

In the winter I love to burn candles. I think it creates a warm atmosphere at home. But I have been reading about how maybe they’re not safe. I saw something about chemicals in their scents that aren’t good for you. Do you become exposed to these when you burn candles?

-Annette

Answer:

Hi Annette,

Thanks for your question. It’s a good one. You’re certainly not alone, especially around the holidays. You can absolutely inhale chemicals in fragrance, some of which have been linked to hormone disruption, when you burn scented candles, among other pollutants. Here is an excerpt on candles from Planet Home, which I co-authored. I think it will help answer your question.

“Conventional candles made from petroleum emit plumes of soot and phthalate-containing scents. Their wicks can contain metals like zinc, tin, and even lead. If you really like fragrance, non-petroleum-based candles, like unscented beeswax or essential-oil-scented non-GM soy wax versions with cloth wicks, are far preferable to their conventional counterparts.”

I personally have given up on candles, besides the infrequent unscented beeswax one. Beeswax has its own lovely scent–warm and honey-ish. I’d suggest giving it a try.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: “Green” Kitchenware?

  • October 10, 2012 8:55 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

Looking to buy some new pans for my kitchen, and was wondering if you had any green recommendations for me?

Best,

Deb

Answer:

Hi Deb,

You’re not alone. This is a question I get often! Yes, there are ways to make sure that your new cookware is safe. As I explain in The Conscious Kitchen, you should opt for cast iron, stainless steel, or enamel-coated cast iron.

Cast Iron is great because it’s safe, cheap, endlessly durable, and retains heat very well. If you are looking to add more iron to your diet, you’re in luck; small amounts of the iron will leach out of the pan and into your food. Cast iron does require oil or butter so your food won’t stick to it, but it does become more non-stick over time, especially if you care for the pans well.

Enamel-coated cast iron is a bit pricier than the other two, but well worth the splurge. It’s cast iron with an enamel coating is composed of fine glass particles. Glass is nonreactive and very safe. It also retains the heat well and is extremely durable. I use my enamel-coated cast iron dutch oven so often it just lives on the top of my stove. There is no point in putting it away.

Stainless steel is another solid safe material for pots and pans. It’s lightweight and sturdy. Just don’t store acidic foods in it (tomato sauce, rhubarb) as this can start to break it down.

I prefer these three materials to any of the new “green” pans on the market. Many of these contain proprietary materials and “green” chemicals that make them similar to the non-stick pans I hope you’re replacing. I don’t want to cook in anything proprietary! And these just aren’t as durable as the tried and true materials mentioned above. I have heard from a lot of readers that they’ve bought various new “green” pans and they wound up falling apart quickly. Cast iron won’t fall apart!

Hope this helps you with your decision. If you’re looking for other kitchenware, check out The Conscious Kitchen for additional tips.

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Eco-Benefits of Being a Vegetarian?

  • September 26, 2012 9:20 am

Question:

Hi Alexandra,

I just had a question regarding meat. Everyone always stresses how sustainable becoming a vegetarian is. I obviously understand the animal rights aspect to becoming a vegetarian, I was just wondering if you could explain more of the environmental benefits of not eating meat to me? Thanks.

-Terry

Answer:

Terry,

Thanks for your question. Yes, there are many environmental benefits to giving up or at least limiting meat consumption. It decreases water use, methane production, the impact of growing animal feed, and much more. It’s not an easy thing to answer quickly, but I’ll try to outline the basics below. I urge you to do some reading on your own, too. The production of animals into meat is an amazing system to learn about, with many shocking twists, turns, and revelations.

If you’re into stats and numbers, this site compares water usage for various items. It says that it takes approximately 15415 litre/kg of water to produce beef and only 257 litre/kg of water for potatoes. I don’t know anyone who only eats potatoes, but there is also quite a difference between chicken and beef.

Then there’s methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. Cattle emit 80 million tons of methane annually, according to the EPA. And I haven’t even gotten to feed. Most animals are fed a grim mix of genetically modified soy and corn (neither are great for the environment as they require tremendous amounts of chemical sprays to grow), antibiotics (which create drug-resistant superbugs), and hormones.

All of this said, I am not personally a vegetarian for many, many reasons. Though I eat very little meat compared to most meat eaters I know. I have devoted a tremendous amount of research and thought to this decision and I only ever eat local, pastured, well-raised meat. I go into great detail on how and why to source this kind of meat in two of my books. I wrote  The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat with my butcher. I had interviewed him and his wife previously for  The Conscious Kitchen, which has a chapter concisely detailing meat labels, how shop, and other educational resources.

Keep in mind that becoming a vegetarian doesn’t immediately mean your environmental impact is nil. Many vegetarians continue to eat conventionally raised dairy and eggs–the eco-impact of these is far greater than their local, pastured counterparts. And if all of the soy you switch to eating is conventionally raised and coming from, say, China, that has its own not insignificant footprint. There have also been interesting studies done on the safety of soy-based diets. So all of this is worth considering as you weigh the pros and cons of giving up or eating less meat.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Alexandra

Eco-Friendly Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

  • September 10, 2012 8:41 am

School starts today at loooong last! I don’t even bother shopping for anything until at least a few weeks into school to see what we actually “need” (usually nothing). Well that’s not entirely true. My mom had a tradition of always helping us choose a back-to-school outfit a few weeks before school started so we could get excited and picture what we’d be wearing as we went about the first day. It wasn’t always a new dress. Quite often it was a hand-me-down. So my daughter does have a first grader new dress–thanks to her grandmother–that has been waiting to be worn for about two weeks. I have loving memories of my own first grader first day dress. It was a brown and white gingham number with a red apple on my chest. Ah, the 70s.

On the topic, here’s my most recent post for Elizabeth Street and it’s all about eco-friendly back-to-school shopping. Maybe I’ll take my own advice come October….

Q&A: Natural Solutions For Poison Ivy

  • August 29, 2012 9:00 am

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

I recently bought a house in upstate New York. It is perfect except for one problem: poison ivy. Now, I have kids and want to avoid using pesticides and chemicals because that is where they will be playing–outside on the lawn. Is there any way to deal with all this poison ivy non-toxically?

-Kevin

Answer:

Dear Kevin,

Congrats on your new home. Although it may seem impossible to deal with poison ivy without pesticides, apparently there are ways. I say apparently because I have not tackled this myself and an initial search shows the natural ways of battling PI get mixed reviews. But I certainly think they’re well worth a try. Here are some suggestions I saw listed as ways of battling poison ivy naturally: mowing it, suffocating it, and using certain plant oils. Do not burn it! This can result in serious rashes in your lungs and eyes (family lore is my grandfather did this once and was hospitalized).

All of these methods aside, it seems that the most effective way to deal with poison ivy is to pull it out. My understanding is that if you yank the itch-making stuff by the root, it cannot grow. Simple enough. Of course this poses another problem: PI is not exactly the sort of thing you want to be touching in order to yank. So full HAZMAT suit and rubber gloves are required. If this is not a task you would enjoy doing–who can blame you? I wouldn’t want to do it either–and  you have the budget, hire someone to do it for you. Here is great story about a guy in upstate New York who started his own poison ivy pulling business.

If you’re not Kevin and reading this and have other suggestions, please weigh in in comments.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Non-toxic ways to deal with grain beetles?

  • August 22, 2012 7:49 pm

Question:

Dear Alexandra,

This weekend when I went to my pantry I found grain beetles in there. I’ve been suspecting them for a while, but now it’s undeniable. I prefer not to use the conventional toxic products people use. Are there any non-toxic ways to get rid of them?

Thanks.

-Henry

Answer:

Henry,

I feel your pain and am glad you don’t want to use bleach or a conventional pesticide to get rid of grain beetles. I did a little research for you, including posting on my Facebook author page for suggestions. Here’s what my FB fans had to say:

  • “I just washed everything down with safe dish detergent and kept everything in glass jars or tight fitting lidded enameled cans after.”
  • “Just composted ALL the boxed crackers/pasta/etc. that were open/infested, plus the bulk items…if sealed in glass they are easy to contain. It was mostly crackers that got nasty. And old stuff. Even paprika!”
  • “Skim beetles off the top of the rice when you cook it. Whatever. No big deal, really. They ARE in there, no matter what.”

All in all some good advice here. The key is to methodically go through what’s in your pantry–spices and all–and compost (or, sadly, throw out) what appears to be infested. Peer into open boxes of pasta, crackers, nuts, rice, corn kernels, flour, dried fruit–everything. Once you’re sure you’ve looked at everything, wipe the cabinets down with plant-based dish detergent. If you have honey, vinegar, or oils in your cabinet that have dribbled, wash these bottles off, too. You can then keep sealed containers of food in your pantry. If you don’t want to bother with sealing everything off, you can always keep rice and other grains–once opened–in the fridge.

I hope this does the trick. Let me know how it goes.

Best,

Alexandra


Q&A: BPA and Plastics

  • August 8, 2012 8:18 am

Question:

Alexandra,
A friend just sent me a video of you talking about safety concerns about plastics and children. My wife and I are brand new parents. Our twins were born 6 weeks ago. We are using the Dr. Browns BPA-free bottles. My concern is we’ve been washing them in the dishwasher. I’m wondering about the possibility of substances (other than BPA) in the plastic leaching into the milk due to the heat in the dishwasher. Do you have any info on this? Where do you find your information? We’ve been reading a lot but haven’t seen any studies on possible dangers of BPA free plastics that are exposed to high temperatures. Do you think I should switch to glass or just start hand washing the plastic bottles I’ve got. Thanks for your help.

Best,
David

Answer:

Hi David,

Congrats on your new additions.

Watching that video of me talking about plastic, it should come as no surprise that I’m deeply wary of plastic for both environmental and health reasons and therefore fond of both shatterproof glass and/or stainless steel–especially for the early years and developmental moments. All plastics degrade when exposed to high temperatures. While the safety research has mainly been on BPA (plastic #7) and PVC/Vinyl (plastic #3), there are studies that have been done on what comes out of even the plastics that are considered safe by the scientific community, especially #1. Since you’re contending with twins, you might not be aware that the FDA recently finally banned BPA from baby bottles, though not from any other infant products (which is frustrating). There is no word on what manufacturers are supposed to be replacing BPA with, and if these chemicals are any safer than their banned predecessors. More reasons to avoid plastic….

Though there are great resources (like The Environmental Working Group) to turn to for information on plastic, staying on top of  the latest plastic safety details can be a full time job. This is another reason I prefer glass and stainless steel. You don’t have to keep on top of their safety.

Another bonus: If you are too tired to wash everything by hand, glass and stainless are your friends; both are fine in dishwasher. Keep in mind that any/all plastic you use should only ever go on the top rack of the dishwasher if you can’t hand wash.

Bottle issue solved, now get some sleep!

Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Baby Seats?

  • July 11, 2012 8:44 am
The Question:
Hi,
I am considering buying a baby seat, like the Bumbo or Prince Lionheart Bebepod.  Each of these are supposedly made from “non-toxic polyurethane foam.” I also have a dish drying mat that contains “virgin polyurethane foam.”  Is there really such a thing as a “safe” polyurethane foam?
Thanks,
Kim
The Answer:
Dear Kim,
Excellent question. One I’d ask myself! I didn’t own a baby seat. Is there another way to get the benefits without a foam product? If not, and if you really decide you need a baby seat, try calling the companies you mention and asking them if they use flame retardants in the foam (which is highly flammable) and if so, which ones. I’m not a fan of foam products for babies or kids; most do contain questionable flame retardant chemicals. Thankfully a recent excellent investigative series done by The Chicago Tribune has heated up (pun intended!) the question of flame retardant necessity as well as safety. Now California is considering repealing their strict standards. If this passes, it should, in turn, dial back use in consumer products; it doesn’t make sense for manufacturers to make one product for California and another for the other states. My fingers are so crossed they’re losing circulation. This would be a huge, huge victory for environmental health.
Best,
Alexandra