In this column, Planetarians share solutions that we know and trust and use that are “less-bad” than a lot of other products in the world. Each week, we will introduce you to something to ponder and, we hope, act upon – a product or a habit or a conversation starter. Before you replace your old favorite products, consider a Simple Swap!
1. How “green” are your favorite products?
We have sometimes fallen prey to “greenwashing”. Greenwashing is when a product or service is deceptively marketed so that you think it is better than it is. Empower yourself with a tool that can help you wade through pretty packaging and slick-sounding words to determine better choices. Use up the products you currently have and be informed when you are ready to replace them.
The Environmental Working Group has researched and rated more than 120,000 personal care, cleaning, and food products for more than three decades. Their app helps easily navigate the grocery aisles and attractive (sometimes distractive) packaging.
We find the best way to use this tool is via the search icon or scan it with your phone. If your old favorite or some new temptation is listed, it will be rated from 1-10, green-to-red, good-to-bad, and it might be EWG certified, which is really good. The process becomes self-explanatory with some practice. For personal care products, their scores consider Ingredient Concerns, Animal Testing Policies, and Label Information. For food products, their scores vet products based on Nutrition, Ingredients, and Processing. They call out their Dirty Dozen of often pesticide-laden foods. They have deeply researched cosmetics, sunscreens and bug repellants, pots and pans, and even tap water
2. The Magic of Baking Soda
It’s true and unfortunate that a lot of “green” products cost more than their counterparts. Not baking soda, aka sodium bicarbonate! It’s cheap (a five-pound cardboard box usually costs less than $3), readily available, and gets great scores from an environmental, health, packaging, and shelf-stable perspective. It can do so much more than leaven baked goods!
- It eliminates tea stains on our mugs and grunge from our countertops, sinks, bathroom tiles, and scorched pans.
- Mixed with vinegar, it makes carbonic acid – great to clean carpets.
- Once you develop a taste for it, it works great as a toothpaste powder, teeth whitener, and mouthwash.
- Neutralizing acids, it can settle an upset stomach and heartburn.
- It brightens light-colored clothing in the laundry.
- It absorbs – not masks – smells in the fridge, our shoes, the cat’s litter box, trash bags, and down our sink drains.
- By soaking produce in a big bowl of baking soda and water for about fifteen minutes, it can neutralize and/or wash away some pesticides.
- It can extinguish small grease fires and is included in many “dry” fire extinguishers.
- Made into a paste, it can relieve sunburn pain and bee stings (though, if left on too long, it can irritate skin).
3. The Better World Club
When your car breaks down and you need roadside assistance, every minute seems like a lifetime of dread. Let us introduce you to the Better World Club. Our limited experiences with them have been excellent, including response times. We are not alone. Wallet Hub ranked them as #1 in roadside assistance (and AAA as #22).
We think they are better in so many ways:
- Super responsive 24/7 roadside assistance, including bicycles.
- Maps, trip planning, hotel discounts, coupons for products and services, and other insurances.
- Discount for switching from AAA and will match AAA’s price quotes.
- Discount rates for hybrid and electric vehicles.
- A Certified B-Corp non-profit benefiting all people, communities, and the planet.
- All of their services are carbon-neutral.
- Through carbon offsets, membership dollars advance climate-aware and socially responsible efforts.
- Not part of the Highway Lobby, deep-pocketed interests that maintain the status quo around transportation issues.
- Supports safer, smarter streets, bike lanes, walking trails, electric vehicles, charging stations, and public transportation.
- We always chuckle when their cheeky e-newsletter – Kicking Asphalt –arrives in our inbox.
4. Be Greener On The Road
Whether it’s our normal commute, chores, or longer trips, we green up our ride, reducing both costs and environmental impacts.
- Combine trips and carpool.
- Follow a maintenance schedule including tune-ups, alignments, and proper tire inflation.
- Don’t forget your water bottle and thermos and remember to pack cloth napkins and utensils to avoid using take-out plastic and paper.
- Switch your roadside assistance service to Better World Club. (See #3 above!)
- Empty weighty clutter, but don’t forget the grocery bags!
- In winter, dress in layers so the car doesn’t need to idle warming up.
- In summer, open doors and windows, making the car faster to cool. (Bonus: you won’t breathe in nasty VOCs.
- Drive the speed limit, even if it makes for a slightly longer trip.
- Save your tires by avoiding jack rabbit starts and skidding stops.
And finally, keep your eyes on the road!
5. A Better Toothpaste
At Planetarian Life, we care a lot about what we eat, but what about the other things we put into our mouths? A clean mouth is crucial to our health, and the products most used negatively impact the environment.
Bite Toothpaste Bits claim that more than one billion toothpaste tubes are thrown into the trash each year. For this and other reasons, we’ve been using their products for almost three years:
- Tasty little chewable tablets in Mint, Charcoal Mint, and Berry Twist. When you crunch down, they foam up.
- Shipped in cardboard and paper; stored in refillable glass containers (and metal ones for travel).
- Minimal ingredient list and great for oral health.
- Since starting this regime, no cavities! (Our hygienist is impressed.)
- Bite also make mouthwash bits, floss, whitening gel, bamboo toothbrushes, and deodorant, all of which are biodegradable and plastic free!
- Subscriptions are discounted.
- Great for travel!
So next time you run out of toothpaste, consider trying Bite!
6. Meow Meow Tweet Deodorant
A few years back, we sought eco-friendly personal care products. Starting with deodorant, we reached out to the supplier of our most eco-friendly product, asking if they would create a refill program or make cardboard containers. We never heard back. Then we found Meow Meow Tweet.
These deodorants are vegan, cruelty-free, plastic-free with compostable packaging. Plus, they support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. No looking back!
- Laura uses grapefruit scent; Gil uses cedar spruce. Other scents are available.
- Aluminum-free, and for those with sensitive skin, baking soda-free.
- Available in stick and cream form.
- You subscribe, you save.
They also make lip balm, facial, body, and hair products.
We recently learned that Tom’s of Maine is now packaging some of their deodorants in cardboard, which we heartily applaud; but we’ll stay true to Meow Meow Tweet.
7. Bee’s Wrap
- It covers, protects, and seals just-right-tight around cheeses, cut produce like watermelon and citrus, a hunk of bread, sandwiches, and trail food (but never raw meat or fish).
- Its cotton and plant oils are organic and its beeswax and vegan wax alternatives are responsibly sourced.
- Clean up super easy – just sponge clean in soapy, cool water and air dry.
- After wrapping the food, bowl, dish, or baking pan, just a bit of hand warmth forms the shape. Ta-da!
- Great conversation starter at potlucks.
- When it loses its wrapping power, into the compost it goes.
- It’s GREAT for rolling the meatless breakfast sausage mixture into a tube for slicing into patties.
- Available in myriad sizes and colorful patterns, including a big roll.
- We love that Bee’s Wrap is a socially excellent company.
- We find it for sale in all sorts of stores and on-line.
8. Electrify Your Lawn Care
After a long winter, it’s time to clean up the yard. Next time you’re in the market for equipment, ditch the internal combustion engines for electric (or elbow grease!). String-trimmers, chainsaws, leaf-blowers, hedge-trimmers, mowers, and more are now available electric/battery-powered. Here are some benefits:
- No fossil fuels, resulting in advantages galore.
- No fumes or fuel spills.
- It’s lightweight. (Gil loves the electric string trimmer because Laura is comfortable using it.)
- It’s quiet. The motor itself and idling mode are silent. It’s only noisy when whacking, blowing, or sawing.
- It’s easy to maintain – just clean out the grunge.
- It’s easy to start – no frustrating cords to pull.
- Husqvarna – the brand we use.
- EgoPower—Our dear friend and fellow Planetarian, Patrick, is “all-in” with their complete suite.
- Our riding mower (aka grass-clipping mulch machine) is a Cub Cadet
9. Better Outdoor Furniture
Here in the northern latitudes, porch season has finally arrived. Hoorah! A few years ago, we wanted to make sound eco choices when upgrading our outdoor furniture. After frustrating searches that yielded nada, we finally found CRP Products at a favorite local retailer. We were instantly smitten:
- Beautiful, comfortable design, attractive, varied colors, heavy duty and durable.
- Resilient to all sorts of weathering, fading, rotting, or breaking. (They have a 25-year limited warranty.)
- Made from 100% recycled plastic means there’s a market for recycled plastic.
- Super easy to clean.
- Not cheap (We invest in a few pieces each year instead of buying those that break, crack, or fade into ugly piles at the landfill.)
- We love that their company was founded specifically to address landfill waste and sustainability.
- CRP’s store locator is super easy to use.
Whatever brand of outdoor furniture you ultimately buy, consider it an investment for the long term
10. Magical Mulch
We grow (and eat!) all our own vegetables and aspire to do the same for fruit and nuts. We think flowers are quite lovely. Ergo, we have a lot of gardens. While you might not want to duplicate that effort, here’s our most valuable secret: mulch!
Mulch holds soil and root systems in place, protects plants from diseases that can bounce off exposed soil onto leaves, and keeps seeds from germinating because they are not exposed to the sun.
Mulching this way ultimately saves us a ton of time, effort, and money and makes our plants and soil super happy. It also keeps the soil cool and moist, reducing the amount of irrigation needed!
- Because plastic and plasticized fabrics break into small messy bits never decompose, we don’t use them.
- Because dyed bark mulch looks unnatural, and the chemicals in the dye soak into the soil or roots of nearby plants, we don’t use them either.
- Natural bark mulch around trees and bushes is fine, but too much can kill them.
Instead, here’s what we do:
- Top non-glossy cardboard (tape removed) or black-and-white newspaper with grass clippings, shredded leaves, or straw, which we top-dress with more grass clippings throughout the year. It’s free. Plus, it breaks down and works hard to feed the soil in a chemically balanced, nutritious way.
- Save our compost for targeted plants.
- Spread wood chips on paths and between garden rows.
11. The Last Tissue You’ll Ever Need
We’ve all been there – super-sweet wedding, teary funeral, seasonal allergies – where tissues don’t hold up to nasal rigors. Plus, all that trash. Swap-Time! Enter Last Tissue.
We know what you think – used hankies are gross – but hear us out:
- Annually in the US, we use about 255,360,000,000 tissues.
- Paper and pulp-making are the #3 emitter of industrial GHGs.
- You shouldn’t recycle, compost, or burn tissues; fiber size and chemicals are respectively problematic.
- Whether using paper or cloth tissues, germs are germs.
- A laundered cloth tissue is….clean, not shredded.
Last Tissue is:
- 100% GOTS organic cotton, easy on the nose, no fragrance.
- Durable, colorful, silicone boxes in both travel-size and home-size have a divider section to keep the clean from the dirty so you don’t have to carry soiled tissues. The box is dishwasher safe/encouraged.
- Easy to launder, fold, and insert back into the box.
- Working towards a sustainable future. See their company-wide initiatives.
Buy a box – or set – and help your wallet, trash volume, and the environment.
12. Consider Fragrance-Free
Much like shopping for food, we need to understand the ingredients and marketing involved in personal care, cleaning, and other household products.
- Fragrant spaces or products can trigger health issues.
- Many individual fragrance chemicals are of concern, including natural, organic, and essential oils, and some combinations can be toxic.
- The largely self-regulated fragrance industry can hide specific ingredients behind trade secrets for fragrance formulations.
Pine and lemon “scents” (pinene and limonene) when mixed with airborne chemicals like ozone, create formaldehyde. Others combine to produce irritants.
For your health and the environment, make the shift to Fragrance-Free
13. Think Outside The Lawn: Micro Clover
“Perfect” lawns require significant inputs of fertilizer, broadleaf weedkillers, and irrigation, only to then become a mowing chore – often accomplished with a fossil-fuel mower.
Only a bit of our property is “lawn;” we collect clippings as mulch with an electric mower (see Swap #10)
We plant thin grassy areas and bare spots with micro clover. Here are a few facts:
- It is perennial, vibrant, lush, cold-hardy, and relatively drought-tolerant.
- It requires less fertilizer because it nourishes the soil, “fixing” nitrogen from the atmosphere into its root nodules.
- It handles high traffic, protects soil from erosion, survives dog urine, is soft on the feet, and spreads to fill in gaps.
- It is shorter than normal grass, meaning it needs less mowing.
We also plant white and red clovers elsewhere on our property, but they are taller and clumpy
14. Induction Cooking
Our twenty year-old propane cooktop became finicky – the perfect opportunity to switch away from fossil-fuels to induction. Alas, those frustrating supply-chain pandemic issues delayed the swap. Then we found a very-cool temporary solution: a two-burner induction countertop unit that plugs into a regular (120-volt) outlet.
- Super-responsive, easy to control, quiet, heats up very quickly, far faster than cooking with gas.
- Heats when a magnetic pan is atop it; shuts down if/when too hot.
- A heat-transfer plate allows Laura to use her favorite saucepan and the whirley-pop popcorn maker.
- Gas cooking is a significant source of emissions – even when not in use.
- Inhaling these emissions is really bad for health.
NOTE: Never leave a pan unattended on the induction cooktop.
Last summer, we installed the permanent induction unit and love it. We use the temporary unit when cooking and canning outside. Win-win!
15. Apple Cider Vinegar
We love when humble pantry items like apple cider vinegar (ACV) save the day, obviating other – especially plastic – products. Here we offer just a few of its many health, culinary, and cleaning benefits.
- Organic apple cider vinegar includes “mother,” made up of probiotic bacteria, yeasts, enzymes, and potassium – all great for gut health.
- Add a splash while cooking, make a yummy salad dressing, or use in canning/preserving.
- Make switchel, an old-time refreshing summer drink to keep electrolytes in balance.
- Use it to trap fruit flies.
- A ten-second ACV rinse on Laura’s tangled pandemic hair instantly unsnarled it. ACV also adds sheen, removes product build up, and reduces dandruff. (Don’t get it in your eyes. Laura promises you won’t smell like a pickle.)
- Cleans and disinfects windows, counters, and dehumidifiers.
- Mixed with baking soda, it makes carbonic acid—great for cleaning carpets.
- Oodles of health benefits, including blood-sugar and cholesterol control, skin toner, topical antiseptic, and more!
Note: ACV ‘s power comes from its super-acidic pH of between two and three. Avoid it if prone to ulcers, reflux/GERD, or stomach problems. Never inhale it, including gargling. It can erode teeth enamel, so rinse after a sip
16. Eat a Weed
Weeds keep us busy in the gardens, even when we mulch (See Tip 10). Our 2022 self-educating project focuses on local edible flora. At this northern latitude there are almost 300 forgeable plants to seek and taste. Bonus:
- No packaging.
- No pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers* (your site may vary).
- No embedded energy/transportation/carbon impacts.
- Not part of BigAg.
NOTE: Before foraging for food, be super-confident of its identity; avoid sites where exhaust and other pollutants may have contaminated the environment. Helpful resources include:
Similar to spinach, Giant Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) is newest to our menu rotation. Here’s more info on chickweed. Lambsquarters is another of our favorites. Both chickweed and lambsquarters are delicious, nutrient-dense, and offer many health benefits.
Both spread fast and are simple to harvest and interchangeable in recipes. We eat them in:
- Salad-greens mix.
- Veggie stir-fry or sautéed, delicious.
- Greens pesto (yum!)
17. Consider Biodiesel
Do you have a diesel vehicle or heat with oil, but can’t yet switch to electric? Are fuel costs freaking you out? Consider biodiesel!
- Made from waste vegetable and/or animal fats, usually sourced from local restaurants.
- Often available as pure B100 or blended with regular diesel as B5 or B20.
- Here are the pros and cons.
- Available here.
- Significantly less greenhouse gas emissions, soot, CO, SOX and other pollutants.
- Locally manufactured and distributed, therefore fewer fossil-fuel externalities.
- Our local manufacturer sells it 30% CHEAPER than regular diesel.
- Cold weather gels ALL diesel products, but additives are readily available.
- Ingredients are cleansing-astringent-solvent and clean fossil-fuel gunk from engine components, hoses, filters, gaskets, etc. After using it for a bit, you’ll need to clean/change them, but then you are golden.
We rely on our big tractor and love that biodiesel powers it.
18. Blueland Hand & Dish Soap
- Products arrive as tablets or powder, wrapped in compostable/recyclable paper. No need to ship water!
- Refillable kits include durable containers of glass, cardboard, or silicone.
We hand-wash our dishes with Blueland powder. Just a teaspoon of it on a damp sponge cuts through stubborn and oily messes. Their dishwashing powder and their laundry powder have achieved the much-coveted EWG Certification.
Blueland announces new products regularly. Check them out!
19. Wood Pellet Grill
Wood-pellet benefits include:
- Carbon neutral
- Made from low-grade waste from lumber, furniture, and paper manufacturing
- 100% sawdust, compressed until natural lignins act as a binder (confirm that added “flavorings” aren’t weird chemicals)
- Pellet ash is very alkaline; great as a site-specific soil amendment and compostable
Other uses for wood pellets:
- Space heating and domestic hot water in modern pellet stoves and boilers/furnaces
- Mulch is the consolation prize if you don’t keep pellets dry; they’ll expand into a soggy mess – use as acidic soil amendment
- Kitty litter pellets absorb smells without dust or tracking
- Bedding for horses
20. Stay Cool Without (or With Less) Air Conditioning
It’s 94 degrees outside, yet another heatwave, and we’re comfy inside at 74 without air-conditioning. With good habits and strategy, we’ve avoided buying an AC.
- HFC refrigerants often leak, 1,000-3,000x more potent than CO2 as a GHGe.
- Energy use spikes – ergo more emissions, everyone’s costs increase
- Heat dumped outside increases temperatures
- Often set too cold; what a waste
- Yet society relies on them.
Here’s what we do:
- Open windows and shades at night; button up in the morning.
- Insulating shades provide extra R-value to block and reflect heat.
- One small fan moves air at night; best use of fans.
- Avoid heat-generating appliances, i.e., oven, clothes dryer, etc.
- Hats, umbrellas, overshirts provide shade when outside.
- Cooling vests bring fast relief; take it to bed!
- If possible, stay inside midday.
- Cold-water foot soak, ice-cube your wrists, warm shower before bed.
- Cooling blanket.
- Stay hydrated: water, electrolyte-laden switchel, watermelon, lemonade.
- Avoid dehydrating caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals.
Stay cool and safe!
21. Credit Worthy
Credit cards and banks managed by JPMorganChase, Wells-Fargo, Citi, Bank of America, and other huge entities use the profits from your transactions, fees, and interest to further profit, often investing and lobbying for industries such as fossil fuels, mining and BigAg. We encourage you to swap to more Planetarian options, all of which provide the same services as the conglomerates:
- Local banks—not just branches of the biggies—have local investors, invest locally, and support your community
- Credit unions are non-profit, member-owned cooperatives, and reinvest in local needs
- Amalgamated Bank, a certified B-Corp has been fighting for a just and sustainable world for a century, check them out!
Whether you seek to improve your credit score, transfer your balance, borrow for something big, or switch to a lender that will use your hard-earned funds for good, there are options!
22. The Healing Properties of Honey
September is National Honey Month; let’s celebrate!
Honey is one of the earliest known and consistently savored human-used sweeteners and ingredients. Albeit comprised mostly of natural sugars (diabetics beware), raw organic honey has remarkable medicinal properties:
- Loaded with nutrients
- Antibacterial / Antimicrobial
Consider honey for:
- Soothing a sore throat
- Healing burns
- Clearing up skin problems
- Addressing diabetes-related ulcers
- And so much more!
Honeybees gather pollen and nectar which pollinates flowers, building honeycomb to deposit those resources, hatch, feed, and keep warm their next generation. Ironically, their healing powers aren’t working for themselves – colony collapse disorder is a major concern.
Other topics to consider:
Your local beekeepers will appreciate your financial and community support, and your sweet tooth will have a smaller embedded energy footprint.
No wonder we call our sweeties “honey”!
Like many of you, we’ve reduced needing single-use products. Bees Wrap (One Simple Swap #7) replaces plastic wrap for us – DONE! Silicone performs better than other short-lived items like:
- Muffin cups instead of paper or aluminum
- Pot and bowl Lids – super cute for cooking and potlucks
- Stasher bags – way better than ziplocks
- Ice-cube trays and single-servings of cooked greens, corn, soup, red sauce, etc.
- Spatulas withstand heat
- Last Tissue boxes, easy refills with Last Tissue (One Simple Swap #11)
- Potholders and trivets block heat transfer
- Baking mats
- For feeding Baby without fear of toxins
- A durable, non-toxic, flexible man-made polymer, comprised of silica (aka sand), hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen
- Void of BPA, phthalates, PFAS, or PFOAS as found in most non-stick surfaces
- Safe in the microwave, dishwasher, oven, freezer
- Easy to stack and store
Great news: recycle damaged silicone products here.
Laura & Gil Richardson
Our friends Laura & Gil Richardson are, in their own words, “imperfect” but they are much further down this Planetarian path than anyone I know. They are a treasure trove of sustainable living inspiration and we’ve asked them to share one simple swap per week that they’ve made (and the products they love) in hopes it might inspire you to make them, too.