Tag Archives: reuse

Book Ends

This is a cool project alert! So clever and creative– not to mention really neat looking. I saw this in the lonby of the Marriott in downtown Milwaukee and was immediately lured to it, practically pushing aside hungover wedding party guests and moms yelling at their kids to get to it. From afar it looks like different sized blocks (which also would have been cool).

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But it’s not. It’s dissected books! And what a great way to make art out of something broken or ruined (because we wouldn’t use nice, new, books, right?!). But think of those books warped by water damage, or whose binds have broken or that are simply falling apart, (please avoid using valuable antique-y books…that would be a shame!) or westerns from the eighties that you have no earthy use for.

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I did not get close enough to see how this was attached but I can just envision that there is a strong circular rod in the middle and all you would have to do is drill a hole in your slice of book and stick it on the ring– so some power tools requires between a power saw and a drill. There may also be some glue involved. I wonder if this will work with a hanger!?

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If anyone out there has tried a similar project, please share! I may give it a go myself. I can imagine this might even be cool with magazine and catalogues. Stay tuned.

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Twelve Posts of Christmas–A Gift for Mother Earth

Not to repeat myself, but… Well, actually, I am fully intending to repeat myself because this is an important topic. I invite each and every one of you to be creative and to use your imagination to wrap gifts in recycled and reused items. As I just mentioned, I previously posted about this, but this is the time of year when we are particularly abusive and create garbage bag upon garbage bag full of stuff that will end up in the landfill. We can do better. I will admit, though, to having been previously very impressed by various family members’ matching presents wrapped in beautiful, shiny, thick wrapping paper. It looks so nice under the tree and everyone knows exactly who it came from. Very fancy.

However, I think you can make beautiful packages with just a little forethought and imagination–and maybe some planning throughout the year. For example, brown paper bags make excellent wrapping paper and a wonderful earthy background for those saved ribbons, scavenged twigs and berries, and home made gift tags. What other materials can you use for wrapping paper? How about old road maps that you haven’t thrown away yet even though you haven’t used them for more than seven years? Or, saved newspapers, park maps or large foldable brochures from an awesome vacation used it to wrap gifts for the people that went with you on that awesome vacation. And save colorful comics for the kids to wrap gifts. Using cloth and fabric to wrap gifts is a popular alternative, too, kind of hobo-chic. For other ideas, especially for creative decor, see these slides from Martha Stewart. Also, did you know that those poofy Christmas bows only look hard to make? Follow this link for step by step instructions. You will amaze yourself.

Now, if you’ve saved decorative boxes or bags, the work is almost all done for you! During this time of year, offices across the country are flooded with gifts that come in fancy boxes and bags. Lay claim to them, as well as all the ribbons and tins. If you don’t they will probably just end up in the trash–and that is what we are trying to avoid, people. You can also make your own boxes. The internet machine has loads and loads of ideas. You can use card stock, backs of notebook paper, the bottom of fancy paper bags from the mall, etc., as material for the boxes. Check out this link for tons of fabulous ideas using salvaged items to make your own boxes.

Yeah, even recycled wrapping will likely get thrown away, filling garbage bag upon garbage bag. Perhaps, a few suggestions? Save the gift bags and boxes for re-use next year, and fold the tissue paper to save for use throughout the year. Helpful hint: if you choose wrapping materials that can be used at other holidays and occasions, you can maximize their use, i.e., don’t get santa clause tissue paper. As to what you cannot re-use, which hopefully will be a smallish pile. Shred the paper and use as packing material or throw it in the compost pile. From what I learned in research for a previous article on paper re-cycling, wrapping paper can probably go into your local recycling program, though you need to do your research. For example, my county recycling, SWALCO,,will accept wrapping paper, but my local Chicago-area Paper Retriever will not.

I know, I know. My intentions to make every gift exchange I participate in zero-waste are impractical–especially at other people’s houses. I was, in fact, unsuccessful last year in swaying anyone to separate the paper wrapping from the ribbons and bows and plastic in order to recycle the paper and minimize the trash. We had a huge family Christmas and produced a lot of garbage that was frantically shoved in bags to try and keep order. However, on a personal level, I have not bought wrapping materials in more than three years. And I know that further change will not happen overnight. I slowly hope to influence my family members, one by one. Even the family member that proudly buys beautiful wrapping paper every year.

When I actually buy some present and wrap them, I will take photos to show you that presents using salvaged materials can be pretty!

Paper chase

Lately, I’ve been putting in a lot of energy into paper. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “[p]aper makes up 28 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW), more than any other material Americans throw away.” Although, according to the hand dryer I used at the rest stop the other day, paper makes up 40 percent of land fills.  I am not sure if MSW does not all end up in landfills, and if that accounts for the disparity in percentages, but, in any case, paper makes up a lot of our waste.  Fortunately, paper seems to be the easiest thing to try and keep out of landfills.  Unfortunately, it also accumulates so quickly! Between the cereal and pasta boxes, mail, business papers, packing and wrapping materials, toilet paper rolls, catalogues and little bits of random paper is tough to keep up with. Even with the outdoor composter and the worm composter (two different systems!) I almost can’t keep up with it. But I am trying.

I am conscientiously trying  to stop using paper as much as possible. Luckily for any future guests, I will not give up toilet paper, but I have stopped using paper napkins and drastically reduced my paper towel consumption.  My mom is not pleased.  And even though I really dislike doing dishes, I no longer buy paper plates.  Admittedly, it took a little while to get accustomed to cloth napkins for daily meals use, but it’s getting less weird with time. I didn’t even have to buy new cloth napkins. I’ve had some for years that sat lonely in the curio cabinet waiting to be used for the three to four dinner parties I might have a year. Now my husband and I use them regularly.

I have also tried to reduce my dry good purchases that come in cardboard boxes such as boxed rice mixes. The cardboard boxes I do end up buying, like cereal and tea boxes, I actually hand shred and take to either of my composters.  I am toying with the idea of making my own pasta.  So far this is ambition and optimism over reality and time, but pasta continues to account for one of my major boxed dry-good purchases, so I will continue to search for a solution.

I save tissue paper for either gift wrapping or packaging for shipped items. In fact, I seek out tissue paper from others. Whenever I am at a present-exchanging event, I go so far as to remove tossed tissue paper from the big plastic garbage bag and fold it up into neat squares that I can save for later.  It’s kind of weird, but most of the tissue is brand new.  People shop at the last minute, grab a gift bag and tissue from the store and “wrap” the present on the way to the party, barely bothering to unfold the tissue paper. I know this to be true because it is my husband’s inevitable method of purchasing gifts.

Mail continues to be a challenge even in this day and age.  I have switched over to paperless on those accounts that allow for it.  I’ve even tried those sites that are supposed to help reduce catalogues and junk mail, but they don’t work. The mail just keeps coming. In any case, I try to machine or hand shred it all, even the catalogues and magazines, to stick in one of my compost bins.  Letter mail gets to be particularly tedious because you have to remove the plastic windows from the envelopes since it won’t compost.  I even put some machine shredded magazines and catalogues aside for future packing material.   The pages are light-weight and colorful and work really well in place of foam peanuts or bubble wrap.

But even with all these efforts, it is still difficult to keep up with the paper.  One time I made recycled paper pots out of shredded cardboard.  They worked brilliantly and next year I plan to make bigger, better pots. But this was one additional use for the excess paper and maybe removed three boxes from the cycle.  There is still so much more.  Neither of my composters can keep up with it and I can only save so much for packing.  I can easily stick it in the recycling, but I feel that this is me being lazy and putting the burden on someone else.  Besides, I am not sure that it will not end up in the landfill anyway and I want to remove it from the system entirely.

Many municipalities have a composting program.  These are wonderful resources for any community, resulting in cheap or free compost for the residents and a convenient place to take your compostable items.  Sadly, my community does not have such a program.  One of the reasons that I took so long to put up this post is that I was sure I would be able to find a composting program in my area that I could dump off my excess paper.  What I found out, instead, is that if there are programs in my area, they don’t accept paper and they charge by the cubic yard to accept your waste.  And the municipal programs in my area restrict the drop-off to residents with purchased stickers, which does not mean me. So annoying.  As often happens when my desire to be both ecologically and financially responsible meet and disagree, I am a crossroads.  Even if I could find a place that accepted paper to compost, I might have to to spend money to get rid of it.

As I was researching local composting programs, I noticed that none of them actually encouraged using paper as composting material.  This was odd to me since I had been giving paper to my worms for quite a while.  I dug a little deeper to see what the deal was.  As to the harms and benefits, I ran across this post which provided a thoughtful answer to the question.  Basically, that guy doesn’t like it.  And his reasons made sense (that while it may compost, it lacks nutrients and may leach toxic chemicals into the compost, especially glossy magazines).  But he also goes on to say that rainwater, animal manure or scraps from produce are also not 100% free of chemicals. He also says that he doesn’t bother with paper because it can be recycled easily.  I tend disagree that just because it can be recycled it is actually getting recycled and that all the recovered material is being sold, but I have to admit I am not basing that on fact, but by a tendency to automatically believe in the inherent inefficiencies of any system. I looked through a few websites pretty thoroughly, including this one about the paper industry to soothe my skepticism.  However, I couldn’t find a straight answer about what percentage of paper that is purposefully recycled and bundled up and sent to a processing plant is actually used as a commodity to produce more paper.  There are only figures about the amount of paper consumed that is recovered, or the amount of paper in landfills,  which isn’t an accurate reflection of what I am after.

So what started out as a righteous, self-congratulatory post about the part I am playing in keeping paper out of landfills became a post full of questions and doubts.  Am I spending too much time thinking about paper? Am I doing the right thing by keeping it out of the landfill and trying to compost it? Does it even matter that I don’t buy pasta in boxes since I can throw it in recycling and have it end up  as a commodity that uses less energy to process than raw wood? I feel like my obsession with paper is kind of like a radish rose–kinda impressive but everyone wonders why the heck anyone would take the time to make a rose out of a radish in the first place. I will have to continue to give this some serious thought and continue to do research. In the mean time, I can always focus on plastic.

Thank you for reading my post.  Don’t forget you can visit my site at http://www.lifeimproved.org for other mind-blowing posts and perspectives–and some fluff.  As always, please feel free to share, quote, praise, and reflect kindly upon my blog!

Pillow talk

I’ve had this cable-knit throw for years. I really like it. Perhaps that is why I held on to it far past its prime.

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Coincidentally, I have been searching high and low for cheap pillow covers. Mine have been looking sad.  Having furry little animals doesn’t help the ivory raw silk I bought before they came around. As I finally admitted that I needed to retire the throw, the answer revealed itself.  It was like peanut butter meeting chocolate.

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I can’t get too fancy with this sewing thing. Despite all the tutorials I have pinned from Pinterest, sewing with zippers is way beyond my skill-set. And buttons … they create their own set of problems. But, I needed the pillow covers to be removable, so I couldn’t just sew the four edges and leave them be.  That left the Envelope-style pillow cover. Easy. Below is my tutorial. After my tutorial is a better tutorial where the patient, clever lady actually measures and sews things. I take the guestimate approach and prefer to use fabrics with straight lines so I don’t have to measure or pin.

1) Start by cutting a long rectangle about 1/2 inch wider than your pillow but about 2 & 1/2 times to  2 & 3/4 times the length of your pillow. The looser or stretchier the material, the longer you want to make the length because it may gape a bit.

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2) Lay out the piece good side up and and fold back the top to create a pocket.
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The inside of the pillow should be facing out. Sew down the right and left side.20130805-194713.jpg

This top that is sewn first will also be the top side of your pouch, so if you have a nicer seam at one of the ends, this one should be the one flipped back first.

3) Then take your bottom half and flip up lay several inches over the top flap. Remember, you want the top and bottom to over lap.

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This is where some measuring might come in handy. I did this casually by laying the pillow on top of my folded almost-done cover to size it up. It looked about right, so I carried on.

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4) Now sew the bottom half along the right and left edges.
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5) Flip right side out, poke out the corners and stuff your pillow inside. Now sit back and enjoy your work.
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For those of you desiring more precision, check out this great tutorial. I find mine more inspiring, though, because it should leave you feeling that of I can do it, and make it turn out, so can you! Look how nice.
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This project was so easy I made these, too, out of a tablecloth I ended up with.

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Don’t leave home without them

Many of us work hard to be conscientious about the environment at home. We take a lot of steps to reduce our consumption and our waste. And to recycle and reuse. But something weird happens when we leave our little biodomes. Maybe it’s because we don’t buy the supplies at the office, or take out the trash at the Starbucks. Or maybe it’s because it’s inconvenient and extra work to care enough. Or, quite simply, we forgot. I am not casting stones. I do this constantly and get really irritated with myself for not having a re-usable cup handy at coffee shops and for using disposable items at the office. This is especially frustrating to me because I really do put a lot of effort into these things at home. I mean, I hand tear the mail and cereal boxes for the composter, for Pete’s sake.

What I have realized, though, is that it is all about small transitions. My habits are much more eco-conscientious today than they were last month. And I am light years from the neanderthal I was a year ago. ( Irony Alert: Neanderthals were actually, probably pretty eco-friendly. Really, I just mean I used to buy a lot of paper plates and stuff). So every once and again I try a new eco-thing and eventually it just becomes habit.It just becomes part of your routine. But let’s not forget what happens when we leave home.

Let’s start with work. Our office spaces don’t always make it convenient to be green. Paper cups –or horror of horrors, styrofoam cups–are usually readily available. Sometimes there is no storage for our ceramic or reusable mugs. Or there is no where to wash the mug from time to time. Also, there is often just no culture for it. But it can start with you. This is when you hear some inspirational song in your head, like from Rocky.

If you are in management, think about getting a set of office mugs with your company logo. Encourage your employees to use them. One sneaky trick: take a while to stock up the paper cups to force people to use the office mugs. Or, think of creative contests where people are rewarded for using mugs. Do the same thing with re-usable plastic drinking glasses to encourage people to use those for water. Yes. Some people will complain about washing their own cups. But we are adults and can probably handle this task. Laziness is not a good excuse for all that waste and cost.

If you are a mere employee, then let the change start with you. Make it a point to bring your own cup/mug. Start a dialogue with your colleagues. No one wants to admit they don’t care about the environment. It’s like admitting that they hate puppies or that they just punched grandma. Maybe once you have converted (or shamed) some people into joining your I-guess-I-don’t-want-dolphins-to-die-and-the-world-to-go-dark-and-cold club, then you can talk to management about implementing a mug culture. You can event back it up with facts–not necessarily about dolphins dying–but about cost savings and stuff.

For example, in my small office space of 20 or so employees, let’s assume 3/4 of the people use at least one disposable cup a day, so that is 15 cups per day, multiplied by 253 ( rough, rough calculation of days in the year, minus weekends, minus holidays). That is 3795 cups per year. My office puchases these 16 oz. “foam” cups from Quill, an office supply company, that cost around $55 per 1000 (if you buy by the case). So even by the most conservative estimates, my small office is spending over $200 a year just in cups. And that’s for the cheap cups. My old office of roughly the same number of people bought those paper cups with the weird bubbly skin on the outside. The cost of providing those for an office for one year is over $400. Throw in the cost of post-it notes and legal pads, the costs of sending mail by post, and the costs of printing memos and other documents. If you are a business person, you know that these things add up. Someone who did a lot more work than I did put together this fabulous and startling article about going paperless. And, here’s another article covering things from coffee filters to water usage at the office.

The office is just one place in which we forget our good habits. Getting a latte or water when you are out and about is another. Did you know that roughly 250,000 plastic bottles are dumped every hour and that plastic bottles constitute close to 50% of recyclable waste in the dumps. Even worse,
it takes an average of 700 years to decompose in a landfill. ( Read about those and other statistics here). Now, I have gotten pretty good about brining a re-fillable water bottle with me, but I am just horrible about remembering a mug for my chais and lattes, and occasionally, my chai lattes. I make lots of excuses for myself: My husband took them all, they were all dirty, it’s not as big as a tall or grande latte so it’s not that good of a deal. These are all excuses. The truth is that I just don’t think of it. But, once again, getting into the habit can mean keeping the habit. So I just have to start. You, too! In the meantime, you can read this cool, slightly snarky article that reveals a lot about this issue. The authors are a lot cooler than I will ever be–they live in Portland, after all–but my message is the same: “‘Switching to a reusable mug carries with it the perception that it’s inconvenient only because it is different than the norm. Change is scary … But once commuter mugs become the norm … it’s no big deal. ‘I mean, sometimes you’re going to be out and not have a mug with you, … but if you have one in your car/bike/office, it becomes part of your normal routine’.”

(Other) People are so clever

Last Saturday I went to small craft fair in Woodstock, Illinois. This is nothing new. I like crafts and I visit Woodstock fairly often. What is new is that this is the first time I have gone to a craft fair since starting this blog. For a minute I thought about just sneakily taking a photo and recreating the items for my adoring public. But, I quickly realized that was not cool. I decided, instead, to use my powers for the good of man-kind. So I am sharing some crafts that completely impressed me.

By the way, I don’t know these people, their partners, parents or cousins. I am not associated with them, and I sure the heck wouldn’t get anything if you decided to buy anything from them…I just think that people making cool things from old materials deserve praise:

The Modern Homesteader

I have seen many fork crafts in my day, but I really appreciated the simplicity in The Modern Homesteader’s crafts.
These cheese labels are clever and stylish. Just stick them right into your cheeses and done.

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I didn’t really do justice to these labels in the photo, but this next craft is simple and so functional. These are herb and plant labels (they end pretty much where the picture cuts off on the left) They are perfect for the planting season and pretty enough to use decoratively on an indoor potted plant. 20130504-230615.jpg
And finally from The Modern Homesteader, these wooden spatulas that were planed and shaped from pallets!! And priced way too cheap for all the work that went into them!

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The Modern Homesteader has a Facebook and Etsy page. Check them out for some clever items.

Pretty Theory

Next are the ingenious items made from hard back books that Cricket Mrozek of Pretty Theory makes (Even her name is creative!)

First are these book marks made from book bindings. They are sturdy and smart!
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But these purses…they are so unique. You have to look twice to even realize it’s a purse. What a great conversation piece.

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You can find more things at Prettytheory.com.

Slowburn Candles

And finally, the delicious smelling, high-quality soy candles that Kris Hayden of Slowburn Candles makes from wine bottles. I mean, how many of these do each of us throw away every week year? And according to Kris, that lighting-an-alcohol-soaked-cloth-wrapped-around-the-bottle-on-fire trick that is all over Pinterest really just doesn’t work. They’ve taken time to perfect their craft, and have some really great smelling soy candles, too. These would be great indoors or out, but just imagine how perfect for an outdoor dinner party! 20130504-230646.jpg        20130504-230650.jpg

Slowburn Candles ships, too! Check them out their website, www.Slowburncandles.com

Tank top up cycle

So I had this ratty old tank with a hole in it that I had been hanging onto for who knows what reason. It was just so soft and I thought a use would eventually come to me.
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See…the hole is pretty obvious. I was finally inspired to cut it up when I saw this great head band idea on Pinterest. This I could totally do. Here is my version of this project.

1) Cut a long strip about 1 1/2 ” thick. Make sure to use the seam here as a natural end for the headband.

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2) Measure the strip so that it will go around your head, but so the ends just meet. The jersey material is stretchy so don’t worry you’ll go too small. Cut the strip into three strips only up to seam. Do not cut through stitching of seam.

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3) braid length of strip making sure it doesn’t get all twisty. Secure end with something if you are not going to sew right away.

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4) place ends together and fold the braided end into the seam so there is a nice, smooth finish.

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I was so proud of myself. These were easy and now I didn’t have to get those elastic headbands from the store. You can get creative, too and make them a little fancier. I took one strip, about 1/4 inch thick and cut that into three really thin strips (like, thin enough to thread beads). Cutting the ends at an angle helps to thread the beads. 20130421-211117.jpg20130421-211719.jpg
I originally intended to do this braided thing where the beads always end up on the outside but my tank fabric was not structured enough for this. So I just threaded several beads per strand and then randomly spaced them out. 20130421-211727.jpgIt turned out really cute.

Of course, this project doesn’t use up all the tank. Even if you made a dozen headbands, you would still have scraps left over. I had the seams from the neck and arm holes and small strips I had cut of from the length.

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I didn’t want to throw them away. So I started making flower pins.

The seams were perfect for a rosette because they are already folded for you! It made a very contemporary, compact flower.
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The strips I ruffled by using a running stitch and then pulling taught until I got the ruffle I wanted. 20130421-211210.jpg20130421-211154.jpg<I then sewed the ruffle around until I got a the desired effect. 20130421-211159.jpgTotally adorable. 20130420-131123.jpg20130420-141521.jpg20130420-141528.jpg

I also made a third type of florette. A simple string of five circles, folded in half and connected with a running stitch.

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Going Paper(towel)less

I always considered myself a rebel within my family for buying cheap paper towels. My sis, for example, is a paper towel snob and always has nice, thick paper towels. My mom, while not as particular, was fanatical about keeping them in the house, always. Her day would be immediately ruined if she realized that she was out of paper towels. I was somewhere much further down the spectrum (towards the less crazy end) but sheepishly admit that I never considered giving them up–even my really cheap, thin ones.

As I assessed the paper waste I was producing, I realized that paper towels were a sizable chunk. So I decided to make the commitment to using less. The obvious solution was switching to washable towels.

I resisted this idea for quite a long time because I bought into the idea that re-used towels would just be spreading germs all over the place. Modern marketing has done its job on me. (I mean, when I saw the new disposable towels for the bathroom, I thought for the briefest moment that I had to have them. But seriously, is it that much work to change out the bathroom hand towel? And for the most part, it’s just me and my husband…and we do things a lot more personal than share hand towels, so…no, I did not have to have this new product.)

My first foray into replacing disposable paper towels was a failure. I was in a neat, little shop I frequently frequented and came upon this seemingly brilliant product: Jagneus Design dish cloths. The product came in a pack of three, was eco-friendly and a bit over-priced, so I thought, “this has to be good!” Plus, is was Swedish, and they make nice things, right? The idea with these is that you use them, wash them, and when you are done, they are compostable. They are made of cotton and cellulose.

The problem was that they were incredible stiff unless fully wet, and I was trying to avoid constantly wet towels. Even if they were supposed to dry quickly, quick wasn’t a few minutes. So you were constantly messing with a wet towel, or a stiff towel. Maybe I just didn’t “get” them, but they weren’t for me. I don’t feel bad about this. The company seems to do just fine, and they should…charging what they do for a dish towel.

So I spent the same amount of money at Kohl’s and got a pack of 12, 100% cotton towels. They were just like the face towels I had purchased a couple years before, except in the kitchen section. And from I understand, these kind of towels are bio-degradable as well. Though on this issue, I will follow up because I am a bit skeptical.

As to my transition, I have certain rules. This section is for friends that come over so you don’t think I have a gross house. I have plenty of towels so that I don’t run out before I wash the lot of them, which is about every two weeks. I basically use a different towel every day. I only use counter towels for the counter and floor towels for the floor and I don’t use them for drying dishes. If I wipe up milk or clean up after meat, the towel goes in the dirty bin right away. The towels are never allowed to sit there sopping wet. To me, wet equals a bacteria breeding ground.

The pack of twelve set me back about $10 and I had some random other small towels, though I know it can be done more cheaply with a bit more investigation and planning. I am not counting the money spent on the Jagneus product– I am going to consider that as a donation to a green company. Anyhow, seeing as how I was going through a roll of paper towels a week, at about a buck if i was lucky, and now one roll lasts approximately a month, I feel that it is a worthwhile investment and a valuable effort. I’m not down to zero paper towels because every once in a while there is the warm cat puke or gross thing that comes out of the clogged drain that I just don’t want to mess with, and I tend not to buy napkins, which my mom just doesn’t understand. I am doing better, which meets my goal: to keep improving and reducing.