LED Lighting – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

LED-Light-bulbs-rangeWe’ve all heard the claims by now – LED lighting uses far less electricity, saves costs, lasts much longer and is a far greener solution than either the old incandescent bulbs or the newer ‘energy-saving’ bulbs.

So as good green consumers we go out to buy some, only to be brought up short by the price. At R200 for a light bulb our green principles suffer a set-back. Maybe we find a cheaper version, try it out for a while and are disappointed in its performance: the colour is harsh, the light is too dim or it just doesn’t last as long as the claims. Continue reading

Beat the Heat – Cool Lighting from LED bulbs

LED-light-bulbSummer has arrived with blast in Cape Town and we’re all wilting. Any way of keeping the house a degree or two cooler would be a blessing. So we have another reason to look at switching to LED bulbs to light up our homes: they are much, much cooler than incandescent light bulbs.

The old incandescent light bulbs are very inefficient in the way they convert electricity to light, giving off quite a  bit of heat in the process. This means that several bulbs lit for an hour or two will contribute to the heat build-up in a room quite significantly. Statistics I’ve seen estimate that just one bulb lit in a small, closed, unventilated room would up the room temperature by 6C over one hour. Now normally the room would be ventilated so the heat rise would be less but even so, who wants even one more degree of heat when it’s already sweltering?

LED bulbs on the other hand remain cool when lit, using the electricity far more efficiently to produce light not heat. So they aren’t adding to the sultry summer temperatures; besides the fact that they use far less electricity to run. Find out more about switching to energy efficient LEDs by contacting a specialist in LED lighting, who will be able to give you more idea of the best options currently available.

Sunscreen: The Good The Bad and the Skin Cancer

Which sunscreen is safe to use at the beach?If you, like us, have been routinely slathering your kids with sunscreen to protect them from cancer causing skin damage, you might find this article on skin cancer research worrying.

Researchers have found that since the use of sunscreen became general in the mid-70s rates of skin cancers have increased significantly, rather than decreased as expected. One theory was that because they take longer to burn, people spend longer periods in the sun. Another that the sunscreen blocks most of the UVB rays but not so much of the UVA, which penetrates deeper into the skin.

One of the main risk factors identified here though, was some of the chemical ingredients in the sunscreens themselves. Certain of the active ingredients act as free radical generators once they are activated by the UV rays. Free radicals are the big bad wolves of the cancer world, loose cannons in the body that can cause changes in cell structure.

If you are interested in more detail, go read the original article, which is full of information and references to current research. But for easy reference here is a list of things to look out for:

Chemicals to avoid in sunscreen
Benzophenone, oxybenzone or benzophenone-3 – all free radical generators when activated by UV light. These, or derivatives of these, are found in most common chemical sunscreens.
Psoralen – high risk of melanomas shown in several studies that rate this chemical four times worse than those listed above..
Look out for these ingredients in face creams that have an SPF too.

Physical sunscreens
These use minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and reflect the UV light away from the skin. They tend to look white on the skin. They work as sunblocks and are much safer than chemical sunscreens.

Natural tan
The article concludes  with saying that the safest protection against skin cancer is to build up a natural tan gradually without risking severe sunburn. Most severe skin damage was seen in people with infrequent but intense exposure to the sun. For example the holidaymaker from a less sunny climate who sunbathes too long and gets badly burned. Those with regular, moderate exposure to the sun are less likely to suffer from skin cancer.

Vitamin D
We all need vitamin D and our body manufactures it from the sun shining on our skin. Using sunscreens prevents this natural process. We all should spend a minimum of 10 minutes a day  in the sunshine without any blocking sunscreens on our skin, to get a basic level of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps suppress the growth of malignant melanomas and possibly other cancers too, so getting enough sunlight on our skin helps fight, rather than causes, skin cancer.

Once again it’s all about moderation, getting out in the sun and fresh air, but not overdoing it, minimising the chemicals we expose ourselves to and reading that tiny small print on the ingredients lists.

Photo: © Radu Tania | Dreamstime.com

Re-use Cereal Boxes As Disposable Compost Bins

Re-use cereal boxes as compost binsIf you have a compost heap, eat boxed cereals and don’t like too many plastic buckets cluttering up your kitchen, this idea for instant disposable compost bins could work for you, as well as it works for us.

An empty cereal box makes a great container for compostable kitchen waste. The great thing about it from my point of view is that it is only large enough for a few days worth of vegetable peels, so that we take it out to the compost heap more frequently, reducing the likelihood of flies and fruit flies in the kitchen. When it goes out to the heap, the peels are emptied on to the heap and the cardboard box gets torn into pieces and added to the compost. Then we start fresh with the next empty box.

compost binA cereal box is neat and fits into a smaller space than a plastic bucket would do. There is no washing out of buckets, or build up of mouldy stuff that you sometimes get when the bucket takes too long to fill. And as a bonus you are automatically adding more carbon dense material to balance out all those green kitchen scraps. Plus recycling and re-using some of your excess cardboard.

compost heap

Buying Local

buy local vegetablesFood miles have been one of the green catch phrases in the last few years. How far has your food travelled before it reaches your kitchen?

If reducing your carbon footprint is a priority then looking for locally produced foods whenever they are available can be one solution. Out of season produce may have flown thousands of miles to get to you, but don’t forget that even the humble cauliflower in season in the middle of winter may have got around a bit before it reached your plate.

Our neighbour grows a couple of fields of broccoli and cauliflower in winter. It is usually all ready over a couple of weeks, so she has an intense period of picking twice a week and driving it into Cape Town to the wholesale market, where it can be purchased by shops, restaurants and supermarkets. The very same cauliflowers may well drive all the way back out to a shop in our local town, where I drive once a week and purchase my groceries. So I could end up with a cauliflower that was grown next door, but which actually has about 150km on the clock.

So what are our options when it comes to sourcing local produce? Sometimes it’s easier when you live in a well set up town or city than in rural areas.

Weekly farmer’s markets
If you have a weekly farmers market near you, then buying locally is simple and enjoyable. Go there weekly, buy whatever is in season from small local producers and feel good!

Vegetable Box Schemes
Another option is to find a vegetable box scheme in your area. Don’t just assume that everything is locally grown and organic. Ask questions and find out exactly what you will be getting, where it comes from, how freshly it is all picked and so on.

If you live in a rural area as we do, you may have to create your own network of local suppliers. We are lucky with a local monthly market where you can buy organic produce, take a stall to sell your own produce or crafts and enjoy a day out. But for the rest of the month we have to either grow our own, drive 25km to shop, or get creative…

Create a neighbours network
Why not establish a network of neighbours to buy and sell, barter or just share excess produce? This can be an informal arrangement or a more organised one. Gather a list of email addresses of those interested, so anyone that has produce to sell, swap or share can let everyone else know. Or set up a Facebook group, or use sms messaging. It’s a great way of building community and getting to know your neighbours.

School community
If you have school age kids, see if you can use the school community as a network. Perhaps once a week at the end of school there could be an informal market or produce swap, or a shared email list to let everyone know what is available and take orders.

What’s with rBST free milk labelling in South Africa today?

rBST free label South AfricarBST free milk label South AfricaUntil a few years ago I didn’t know about rBST in milk. I didn’t know that artificial hormones were permitted to be given to South African cows to raise milk production, regardless of possible ill effects to the cows and to the humans drinking the milk. As soon as I read about it here, I made sure I only bought milk labelled as rBST free. Only now the rules on labels seem to be changing.

The genetically modified growth hormone rBST (rBGH) is banned in Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is produced by GMO giant Monsanto and there is controversy surrounding its continuing use in the US. Possible long term effects to humans from exposure to the hormone, from drinking and eating dairy products from cows treated with it, are various cancers. For the cows the side-effects are increased risk of mastitis, requiring the use of antibiotics. The hormone speeds up their metabolism, putting more stress on their systems and reducing their useful life-span.

The powers that be continue to assure us that the use of the hormone is completely safe, but other authorities stress the contrary. Who are we to believe?

In the end it comes down to making a personal choice. We should have the right to choose shouldn’t we? But since labelling regulations got stricter this becomes even more complicated.

Until recently the rBST label was to be found on several milk brands – Clover and Pick and Pay, as well as Woolworths, Fair Cape and some of the smaller dairies. However on a recent shopping trip I found that Clover and Pick and Pay no longer label their milk as rBST free. A new labelling act apparently states that suppliers must be able to prove that their milk is free of artificial hormones (cows always produce their own natural hormones so no-one can correctly state that their milk is hormone free). There is no straightforward test that can prove it, so the only way is to prove that the cows supplying the milk have never been treated with the hormone. Due to fears of court-cases, Clover and some of the bigger dairies have obviously decided not to risk using the label, though Clover still state that their milk is sourced from dairy herds that are not treated with the hormone. Woolworths and Fair Cape continue to use the label, perhaps because they feel more secure in their sources?

What makes it so difficult to investigate is that almost no-one admits to using the hormone, yet about 30% of South African dairy farmers apparently are using it, driven by economic pressure to increase their milk yields any which way they can. There is a whole fog of misinformation out there, which hasn’t been helped by the stricter labelling laws. The laws should have made things clearer and less confusing for the consumer, but have ended up with the opposite effect.

How can I tell if the milk I am buying is not labelled rBST free because of over-caution on the part of the company even though the milk probably is rBST free, or because it comes from cows that are treated with the hormone?

Do I give up and buy my own cow? Visit the local dairy that supplies my milk and insist on seeing all their records and interviewing their vet? Become a vegan and start worrying about GM corn and soy instead?

Probably I should do one of the above, but since I am just muddling along like most of us, doing my best under the circumstances, I’ll just continue to look for the rBST free label, hoping that I can trust it, and buying from small local dairies in the hope that they are more accountable than large, faceless organisations. Hope and trust… or should I get that cow?!

Edited to add: I’ve had a response from both Clover and Pick and Pay in response to my enquiry into whether their milk is still rBST free. For the record this is what they said:

PnP: “Please note all our mil is currently rBST free.  However there is no test method available for this.  In terms of the new labelling legislation and consumer protection act, if a claim is made, one needs to have the scientific evidence to support this.  We are in the process of signing an agreement with our milk suppleirs to confirm this so that we can reintroduce this logo onto our packaging.”

Clover: “Thank you for your e-mail and concern.   The reason we do not have the rBST free sign on the milk anymore is because of the new labelling act.  We are only allowed to have it on our milk if we can “prove” by testing that there are no hormones in the milk.  Unfortunately there is not one machine in the whole Africa that can test hormones in milk.

I can assure you that Clover does not use hormones on our cows.  We have written agreements with our farmers and regular inspections with a vet is made to inspect the cows if they are not injected with hormones, and also how they are treated and how they graze.”

Reduce Plastic Waste – Never Buy Another Freezer Bag

Re-use yoghurt pots for the freezerFreezer bags are temptingly convenient. A nice neat roll, all sizes and clean. But buying plastic bags just to use them once and then throw them away really doesn’t make sense, either from a frugal point of view or an environmental one.

I’m trying to reduce the amount of plastic we use and one thing I’ve found that I can totally do without is purpose made freezer bags. Here are alternative ideas that work just as well.

Re-use yoghurt pots
One litre sized yoghurt pots with lids are perfect for freezing small batches of cooked food, stocks, fruit purees and any other liquid or semi-liquid food. They are also good for freezing berries. Write on the lid with a permanent marker or use a sticky label to identify the contents – otherwise you’ll find yourself getting out stock when you want berries and vice versa.

Re-use other plastic containers
Think twice before recycling or throwing out any sturdy plastic container. Ice cream tubs, margarine tubs and any other similar food containers can be saved and re-used in the freezer. Check the recycling number on the plastic to make sure it doesn’t contain BPA. Numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are very unlikely to; numbers 3 and 7 may do. Containers can be re-used several times, but if they start looking scratched or otherwise damaged then it is time to recycle them. Plastic in contact with food should always be undamaged to avoid possible chemical contamination.

Re-use cereal bags
The inner bags of cereal packets are a prime example of useful bags that rarely if ever get re-used. Save them up and use them as freezer bags.  Make sure you shake all the fine crumbs out of them, then use them for freezing dry goods, such as bread, cookie dough, breadcrumbs. They could also work well for freezing blanched vegetables, if you have an excess in the garden. The only problem with these is sealing them effectively. Try to push as much air out as possible, then fold over the ends of the bag at least twice. Close it with a peg or a tie, depending on what works best for you.

Glass containers
There are more and more glass containers with lids available these days that are freezer proof. Some are also microwave proof. Start investing in a few of these as and when you can afford them. Having a good stock of permanent containers cuts down on the amount of disposable containers you use. Some people use canning jars to freeze food in. Make sure you leave enough space for expansion as the food freezes, so that the glass isn’t cracked by the pressure.

As a general rule allow food frozen in glass to defrost thoroughly before heating, as a sudden temperature change can shatter it.

Just this small adjustment in thinking will save you money and save the environment from that much more plastic waste. I’m sure there are plenty more possibilities that I haven’t listed here – do you have any freezer container ideas to share?

Also check out the comments in this article on doing without plastic bags in the freezer for some more great ideas.

Vinegar For Stinky Dog Blankets

Smelly dog, clean dog blanketDo you have a dog whose idea of fragrance is to roll in the stinkiest thing he can find? And then generously shares it with you by snuggling down on the sofa?

We have three of them, luckily only the Jack Russell feels entitled to lounging on the furniture. And you don’t want to know about the elderly cats in the family….

All this results in rather a lot of extra laundry, and somehow those smells are hard to get rid of just with detergent.

The answer is vinegar, plain old distilled white vinegar. I don’t why it took me so long to try it, when I’ve been using bicarb and vinegar as cleaning agents for ages. I’ve used bicarb (baking soda) to neutralise odours in the wash and that helps, especially with towels that have become slightly musty, but it’s not quite enough for the serious smells.

Today I washed the stinkiest dog blanket to ever pollute our house, which had already been washed twice to no avail. I added one cup of vinegar to the wash along with the regular detergent. That blanket came out smelling sweet enough to put my nose up close to!

Why it works? As far as I can gather from my non-scientific perspective, the acids in the vinegar break down the proteins that hold most smells connected with our beloved pets. Once broken down they are easily washed away. Thank goodness for vinegar – the dog blanket gets a new lease of life.

And the best news from a green perspective: vinegar is a renewable resource, it’s bio-degradable, non-toxic and it’s cheap. Now I just need to find out where I can buy it in bulk!

Natural Air Freshener – A Bowl of Hyacinths

sweet smelling hyancinthsAir fresheners were one of my pet hates even before I had any idea of green living. Now I’ve read about what goes into creating the artificial fragrances used for air fresheners I am even more against them.

They are very bad for respiratory health especially for young children, often aggravating allergies or triggering asthma attacks. Even worse some of the ingredients are cancer-causing in the long term, so all those chemicals can seriously damage the health of your family. This article has more on the dangers of air fresheners if you want to scare yourself!

I’ve written before about using natural scented candles instead of bathroom air fresheners. But what other ways are there of making your home smell nice?

Ours often smells of baking bread, but just as often of wet dog, so I was over the moon when my sister-in-law reminded me of a winter tradition from my childhood. She gave us a bowl of hyacinth bulbs. They have flowered quickly and their scent perfumes the air all around. It would be almost overpowering in a small room, but in a large space wafts appealingly as you pass.

There is no need for any artificial fragrances with that rich floral scent filling the air, and better still the flowers last for ages. In fact the bulbs are coming out in stages so they should be giving us sweet scents for a couple of months at least. Then we’ll put away the bulbs till next winter, re-pot them and they will grow and flower all over again. How about that for renewable, sustainable, sweet-smelling living!

A bowl of hyacinth bulbs also makes a great green gift for kids to give parents and grandparents – they can plant them up and decorate the bowl to make it even more special.

Shampoo-Free Living With Bicarb and Vinegar

bicarb and vinegar for hairMuch of green living is about the small choices we make. Giving up shampoo and going ‘poo-free’ is hardly going to save the world, but it is one small positive step.

If we ever read the ingredients label on a shampoo or conditioner bottle most of us probably understood less than two words in the list – who can even pronounce most of those ingredients? Not all those things are harmful to us or to the environment, but most of them are less than beneficial. Most shampoos use petrochemical based mineral oils among their ingredients as well as artificial fragrances. If you are working on reducing the chemicals in your home and moving over to natural alternatives, then it is quite easy to drop the hair care items from your shopping list.

We’re not talking greasy unwashed hair here. Two simple, cheap and natural ingredients are all you need to wash and condition your hair: bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and apple cider vinegar. The bicarb washes and gently gets rid of any build up of oils and dirt; the vinegar neutralises the bicarb and conditions the hair, balancing the ph and leaving it smooth and tangle free. My family was sceptical when I tried going shampoo-free but very soon we were all changed over and have never been tempted to buy shampoo again.

Here’s how to do it.

In an old, clean shampoo bottle (or any shower-safe bottle) mix one tablespoon of bicarb with one cup of warm water. Shake till it dissolves.
In another bottle mix 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with one cup of water.

Use the bicarb mix instead of shampoo, using just enough to  cover your hair and massage in. It takes a while to get used to the feel of latherless hair-washing, and the slight squeakiness as you rub it into your scalp, but the results will convince you. Rinse well.

Splash on  a few tablespoons of the vinegar mix and distribute well into your hair, smooth out any tangles, then rinse away.

This amount usually lasts my family of five a whole week or more.

Our main worry was that the smell of vinegar would linger and we’d smell like a fish and chip shop… it doesn’t at all, much to our relief. And the smooth shiny hair that results is a great testimony to how well this system works. You can also use herb teas as a final rinse after the vinegar – try camomile, rosemary or lavender.

I’m reading more and more blogs about the transition to shampoo free living all of which are enthusiastic, so I’m sharing a few here in case you need more convincing!

The basics of shampoo free hair washing

An in depth look at going shampoo free, with trouble shooting of problems and suggestions for herb rinses.

A family account after a year of being shampoo free.