Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What's greener, glass or recycled plastic?

A reader asked: What’s the greener container: recycled plastic or glass?
For bottled drinks or preserved foods), I'd choose those packaged in glass, which is almost infinitely recyclable. Eighty percent of glass containers that are recycled are made into new ones, whereas plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before it loses its strength.
Best of all, glass is free of the phthalates and bisphenol-A that can leach from plastic.  Acidic substances like tomatoes, colas and citrus, or fatty foods, promote the leaching of plastic chemicals, which they absorb. So does heating any food in plastic.
However, you might not want to use breakable glass bottles around children. And even though plastic is made of fossil fuels, its light weight requires fewer fossil fuels in shipping than glass. 
Just be sure to choose plastic marked "post-consumer recycled" (PCR) or "post-consumer waste" (PCW). Regular "recycled" plastic is usually made from factory scraps, which only encourages the continued production and waste of new plastic.

D.I.Y. household cleaning ingredients

Shopping List 
With these 15 items, you can clean just about anything.
■ Baking Soda: scrubbing, whitening
■ Beeswax: polishing wood
■ Borax (sodium borate): removing stains/disinfecting
■ Club Soda (or any unflavored fizzy water): lifting stains
■ Cornstarch: absorbing stains
■ Hydrogen Peroxide: disinfecting, removing stains
■ Lemon: removing stains and odors
■ Liquid Dish Soap:  sudsing power
■ Olive Oil: polishing wood
■ Pine Oil: cleaning soft wood floors
■ Plant Essential Oils: chemical-free fragrance (do a sniff test before buying to make sure you’re not sensitive to the fumes)
■ Salt: scrubbing
■ Toothpaste: polishing metal
■ Washing Soda (sodium carbonate): scrubbing, removing stains and cutting grease
■ White Vinegar: disinfecting, removing stains

Monday, April 15, 2013

D.I.Y. Green Cleaners

Commercial cleaning products have been shown to trigger asthma, headaches and more.  Below are some task-specific recipes that won’t lead to teary disaster.
Toilet Bowl  
Scrub with 1/2 cup of borax to brighten and disinfect. For daily maintenance, brush the bowl with baking soda and let it sit for a bit before flushing. Add white vinegar for a little extra stain-lifting fizz.
All-Purpose Cleaner  
Use on any non-wood surface.
1/2 cup borax
1 gallon hot water
Mix until borax is dissolved; mop or spray and wipe surfaces.
Floor and Wall Cleaner
Use this on any floor, including wood, and on walls.
1 cup white vinegar
1 gallon hot water
1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup liquid soap (optional) 
1 to 2 tablepoons pine or lemon oil (optional) 
For extra cleaning power, add liquid soap. Add pine or lemon oil (essential oil of lavender or rosemary are less-intense alternatives) to condition unlaminated wood floors. Mix all ingredients and clean floor or walls with mop or damp rag. Follow with a clean-water mop if you use soap.
Glass Cleaner  
Shine on without toxic ammonia-based products.
1/4 cup white vinegar or 
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups water
3 to 4 drops liquid soap (optional)
Mix and spray or wipe on; for the best shine, use old newspapers!
Encrusted Gunk Buster  
Avoid chlorine-based scrubs by making your own scrubbing bubbles.
Baking soda, washing soda or salt
Wipe surface with hot water; sprinkle on soda or salt. Let sit for a few minutes, then scrub with a rag, sponge or brush.
Fume-Free Oven Cleaner  
Avoid caustic lye-based products and still make your oven sparkle.
1 cup baking soda
1/4 to 1/2 cup washing soda
1 tablespoon liquid soap 
Hot water
Few drops white vinegar
Make sure oven is off and totally cool. No need to disconnect power. Wipe off surface soot and any fresh spills. Combine dry ingredients and gradually add hot water until you have a thick but malleable paste. For greasy ovens, add an additional 1/4 cup washing soda. Add vinegar (watch it fizz!). Coat all oven surfaces and leave overnight. Wipe off with warm water.
Soft Scrub  
Use this non-scratching, chlorine-free paste on enamel or porcelain.
1 cup baking soda or borax 
Warm water 
2 to 3 drops liquid soap
Combine baking soda or borax with enough water to form a paste. Add liquid soap. Apply to surfaces, let sit at least 5 minutes, and scrub with a non-abrasive sponge. Rinse and wipe off residue.
Grout Cleaner  
Kill mildew and whiten grout without chlorine.
Baking soda
White vinegar or hydrogen peroxide
Combine ingredients to make a paste. Let stand 30 minutes or more, then scrub.
Lye-Free Drain Cleaner  
For a clogged drain, use a plumber’s snake or an untwisted coat hanger to pull out as much gunk as possible. Pour 1/2 cup baking or washing soda down the drain; gradually add 1/2 cup white vinegar. Let fizz and dissolve. Carefully pour in boiling water from a tea kettle. Wait half an hour. Repeat as necessary. Before calling a plumber, let things cool off and snake again.
Before you roll up your sleeves, remember, even all-natural cleaning ingredients can be irritating. Open windows to ventilate rooms while you clean, and wear gloves. Store all cleaning products, including homemade mixtures, in sealed containers in a cool, dry place.

Hello Green Mattress, Goodbye Toxic Hotbed

Spring cleaning should include our indoor air.  A reader recently asked me, “I’m looking for a green healthy mattress. What do you recommend?”

Because we spend about half our lives in bed, I recommend a  mattress made of natural materials and free of chemical treatments.  Alas, most conventional mattresses are stuffed with petroleum-based, polyurethane foam that can release, or “offgass,” volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have been linked to cancer, allergies, asthma and harm to nervous systems and children’s development.  These chemicals include toxic fire retardants that migrate into the air we breathe.

Greener Penny has long advocated against these synthetic chemicals. In 2010, we spoke with Heather Stapleton, a professor of chemistry at Duke, who warned against the health threats posed by widely used mattress fire retardants,  such as tris, which a study led by Stapleton found in house dust.   

In March, California proposed new rules  for fire retardancy in furniture and baby products that, if passed, will likely render these chemicals obsolete. Recent tests commissioned by the Chicago Tribune found that popular baby mattresses were hotbedsof toxic flame retardants

What to look for

Choose mattresses made from natural, renewable and untreated materials:  wool, cotton (in either, certified organic is greenest) and latex from rubber trees.

Mattresses wrapped in wool, a naturally fire retardant material, can meet the current  U.S. Consumer Safety Products Commission (CPSC)  “open flame” flammability standard (based on the California standard that the state is now poised to change).  standard without adding chemicals.

If you want a wool-free mattress that’s untreated with fire retardant chemicals, you’ll have to provide the retailer with a prescription from your doctor. Here’s a form you can download

There are now many companies selling greener mattresses in adult and crib size. They also sell less expensive futons or mattress toppers. All are available in a range of natural materials and prices. Here’s a list

See Playing With Fire,  The Tribune’s excellent investigative series on the chemical and cigarette industries 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Green Memory Foam, Really?

I like a firm latex or cotton mattress, but lots of sleepers swear by softer, more cushy memory foam, which started off as all-synthetic. Now many companies  are promoting  “eco friendly” memory foam.  Is it for real? The green claim is primarily based on two things:

*The use of renewable botanical extracts, rather than nonrenewable petroleum, to make the foam.

*Freedom from toxic VOCs.

I spoke  with representatives of two leading green memory foam mattress companies, both of which have stores in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere in the U.S.

Essentia, a Toronto-based company, has developed the “world’s only natural memory foam,” made from hevea milk (the sap of rubber trees) and plant essential oils, says Dylan McCall in the Berkeley store. It is a point of pride that the foam is petroleum-free. But why essential oils? “Along with water, during the processing, they add moisture and lubrication that turns latex into more spongey memory foam,” McCall says, adding, “There is no offgassing from the mattress at all.”

Instead of chemical fire retardants, a thin layer of Kevlar, “a nontoxic, fireproof,  synthetic fiber,” is woven into the organic cotton mattress cover, McCall explains. Another plus:  “They’re fair trade. The latex comes from a sustainable forest in Indonesia, the foam is made in Italy, the memory foam and assemblage is in Montreal.”

Essentia models range from a futon six inches of organic cotton filling topped with two inches of memory foam,  at $1779 (queen size), or six inches of latex foam topped with different densities of memory foam for $2640 (queen) and up. Higher density memory foam is more expensive, with quicker springback to its original shape, more support, “and it wraps around you a little bit more,” McCall says.

 In the puffy world of  unregulated “eco-friendly” claims, it is refreshing to encounter Keetsa, a mattress company that freely admits its high-density memory foam is only 12 percent botanical-based, and the rest is derived from petroleum. Although Keetsa keeps trying to “lessen our reliance on petroleum, whenever we go beyond 12 percent plant-based, it starts to lose its memory foam characteristics,” says Andy Babkes, a salesperson and sleep consultant in Keetsa’s San Francisco store. The plant-based Biofoam is derived from green tea leaves and castor oil beans.

From a health standpoint, Keetsa mattresses are certified low-VOC by Certi-PUR,  which is an industry promulgated seal ensuring that the most harmful VOCs are absent from the finished product. As a rule, seals verified by independent third parties are more reliable. 

Low-VOC isn't no-VOC,  however, so “before a mattress is packaged for shipping, we let it air out,” Babkes says. A sensible precaution.

To reduce their eco footprint, Keetsa’s premium mattress covers use hemp, which requires less water than cotton. Hemp also “feels softer and more luxurious,” Babkes says. Their “Tea Leaf” supreme model, combining memory foam and hemp, costs $1599. Keetsa also makes natural latex mattresses with innersprings, encased in organic cotton and wool, starting at $999, queen size.

It’s a point of pride that “we can make it affordable and still have something healthy,” Babkes says.  We won’t argue with that! 

For non-foam green mattress companies, see our blog featuring this GreenerPenny list.