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Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan's Posts

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This year, make it a DIY Christmas

christmas-cookies-crop
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This holiday season, talk of having a “minimalist Christmas” or participating in Buy Nothing Christmas seems to be all over the place (maybe it’s the economy? An attempted Scrooge coup?). And I’m happy to report that my family continues to be on-trend. Last year, we were all about un-wrapping gifts, a practice just poised on the brink of widespread adoption. And months ago, we decided to switch up our usual store-bought grab-bag presents for all homemade goodies instead.

Usually, our extended-family grab bag works thusly: Each participant brings a crowd-pleasing gift, typically under a predetermined price cap, to place ’neath the Christmas tree. We draw numbers, then, when your number is up, you choose between unwrapping a new present or stealing an opened one from a cousin or uncle (how festive!). If your present is stolen, you get to open or steal another, so in the end, everyone has something -- and incidentally, you don’t age into this grab bag until you graduate from college, so the kids still get their toys.

This is a fun system, and we’ve always been able to count on a good haul of wine glasses, board games, tree ornaments, and kitchen gizmos. Last year, I got a salad bowl that looks like an alien.

Shift the GiftThis year will be a little different. In one small way, we decided to reduce the glut of Christmas consumerism -- by making everything ourselves. This, we thought, would result in more thoughtful, meaningful gifts, gifts that have been labored over and loved, gifts that will mean so much more than a mini-blender ever could.

That, or we’ll all just get a shitload of Christmas cookies.

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Guilt-free gobble: A holiday feast the ecosystem can be thankful for

Thanksgiving
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Now here's something everyone can enjoy.

Imagine, if you will, a Thanksgiving table of plenty not anchored by a meaty, glistening bird. In its place of honor, rather, sits a bowl of sea-chilled, slimy oysters. No? Don’t like that? How about a plank of grilled salmon? Venison steak? Mushroom casserole?

Heresy it may seem, but perhaps defaulting to the time-honored turkey isn’t the best choice when planning Thanksgiving dinner. After all, many greenies spend the other 364 days of the year caring deeply about how sustainable, humane, and local their meals are. Why should a Thursday in November be any different? Why shouldn’t we examine our menu choices more closely before going with the venerated poultry?

To tell the truth, I love traditional holidays almost as much as I love a good turkey breast. But this year, I decided to do some digging to find out if any other main dishes could beat out the old gobble-gobble when it comes to eco-friendliness.

The criteria for judging contenders for my holiday table are as follows: The dish must be sustainable -- that is, farmed, hunted, or gathered in a way that minimizes pollution and other harmful environmental impacts, plus preserves the population of the food in question. It must be humane. It must be local, to reduce shipping-related carbon. It must be as healthy as possible. Cost and flavor will be considered as a secondary factor. Also, the dish needs to have a low risk of me accidentally shooting myself in its pursuit -- so that means game like wild turkey, deer, bobcat, moose, and mountain goat are out. (All of which you can hunt in the great state of Washington, where I live.)

So, what should be on my menu for the greenest Thanksgiving possible? Here are the results, in ascending order.

7. Conventional turkey

Surprise! The regular old grocery-store turkey was the hands-down worst option.

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Walk the walk: Take the Two-Mile (no-car) Challenge

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This past month, I’ve discovered a groundbreaking method for turning ordinary foodstuffs into fuel. The potential is boundless, as practically any food item will do -- pumpkin seeds, cereal, and salmon fillets can all transform into the energy required to get you almost anywhere you need to go, while emitting almost no extra greenhouse gases.

Here’s how it works: Eat food. Allow your digestive system convert it into glycogen, which provides energy to your muscles that can be used to power physical motion. Then walk.

True, this method is not exactly swift if your destination is, say, Anchorage.* Within two miles, though? Food-fueled transportation -- a.k.a. walking, biking, hopscotching, what have you -- can be just as efficient (and when parking is involved, often faster) as hopping in the car. And when you consider that 40 percent of all automobile trips occur within a two-mile radius of wherever we are, the so-called Two-Mile Challenge becomes a truly viable option for putting a cork in the carbon emissions spewing from the typical American lifestyle.

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The gift of garbage: A first-timer tries her hand at ‘upcycling’

It's for you. I dug it out of the trash ...

Right now, we’re living in a reuse renaissance -- and I, for one, am thrilled. I love the idea of reusing stuff that would’ve ended up in the trash. I love that you basically have to know how to knit a clutch purse out of gum wrappers and dog hair to sign into Pinterest these days. I love that reusing stuff is so hot right now that we’ve coined an entirely new word -- upcycling -- because “reusing” just cannot encompass the awesomeness of what we’re doing with all this garbage.

But here’s the thing: Not all of these reuse tactics work for me. One reason is what I’ll call the Law of Limited Utility. Repurposing a few old bread-closure tabs as cord organizers -- great! Now what am I supposed to do with the other 450 of these things that are cluttering the drawer? My second reason is what we shall refer to as the Law of Limited Skill. Tote bags woven from chocolate bar wrappers are creative and cool, but I just don’t have the expertise right now to make those intimidating projects happen. And then there’s the third reason: the Law of the Really Ugly Upcycle. Look, I do think it’s amazing that you made a vest out of 227 disposable plastic forks, but hey, that’s just not my style. No offense.

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This laundry soap won’t mess with your man parts

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Last week, we brought you recipes for three homemade laundry detergents. Then, we quickly slapped a disclaimer on them and warned you not to use them on penalty of testicular atrophy. Turns out one of the main ingredients in all three detergents, and indeed, a longstanding favorite of the DIY cleaning crowd -- borax -- isn’t as squeaky clean as originally thought.

So what’s a concerned clothing-wearer to do? Rebecca Sutton, PhD, a chemist with the Environmental Working Group, pointed me to an alternative, borax-free concoction. This one swaps out the b-word for good, old-fashioned baking soda. Not only does baking soda fluff up your cookies, advocates swear that it also brightens fabric colors, removes odors, and softens the water for better overall washing.

OK, sounds good -- but can it hold its own in a wash-off? I had to see for myself. I assembled another typically representative laundry load: towels, socks, undies, sweaty T-shirts, and dirty pants. Into the washing machine they all went, along with 1.5 tablespoons of the new laundry soap; a rinse and spin later, the clothes were ready for judgment.

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Try this at home: The joys of DIY laundry detergent

UPDATE: Several alert readers have raised questions about the safety of borax, a.k.a. sodium tetraborate or sodium borate. Though borax's power as a green cleaner has been touted in dozens of DIY recipes for years -- it’s even on a list of recommended “environmentally preferable cleaners” on the EPA’s website -- other sources point to evidence that the stuff is an irritant to the skin and mucous membranes and worse, a hormone disruptor that affects the reproductive system (yikes).

To borax or not to borax? There’s a ton of conflicting and confusing information out there. A different page on the EPA’s site warns that “Borax, commonly considered a safer DIY ingredient, actually presents concerns for potential human health effects.” The National Library of Medicine’s HazMap page  reports both that “Studies of workers exposed to sodium borate dusts found no evidence of pulmonary function or reproductive impairment” and “In high-dose reproductive studies of animals, boric acid causes testicular damage and fetal loss.” (Boric acid isn’t exactly the same as borax, but they’re closely related compounds.) A kids’ page from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences advises kids to “use fewer chemicals in your home!” by mixing borax and powdered sugar … to control cockroaches.

I called Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, for some clarity. Bad news: “It’s something we should be watching out for,” she said, noting that several studies have tied testicular atrophy (in animals) and reduced fertility (in men) to borax. Sutton also pointed out that a European hazard system has classified borax as possibly harmful to development. Bottom line: There are enough concerns about this once-revered cleaning agent to take it off the shelf -- and out of our DIY detergents.

Thank you to the readers who brought this to my attention. Though borax seems like a great laundry alternative at first glance, I should have dug deeper to ensure its safety. I’m looking into non-borax detergents this week and will report back on even better formulations.


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Maybe I’m late to the party on this one, but I had no idea that laundry detergent had such a long rap sheet.

I’ve bought all-natural detergent for the last year or so, yes, but it hasn’t been a reasoned consumer decision. My shopping rationale usually goes something like this: Aw, crap, I have 36 other things to pick up and we’re out of detergent, too. Let’s see … go for the cheap one with Triple X Stain-Stomp? Or shell out for the plant-based one with the soothing water droplets on the bottle? Better go for the hippie one, just in case.

Recently, I was finally curious enough to check into this purchasing pattern of mine. I started looking into the case against conventional laundry soap -- and let me tell you, I was shocked. Those super-fresh soaps I grew up with are actually toxic stews of optical brighteners, synthetic fragrances, dyes, surfactants, and other weird chemicals. And they stand accused of some scary s**t

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Can you survive the backroads — and backcountry — without processed foods?

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I have discovered the last stronghold of processed food. Even after we’ve rooted out high-fructose corn syrup from our school lunches and vanquished preservatives from our weeknight dinners, even when whole carrots and fruit salad reign as the snacks of choice, processed food will still cling desperately to one last dominion: the on-the-go market.

When we’re strapped for time, the kids are shrieking, and we’re starving, is it any wonder that we become vulnerable to some of the food industry’s most bizarre convenience products? I’m looking at you, Go-Gurt.

On my mission to remove processed foods from my diet, travel-related consumption has been the toughest. (My other challenges tackled desserts/restaurants and dinner parties.) It’s the one that requires the most planning and offers the fewest easy alternatives. But of course, if you can dream it, you can do it. These hard-won lessons prove it:

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Sweet victory: How to have your unprocessed cake and eat it, too

None for you. (Photo by Grace Langlois.)

When we think about eating unprocessed foods, it’s important to remember the parable of the unfortunate college freshman with the strict upbringing. The lad moved into the dorms and, finally free from the ironclad rules of his parents, proceeded to go buck-wild, boozing, philandering, and snorting his way to academic probation by midterms.

Lesson: We should all indulge once in a while -- especially when it comes to eating. True, it’s much easier to strip out the processed stuff when you eat only home-cooked meals and never, ever have dessert. But to hold ourselves to such inflexibly high standards is only to invite a Keith Richards-style bender that ends with us twitching in a bathtub full of Mallomars.

That’s why, in my quest to eliminate processed foods, I cannot impose a blanket ban on indulgences like meals out and sweets. Luckily, I don’t have to. After a little trial and error, I’ve discovered that one can walk the unprocessed path and still enjoy a luxury item once in a while. My report from the trenches:

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Guess what’s coming to dinner? The unprocessed food challenge continues

Photo by Dominic Gan.

Make no mistake: Processed food is out to get you. “No!” you can say. “I only want to eat whole foods! Just leave me alone!” But does processed food listen? No. It just kicks back and laughs. “Just try to get away from me,” processed food says. “I’m everywhere you look. I’m at the convenience store. I’m in your favorite restaurant order. I’m lurking in your pantry right now. That 'natural' box of cereal you bought? Full of high-fructose corn syrup! Bwahahahaha!”

It’s true. Processed food is a mighty foe. But, as I’m finding out, there are strategies we all can use to cut back. In my last post, I laid out a five-point challenge for rooting processed food out of my diet under the toughest of circumstances. Today, I tackle my first -- and live to eat another day.

The challenge: dinner party

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