Category Archives: Recycling

DIY: Switching things up with switch plates

By Jeanne Romano

Ever look at a room and wonder what you can do to make it more fun? Paint? Wallpaper? Get all new furniture? Knock down a wall? Whoa, slow down.

All that sounds great… however you have a small budget (very small), you want to recycle, you’re renting,  and oh yeah, you’re scared to death to do it yourself. You’ve come to the right place. This idea is not only great for sprucing up a room; it’s new and unique party fun.

Let everyone decorate one and it becomes a party favor. This works for kids and adults!

Personalized plates make great gifts – especially from children to their friends and family. Think early drawings, handprints or even just abstract squiggles.

What you’ll need:

  1. Blank (plastic) switch plate. Of course you can buy a new one (they’re very inexpensive) but the idea here is to recycle, right?
  2. Sharp utility scissor
  3. Craft knife
  4. Double sided tape
  5. A variety of papers, fabrics, glitter, pictures, trimming, stickers – etc.  As you’ll see, you can use just about anything to cover, decorate or paint a switch plate.

Like following a recipe, there are specific ingredients, or steps, to turn an average switch plate into something really unique to display in your home or to give as a personalized gift. Here are step-by-step instructions to cover a switch plate. For this example I chose my favorite wrapping paper, however you can use almost anything – a list of ideas and photos will follow.

  1. Turn the plate upside down and place on the wrong side of your paper then cut your pattern
  2. Allow at least ¾ to 1 inch all the way around the plate.
  3. Use double sided tape to line the inside edges of the back of the plate then wrap the paper around the sides.
  4. Finish folding over as if you’re wrapping a present

Turn the plate over – but wait, something’s missing.

Draw an elongated “X” as shown in step 6. Use your craft knife and cut along those lines. (Make sure you have something underneath the plate to help you avoid cutting through to the surface underneath. Place small pieces of double sided tape around the opening. Bend the triangles back until they stick to the tape.

Feel for the holes where the screws should go. Retrieve the screws and just pop them through. If you want to hide them you can paint them to blend in or in my case, I thought accent colors could be fun and painted them red. Then screw the decorated plate back on the wall

For another creative outlet – the outlet.



Wallpaper —

The plate is wrapped with the wallpaper that matches the wall

Photographs, illustrations, greeting cards (seasonal and misc…)

Hand-painted     Spray painted   


Decoupage collage  

or just plain goofy 

Get your kids’ involved – my neighbor’s daughter Rachel C. (11) created these:

 Original artwork  Duct tape  

Trims, beads, sequins and glitter and spray sparkles on a metal outlet plate!

Stickers, stickers, stickers….Tips:

  • If you’re putting the plate in the kitchen, bathroom or child’s room you’re going to want to use washable paper. Or you can always coat the paper with a gloss, flat or shellac type protection. Check the warnings, especially for the kids’ rooms.
  • Nail polishes (both clear and color) are great for this kind of project. It’s very shiny and usually dries quickly
  • Glue can be used instead of double side tape; however glue takes longer to dry and may not be effective with heavier papers or fabric.
  • Check copyrights on all photos, artwork and team logos.

There’s no end to the possibilities. You can make your design permanent or temporary. You can even use the same switch plate over and over again. Have fun and be creative!


How to Recycle e-Waste

By Leah Kaminsky

As technology advances at lightning speed, we’ve become used to upgrading our devices on a regular basis. But we don’t often think about where our old electronics go and whom they’re harming when they’re there. The common though is “once it’s in the trash, it’s out of our minds.”

So where do our unwanted devices go? The answer is simple: nowhere good. Too often companies claiming to be recyclers send our e-waste abroad to third world countries where they take a massive toll on the environment as well as on human health.

What to do?

First, think of ways you can get more life out of your devices. That means (dare I say it?) holding on to them for a little longer or giving them to a younger member of the family. You can also look for companies that will refurbish devices, saving salvageable parts and using them to make something new. Or sell your old products online and see a return on some of your investment. You can find a number of companies who will resell devices for you, taking the hassle of shipping and customer management out of the equation.

Another great option is to donate those old devices to schools or charities, especially in countries where resources and capital are scarce. For example, just having a cell phone to arrange meetings can radically improve the lot of a small businesswoman in a foreign country. Before donating, make sure to check out a charity’s credentials and follow any guidelines they might have. For example, don’t just drop off an old computer at a school, as they might not even have the need for old technology.

Sure, it takes a little more thought to reduce the impact of your e-waste, but we’ve got to do something to counter the negative effects of our technology addiction. Being proactive about what you do with old technology is the first step.

The Real Price of Cut Flowers

By Leah Kaminsky

Though Mother’s Day has come and gone, it’s taken nearly a month for me to clear all of those “50% off Mother’s Day Flowers” emails from my inbox. Flowers are, after all, the go-to gift for Mom, and I feel just a little bit less guilty about living far away when I know I can brighten my mom’s day with the click of a button.

But have you ever wondered where these flowers come from and how they find their way to their destinations? Stephen J. Dubner at Freakonomics did, and what he found may dull your enthusiasm.

Turns out, 80% of all cut flowers sold in the United States come from places like Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica. These flowers must be refrigerated immediately and shipped, first by air and then by truck.

That adds a lot more carbon to the atmosphere than going out to the garden and snipping a rose. And as Dubner points out, it’s a little strange that we care so much about high “food miles” when cut flowers are crossing the nation, causing extra pollution as they go.

So what’s an eco-minded mommy-lover to do the next time Mother’s Day rolls around? If you live far away, you have a couple options:

1. Send money to your mother’s partner, sibling or friend along with a nice card asking them to make the flower purchase from a local grower.

2. Try one of the new plastic flowers, which, according to Dartmouth geographer Susan Freidberg, are lightweight, great looking, made relatively near you and will last indefinitely. The same goes for Christmas trees, but we’ll save that for another post.

Or, you could think of other gifts altogether, like a new painting from that local artist you know she loves.

Reducing the carbon the cut flowers business produces is well within our reach. We just have to be honest about the environmental impact and get creative.

Repair or Replace? Things to Consider When Things Fall Apart

Consideration for the environment is one important factor to weigh when household appliances and electronics wear out or break at home. How do you know whether it’s best to replace something with a newer, more efficient model, take it to the repair shop, call in an expert or drop it off at the nearest recycling center?

While there’s really no hard and fast rule, here are a few common sense guidelines to consider:
Age and replacement cost of what’s broken

No guarantees, but we should expect to get at least ten years out of a major appliance, and frequently more. So for example, if your refrigerator conks out before its time, research the manufacturer online or search by “troubleshooting” and the name of the appliance. Chances are you’ll find several great clues as to what you’re up against.

Once you’ve got an idea of the problem, call a local repair service and speak with a service rep for an idea of repair costs over the phone. Check the price of a service call and see if diagnostics are included.

If it’s sounding expensive, try the old “50 percent rule”: If the repair costs more than half the replacement cost — and your budget allows — consider getting a new one.

Rebates and tax credits

In a nod to energy efficiency guidelines, many utility companies offer rebates to customers who replace inefficient models with newer models offering higher efficiency ratings. Likewise, also be sure and check for federal tax credits for replacing windows, roofing, doors, water heaters, insulation and heating/air conditioning with super efficient products.

Energy efficiency

Great strides are being made every year in improving the energy efficiency of appliances, electronics and household products. To determine which products offer the best energy efficiency for the money and related rebates that may be offered, check out the EnergyStar website, complete with a “Save Energy at Home” tool to help identify and calculate the best savings opportunities.

Greening Your Thanksgiving

Say what you will about the Puritans, they were pretty green. This Thanksgiving, get back to the meaning of the holiday and celebrate the harvest like they did back in olden times: with local, organic food.

If you live in a region lucky enough to have a true autumn, you’ll likely be able to stick to the classic Thanksgiving foods.  For our autumn-less brethren, take a good look at what’s in-season within one hundred miles and get creative. You will likely find produce for at least one or two classic Thanksgiving meals, and your new find will save your guests from the tedium of another one of great-grandpa’s, “When I was your age, we didn’t even have food” stories.

Try going organic and free range with your turkey or with a heritage breed ­­­- one at risk of going extinct due to the favoring of breeds better for mass production.

Once you’re in the store, apply the same kind of thinking to all of your purchases. Buy local, organic produce, and consider your real needs carefully. How many sweet potatoes do you really think any given person can eat? That said, if  you will be entertaining a big crowd, buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste. And don’t forget your reusable bags!

When setting the table, ask your friends to supplement your chinaware with their own and fully load your dishwasher to cut down on energy usage. If you must go disposable, at least make it biodegradable.

Now, what to do when it’s all done and you’ve still got an excess of food? Send it home with guests, donate to a food bank or freeze it and enjoy the fall bounty year round!

Even excess fat can be recycled into biofuel – the turkey’s, not your own.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Upcycled Home Decor

Stuff. Most of us have way too much of it. Even as we grow more eco-savvy trying to reduce, reuse, and recycle, sometimes we still are faced with the question of what to do with what we have. Used to be we would throw it away, give it away or store it. Today there’s another option: Upcycling. Upcycling is the process of converting useless things or products you no longer want – including waste materials – into new goods or objects of a higher environmental value. In other words, you get creative with the stuff you already have by fashioning it into something new! It’s all about ingenuity, and having fun, too. But if crafts aren’t your thing, you can still participate by buying upcycle merchandise, which cuts back on the consumption of raw materials for new products. And that ultimately ends up reducing energy use, air and water pollution and even greenhouse gas emissions.

The following is just a tiny peak at what some people have done with their discarded stuff to decorate their homes and at the same time efficiently upcycle their odds and ends. Keep in mind, if you are not handy with crafts and the like, there are a number of websites that offer upcycle home decorations. Buying upcycle is a great alternative to purchasing something new plus it helps keep our landfills free of needless waste.

iMac Aquarium from home-designing.comSo here’s a wild one: The Mac Aquarium. Do you still have one of the original iMacs kicking around? Remember the Apple computer that came in thirteen “flavors”? Imagine turning it into a colorful fish aquarium! Well, that’s just what some folks have done, and it’s a real showstopper.

Staying with the tech theme, how about that stack of useless old floppies? Here are several clever solutions:  assemble a small book using recycled paper for the inside and two floppies for the outside.  Punch two holes through the ‘book’ and bind with a couple of loose leaf rings. Take four floppies to construct the sides of a pencil holder with a fifth for the bottom.  Use old CDs to craft a lampshade or the face of a small clock.

Fabricate a fashion statement: Cut up the bright sides of soda cans, add earring hooks and you’ve got a unique set of earrings. Speaking of jewelry, dust off those outdated vintage brooches, remove the fittings on the back, glue on a super strong magnet and you’ve got yourself some glamorous refrigerator magnets!

Upcycled can candle holderLight up the room: Create eye-catching candles out of graphic tea tins, sardine cans, olive oil cans, etc. Break a tea saucer? Fill the cup with candle wax and add a wick for an elegant flame.  Single coffee cups, cute but never used eggcups, teapots – they all are good vessels to hold wax and can be one of a kind gifts to give.

Mirror mirror … on the table? Repurpose small wall mirrors as decorative trays. Glue on a backing of felt and dress up your dresser top!

A stitch in time could save nine or it could make a new table runner, rug for the hall or throw pillows for the window seat.  Sew together vintage napkins for the table, tea towels, napkins or soft shirts for the pillows and rag rugs for a comfy hall runner.

As you can see, the ideas are endless and the results original, distinctive and eco-friendly.  Repackage ordinary objects in your house and delight your family and guests with your surprising design and decorative solutions! Who knows, you just might inspire them to do the same.

Check out these and other great ideas at:

Aluminum Foil Can Do WHAT?

When you envision a dorm room, what do you see on the walls? Posters with witty sayings? How about aluminum foil?

Well, that’s just what I saw nearly eight years ago when I walked into a friend’s room. He called it the spaceship. It was weird, but also so wonderfully warm.

Thanks to a honeycomb structure, aluminum foil is sturdy, light, fire resistant, and highly moldable. That means it’s one of the most versatile materials around, with many surprising applications. And it’s both recyclable and made from recyclable materials, too!

Sure, you know foil is great for grilling veggies, but what about cooking salmon in the dishwasher? Yep, that’s right. Your dishwasher gets hot enough to poach a fish. Just make sure to wrap it several times and leave out the soap so your guests don’t remark, “What a nice detergenty taste.”

Crave a nice grilled cheese sandwich when you’re on the road? Just wrap two slices of bread and cheese in foil and give it a good iron somewhere between that dress and those pants – which, by the way, iron more effectively with a little foil as well. Steam silk or wool, too, by wrapping them in foil and choosing the steam option. Wrinkles, be gone!

Your furniture is a big fan of foil, too. Lay it beneath the legs of a heavy couch to slide it from one carpeted room to the next. Then rap the sides to prevent cats from scratching. Birds also find the reflection of light and crinkly sound utterly distasteful so dangle strips from fruit trees to prevent nibbling.

And the best thing of all about aluminum foil? The way British people pronounce it. Seriously, just give it a try. Al-oo-MIN-ee-yum foil. What will those crazy royals think of next!

So get cooking, ironing or wrapping. Aluminum foil is your surefire way to be sustainable while you do just about anything!

Additional references

Life’s Lessons in Sustainability

How about our ability to sustain? That’s sort of what I’ve been working on for the past six months. Whew! Should I even bother telling you that it’s kept me from writing this blog? I’ve started a draft or two but life continues to intervene.

In March we welcomed two new baby lambs who – for the first time – needed hands-on help (we’re talking tube feedings every four hours throughout the night for two weeks). Especially fun at 1:00 a.m. and then again at 5:00 a.m. with the wind, rain, and coyotes howling. It was hard, but it worked. Despite the odds, we saved both little guys.

Lesson 1: Know your limits and commitment to small farming before you jump in. Saving young lambs and other farm jobs take work. A lot of it. 

Then came April, and a sudden call back to the finca (my eco guest house on Vieques island in Puerto Rico) which ended up with me running the place solo, throughout spring break and serving thirty-plus guests a day. Luckily, they were mostly families, which meant flexible, forgiving folks with wonderfully inquisitive kids. I played eco- educator to the kids, teaching them how the finca operates as simply and with as little impact on the environment as possible. I traded their help hanging the laundry with lessons in tarantula catch and release!

Lesson 2: Whenever possible surround yourself with others who want to learn as much as you do and learn from each other. We’re all learning this simple living thing together.

Four days after I returned, my 91-year-old mother had a stroke. She was the person absolutely responsible for giving me my (apparently) diehard commitment to living as environmentally conscious as possible. She “walked her talk” up until the very, very end. She gave her body to science when she passed away at the end of the month, one last expression of her deep, deep commitment to bettering the world, and minimizing our impact in it. Sad yes, I miss her more than I even knew I would. But almost 92 years on this planet surrounded by friends and family, sharing with them the fruit from the trees you’ve planted – it’s a pretty wonderful and fortunate thing. Which somehow balances out the sadness.

Lessons here? Oh, so many. Simply put, as mom would want it: learn as much as you can from your mom while you can. And when it’s real, your walk and your talk are one – and more walk than talk is always best. (That’s 2 of about 2000 lessons learned in April).

Then, a week after my mom passed away, my oldest son was seriously injured in a Jet Ski accident. He’ll be okay – but it has been, and will continue to be, a long, hard haul to recovery. As a commercial fisherman, he isn’t used to hanging around the house, certainly not in a wheelchair. So I’ve been helping out where I can. Somehow in addition to dishes and laundry and lawn mowing, my role as solid waste manager has emerged. I’m coaching him on the cost, and environmental savings of sorting the recycling, yard waste and compost out of the garbage. A sweet backyard garden has emerged. I celebrated by buying them a carton of red worms for the bin.  I may make an urban farmer out of him yet.

Lesson learned? Silver linings abound.  Even in the face of enormous issues, physical or environmental, we are better able to deal with them if we start with optimism and hope.

And then there was July. The month my daughter was supposed to get married, my fortieth high school reunion, and a large family reunion in my mom’s small hometown in Utah. Well, the first event has moved to September (stay tuned for green wedding blogs!) and the other two were perfect punctuation points. Milestones in a year’s seemingly relentless lessons. They were more good opportunities to reflect on it all: what matters, how much it all matters, and what we can do to help. I’m just left wondering – does living actually ever get simple? If so, I’m ready! I’ve somehow sustained!

Lesson here? Yep…I’ve learned it’s clear you can turn just about anything into a lesson – if you’re up for learning.

Take good care of my baby!

When my kids were babies, I wasn’t as environmentally savvy as I am now. In fact, ten years ago, the green movement was hardly a movement at all. More like a slight twitch. Now, as elementary school-ers, my kids are relatively free to explore their world and all I can do is try and make it as safe for them as possible. But when I see all the green and natural baby products we sell at, I worry that my kids are worse off because I didn’t know about all the toxins in home cleaners, the potential dangers of BPA and toxic flame-retardants in almost everything.

With all the warnings and dangers we face, especially on baby and children’s products, it’s a wonder a new mom can stay sane. Frantically trying to keep in mind everything she should and shouldn’t do. The products she shouldn’t use. Perhaps even worse, being undecided while the jury’s still out on several big issues.

So what’s a new mom to do?

Well, there are a few things we know for sure:

If I’d had the choice of natural disposable diapers, I would have gone that way. It doesn’t take an expert to tell me I don’t want chlorine touching my baby’s bottom. (Yes, I know I could have used cloth. But I just couldn’t get past dipping poopy diapers in the toilet.) Another “so now you tell me” concept is all-natural bath and body care.  Again, I’m sure these products existed when my children were babies. I just wasn’t cued into that lifestyle yet. When I think of all the fragrance, sulfates, parabens and toxins I smeared on their skin, I could shudder.

Worrying about your newborn’s safety and wanting the best for that little bundle is normal. But it’s up to each of us to decide what’s right for our family. Be warned, it takes more research today than it did a decade ago. A degree in science wouldn’t hurt, either.

Compost in the Kitchen – the paper towel dilemma

I’ve always felt a certain level of guilt concerning my wildly indulgent use of paper towels. Spilled soda? Grab a paper towel. Crumbs on the counter? Grab a paper towel. Wet hands? You guessed it, paper towel.

I had always felt bad about my overuse of paper towels and was annoyed by how they filled up the trash can so quickly. So, naturally, I was delighted when Seattle’s waste management program began offering curbside compost pickup. This meant I could now put all my paper towels and kitchen scraps in a small container inside the house and dump it in the big yard waste bin outside.

After I’d been composting for a while, I decided to find out if my little contribution to composting was actually  doing anything useful for the environment, or simply relieving my paper towel-induced guilt. I did a little research and discovered the average household’s compostable waste is about 25% of their total garbage output. I found that to be true after a few months of personal observation.

I’ve now been participating in kitchen composting for almost two years and am pleased to see it catching on. Right now about 90% of single-family households in the Seattle area have compost pickup, and many apartment buildings and businesses (like our parent company, compost as well.

Unfortunately, these services aren’t available everywhere yet; and just like the evolution of curbside recycling, it’ll probably take years for curbside composting to become the norm nationwide. If your city doesn’t offer these services, you can consider composting in your backyard or find a local drop-off center that’ll take your compostables off your hands for free. It’s easier than you think to get started, check out these at-home compost solutions.

I feel good that I’m helping keep a quarter of my waste out of the trash stream, including all those paper towels, which I stopped using entirely when I saw how fast they were filling up the compost bin. So, this story has a happy ending: Not only am I recycling all my food scraps, I ended up going even greener than I meant to in the first place.