Anti-spam apps

AT&T offers these apps (smartphone only) to help block fraudulent calls and phishing attempts.

PaperKarma is an app and associated service that help stop junk mail. You take a picture of the address label on junk mail and the app magically unsubscribes you from it. The app is free to download, but the actual service costs $2/month. So, save up your junk mail for a year and unsubscribe from it all at once?

Why would one want to reduce plastic usage?

A friend asked why someone would want to reduce plastic usage. It’s an interesting question. Plastics are very useful (versatile, lightweight, long-lasting, relatively low carbon footprint), but there are people who want to avoid all plastics (see My Plastic-free Life, for example). In fact, a lot of people in the zero-waste community are anti-plastic to the extent that they replace functioning plastic reusables with items made of other materials (not the best thing to do, by the way!) .

Pros of plastic:

  • Doesn’t decompose in landfills, which makes plastic good for sequestering carbon. (FYI biodegradable and compostable materials are only worth using if you actually compost them. If you put them in the landfill, they will produce methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Plastic, on the other hand, sequesters carbon basically indefinitely. It is ideal for landfills.)
  • “Natural” materials, such as paper and cotton, generally require more resources to produce than plastic (for example, although this apparently isn’t true for some types of synthetic fabrics, where the plastic has a small footprint, but processing is very resource-intensive), so plastic may be a better choice of material for single-use items (e.g. packaging, medical disposables).
  • Durable, in some ways. Unlike glass and ceramic, plastic doesn’t usually break when dropped. This can be good for storage containers. Plastic is also resistant to many caustic chemicals.
  • Plastics have amazing and varied characteristics. Transparent, yet flexible. Lightweight. Remoldable (sometimes). Cheap.
  • Plastic is lightweight, making it cheaper and less resource-intensive to ship.

Cons of plastic:

  • Leaches unknown and hazardous known chemicals at unknown concentrations into whatever it is containing or touching (e.g. BPA from receipts can be absorbed into your skin when you touch them), or off-gases into the air. See Plastic Free for detailed info + citations. I’m sure there are articles online as well.
  • Plastic additives are largely unregulated. Despite the recent hubbub over BPA and a lot of scary research, the FDA’s stance is that current levels of BPA in food are safe (despite the fact that endocrine disruptors may have stronger effects at lower doses (source). They even have inter-generational effects. For example, one study concluded that higher blood BPA concentrations in mouse mothers was correlated with “loss of sexual dimorphism in brain structure and behavior illustrated by animal studies, findings concordant with human epidemiological studies” (source, text). I can only wonder if BPA and other hormone-mimicking plasticizers are the cause of the apparent uptick in the number of transgender people.).
  • Made from a non-renewable resource (fossil fuels). Petroleum and plastic are incredibly valuable and irreplaceable resources that should be reserved for uses where they are not easily replaced (medical purposes, for example).
  • Supports the petroleum industry, which has a history of “downplay[ing] the significance of climate change [using approaches] copied from tobacco lobbyists” (source) and damaging the environment through extraction.
  • Difficult to reuse. For example, many plastics are porous and can’t be properly sanitized for reuse. Others leach additives faster as they degrade.
  • Can break down over time and via exposure to UV, causing brittleness, flaking, and leaching. Unfortunately, the tiny bits of plastic will still probably not degrade for several hundred years.
  • Difficult to repair (although this is definitely not unique to plastic).
  • Difficult to recycle. Only plastics 1 and 2 are commonly and easily recycled. Glass and metal, on the other hand, can be recycled indefinitely. Paper can generally by recycled 7 times until the fibers are too short and weak to be useful. (However, recycling in the US is not stellar for any material, largely because people want single-stream recycling for convenience. Unfortunately, this causes contamination due to materials being difficult to properly separate, so companies don’t want to use the recycled materials.)
  • Not biodegradable. Stick around a long time (100-1 million years, estimates vary and depend on type).
  • Cheap. Encourages thoughtless consumerism, fast fashion, unnecessary disposables, etc.
  • Have a propensity to become litter. Plastic in general is lightweight and easily blows out of trash bins. Film plastics are particularly aerodynamic.
  • Synthetic textiles are flammable. They also melt and release more-toxic-than-usual smoke when on fire, making them poor choices for high-heat uses (cooking and welding come to mind).

These problems can be largely ameliorated by refusing single-use plastics and by regulating plastics additives. Durable plastic goods are exempt from many of these issues.

And here’s a well-written post on reducing your carbon footprint. In summary: eat less meat (especially beef), insulate your home, and buy less stuff.

Did you know that you can stop getting the Yellow Pages?

A past tenant of the apartment really liked mail subscriptions. We got one of her Victoria’s Secret catalogues today, which then had to be dealt with (I sent Victoria’s Secret an email requesting to be removed from their mailing list).

While looking for an unsubscribe tool for Victoria’s Secret, I discovered that you can unsubscribe from the Yellow Pages phone book, which are huuuuuge. You first have to make an account at the linked website, then go to the “Select which directories you receive” page. Although the page has an “Opt out from all” button, it doesn’t do anything… You have to manually toggle the number next to each directory to 0, meaning 0 copies delivered. Let’s hope it works!

Better phone options

Electronic devices never seem to last very long. The fancier they get, the shorter their usable lifetimes (think smartphones vs flip phones).

Planned obsolescence is a major part of this. It is manifest in such design choices as soldering the battery to the phone case, or putting the battery underneath the motherboard. Doing this makes it really hard to replace the battery. You can’t do it yourself, so you have to pay someone else to do it. The difficulty of the repair makes it more expensive and more likely to break or damage something else in the device. You probably won’t be able to replace the battery more than once.

Next time you’re in the market for a phone, keep these things in mind to get a longer-lasting mobile phone. Basically,

  • if feasible for your needs, get a simple phone
  • consult the iFixit list of phones by repairability (notice that the newest highly repairable phone is from 2016)
  • if you can’t get a highly-repairable phone, at least get one with an easily replaceable battery
  • extend the usable life of your phone by installing other operating systems once your phone no longer gets security updates (you may need advanced technical know-how to do this!).

I probably won’t need to buy a new phone for a long time. I’ve used a cheap candy bar phone for everyday use since 2012 (with a free upgrade to a 3G phone when 2G was being phased out). I use a J cast-off phone (Google Nexus 5) for traveling. In fact, I’ll probably be able to provide for all of my phone needs using old phones of J’s 😛

If I did need a new phone, I’d either: buy a used one that is listed as highly repairable by iFixit, or buy a Fairphone (pending additional research, although the concept alone is extremely appealing).

The Fairphone  is a modular Android phone made with ethically-sourced materials and components (Wiki). It was specifically designed to be easy to repair and upgrade without throwing the whole phone away. The end goal is device longevity. But the Fairphone isn’t perfect.

  • Unfortunately, support for the Fairphone 1 has already ended, only 2-3.5 years (depending on batch) after the device’s release, partly due to poor choice of SoC. This is worse than Apple, which generally supports devices for 5 years. Fairphones are only sold in Europe (although they are unlocked and would presumably work in most countries).
  • Replacement (e.g. battery, screen) and upgrade (e.g. camera) modules are available only from Fairphone, whereas components of other phones are not proprietary and can be bought from various suppliers. Fairphone is such a small company that it could go out of business at any time.
  • Because of the small size of the company and ethical sourcing requirements, the phone is relatively expensive for its specs. The Fairphone 2 was €529 (~$650), which although on par with other high-end smartphones is expensive for, e.g. it’s camera quality, lack of USB-C, etc.
  • The modularity of the phone means that it is a little bulky (11 mm thick).

The Fairphone 3 will be released sometime in 2018. Previous models have only been available in Europe; it is unclear if the Fairphone 3 will be available on other continents. Fairphone is aiming to support the Fairphone 3 longer by, for example, stocking up on repair components that are in high demand. The Fairphone 3 will be a smaller, less fancy smartphone with a correspondingly lower price of ~$500. (It is unclear why Fairphone feels the need to release additional phones at all. Shouldn’t they be making modules to update the Fairphone 1?)

Edit: J says to use swappa.com to buy used phones. Devices sold on eBay tend to be stolen D:

Sustainable cleaning basics

The majority of the time, I clean things (wipe surfaces, hand-wash dishes, etc.) with a wet dishcloth and soap, if needed. It is rare that I need anything else.

More specialized cleaning tools (in no particular order):

Kamenoko tawashi – Japanese vegetable scrubbing brush, but really good for getting stuck-on food off of pots and pans. Do not use these on Teflon or soft plastic; it is incredibly stiff and will scratch delicate surfaces.

Baking soda – Good for removing stains (apply to surface with some water and let sit for 15 min) and odors, good for scrubbing. Can also use it for deodorant, toothpaste, and shampoo.

Salt – Good for removing ground-in dirt, but very abrasive.

Vinegar – Takes off limescale, can be added to baking soda to unclog drains. Can also use as a conditioning hair rinse.

Soap – J and I use Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile soap. We bought a gallon of it – the biggest size available! – since we anticipate using it for all of our liquid soap needs. We use it for hand-washing dishes, for example.

A scrubby brush, rag, or cloth (sponges not recommended because of low durability and unsustainable materials). Loofah is a good sponge-like sponge substitute.

You might want a toilet brush, although old toothbrushes work fine for cleaning toilets. LifeWithoutPlastic has a plastic-free option.

Plunger – J and I use our plunger to unclog the shower drain (I’m not sure why it gets clogged in the first place, but it happens regularly).

Broom, dust mop, vacuum come in handy occasionally.

Advanced cleaning tips

I don’t know any, ’cause I don’t clean that much. I just google when I need a fancy solution, like what to use to get blood or tomato stains out.

The 47 most effective ways to shrink your carbon footprint that you won’t believe, especially number 7 it’s so cool

I came across a super cool infographic and article (based on this research paper) ranking different actions by environmental impact. You know those things that people always say to do – recycling, washing your clothes in cold water, changing lightbulbs? They don’t do that much 🙁 Too bad, since those are some of the easiest and least controversial changes to make.

Pretty infographic from phys.org.

The article says that the most effective things you can do (if you live in a developed country) are:

  • Don’t have kids (The study attributes 1/2 of your children’s emissions, 1/4 of your grandchildrens’ emissions, etc. to you)
  • Don’t use a car
  • Don’t fly
  • Buy green energy (This is easy to do!!!)
  • Don’t eat animal products (The study actually specifies no meat, with no mention of other animal products, although dairy in particular has a large carbon footprint.)

Less effective actions include:

  • Recycling
  • Doing laundry with cold water
  • Hanging laundry to dry

There’s a table with a bunch more actions listed. Improving home insulation and producing no food waste are both moderately effective; composting is listed as not very effective, but no carbon footprint reduction estimate is given so maybe they just couldn’t find any data on it.

The less effective actions are obviously more attractive; after all, they don’t require major lifestyle changes. This may be why “textbook and government writers intentionally [promote] low-impact actions,” following a ‘foot-in-the-door’ approach, “a type of positive spillover where encouraging small actions is hoped to lead individuals to take more substantial behaviours later”. It’s unclear if this actually happens, though… Man, behavior modification is hard.

 

Draining fried food

Many people rely on paper towels to drain excess fat off of fried foods, like bacon, tempura, and fried tofu (the fried things that we make!). However paper towels aren’t ideal because they’re disposable, and must be purchased again and again. Instead, J and I drain fried food on a cooling rack, like what you would use for cookies. We place the rack over a pan or a plate to catch the drips.

Our cooling rack looks a lot like this and is ~12″ across.. $2 at Goodwill! Image from bbqgrillmesh.com.

Bonus tip: The cooling rack is just the right size to fit into our wok, so we can use it as a steamer insert too! I love items that do double duty.

American-made bedding options

My parents wanted new sheets, so, of course, I wanted them to buy the most sustainable option! So I ended up doing a ton of market research to find the best option. Here is the answer:

Native Organic

They sell sheets, bath towels, kitchen towels, and aprons. The cotton is organically grown in the US (in Texas). The fiber is milled, spun, and woven in a historical water-powered mill in Mexico (source). Their products are colored through a combination of low-impact dyes and color-grown cotton. The prices are on par with other mid-tier bed and bath products not made sustainably and not made in the US (so I hope that Native Organic makes a profit!).

My parents went with Coyuchi, not a bad choice. They are also organic and, I believe, use low-impact dyes, but their products are mostly made in India (and, surprisingly, are more expensive). The balance was swayed in Coyuchi’s favor because they have sateen sheets in white (the closest Native Organic has is “natural”).

Red Land Cotton is another good option, although I know less about it. They grow their cotton in the US (in Alabama), and make all their products in the US. Their cotton is not certified organic, but the About Us page states that they dry-farm the cotton (no irrigation!) and use sustainable practices.

On a similar note, KellyGreenOrganic and Holy Lamb Organics are cool sustainable bedding companies. They sell mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, other home goods, and craft materials. DIY Natural Bedding is the mecca for bedding-related craft materials. They are amazing!! Most if not all of these companies’ materials are organic and sustainably sourced, and made in the US.

Next time you need to buy bedding, support one of these amazing companies! They appreciate it 🙂

A step forward in haircare

I only wash my hair with water (and scrubbing!), which works well with soft water. If you have hard water, though, dissolved minerals bind to sebum in your hair to form a weird sticky white residue. Super unpleasant! It makes your hair oddly stiff. The only solution I’d found in the past was to occasionally (maybe once a month) wash with normal shampoo.

But I just had a breakthrough! Some people claim that washing with cold or cool water keeps your hair nicer (for unknown reasons). Between this and the fact that cold hard water in particular should have fewer dissolved minerals, I decided to try washing my hair with cold water (but take an otherwise hot shower). I wash my hair as the water is warming up.

It works amazingly well! The cold water even reversed previous mineral buildup. My hair is silky and soft without being greasy. It’s not stiff, it’s not sticky. Even my skeptical mom says that it feels nice!

Speaking of food waste…

If you have food that’s going to go bad or that you think you won’t use, what do you do with it?

If you want to eat the food yourself:

  • Eat it before it goes bad, quick!
  • Ignore expiration dates! They are unregulated except on medication and baby food (and even then don’t mean much. 90% of medications retain nearly their entire efficacy 10 years after the expiration date. Even the military ignores expiration dates to save loads of money!). If it looks fine, smells fine, and, finally, tastes fine, then it is probably fine.
  • Freeze it. Many things can be frozen without harm to their taste or texture. This includes raw and cooked meat, purportedly hard cheeses (never tried this myself!), tomato sauce, broth, cooked beans, whole and sliced bread and other baked goods, dry goods (flour, dry beans, spices, etc if you’re worried about rancidity or loss of flavor), and more! Many veggies can be blanched and then frozen.
  • Preserve it. There are many preservation methods to try! You can can, dehydrate, salt, ferment, smoke, or pickle. For example, turn milk into kefir or yogurt. Ferment cabbage into kimchi or sauerkraut. Smoke fish. Make jam.

If you are sick and tired of a particular food:

  • Take it to work to share with colleagues! Alternatively, share with friends and neighbors. This works especially well if you’re trying to get rid of desserts and snack foods.
  • On a similar note, have a potluck.
  • Give it away! You can do this on Freecycle or Craigslist (there is an area for free things under the sale section). There is also Olio, a food-sharing app for smart phones, soon to have a web app as well. Unfortunately, it isn’t as widely-used as Freecycle and Craigslist. I believe Olio is European in origin, so it is widespread in Europe. Amazingly, people also use it in Northern California! Lucky!
  • Feed it to pets. My grandparents always fed their cats table scraps.
  • Feed it to animals you’re going to eat (e.g. pigs or chickens).
  • Feed it to wild animals. Although not good to do frequently, at least some living being gets to eat it.
  • Compost it and use the compost to grow something else!