Cheap and Natural Handsoap–and a rant

This is just a quick tip. If your family prefers liquid soap to bar soap, one easy way to avoid all the creepy, expensive, colored, perfumed, anti-bacterial liquid soaps on the market  (and all the plastic they come in) is to just use liquid castile soap to wash your hands.  Ah, but yes–liquid castile soap is runny. Indeed. I can hear the complaints already. 
The way around that problem is to use one of them fancy-schmancy foaming soap pumps. You can buy them at specialty retailers, but it’s probably cheaper to buy one at the supermarket, use up the soap and then start refilling with liquid castile soap. The one in our bathroom is an old Method pump and is still working fine after three years.
The secret of the soap formula used in foaming pumps is that it’s super-diluted. It has to to diluted because full strength soap clogs the pump.  It’s kind of a scam, when you think about it, that when you buy a foaming pump you pay as much or more for diluted soap than regular liquid soap. However, the dilution factor works perfectly with castile soap. As Dr. Bronner says:  Dilute! Dilute! Dilute!
Dilute your castile soap quite a bit for use in a foam pump. Start by filling the dispenser no more than 1/4 full of soap and then filling it the rest of the way with water. See how that works for you. You may prefer it a little stronger or a little weaker. 
In any case, you’ll pay less for each full dispenser of soap, and you’ll have the comfort of knowing your soap is all-natural, safe and free of additives.
***
Rant Warning:
Speaking of which, I saw the most appalling thing in the grocery store today and I had to rant about it: The Lysol® Healthy Touch® No-Touch Hand Soap System.
This is a twelve dollar, battery operated (4 AA) soap pump fitted with an electric eye, so it spits out soap when you pass your hand under the nozzle. It dispenses Lysol anti-bacterial soap, which comes packed into special cartridges–meaning you can’t fill the dispenser with whatever soap you like. The tagline for this product is, “Never touch a germy soap pump again!” 
I love the double-speak of Healthy Touch/No-Touch. Is the underlying logic that no touch is healthy? Time to evacuate to our plastic bubbles!
Three cranky thoughts on this product:
1) First, the obvious. When you touch a soap dispenser, you are about to wash your hands. When you wash you hands, you kill all the germs. It doesn’t matter how “germy” the dispenser is–unless you plan to suck on it. This device is about as needful as evening wear for hogs.
2) In 2002, at the urging of the AMA, the FDA evaluated anti-bacterial soaps. The AMA was concerned that these anti-bacterial soaps (i.e. Triclosan-based products*) may be breeding super-bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. The FDA’s findings were, as reported at American Medical News:
“Soaps and lotions that include antibacterial agents have no benefit over ordinary soap and water, but more research is needed to allay or substantiate concern that these substances may be leading to increased rates of antibiotic resistance.”
So anti-bacterial soaps are proven to be no better than regular soap and water and maybe, just maybe–there’s still research to be done–they could be disastrously worse. Why roll the dice on this one? It just doesn’t make any sense. For me, this makes anti-bacterial soaps about as needful as evening wear for hogs accessorized with a doomsday device.
3) And finally, the wastefulness of it all makes me cry. Note the the cheap plastic shell and electronic innards assembled in Chinese factories–not to mention the big-ass clamshell package it all comes in. How long will the average unit be employed? A year? If does last more than a year, how long will Lysol keep making those plastic cartridges?  Oh, and joy! We’ll have more toxic batteries to figure out how to dispose of–all so we can wash our hands.
Arggghhhh! I’ve got to go visit the chickens or something. My knickers are all in a twist.
Thanks for listening.
*I know I have alcohol gel fans in the readership and I don’t believe those were part of the AMA’s concerns. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

Cat Poop Compost Installment #2

Drum full o’ cat litter

WARNING: Human waste and cat waste contain dangerous bacteria.  I fully believe that composting is a safe and sane solution to a waste stream problem–that’s why I’m writing about it, after all– I also know that it can be handled badly. (The stories we hear!) So please, read up on the subject before starting. You should have a solid foundation in regular compost to begin with, because all the basics apply. Take a good composting class or find a compost mentor. Read the Humanure Handbook. For complete safety, all cat/human waste compost should be allowed to sit for two years, and it should not be applied to food crops (but it can go around fruit trees).

***

Last year at the end of July I posted about our experimental cat litter composting solution in The Cat Poop Portal post. It’s been a while since we reported in, and I’ve received some gentle pokes from readers, so this is an update.

Long story short, it’s going slowly. At the time of the last post we’d installed a 50 gallon drum in our side yard. That drum filled up fast. We have two indoor cats now (I think we only had one when this started) and they are slinky little poo machines. Also, we were using pine pellets which require a complete change-out more often than clumping litters, so we managed to fill the drum in about four months. That was faster than I expected, and a little disappointing, but there are two ways to ease this problem.

1) Changing litter, so we use less. Most clumping litters are either clay-based, which is not good for compost, or have sketchy chemicals in them. We’ve recently found World’s Best Cat Litter, which is a clumping litter made of corn. I called World’s Best to make sure there was nothing added to the corn, and they promised me that there’s nothing added to the standard formula–the magic is all in the way the corn is processed. So yes, we’re supporting Big Corn…but what are you going to do? The stuff works really well and is compostable. Now that we’re using it we’ll reduce our overall litter waste volume.  (Of note: our friend John, a madman with six cats, swears by Swheat Scoop, which is wheat based. I don’t find it works for me, but he blames my litter management skills. It’s an alternative.)

2) We’re offloading half-finished cat compost to My Big Fat Worm Bin. Regular readers (and Vermicomposting workshop participants) might remember that composting expert Nancy Klehm had us add a good amount of mature cat litter compost to the mix when we built up the bedding material for the worms. She said she wouldn’t want to foist raw cat litter on the worms, but when it was well broken down they could handle it.

The drum has been, shall we say, resting productively over the winter. Today I went and dug it up to see how it was doing. As with any pile, the stuff on top was less finished–it looked pretty much like a cat box. It isn’t stinky, though, as long as I make sure all the cat poo is buried.

Down lower the material was more broken down. It’s an interesting rusty orange color. But I didn’t get the sense of lots of activity going on. It was a cool pile, and it showed very little insect life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The pile is decomposing, just on a long timeline. But at this rate of decomposition I suspected it would need at least another year of sitting to be fully broken down, and then it would need to rest even longer for safety. Compost made from carnivore and omnivore poop needs a two year cycle to allow the pathogens to die off.

Digging down all I see is decomposing red sawdust

Wanting to move it along faster, I did what I’d do for any compost pile that was a little pokey: I turned it, and added nitrogen and water.* Shoveling 50 gallons of kitty litter is exactly what I want to be doing on any given Saturday! As I shoveled, I decided that if I didn’t already have Mad Kitty Disease, I’d have it by the end of the day. As if to confirm this, Trout sat in the bedroom window over the poo-bin, wearing a peculiar, self-satisfied expression while he watched me slave away over his waste. (Phoebe didn’t join in, because she doesn’t admit to creating waste at all.)

Okay, he doesn’t look smug here because he’s wondering what I’m doing with the camera. Prior to this I assure you he he looked very smug.

But back to business. For those of you who are new to composting, turning a pile stirs everything up, increasing bacterial activity, making the materials hotter. This speeds decomposition. There’s much debate over whether to turn or not to turn and how often to turn, and I’m not going into any of that right now, except to say that humanure piles are not usually turned, and I’d hoped not to do so with this catmanure pile, either, but necessity drives.

Just like turning, adding a nitrogen source to the pile heats it up. All compost piles are a balance between carbon and nitrogen sources, aka “greens and browns.” Too much carbon and your pile is cool and slow. Too much nitrogen and its slimy and stinky. But if you get the balance right, you end up with lovely compost.

In kitty litter composting, the litter is the carbon and the urine and poo deliver the nitrogen. Starting out on this path, I had no idea how the natural carbon to nitrogen ratio in a cat box would play out. Now it seems to me that the ratio is carbon heavy. Cat litter materials, such as compressed sawdust, are really dense carbon sources and need tons of nitrogen to balance them.

So my preliminary finding on this point is that it might be help to add extra nitrogen when you add a new layer of litter. Extra nitrogen could come in the form of green yard trimmings, veg scraps, urine, fresh horse manure, etc. Today, though, I decided to add alfalfa meal because we had some wasting away in the garage. Alfalfa meal is ground up alfalfa. It’s used as a natural fertilizer and top dressing, and is high in nitrogen. Generally speaking, I think nitrogen should be free, but if you don’t have a lot of scraps/trimmings/spare urine around, you could do worse than to have some alfalfa meal on hand to perk up your compost pile if it’s gone carbon heavy.

Mixing in the alfalfa meal and water

When it was all done, I thought my pile looked a little more loved, and I think it’s going to heat up nicely. I was able to move ten gallons of the more mature compost over to the worm bin, but the barrel is still pretty close to full.

Adding the kitty compost to the worm bin

For the near future we’ll probably be able to send about half our litter to the barrel, and the other half will have to go to the landfill. Eventually we’ll get rid of this big mass of pine litter, and I hope that by using the clumping litter will keep the bin from filling up quite so fast, and will somehow reach cat:compost equilibrium.

*To be clear, I added water because the pile was dryish, not because water in itself is a magic activator to be used in all circumstances. If a pile is too wet, I’d blend in dry stuff while turning. The goal is for the materials in the pile to be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

Heavy-duty disinfecting the non-toxic way with hydrogen peroxide and vinegar

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells
Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

The comments on yesterday’s post indicated some general interest in strong disinfectants, and questions as to whether vinegar really was a good disinfectant. Vinegar is an acid and as such it does kill wee beasties, though not as many wee beasties as the nuclear options such as bleach or Lysol will. For everyday use, I think vinegar does a fine job. But I admit there are times, like when you’re cleaning chicken juice off a cutting board, where you might want something stronger.

Here’s a safe, super-strong way to disinfect. We covered it in The Urban Homestead, and it floats around the interwebs, too, so it may be review for some of you.

1) Take a bottle of hydrogen peroxide (3% solution, the kind you buy in the drugstore). Leave it in the  brown bottle it comes in because hydrogen peroxide is light sensitive. Screw a spray bottle nozzle onto the brown bottle.

2) Fill another spray bottle with undiluted white vinegar.

3) Mist the surface you wish to disinfect with one spray bottle first, and then the other, immediately after, like a one-two punch. Do not combine the two liquids in one bottle for the sake of efficiency. That doesn’t work. It makes a new chemical altogether which is not effective for this. Keep them separate. Always apply in the form of mist.

This methodology was developed in the mid-90’s by Susan Sumner a food scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. She actually developed this technique to remove salmonella from the surface of meat and vegetables. Yes, it can be applied directly to the food! I gather you rinse it off after application. It is said not to leave lingering flavors, but I haven’t tried it.

This combo works like gangbusters at killing salmonella. Nothing else works better. The magic is in the mix, somehow. As Sumner told Science News Online,

“If the acetic acid got rid of 100 organisms, the hydrogen peroxide would get rid of 10,000, and the two together would get rid of 100,000.” 

This one-two punch spray is very effective at killing germs of all sorts wherever it meets them, not just on food, so you can use it in on your cutting boards, in the bathroom, in garbage cans…wherever you need the extra assurance. And it’s so safe, it’s edible.

So no more excuses for clinging to your bleach, people. Ditch the poison!

Clean your bathroom without resorting to Poison

We talk about non-toxic housecleaning in almost every lecture we do, and we cover it in both books, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked about cleaning the bathroom on this blog. We did cover how to clean kitchen sink fairly recently, but I’m not sure what else we’ve done.  Of course, I know my regular Root Simple readers are so hardcore they could give me tips in this area, but I thought it would be good to cover non-toxic cleaning for new readers and folks crawling the interwebs for information.

It’s a really, really important topic. There’s no simpler way to remove toxins from your immediate environment than switching out your cleaning supplies. We call this “low hanging fruit.” There’s lots of things in this world that you may not like, but which you can’t control. Housecleaning, however, is totally within your power to change. Cleaning this way also saves you money and cabinet space, reduces plastic waste and not least of all, protects our waters from chemical contamination.

Just say no to chemical warfare in your home.

It all starts with the Holy Trinity of Non Toxic Household Cleaning:

  1. White vinegar*
  2. Baking soda (sodium carbonate)
  3. Liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s

Get yourself these things, some empty spray bottles and rags, and you’re in business. You don’t need anything else.

Prep:

Fill one spray bottle halfway full of white vinegar. Fill it the rest of the way with water. This is your all purpose wipe down spray, aka the 50/50 spray

Take another empty spray bottle and pour about a tablespoon of liquid soap into the bottom. Fill it up with water. This is called “soapy water.”

Yep. This is why we make the big bucks.

That’s it. You’ll find other recipes which are more involved. Some people like to put a squirt of soap in their vinegar water. Sure, why not? Other people make rather elaborate concoctions of a little of this and a little of that. I’ve found that simple is best, because 1) I can’t be bothered to do more and 2) I’m not sure any more elaboration is necessary.

Cleaning ain’t rocket science, and it’s not like I’m prepping my bathroom for surgery. Stuff just needs to be wiped down to remove dust and other surface dirt. Whatever I clean, however I clean it, will get dirty the next time it’s used, so why all the struggle and germ phobia?

All cheap white vinegar is the same, but I like El Pato brand because of the duck on the label. Why doesn’t El Pato make t-shirts?

The vinegar spray is great because it doesn’t leave any residue behind (which soap does), shines up things fairly well, disinfects to some extent because it is an acid, and deodorizes as well. Yes, it smells like vinegar, but you get used to that. You begin to associate that smell with the idea of clean. The scent goes away when it dries, and it takes any lingering odors with it.

The bathroom sink

Work the right side, the left side is yet to be done. See the hard water deposits forming around the base of the faucet? That’s on its way out.

The bathroom sink doesn’t get nearly as dirty as the kitchen sink, at least not in our house. See my post on the kitchen sink* if you have a really grotty sink that needs bleaching. In the bathroom, all I do is spray down the sink with the vinegar/water spray. Generously. Regular use of it will help prevent hard water deposits from forming around the faucets. Spray and wipe. I find using a clean, dry rag gives the best polish to the sink.

If you already have hard water deposits around your faucets or elsewhere, apply full strength vinegar to that area. If it runs off (depends on how your sink is shaped) try soaking rags or paper towels with vinegar and lay those over the deposits. Let the vinegar work its magic for a half hour or so and come back. You should be able to scrub off the deposits now. If you still have trouble, trying applying the vinegar hot.

To clean scummy build-up out of the sink, follow your vinegar wipe-down with a generous sprinkle of baking soda. Scrub with a damp cloth or a nylon sponge. Rinse.

Bathtub/Shower

The advancing line of clean

Here I prefer to use soapy water spray instead of the vinegar spray, though you could try the vinegar. I find that soapy water cuts through soap-scum build up quite well, perhaps because like dissolves like?
To clean our clawfoot tub, what I always do first is spray the whole interior with soapy water, then sprinkle over that a generous coating of baking soda, focusing on the spots that look grungy. I scrub these areas first, using an old nylon net bath puff, which is my favorite tub cleaning tool. A nylon sponge or a rag would work fine, too, though. The secret here is to use not so much soapy water–just enough to wet the surface, not enough to puddle. The baking soda should be just damp when you’re scrubbing with it. If it’s too wet, it’s not effective.

After I scrub the scummy parts, I wipe down the whole tub and rinse.

Note: I have no proof, but I do believe that big brand soaps (and their knockoffs) make more soap scum than natural soaps, and that scum is harder to remove than what’s left behind by natural soaps. They are definitely not good for your skin. When you switch your cleaning products over, switch over your bar soap to a nice, natural soap. Maybe something from the farmers’ market, or maybe even something you make yourself. Or yes, the ubiquitous Dr. Bronner’s is fine, too.

Toilet

Plunging the bowl to reduce water level. Cat heads are not recommended for plunging, as they are not bristly enough.

First thing I do is start scrubbing the bowl with the toilet brush, just using the bowl water. It’s amazing how much plain water and a scrub brush can do. I plunge as I scrub, with the goal of lowering the level of the water in the bowl down to a minimum. If you can’t make this happen by scrubbing & plunging, then pour a bucket of water in the bowl–that will lower the water level, too.

That first scrub takes care of a lot of the basic build up. Next, soak the bottom of the bowl in straight vinegar to remove stains and the-lord-knows-what that collects down there. Take that big cheap gallon jug of vinegar and refill the bowl to the usual water line with a couple of cups of vinegar. I like to pour the vinegar all around the sides of bowl to give those surfaces a good antiseptic dousing. Then let the vinegar sit at the bottom of the bowl for about a half hour. When you come back, give a final swish and flush.

While the vinegar is doing its work in the bowl, spray the entire toilet from top to bottom–back, lid, seat, base– with the 50/50 vinegar water, and then wipe it down with a rag. This is plenty sufficient to clean those parts, and if you have a seat/lid that shows water spots (like ours, because it’s black) just be sure to wipe those parts dry and you’ll have no spots.

If you have rust stains under the rim, pure vinegar (how did you guess I’d say that?) will help. Soak paper towels or rags in vinegar and plaster them under the rim and leave them as long as you can. When you come back, you should be able to scrub those stains away. Lemon juice would also work well.

Vinegar soaked rags under the rim, working on the rust stains. Apologies for the terrible picture!

Mirror

Because I’m way too lazy to make up a different formula or even pick up a different spray bottle, I use the 50/50 vinegar spray on the bathroom mirror. Spray on, buff off with a dry cloth. Works fine. Same goes for our mystery metal Ikea garbage can.

(Amendment as per Donna’s comment below: I should say that you can clean your mirrors with water alone. Donna also recommends newspaper for polishing, which is a fine technique. All in all, you just need to get windows or mirrors slightly wet, then polish them with whatever you have on hand that is clean and dry. I use the vinegar spray because it is a handy moisture delivery device.)

Floor

Again, all you need is vinegar–about a half cup in a bucket of hot water, or more like a full cup for a big bucket or a dirtier job. Mop. No rinsing required. I use this on tile, linoleum, vinyl flooring and even, with a barely damp mop, wood floors.

If I’m in an expansive mood I’ll add a few drops of essential oil to the bucket so I can Sniff n’ Mop.

* Warning Regarding Vinegar: Vinegar is apparently not recommended for use on stone surfaces–like granite counter tops or stone composite floors. I don’t have any personal experience with these surfaces, but I’ve read that this is so. Vinegar is a mild acid (5%), and acid can etch stone. It’s hard to imagine vinegar etching stone, especially when diluted, but it’s best to be cautious. The effects might build up over time. As always, ask the manufacturer of the stone surface, if you can.

Also, if you leave full strength vinegar on a finished metal surface for long enough, you might end up dulling it. I’ve never had a problem wiping down my fixtures and appliances with 50/50 blend, but once I soaked a sink head in a bag of hot vinegar overnight. My goal was to remove mineral deposits in the faucet. It worked, but it also dulled the head of the faucet. You can always rinse your faucets off after cleaning with vinegar, just to be sure. Rinse with water and then dry with a cloth and you’ll have no spots. Until someone uses the sink.

* I just realized that I posted that “how to clean your sink” post exactly one year ago to the day. Something about Feb. 13th makes me think about cleaning, apparently. Must be my romantic nature.

Phoebe, the implacable bathroom supervisor, says “Scrub, you lazy swab! Damn your eyes!” 

Foraging Walk in Los Angeles on February 25th

Our friend Nancy is back in town and offering this class. 
Heads up, you Westsidahz! It’s in Culver City.

RSVP required.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Join radical ecologist Nance Klehm for :::
MEDICINAL EDIBLES WALK + FORAGE
Saturday, Feb 25th 11am-1pm Baldwin Park Scenic Overlook, Culver City
*meet at park entrance, by the sign, Jefferson and Hetzler, http://g.co/maps/vf2j5
This unique forage will be a two hour informally guided walk through the spontaneous and cultivated vegetation of our urbanscape. Along the walk, we will learn to identify plants and hear their botanical histories, stories of their cultural usages, animal usages, and human usages. Come share in the experiential, medicinal, magical, and uber-local properties of Los Angeles’s native plants. 
$20/person: maximum 25 people/urbanforage so secure your spot now!

Make a Brigid’s Cross

A little cross hanging on our chicken coop

Spring is here. In LA, it’s definitely in full swing, but I suspect even in more northerly places folks may notice a slight change in the air, or find early flowers like snowdrops or crocuses pushing their way through the snow. Spring is stirring.

To celebrate spring this year, I made a few Brigid’s crosses to hang in the house and out on the chicken coop. They’re protective symbols, intended to ward off both evil and fire. Who doesn’t need that, I ask you? And it’s fun to put some fresh decorations up to counterbalance the post-holiday doldrums.

These symbols can be interpreted as Christian crosses, but they also have a definite pagan sun-wheel feel to them (energy circling around and around). Brigid herself did double-duty as a pagan goddess of smiths, poets and healers and later as a patron saint of…smiths, poets and healers.

Wikipedia says the symbol was unrecorded before the 17th century, so who really knows where it came from. (Shades of Spinal Tap!: No one knew who they were or what they were doing…)

But what the hay. St. Brigid’s day is February 1st, and the cross-quarter holiday of Imbolc, which marks the coming of spring, is celebrated around the 2nd. I think this weekend would be excellent time to make a few Brigid’s crosses for fun and luck.

A proper reed cross

They’re super-easy to make. Just go the Fish Eaters site for very clear weaving directions. Traditionally they are made out of reeds or long pieces of straw. I had neither, so I used some broom corn*, which didn’t result in a symmetrical effect that reeds give, but is sort of cute in its own way.  (FYI for you southerners: I tried palm fronds first, but they were too slippery. And seeing me trying to weave with them gave Erik flashbacks to Sunday school!)

*No, I haven’t made my broom yet! I’m hung-up on getting some nylon cordage in a decent color. For some reason our hardware store only stocks it in florescent shades.

Saturday’s Quote

Ghandi in 1909, source Wikimedia.

Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being. Without interrelation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism. His social interdependence enables him to test his faith and to prove himself on the touchstone of reality

                                      — Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, March 21, 1929

                                         (emphasis ours)

Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

Greeks Go Back to the Land

In today’s New York Times there’s an article about Greeks returning to the land and reclaiming practical skills in the wake of their financial crisis. Well worth a read:

With Work Scarce in Athens, Greeks Go Back to the Land

“I will take the rock in my hand and squeeze it, and with the water that comes out of it, I’ll make pilaf to feed my daughter. We’ll manage.”