Low Energy Warm and Cozy

PRICE RANGE Electric heating pads range in price from HKD 200-800

PRODUCT RATING Great. Most heaters dry the air, making your skin itchy and sinuses uncomfortable. Electric heating pads keep you warm and toasty without drying the air. There is nothing more comforting on a cold night then climbing into a warm bed.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. Our previous room heater consumed over 2000 watts of electricity. The electric heating pad uses less than 100 watts.

The Hong Kong Observatory forecasts a colder winter this year due to climate change. As climate change increases occurences of extreme weather, we will consume more energy trying to keep our environment within our comfort zone. As we consume more energy we inevitably drive the climate to even greater extremes.

By becoming smarter consumers, we can find ways to stay comfortable while reducing our impact on the environment (not to mention our wallets). The electric heating pad is an example of how we can remain comfortable while drastically slashing our energy consumption. It keeps us warm without needlessly heating the space under our bed or near the ceiling for example. Continue reading “Low Energy Warm and Cozy”

Do Natural Cleaners Work?

Many commercial cleaners contain toxic chemicals that are hazardous to our health and to the environment. Chemicals in common household cleaners have been found to induce occupational asthma, reduce fertility and birth weight in mice, reduce embryo survival in fish, reduce sperm count in adult men, and cause allergies in children. This list only includes some of the proven effects of chemical cleaners. There are no studies on the effects of long term exposure to these chemicals or the effects of the interaction of chemicals in our environment.

We need to balance our need and desire for cleanliness against the effects these chemicals have on our health and the environment. What this article seeks to do is look at the science to determine if natural cleaners are a viable alternative.

In order to determine if we can replace the chemical cleaners that we find on supermarket shelves with natural cleaners, we need to first define what we expect to accomplish by using cleaners. Generally, cleaners should remove dirt and maintain hygiene. I expect cleaners to perform three specific functions: (1) eliminate germs, (2) mask or remove odors, and (3) loosen dirt and grime so it can be washed away.

GERMS

The failure to remove bacteria from food preparation surfaces can have implications in the transmission of food borne diseases. Many anti-bacterial cleaners have been developed to provide convenient cleaning of food prep areas, replacing the proven method of washing with detergent and rinsing with water.

Our excessive obsession with eliminating germs  by using anti-bacterials may be having adverse consequences on our health. Germs may play a role in developing our immune system, the fewer germs people are exposed to in childhood, the more vulnerable they may be to sickness as adults. More worryingly, Anti-bacterial soaps, cleaners and toothpaste have now been shown to weaken muscle function by interrupting cellular communcation necessary for muscle contraction.

The primary benefit of anti-bacterial cleansers is their ability to provide us with peace of mind by guaranteeing the elimination of germs. This study from the University of Florida shows that anti-bacterial cleaners are able to eliminate 99.99% of E.coli, Listeria and Staphylococcus bacteria from surfaces. In comparison, a mixture of 1 part vinegar, 1 part lemon juice, 2 parts water and pinch of baking soda was able to eliminate 99.9% of these same bacteria. This test involved innoculating surfaces with bacteria and then spraying or pouring the cleaners on the infected surfaces. The surfaces were not washed or rinsed (the proven, traditional solution). From this study, we can conclude that natural cleaners can be highly effective in reducing germs (but is a statistically significant 00.01% less so). The acidic nature of vinegar makes it a good disinfectant that is also effective against mold. Continue reading “Do Natural Cleaners Work?”

Oh…So… Cool

PRICE RANGE HK$ 400 to 3000. Installation may be extra (we paid HK$ 400 to have ours installed).

PRODUCT RATING Cooool. Fans cool you gently without making you vulnerable to colds. According to a study conducted by Cardiff University, “Air conditioning itself may contribute to infection with common cold viruses. The lining of the nose is covered with a thin layer of mucus which protects against infection. Since air conditioners extract moisture from the air they may cause some drying of the protective mucous blanket in the nose and predispose to infection. The cold air may also help viruses to establish a hold in the nose as they reproduce better in a cold nose”. Not to mention the havoc that is caused to your body when you walk into a freezing cold room after having been outside in the blazing heat.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. Fans consume only one-tenth the electricity compared to an air conditioner. However, due to the inconceivably poor design of Hong Kong apartments – with large, protruding bay windows that trap heat, windows that don’t open to allow ventilation, etc – fans can only be used primarily as a complement rather than a substitute for air conditioners. Fans are simple, durable devices. In comparison, air conditioners are complex to manufacture and dispose of safely. New air conditioners contain refrigerants (flourocarbons) that do not deplete the ozone layer, but still contribute to global warming because they are potent greenhouse gases.

AVAILABLE AT http://www.smcfans.com/products

Modern humans are comfortable within a fairly narrow temperature range – according to the EPD, over 90% of building occupants feel comfortable with temperature between 22.5C and 25.5C. In Hong Kong, where summer temperatures can easily rise above 30C, we face a conundrum – do we use an air conditioner to make ourselves cooler today, while pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that will guarantee a hotter climate for ourselves in the future?

One way we can try to maintain a cooler living environment while lessening our impact on the planet is to use fans. By installing a ceiling fan in our bedroom, we have been able to reduce the number of nights we turn on the air conditioner by about 30% (the two weeks at the beginning and end of summer). Even when we do use the air conditioner, we are able to able to set it at 26C. For every 1C increase in your thermostat setting – you reduce your electricity consumption by 3%. Continue reading “Oh…So… Cool”

The Original Non-Stick

PRODUCT Cast iron skillet

PRICE HK$80 for the 10.5″ pan

PRODUCT RATING Excellent for pan-frying, braising, searing and sauteing (and quite possibly as a weapon …it is very, very heavy). Due to the excellent heat diffusion and retention properties, you can get that sizzling golden brown, teppanyaki effect that just can’t be duplicated on a non-stick pan. I think it would be great for searing meat, although I haven’t tried it myself, as I stopped cooking meat a few years ago.

GREEN RATING Deep Green. I’ve only owned it for a short time, but have a feeling that it will last forever. This is just so much greener than throwing a non-stick pan into the landfill every 6 months.

AVAILABLE AT We bought ours at a cookware shop on Shanghai Street (Yau Ma Tei MTR). There are various brands at different price ranges available at kitchen shops around the city.

Yvonne Chounard, Patagonia’s founder, defined a well made, well designed product as one that lasts a long time, is easily repaired and then finally breaks down in many places at the same time. For example, a pair of Levi’s lasts many, many years, but when its seen too many days, it gets holes in the knees, frays at the bottom, small change falls through the pockets all at the same time. He defined a poorly designed product as one where if one part breaks, the whole thing is trashed. For example, if one tiny part in our stereo, TV, or computer breaks we end up throwing the whole thing away.

Based on this definition, non-stick pans are pretty poorly designed. After 6 months of use, the pan still looks fine, but because the non-stick coating is worn, the whole thing has to be thrown away. I’ve tried many brands from Meyer to Tefal to Silverstone and they all end up in the trash within a year. I end up buying a new pan every year and throwing my old one into the landfill. Continue reading “The Original Non-Stick”

Sometimes Green, Not Always Clean

We have tried many detergents in an attempt to reduce the impact of doing our laundry on the environment. According to this report by the US EPA on the Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients, many conventional laundry detergents contain substances that:

  • Are toxic to aquatic organisms like fish and algae
  • Are endocrine disruptors in animals, including humans
  • Diminish oxygen levels in water and hence reduce the water body’s ability to support  aquatic life (phosphates)
  • May cause cancer or other adverse health effects in humans

One of the most effective ways to reduce the impact of doing laundry is to minimize the amount of washing we do and to use less detergent. For example, towels, bedding, sweater and jeans don’t require heavy duty cleaning. For these items, we can cut our detergent use in half. According to the WSJ, many fashionistas are in fact washing their jeans as little as possible and are instead hanging them up to air out.

We hesitated somewhat before writing this article because without a testing lab, it can be quite hard to tell when clothes are clean. Our highly “scientific” method includes visually inspecting and smelling our laundry after a wash. Here is a review of the cleaners we have tried:

PRODUCT Ceramic Pieces Washing Ball (Korea)

PRICE HK$ 400 – 500

PRODUCT RATING Useless. The plastic ball contains ceramic pellets which supposedly change the pH balance of the water to wash your clothes without detergent. However, Consumer Council’s “Choice” magazine conducted lab tests that show that using it is no more effective than washing with water alone.

PRODUCT Nature Clean Laundry Powder (Canada)

PRICE HK$ 80 for 2kg

PRODUCT RATING Very good. Clothes look and smell clean. Results are very similar to conventional detergents. Has a very pleasant smell. Highly concentrated so only a small amount is required. Lasts a surprisingly long time for such a small box.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. Does not contain phosphates, chlorine bleach, synthetic dyes & perfumes, or optical brighteners. Formula is vegetable based derived from corn and palm kernel oil. The demand for palm oil though is a cause of deforestation of tropical rainforests. Powders are more concentrated than liquids, hence require less energy to transport. This may be somewhat offset by the fact that it is produced in the Canada. Packaged in a recycled cardboard carton.

AVAILABLE AT Club O in Mong Kok

Continue reading “Sometimes Green, Not Always Clean”

Bokashi: Dealing with Kitchen Waste

PRICE HK$ 399 for the system and 1 bag of the micro-organism (lasts 1 to 2 years).

PRODUCT RATING Good only if you have a place to bury the “compost”. This system is imported from Australia (where many homes have backyards) so it’s not very suitable for Hong Kong apartment dwellers.

GREEN RATING Quite Green. By separating kitchen waste, we went from throwing out 3 to 4 bags of garbage per week to only 1 per week.

AVAILABLE AT Greeners Action 

We were initially quite excited to learn about the kitchen waste “composting” program  at Park Island. Residents can pick up plastic container from the doorman, fill it with kitchen waste and return it to the doorman. Our understanding was that it would be processed by an on site kitchen waste “composting” machine and we naively assumed the compost would be used in the surrounding gardens. After attending a residents meeting, we learned that the compost was not used in the gardens because landscaping was outsourced to a company that did not use compost. We soon learned that it was actually being released to the sewage treatment plant. So electricity is used first to turn kitchen waste into sludge and then again by the sewage treatment plant to deal with this sludge. It would be hard to find a more ludicrous or damaging form of greenwash. Park Island is supposed to be a green community, which is not only greenwash but is hogwash, but that is a story for another day.

After realizing this, we bought a Bokashi “composting” system (the reason we keep putting the word compost in quotations is because none of these solutions are truly composting). The model we purchased is essentially two buckets, one nestled into the other like Russian dolls. The inner bucket, which you put your kitchen waste into, has holes at the bottom allowing liquid to drain out. The outer bucket collects the liquid. The latest model “Bokashi One” instead has a tap for draining the liquid, making it much more convenient. Continue reading “Bokashi: Dealing with Kitchen Waste”

Bamboo Dish Pad & Wiping Cloth

PRICE HK$ 40-55 for a pack of 4 cloths

PRODUCT RATING Pretty Good, without dish detergent, when used for washing dishes that are not too greasy. Just Ok, with detergent, for dirty dishes. Excellent when used for wiping countertops. A superior product for many uses, but does not replace a sponge with an abrasive pad for hard-to-clean dishes.

GREEN RATING Light Green to Quite Green depending on the manufacturing process chosen by company. Made from 100% bamboo fiber. Durable. The anti-bacterial quality of bamboo means you can go without detergent for light cleaning. (note: there is some controversy about whether the anti-bacterial quality of bamboo remains after going through the manufacturing process.) The Noesis brand cloth is certified organic.

AVAILABLE AT Club O. They are sold by two Hong Kong companies (Noesis is one, the other I can’t remember the name) usually at booths in malls or shopping areas. Also sold at Mai Po Po in Fan Ling during their local organic farmers market on Wed and Sun.

For wiping our dining table and kitchen counters, we used to use the ubiquitous Scotch-Brite Kitchen Wipes. These are the ultra-thin, blue striped, perforated cloths that seem to occupy every home. From a user perspective, I have always been dissatisfied with them. Firstly, they are too thin to be held properly when wiping something down and have a very unsatisfying, disposable feel to them. Then after a dozen or so uses, they get that squishy feel that is really quite gross.  You start to wonder, what kind of germs are brewing in that moist, mushy cloth. The cloth then eventually starts to smell, as if to confirm your initial fears. Although they are advertised as washable, who feels like putting something like that in the wash with their clothes?

Since they are so cheap and because no one wants to wash them, I suspect most of us end up throwing them away before the end of their useful life. Minimizing the use of disposable items, that over a lifetime clog up our landfills, is a key principle of living sustainably. In addition, these wipes are produced from petrochemical derivatives making them inherently unsustainable.

We also avoided the use of a cotton dish cloths because cotton is one of the most environmentally unsustainable crops. Although advertised as natural, the growing of cotton today constitutes 25% of annual worldwide insecticide use, while only occupying 3% of agricultural land. The land on which conventional cotton is grown is a dead zone, no other plants, animals or insects can survive on it. Bamboo on the other hand grows rapidly and naturally without any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. It has a massive yield per acre and is probably one of the most sustainable crops in the world. Bamboo, like trees, also sequester CO2.

The bamboo cloths reviewed here are sold for washing dishes, but we also use them for wiping tables and countertops. For this use, they have many advantages that make them simply superior to both Scotch-Brite wipes and cotton cloths. The first thing you notice when you touch them is the thick, quality feel that just feels just right in your hand. They are soft and absorbent like cotton, but don’t get that super heavy feel when soaked with water. It’s like a cross between synthetic quick-dry and cotton. Continue reading “Bamboo Dish Pad & Wiping Cloth”