Friday, October 24, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Great Applesauce Jar Switch

Brian and I are what you might call semi-regular consumers of applesauce. It's not an item you'll always find in our fridge, like it is in some homes (typically ones with small children), but it's our go-to accompaniment for potato pancakes and similar potato-based dishes. So every couple of months, when we have a potato meal on the agenda, I'll stop by the local supermarket to grab a jar of applesauce, which then lingers in our fridge until (we hope) we remember to polish it off before it turns fuzzy. An extra perk of finishing up a jar of applesauce is—or at least used to be—that it leaves you with a nice glass jar, which can be useful for storing all sorts of things, from apple butter and lemon curd to refrigerator pickles to dry beans in the pantry. It also makes an ideal container for carrying soup to work in a packed lunch; unlike our Pyrex bowls, it since it has a lid that screws on securely, and unlike plastic containers with snap-on lids, it's safe for reheating in the microwave.

Thus it came about that last week, Brian asked me to pick up a jar of applesauce to accompany his Skillet Kugel. When I checked the market, however, I was chagrined to discover that the store-brand applesauce we usually buy was no longer being sold in glass jars; they were all plastic. Moreover, it looked like Stop & Shop was merely following the lead of the name brand Mott's, because all its applesauce was now in plastic jars too. I was baffled. Why, when consumers are increasingly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of plastic, would all the applesauce producers in the country suddenly adopt it instead of glass?

On the face of the matter, it seemed like plastic packaging must fall into the category of "stupid plastic"—the kind that's wasteful and unnecessary compared to other alternatives. But on the other hand, if all the manufacturers had gone to the trouble of switching to plastic applesauce jars instead of glass ones, there must have been some significant benefit to doing so. Curious about what that might have been, I dropped a line to Mott's via its website:
I have noticed that Mott's has recently switched from glass jars to plastic for its applesauce. Store brands seem to have followed suit. I was just wondering when this switch happened and what was the reason for it. With more consumers now shunning plastic due to health concerns, why switch to it?
I wasn't really expecting a response, but to my surprise, I got a call back from a courteous company representative within a couple of hours. She said that the switch from glass jars to plastic for all Mott's applesauce actually happened back in July 2013. However, stores that already had a stockpile of Mott's in the old glass jars would probably have used it up before starting to put out the newer plastic jars, which would explain why the Stop & Shop was still displaying glass ones until recently. As for the reasons behind the switch, she said there were several:
  1. Safety. Customers had expressed a preference for plastic because it's non-breakable—a particularly important concern for parents.
  2. Easier handling. The plastic jars are both lighter and easier to grip, and many customers find them easier to open.
  3. Transportation. The plastic jars are stackable, which means you can pack them more efficiently into trucks and onto store shelves. That, combined with their lighter weight, means that they require less fuel to transport.
It was that third point that really caught my attention. Up until then, I'd been sort of half-assuming that the glass jars, whatever their other disadvantages, were the greener choice. But as the rep pointed out, since plastic jars are lighter, it takes less fossil fuel to transport them to stores, which makes their carbon footprint lower. Low enough to balance out the environmental costs of producing the plastic and recycling it? Ah, well, that's a tricky question to answer. An article on the carbon footprint of packaging at How Stuff Works says it's "still mostly a mystery," largely because "the numbers to answer these types of questions aren't easily accessible for the average person." Likewise, a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago, comparing the benefits of plastic, glass, and aluminum drink containers, concluded that "Clearly, there's no one best choice for every person or every situation."

So overall, I can't really say that the new plastic jars for applesauce qualify as an example of "stupid plastic." However, I can definitely say that the switch to plastic makes the jars less useful for us, since they're no longer microwave-safe and also not as easy to clean as the old glass ones. So from now on, when we find ourselves in need of applesauce, the first place I check will be not in the canned-fruit aisle, but on the shelf where the store keeps its marked-down produce. If we can pick up a bag of slightly bruised apples for a mere 60 cents a pound, then in less than half an hour, our little pressure cooker can turn them into an applesauce that beats the commercial stuff hollow for half the price. True, we'll end up with a smaller amount than we'd get by buying a whole jar, but that's a good thing; it means we won't have to worry about using up the leftover sauce before it goes bad. And as far as packaging goes, you can't get much more eco-friendly than an apple peel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Health and Beauty Face-Off: Aldi vs. Rite Aid vs. Stop & Shop

Last week, I embarked on a little investigation into Aldi's prices for health and beauty products, in response to an article on Daily Finance showing that Aldi charged much more for these types of products than other chains. I checked the store's prices for ten health and beauty products I use on a regular basis and found that, if there was a store brand available, it was likely to be a good deal, but if there wasn't, the only option was usually a midrange brand selling for a midrange price. This made it clear that Aldi isn't nearly as great a deal for health and beauty products as it is for foodstuffs, but it didn't tell me the whole story. Were the prices of the non-Aldi brands really higher than the prices of similar items at other stores, and if so, by how much? The Daily Finance article showed, for instance that Aldi's prices in the health and beauty section were nearly twice as high as those at Stop & Shop; would the prices at my own local Stop & Shop bear out that finding?

To answer this question, I took my little shopping list of health and beauty items to two other stores. First, I checked the prices on all the items at Stop & Shop; then, since I tend to buy these sorts of items at drugstores rather than supermarkets, I checked my local Rite Aid as well. In every case, I looked for the lowest-priced brand available at the store, without considering quality or ingredients.

The results, I have to say, were quite surprising to me. Here are the numbers for all three stores, with the cheapest one in italics:

Multivitamins: Aldi, store brand, $3.79/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $8.49/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Toothpaste: Aldi, Crest, $2.89
     Stop & Shop, Crest, $2.19
     Rite Aid, Ultra Brite, $1.00

Deodorant: Aldi, Old Spice, $2.99
     Stop & Shop, Speed Stick, $2.49
     Rite Aid, Suave, $1.99 (on sale, $3 for 2)

Shampoo/conditioner: Aldi, Pantene, $3.69
     Stop & Shop, VO5, 99 cents
     Rite Aid, VO5, $1.27

Ibuprofen: Aldi, store brand, $1.99/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $6.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Cotton swabs: Aldi, store brand, $1.39/375
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $1.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $2.49/100 ($2.24 with Wellness Plus)

Bar soap: Aldi, store brand, $2.49/3 bars
     Stop & Shop, Dove, $2.49/3 bars
     Rite Aid, Ivory, $1.99/3 bars (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

Body wash: Aldi, Dove, $5.39/24 oz.
     Stop & Shop, Great Value (ultra cheapo generic), $2/24 oz.
     Rite Aid, St. Ives, $4.99/24 oz. (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

The first thing you'll probably notice is that, whenever Aldi had a store brand available, it beat the pants off the best price at the other two stores—even if they were store brands also. That's not the surprising part. What I didn't expect to see was that, for half the items on the list, the best price at Rite Aid was higher than the best price at Stop & Shop. Rite Aid typically had a much larger selection, but even so, its bottom-priced item could only beat the supermarket's half the time. And moreover, in cases where the cheapest item at both stores was a store brand, Stop & Shop beat Rite Aid two rounds out of three. Even ibuprofen, the one thing on the list that's an actual drug, was cheaper at the supermarket than it was at the drugstore.

Moreover, in cases where both Rite Aid and Stop & Shop carried the same brand, it was usually cheaper at the Stop & Shop. Sometimes Rite Aid had an alternate brand that was cheaper, like Ivory soap, but Dove at Rite Aid was pricier than Dove at Stop & Shop. Indeed, compared to Rite Aid's, Aldi's prices for non-store-brand same items didn't actually look all that bad. Crest at Aldi is more expensive than the obscure Ultra Brite brand toothpaste, but it's cheaper than Crest at Rite Aid. 

So what I learned from this experiment is that it's probably a mistake to look to the drugstore first for my health and beauty products. Yes, if there's a specific brand I need, I'm likelier to find it at the drugstore—but if the supermarket has it, it'll probably be cheaper there. (And, of course, if Aldi has a store-brand equivalent, that's probably the cheapest of all.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Three Sisters Soup

The weekend before last, we went to visit some friends in Falls Church, VA, and took advantage of the opportunity to stop in at the local Penzey's Spices. We became fans of this store while visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis, but there isn't one in our area, so we always make a point of poking our noses in whenever we happen to be in a town that has one. The main reason is to replenish our supply of their excellent Vegetable Soup Base (it may look pricey at $10.85 a jar, but it goes a long way and makes any vegetarian soup more flavorful), but we inevitably take the opportunity to browse, as well, since Penzey's is a fascinating store to visit. They have just about every spice you could name, along with others you almost certainly couldn't, as well as their own signature blends. There are big glass jars and bottles of each spice for sniffing, so you can compare the four different varieties of cinnamon, or try to discern the subtle differences among barbecue spice rubs, or just breathe in the heady aromas of vanilla and lemon extract. You'll also see whimsical displays, such as the scaled-down model of a 1940s kitchen that holds all the baking spices in the Indianapolis store, or the nautical-themed display in the Falls Church store for all the various types of salt, featuring a rowboat converted into a set of shelves.

One of my favorite features at Penzey's is the little recipe cards they provide, free for the taking, next to different spice blends to provide examples of how to use them. On our most recent trip, I picked up an intriguing-looking one called Three Sisters Soup, referring to the classic trio of beans, corn, and squash that Native Americans often grew together as companion plants. Since we already happened to have butternut squash in the garden, corn in the freezer, and beans in the pantry, I thought this would be a good dish to try as soon as the weather started getting chilly.

This recipe, unfortunately, isn't among those archived on Penzey's website, so I can't give it to you here in full, but I'll give you an overview. After soaking and cooking the beans, you bake the winter squash until tender (or use the shortcut I learned from a friend and just microwave it whole for about 20 minutes) and scoop out the flesh. Then, in a big pot, you sauté all the ingredients you'd usually find in a vegetable soup—onions, carrots, celery, garlic—and add the squash, along with some veggie stock (which you can make from the Vegetable Soup Base) and bring it to a boil. Finally, you reduce it to a simmer and add the beans, corn, some herbs (the recipe called for dried, but we used fresh), and two cups of chopped tomatoes, and heat it through.

Those tomatoes, when I first read through the recipe, struck a discordant note in my mind. In general, I'm not a big fan of tomato-based soups, because I feel like the tomato flavor tends to dominate and overwhelm everything else. Tasting the mixture of ingredients in my imagination, I couldn't help thinking that it would probably be better without the tomatoes. But I also make it a general policy not to tamper with a recipe the first time I make it (except maybe to leave out something I truly hate, like olives), so I can taste it in its intended form and decide whether it really needs any changes. So our first batch of Three Sisters Soup was by the book, tomatoes and all.

Alas, I think I should have trusted my instincts. The finished soup was certainly colorful, and the blend of flavors was interesting, but those tomatoes tasted just as wrong in my mouth as they had in my mind. I tried to eat them up first so that I could try to evaluate the rest of the soup without them, but unfortunately, their flavor seemed to have permeated and cast its subtle influence over the whole dish. It wasn't bad, exactly, it just tasted sort of...off. I found myself losing steam as I worked my way through it, and by the end, I was so unenthusiastic that Brian ended up finishing my bowl for me. To be fair, I should note that he actually liked the soup very much in its original form and was happy not only to polish off my portion but also to dispose of all the leftovers. But he also didn't think he'd like it significantly less without the tomatoes, so I think it we make it again, we'll definitely leave them out. (This change also has the benefit of allowing this soup to be made all winter long. Corn, beans, and squash will all keep well in the freezer and pantry, but fresh tomatoes aren't much good once the first frost is past, and Brian and I agreed that substituting canned ones really wouldn't work.)

So Three Sisters Soup will remain in our recipe file for now, but with a note on it to skip the tomatoes. Once we've tried it that way, we'll be able to decide whether it's good enough to earn a place in our regular repertoire of winter dishes. (And if you want to try it yourself, you can find the recipe at your nearest Penzey's store. If there's one anywhere near your regular shopping route, you'll find it worth the trip.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Do not disparage, part 2

Last month I reported here on a new California law designed to protect consumers from "non-disparagement clauses"—nasty little provisions usually buried deep in a company's Terms of Sale that threaten to hit consumers with hefty fines if they ever publish a negative review of the company. Clauses like these have been the focus of numerous lawsuits recently, most notably the notorious KlearGear case in Utah. In this case, a couple posted a negative review of KlearGear.com after placing an order that was never delivered and receiving poor customer service from the company. KlearGear.com got wind of this bad review several years later and ordered the couple to take it down or pay a fine of $3,500 for violating their non-disparagement clause—even though (a) the couple had never actually received their order, and thus technically had never "done business" with KlearGear.com, and (2) this clause wasn't actually a part of the site's Terms of Sale at the time the order was placed. After months of legal wrangling (which you can read about in detail at Ars Technica), a court found in favor of the couple and ordered KlearGear.com to pay $306,750 for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees. (The clause in question has now been removed from the site's Terms of Use, although given this company's record, it's not inconceivable that they might try to enforce it anyway.)

In my post last month, I noted that California was the only state to have a law protecting consumers from non-disparagement clauses, so the best protection for those of us who live elsewhere is to look carefully for such a clause in the Terms of Sale on every site we use. However, it looks like that may soon change. Just one day after I posted my article on the California law, U.S. Representative Eric Smalwell (D-CA) introduced a bill in the House to ban non-disparagement clauses nationwide. According to Forbes magazine, the bill "says that businesses could not prohibit such reviews, impose a fine for posting a review, or require consumers to provide the business with exclusive rights to such reviews." Any clause that does any of these things would be legally unenforceable and would also be considered a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. (You can read a summary of the bill on the official Congressional website.)

I don't know about you, but I've already e-mailed my Representative urging him to cosponsor this bill. I hope enough other people do likewise to give this legislation some momentum and, with luck, help us non-Californians get some protection against these ridiculous, harsh, and blatantly unconstitutional clauses.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What not to buy at Aldi

As my regular readers will know, I'm a big believer in Aldi. For those who aren't familiar with that name, Aldi is a bare-bones supermarket that sells mostly its own store brands. You won't find any frills there like free samples, free bags, or even free shopping carts; if you want a cart, you need to pay a quarter deposit to unlock it, which you get back when you return it after shopping. (This ensures that most shoppers return their carts, and the few that aren't returned get picked up by other keen-eyed shoppers eager to save a quarter, thus sparing Aldi the cost of paying employees to go round up stray carts.) The chain doesn't accept either coupons or credit cards; it's cash, debit, or SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) only.

For those who are willing to put up with these minor inconveniences, however, Aldi offers some fantastic bargains. When Brian and I first discovered the chain, about five years ago, we were blown away by how cheap the breakfast cereals were, even compared to other store brands. (Aldi's Millville Raisin Bran is only $1.60 a pound, a price we never find elsewhere without stacking sales and coupons.) From cereal, we gradually branched out into other staple foods, including oats, peanuts, chocolate chips, cheese, and more recently, OJ and milk. Produce is less consistent, as prices vary from week to week, but when they're good, they're better than anyplace else's. I would venture to guess that buying our staples at Aldi probably saves us more money on our grocery bill than any other shopping strategy we use.

So you can only imagine my surprise when I came across a story today at Daily Finance saying that Aldi isn't the cheapest chain to shop at. In fact, in a comparison of six discount retailers, it's actually one of the worst. The study, done by Kantar Retail, compared prices for 21 products, including "edible grocery, non-edible grocery, and health and beauty aids." For the entire basket, Dollar General came out on top, closely followed by Walmart and Family Dollar. Aldi fell second from the bottom, with only Target doing worse.

How did this happen? A closer look at the numbers shows that Aldi's Achilles heel is apparently health and beauty aids. In the "edible" category, Aldi actually beat its competitors handily; its foodstuffs rang up at only $11.40, while its competitors' prices ranged from $13.20 to $14.79. Its prices for "non-edible groceries" were middling: $12.44 on a scale that ranged from $9.26 to $19.97. But for health and beauty, it came in dead last, at $14.05—nearly three times as much as the $5 total for the same items at the two leading stores.

It was comforting to know that we haven't been overspending all these years buying our edible groceries at Aldi, but I was still puzzled to see that it did so poorly on health and beauty. I haven't tried very many items in this category from Aldi, but the few that I have bought, like multivitamins and facial cleanser, have all looked like really good deals. Unfortunately, the press release on the Kantar Retail site doesn't say exactly what items the researchers included in their market basket, and I'm not willing to pay for a copy of the full report just to satisfy my curiosity. But since we already had a trip to Aldi planned for this evening, I figured I could do the next best thing: come up with my own list of health and beauty items that we buy regularly and check the prices for myself.

After a quick search of our bathroom, I jotted down a list of 11 items: multivitamins, toothpaste, deodorant, bandages, shampoo, conditioner, ibuprofen, antihistamines, cotton swabs, bar soap, and body wash. (That's probably more than the Kantar researchers included in their basket, but I figured it couldn't hurt to be thorough.) After we finished our regular shopping at Aldi, I went to hunt down these additional items and check their prices.

It took me a while to find the "health and beauty" section, since it was quite small and tucked away at at the end of an aisle. Even once I managed to track it down, there were a couple of items on my list that didn't appear to be on the shelf at all. But as I scanned the items they had, I quickly realized why Aldi's prices on them were so much higher than the other stores: unlike most of the items sold at Aldi, they were nearly all name brands. There were a few Aldi-branded items, under the label "Welby Health," and these actually did appear to be competitively priced: $1.39 for 375 cotton swabs, $3.79 for 100 daily multivitamins, and $1.99 for 100 ibuprofen tablets. But most of the items were well-known name brands, like Old Spice deodorant ($2.99), Pantene shampoo and conditioner ($3.69), Dove body wash ($5.39), and Crest toothpaste ($2.89). Moreover, in most cases, there was only a single name brand available, so consumers shopping for these items at Aldi can't compare prices and choose the cheapest option. The only choices are take it or leave it.

So it looks like a better answer to the question of what you should and shouldn't buy at Aldi, in order to get the most bang for your buck, is simply, "Buy the store brands." Any of Aldi's house brands—Millville cereal, L'Oven Fresh baked goods, Simply Nature organics—is likely to be a better deal than you'll find anywhere else. However, for the few products at Aldi that are name brands only, you're almost certainly better off looking elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Toilet paper trail

Remember how, last year, I wrote down the date on a newly opened bottle of laundry detergent so I could track how long it took us to use? Well, I'm at it again—this time with toilet paper.

Naturally, this tracking experiment will have to be a bit different from the first one. A single roll of toilet paper takes much less time to go through than a bottle of laundry detergent, and there can be quite a bit of variation in how long it takes us to use a roll. So instead of just marking the date when we start a roll and the date when we use it up, I plan to keep track of the start and end dates for the next dozen rolls we go through. With this information, I can calculate all sorts of interesting facts, such as:
  • How much we currently spend on toilet paper each year. We buy the store brand from Trader Joe's, which is 100 percent recycled, 80 percent post-consumer content, and $4.50 a dozen. (That's practically the lowest price it's possible to find on any brand, and certainly the lowest for any brand with recycled paper, barring the occasional sale-plus-coupon deal.) Once we know how long it takes us to use up one of those 12-packs, we can easily figure out how many we go through in a year, and at what overall cost.
  • How much we could save per year by switching to the cheapest non-recycled brand. I'm hoping and expecting to find that the answer is "very little," so we can point to toilet paper use as yet another green choice that has little to no cost.
  • How much more it would cost us per year to switch to the ultra-plushy paper. That will help us figure out whether the luxury of wiping with something that feels like a hotel bath towel would be worth the extra cost, in both dollars and virgin tree pulp.
  • How much it would cost us per year to switch to a tree-free toilet paper made from bamboo and/or sugarcane bagasse (the pulp left over from sugar production). The blogger at Eco Mum says she switched to a bamboo paper after learning that recycled toilet paper is often contaminated with endocrine-disrupting BPA and BPS. For what it's worth, both the Eco Etiquette column in the Huffington Post and the Ask Umbra column in Grist say that the amount of BPA found in recycled TP is so minuscule that it really isn't worth panicking about, and certainly isn't worth the environmental cost of switching back to virgin pulp—but for those who are worried, the Eco Etiquette advisor says bagasse-based paper is a reasonable alternative.
  • How much we could potentially save by switching to "family cloth," which is a euphemism for reusable, cloth toilet wipes. This is another alternative to recycled TP that pops up in many sources, such as Sustainable Baby Steps. In theory, this seems like an ideal ecofrugal choice, since a key principle of the ecofrual life is that reusable products are almost always better for both the earth and your wallet than disposable ones. Yet family cloth, even aside from the "ick factor," obviously has some costs that toilet paper doesn't. First, you need to find room in your bathroom for a sealed container (like a diaper pail) to store the cloths; for some of us, finding that extra space would mean remodeling the whole room at significant cost. Second, you'll obviously need to do laundry a lot more often—and since these cloths both start out filthy and need to come out sanitized, you'll need to use hot water and probably bleach. All those extra loads of laundry will cost money, time, and natural resources. So on the whole, it's by no means obvious that family cloth is a more ecofrugal choice than TP. To do a real side-by-side comparison, you need hard numbers on both cost and environmental impact—and this TP tracking experiment will give me at least one of those.
  • How long the payback time would be on a bidet, which is another alternative to TP suggested in many of the sources cited above. These devices, which clean the tush with water, are common in Europe and some other parts of the world, but rare in the US. Adding a completely separate fixture, like those found in luxurious French bathrooms, would obviously be impractical, but an attachment that adapts an existing toilet to double as a bidet can cost as little as 60 bucks. Knowing how much we spend on TP per year will help us figure out whether such an option would be cost effective. (Even if it definitely is a money-saver, however, I'd be reluctant to install one without trying it out first to make sure we'd actually find it convenient and comfortable to use.)
Of course, like laundry detergent, toilet paper is only a very small expense. It's quite unlikely that any of the strategies in this list would have all that big an impact on our budget, positive or negative. But as I noted when I first started my laundry tracking experiment, even little expenses are still worth keeping an eye on, because there are so many more ways to save small change than big money on a day-to-day basis. None of these strategies may make a big difference by itself, but none of them takes that much effort, either, and when you put enough of them together, they really do add up. Or, as the Brits have it, "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves."