Eco-Friendly Fabric Softening, Continued.

In my fourth plastic reduction mission, I swapped out bottles of commercial fabric softener for acid rinsing with citric acid.  One plastic-free option I didn’t mention in that post was swapping out my liquid fabric softener with dryer sheets, which come packaged in cardboard boxes.

Truthfully, that option didn’t even occur to me because dryer sheets are so wasteful in themselves.  In addition to the fact that they’re a single-use product, most dryer sheets are made of polyester and as such are non-biodegradable.  Their chemical softening ingredients aren’t great either. According to the health and wellness website, some of the most harmful ingredients in dryer sheets and liquid fabric softener alike include benzyl acetate (linked to pancreatic cancer), benzyl alcohol (an upper respiratory tract irritant), ethanol (linked to central nervous system disorders), and chloroform (a neurotoxin and carcinogen).  These chemicals don’t rinse out either.  In fact, since fabric softeners are specifically designed to stay in your clothes for extended periods of time, such chemicals can seep out gradually and be inhaled or absorbed directly through the skin. Dryer sheets are especially problematic as the chemicals in them get released into the air when they are heated up in the dryer and can pose a respiratory health risk to those both inside and outside the home.

As I mentioned before, using a simple acid rinse will have notable softening effects on your laundry, but it won’t be as drastic as commercial fabric softeners and while it reduces static cling, it doesn’t eliminate it from all fabrics.  There is, however, a very simple solution–and one that can add scent back to your clothes (homemade detergent and softener is almost scent free).

A bowl full of wool dryer balls

A bowl full of wool dryer balls

Felted wool dryer balls are the way of the future.  Six tennis-ball sized wads of felt bounce around in the dryer with your clothing, and somehow magically make your clothes feel a lot softer than when you don’t use them.  Even more magically, these little guys can last for years, which is obviously a lot more attractive than single-use dryer sheets!

I expect that some minor softening powers involve residual lanolin in the wool, but most of it probably comes from the fact that the balls help clothes separate from each other in the dryer, which probably reduces the friction on the fabric surfaces a little.  At any rate, in addition to making the fabrics feel softer, they also do wonders for eliminating static.  Best of all, a few drops of essential oil on the balls before they go in the dryer will also leave your clothes nicely–and naturally–scented without leaving weird, flaky residue on your clothes.

Better still these balls are really easy to make yourself.  For under $20 (maybe even $5 if you’re super thrifty!), you can make 4-8 balls that will probably last at least 3 years, if not more.  At the most minimal end of the spectrum, all you need is a quantity of 100% wool yarn, some cheap knee-high nylon stockings (or old ones of your own), and access to a washer.  The cheapest, most widely available wool yarn I know of is Lion Brand’s Fishermen’s Wool, which comes in 8 oz/227g/465 yd/425 m skeins and costs somewhere between $8-10.  You can make about 3-4 balls per skein of Fishermen’s.  Alternately, I would suggest unraveling a few old wool sweaters, which can certainly be found at a thrift store for very economical prices if you don’t have a few unfashionable gems languishing in a drawer.  You can definitely find a couple pairs of knee-high nylons for $1 at Walmart and many Dollar Stores across the country.  You really shouldn’t pay more as they will be destroyed by the felting process, since some wool fibers will probably adhere to the stocking and force you to rip the stockings to free the ball.  Veer on the side of caution and purchase enough stockings to use a new one for each washing cycle you will use to felt.  (You may need to wash the balls up to 6 times, depending on the yarn.)

All you do is wind the yarn into balls a little larger than the size of tennis balls (about 8 inches in circumference), put them into the stocking tying knots between each ball, then put them through 1-2 hot loads of wash.  Let them air dry, then cut them out of the stocking and inspect the felting.  If the strands of yarn can be pulled apart from each other, tie them into a new stocking and repeat the process until the balls are fully felted.

Balls in a stocking, ready to begin felting.

Balls in a stocking, ready to begin felting.

Having done this a couple of times now, I can say with certainty that I vastly prefer to wrap my yarn balls in a solid layer of roving before felting them.  Roving is carded, unspun wool, so it’s just a bunch of free fibers.  When they felt, they’ll give the ball a uniform appearance much like those in the first picture above.  The layer of roving also locks the yarn strands into place, which means they definitely won’t come undone in the dryer later (and make a huge, tangled mess!)  The outer layer of roving also felts much more quickly than the yarn, so you may only need one major wash to adequately felt the outside.

Once you’ve felted the outside, you can go back and needle-felt designs and figures onto the exterior of the ball if you wish, or sew on scraps of wool felt.  I rather enjoy these simple hearts below.  If adding details, tie the balls into nylon and launder for one final time to make sure the designs adhere to the ball.  When you’re ready to use your dryer balls, select between 4-8 balls, put a few drops of an essential oil of your choice onto each (if you want scented laundry), toss them in the dryer with your wet clothes, and dry as normal.  Enjoy!

These are my very own wool laundry balls.  After I felted them, I attached green felt hearts with brown embroidery floss using a blanket stitch.

These are my very own wool laundry balls. After I felted them, I attached green felt hearts with brown embroidery floss using a blanket stitch.

Plastic Reduction Mission 5: Fabric Softener Alternatives

Holy cow!  I can’t believe it’s been two years since I did my last plastic reduction mission!  I have definitely found that the easiest way for me to reduce my plastic usage is to avoid buying things that come in plastic bottles.  Last time, it was laundry detergent.  I’ve been using homemade laundry detergent for awhile now, and I’ve really liked the results.  I’ve also really liked my DIY fabric softening results…and it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t bought a bottle of fabric softener in two years either…so why not post about it?

If you’re really into plastic reduction, or just reduction in general, the obvious choice is to forgo a fabric softener altogether.  I did this all throughout my co-op years with no ill-effects.  The detergent I used then was Seventh Generation’s powdered detergent, which is a mostly washing soda based product like my homemade stuff is.  However, now that I’m using my homemade stuff, I have noticed that if I do not use a fabric softener, my clothes feel a good bit stiffer after drying than they did before.  A little research and some basic high school chemistry eventually brought me to the conclusion that the soap in my homemade detergent might be bonding with the few hard water deposits (calcium and magnesium cations) in our water and leaving a very fine residue of soap scum in my fabrics that was contributing to the stiffer feel.  Any residual alkalines (the borax and washing soda) in the clothing would only serve to increase the scratchy feel.  The solution here is really simple: introduce an acid to the rinse cycle to dissolve the soap scum and neutralize residual alkalines.  Enter my first DIY softener: distilled white vinegar.

Do as you oughta, add acid to wata!

Do as you oughta, add acid to wata!

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to think of this.  Martha Stewart advocates using between 1/4 and 1 cup of white distilled vinegar in the final rinse cycle as a fabric softener.  I’ve started to do this, either by pouring vinegar directly into the machine’s softener dispenser (mine takes about 1/4 cup) or by putting greater amounts into a Downy Ball and putting it into the machine,  and I’ve been pretty pleased with the results.  My fabrics aren’t ultra-soft in the way they become using commercial fabric softener, but they’re definitely softer than using detergent alone, no matter whether the detergent it is homemade or commercial.  Moreover, using vinegar in place of laundry detergent has been promoted by Frugalistas all across the Internet.  After all, a 120-load bottle of Downy (103 oz or 0.8 gallons) costs about $11, but two gallons of Four Monks white vinegar (which would do 128 loads using 1/4 cup) cost me $3.91 at Costco last week.

Unfortunately for me, using vinegar as a fabric softener doesn’t exactly help me reduce my plastic load as I would have to purchase two larger plastic bottles of vinegar to get the same number of softened loads as the smaller Downy bottle.  Since doubling my plastic dependency isn’t the goal of this challenge, I need something that can work the same as vinegar, but is sold in solid form so that it doesn’t need a plastic or glass container.  I need a weak acid that comes in a powdered form.

Citric acid:  it's cheap, sustainable, and solid.

Citric acid: it’s cheap, sustainable, and solid.

I think I have found a winner in citric acid.  Like acetic acid–the acid which in an 5% solution with water forms vinegar–citric acid is a weak acid.  It’s also not uncommon to use citric acid in the household: solutions of citric acid and water are is the recommended way to descale–or to remove hard water buildup–from expensive espresso machines, dishwashers, washing machines, boilers, radiators, and water softeners.  Citric acid is also an active ingredient in many commercially prepared cleansers.  In short then, I really think this could work.

Chemically, there are some differences between acetic acid and citric acid.  Acetic acid has a relatively simple chemical structure with only 8 atoms [CH3COOH].  It’s also a monoprotic acid, which means that it has only one proton to potentially donate to a water molecule (to form one hydronium molecule).  Citric acid, on the other hand, is a larger molecule with 21 atoms [C(OH)(CH2CO2H)2CO2H] and is a triprotic acid, which means that it has 3 protons to potentially donate to 3 different water molecules (to form 3 hydronium molecules).  The acid dissociation constants for each of these proton donations are very close together (with pKa values of 3.13, 4.76, and 6.40), but are also in the same general range of acetic acid’s dissociation constant (pKa=4.75).  What this means is that the buffer region (the region where the solution will resist a change in pH despite the addition of a base) for citric acid is a lot broader than it is for acetic acid.  For my laundry purposes, this means that if I have two equivalent amounts of citric acid and acetic acid in solution and I add the same amount of a basic (or alkaline) substance to each, the citric acid solution will stay at its pH for a longer amount of time.  If I want to make sure to dissolve all the residual alkalki and soap scum in my fabrics, this is an incredibly attractive property.

At this point, all I really need to know is what concentration to make my citric acid solution for effective fabric softener use.  Alas, this is also the point where my chemistry knowledge is very imperfect.  My first instinct was to create a citric acid solution with a pH close to distilled vinegar (which hovers around 2.4).  According to this online pH calculator, a citric acid solution of pH 2.36 has a concentration of 0.03 M.  This means that there are 0.03 moles of citric acid per liter of the total solution, which then translates to 5.76 grams of citric acid per liter of solution or 21.82 grams per gallon.   Since there are 453.6 grams per pound, a 50 pound bag of citric acid ($2.50 a pound, shipping included), will yield 1039 gallons of solution (at a cost of $0.12 a gallon!).

When I mixed this concentration up, though, I was slightly disappointed.  The resulting solution was definitely sour–perhaps a little less so than lemon juice–and it definitely created a reaction with baking soda…but that reaction wasn’t as complete as it was when I used similar amounts of baking soda and vinegar.  Ultimately, I decided that this concentration wasn’t going to cut it in my laundry…especially when 1/4 cup of the solution would be further diluted by several gallons of water in my laundry’s rinse cycle!  I decided that my next step would be to prepare a citric acid solution of the same concentration as that of vinegar, which the bottle says has a 5% acidity.

A 5% acidity is basically a volume ratio, which means that 95 parts of distilled water are added to 5 parts of glacial acetic acid (pure acetic acid, which is in liquid form).  To get the weight/volume ratio, you need to factor in the density of acetic acid, which is 1.049 g/mL, which means that 5% v/v acetic acid solution is 5.25% w/v solution.  To make an equivalent concentration of citric acid, then, you would need 5.25 grams of citric acid and 95 mL water.  This works out to 209.2 grams of citric acid for every gallon of water (or 0.288 M), which is almost exactly the amount of 1 cup of citric acid (211 grams).  If I used 1 cup of citric acid for every gallon of water, my cost per gallon would be $1.16, which is still a 40% savings on my vinegar budget of $1.95 per gallon).

Although the pH of this stronger citric acid solution is 1.85, which looks like a scary decrease from the 2.36 pH of our 1.5 weaker citric acid solution, it is only about 5 times more acidic than the solution made using 1.5 tablespoons citric acid per gallon of water.  In fact, it’s about the same pH as fresh lime juice.  This solution won’t dramatically burn through your skin, but it would be irritating with prolonged contact.  You should obviously take care not to splash any in your eyes and to rinse it off your skin.  If you were to try to use it to clean something, you’d want to further dilute it, too–just as you would with vinegar.

I’ve now done several loads of laundry using my homemade detergent and my 5.25% w/v citric acid solution as the softener, and I’ve been pretty impressed.  My clothes were noticeably softer than they were when I used vinegar, and there appears to be no ill-effects to any of the fabrics I’ve washed.

Tangent Garment Care's Fabric Softener

Tangent Garment Care’s Fabric Softener

After I did a mountain’s worth of laundry, I got so excited at the prospect of using citric acid as a fabric softener that I looked to see if anyone else had the idea.  I actually discovered two European companies that do just this.  The German company Sodasan and the Swedish company Tangent both offer citric acid based fabric softeners.  Tangent’s also been getting a lot of press lately with write-ups in Swedish Vogue, so I suppose there’s a bit of an upper-class vibe with these products.  The two products are practically identical:  Sodasan lists its ingredients as “>30% water, 15-30% citric acid, <5% xanthan gum, essential oil, vegetable betaine, citrate, Aloe Vera” and Tangent lists its ingredients as “>30% Aqua, 15-30% citric acid, <5% xanthan gum, lauryl polyglucose, essential oils from peaches, vegetable betaine, potassium citrate and aloe vera”.  Sodasan also recommends using 40ml (2.7 tablespoons) of its softener per load of laundry.

What I took away from these products (which are essentially stronger concentrations of citric acid and water plus a few thickening ingredients and scents) is that you can make up much stronger concentrations than even my 1 cup per gallon of water.  I’m not entirely sure how strong these commercial formulations are, but if the percentages given are by weight and we assume that the final solution weighs about the same as water, then a gallon of the solution would be 8.35 pounds, which means that a 22% citric acid solution would have 1.84 pounds of citric acid per solution.  That’s almost 4 times as much citric acid as my 5.25% w/v solution has, and you use only 32% less solution per load than I do!  Clearly your clothes can take a lot of citric acid!

Plastic Bottle Cold Frames and Greenhouses

The plastic bottle cold frame on display at the Lewis County Home and Garden show

The plastic bottle cold frame on display at the Lewis County Home and Garden show

Recently, V. took me to the Lewis County Home and Garden show.  The event was basically a total bust–just a bunch of roofers trying to drum up business, really–but the one highlight was the booth for the WSU Lewis County Master Gardeners and Composters program.  In addition to a lot of great information, amazing people, and beautiful plants, they also features a few DIY garden project ideas, and the one that impressed me the most was their cold frames and greenhouses made of scrap lumber and thousands of plastic bottles!  The picture above is one I took of their sample cold frame, which I thought looked pretty attractive. (Though they should have removed the labels from all the bottles.)  Both the top of the frame and its front side opened up to allow for easy access to the growing vegetables within, which I thought was wonderful.   One of the gardeners staffing the booth said that he had used a few over the past growing season and found that they did help raise the temperature around the vegetables a few degrees, and he liked the fact that there were enough holes and spaces around the bottles that he didn’t have to worry about humidity building up and causing mold.  The spaces also let a good bit of natural rain through, though you do have to augment with manual watering.

I doubt that either V. or I will be building one of these anytime soon, since we don’t have an abundance of plastic bottles.  If I worked at a place where I noticed many other people drinking from disposable plastic bottles, I think I would ask them if I could collect them for this project.  If V. gets really enthusiastic about this project, I might go knocking on our neighbors doors and ask if they hold these bottles out of their recycling for us.  Somehow, I think it would be a lot better for everyone involved if we plastic-reducers re-purposed other people’s bottles rather than developing our own soda or juice habits!

The good gardeners sent me on my way with an instructive brochure with rough plans for this cold frame construction, and I’ve made it into a .pdf that you can access here.


A bottle greenhouse!

Of course, the same basic techniques used to create this cold frame can also be scaled up to create an entire greenhouse!  This particular greenhouse constructor managed to source 7,000 identical 1.5 liter water bottles from his friends, and he used clear silicone to adhere the bottles to each other to make solid panels without ‘stringing’ the bottles onto strips of wood.  This means that this particular greenhouse is fully sealed, so allotments will have to be made to control humidity.  However, I think he ended up creating a very handsome greenhouse for his trouble!

Potions in Action: DIY Immune-Support Essential Oil Blend

In the crunchy granola world, using essential oils is a Big. Freaking. Deal.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that oil enthusiasts might just be bigger proselytizers than any religious group I’ve met yet.  I’ve actually taken to avoiding the Lululemon-wearing yoginis at my local food cooperative lest I be subjected to yet another enthusiastic round of “OMG!  Have you heard about the miracles of doTERRA and Young Living?!”  It gets old in a hurry.

In case you’ve not yet been subjected to this particular terror, doTERRA and Young Living are both companies that promote the use of therapeutic-grade essential oils for all manner of health in your life.  There’s nothing wrong in this in itself; I just happen to feel that they both go a bit too far in their marketing and generally contribute to the problem of cult branding in our contemporary culture.  There isn’t a speck of difference between a doTERRA or Young Living lemon oil and the lemon oil I pick up from The Herb Shop except price:  $4.98 for 15 mL from The Herb Shop and $13.33 and $14.80 for the same amount from doTERRA and Young Living respectively.  I don’t know about you, but I think I know who will be getting my money.

doTERRA's On Guard and Young Living's Thieves oils

doTERRA’s On Guard ($42.67) and Young Living’s Thieves ($44.41) oils

Now, both of these companies market a ton of special blends at even higher prices than their straight oils, and both have immune-support blends that are almost identical:  doTERRA’s On Guard® Protective Blend and Young Living’s Thieves® Essential Oil.  Both make use of a citrus (lemon for Young Living and orange for doTERRA), clove, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, and rosemary.  They’re popular blends, and people use them for everything–adding them to soaps and various floor, window, and counter washes, adding a few drops to the dishwasher, diffusing them into the air, putting them into massage oils–you name it, I’m sure someone’s done it.  The thing, though, is that for a mere 15 mL, you’re paying a lot of money:  above $40 for each brand.  I went and priced out the composite oils at The Herb Shop, and I came up with $4.25 for 10 mL lemon oil, $4.95 for 10 mL orange, $4.95 for 10 mL rosemary, $4.95 for 10 mL eucalyptus, $9.95 for 5 mL organic cinnamon bark, and $4.95 for 10 mL organic clove.  That means that for $29.75, you can make multiple batches of this stuff for yourself.


Now, as much as some people will go on about “oh, but they’ve precisely measured the oils for optimum results!” you and I both know that’s not going to matter overmuch.  However, a great and manageable proportion for a very similar blend has already been determined by Mountain Rose Herbs, my favorite hometown organization out of Eugene, OR:

  • 40 drops Clove Bud essential oil
  • 35 drops Lemon essential oil
  • 20 drops Cinnamon Bark essential oil
  • 15 drops Eucalyptus essential oil
  • 10 drops Rosemary essential oil

Mix all essential oils together in a dark glass bottle.  [Note:  at minimum, use a 1/4 oz/7.4 mL/2 dram bottle.  120 drops is about 6 mL.]

This essential oil blend is very strong and must be diluted!  The essential oil content should only account for 1 to 2% of the total formula. This means that up to 6-12 drops of essential oil can be added per 1 oz of carrier oil or other menstruum.

There are many ways that you can use the blend, here are some of the most common applications:

  • To sanitize and purify the air in your home or workplace, place 2-3 drops of the essential oil blend in a diffuser, nebulizer, or in a pot of simmering water on the stove.  Diffuse for approximately 20-30 minutes.  This is especially beneficial if someone in your home or workplace is sick.
  • Make an antibacterial all-purpose spray for cleaning and disinfecting your home or workplace.  This is perfect for office spaces and shared areas! Fill a spray bottle with water and add the essential oil blend at a 1-2 % dilution rate.  Spray on counter tops, desks, and on other surfaces.  Make sure to shake before using as the oil and water will naturally separate.
  • Use a 1-2% dilution rate of the essential oil blend in a base of water or alcohol, and spray onto insect bites, poison oak, and poison ivy rashes to help reduce inflammation, itching, and irritation.
  • Mix the essential oil blend at a 1-2% dilution rate with organic Jojoba or Olive oil.  Use as a massage oil for sore muscles, the lower back, neck, and feet.  It can also be dabbed on skin throughout the day for general cold and flu prevention and immune support.
  • When congested, mix a 1-2% dilution rate of the essential oil blend with organic Jojoba or Olive oil, and rub under the nose or on the chest. Or, place 1-2 drops in a bowl of hot, steaming water and inhale the vapors under a towel to relieve congestion.

I’ve been using this all winter, and I think it’s really helped with my health.  Aside from a bout with a terrible cold this December, I’ve been largely sniffle-free: practically unheard of for me.  My favorite applications for it include adding it to a room spray with water, aloe, and glycerine and spraying that frequently into the air around me whenever I or my housemates are ill.  I’ve also been known to add it to a vinegar/water blend and use it as a countertop disinfectant spray…but I prefer to use fresh ingredients and steep the vinegar over a moon cycle for that one.  My best friend, who is a great fan of oil pulling, adds a couple drops to her nightly dollup of coconut oil.  I’m also in the process of figuring out a way to incorporate it into a recipe for hand salve…but more on that later!

Yule Ornament Idea: Birdseed Ornaments

The woodland creatures need Yuletide decor, too!

The woodland creatures need Yuletide decor, too!

While we’re in the habit of creating holiday bits and baubles to decorate our homes, it’s also a good time to think of things we can do for the other creatures in our community.  Winter is a harsh time for all the animals in our ecosystem.  Cruelly, they need more food to fuel their metabolisms and stay warm when there’s not as much food available.  It’s a simple thing to set out salt licks for deer and maintain birdfeeders for our feathered friends, but–if you’re feeling crafty–you can find ways to make attractive, edible ‘ornaments’ for the creatures, too.

This is one such craft.  You essentially bind birdseed together with flour, gelatin, and sugar and press it into attractive molds, then suspend the ‘ornaments’ from tree branches outside.

If you’ve got a collection of seasonal cookie cutters, feel free to use those.  Snowflakes, stars, and gingerbread men look adorable and catch a lot of attention.  Of course, a muffin tin will work, too.  My favorite is just to make thin circles using my canning jar rings, or thicker ones using old tuna fish cans (which I’ve repurposed for English Muffin molds).  See what you have lying about and how creative you can become.

You Will Need:

3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup water
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons corn syrup
4 cups birdseed
A variety of molds (muffin tin, cookie cutters, etc. I use a lot of canning jar rings.)
nonstick spray
drinking straw or thick nails
waxed paper
biodegradable twine or raffia

  1. Combine the flour, water, gelatin and corn syrup in a large mixing bowl. Stir until well-combined.
  2. Add the birdseed to the mixture, stir until well coated.
  3. Spray your molds with cooking spray, and spoon birdseed mixture into each mold. Use the bottom of a measuring cup to pack it down, and make the top smooth.
  4. Poke a hole through top of each birdseed mold using a drinking straw or nail, making sure it goes all the way through.  Leave the straw/nail in the
  5. Leave the birdseed mixture in the molds for two to three hours. Then, remove the straws/nails and lay out a sheet of waxed paper. Gently remove the hardened ornaments from the mold, and place them on the wax paper upside down. Allow them to dry for at least two to three more hours, or overnight
  6. Cut your twine and carefully put it through the hole, knotting the ends to form a loop.
  7. Hang your ornaments on an outdoor tree.

Microbead Pollution: Another Great Reason to Re-Visit Your Soap Habits

I’ve mentioned before on this site about how my interests in greening up my life started with soap.  Basically, I realized that I would massively reduce my dependence upon chemicals and chemical production, upon plastics, and upon the transportation (or petroleum) needed to ship what are essentially bottles of water all across the nation if I simply made my own solid soap (or bought natural soap from a local artisan).

As it turns out, if you’re using one of the massively popular body washes that include ‘microbeads’, you don’t have to buy bar soap from a hippie to significantly green up your soap routine.  Just switch to a body wash without the beads.

Microbeads suspended in commercial body wash.

Microbeads suspended in commercial body wash.

Guess what those little beads are?  Plastic.  And, as Christopher Johnson’s article in the latest Scientific American shows, our water treatment facilities can’t filter out those tiny little plastic ‘microexfoliates’ from our waste water.  Right now, it’s a fairly prominent problem in the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, wildlife are eating these microbeads, which clearly have no nutritional value and can cause blockages in the fish and birds’ digestive systems.  This might seem like a fairly minor problem that would only inconvenience the individual animals unlucky enough to eat the plastic, but intestinal blockages can result in death, and malnourished wildlife has a huge impact on the entire ecological system.  Starvation has the potential to entire species within one or two generations, and when those species are the fodder for others, the malnourishment ratchets up the food chain pretty quickly.

Even more troubling, though, is the fact that the scientists studying this problem have determined that these little plastic particles essentially act as “solid oil” and can “absorb [environmental] chemicals like a sponge.”  This makes them a significant concern for the Great Lakes, since the number of industrial plants around them releases quite a bit polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which includes quite a number of dangerous compounds. These compounds then enter a fish or bird’s system when it eats the microbeads.  As we all know from past issues like DDT, this gets magnified up the food chain.  The fish’s body stores a lot more of those compounds, so when predators eat them, they get a higher ‘dose’ of the dangerous compounds.  In essence, what initially appears to be a minor, isolated problem can have major ecological ramifications.

What’s so sad about this entire problem is that there is, quite literally, NO reason to include microexfoliates in beauty products.  If a person washes themselves with soap and a washcloth or another scrubber, they will achieve a far better exfoliation than if they just used a microbead body wash.  Moreover, almost any other physical exfoliate in a solution is more effective than microbeads.  Salt and sugar scrubs will get the job done admirably, and their run-off can be handled by water treatment plants.  Other things like finely ground apricot kernels will essentially rot once they’re in a quantity of water–but even if they didn’t, they would still provide some nutrition to the fish and birds that would consume them AND they could be broken down by their digestive systems.

The answer is clear:  stop using microbead products!  And, frankly, I don’t think a few letters requesting that these products be pulled would go amiss either.  You can address your letters  to your local legislators, to the stores that carry these products, and to the producers who make them.

How to Rescue a Baby Bird

This post is brought to the Internet courtesy of the fact that I am finding dessicated carcasses of abandoned baby birds all over my neighborhood.  Unfortunately, that sentence is being a little kind.  Now that all my neighbors have taken to mowing their lawns on a regular basis, I’ve actually found several disturbing carnage scenes where a mower very clearly ran over a live, hearty fledgeling.

So I have decided that it is in the best interest of our infant avian friends if I dust off my biology degree for a quick instructional in baby bird rescue.  And you know what?  I think that this is a fairly important skill for us nature-loving Pagans to have down cold.  We strive to be responsible stewards to our environment, and giving appropriate aid to animals certainly falls in that category.

Despite popular myth, a baby bird's parents will not abandon their child because of scent you may leave on the fledgling.  Birds actually don't have a great sense of smell.

Yup.  You can hold a baby bird in your hands and its parents will still love it.

The first thing to be aware of is that you can actually touch a baby bird pretty safely.  There’s a major myth floating around American culture that if you touch a baby bird, its mother will instantly reject it.  In truth, birds have a poor sense of smell, and they will certainly accept their restored progeny.  The likelihood of you picking up a disease from handling the bird with bare hands is also very low, provided you thoroughly wash your hands any any other objects the bird has touched afterwards.

Those points being handled, here’s a handy ‘protocol’ to follow:

1.  IS THE BIRD SICK OR HURT?  Do you notice any bleeding?  Is it not able to move both wings or legs?  Are the wings drooping unevenly?  Is it weak or shivering?  Has it been attacked by a cat or dog?  (Note:  if you rescue the bird directly from a cat or dog and it ‘looks okay’, it likely isn’t.  Their teeth (especially cats) can cause nearly invisible puncture wounds, and salival bacteria can cause a lethal infection to the bird 3-5 days after attack.)

  • NO:  Continue to number 2.
  • YES:  Keep the bird warm in a dark, quiet container with good air flow and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area.  A heating pad set on low under the box or a hot water bottle can provide heat.

2.  IS THE BIRD FEATHERED?  While almost all song birds emerge from their egg naked, blind, and completely dependent on their parents, other birds–like quails, ducks, etc–are more dependent upon hatching.    A good rule of thumb to follow is to look and see if the chick, however, old it is, has at least down covering its entire body and wing feathers beginning to come in.

  • NO:  It needs help!  If you can locate its nest and the nest is still intact, put the baby in the nest and observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents are visiting the nest, you’ve done your job.  Leave the area.  If they are not, remove the bird, keep it in that warm, dark container, and contact a rehabilitator.  If you cannot find the nest or the nest is destroyed, try putting the bird in a berry basket, or a smaller plastic box.  Line the container with dry grass, the old nest, pine needles, or other such items and securely fasten it to a protected area in a nearby tree.  Observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents do not respond to the chick, secure the chick in that warm, dark box and contact a rehabilitator.
  • YES:  If the bird is fully or partially feathered, chances are that it doesn’t need your help.  A guideline here is that the ‘downier’ a chick is, the more likely it needs assistance.  The more ‘grown up’ feathers it has, the more likely it is that it’s just fine.  As young birds develop, they outgrow their nest, so they typically leave it and move about on the ground or low branches for a few days before they can fly.  Unless the bird is injured or in an area where it could be hurt by other wildlife, cats, dogs, or curious children, it should be left where it is.  If it is healthy, but in an insecure area, put it in a sheltered bush or tree and observe it from a distance for an hour to see if its parents return to it.  If they do not, box the bird up and contact a rehabilitator.

Why put the bird in a warm, dark, quiet box?

  • Younger birds need a little help with thermoregulation, so they may need a heat source.  Try putting one end of the box on a heating pad set on low or a hot water bottle.  Alternately, fill a plastic baggie with warm water, wrap that in a cloth, and put that in one end of the box.  The dark and the quiet will also help soothe the bird.  It is almost certainly terrified of you and absolutely does not want to be cuddled!

Why contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator?

  • Taking care of a baby bird isn’t difficult, but you do want to limit your own exposure to pathogens and you want the bird to eventually be able to be a successful, wild creature…which it may not do with constant handfeedings.  Rehabilitators can give that bird the best possible chance of returning to the wild.  Also, the younger a bird is, the more it needs attention.  Feedings every 10 minutes are not uncommon!  You likely are a busy person, so it’s best to pass on this particular business to a professional!
  • Veterinarians are usually not able to rehabilitate wild animals, but their offices can probably put you in touch with a local agency.  If you cannot find a rehabilitator through local listings, your local Audubon Society chapter, or your state/county government information, call an area veternarian and ask for their assistance in contacting a rehabilitator.

Now you can be an informed friend to our infant feathered fellows!

UPDATE:  I just came across this amazing flowchart on the best webcomic for biologists, Bird and Moon.  It is so epic, I’m sharing it here.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs.  They're wily.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs. They’re wily.

Green Steps: Building a Mason Bee House

Honeybees have been dying off around the world for a decade now, a phenomenon we’ve come to call Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Early last year, two studies finally linked a group of insecticides–neonicotinoid insecticides, to be precise–to CCD.  Consequently, the European Union has begun deliberating a ban on these poisons, and movements have begun in America to force a similar ban here.

All this is completely admirable, but it doesn’t address a crucial problem of our modern food production techniques: sustaining a monoculture.  By relying on one major pollinator to pollinate the majority of our food plants, that’s exactly what we’re doing.  Unfortunately, as CCD has taught us, monocultures mean that one small problem can wipe out almost an entire global population of a creature.  Honeybees are wonderful insects.  After all, they indirectly provide most of our food through their pollinating activities AND they directly give us the glory of honey, which–in my book at least–is the true ambrosia.  But clearly we shouldn’t rely upon them alone.

Meet Osmia lignaria, the creature commonly known as the Mason Bee or the Blue Orchard Bee.

Meet Osmia lignaria, the creature commonly known as the Mason Bee or the Blue Orchard Bee.

Recently, several of my friends have taken to setting out funny little structures on their property to help encourage the local populations of Osmia lignaria, which in the PNW tends to go by the common name of “Mason Bee”, though my family in the orchard country of the East Coast knows them as “BOBs”, or “Blue Orchard Bees”.  Unlike honeybees, which have fairly long lives and collect their food throughout late spring, summer, and early autumn, mason bees are short-lived.  Adult bees typically emerge as soon as the outside temperature hits the upper 50s, and they mate and die by midsummer.  By the time the adults have died, the larva they laid in little holes begins to spin a cocoon around itself and enters the pupal stage.  By fall/early winter, the pupas have developed into adult bees that then go dormant in their cocoons until spring thaws the land.

However, even though the mason bee is only around to pollinate in the spring, it’s an exceptionally prolific pollinator.  About 250 mason bee nesting females will pollinate an acre of apple trees.  By contrast, 1-2.5 strong honey bee hives with thousands of workers in each are required to pollinate that same acre.  For crops that flower in the early spring, then, the mason be just can’t be beat.  A decided bonus?  These bees, unlike honeybees, are not disposed to sting.  In fact, it would quite literally have to be trapped in your clothing in order to want to sting you.  These make them very attractive as urban pollinators.

A simple mason bee house

A simple mason bee house

If you’d like to encourage the population of mason bees around your area, all you really have to do is set out a few ‘bee condos’ near areas where free dirt or mud is available (such as around your garden beds) and let nature take care of the rest.  Mason bees like to nest in pre-made holes, and they typically choose ones that are between 3/8ths and 5/16ths in diameter and maybe 5 1/2″ inches deep.  At the very least, all you need to do is get a drill and a drill bit that can go 5 1/2″ deep, and just drill a bunch of holes into a log that you stand upright.  For the cost of a drill bit (if you don’t already have it), you’ve given Mother Nature a well-appreciated hand.

If you’d like to have something with cleaner lines, one of the simpler homes is an unfinished 6″x6″x8′ whiteboard timber with four rows of holes drilled along one 6″ face.  Saw the timber into eight 12-inch pieces, then saw an angled cut to the top.  Drill your holes into the face and attach a 1″x6″ piece of whiteboard to the top so that it overhang the holes by an inch or two.  This will help prevent rainwater from dripping down into the holes.  Add a hanger to the back and attach your bee condos to fence posts or an outbuilding, and you should be good to go.

There’s only one real problem with either of these simple bee houses, and that problem is that they’re only really useful for one season.  Mason bees like to nest in fairly clean holes, so after the first year of use, you’ll see fewer and fewer bees laying their eggs in these houses.  Those that do increase the chances of the larva dying, since the dirty holes have a fair amount of bee feces and pollen mites in them.  What I like to do, then, is make it so that I can get clean holes every year.  That’s why I’m a fan of the tray-style mason bee condo, an example of which is pictured below.

A tray-style mason bee larva house and its rain cover.

A tray-style mason bee larva house and its rain cover.

The website “How to Build a Tray Mason Bee House” provides plenty of detail in how to construct these condos.  Briefly, though, you basically just work with two boards:  a 1″x6″x8′ whiteboard and a 1″x8″x8′ whiteboard.  The 1×6 will give you fifteen 6-inch long trays (which will accommodate a 5 1/2-inch long hole.  Using a router, router table, and a 3/8″ bit, you can cut 7 grooves 5/16ths of an inch deep and 5 1/2 inches long into the 6-inch long trays.  Seven trays and one blank (for the bottom one, which you’ll attach a handle to to help you remove the stack from the case) give you about a 6-inch height for the stack.  You can bolt these trays together and slide them into an open faced box you fashion from the 1×8.  It’s recommended to finish the box with linseed oil to help it resist rot, but to leave the trays unfinished.  You might, however, wish to take a blow torch to the hole side of the tray stack and char the blonde wood, since mason bees tend to prefer holes in darker objects to holes in whiter objects.

You could get a little more involved and fashion a screen cover that would attach to the front of the house after the adult bees have died, which would help keep parasitic insects from preying on the bee larva.  You’d then leave that in place until midwinter.  Once the pupae have definitely entered dormancy, remove the trays from the house and use a flat-headed screwdriver to scrape the pupae and mud out of the trays.  Then shake the pupae into a bowl filled with warm water and a capfull of bleach and separate out the pupae from the mud, pollen, feces, and mites.  Then you rinse those off in another bowl of clean water, dry them on a paper towel, and store them in a box set in a cold place, like an unheated outbuilding, for the rest of the winter.  If you must store them in a refrigerator, make sure to keep a damp paper towel in their box to maintain humidity, since refrigerators are notorious dessicators.  Once the weather looks like daily temperatures will stay in the upper 50s, place the pupae in “release boxes”, or enclosed boxes with a few holes drilled in them that allow the hatched bees to escape (but allow the pupae to stay safe from bird predation).  Don’t forget to return your trays to their boxes so that your new bees will have somewhere to lay their young!

Should you wish to know more about mason bee keeping, you’d do well to read “How to Manage the Blue Orchard Bee as an Orchard Pollinator”, a short book by Jordi Bosh and William P. Kemp that has been made available on a free .pdf file by the Sustainable Agriculture Network.  Enjoy your new bees and your more prolific gardens and orchards!

Plastic Reduction Mission 4: Homemade Laundry Detergent

So much plastic, not to mention trucked water.

So much plastic, not to mention trucked water.

Recently, I’ve been cringing every time I go to buy a new bottle of laundry detergent.  That aisle is chock-a-block full of plastic bottles; bottles that are so sturdy they could probably be reused hundreds of times but will almost certainly be thrown away (or recycled!) after one use.  After all, it’s not like you’ve got the option to refill the bottles, and there are only so many half-baked crafts you will want to do with your (creepily) hoarded supply.  When I stand in that aisle and look at all the plastic, I want to cry at the waste of it all.  Don’t even get me started on how much of that liquid detergent is water and how horrible it is that we’re basically trucking water from one end of the country to the other.

Of course, my household uses liquid laundry detergent.  We’ve pondered switching to the powdered stuff, since it’s packaged in more eco-friendly paper and it eliminates the water issue.  However, we’re also trying to minimize our chemical reliance.  So I decided that I would make my own liquid laundry soap.

Washing soda, borax, and soap.  That's about it.

Washing soda, borax, and soap. That’s about it.

As it turns out, you only really need three ingredients to make great laundry detergent:  washing soda, borax, and a soap.  In case you’re not up-to-date on your household chemistry, this is only two chemicals–sodium carbonate and sodium tetraborate–in addition to the soap.  While the soap might have a number of ingredients in it, plain old Castile soap will just be a blend of oils, water, and lye (sodium hydroxide).  In short, homemade laundry detergent has just about the least amount of chemicals you can use in laundry while still using your modern washer!  Interested to know what I did to make my detergent?

Homemade Liquid Laundry Detergent
Yield: 3 gallons (96 loads using 1/2 cup of solution per load)

  • One 5.5-6 oz bar of soap.  Fels-Naptha or Zote are traditional laundry choices, and will definitely result in a low-suds soap.  Castile soap can also be used, as can Ivory or anything else.  These may result in a higher-suds soap, however.
  • 1 cup of washing soda
  • 1 cup of borax
  • About 2.75 gallons of water
  • A food processor with grating disk or a hand grater
  • A 12 or 16-quart stock pot
  • A spatula
  • An immersion blender
  • 3 wide mouth, 1-gallon pitchers with leakproof lids.  I currently use plastic Sterilite 1 gallon round pitchers.
  1. Using the food processor with the grating disk or the hand grater, grate the bar of soap.
  2. Place the grated soap into the stock pot with about 2 quarts of water.  Cook the water and soap at a medium-low temperature until it comes to a boil, stirring frequently.  Continue to boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly, to ensure that all soap pieces have melted.
  3. Stir in the 1 cup of washing soda and 1 cup of borax until all the powders have combined into the soap and the mixture is smooth and evenly foamy, adding a cup or two of water if necessary.  Remove the pot from heat.
  4. Slowly add 1 gallon of room temperature water to the soap mixture, stirring constantly with the immersion blender.  Continue to blend until any ‘crusty foam’ incorporates into the liquid and any clumps have broken up.
  5. Add a second gallon of water and continue to blend until the solution is uniform in texture.
  6. Divide the approximately 2.5 gallons of soap solution evenly between the three pitchers.  Fill the pitchers with more water to within 1 or 1/2 an inch of the pitcher top, then blend the contents of each pitcher.  Cap the pitchers with their leak-proof lids and store.
  7. Use 1/2 cup to 1 cup of homemade detergent per load of laundry, depending on how soiled the clothes are or how big the load is.  You may need to swirl or stir the detergent before pouring.
A third of my first batch of detergent, right next to the commercial stuff.

A third of my first batch of detergent, right next to the last of the commercial stuff.

I did purchase plastic containers to store my laundry detergent in.  I thought about re-purposing some other old gallon containers, but–frankly–I really wanted a wide mouth.  I don’t have to mess with funnels or spoons or anything with these.  It’s a very straight shot from a very heavy pot to the pitchers.  I can also put the immersion blender, a whisk, or a spoon directly in these, which is super convenient.  Another bonus?  The mouth makes it easier to clean the pitchers, and with a LOT less water!  Luckily for me, these pitchers are super sturdy, so I’m sure to have them around for a good long time.

If powdered detergent is more to your liking, you’re in luck:  it is way easier to make.  You use the same ingredients and the same quantities, but only spin everything together in a food processor.  Just chop up the bar of soap into 8-12 pieces, then put it and the 1 cup of washing soda and 1 cup of borax into the food processor fitted with the chopping blade.  Pulse the machine a few times until the bar of soap is mostly broken down, then continue to process until the mixture comes to a fairly homogenous blend.  If you’d like to scent it with an oil, add 15-30 drops of an essential oil as you process the mixture.  Store the powder in an airtight jar and use 1-2 tablespoons per load.

Both of these mixtures work well in high efficiency washers as they are a low suds soap, and they’re incredibly economical in the long run.  A 150-ounce bottle of Tide costs $18 and purportedly will be enough for 96 loads.  That has a cost of almost $0.19 a load.  A 55-ounce (6.875 cups) box of washing soda costs $3.24, a 72-ounce (9.5 cups) box of borax costs $3.38, and a bar of Fels-Naptha costs $0.97.  A 3-gallon batch of the detergent therefore costs $1.79, which at 96 loads means $0.02 a load.  It’s hard to argue with that!

Plastic Reduction Mission 3: Saying “No!” to Plastic Bags

Plastic bags…they can really clog up the earth!

When I first moved to Oregon, my new housemates and I had a long discussion about declining single-use plastic bags whenever we did our personal shopping.  After all, many people really do just use them for one quick trip, so millions of the creatures end up as litter or as landfill fodder.  And, as we all know, it can take months or even hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown, and as they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.  One small thing that we could do to make a statement to our area stores was to decline the use of their bags…so that’s what we agreed to do.

At least, that was the intent.  In practice, we ended up forgetting our stash of reusable bags just about every time we went to the stores.  More often than not, we simply bought new reusable bags and ended up with a small hoard of them–which eventually got thrown out.  It was beyond dysfunctional.

Four years later, though, I’ve become more motivated to push through my laziness and find a workable alternative to accumulating tons of plastic bags or limited-life reusable bags.  In some places around the world like Bangladesh, plastic bag clogs have been tied to devastating flooding–flooding that resulted in thousands of human lives lost.  (In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic shopping bags.  South Africa followed suit in 2003.)   In America, the West Coast is slowly becoming bag free, city by city.  San Francisco enacted a bag ban for groceries and pharmacies in 2007.  Though it was challenged in the courts by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, the courts upheld and expanded the ban in  September 2012.  Now, all retailers in San Francisco cannot use plastic bags, and restaurants will be brought into the ban in October 2013.  Following the Oregon State Legislature’s failure to enact a statewide plastic bag ban for groceries and pharmacies statewide in June 2011, the city of Portland enacted their own ban that October.  Corvallis followed suit that July and Eugene is set to vote on a ban this October 22nd.  Seattle, Washington also enacted a bag ban in July 2012, and they were quickly followed by metro cities Edmonds, Bellingham, Mukilteo, Bainbridge Island, Issaquah and Port Townsend.  Now, Washington State Legislators have begun drafting a state-wide bag ban.

All the laws in the world, though, can’t insure compliance.  If you want to make a change, you’ve got to figure out what’s keeping you from changing and how to get around that.  In my case, I realized that my issue wasn’t alternative availability:  I always had at least four or five reusable bags in my car trunk.  After I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually want to use those bags.  They’d get ratty and stained really quickly, and their material was abrasive enough that all manner of dried plants would get stuck in the fabric.  They were gross!  Putting them through the washer just made them floppy, and that really disinclined me to use them.   I’d get embarrassed to give them to the cashier, and when I did, some cashiers actually groaned.  The bags didn’t readily stay open, so they were more difficult to pack.  I needed something attractive, sturdy, and that would stay open.  I needed baskets.

The very baskets I use, lined up in the back of my car’s trunk.

I eventually picked these baskets up at this year’s Pacific Northwest Mushroom Festival in Lacey, WA.  I chose to purchase them at this fair because the vendor was selling them at a ‘two for one’ price:  two fair trade baskets for $55.  However, they are available through any number of online sources as well as in a lot of alternative groceries.  These baskets are often called “Africa Baksets” or “Ghana Baskets” or “Bolga Baskets.”  They’re made in the Bolgatanga region of Ghana, or the northern part of the country bordering Burkina Faso.  Local artisans make them from the elephant grass, and then fair trade vendors distribute them around the world.  The traditional baskets are a more rounded shape and have one large central handle, but the artists make baskets in non traditional shapes for their Western markets, too.

I primarily chose large U-shaped, oval baskets, as their height and profile allow me to fill them up with lots of groceries without worrying about any falling out.  The oval shape also allows me to neatly pack them in my trunk and in my grocery cart without wasting a lot of space as a round basket would.  I have to say, every single time I go shopping with them, I get compliments.  Better yet, grocery clerks love them.  They stay open and hold a lot of produce, which means filling them is a breeze.  When I’m shopping, I go ahead and load right into the basket.  When I unload on the grocery belt, I take everything out of a basket, then put the basket before all the stuff that was packed into it so that the clerk can load it right back up.  It saves a lot of hassle, and I really do look like the most organized shopper on the planet.  Better yet, the bags are a major mental cue.  Since they take up a lot of visual space in my cart, the cart just looks wrong without them, so I run back to get the baskets if I forget.  After a month or so of using the baskets, I found I’d stopped forgetting them.  I’d officially acquired a new, positive habit!

Some people who oppose the use of reusable bags cite some studies–usually the 2010 University of Arizona research–stating that reusable bags can harbor dangerous bacteria such as E. coli.  Here’s the rub:  I’ve got a biology degree.  I’ve taken part in studies.  This study isn’t exactly iron clad.  In the first place, their sample size was a miniscule 84 bags, which is maybe 20 families worth of bags.  In the second place, all that research found was that the bags had some bacteria on them.  Well, EVERYTHING has bacteria on it.  But not all bacteria is pathogenic, or disease causing.  In fact, most of the bacteria found on the bags was Heterotrophic Plate Count Bacteria (HPC), and that bacteria’s been found to help inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria.  Twelve percent of the bags in the Arizona study were found to have E. coli, but none of those strains were strains that can harm people.  Naturally, the bag the researchers purposefully contaminated with meat juice did grow pathogenic bacteria…but any person with an ounce of common sense would wash up such a spill.

At any rate, if bacterial growth is a concern, these African baskets are really easy to clean up.  If a major spill occurs, you can swish them around in a vat of bleach water (10% solution) and let them dry in the sun if you’re really worried.  The colors won’t run and the bleach smell will dissipate when the basket is dry.  In fact, their natural grass smell will be intensified.  You can also spray them with an antibacterial spray, a bleach water solution, or a vinegar water solution once a week.  Easy peasy.