August 31, 2010

Island SummeRRR

my girls and i are blessed with the opportunity to spend our summers up at our family cottage. my husband comes for as long as work allows - and my mom joins us when she can. the cottage is located on galiano island, part of the gulf islands, off the west coast of Canada. it is a summer we spend as a tight family unit. a summer without television, reliable cel phone reception, sporadic internet access (only when we go into "town"), and living with the idea of creating as little trash as possible.

galiano island (roughly the size of the island of manhattan, with a permanent population of 1200 people, that blooms in the summer with tourists and cottage dwellers) does not have a landfill. any trash must be taken off island - whether through a service, or (as we do) by your own hand. the first time we visited the island - when my eldest was barely one - we rented a small cottage without laundry facilities, and with no laundromat on the island (water conservation is another big issue here)we were stuck with disposable diapers. i will never forget driving off island with a trash bag of diapers tied to the top of our minivan. (it felt like a drive of shame.)  now we have laundry access and work hard not to use anything disposable. cloth napkins, handkerchiefs and rags abound. my diva cup is ready when that time arrives. and the compost pile accepts all of our food waste. (we are lucky there are no real predators on the island, so do not have to concern ourselves with inviting unwelcome visitors with meat scraps.)

what the sign says.

what we do produce can usually be recycled and the island's innovative, and extensive recycling facility. GIRR (Galiano Island Recycling Resources) operates as a non-profit and includes the recycling center and a "free store", as well as a rental service for plastic dish and cutlery sets for large scale entertaining.  Over 100 tonnes of waste are diverted from off-island landfill by the facility each year.  It is reborn as road construction materials, plastics, manufacturing components, tin cans, drink bottles/cans/containers, paper, newspaper and cardboard boxes

Recycling Depot

knowing what we can recycle guides our shopping as well. milk is purchased in glass bottles. bulk items loaded into paper bags. farm-stands and the saturday farmer's market are frequented.  fish is purchased right off the boat.

this year we left with one small shopping bag of trash in the car.

the girls have turned into 3R detectives. they know which plastics can be recycled and which cannot. they know which materials bring the depot money, and which are simply sent off. they love to sort things and navigate the system with ease. it is a skill i believe strongly in, and a big part of developing environmental stewardship.


these are ideals we are trying to bring home to the city - where it is so much easier to not think about it. we are hoping to establish a more extensive recycling program at our neighbourhood school. i wish LA would get on board. i hear my friends tell of exciting advances in other cities, and think of the impact a change in LA waste management would make. hopefully it will happen before my little stewards of change grow up.

does your school have an innovative recycling program? i would love to learn more...

August 26, 2010

Green Housing: Getting the most out of what you have

 before (currently)

In my architectural day job I work on large projects, mostly University buildings. It might seem like a far cry from designing homes, but I realised recently that a lot of the issues that come up in my work are also relevant to how people might address their housing needs in a more sustainable way- using their (undoubtedly) limited resources in the most effective way to meet their needs. In Australia continually rising housing prices have led many people (ourselves included) to rethink how they use their existing home, instead of buying a different larger one.

Making the best possible use of existing physical resources and materials (Reusing and Recycling) is often better environmentally (and in other ways too) than building new, even if the new building incorporates the latest ‘environmentally friendly’ materials, technology and ‘green building’ design research. I find many of the homes I’ve seen on World’s Greenest Homes appalling, with regards to their consumption of resources and pursuit of brand spanking new, cavernous, luxury, even if they are using some environmentally good materials in a clever way.

I’d like to highlight 5 green building design principles about making the most of what you have already have, and explain how we have been applying them over the last couple of years, as we’ve been renovating and expanding our own home and garden. I'm not claiming that our home is one of the world's greenest, but it is certainly greener than many alternatives.

after (hopefully)

1. Think long term. Our needs always change over time, but it doesn’t make sense to address short term needs in a way that compromises long term needs, or creates a whole lot of wastage or redundant renovations.Think about the big picture master plan, not just the problem that is bugging you today. You may have a toddler now, but will you still be living in this home when they are 10? 20? 30?? (Hmmmm, scary thought...)
With a child entering into our life, we realized we needed a new craft/study room, more living space, and a dining space that could seat more than two people without rearranging the furniture. Fortunately, we had an outside space that was completely underutilized, where we could build two new rooms.

2. How else can you use it? Flexible and adaptable spaces are more useful in the long term than highly specialised spaces. Some rooms have to be single function- the kitchen and bathroom aren’t going make very good bedrooms- but can other rooms be changed around (bed/craft/lounge/dining room) as needs change? Perhaps small changes, like changing doors or windows, removing a wall, adding power points, removing fixed storage, or changing lighting will change how you can use the spaces you already have.
Our rooms aren’t big, but they’re generous enough, with doors in sensible locations, so that they can be used in different ways, with different furniture layouts. We can use our new craft/study room as a bedroom if we need to, as can a future owner.

3. Inside and Outside. Depending on your climate, at different times of the year the spaces outside your home can really expand your living space, and the kinds of things you do. Are you invited out by being able to see and hear what’s happening outside? Is the door in the right spot? Is the space outside at the same level as inside? Is it shady or sunny, sheltered from wind or rain, appropriately paved or decked?
We hardly used our back garden because you had to go through the laundry (which included a toilet) to get there, and immediately down a couple of ugly concrete steps. Not ideal, especially when you have visitors. By building a deck area and installing a new (fully glazed) back door into our kitchen, we now have much more light in our kitchen, can see how lovely the garden is, and spend a lot more time in out there.

4. Collecting water. Where we live, the price of tap water is cheap, so until the government brought in restrictions on how we use it, investing in large rainwater tanks didn’t seem worthwhile. However it’s now our legal option for watering the garden, washing the car or letting our toddler play under the sprinkler. You can also collect rainwater for toilet flushing or laundry, depending on how you set the system up. Rain and grey water collection options vary, depending on local regulations, budget, space and water needs.
We now have two water tanks- one in the front yard and one in the back, to help our efforts to set up a food producing garden and shade trees. We also have a basic grey water system set up so that we can collect bathwater to hand water our small lawn when it needs it.

5. Sun and Shade. The key to keeping a building warm (or cool), without spending money on energy, is letting the sun in (or keeping it out), along with insulating the walls, floors and roof. The potential benefits vary depending on your climate and time of year. There is also energy saving benefit if the daylight means you don’t need to turn the lights on all the time. The location and size of windows, type of glass, and any fixed, movable or growing shade (inside or outside) will all make a difference.
We packed our extension with insulation (the existing house has virtually none, so we do rely on air conditioning to keep us cool upstairs in summer) and installed large windows with special coated glass on the sunny side of the house. A sheer blind reduces glare on sunny winter days. In hotter months, we have a removable fabric sunshade that shades the window and the outside deck. All our shade trees are fast growing and deciduous (sadly not native) which means the garden gets sun in winter, but our lawn is beautifully shaded and cool in summer.

I’ve tried to keep this as a simple outline- something to perhaps get you thinking, and inspire you to investigate further. There are many resources out there for more detailed information on green building design and many of the things I’ve mentioned- too many to pick just a few. I encourage you to Google, or if you’re in Australia on 12th September, it happens to be Sustainable House Day, with many homes, all over the country, open to visitors and all their questions.

August 13, 2010

Make yourself un-stinky!

I have been reading about handmade deodorant for a few years now, but was always a bit skeptical. Each recipe seemed to involve melting stuff, or buying bulk ingredients to use in small amounts- not super practical. I have been off the traditional antiperspirant & deodorant for a long time since it is full of scary stuff like aluminum, phthalates & fragrance [See Secret Wide Solid's rating at Skin Deep] which is liked to neurological problems, cancer and reproductive toxicity. And there is an excessive amount of plastic used for each tube. Instead I used Trader Joe's deodorant which was pretty safe, eco friendly, and cheap. I saw no reason to make things more complicated for myself.

But here's the catch: I loved the Trader Joe's deodorant, and Toms of Maine, and other non-toxic deodorants I have used BUT they don't really work that well. I feel bad saying it, but they quit by the end of the day. I just assumed that was the nature of using non-toxic deodorants and have lived with it for far too long. Until now.

I came across this recipe, from this website and I had all the ingredients in my kitchen already. Plus there was no heating involved. But what really caught my attention was the rave reviews. And I am here to add to those reviews.

Let me say it loud and clear: THIS STUFF WORKS FOR ME. And it works all day, and in to the next. In fact, since I switched, I have not had one single moment of smelliness. Total awesomeness. 

UPDATE: There is an instructional video and FAQ from the og website here:

Homemade Amazing Deodorant:
Adapted from Passionate Homemaking

The original recipe calls for either corn starch or arrowroot powder, but since I had both, I used both. Some folks complained about irritation in the comments due to the amount of baking soda- and found that using less helped. I have had no problem with the amount of baking soda so I will continue with these proportions. Also the coconut oil can go from solid to liquid depending on the storage temperature. Mine stays at a perfect semi-solid in my bathroom, and melts to an oil when I rub between my fingers.

5-6 tablespoons coconut oil
1/8 cup arrowroot powder
1/8 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup baking soda
Several drops of bergamot oil [optional]

Mix the powders together in a jar and slowly add the coconut oil until you have a "pomade" consistency and powders are mostly dissolved. Add a few drops of oil until it has a lovely hint of scent.

To use, scoop out a pea sized amount and rub between your fingers to melt and create a smooth texture. Apply under your arms and rub any left into your hands as a moisturizer.

Since the coconut oil changes rapidly from a solid to a liquid I would not recommend trying to use a traditional deodorant "stick" but rather to scoop from the jar.

If you are at all hesitant about making your own, this is the recipe that will win you over! Non toxic, plastic free, sustainable, and extremely effective. Total win-win.


I would like to answer some questions from the  comments.  Please note that I am not a deodorant expert in anyway.  I found this recipe on the internet and have been using it for 3+ years.  I am just sharing & reviewing my experience with the recipe.  Click the links above for the original recipe and read through the comments for more information.

Does the coconut oil cause oily stains on your clothes? 
I haven't had any problems with staining.  Test it out on an old shirt and let it dry first if you are nervous.

Just for clarification, this is just a deodorant, not an antiperspirant, right?
Yes, this is more of a deodorant than an antiperspirant BUT I have noticed considerably less sweating? It might be the corn starch or baking soda? Or just my body since I haven't used antiperspirant in 10 years and don't notice sweating that much anymore.

I am allergic to coconut so I was wondering what could be substituted for coconut oil?
For oil substitute? I don't know. Something shelf stable? Coconut oil is stable, anti-fugal and anti-bacterial which is why it works. Other homemade deodorant recipes use Shea butter- you might want to find a different recipe. 

I really want to try this but I can't find arrowroot anywhere. Was wandering if maybe tapioca starch or anything else could be substituted?
You can find arrowroot in the spice section of the grocery stores.  See jar pictured above.  Other stores may have it in the baking section.  Not sure about tapioca- but you can sub with corn starch.  

We don`t want her using all that chemical on her. Has anyone used this for kids?
I have not tried this on a kid. I would test a small patch first for irritation. The baking soda can be harsh. 

AND, I have one. I absolutely cannot stand Coconut. I even gag with the smell. I wish I wasn't like that, but I am.  What can I substitute? Someone, Please help. :)
For oil substitute? I don't know. Something shelf stable? Coconut oil is stable, anti-fugal and anti-bacterial which is why it works. Some refined coconut oils do not smell like coconut- those might be your best bet. Other homemade deodorant recipes use Shea butter- you might want to find a different recipe. 

You know your body best and can figure out what works for you. 

UPDATE: There is an instructional video and FAQ from the og website here:

August 5, 2010

latest finds for kids

once my daughter was born, i knew better than to swear that i wasn't going to have ANY plastic toys in my house. but i did really want to keep from buying cheap plastic toys as much as possible. i was grateful for all the hand me down items that were given to us [which have since been handed down again]. and i scoured craigs list and freecyle and berkeley parents network for items that i thought we could use. [btw - berkeley parents network is a GREAT resource. it's full of information on parenting and tips on bay area businesses, etc. you have to be in the bay area to sign up for their lists, but anyone can browse the site for info. i wonder if other communities have similar networks set up? if you know of any leave the info in the comments?]

i was really happy to discover green toys . they are actually made in california [the state where i live] and are made from recycled plastic milk jugs. you can read more about the process here . the thing that i really like about green toys, though, is that they LOOK nice too. i have to admit that looks are important to me. especially since toys are going to get left lying around. i might as well find the objects strewn about my living room aesthetically pleasing to look at right?

i was able to find a shop locally that carried the toys so i went and checked them out in person. they look and FEEL nice. my daughter is still a bit young for most of their toys, but i definitely will be getting some for her in the future.

green toys has their own online shop, or here's a list of stores that also carries their stuff.

the other thing i found were these stainless steel drinking straws. my daughter has just discovered the joys of drinking from a straw. i happened to have a very old box of plastic straws around that we've been going through, but i really didn't want to have to buy a new box of straws. so wasteful. and i certainly didn't want to try and explain to an 18 month old that we couldn't use a straw because they were bad for the environment. nor did i want to try and find BPA free plastic straws [somehow the thought of trying to keep a plastic straw clean didn't really work for me]. but stainless? these i like! the only bummer was that i couldn't find any locally to buy, so i gave in and purchased some from amazon .

and so goes my recent adventures in green shopping for the little. not as cool or green as re-making bibs into handy wipes, but it's what i got !