Bike Trailer Time!!

Ready to roll!

Ready to roll!

So, I have been waiting and waiting to be able write this post:  The weather is finally nice enough to break out the bike trailer!  I’ve mentioned before how much I love commuting to work on a bicycle, and Jen has mentioned why we love being a one-car family, so my enthusiasm for the bike trailer should come as no surprise.  This weekend, the weather in central PA was beautiful, and as if that weren’t enough, Jen took the one car on a trip to visit a friend in VA for the weekend, so if Pete and I wanted to go anywhere, we were going to have to either walk or go by bike.  (We don’t have a second child’s helmet for John yet, so it was also convenient that it was just me and Pete this weekend).

So, after working in the garden on Saturday morning and eating an early lunch, Pete and I got suited up and performed the necessary safety checks: filled the bike and trailer tires, checked for corrosion in the trailer frame over the past year, and ensured all the straps and harnesses were likewise intact.  It always takes me a little bit longer to assemble the trailer when I haven’t done it in a while, so Pete had to wait a little longer than he wanted, but he was excited to hop in and get his helmet on when the time came.  Naturally, when we headed out, our destinations were all free sources of fun: first, the giant playground, then on to the banks of the scenic Susquehanna River where we shared a snack of cookie bars (home-made, of course) and clementines (bought on sale, of course), and finally over to a smaller playground near our home.  It was a full, exciting day and it didn’t cost anything but time and snack supplies.

But wait–what about the cost of the bike trailer and the bike?  To be fair, the bike did cost a few hundred dollars, but it’s also basically my primary vehicle, and thus at least an order of magnitude cheaper than most other Americans’ primary vehicle.  The bike trailer also was not free; it cost 30 bucks.  I bought it a few years ago from a coworker who was selling it for her neighbor, and I’m pretty sure I haggled it down by 5 or 10 bucks.  Brand new, such trailers can cost at least $100-200 (much more for high-end models), and this one was in great shape (though a bit dusty from being in someone’s basement for a few years).  I have also used it (though not as often as I’d like) to carry things in addition to a child, like groceries from the store.  If I did this more often, I would make the bike and trailer investment stretch even farther, and save even more on gas and insurance.

Hopefully we’ll get that second helmet asap, and I can look forward to cruising around with the boys all summer long!


Ditching paper towels

Jen’s post a few weeks back about ditching paper towels has inspired me to do the same. This week at the grocery I avoided purchasing them even though my wife had them on the list. I couldn’t help but think about how much of a waste they are. Not only are you tossing money in the garbage but also a lot of unnecessary paper waste. With that, they have been eliminated at this household.

Today I was cleaning out one of my t-shirt drawers, ditching any shirts that were faded or had holes in them. Got out the rotary cutter and board and went to town making rags. I’ve got quite a nice pile out of 4 shirts and now after a rag is used it will go in a bucket of borax solution to soak before washing instead of the trash.

Thanks Jen for the inspiration.

* Here’s a little fact I learned this week. 40% of food purchased in the US goes into the garbage. Sad!

Reusable chopsticks: killing two birds with one arrow

When I was studying at National Taiwan University in Taipei, I saw a pair of stainless-steel, reusable, portable chopsticks for sale at the gift shop.  Since at this point I was eating every meal with chopsticks (except, of course, for my glorious fantuan breakfast–more on that in a future post!), and they were only a couple bucks, I figured I would pick up a pair for a more satisfying and sustainable chopstick experience.

As anyone who has eaten at a Chinese restaurant in the US knows, chopsticks often come in the disposable variety, which are made of either bamboo or wood–often in a single piece that you break apart.  Well, when you figure that there are well over a billion people in the Chinese-speaking world, and almost all of them are using chopsticks for almost every meal, if even a fraction of those chopsticks are disposable, that adds up to a whole lot of timber.  In fact, I didn’t really think about this until I read a recent Washington Post article about how China’s use of disposable chopsticks is a major contributor to deforestation.  Although I didn’t realize the full scale of it at the time, back in 2008 it did occur to me that the more I used my reusable chopsticks, the more trees I would be saving.

However, to be totally honest, the main reason I liked (and still like!) using my stainless-steel pair is that it makes me feel like a real chopstick pro.  These things come in a little case, and to fit in there they each come in two pieces that screw together–like two tiny pool hustler’s cues!  Every time I use them, I feel like James Bond assembling a weapon, preparing to exercise my license to kill on a plate of dumplings or a dish of pad thai.  Jen feels this makes me look a little weird (rightly, I might add), so she has asked me not to use them at the Chinese buffet.  So sadly, they don’t see as much use these days.  I do still keep them in my backpack at work though, and have more than once used them in a pinch to eat my lunch when I forget to bring a spoon or a fork.  Jen probably did not intend her bean burgers to be eaten that way, but you have to make due with what you have.

As it turns out, you can buy reusable stainless-steel chopsticks online that seem pretty much identical to the ones I use.  Now after realizing the plight of China’s forests, I like to think using them is both fun and crunchy–thus killing two birds with one arrow (as the saying goes in Chinese).

Like two tiny pool cues...

Like two tiny pool cues…

Yet another thing to recycle: plastic bags

I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of recycling. I know recycling still uses energy and that I could reduce my own energy consumption better by not creating waste that needs to be trashed OR recycled.  When evaluating my own habits, I try to remember the saying: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle (in that order).  I feel good recycling, better reusing, and best reducing!

That being said, recycling is often a great first step towards reducing.  Once I see how much waste I am generating, I am better able to appreciate the benefits of small changes.  Case in point: plastic bag recycling.

When we lived in RI, recycling most items was easy.  We threw tin, aluminum, glass, and plastic into one bin, and paperboard/cardboard/newspaper into another bin and the city picked it up. I only recycled the items accepted by the city, which did not include items like #5 plastics (i.e. yogurt containers) or plastic bags.  That recycling gravy train ended when we moved to central PA.  We’re working hard for our recycling in these parts!  Long story short, every type of recycling needs to be separated and we have to transport most of it to the recycling drop off during only narrowly defined hours. Similarly, our borough does not accept #5 plastics or plastic bags for recycling.

When we lived in RI, we just threw our plastic bags in the garbage.  They weren’t accepted in our bin for recycling and we reused some for kitty litter or other household uses. I comforted myself with the knowledge that we usually brought our bags to the supermarket and left it at that.  So when I was looking to reduce our overall trash amount in PA so we could comfortably purchase only the smallest trash pickup service, I did not think that recycling bags would make a big difference.  Then I did a little bit of online research.  There are a lot of different types of plastic and plastic bags that can be recycled, including:

  • Bread bags
  • Plastic storage bags, like ziploc bags
  • Bags that hold dried beans
  • Dry-cleaning bags
  • Clear plastic wrapping on paper towels and toilet paper and napkins
  • Those plastic “bubbles” of air that uses as packing material
  • Any bag or plastic labeled with #2 or #4
  • See even more examples here

I had no idea.  I thought that I could only recycle plastic grocery store bags at the recycling bins outside most supermarkets, but not so.  All of the above items and anything labeled #2 or #4 could be dropped off at those supermarket bins for free.

So I quickly set up my “plastic bag recycling center.” I knew I had to find a dedicated space, out of my way, where I could put all of this recycling to keep this new habit going strong.  I simply hung an extra canvas bag on a hook near my basement door.  When the bag is full, I bundle it all up (in a plastic bag, of course) to take to the local grocery store bin.  Because bags need to be dry, I have a clothespin that I keep over there to use for temporarily hanging bags out to dry.

My plastic bag recycling center

My plastic bag recycling center

Seeing all my plastic bags pile up has really motivated me to REDUCE all those bags coming into my life.  Some ways I’ve been able to reduce my plastic over the last year plus of bag recycling include:

  • Storing my re-usable grocery store bags in the trunk of my car.  That way I always have one when I need it at the grocery store, Target, hardware store, farmer’s market, mall, or thrift store.
  • Keeping a  small fold up bag in my purse, just in case I forget my bags in the car!
  • Baking my own bread, so very few bread bags.
  • Not bagging all produce items at the supermarket. A couple of lemons, limes, oranges, avocados, etc, can survive the cart.

Because I know that a lot of these “recycled” bags are probably ending up as “fuel cubes” burned to release toxins into the environment, I want to reduce even further.  I’ve noticed that many of the bags coming into my life are from others (my mom) bringing us items or from the farmers market, where it is impractical to forgo a bag.  Can you imagine me saying, “Well, I see that you have that 15 lbs of apples in a large plastic bag.  How about I transfer each one of them into my little cloth bags, one by one?”  I may not be able to eliminate of these bags and plastics, but I can think of a few more things to try like making or buying “produce” bags for use at the grocery store or buying beans in bulk quantity where they are sold in cloth sacks.  I also need to be stricter about remembering to use my bags every time I go to any store, not just grocery stores, where I am most accustomed to using them.

Any other ideas of how to reduce the amount of plastic coming into the house?

From sewing to spices.

HULK Salvage

HULK Salvage

This weekend I was hanging at my friends salvage shop/store having some duck bacon and wild boar sausage cooked on the woodstove. While the bluegrass was jammin’ we were bouncing ideas off one another and formulating a plan for a product he is going to craft me. After our almost 3 hour “meeting” I was heading for the door, arms loaded with odds and ends including an awesome beer I’d never had. Just as I was heading out the door my friend Josh held up an antique thread rack from an old textile mill that used to be in Williamsport and asked me if I had any ideas of what to do with such an item. Immediately an idea came to mind and he said there are thousands of them and so we plan to get as many as we can this week.

Antique thread rack

Antique thread rack

What did I do with it? It became a spice rack, works perfect with spices in all sizes of containers. An antique thread rack becomes a spice rack.

Spice rack

Spice rack

BTW  The counter this spice rack is sitting on is a salvaged piece of LVL which is a support beam used in the construction industry.

Purposefully Repurposing

After reading Joshua’s post One man’s trash is . . . My treasure, I was lamenting the fact that I rarely find myself in old warehouses filled with useful or unuseful items, and even when I do, I never know what to do with said items.  Case in point, when my town had a trash-picking . . . I mean spring-cleaning . . . weekend, where everyone puts their unneeded items on the curb to be picked up for free and people roam the town with pickups to score some loot, I stayed at home because I felt like I couldn’t identify a use for a salvaged piece of subfloor or some electrical panels.

So maybe I don’t know how to find or repurpose items for use in home renovation at this time.  I’m sure Joshua will continue to inspire me on this point and I might learn a thing or two.  But, I do repurpose lots of things that we no longer use for the purpose we got them.  Here are a few of my favorite household repurposings:

Old refrigerator baskets into storage bins

Before we surrendered our ancient refrigerator to our electricity supplier, PPL, in exchange for $50 under their recycling program, I removed all the interior baskets and plastic bins.  These things were heavy-duty enough to make it through the last 15-20 years, so it seemed a shame to lose them now.  What was a big basket in the freezer now contains some of my food stockpile in the basement.  I use it to hold little glass jars of natural peanut butter, glass jars of olive oil, my bulk order from Amazon of tahini and some bags of walnuts.  It works perfectly to keep things from getting knocked over and falling all over the place. You can see another one of my refrigerator baskets holding my new napkins here.

Old refrigerator basket turned food stockpiling asset.

Old refrigerator basket turned food stockpiling asset.

Baby bottles into food storage containers

I went back to work when Peter was 8 weeks old. To keep him supplied with breast milk, I pumped many times a day and night into bottles that attached to my pump.  Over time, we accumulated more and more bottles to keep up with what was needed for pumping, storage, and day care.  Thankfully, I don’t need as many bottles for breast milk these days as I am at home with my boys, but I don’t want to get rid of them yet as who knows what the future holds. Matt was the first to get the idea that he could use a bottle to take cows milk to work for his coffee, after making sure to explain to his co-workers that he wasn’t storing breast milk in the office refrigerator for some odd reason. This got the ball rolling.  Now we have used the bottles for taking any kind of beverage on the road, especially smoothies or kefir, and have also used it for serving our somewhat runny, homemade raw yogurt.  We also discovered that it is a great asset for making small quantities of homemade dressings.  Just add the ingredients, shake, pour on salad, and then store the rest in the bottle for later.


Coffee mug hooks for keeping measuring cups at the ready.

I have never really liked these type of hooks.  Plus we use the same mugs over and over.  So it made sense to use these hooks to hold my most-needed measuring cups.  I love that I don’t have to rummage around in the cupboard for my cups.


Breast milk freezer storage bags used for storing homemade pesto

I was fortunate to receive many different breastfeeding supplies as shower gifts and I used and appreciated them all. Although I have given away some of my excess items, I had an opened box of these storage bags at the same time as I had an excess of basil that needed to get turned into pesto, so a brilliant idea was born.  Meant for freezer storage and able to hold just the right amount of pesto, the bags worked great and are easy to thaw and get the pesto out when needed.

Old cottage cheese container into salt cellar

Our now infamous Crowley’s cottage cheese container has been with Matt and I since our pre-marriage, upstate New York days.  The salt has changed from the regular grocery store iodized fare to Redmond RealSalt but the scratched, dated graphic design remains the same.  It has been such a constant in our lives and our cooking that I will truly be sad when it one day gets too close to a heat source or suffers some other fate.


Any other ideas for re-purposing household items?

One man’s trash is…..My treasure.

I truly live by this mantra. There are so many areas around our home that I used repurposed or upcycled materials. I don’t only do it for the awesome monetary benefits but also because when your done, it can look rad and your saving a little space in the landfill. Here are a few things I’ve upcycled:


There are more cabinets not pictured.

There are more cabinets not pictured.

1. When remodeling our home years back I put an addition on the original 2 bedroom house. This created a 3rd bedroom and new bathroom upstairs and a new kitchen and half-bath downstairs. At the time of the remodel I was single and on a major budget because I was paying for this house, an apartment and renovation costs at the same time. Ouch. Anyway, the “new” kitchen I installed was actually one that a friend removed from his house. Maple cabinets in good condition all for $250 and I didn’t even use them all. Include the counter top and kitchen sink and I had a kitchen for under $1k. Unheard of. Oh, one other thing, the wall paint is Benjamin Moore and was free. How do you ask? Well, I went to the paint store and asked if they had any mis-mixed paints and sure enough they did and still do. Your saving them disposal fees by taking them off their hands so lots of times they are happy to give it to you.


2. The interior of the house was covered in paneling, over paneling, over plaster. Sheesh. I did my best to remove as many layers as possible but when it came to the stairway I was just sick and tired of plaster dust. This area was left go for some time but finally I came upon some materials that would work great and offer some visual appeal to the house. Cedar clapboard siding is what I landed on for the walls, which is intended to be use on the exterior. Why not use it inside? Anyway, I paid nothing for the siding. The only cost I had in finishing the stairway was fasteners for the installation and paint.


3. When it came time for my oldest son to move into a “big boy” bedroom and out of the nursery we needed to spice things up a bit. Of course, we wanted to do this on little or no money and we achieved our goal. What you see in the picture is an activity area in Porter’s bedroom. A place for him to stand and color, play with toys or climb up on (which seems to be the most fun). The countertop is made from a salvaged piece of Georgie Pacific Rim Joist which is used in the construction of a sub-floor in new home construction. It was sanded and stained using some stain found in my Dad’s woodshop. The magnet boards on the wall are made from 3 – 100 amp electrical panels that were found in a warehouse and repainted with a can of spray paint which was given to me. Another pocket pleasing $0 total for this project.

Are you upcycling? Are you repurposing materials around your house? You should be. If you think you can’t do it, try this, stop looking at things only for what they were intended or made for. Start looking at materials and objects as universal problem solvers and you too will begin to find new uses for everyday objects and materials.