Archives for May 2009

Safe and Eco-Friendly Toys

Children’s toy hazards are all over the news. It seems that there’s a new danger every time we turn around. One way to avoid some of these problems (BPA, mercury, melamine, etc.) is to buy toys from companies committed to greener (and safer) practices. The Washington Post recently ran an article in their Kid’s Post section about some green toy options. I’d like to highlight the information the Post covered, and add a few green toy picks of my own.

The Washington Post article, by Margaret Webb Pressler, mentioned several areas to focus on when choosing toys for kids:

— Look at the box the toy is in. Is it made of recycled or recyclable material? Is it bigger than it needs to be? “There was a time when the big box meant value, and now the big box means waste,” said toy expert Chris Byrne.

— Look at where the toy was made. A lot of energy is used to get a toy all the way from China. When possible, look for toys made in this country.

— When a toy gets broken and needs to be thrown away, see whether all or part of it can go in the recycling bin instead of the trash can. Green Pieces puzzles by TDC Games have wildflower seeds pressed into them, so when you’re done with the puzzle, you can just plant the pieces!

— Instead of using all those AA and AAA batteries to power your remote control cars and then throwing them in the trash when they are used up, consider using rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries are widely available and can be recycled rather than pile up in a landfill.

— If you outgrow a toy and find that you’re not playing with it much anymore, give it to another child who will enjoy it. That’s the best recycling of all.

One brand discussed in this article is Green Toys. Their products are made in the United States from recycled milk jugs. They are BPA, phthalate, and lead free and meet all the toy safety standards. Below are a few of their offerings:
ecosaucer1

EcoSaucer Flying Disc: The EcoSaucer is a green spin on the classic Frisbee. Like all Green Toys products, it’s made from 100% recycled milk cartons and contains no phthalates or BPA. Even better, the packaging is completely recyclable.

sand-kit

Sand Play Set: This set is recommended for ages 3 and above. It includes a bucket, sand mold, shovel and rake.

indoor-gardening-kit

Indoor Gardening Kit: This is a great little set. My girls have it and really like it. It comes with dirt discs that expand to fill up the pots. It also includes 3 different varieties of organic seeds. My kids had a great time watching their “garden” grow.

recycle-truckdump-truck

Recycle Truck and Dump Truck: Trucks, only greener. I’m sure if these trucks actually ran, they’d have really low emissions.

I’m glad to see toys that are not only safe for our children, but made of recycled materials, too. I can’t see any downside to toys like this.inthecountry3
One other toy not referred to in the Washington Post article, but one I think deserves some attention is In the Country Learning Game. I first learned about this game from Jeremiah at ZRecommends. They tried it out with their 4 year old daughter with great results. Follow this ZRecs link to read their review.

I’d love to know if any of you have favorite green toys. If so, please let us know about them in the comments.

Save a Little Money, Save a Little Planet: a Primer

littleplanet

Fair warning: I’ve mentioned some of the ideas in this post before. However, I think they’re worth repeating. I think it’s also important to provide some background on how we got into such a mess and some suggestions for how we can start crawling out.

There’s a lot of buzz these days about “going green” and product manufacturers have taken notice. In fact, it’s become so popular (and profitable) to slap words like “natural” on products that it’s difficult to tell which products are truly green and which companies are simply greenwashing to raise revenue.

Consumer Reports Home & Garden Blog defines greenwashing as “companies and corporations that make green claims when their products or actions are anything but.” TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, has created a list of “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” defining the term as, “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”.

The problem: In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act and automatically deemed safe some 60,000 chemicals for use in consumer products without data to confirm their safety. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), since 1976, 20,000 new chemicals have been put into products we use every day, again, with little or no data to support their safety. As a matter of Federal law, manufacturers are not required to tell us what’s in their products. The EPA has no authority to make them tell us, nor do they have the staffing or the information to properly test products for safety.

Fortunately, with a little knowledge, we can choose household products that are both safer for us and for the Earth. The best part: the greenest options are often the least expensive, leaving more money in your wallet while helping the planet.

Household Cleaners

There are a few options here. The truly frugal may wish to make their own. Almost anything in your house can be cleaned with baking soda and vinegar. Vinegar is especially good mixed with water to clean nearly any surface. It works anywhere you might use glass cleaner. Mixed with hot water, vinegar will easily clean your floors. When more scrubbing power is needed, try baking soda. My kitchen sink is white porcelain and baking soda does a great job getting the grime off of it. I buy baking soda and vinegar in large quantities at Sam’s or Costco. For pennies I can clean nearly everything in my house.

For those not interested in making their own cleaners, there are more and more options available in stores. To avoid greenwashing, it’s best to go with companies that have been upfront about their product ingredients for a long time. Seventh Generation is one good choice, as is EcoStoreUSA (stay tuned for some upcoming product reviews). When in doubt, read the ingredients. If the ingredients aren’t listed, I’d pass. Also look for Warning labels, like “Caution,” “Danger,” and “Poison.” It seems obvious, but if a product has these warnings, you can be sure there’s bad stuff inside.

Laundry Detergents

Most laundry detergents contain phosphates and other chemicals that aren’t good for us or the environment. A healthier (and cheaper) option is to consider making your own. I make mine and it takes about 7 minutes every three months to create a batch. I make a powdered version that has only 3 (inexpensive) ingredients: 1 bar grated Fels Naptha soap, 1 cup borax, 1 cup washing soda. I usually multiply the recipe by three and store it in an airtight container. At 2 Tablespoons per load, one batch lasts for months.

Some people are decidedly against making their own laundry detergent, though. If that’s the case with you, again, there are a lot of options now in stores. Primarily, look for phosphate-free products and make sure to read the labels.

Personal Products

The Environmental Working Group has studied thousands of products over the years and has found that the vast majority contain many chemicals whose effects on humans are unknown. Many of these chemicals have been banned by the European Union (EU) because of safety concerns, but they are commonly used in many of the products we put on our skin each day in the U.S.

To go a little more chemical free, first try to use fewer products. The fewer products you use, the less you’re exposure and the less money you’re spending. Think about which products you absolutely need and which ones you can do without.

Once you’ve narrowed down to the necessities, check out EWG’s Cosmetics Database. It’s an exhaustive list of products rated from 0-10 according to the level of health hazard (lower numbers are better). Not surprisingly, many of the low hazard products listed are made by organic companies, and some of these products can be expensive.  I put together several lists of low-hazard products from the database that are less expensive and can be found in grocery stores and places like Target. Some of the safest products were surprisingly inexpensive. You can find lists for Personal Care Products, Baby & Kid Products, Oral Care, and Sunscreens by clicking the links.

Generally speaking, being green is NOT about consuming a lot of new, expensive “green” products; it’s about consuming less and reusing what you have. Not surprisingly, being green has a lot in common with being frugal. When you don’t buy more than you need, when you use up what you have before buying something else and when you purchase items that can be used over and over and over again, rather than always reaching for disposables, you save money. Often, a lot of money. But you’re also being a good steward of the planet. If you take just a few minutes to think about how you can ditch some of the disposables in your life you’ll find money savings there as well. For example,

Stop drinking bottled water. Get a reusable, BPA-Free bottle instead and refill it with tap water. Most bottled water is only tap water anyway. Depending on how much bottled water you usually buy, there could be considerable savings here.

Buy fewer paper towels and paper napkins. We’ve started using cloth napkins almost exclusively. Several months ago I bought a large pack of terry cloth shop towels at Costco. The size and absorbency make them a perfect replacement for paper towels. They soak up more and can easily be washed and reused. That mega-pack cost exactly the same as the mega-pack of Bounty paper towels, but this one time purchase will last indefinitely.

Buy in bulk. Where reasonable buy items you use often in bulk. There is less packaging (and therefore, less trash), which is better for the environment, and often bulk purchases are less expensive.

If you think about it, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, is merely a new spin on age-old advice. My grandmother (who is 87 at this writing) grew up very poor in eastern Kentucky in the 1920s and ’30s. Reduction was a way of life; they existed on the bare minimum. They had to use and reuse everything they had until it wore out, and when something did wear out, the parts of it that were left were recycled into something else. They didn’t think of it as “being green.” For them, it was merely common sense.

I’m not advocating that we all turn to abject poverty as a way of life, but I’ve never heard anyone say they were sorry they’d simplified their lives by pairing down some of their “stuff” and consuming less. Today, try to think about how you can reduce, both your spending and your footprint. Then find a good place to put all that money you save.

Photo Credit: Pop

Featured Do-Gooder: TerraCycle Part 2

From time to time Smart Family Tips will feature an organization that is a “Do-Gooder”: a group that works to help both people and the environment. The Do-Gooders may be companies, nonprofits, or any organized group that focuses its efforts on making the world a better place.

terracycle

I’ve written about TerraCycle before, but there are some updates that I’d like to make you aware of. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of TerraCycle, and I’m excited about their growth. The company is changing the way we perceive waste and finding innovative uses for our “trash.”

The Book:

In Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle Is Redefining Green Business, Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, explains how he co-founded the company as a freshman at Princeton and tracks the amazing growth the company has seen over the last five years. I’ve just finished reading the book myself (I won it in a giveaway at The Good Human) and I found it fascinating. TerraCycle has become successful because Tom and the other members of the team have been able to re-envision what “waste” is and how it can be used.

The Product Line:

TerraCycle’s product line has expanded. What started with liquefied worm poop in reused soda bottles has grown to include household cleaners, office products, school supplies, bags, planting pots, composters, and more. If you haven’t seen their products lately, be sure to visit TerraCycle.net.

The Brigades:

The Brigades are what TerraCycle uses to collect literally tons of waste that is used in their products. People all over the country sign up to collect, among other things, empty juice pouches, cookie packaging, and energy bar wrappers. What started with a plastic bottle brigade has expanded to over 10 categories of products that can now “TerraCycled.”

The Online Store:

One of the problems I’ve run into is difficulty in finding some of TerraCycle’s products locally. While much of their stuff can be found in big box retailers like Target, Home Depot, and Wal-mart, not all of their products are carried by any one store. Enter the official TerraCycleShop.com. Here, you can order directly from TerraCycle the items you want, but can’t find. (The online store is brand new, so products are being added weekly).

Twitter:

TerraCycle is now on Twitter. You can follow them @TerraCycle for regular updates.

Exciting things are happening at TerraCycle and there seems to be no end to the amount of press they receive. I’m happy to see so much attention given to little start-up  that is doing so much good.

The Story of Stuff

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Annie Leonard spent ten years following the trail our stuff makes and the end result of her hard work is this freely available, 20 minute video. Teachers have had great success using it in the classroom, according to an article in the New York Times.

The video is geared towards kids, but even for those of us who aren’t kids anymore, it’s 20 minutes well-spent. I think The Story of Stuff website explains it best:

What is the Story of Stuff?

From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

If you have the time, please take a look at the video. It really will change the way you view your stuff. Click any link labeled The Story of Stuff in this post to view it.

Bits and Pieces

Today’s post is a bit rambling. I’ve come across several pieces of information that I think are good to know about, but each one isn’t necessarily enough for a full blog post. For Friday, I’ve decided to put them all in one disjointed post.

◊ According to Earth First, we should keep drinking organic milk; it’s helping. The Organic Center came up with a way to measure the benefits of organic milk. In 2008, 40 million pounds of fertilizer were avoided thanks to organic dairy practices. Read all about it here.

◊ The EPA has a comprehensive carbon emissions calculator. It’s worth checking out if you have the time.

◊ According to Scientific American, scientists accidentally found a link between Autism and vinyl flooring. The study was originally designed to look at allergies and indoor air pollutants.

◊ Enviroblog has some interesting information on air pollution.

Thanks for reading and I hope you all have a nice weekend.

Gaiam.com, Inc