Build Your Own Compost Bin with Shipping Pallets

One of the easiest things you can do to limit the amount of trash you produce is to compost your food waste. It requires little initiative, and you will benefit from the rich compost resulting from the breakdown of your kitchen scraps. The only thing you really need to do is create a suitable bin for your soon-to-be compost. Thankfully, there are alternatives to the overpriced, plastic compost containers that some garden supply stores hawk to customers. You can make your own using recycled shipping pallets for less than $20, or even free if you have some of the few necessary supplies.

How to build a compost bin

Here are two different sets of instructions on how to build your own inexpensive compost bin from reclaimed shipping pallets:
How to build a $15 shipping pallet compost bin
Pallet compost bin

Why to build with shipping pallets

Here are somestatistics about the production and waste associated with shipping pallets:

Approximately 40% of all hardwood harvested in the U.S. is for making shipping pallets
About two-thirds of pallets are used only once before being thrown out
1/4 of all wood in landfills is from used pallets

Why not put some of those shipping pallets headed to the landfill to good use? You can easily find shipping pallets around your town or city—try contacting supermarkets, warehouses, and other businesses that receive regular large shipments.

Happy composting!


Save Energy by Cooking with an Insulated Hot Box

You can save on your home energy consumption and a few precious dollars on your monthly bill by integrating a simple insulated hot box into your cooking. A hot box (also known as a hay box) provides an efficient solution to cooking food without the excessive use of your stove top or oven. Best of all, you can make a hot box for free, with very simple, recycled materials that you probably already have lying around your house.

What is a hot box?

Essentially, a hot box is an insulated box. The box can be just that: a cardboard box, or even a large cooler. The more important element is the insulation, which can be anything ranging from polystyrene foam board cutoffs, to straw, to towels, to shredded newspaper, or even sleeping bags.

How to make a hot box

1.) To make a hot box, find a large cardboard box (one that will be large enough to house several inches worth of insulating material on all sides, and your favorite cooking pot).

2.) Next, simply line it with your insulating material. If you’re using straw or foam board, you might consider getting a second, smaller box to put your pot in to keep things dry and tidy.

3.) Finally, put your pot in the fully insulated hot box, and make sure to cover it with some extra towels or insulating material. (If you have some sleeping bags, you don’t even need a box: simply wrap your pot in the middle of a bag or two.) Remember: the more insulation, the better! It’s important to keep the heat in.

How to cook with a hot box

Hot box cooking works best for things that cook slowly over time, like grains or beans, or even soups and stews.

For example, to cook rice, first let the rice boil for five minutes (which is enough time for the heat the fully penetrate the grains) on your stove top, and then throw the pot (covered with lid) in the box. Check back in another two to four hours. Your cooking time may vary (it all depends on how well insulated your box is), but expect your food to finish between two and four hours, depending on the food item.

Hot boxes are no-brainer solutions to cut back on energy consumption, without spending anything extra!

Growing Perennial Vegetables Saves Time and Offers Greater Bounty

Most gardeners are familiar with the yearly toil of creating and mending garden beds, starting seedlings, transplanting, watering, and harvesting their favorite vegetables. It’s a lot of work. But unfamiliar to many gardeners are perennial vegetables—vegetables that do not require annual plantings, and provide fruit, leaf, and shoot year after year without constant replanting effort and energy inputs. Most familiar is perhaps asparagus, but there are dozens of other perennial vegetables, and taking advantage of these varieties will save you time and energy throughout the years, in addition to promoting a healthier garden ecology.

Permaculture: less work and more rewards

Permaculture, or ‘permanent agriculture’ is a design methodology (for gardens and even buildings, too) that mimics the patterns, relationships, and balance found in natural ecosystems. Permacultural gardens stress the use of perennial plants because they do not require constant replanting (which can upset soil), and they take less energy to maintain and provide greater bounty for the effort it takes to get them established. Food forests, an extension of permacultural design, are intelligent gardens that group different layers of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs, designed so that each plant benefits from all of the others.

Gaia’s Garden is an excellent introduction to permaculture theory and gives practical information about how to design your own ecological garden. A more in-depth resource is Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke.

Strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus are some of the more common perennial plants grown for their edible fruit. However, there are many more than just that. Depending on where you live, you can you grow a bustling array of vegetables that will continue to provide food for your table during their long lifespans. Thankfully, Eric Toensmeier has detailed over 100 different perennial vegetables in his obviously-titled Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. This resource gives detailed descriptions of many lesser-known perennials and provides maps for US-based gardeners to determine if their area is appropriate for each variety.

Growing Veggies in the Snow

It’s cold out there…Brrr.  The likelihood is, in most parts of the country, the cold has frozen everyone’s resolutions for a greener 2009.  But now’s the time to get moving, especially for those who have made a commitment to eat locally this year.

If you’re truly concerned about the distances foods travel to your table, you need to get down and dirty – literally.  You can’t get any more locally grown that a garden in your back yard, or somewhere on your property.  And while it may be hard to imagine beautiful growing vegetables with all that snow, start thinking now about where you’ll be putting that garden.  It’ll be time to till before you know it.

Winter is the time to start planning your summer vegetable garden.  Go on line, or get some catalogs from companies like Burpee and start considering what you want to grow.  If you’re new to gardens, you might want to start with some research at your local library on the different types of gardens and how they work.  You’ll also want to start observing your yard to find out where plants will get the most sun and grow best.

Think now about what you want to plant in that garden.  How about some herbs to spice up your cooking?  Some – like basil, parsley, rosemary – are easy to grow.  You can even plant them in containers on your porch to save room in your garden for things like fresh tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, zucchini and peppers. It’s amazing what you can grow in your own garden under the right circumstances.  Watermelon, any one? 

But getting back to winter.  If you want to plant certain items, it’s important to research their germination dates, so you know when to plant them.  Germination varies for every plant, even for various types of the same vegetable, so be careful. Some vegetables can take quite a bit of time from plating to eating.  Don’t disappoint yourself by waiting too long to get seeds or seedlings in the ground.

Something else you’ll want to start now to create a healthy, environmentally friendly garden: compost.  If you’re not already a composter, you’ll want to be if you choose to grow some of your own food.  Composting is one of things many tend to think of as a major undertaking. It’s not.  You don’t need a fancy bin for the backyard.  You can make your own, or even go without one.  When done correctly, compost should not cause an odor problem or invite pests.  Just know that without a fancy bin, you’ll have to go out and turn the heap from time to time.  Bonus – its good exercise.

Those counter top composters with the carbon filters are nice. But you really don’t need that either.  Find a container with a tightly fitting lid, and some room for it under your kitchen sink, and your ready to go.  From time to time, empty the container to your main compost heap in the yard, turn the heap once in a while, and soon you’ll have some nice dark soil to apply to your garden for nutrients.

The trick to compost is a balance between carbon sources and nitrogen sources.  The ideal ratio is about 30:1 in favor of carbon. Carbon sources are things like coffee grounds, egg shells, and fruit wastes, in addition to leaves, pine needles, straw, newspaper, and wood chips.  Nitrogen sources are items like manure, weeds, garden waste and grass clippings.  Don’t use food wastes like meats and fats. For complete instructions on composting, check in with your local agricultural extension office.

Remember, most farmers markets aren’t in full swing until mid-summer, but you can get moving on your commitment to eating locally right now.  Feeling warmer yet?

Natural Cleaners - Vinegar and Baking Soda

I really hadn’t thought much about the cleaning products I used until recently.  I grew up with the mindset that the harsher the cleaner, the more sterile the surface became.  My husband and I started thinking about natural cleaners after our son was born.  We read up on the benefits of using vinegar and baking soda and started using that in our laundry, and especially when it came to washing our son’s diapers.  Before, we only used detergent on the diapers, but it would mask the smell. The combination of vinegar and baking soda took out the odors completely.  Lets go over the benefits of both components.

This alternative cleaning article showed us how we can use vinegar not only to disinfect and deodorize laundry, but for all of our house cleaning needs. 

You’re probably wondering, but what about the smell?  Once the vinegar dries, the smell disappears completely. 

You’re also probably wondering if the acid in vinegar could harm certain surfaces. Yes, it could harm tile or marble, so make sure it is diluted well. 

Of course, in areas like toilets, the higher the concentration, the better, as it is wonderful at taking out toilet rings: After first reading this, I tried it and it works very well. 

Diluted vinegar is also excellent at getting rid of soap scum and hard water stains!  Put some in a spray bottle and it also works great for cleaning floors, counter tops, stoves and appliances. I don’t know about you but I’ve tried many cleaners, many harsh ones, that claimed to work but they didn’t, so I’m excited to share the good news about the wonders of vinegar.

Baking soda is widely known for combating odors, but did you know it’s also wonderful to use instead of your typical “scrub” cleaners, not to mention much healthier! Another natural cleaning article mentions that baking soda is wonderful at dissolving dirt and grease in water, so as previously mentioned, it is wonderful to add to your laundry.  Two tablespoons of baking soda diluted in a liter of water create a safe all-purpose cleaner. 

Another tip: Create a paste by adding a bit of water and you can eliminate those stubborn coffee and tea stains.  I also found another way vinegar and baking soda work fabulously together—as a drain cleaner.  Pour a half cup of baking soda, then a half cup of vinegar, let it sit for 15 minutes, and then pour a kettle of boiling water. 

Try these tips yourself and you will see how effective and economical these two ingredients are!

Give the Gift of Green

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, they say.  And it probably is – but it’s certainly not the greenest. Not only does it generate lots of waste for landfills, but holiday time can leave us with lots of gifts and gadgets we don’t really need, or that are manufactured just to sate our ever-expanding holiday shopping needs.

It is possible to give gifts that are cool, thoughtful and green.  When you’re shopping this season, keep some environmental basics at heart, and you can help to keep your holiday footprint to a minimum. 

Here are some of my favorite gift ideas to get you rolling:

Aveda – started in 1978 to provide a more natural alternative to beauty professionals – is old hat at green, but still progressive in its approach. In 2008, the company raised $2.8 million to support clean water initiatives across the globe.  If you’re lucky enough to have an Aveda salon near you, treat someone special to a relaxing day.  Find locations and the spa menu online at  If you can’t find an Aveda store nearby, consider some of the company’s amazing beauty products.  I’m a fan of the Be Curly line.

Burt’s Bees is one of the best when it comes to earth-friendly personal care products.  Personal favorites include Burt’s lip shimmers and coconut foot scrub.  For men with rough hands, try out Farmer’s Friend Hand Salve.  The baby line is fab as well.  Available in drug stores, Borders, Target, etc.  Combine products for a great gift, or try out one of Burt’s gift assortments.  More variety is usually available online. Other great brands include Tom’s of Maine, Kiss My Face, and Origins.

The World Wildlife Fund offers a catalog full of adoption opportunities for animal lovers, focused on raising funds for their programs for endangered species.  The options seem almost endless – you receive a various adoption package based on your donation amount, so if it’s a gift, you have something for the recipient to open.  In most cases, you get a stuffed version of your adoptee.  Certainly fun for kids, and a great learning tool.  At the same time, if your home – or that of the gift recipient – has been taken over by plush, you may want to think hard about this option.  WWF’s adoptions are nice, but I have issues with this effort as well – last year I did a few adoptions, and as a thank you, WWF sent me an unnecessary metal tree ornament – made in China.

Uncommon Goods – the Web site (and catalog) is lots of fun, and carries a lot of items made of recycled and reclaimed materials.  Two of my favorites are the depression glass earrings and the hockey stick storage box.  Uncommon Goods gifts can be a little pricey, but they make a real point that almost anything can be made into something else.

Totes eco-brella.  Protect yourself from the elements while sending a clear eco-message to all you encounter in the next rain storm. Totes eco-brella canopy is 100 percent recycled PET bottles, and the frame is 70 percent recycled aluminum.  A chic bamboo handle and teardrop recycling logo complete the look. $30.

Dr. Suess was green before green was cool, in case you didn’t know.  That’s why The Lorax is my all-time favorite gift for children.  Not only is it a great and fun story in the Suess style that makes us all smile a little easier, it offers children the best gift of all – an appreciation for planet earth. Nowadays, The Lorax is produced with recycled and sustainable materials.

Remember, to give green, you don’t necessarily have to resort to companies and retailers you’re not familiar with.  You can find earth-friendly products through Patagonia, Columbia Sportwear, L.L. Bean, and even here at Neutral Existence.  Organic cotton clothing can be found through Wal-Mart, Pottery Barn, and J.Jill among others.  Look for solar gadget chargers, rechargeable battery sets, or even consider giving vintage or antique items a new life. Or really make someone happy with a sampler of organic chocolates or an organic wine, available everywhere from grocery stores to online specialty shops.

If you’re not ready to jump into green products just yet, take small steps, and remember that every little bit helps.  Buy toys that require kid power, not battery or electric power.  Give someone a beautiful plant to freshen the air in their home this winter. Or offer gift cards so your loved ones can get what they really need – bonus, gift cards also minimize wrap and packaging.

Whatever you choose, have a happy and greener holiday!

Dreaming of a Green Christmas – Take 1

Ah, the holidays.  A time of family, friends, good cheer – and lots and lots of waste.  Wasted energy, wasted food, wasted money.  Holidays can make a cynic out of the most noble hearted of us.  For those paying attention, the month of December alone could turn even the most callous person into an eco-freak.

Like so many of the human world’s un-eco friendly practices, the holidays can only go green with effort on our part. Want your celebrations this year to include more green than a tree?  Here are some easy ways to get going this season without loosing the cheer of the season.

First off, rethink shopping.  I’m not telling you to not shop, just be smart about how and what you give.  Consider shopping online – you’ll be one less person sitting in traffic. FedEx and UPS will be out there anyway.  Some sites are introducing smart new initiatives for the holidays that can ease a green conscious – is launching a pilot that addresses “stressful” packaging like those clam shell packs you can never get open and those endless twisty-ties on kid’s toys.  Also, online you have the option of shopping through a charitable portal like where retailers offer a percentage of your purchase cost to the charity of your choice.

Think about what you give.  Look for toys that don’t require numerous batteries.  Seek out products that use less packaging. Consider greener alternatives – solar power chargers for electronics nuts; reusable totes for shopping divas; fair-trade coffees for foodies;’s new Kindle reader for your book worm, an amaryllis for your gardener. As a rule, buy utilitarian gifts from responsible companies.  In a companion to this post, I’ll offer some ideas on my favorite “greener” gifts for 2008.

Check the mailbox.  If you’re sending cards, purchase those made from recycled content.  White envelopes are easier to recycle (brightly colored ones require more de-inking to become recycled paper).  Find new uses for the cards that come on your box – use the front panels as gift tags, or even as holiday postcards.  Consider donating card fronts to charity – St. Jude’s Ranch, a non-profit home for youths collects them for craft projects through which residents can make money – St. Jude’s Card Recycling, 100 St. Jude Street, P.O.Box 60100, Boulder City, NV, 89006.

Next, re-do the wrap.  You can do the obvious and look for wrap made from recycled paper.  Or you can ditch the wrap altogether for reusable gift bags – look for ones in general colors like red, green, gold and blue, that can be used year round. And don’t burn wrap in the fireplace to get rid of it – it releases toxins into the air, but more importantly, it can cause build up in your chimney that can lead to a fire.

Three letters – LED.  Upgrade your holiday lights for LED versions.  STAT.  According to Home Depot, LEDs use up to 90 percent less energy. If you can’t spring for new lights this year, consider décor without lights. And skip the giant inflatables – not only are they one of the more tacky innovations in holiday décor, the blowers used to keep them full of air are major energy hogs.

Eco-entertain.  No disposable dinner ware.  But, if you must, use a biodegradable plate like Chinet, and add used ones to your compost pile. Use your dishwasher for clean up – regardless of what some will tell you, current models use so little water, they’re a better option than hand washing.  And using one gives you more time for guests.  Set up a simple recycling area for wine bottles, aluminum cans, etc. near your bar. 

Compost, compost, compost.  The holidays are a great time to embark on this task if you haven’t already.  If you have a nice size yard, you don’t need a fancy bin or even a bin at all.  Just follow good composting policy and you can avoid both odor and pests – check out your local agricultural extension program for tips. One reminder – holiday time is a smorgasbord of rich foods.  Stick to fruit, vegetable, paper and cardboard waste for your pile.  Decadent, fatty foods and meats don’t compost well and will draw uninvited visitors.

Finally, the tree thing.  If you’re more inclined toward an artificial, reusable tree, by all means, go for it. Just remember, artificial trees may be reusable, but they are manufactured products. Don’t shy away from real trees for environmental reasons.  Tree farmers, in most cases, plant additional trees when replacing stock, and through the year, tree farms provide great wildlife habitat.  Nearly every regional area offers some sort of post-holiday program for real trees – some collect them for mulching and composting (two things you can also do on your own), some for fish habitat building efforts.  Some trees can be purchased with the root ball attached for planting after use.  Consider moving yours outdoors for bird habitat after the big gift giving, until recycling programs go into effect. 

So, with apologies to Bing Crosby, start dreaming now of a green Christmas.  And don’t forget to share your ideas for a more responsible holiday on the Neutral Existence message boards.

Bisephenol A Free Baby Bottles

Many of you have probably heard in the news about bisephenol a (BPA), which is a chemical that is released when certain plastic components react to liquids that are acidic, high in fat or heated.  This has left parents concerned about the safety of the bottles they use to feed their babies. 

Many studies conducted have shown is that BPA can potentially cause lifelong problems such as breast or prostate cancer, infertility, or early puberty. However, the FDA continues to say that the levels of Bisephenol A that are released in these plastic bottles are still well below dangerous levels and the bottles are safe to use.

The good news is that there are plenty of alternatives available! 

When we first heard about these problems, my husband conducted some research and found the brand Nurture Pure.  We bought a couple of sippy-cups and glass bottles for our son.  We love both, but I have to say, as much as I like the glass bottles, they are a problem due to their weight and due to the fact that our son is at the stage where he loves to drop things! 

Yes, the other day we were having lunch at a local restaurant and my son shocked the whole room when he dropped his glass bottle.  I didn’t expect it to happen, as he was gulping his juice, but the second I looked away he took it out of his mouth and threw it on the floor.  Oh yes, it was fun to hear and see all that glass shatter, yeah right.  Because of this experience, I obviously wanted to look for a plastic alternative! 

I went to Super Target today and found Born Free bottles: definitely pricier than other bottles, but of course, to me, protection has no price!  So far so good. Born Free claims to reduce the risk of middle ear infection and helps reduce colic.

Back to School, The Green Way

With summer days passing too quickly for their children, many parents are anticipating the start of a new school year. Back to school time is a great opportunity to teach environmental values and responsibility to the younger set, as capitalist tradition compels parents to dive into a sea of consumer goods with their children by their sides.

Many parents will face the back-to-school season with tighter budgets this year, so environmental concerns may not be top of mind for shoppers.  But there are still some great ways to lighten your footprint and teach valuable lessons.

First, the basics.  Apply other environmental tips you know.

Reduce.  Or “precycle.”  Sit down with your student and make a list of back-to-school needs before you hit the stores.  Talk about buying only what you need – that locker wallpaper may look cool, but will it eventually end up in the garbage? Shop for classic and multi-season clothing that will get more use and last longer. Invest in a reusable water/drink bottle for lunchtime an after school activities – preferably one without BPA (Nalgene lovers, take heart.  The company is phasing out use of BPA in its bottles.) Look for supplies that have recycled content – Staples and Home Depot both offer green office supply lines, and Pilot Pens now markets BeGreen roller balls and ball points, made of 70 percent recycled material.

Reuse.  If your student’s backpack, lunch tote, water bottle, or any other accessory from last year can make it through another semester or year, put it back to work.  Peruse the closet and bureaus.  Can backbones like jeans, jackets, fleece, etc. make it a few more miles? If so, keep them.  If your child objects, use the opportunity to talk about responsible consumerism and the need to simplify our consumption habits for the good of the environment. If you find you do need replacement items later, you may be able to save a few dollars on staple items like these when sales hit in a few months.

Recycle. While inventorying your student’s clothes, supplies and accessories from last year, you’re likely to run into some items that no longer fit, have fallen from trend grace, or have just seen their day.  Look for creative ways to recycle these items. Got old athletic shoes?  Nike collects used shoes – no matter the brand – to manufacture Nike Grind, a material it uses to build safe play surfaces in under privileged neighborhoods.  Visit for details on contributing.  Patagonia has a similar program for used fleece clothing called Common Threads.  Information is available at Again, don’t forget about local charities that take clothing donations, and of course, the Freecycle network.

Other ideas:

Combine your trips if possible.  Don’t make separate trips for clothing, shoes, supplies and whatever else your children may need.  Look for shopping centers and malls where you can do most of your back-to-schooling in one place, and cut down on trips between stores.  Not only is this practice environmentally friendly, it will save you money on gas.

Take your own bags.  Many department and boutique stores, including Macy’s, are now encouraging customers to bring reusable bags to their stores for purchases. Keep your receipts handy, just in case you run into someone who hasn’t gotten the word on global warming.

Consider shopping online. If you’re looking for eco-friendly products, you’ll probably find a much greater selection on the Web.  And again, you’ll be saving gas (that DHL truck is on the road anyway).  If you do plan to make a lot of online purchases, think about buying through a Web site like, which will funnel a portion of your purchase amount to any charity (bonus if you pick an environmental group) at no extra cost based on agreements it has developed with retailers.

Finally, if you’re looking for environmentally friendly products, but haven’t yet developed high confidence in the recently-established glut of eco-companies, there are some great alternatives from names you know and trust. Check out these items:

Lands’ Ends’ new PVC-free lunch boxes at

Clothing from Patagonia, made of recycled soda bottles, unusable second quality fabrics, and worn out garments, at

Earth Keepers foot ware for men from Timberland, incorporate organic, recycled and renewable materials and solvent-free adhesives.

Nike’s Trash Talk athletic shoes, built from manufacturing waste, are worn by Phoenix Sun’s All-Star Steve Nash. A little pricy, but worth a look. Check them out at

For your fashionista’s, look for natural cosmetics.  Burt’s Bees makes some of the best lip glosses and balms around.  Not only are the ingredients natural, the packaging is made from recycled materials.  For hair care, check out Aveda,, one of the first companies to mix beauty and nature successfully.  Its new campaign on water pollution awareness looks directly at the next big environmental crisis in the pipeline (pun intended). The Body Shop, , and Origins, , also offer great alternatives to traditional cosmetics. 

Is Your Milk Genetically Modified With RBGH?

This is my first time writing a blog post.  I have to admit it took me a while to get here.  Let me explain, and many of you may relate.  I’m a new mom.  Our son has been the biggest blessing I could have ever imagined, but it has taken me a long time to get adjusted and organized.  I quit my job when David turned 4 months old and started to work from home instead.  Being home with him is the greatest gift.  So, needles to say, it’s taken me a while to sit and finally be able to write my thoughts. 

There are many things that interest me and concern me as a mother and as a citizen of this planet.  I will start with one of my biggest “hot topics:” the products we consume.  I am not a strict healthy eater, but I do think about how our food and drinks are produced. 

It all started while I was working on my undergrad degree in communication: I took a communication law class and chose “genetically modified products” as my topic for a huge paper.  While researching this topic, I encountered tons of frightening information, but what shocked me the most was recombinant bovine growth hormone, (rbgh). 

Rbgh is a genetically engineered hormone that is injected into cows in order to increase their milk supply.  In my research, I found that the effects are horrible for the cows: they frequently develop cancer, ulcers and mastitis, among other health problems.  Many times this will cause the udders to secrete puss, and guess where the puss goes—into the milk we drink every day!!!! 

This disgusted me and I hope it disgusts you too! 

There are tons of studies showing the ill effects of rbgh not only on cows but on humans as well!  What is even scarier is that this truth is trying to be buried by big corporations.  I am not encouraging anyone to stop drinking milk: on the contrary, I LOVE dairy products!!!  I encourage you to look for rgbh-free products. 

I have to brag about a Kleinpeter Dairy, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  This is a family-owned business that has always been rbgh-free because, they are “committed to the respectful and humane treatment” of their cows!  They have been featured in local papers but also in national periodicals such as Vanity Fair!  I was so excited the first time I had seen their commercial, which emphasized being rbgh –free!  I bought a gallon of their milk the next day and have been buying it ever-since—I can taste the difference!  As I said, Kleinpeter is local, and will most likely be available in other states in the future, but if it is not in your grocery store, look for other rbgh free dairy products!