The problem with polar fleece: it’s in the ocean, it’s in sea creatures, it’s on our plates

Every earth-crunchy, green, neo-hippie, tree-hugging, back to the lander type (like myself) seeks out natural fibers when buying clothes, understanding them as the healthy, sustainable choice. Yet at the same time, outdoor apparel companies who cater, to a large extent, to people who love being out in the healthy pristine wilderness, specialize in selling us expensive specialized clothing made out of artificial fibers in the name of performance and even safety. (Remember kids, cotton kills!)

The ascendancy of the tech fibers has made it difficult, and expensive, to find natural fiber alternatives in the field of outdoor clothing. And admittedly, these materials have their strong points: they are lightweight, durable, non-itchy, moth proof, easy to wash, etc. And while this stuff can be expensive when sold by specialty retailers, over the years cheap fleece goods have become ubiquitous at chain stores, in everything from baby clothing to home decoration.

As a result, at this point, only the most militant lentil eating do-gooder, the most pure of the pure, do not have at least one polar fleece (polyester fleece) pullover in their wardrobe or blanket on their bed. I have a few polar fleece items, and as with all artificial fibers, I knew when I bought them that these things will never decompose, will clog the landfills along with all the other detritus I’ve generated throughout my life. But really, what is a fleece beanie in comparison to the foam and polyester monstrosity which is our mattress? Or what about the long chain of discarded electronic devices trailing in my wake? Fleece pullovers seemed such a small sin in the greater balance of things.

Now I’m not so sure.

classic-1Turns out that polyester fleece (and probably all synthetic fabric, more on that later) sheds teeny tiny microfibers in the wash water, and that passes through the waste treatment plants and ends up in watershed, where they not only add to our terrible problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, they are also consumed by marine life. They enter the food chain. Confused bivalves and shrimp eat this stuff, and we eat them. In short, we are eating our fleece jackets. And nobody knows what health impacts all this ingestion of microplastics will have for us, or the sea creatures.

The news first came to me, ironically enough, via Patagonia, purveyors of very expensive polar fleece. They’d commissioned a study on this, which showed that all fleece sheds significantly in the wash. High quality fleece sheds less initially than budget fleece, but they even out as they age, and aged fleece sheds significantly more than new fleece. They also found that puffy fiberfill jackets are significant shedders as well–apparently the tiny fibers migrate out the seams. Currently Patagonia is puzzling over how to weave non-shedding fleece, or perhaps convince washing machine manufacturers to install better filtration devices on home machines.

I’m going to point you to this Outside Online article for the details–it’s well worth the read.

Patagonia certainly did not break this news–I just stumbled on it via their recently released study. As the article above describes, the first whistleblower may have been marine biologist Mark Browne. Environmental organizations focused on ocean health, like The Plastic Soup Foundation and Save the Mermaids have been working on this problem for a while now, and they produced the cheeky PSA video above for a European audience back in 2015. (It’s worth noting that you pretty much have to offer a striptease to get the average viewer to sit through a video about ocean health.)

Though the Patagonia study focused on fleece, it seems all synthetic fibers shed and add to the problem. This is mind boggling when you start to think of everything in your household which contains synthetic fibers and which may end up in the wash now and again–from fleece blankets to underwear to stretchy jeans to stuffed animals.

What to do?

I think the quick take-away here is that your instincts about the superiority of natural fibers were always right and you should stick with them and phase out synthetics as much as you can, at least until we either figure out how to make a non-shedding synthetic or figure out how to filter waste water more effectively.

I find it interesting that none of the articles I’ve been reading are presenting this as an simple solution to the problem. But there it is.

According to the video above you can lessen the shedding by using liquid detergent and fabric softener in a cold water wash, but this is not a solution, just a mitigation.

It turns out that over the years here at our house we’ve sent a good deal of these stray fibers into the soil around our house, since we’ve been using a greywater system. I’m not sure what to think about that. I doubt that the fibers are as disruptive in the soil as they are in a marine ecosystem, but still, it’s not good, and I don’t like it.

Thinking about my own household, I’m targeting certain items for disposal. I have some very old fleece in my life: a 15 year old bathrobe, a blanket and a throw of nearly same age. These are things I have no special love for, and yet must be major shedders when I wash them. Rather than give them to the thrift store (because their new owners will continue to wash them), I’m going to consign them to the landfill. This makes me unhappy, but it was always their ultimate fate, anyway. I have wool and cotton things to take their place, and in the future, can continue to use natural fibers for these purposes.

I have a few other items which are newer and don’t really need to be washed for a few years, which I’ll keep for now, like a fleece vest and hat, but one day they will go to the landfill as well. I’m going to transition more to woolen outdoor items, even though they are expensive. Despite the fact that marketers have convinced us we can’t go outside without being all geared up in high tech fabrics, our grandfathers were happy enough tromping through the woods in those snappy plaid wool coats, and early mountaineers did impressive climbing in wool knee socks and knickers.

Even more tricky are items that just don’t translate well into natural fibers. We can wear baggy underwear held up by drawstrings, but do we want to? What about tights and socks? And I don’t know if anyone wants to go back to the days of woolen bathing suits! Erik suggests we all start bareass swimming, which is the aquatic analog of barefoot running.

Indeed, maybe we should be like the Greeks and exercise naked and barefoot, removing whole categories of unnecessary clothing and equipment across the board. Although I have to admit that a vision of naked yoga gives me serious pause. However, no ancient yogi every wore cute stretchy pants and a strappy top to do his practice. Yoga wear, like most athletic wear, is about fashion, not necessity, and we could do most of our exercising, whatever the type, in cotton, hemp, linen or wool.

Realistically, no matter how strict we try to be, I believe will always have some synthetics in the mix, in the form of elastic if nothing else, but if we are conscious and careful, the amount that ends up in the seas, in our food, in our bodies, it will be a far cry from the amount of pollution we are causing right now, out of pure ignorance.

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As a side note, this plastic business brings up two ongoing projects of mine which regular readers will know about, and may be wondering what’s happening with them.

The first is homemade mattresses. There are developments on that front, and for the moment all I will say is a teasing more soon!

The second is my quest to develop a sort of uniform and make my own clothes. This project is going slowly, but I have to say that all this inspires me to work harder. I want to have very few clothes, but those I have should be well made, and made out of well sourced natural materials. I do not have to sew them myself, but I do want to sew the more simple things, and source out complex items–like wool coats. I think this is possible, and even affordable if a wardrobe is considered to be a very small collection of treasured investments.

In Praise of Turkish Towels

turkish vs. terry towel

Turkish towel above a terry towel of the same size. I like to store them rolled, as on top.

I’m done with terry cloth towels. They’re too bulky, take up too much space in the cupboard, the laundry basket and the washer. And while a soft fluffy towel warm out of the dryer is indisputably a very pleasant thing, a stiff, scratchy towel off the laundry line is not–and we do all of our drying by line.

Furthermore, I think the quality of terry towels is dropping in general. I’ve been very disappointed with my towels for years. The most recent ones began fraying after their a couple of washings. (They were from Target, FYI.  Serves me right, really.). Meanwhile, I have as exhibits of quality textiles one baby blue towel Erik brought into our relationship and which was a hand-me-down from his mother’s house. I know it must date from the 60’s or 70’s, due to its un-ironic raised paisley pattern. It reminds me very much of my childhood. And while it is worn around the edges, it is still strong and whole. I also have the bath towel my mom bought me to take to college, and while that towel does not date to the Nixon administration, it is older than I’d like to consider and still holding strong. These two venerable old towels I will be keeping, out of respect more than anything else. All the crappy new towels have to go, and they will be replaced with Turkish towels.

I’ve been using a couple of Turkish towels as my bath towels for a year or so now and I really like them. Turkish towels are thick woven cotton sheets. Lacking the tiny, thirsty loops of the terry cloth towels, they are not as instantly absorbent as terry, but they work—it just feels different on your body. After a few disconcerting  mornings spent missing terry, I grew used to them, and then fell in love. I love them because:

  • The are not as bulky as terry, so wrap and tie around the body more more easily
  • They roll up into neat little bundles and take up very little space in my bathroom cupboard
  • They dry more quickly than terry towels
  • They don’t hog the washer
  • They’re not heavy when wet
  • They dry quickly on the line and feel soft afterward
  • They make good beach towels, yoga towels, chair covers, picnic blankets, etc.
  • After a year of hard use they are showing no signs of wear.

Where do you get them? Well, one of mine I purchased online and one was a gift. Sorry I can’t be more helpful than that. I have seen them in a hipster boutique around here, which means I may be disconcertingly surfing the edge of some new artisanal towel trend. They are fairly expensive, but I think I’d rather have 4 of these guys and nothing else than a cabinet stuffed full of low quality terry. I expect they’ll last a long time.

Incidentally, those big white bar towels used for drying glassware– also called flour sack towels–make good hair and hand towels. If you have lots of long hair they probably will not be absorbent enough for you, but I like them for the same reasons I like the Turkish towels: they take up little space, they dry fast, they are well suited to line drying. They are also quite inexpensive.

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Solar recipe review: Moroccan Chickpea Tagine (Works on the stovetop, too)

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If you’ve got canned goods on hand, this is a super fast and easy solar oven recipe. It’s also very much like many a quick bean-based stews I’ve thrown together on the stove top over the years. If you don’t have a solar oven, or if its cloudy outside, you can certainly make this on the stove. I’ll add notes about that at the end.

This recipe comes from the Solavore recipe collection, which is the best collection of solar recipes I’ve found on the internet. I’ve found you have to be really careful with random solar recipes found on the internet–well, you need to be cautious with any recipe found on the internet, but since I’m new to solar cooking my radar that tells good recipes from bad is impaired. Witness a truly appalling, chalky, brick-like cornbread I made a couple of weeks ago, following instructions found on some random prepper type site.

cornbread

Inedible solar cornbread. I shudder in remembrance.

Meanwhile, even if I haven’t loved every recipe I’ve tried at the Solavore site, none I’ve tried are technical failures.

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The is a link to their Moraccan Chickpea Tagine.  I’m just sending you there for the recipe because I don’t have any significant changes to make, so no excuse for copying it here.

It is simply onion, carrot, garlic and can of chickpeas and a can of tomatoes and some spices.  You just dump these all into one pan, stir them up, cover the pan and leave it in a solar cooker for 3 or 4 hours.

The ingredients are so basic that you can likely pull this out of your pantry right now. If you have fresh cooked beans or your own canned tomatoes it would be all that much better, but this is a good recipe for busy days.

The resulting stew is comfort food, spicy and sweet. My one critique is that it is perhaps a little too sweet. It calls for raisins or currants, and I used raisins. The raisins ended up being preternaturally sweet–perhaps due to the slow cooking? They’d be fantastic in a bread pudding, but I found them overwhelming in this dish. Perhaps if I’d made the dish more hot-spicy that would have counterbalanced the sweetness. But at any rate, next time I will either leave out the raisins or sub them with something a little more tart, like chopped dried apricots.

If you don’t have a solar oven all you’d have to do to adapt this recipe is start by sauteing the onions and garlic and carrots till they soften, then add in canned chickpeas and tomatoes and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook, maybe covered, until everything is hot and the beans have softened a little and the flavors have had time to blend: approximately 1/2 hour. Add a little broth or water if things are looking dry in the pan.

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Picture Sundays: Best Van Art Ever

vanart

This beautiful couple enjoys the eternal comforts of poetry and philosophy, along with an occasional fruit basket. There are what I think are golden psychic waves traveling between their heads, and the waves have small words floating among them. They are: soul, creativity, poetry, ideas, psyche, inspiration,  express, concept, love, mind

Photographed on Griffith Park Blvd. in Los Angeles.

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Best veggies to cook in a solar oven

artichoke

Crispy artichokes: strange but good

Straight up veggies are perhaps the easiest thing to cook in a solar oven, and may be a good way to get started if you are a little intimidated by solar cooking

Sun oven proponents claim that sun ovens cook veggies better than any other device, because they can be cooked dry, and the slow heat brings out their flavor. This is true to some extent.

This is what I’ve learned about sun oven veggies. The cooking results are analogous to steaming. Vegetables which do well with steam cooking do well when tossed into a sun oven. Now, some people may counter that all veggies do well when steamed. Many people eat most of their veggies steamed as a matter of course. I do not. I rarely steam my food. I think most vegetables do better when they lose water and caramelize a bit (e.g. cauliflower , carrots, Brussels sprouts, zucchini) I’m a big fan of roasting and sauteing vegetables, and only like a few vegetables in their steamed form.

cauliflowerbefore

Brussels sprouts and cauliflower before cooking

cauliflowerdone

The same after. Not a failure, exactly, but just …bland and wet, as steamed vegetables always taste to me. Note the color of the cauliflower. That is not oven-browning, but rather the slight discoloration that some vegetables pick up in the solar oven. The color of the Brussels sprouts is due to a Schiracha sauce, which did not counterbalance their mushy Brussel-sproutsness. These guys have to be roasted, IMHO

So you can see this is all going to be a matter of taste, but be assured you can cook any vegetable a solar oven, and if steaming is one of your favorite cooking methods, you’re in luck.

Generally speaking you just throw any veggie in a covered pan and let them steam in their own juices. In some cases it helps to add a smidge of water to bottom of the pan.

Vegetables which I give my personal seal of approval for solar oven cooking are, for me, those vegetables I happily eat steamed. These foods also happen to be very summery vegetables, well suited to backyard entertaining and as companions to grilled foods:

  • Potatoes
  • Artichokes
  • Corn on the cob
potatoes

Baked potatoes and lentil stew

HOW TO:

Baked Potatoes

This is the easiest of the easy. Just wash off a couple of big russets and tuck them into a covered pan. Potatoes cook in about 4 hours when temps are approximately 250-300 F. This will vary, of course, depending on potato size and oven temp. Stab the potatoes to test for doneness. Don’t be afraid to leave them in there as long as it takes for them to be truly done. They won’t burn.

Erik and I have re-discovered the baked potato craze of our high school days, where you could go to the mall and get a baked spud with any variety of unhealthy things piled on top of it. We’ve been making southwest style potatoes piled with black beans, salsa, cheese and sour cream.

Corn on the Cob

You don’t need to shuck the corn. You don’t need to soak the husks. You don’t even need a covered pan. You can just put some ears on the floor of your oven (or on a tray). You can tuck them around pans cooking other things. I’ve even heard you can also pile them up, fill the whole oven with cobs. I’ve not done this, so don’t know how that would effect cooking times.

But if you put in a single layer of corn on the cob, husks intact, into a pre-heated oven and cook it around the 250F mark, the corn will be ready  to eat in an hour. It’s that easy. If your corn is truly fresh and sweet, it can and should be eaten almost raw, so don’t overcook it.

To get the silk off, cut off the stem end grab hold of the silk and and sort of squeeze from that end, toward the cut end. You should be able to get the corn to disengage from the husks pretty cleanly.

My favorite way to eat corn on the cob is Mexican style, which involves buttering the cob then smearing mayo on it, then sprinkling it with chili powder, salt and a squeeze of lime.

Artichokes

Artichokes have been more of an adventure, but a good adventure. I’ve not been able to find instructions I like for artichokes in the sparse online world of solar cooking resources.

The first round of artichokes I cooked looked like a failure but were actually successful. What I did that time was simply throw them in a covered pot and left them for 2 hours at around 250F.

When I went to check on them, I was appalled to see that they’d turned brown. They looked roasted. Their outer leaves were dried out and hard.

But I took them inside and tried one of those crispy outer leaves. The flesh at the base was succulent and sweet, even extra artichoke-y in flavor. In short, really good! I devoured that artichoke, brown and crispy as it was.

I theorized that it was over-cooked. Perhaps it had been done cooking, and still pleasantly soft, after an hour. I hadn’t checked at the one hour mark, so I didn’t know. I tried another round.

Not so. At one hour a stab test to the base proved artichokes need more cooking time. But they’d already started browning. Some vegetables discolor when cooked in solar ovens. Seems artichokes are one of those vegetables.

While the crispy form of the artichoke is very edible, I found a work around for this. Just pour about 1/4 inch of boiling water into the bottom your cooking pot before setting the choke out in the oven. (You may be able to start with cold water, but I used hot water to jump start the process.) The steam produced by this water keeps the artichoke leaves softer, and lessens the browning somewhat, makes the final product look more like a “normal” cooked artichoke.

So, to recap, make artichokes by cooking them in a covered pan at around 250F for around 2 hours. It helps to cover the bottom of the pan with hot water, to produce steam, to keep the artichoke leaves softer. If you forget, it will still be edible. Test by stabbing the stem end with a fork. It should be very tender. Don’t be afraid to extend the cooking time, as an al dente artichoke is no fun. You won’t overcook it.

My next step will be to add garlic cloves to the steaming water to see if that infuses the artichokes at all.

If you are looking for more solar recipes, I’d point you toward the Solavore website. They have an archive of sweet and savory recipes.

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