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: 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

Cafe Mom’s Mom Ed: Green Living 2nd Episode –All About Plastics

  • April 26, 2012 3:22 pm

More fun on the set of Mom Ed: Green Living. This time Kristen and I chatted about all things plastic. I really do try to avoid the stuff as much as possible.

Let me know what you think!

Q&A: Safe Ice Cube Trays

  • December 1, 2011 2:27 pm

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

My question is –  I wanted to get metal ice cube trays, the kind with a lever so you can easily get the cubes out (we don’t have an ice maker).  Online, I’ve found aluminum ones for $7 and stainless steel “BPA free” ones for $30.  Is aluminum bad for you?  Does it have BPA  in it?  Inquiring minds want to know.
Thanks,

Matt

THE ANSWER

Hi Matt,

A perfect question just in time for holiday cocktail season! And what a great idea to avoid plastic.

There should be no bisphenol-A in unlined aluminum ice cube trays (there has been, however, BPA in epoxy linings of aluminum reusable water bottles — the company SIGG got in hot water over this a few summers ago and has since changed the lining they use to something else that is also proprietary, if I’m remembering correctly).

The issues with aluminum are that it isn’t durable, it’s not great environmentally as it is energy intensive to extract from the earth (though the components of stainless steel aren’t exactly energy neutral either), and there have been lingering concerns over the years–largely unsubstantiated but enough to warrant multiple studies–re links to Alzhiemer’s disease.

The long and the short of it is that I prefer stainless. The price evens out as you will probably have to buy five rounds of aluminum trays before your stainless shows any wear and tear. I’m not sure if aluminum is recyclable where you live, but that’s also something to consider. Stainless also goes easily into the dishwasher without any rusting (a big issue with flimsier aluminum). What else can I say? I’m big on the Precautionary Principle — if the risks of aluminum are unsubstantiated, what’s 23 bucks to err on the side of caution? Stainless steel is considered very safe and won’t leach chemicals into your ice.

Hope this helps. And cheers!
Best,

Alexandra

Q&A: Reusable Snack Bags

  • September 13, 2011 8:08 am

My daughter starts kindergarten today (!) so I thought I’d post a little back-to-school friendly question and answer exchange that happened recently on my Facebook page. If you’re not already chatting with me on Facebook, please “like” my author page and join in the discussions.

THE QUESTION:
Do you have any info on reusable snack bags?  I am wanting to make some, but all patterns, etc. say iron-on vinyl for the interior.  While they don’t have BPA, they do have phthalates.  Not cool.  Do you have an alternatives in mind?

-Melanie

THE ANSWER:

Glad you’re trying to avoid those little plastic baggies that can’t be recycled and clog our landfills.

Oh no way on the vinyl. Yuck. There are many many versions on the market from recycled plastic to nylon and back — none of them have vinyl. We have some that are hemp on front and a nylon-y fabric inside. Not entirely waterproof but machine washable/good enough for me. Check out reusablebags.com and GreenDepot.com. Many options.

Also, I found these on Etsy, which are what I bought [at Green Depot] and use at home.

Q&A: Picnic Waste

  • June 28, 2011 5:03 pm

THE QUESTION

Dear Alexandra,

This summer I’ve been finding myself hosting multiple picnics and BBQs, all of which have been attended by lots of family, friends, and children.  Of course, on July 4th we’ll be having a massive backyard party.  These events are great, but I’ve been guilt ridden by the amount of waste we’re producing.  Napkins, plates, utensils!  I’ve tried to find recyclable options, but some cost a fortune.  What do you suggest to minimize my waste, and my cost?

Thanks,

Susan

THE ANSWER

Hi Susan, thank you so much for the great and timely question. The amount of waste from eating a meal outdoors can be immense, but there are some easy (and cheap) ways to reduce the amount of your garbage and your guilt.  In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss entertaining for a crowd (see below). My favorite way to minimize waste and cost at a party is to ask people to BYO plates, cups, cloth napkins, and utensils. Have items on hand for guests who choose not to. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many do bring their own items, though. And the zany mix and matching this creates is festive. This goes for July 4th and beyond — it’s how I host my daughter’s winter waste-free  birthday parties, too.

From The Conscious Kitchen:

One of the many pleasures of cooking is inviting your family and friends to share meals with you.  Depending on the size of your crowd, short cuts become tempting.  Resist the urge to serve on paper plates.  A far better option is to use your real plates, glasses, silverware, and cloth napkins.  If you won’t, use only unbleached paper or compostable plates, plus unbleached paper or compostable paper cups and recycled-paper napkins.  If using plastic cutlery, go for items made of #2, #4, or #5 (see below), especially if they can be reused and eventually recycled.  If using corn or sugar plastic, make sure you can compost or recycle it where you live.

#2 (HDPE or high-density polyethylene), a hard plastic used for everything from milk jugs to cleaning product containers, is presently being used as one of the replacements for bisphenol-A containing polycarbonate (#7) in baby and reusable water bottles.

#4 (LDPE or low-density polyethylene), a soft plastic widely used for food storage bags, plastic shopping bags, and squeezable bottles.

#5 (PP or polypropylene), a versatile plastic that is used for bottle tops, yogurt and food storage containers, plus baby bottles.

#7 (other, catch-all), this classification is for any and all plastics that don’t fall under #1 to #6, and can include polycarbonate, the hard plastic used mainly for bottles (water and baby) that contains bisphenol-A.

The confusing and frustrating part is that even if you do buy compostable items, usually they are made from GM plants, which require lots of fertilizer and plenty of chemicals to stabilize them.  These materials are considered biodegradable, but will only biodegrade under strict conditions–they need to have access to air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes.  Since most people don’t recycle these items, they end up in landfills, buried and unable to break down–just like regular plastic.  If you use “compostable” plates, make sure you can compost or recycle these items close to where you live (some municipalities don’t recycle the corn based plastics).  Best case scenario: start composting in your own home!  Go to the EPA’s site for more information on how you can get started with your own personal compost.

Happy 4th of July! What’s better than celebrating with family, friends, and great food?


What You Don’t Know: What My Editorial Assistant Didn’t Know

  • May 24, 2011 9:46 am

This week I asked my editorial assistant (sounds much better than intern, no?) Glenny Cameron if she’d mind sharing what she has learned/what she didn’t know before starting to work with me a month or so ago–if anything. Needless to say I’m extremely touched by what she wrote. She’s amazing. Seriously, this is an inspiring must-read. Thanks, Glenny. Have anything to add to her thoughts? So curious!

—-

Before working with Alexandra I considered myself a very environmentally aware person.  I buy organic, I shop locally, I reuse plastic bags and refuse to buy bottled water.  Fortunately (and unsurprisingly), there are loads and loads of things to learn about the sustainable lifestyle, and I thank Alexandra for engaging me in them.  There is always more that can be done, more of the world to save.  So, here are the top five things I’ve learned in the past few months, complete with excerpts from The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home.  Some are small and silly, but we all have to start somewhere, right?

1. Bananas.

I love bananas.  They are now a guilty pleasure.  Enough said.

There are a number of items in your fruit bowl (and in your cabinets – see chapter seven) that might be certified organic but fall into the realm of still not being great to buy.  In this realm, no exotic is more widely available, or controversial, than the banana.  The ubiquitous yellow fruit is nature’s perfect answer to packaged goods – every parent’s nutrient-dense dream snack.  Yet, it’s a deeply flawed food.  Its pretty much the poster fruit for how confusing trying to eat consciously can be.  Bananas are grown very far away, are environmentally destructive, are often harvested under conditions unfair to laborers, and the variety we all eat will apparently be extinct in the not-so-distant future.  The greenest and most environmentally devoted eaters around don’t eat bananas, or refer to them as a guilty pleasure…Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined.  Food for thought.

2. Organic cotton.

This is a difficult topic because most of my clothes are not made with organic cotton.  The main reason is that organic cotton can be very expensive and I am at times, very poor.  Another reason is that most of my clothes shopping is done in secondhand or vintage stores, where you will rarely find organic goods.  [Note from Alexandra: Secondhand is better than newly manufactured organic cotton items. Go Glenny!] After learning that cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world (accounting for 25% of annual insecticide use globally!) I made a conscious decision to switch to organic cotton whenever possible.  This meant buying new sheets, towels, and looking into organic cotton alternatives for the clothes I buy new (socks, underwear, etc.).  Although I haven’t completely revamped my wardrobe, I now sleep soundly in my organic bed.  [Another note from Alexandra: Awesome!!] Check out ecochoices.com for more information on worldwide cotton production.

3. Plastic.

I know that all of the nasty chemicals that are found in plastics aren’t news to anyone reading this site.  They weren’t to me either, but I needed a push to start actively avoiding them in my life.

BPA – a hormone disrupter (it mimics estrogen) that has the FDA, Health Canada, and the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program, among other entities, in a tizzy, and parents and hikers across the nation switching their baby and water bottles to BPA-free versions.  Manufacturers have taken consumer temperature and are busily marketing “safe” plastic products.  Unfortunately, some of the resulting BPA-free items contain other chemicals that are new to this arena and haven’t exactly stood the test of time.

Phthalates – this family of chemicals, which make plastic flexible (among many other things), are endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxicants.  The are currently being voluntarily removed or banned from everything from nail polish to neonatal tubing to toys.  They’re less ubiquitous in a kitchen than BPA but are likely found in certain plastics (like meat and cheese wrappings) as well as PVC (vinyl) flooring and even in cleaning-product fragrance.

Sure, I use (organic) cotton totes and only use my plastic bags for my garbage can, but I when I looked in my cupboards I was ashamed to realize how much food was stored in plastic containers.  My cereal and pastas were in plastic bags and my fridge was filled with leftovers in plastic tupperware!  What was I thinking?  So I threw it all out and bought loads of canning jars to use as storage instead.  I even moved my spices.  It was easy! [Yet another note from Alexandra: Nice! Love this!]

4. DIY cleaning.

I must confess, I have a fairly high tolerance for dirt and dust and have never lived in a sterile environment.  Perhaps it’s leftover from growing up in the country, in a house where the windows were always open and pets of all kinds were rampant.  I truly believe this is why my brother and I have incredible immune systems.

That said, most of my cleaning was done with minimal products, usually just water.  On the occasion when I was inspired enough to actually use some disinfectant, I turned to the all-natural brands like Seventh Generation or Ecover.  Fortunately, Alexandra’s tips on DIY cleaning have buffered my “do less” attitude toward cleaning while still keeping my apartment germ free.  I’ve even passed these tips on to my mother, who I can thank for fostering my housekeeping habits (or lack thereof).

DIY Cleaners

-Soap plus water equals mopping solution.

-Soap plus baking soda and a drop or two of water equals excellent mildly abrasive paste.  Extras to mix in include lemon, natural essential oils, or even hydrogen peroxide.

-Water plus vinegar equals glass cleaner.

5. Unplug.

Living alone and living simply means that I have few appliances.  I don’t own a coffee maker or a desktop computer.  My TV is rarely used.  But, for the gadgets I do use – lights, clocks, speakers – I never thought to unplug them when not in use.  I admit, my cell phone charger was usually plugged in until reading Planet Home.

Appliances use energy even when turned off.  Pull plugs out of the wall to stop energy draw.  Alternatively, plug them all into a power strip and turn the strip off when not in use, as well as overnight.

A very simple step towards greening your life.

The Conscious Commandments

  • February 13, 2011 10:59 pm

The Conscious Commandments From The Conscious Kitchen

Here are ten easy things you can do today to move toward having a more conscious kitchen tomorrow.

1. Eat less meat. When eating beef, seek out and choose grass-fed. Other meat and poultry should also 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 only 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.

Storing Safely

  • January 18, 2011 6:19 pm

Plastics are everywhere in the kitchen. And it seems that there are news reports daily on the hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which get into our food, beverages, and even baby formula.

Although there are plastics on the market that are generally considered safe to use with food, there is a growing body of evidence showing that plastics need to be treated gently, washed by hand, and never, ever placed in a microwave, where their chemicals leach into what's being heated, especially things with a high fat content, like meat and cheese.

Plastics are also derived from a nonrenewable resource (petroleum), and not all kinds are recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable often wind up overcrowding landfills or floating around in our waterways.

It might be difficult (but not impossible) to avoid plastic packaging at the supermarket. When it comes to storing your leftovers at home, why not bypass plastics altogether–baggies, wrap, or containers–and use reliable, renewable, and reusable containers made of glass, stainless, steel, and lead-free ceramic instead.

Glass storage containers are widely available, or you can use what you already have in your kitchen: old jelly, peanut butter, or pickle jars. Glass can also go in the freezer–just make sure to leave enough room for liquid to expand.

If you'd like a replacement for plastic wrap, try a reusable wrap, or opt for was paper coated in non-genetically-modified (GM) soy wax instead of petroleum-derived wax.

This way you won't have to worry about what's migrating into your food or hope the plastic currently considered safe doesn't become tomorrow's must-avoid.

Find more info on keeping your home plastic-free in "Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning & Greening the World You Care About Most."