Monday, October 15, 2012

The miracles of baking soda

In EcoThrifty, baking soda is mentioned in several chapters as an inexpensive substitute for many commercial products. Here is a sample --

Facial scrub -- Put a little baking soda in your wet hand, rub your palms together and then gently apply the baking soda paste to your face. Rinse off and pat skin dry. It's a great exfoliator, and your skin will feel so soft!

Scouring powder -- Sprinkle a little in your sink or on your stove or whatever kitchen space needs a little extra elbow grease. Use a wet cloth to scrub the area and then wipe off.

Drain cleaner -- After scrubbing the sink with baking soda, sprinkle a couple tablespoons more into the drain and pour a cup of vinegar over it. This is a great science lesson for children also, as it shows what happens when you mix a base and an acid. If there is any chance you have a grease build-up in the drain, pour boiling water a couple minutes after the bubbling of the vinegar subsides.

Toothpaste -- Some people swear by using baking soda as a toothpaste.

Antacid -- My mother used to take a small spoonful of baking soda with water whenever she had heartburn. You can find instructions on most boxes of baking soda today!

Bath -- Adding baking soda to bath water softens the water and your skin.

Deodorizer -- Most people know that baking soda can absorb odors. You can put an open box in your refrigerator or sprinkle it on carpets before vacuuming. Vacuuming it up also eliminates odor from your vacuum cleaner bag.

Do you have some favorite uses for baking soda?

Monday, October 8, 2012

How I learned to live without a car

by Margaret Boehle

I never imagined myself living in a big city like Chicago. I grew up in suburbs until I was 14, when my parents moved to the country. From that point it was impossible to imagine not having a car to get around, since our closest town of note was 12 miles away. When I was 20 I purchased a car, and three years later it was paid off.

Accepting a job in downtown Chicago in May had me making a lot of decisions very quickly, ones I didn’t realize would greatly affect whether I even needed a car. My initial thought had been to move to the suburbs of Chicago and commute via Metra into the city, however performing some quick math had me rethinking that possibility as financially viable. A $200/month Metra pass from Joliet to Chicago, versus an $86/month pass for all the CTA buses and trains in Chicago, meant that I needed to find an apartment $114 less expensive in the suburbs for the commute to be worth it; and this wasn’t even counting gas and depreciation for my car, that I would probably have to drive to the Metra station.

Some quick checking online helped me discover that as long as I didn’t want to live downtown, I could easily find an apartment in the city for a price comparable to the suburbs, and in a decent neighborhood. Since my job was conveniently located close to all the trains and many of the buses that run express from the northern part of the city, my biggest goal in apartment hunting was finding something also within walking distance of a mass transit route to downtown – and I did.

When we rely on cars we always have an eye towards minimizing our commute and exercise: take the shortest route, get the closest parking space, use a cart while shopping, park in the garage at home. We carry our purchases maybe 20 feet total. Grocery shopping was the biggest change for me. It is particularly difficult because I tend to buy a lot of fresh fruit, which is HEAVY! Although initially I was going to buy one of those grocery carting contraptions, I’ve decided it’s better exercise to just buy what I can carry and go two or three times a week.

The biggest hurdle to transitioning to not using a car is actually relativity. The first few times I walked to a nearby grocery store, I found the walk incredibly long. However, once I started to realize that it was a really short walk – less than 10 minutes! – I started to enjoy it. And since it occurred to me that all of this walking was really good exercise, I’ve started trying to incorporate more of it into my life.

While I had my car in the city, I would do my grocery shopping on the weekends in the early morning before traffic was bad, and I would drive away from the city rather than further into it. Since I’ve gotten rid of my car and have been relying on public transportation, I choose the stores I am going to shop at depending on their proximity to a train or bus that can also drop me near home. Although with the CTA you can get pretty much anywhere in Chicago if you’re willing to take multiple buses or trains, waiting for that connection is no fun!

Another item which can be difficult is cat litter! In this case I’ve gotten lucky, because about a year ago I switched my cat from clay litter to newspaper pellets – and bags of the pellets are definitely lighter and easier to carry than the boxes or bins of clay litter. If I were still using clay, I might consider buying in bulk and borrowing a friend’s car (or using an iGo/Zip car) for a couple of hours to stock up.

Zipcar and iGo cars are a handy creation which can be found in many larger cities. Both are in Chicago; in fact I see them all over town, both on the streets, and parked in lots. They fill the gap that comes when you realize that although most of the time you’re fine without a car (or for families, without multiple cars), sometimes it would be really nice to have a set of wheels. With these two companies, you can borrow a car for an hour or a day, insurance and gas are included (miles might be, but depends on your plan), and they are parked in lots all over town, usually two or three cars in each location. All you have to do is reserve a car and go get it. You don’t have to pick up keys anywhere. There is a card reader in the windshield of each car on which you scan your personal card (received after signing up), and the car unlocks for you – the keys are inside, and the car is ready to drive.

So far, however, I haven’t come to that point of really needing a car. The CTA or Metra can get me anywhere I want to go, in a reasonable amount of time – and I haven’t even mentioned how much reading (or texting) I get done on my commute now! At this point, I’ve been without a car for three months, which means I’ve saved about $165 in insurance ($55/month), $25 in Illinois license registration ($99/year), $22 in Chicago City sticker cost ($85/year), $120 in gas (average of $40 a fill-up, at least once a month), and about $25 for one oil change (if I did it myself), for a total of $352. Subtract my CTA pass ($86/month) and that is still $94 in straight savings. If I were driving to work every day I’d be paying at least $12/day for parking downtown ($240/month).

Another thing we rarely factor into our calculations in the cost of having a car is how much that car is depreciating as you own it, and that at some point, you’re going to have to buy a new (or new used) one. If you decide to drive your car until it is falling apart, you’ll still be paying repairs along the way. This will vary widely depending on what kind of car you’re driving, so I won’t even try to estimate that cost – but keep in mind that it is there, and hefty.

For me, living in Chicago without a car has been an exciting experience. I’ve greatly increased the amount of walking I do in a day, been able to read more books, and I’ve even saved money. One last thought to leave with you…

Not having to worry about parking tickets: priceless.

Margaret Boehle is an electrical engineer in Chicago -- and my daughter. When I was writing Ecothrifty, I interviewed several people in the city who had chosen to live without a car, including a family with four children. Everyone in the book had been living without a car for several years, and when Margaret decided to sell her car after moving to Chicago, I thought it would be interesting to share her perspective with readers.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Ecothrifty cookware

You can even cooks eggs without sticking in cast iron!
 It didn’t take me a terribly long time to decide that there were problems with inexpensive non-stick cookware. The non-stick surface wears off within a few years, and you are left with pots and pans to which food will stick. I was left wondering where those tiny bits of non-stick surface went.
My favorite cookware is made of cast iron or stone. A couple of my cast iron skillets were picked up at garage sales or estate auctions, while some were passed down from my parents, and I bought others. Cast iron cookware will last practically forever—it is not an exaggeration to say that it can last a hundred years or longer. It can also be used on top of the stove or in the oven. A cast iron Dutch oven lets you brown meat for a casserole on top of the stove and pop it into the oven for the final baking. A cast iron skillet can be used on the stove, and it can also be used as a pan for baking a cake or cornbread in the oven.

One of the things I love about cast iron is that it is naturally non-stick, but you have to know how to use it. Patience is key because you need to cook over low to medium heat. New cast iron was probably pre-seasoned, but if the label does not indicate that, or if you bought it used, you should put a thin coating of oil on it before using it. It is also a good idea to put a very thin coating of oil on it regularly after washing and drying.

Never put cast iron in a dishwasher or let it air dry because it will get a small amount of rust on it. Although this won’t harm it long term, you’ll have to wash it again before you use it, which is a waste of time. Because a tiny bit of black will rub off when you dry it, you can either have a towel dedicated to your cast iron cookware or use a paper towel that you toss into your compost. The black residue is not harmful when cooking, and studies have shown that additional iron winds up in your food, especially acidic foods, when you cook in cast iron. After washing my cast iron pans, I set them on one of the burners of my gas stove so that the bottom is definitely dry before I put it away.

Almost all of my baking pans are stoneware. Most are unglazed because like cast iron, stoneware is porous, which means it can become seasoned and naturally non-stick. The only caveat about the non-stick part is that if you have absolutely zero fat in a recipe, such as the French bread in this book, you will need to spread a thin layer of cooking oil on the stone before baking, or you will have a bit of a challenge with the baked bread sticking to the pan.

Glass is another environmentally friendly option for baking, but food will stick to it if you don’t oil it. Food also seems to cook a little faster in glass, so be sure to check for doneness about five minutes before the recipe suggests doing so.

Savings: Although you can easily spend more than $100 for a high end non-stick skillet, I recently saw one at a discount store for $29. A new cast iron skillet at the same discount store costs only $16. Before discovering the beauty of cast iron, I’d buy the less expensive non-stick skillets every two or three years, replacing them as the non-stick surfaces wore off—and it wasn’t just a single skillet. I had entire sets of non-stick cookware, which wound up costing me more than $100 every few years to replace.

From my new book, EcoThrifty, which can be purchased here or at your favorite local book seller.
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