Friday, May 30, 2008

Light Green Laundry

So for those of you readers out there that think we are nuts by hanging out the laundry, making our own soap and using cloth diapers, just a parting list of things everyone can do, even those on the light end of the Green spectrum. Every little thing counts. We'd love to hear other ideas of what you have tried. 

1. Run only full loads of laundry so you don't waste water and energy. I remember washing a single pair of jeans as a teenager because I just had to have them for the dance on Friday. Now I try to stuff it full just to get it all done!

2. Use cold water for all or most of your laundry. I have pretty much switched to cold for everything (need hot for diapers) and my clothes get just as clean. Don't stains come out better in cold anyway? Other than killing bacteria in dirty diapers, what is the hot water for anyway? I've never seen a tag on a piece of clothing that says to wash in hot. 

3. Set your drier so that it goes off when the clothes are dry or for the least amount of time needed. Don't waste energy drying dry clothes. Not all clothes need the high heat either

4. Use laundry soap without phosphates and harsh fragrances. There are lots of environmentally friendly detergents now that really work. 

5. Skip the drier sheets. Jill said she gave this a trial and didn't really notice much of a difference. I've really never used them because I wasn't sure what they were for. If you want to avoid static try letting your synthetic fabrics line dry (as they cause most of the static) or take the clothes out when they have just a hint of dampness left. Or take the clothes out with damp hands. Winter is really the only time we have much static anyway, so try skipping them in the summer. If you must use them, reuse them in several loads. 

6. Skip the fabric softener. Those chemicals in there are not at all snugly. Vinegar is a natural fabric softener and works well. 

7. Reduce your laundry. Bath towels that you use on your clean body don't need to be washed daily. Can you spot clean that shirt that is fine except for the bit of food that dropped on it? I remember as a kid having "school clothes" and "play clothes". We would change into our play clothes when we got home and get those all full of grass stains and keep out cute school clothes clean and ready for another wear. The problem is my kids come home dirty from playing at school too. My four year old sometimes goes through 4 outfits a day. This likely balances out her older sibs that like to wear their same favorite shorts every day. 

Laundry Apron

After years of using a little clothespin bag that I would hang on the line while doing laundry, I finally decided there had to be a better way. So, this spring I whipped up a little laundry apron for myself and my hanging out routine has been revolutionized! I don't know that the apron wins points for cuteness, but for functionality is gets a perfect 10 (please excuse the poor photo above and the huge mess in the background, we are in the middle of packing for an epic trip). Basically I cut out two large rectangles, sewed them right sides together, flipped them right side out and then attached two hugely oversize pockets. The pockets are sort of pleated at the bottom so they can expand out when filled with clothespins and then lie flat when empty. I attached really long ties so that I could wrap them around my waist twice to better hold up the heft of the full-of-clothespins apron. Now when I do laundry I just walk along the line, plucking clothespins from my little laundry apron. Ahhhh.

If you want to make a laundry apron there is a tutorial for a very cute one at My Byrd House (be prepared for the music on her site). Or be inspired by the many types of aprons at Amy Karol's Tie One On. I would write a tutorial for my apron, but my sewing method is more, um, stream-of-consciousness than follow-a-pattern.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nothing Cuter Than a Baby Bum in Cloth Diapers


I entered the cloth diapering world almost 12 years ago after being shown one of the "Diaper Genie" things.  If you don't know, these are contraptions that take your plastic poopy diaper and shrinkwrap it in another later of plastic so that it is stink proof until you take it out in the garbage in another plastic bag. Besides the fact that I couldn't figure out how to use the darn thing, it simply seemed like way to much plastic for one human being who was less than 10 pounds. I also read at that time how the chemicals used to make the gel in disposable diapers was being detected in the breastmilk of polar bears in the arctic and I knew that it was time to call my mom to find out how she did it. 

Luckily, cloth diapers have come a long way since the 1960's. Pins are no longer needed (although still an option) and no more soaking the diapers in a bucket of bleach water (we actually tried this at first but found other ways after I accidentally spilled the bucket of poop-water on my way to the laundry in the basement). There are tons of adorable diaper covers that can be fastened with velcro or snaps that make diapering almost as easy as disposables. 

Three baby bums later, I have discovered many other benefits as well. I love knowing I am not putting scary chemicals right on my baby's genitalia and there is really nothing cuter that the bubble-bum of a baby in a cloth diaper. I know there are heated debates about whether cloth or plastic is the better environmental choice. To make it more complicated, we now have other choices such as bleach and gel free disposables, organic cotton or hemp diapers, and in some areas, a diaper service. Most comparisons I've seen come out without a clear winner. To me it is hard to overlook the fact that 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown into a landfill every year, taking 500 years to decompose. If you decide to use cloth, here are a few links to get you started from Mothering Magazine. 

It has been a few years since I had a little one in diapers, but I wasn't too successful at finding a good local source of diapering products. Target had some prefold diapers but the covers they carried where not very good and leaked. Mostly I ordered from mail order (often mom-owned) companies. In Madison, you can try Wild Child or Happy Bambino 

Top 10 reasons to hang out

I've been feeling very list-y lately, making lists left and right, so it seems appropriate to include a list on the blog. So today I present you with my top 10 reasons to line dry your clothes, inside or outside, January or July.

  1. Hanging clothes outside on a beautiful, sunny day is like meditation. It calms me down. It makes me slow down because it is something that can't be hurried. It allows me to soak up some Vitamin D while getting a chore done... and both things serve to make me happier.
  2. A laundry line of clothes gently blowing in the breeze on a sunny day is one of those picture perfect things. Seeing a laundry line always makes me stop and appreciate the simple, utilitarian beauty of it.
  3. Drying clothes on a rack inside in the winter helps raise the humidity in our dry, Wisconsin homes. This was brought to my attention by my Weather & Climate professor in college. An indoor clothes rack or line is like a free humidifier. Why whisk that free winter moisture out through a dryer vent?
  4. Clothes last longer when they are line-dried. This is obvious when you think of all the tumbling and rocking and rubbing that clothes do in a dryer.
  5. Clothes don't shrink when they are line-dried. This is typically a good thing, but my sister, a recent clothesline convert realized that she had actually been banking on the shrinking to help clothes fit her kids. Now she has to re-think sizes. I think this is an isolated problem with a solution.
  6. It saves money. According to it can save households over $100 in electricity in a year. One hundred dollars a year. That amazes me. Of course, that number may be for households in sunnier climes than Wisconsin, but still.
  7. Perfectly crisp cloth napkins, no iron required.
  8. It is just one more little thing you can do that can help slow global warming. I personally find the little things to be hugely empowering.
  9. It makes me feel proud that I live in a neighborhood that hasn't banned clotheslines (many newer subdivisions across the U.S. have for aesthetic reasons). And when I can see 4 clotheslines on my block just from the vantage point of my front yard it makes me even prouder.
  10. It makes me feel retro, cool, and eco-saintly. All from one chore!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Martha Stewart Drying Rack

As an answer to Kris' query below, I think that the Martha Stewart Foldout Drying Rack above is just about the super coolest indoor drying rack possible. It folds down to hang clothes on and then folds flat against the wall when you don't need it. I think it looks like art in its folded-up state. You can find directions on how to make it here on Martha's website. Because I know Kris' husband has, like, a ton of time to tackle a new project :)

Of course, knowing the layout of Kris' super sweet laundry room (I am a bit jealous of it, actually), an indoor, retractable line stretching across the room might work best.

Friday, May 23, 2008

indoor laundry line

One of my goals for this month was to rig up an indoor line or two for winter hanging. This wouldn't be for all the clothes as I don't have a big area, but could be for my daughter's pants that I don't want to shrink faster than she is growing, maybe a sweater drying rack etc. I have a "laundry closet" that is long and narrow-just the depth for the washer and dryer and twice as long. 

I am looking for suggestions on what might work or design ideas from other people that might be more fun and useful that just stringing up a line (although that is an option). I am thinking there may be ways to do a pull out drying rack or that kind of thing that maximizes space. If you have something that works, especially for small spaces, I'd love to hear about it! Once my tomato plants are off the shelf, I'll be ready for the next project. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soil Test Results

The mail arrived on Saturday and I opened the envelope from the UW Soil and Plant Analysis Lab with some trepidation. Would my soil be found worthy or would I be found out as a slacker home owner who has neglected to apply the required fertilizer and be kicked out of the suburbs? I chuckled a bit with how similar this felt to the time I had my breastmilk analyzed in the hospital lab to ensure it had adequate fat content for my 2 pound preemie ( I, or it, passed). 

I am happy to report that I have a high, off the charts, amount of phosphorus (for root and bud growth) and Potassium (for disease and drought resistance). I think phosphorus is high in WI in general which begs the question of why it is in fertilizers around here. The pH was on the high end of optimum (7.5) which at first I thought was good and the lab even reported that no adjustment is necessary. However, I have since read the dandylions love this pH and I'd be wise to reduce it a bit with some sulfur.

Nitrogen levels were not measured and this bummed me out because I figured I'd score big on this one too. I figured all that all that mulch mowing, my three backyard pooping chickens and nitrogen-fixing clover everywhere should count for something. However, adding nitrogen was the only recommendation they gave me (for green and leaf growth). Turns out that grass is a big fat nitrogen hog and wants me to give it more and more. They tell me I can skip the Sept application if we mulch mow. Time to look into some organic fertilizers with ingredients such as dehydrated manure, fish emulsion, and blood and bone meal (yikes!). Since so much of my lawn is shady, it looks like I can use less of the stuff. Speaking of chicken poop-I did check it out and it is a good nitrogen source and you can by it by the gallon for 16 bucks. I'll sell you a gallon for half of that!

Leaving on the grass clippings did give me a proud 3.9% organic matter in my soil. Seems all the good soil microbes like it between 2-5%. Maybe a bit of compost top dressing and I can score a 5 by next year.  I would have liked to know more about my soil's ecosystem. What critters are working for me out my backdoor. Sounds like a good summer project for my 11 year old and her microscope. 

So I am happy with my report card but still not happy with the ever expanding mass of thistle, creeping charlie and crabgrass across my property. The whole topic is overwhelming but I continue to learn and this past months blog topic has kept my husband from buying the weed and feed for another season while we get it all figured out. Still looking for that natural lawn service. 

Homemade Detergent Lab Trials, Part 2

As promised, here are the results to my detergent trials, presented in classic lab report style for easy comprehension and grading.  I think I deserve at least a 7 out of 10, if not an 8 out of 10 for neatness.

Homemade Laundry Detergent Lab
Chem Study/Mr. Busse/Hour 7

Hypothesis: The homemade laundry detergent will work as well as Mrs. Meyers laundry detergent, but it will not smell as good.  (As an aside, what was the point of writing hypotheses? Do kids these days even have to write them?)

Purpose: To test the efficacy (love using that word ever since seeing the movie "Side Effects" with Katherine Heigl.... I realize I am mis-using the word here) of homemade laundry detergent in comparison to the always perfect Mrs. Meyers Clean Day laundry detergent.

1 bar Fels Naptha soap, grated
1 cup Washing Soda
1 cup Borax
4 loads of dirty clothes
3 loads of sheets and blankets
1 front loading HE washing machine
1 clothesline
1 blustery, partly sunny day

1. Make homemade laundry detergent according to this recipe, but omit the Oxy Clean (for no other reason than I am cheap and I remember a very annoying Oxy-Clean ad from the past and therefore refuse to buy it).
2. Do laundry, lots of laundry under usual conditions.  "Normal/Casual" cycle.  Warm/Cold temp.  Vinegar rinse.  Clothesline dry.
3. Take care to note differences in outcomes.  Smell, feel, stain removal, etc.
4. Fold and put away laundry.

Well, I gotta say, I can't tell the difference between loads I did with the homemade and the loads I did with the Mrs. Meyers.  Both detergents got out all the obvious stains.  Neither detergent got out stains that had always existed.  After line-drying all loads smelled the same, that sort of line-dried sort of smell (which some people love, but I can go either way dependent upon whether it was a sunny day or a cloudy day).  My icky, back of the throat feeling I got from grating the Fels didn't exist after the clothes came out of the washer, in fact they smelled pretty good, like good and clean.  One thing I did notice was that the clothes that were washed with the homemade detergent felt softer, but this is hard to quantify and may just have been because I was using a cordless drill right before folding the clothes and therefore had a bit of that numb finger thing going on that makes everything feel softer.  Because of the fact that making homemade detergent is super cheap (Modern Cottage has figured it out to be about 5.7 cents a load, whereas Mrs. Meyers, as much as I love her, is about 40 cents a load) I think I will continue to make my own, but use Dr. Brommer's soap in place of the Fels Naptha to avoid the issues I had yesterday.  Though I did just visit the Mrs. Meyer's site and got sucked in by all the pretty things and packaging and the fact that they have a new line of baby-friendly products.  Swoon.  

Monday, May 19, 2008

Homemade Detergent Lab Trials, part 1

I finally tracked down some Fels Naptha soap at Sentry in Delafield (thanks to the anonymous commenter who mentioned she found it at the Sentry in Waukesha) and was all hopped up and excited to make my homemade detergent. The euphoria didn't last long as while I was grating the soap according to these directions at Modern Cottage I started to get that feeling in the back of my throat. Do you know that feeling? That sorta coughy, sorta icky feeling that lets you know that something is perhaps a bit toxic? Well, I was getting that vibe, a strong vibe, from the Fels Naptha. I grated away and mixed up the potion (Fels, washing soda and borax) anyway and am currently running some lab trials (more on that in a second). However, the vibe was strong enough that I sat down and did some Google investigating and it seems that the verdict is unclear, some people say that Fels is safe for the environment, others say it isn't natural and is bad because it contains petrochemicals. The ingredient list is bizarre: "cleaners, soil & stain removers, chelating agents, colorants, perfume". Seriously? Can a product really get away with being this vague? So, I'm not sold on the whole Fels Naptha thing. If this recipe for homemade detergent works well and I decide to make it again I will substitute Dr. Brommers castille soap for the Fels. Wish I would have thought of that earlier as I could have gotten that by walking a block to Hartland Market!

Anyway, the lab trials are underway. Due to a rather messy and dirty week we have much more laundry than usual, which makes for great experiment conditions. I have two loads of whites and two loads of darks, one of each I will use my ever-faithful, ever-perfect Mrs. Meyers Clean Day laundry detergent in Geranium (which smells like heaven). For the other two loads I will use the new homemade laundry detergent (pictured above, on the right). All other variables in the trials will be kept consistent: water temp, spin speed, clothesline dry. All I need is my lab notebook and it will feel just like a high school lab experiment. Materials, Hypothesis, Procedure, and Conclusion. My lab report will be completed by tomorrow. Please check back for the amazing conclusion. I know you are all on the edge of your seats :)

My laundry day has been made a bit more complicated today, not because of the lab trials, but because of this adorable rabbit who has decided to burrow in to our bed of spiderwort and have her babies right outside our back door. So, I have to be extra quiet and respectful as I head out to hang laundry. No screen door slamming and all that. I think this rabbit is the cutest thing ever, and I said so to my husband. He corrected me and said that, no, the cutest thing ever will be when the baby rabbits appear. I think he is right on this point.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

the good and bad on OxiClean

I have never been all that good at getting clothes clean. I am good with the general dirt and stink, but stains have always resisted my efforts. I realized at one point that the problem might have been in my "collective" approach to laundry. I do sort by color, but after that I push a button and expect the machine to do the job to the load. I don't read the labels much and sort of figure that the socks, shirts and pants are all "in it together". 

Unfortunately, I have learned that getting clothes clean requires individualized attention. I asked a friend (whose lack of stains on her children I admired) what she does and she said that every night she collects the clothes from her four children and inspects for stains. All stained clothes get a treatment of OxiClean for the night and then get washed later. I finally decided to try a stain remover and this approach thinking that using a chemical might be justifiable over throwing out perfectly good but stained clothes. It was magic! I think the biggest factor is simply soaking it right away, but the stuff worked great. 

Since then I have been using OxiClean guiltily thinking it was probably nasty for the environment but possibly justifiable until I got around to a more Green alternative. I told myself that it was certainly better than using bleach. Writing this blog got me looking into the ingredients in my beloved stain remover. 

The Good News: OxiClean is described by some as an "environmentally friendly, natural" product. I was thrilled to find that OxiClean contains two active ingredients: Sodium Percarbonate and Sodium Carbonate. The first is baking soda and the second is washing soda. This stuff is just what my grandma used!  These substances form oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and soda ash when mixed with water.  The oxygen is what cleans and brightens. There are no phosphates or bleach, which are two of the worst environmental offenders in most laundry products. 

The Bad News: What is not clear is what other fragrances or other ingredients might also be in there, but I am assuming there is something as it smells like more than baking soda and works better too. The container doesn't say what else is in there so that is a bit concerning. They do sell a "free" product without the dyes and fragrances, so by default it must be in the original. There is also a newer version apparently with "little blue crystals".  No idea what that is but it sends off some warning lights to me. It is also not clear if the product also contains surfactants, which have a negative environmental impact. The fact that I can't get an accurate ingredient list makes me more concerned than anything.  Also it is sold in a plastic container that is not recyclable. 

I am certainly no expert on this and my research involves a brief before-breakfast search so I'd love to hear from others if you know differently or if you know of a more green product that works well and especially where to buy it locally. Looks like lots of other green household products contain the two active soda ingredients. Do they work as well without the "mystery ingredients? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Making Homemade Detergent

I came across this recipe for laundry detergent on the Modern Cottage blog and have been excited to try it, but I can't find one ingredient.  Does anyone know where I can find Fels Naptha soap? I've checked the Pig in Hartland and Pick and Save in Pewaukee, but no luck.  So, if you have an idea, please let me know!!  I'm almost out of laundry detergent and really want to try this!

Monday, May 12, 2008

My HE Washing Machine

A few years back our washing machine died and we were elated. This gave us the opportunity to replace another appliance with a more efficient model in order to continue to reduce our household energy consumption. With the laundry piling up there wasn't much time to do extensive research, but we have been more than happy with our Bosch Nexxt HE model. Here's why

1. Its quiet. We've since moved our laundry to the first floor from the basement and the sound is just a background hum in our daily life.

2. Less water use. HE washers use 18-25 gallons of water per wash compared to the 40 of standard washers. We noticed a reduction on our water bill when we got ours. 

3. Less energy to run them (the HE part). The Focus on Energy website says that you can save $110 on your annual energy bills compared to a model before 1994. They also state that the combined electric and water energy is 50% less. Our btu's did go down that year for us as well, although this wasn't the only change we made. 

4. Spins the clothes drier so that they need less time in the drier, saving more energy and money.

5. Apparently more gentle on clothes making them last longer. Not sure this can combat the normal usage of a 9 year-old boy. 

6. Because these are energy star rated, you get a cash back rebate from Focus on Energy.

The only downside that I've seen is that they cycles take longer than some models. I can't get all my laundry down in one day a week. I have switched to a little each day (part of my morning routine) and this works well for me. 

For more info on energy saving appliances, go to Focus on Energy at

Friday, May 9, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

 One of the first "green" changes I made came from a source that never even mentioned the environment. During graduate school a friend started loaning me her copies of The Tightwad Gazette newsletter published by Amy Dacyczn (book version available at the Hartland Public Library). This is an inspiring (if not sometimes wacky) collection of tips for living frugally and within your values. 

A simple tip she gave was to use less of everything-detergent, shampoo, cleaners, etc. The instructions for most products tell us that we need more than we actually do to get the job done. It is possible that the companies have a financial incentive for us to use more of their product. 

Here is how you do it:  First pour out the amount of detergent you usually use and make note of how much that is. Then, the next day, decrease by a little and see if the clothes still get clean. If so, then decrease a bit more the next time. Keep doing this until the clothes are not cleaned well and then back up to the previous amount. This gives you the minimal amount needed to do the job. It is actually amazing how much less you need of many things. Doing this made me wonder how I had settled on the started volume to begin with (not being a much of a direction-reader). I find that I need to do this again periodically as the amounts start creeping back up when I am not paying attention. 

Hardcore "greenies" will question whether this is really a green tip if you are still using toxic chemicals.  Yes, that would likely be better, but this is a good start for those who are really attached to their detergent and are unlikely to make the switch. If everyone did this for all their products, it would mean less chemicals produced and used, less plastic (containers) and less trips to the store to restock. How low can you go?????

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Plastic Recycling

This morning, I came across this great article on Slate about recycling plastics.  It covers all the big questions: what numbers you can recycle, why you can't recycle yogurt cups, why PVC is so nasty, etc, etc. These are questions I am often asked, but this article sums up the answers much more eloquently than I have ever been able to.  

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Laundry Challenge

Courtney and I started this blog in part to continue to challenge ourselves. I was thinking that challenge meant taking steps to living more green, not exploring areas of my life where I am weak (such as lawn care and laundry)! Courtney may love laundry day, but in my family every day is laundry day and those plastic baskets are a permanent and unwelcome part of our home decor! I am hoping that this month's challenge, like the lawn topic,  will get me fired up about a topic that I normally try not to spend a lot of mental energy on. I plan on sharing some of the changes that I have made over the years to becoming a more green laundress, but I thought I'd start this month by laying out my personal challenge for how I can improve a bit more. 

1. hang out more laundry outside in the summer
2. rig up an indoor line in my new laundry room/closet
3. find the best eco-friendly laundry detergent/soap and where we can get it locally
4. do some research into Natural dry cleaning methods
5. find out what is really in my OxyClean and research eco-friendly stain removers

May Garden Center in Oconomowoc

I just learned that May Garden Center, Inc at 132 E. Wisconsin Ave in Oconomowoc carries Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss.   Kris and I spent weeks trying to find a good source for eco-friendly seed starting ingredients back in February and totally struck out (as Miracle-Gro seems to have a stranglehold on that market and I will never consider Miracle-Gro a green product). So, this news really excites me.  Peat moss is generally regarded as a really bad thing to buy because it destroys peat bogs, but supposedly any peat moss from Canada has been harvested in a sustainable way.  Rumor has it that May Garden Center also carries several other 'green' products.  Field trip anyone? 

Monday, May 5, 2008

May Challenge - Laundry Logic

Today is Monday, which means it is laundry day here at my house, which in turn means that I am all smiles because I love doing laundry. This may change in the future when we are no longer a two-person household and therefore have many more loads of laundry, but for now I love the whole process... the sorting, the measuring, the hanging clothes on the line, the folding and the putting away in neat little piles. Doing laundry brings a fresh new start to each week for me. So, May will be a fabulous month for me as we discuss all things laundry related and how we can green our laundry routines. We will discuss greener laundry detergents, 'homemade' detergents, the ills of the dryer and the saintliness of the clothesline. We will emerge from May cleaner, greener and smelling oh so pretty.

I am off to hang clothes out on the line and enjoy the beautiful day. In the next few days I will be revealing the details of our May contest, so stay tuned. Plus, we will let you in on what our personal laundry challenges will be for the month. Oh the excitement :)