Monday, January 21, 2019

Thrift Week 2019, Day 5: Lady stuff

Warning to male readers: If you're at all squeamish about menstruation, you might not want to read today's entry. I'm going to be talking about periods, feminine products, the waste they produce, and how to avoid it—and while I will try not to get too explicit, I won't be able to steer clear of the lady parts altogether.


Okay, now that we've cleared all the fragile males out of the room, let's talk seriously for a minute about the cost of the average monthly period, and the waste associated with it. I did a little research on this for an as-yet-unpublished article on Money Crashers, and I found a piece in the Washington Post about a California assemblywoman named Cristina Garcia pushing to make feminine hygiene products tax-free across the state. Her office did some research and found that the average woman in California spent $7 a month on disposable sanitary pads and tampons. Multiply that by 40 years of fertility, and it adds up to $3,360 we're doling out to Aunt Flo.

And that doesn't even touch on the environmental costs. All those pads and tampons are ending up in landfills (except in the few areas where trash is incinerated), along with the individual wrappers and boxes they're packaged in. Let's start by assuming that $7 a month figure works out to one box of pads per month (which is about the price I found for a box of U by Kotex at Target). A three-pack of this same brand on Amazon has a shipping weight of 2.3 pounds, so if we round down to allow for the weight of the shipping envelope, that works out to to about 12 ounces per box. So over the course of your fertile years, that adds up to 360 pounds of waste going into the landfill.

Now, more power to Assemblywoman Garcia for trying to get the tax removed on these products, but I might quibble with her argument that they're a "basic necessity." Because most of the time, at least, you don't really need disposable products to cope with your period. Our great-grandmothers managed with reusable cloth rags, and there's no reason we can't do the same.

Matter of fact, it's easier for us, because there are now reusable cloth pads specifically designed for the purpose. I bought my first set of cotton Glad Rags more than 25 years ago, and while they've finally started to show signs of wear, they're still usable. The assortment you see here—six cloth pads, each with one or two liners—is all I need to get through my period every month. I just change out the pad each day—twice if it's a heavy day—and soak it in the sink before tossing it into the wash. They get laundered and go up on the line with all my regular clothes (probably to the consternation of the neighbors, if they've ever noticed).

These six pads, plus the carrying bag, cost me somewhere around $50. The amount they add to each month's laundry probably works out to maybe one extra load of laundry per year at most, for an annual maintenance cost of 40 cents. So over the past 25 years, these pads have cost me maybe $60 to own and have taken the place of over a thousand dollars' worth of disposable sanitary napkins. (Well, maybe I should say they've almost taken the place of disposable pads, since I still keep a few on hand. They're easier to use when traveling or to store in my purse for emergencies. But I haven't actually bought any in years.)

Now, I realize some ladies probably have to deal with heavier flow than I do, so they'd need a larger assortment of cloth pads to get through the month. But these women have all the more reason to choose cloth over paper; since they're spending more each month now, they stand to save more. Double the initial investment and laundry costs, and you're looking at $120 for 25 years' worth of protection, as opposed to over $2,000 for disposable pads. (Actually, if you were to buy new Glad Rags today, the cost would be a little more than that. Their sampler kit of three day pads, three liners, an overnight pad, and a carry bag costs $95, and a woman with heavy periods would probably need two of them. But other brands are much cheaper, such as these Teamoy cloth pads that costs only $26 for ten pads of varying sizes, plus a "wet bag" for stowing away soiled pads in case you have to change pads while you're at work. The clean ones can simply be folded in on themselves for carrying—no bag needed.)

Cloth pads, like the disposable kind, can't be worn while swimming. This isn't really an issue for me; I just have a box of disposable tampons for those extremely rare occasions when I want to go swimming during my period. (I've had the same box for ages, and there's basically no chance I'll use it up before I hit menopause.) But for women who want to be able to swim at any time, there's also a reusable tampon alternative: the menstrual cup. You can wear one of these for up to 12 hours, then wash it and reinsert it. At the end of your cycle, clean it thoroughly and put it away until next month.

The best-known of these is the DivaCup, which is made of silicone. It's not as cost-effective as cloth pads, since it costs around $40 and only lasts about a year, but it's still less than half the price of disposable pads. A latex cup, such as The Keeper, can last up to 10 years, potentially replacing $840 worth of pads for $35.

Bottom line: between cloth pads and menstrual cups, there's no reason for any woman to keep forking over $7 a month to the giant companies that control the feminine product business. Women of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but 360 pounds of garbage!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Thrift Week 2019, Day 4: Silicone baking mats

Yesterday, I told you about how lids made of stretchy silicone helped us entirely eliminate plastic wrap in our kitchen. Today, you'll hear how silicone came to the rescue yet again to save us from another disposable product in the kitchen: parchment paper.

We weren't always dedicated users of parchment paper. We used to keep cookies from sticking to the pan the old-fashioned way, by greasing it, but this didn't always work all that well. A cookie would still stick from time to time, and even when they came off cleanly, the pans had to be scrubbed afterwards—a challenging task with our smallish sink and drying rack.

Nonetheless, we probably wouldn't have started using parchment paper in the first place if we hadn't happened to try some recipe—I forget now exactly what it was—that required it. Then, after shelling out five bucks on a roll, we figured we might as well use the rest of it up, so Brian took to lining baking pans with them and found it to be a total game-changer. No more greasy baking sheets, no more sticking cookies, no more complicated cleanup—all he had to do was pull off the paper and discard it.

This left him with a dilemma when the roll ran out. On the one hand, he didn't much like the idea of spending another five dollars on something he didn't technically need, but on the other, it really did make baking a lot easier. Finally, he decided to spend the money, but with so much reluctance that I decided then and there to start looking for a reusable alternative and spare him from having to go through this raging inner conflict again.

So I did a little research and quickly discovered silicone baking mats. These nonstick mats work just like parchment paper, except you can wash and reuse them over and over. They can stand up to oven temperatures, they clean up easily with soap and water, and you can even put them in the dishwasher (if you have one). I was planning to get him some for Christmas that year, but when my relatives called me up asking me for gift suggestions, I decided to let them have that one—so he ended up getting not one but three mats, a large one from my mom and a pair of smaller ones from my aunt.

This turned out to be the perfect combination for him. He uses the large mat for roasting veggies on our big jelly roll pan and the smaller ones for baking cookies (and other baked items laid out on cookie sheets, such as spinach balls). Because the mats are flexible, they're much easier to wash in the sink and dry on the rack than a large, rigid pan. And he discovered yet another perk of baking with them: they somehow store and release heat more evenly than the metal pans. In the past, when baking cookies, he found he had about a two-minute window between underdone and burnt; with these mats, the cookies brown more slowly and gradually, giving him a lot more wiggle room.

He also uses these for applications that he wouldn't have bothered to waste parchment paper on. For instance, this morning he was baking a loaf of sourdough bread, and he realized that if he shaped the sticky dough directly on the metal baking sheet, it would probably stick. So he slipped one of these mats underneath it to make sure it came up easily.

These silicone mats aren't saving us a huge amount of money. At the rate we were going through parchment paper, we probably wouldn't have spent more than about ten bucks a year on it. But considering that you can pick them for as little as $3.29 apiece on eBay, they're still an investment that will pay for itself in under a year. And for Brian, at least, if they can prevent him from losing any cookies to burning, that's a good enough reason to buy them in and of itself.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Thrift Week 2019, Day 3: Silicone lids

One disposable product we had a bit of trouble figuring out how to replace in our kitchen was plastic wrap. When we can, naturally, we use reusable containers that come with their own lids, but the problem is that the lids always wear out faster than the containers. So if we wanted to go on using them, we needed some other way of covering them, such as plastic wrap or aluminum foil. (We've tried covering them with a reused plastic bag, but it needs something to secure it, and some of the containers are too large to stretch a rubber band around.)

The solution came to us as a gift—or rather a couple of different gifts from different people over the course of a couple of years. It's a set of silicone lids that stretch to cover a container, then cling to the sides and hold themselves in place, just like plastic wrap. 

As you can see in this picture, we have one set of clear plastic lids and one set of multiple colors. The largest and second-largest of the clear ones can cover the smallest and second-smallest of our enameled metal bowls, which lost their lids to wear long ago, so we can now use them for transporting food as well as for mixing.

The smaller, colorful ones can fit cans of different sizes, so if you've used only part of the contents, you can just cover up the rest and store it in the fridge instead of having to transfer it to another container. The smallest lid from the clear set can also serve this purpose, as you can see here with a can of pumpkin we keep in the fridge as cat food. (Our kitties mainly eat dry food, but a little pumpkin every day is supposed to help their digestion, and they seem to look on it as a treat.)

None of the lids from either set was quite large enough to fit our biggest metal bowl, so we picked up the extra-large purple one for that purpose at Kitchen Kapers. This was the only one we bought ourselves, and it cost somewhere around ten bucks; however, you can buy sets of them for much less at cheaper stores. A quick search just now turned up a set of six different sizes at Walmart for only $12, and a similar set on Groupon is marked down to a mere $6.

Now, I'll admit, these reusable lids aren't completely idiot-proof. It takes a bit of force to stretch them over the rim of your container, and you have to make sure you've managed to get them stuck down securely so they don't just slip and pop right back off again. But then, plastic wrap has problems of its own, often seeming to deliberately cling to itself, your hands, and everything else except the sides of the bowl you're trying to cover. So I would say, on the whole, these lids are no harder to use, and they can take the place of whole rolls of plastic wrap. I can't speak to how long they last, since we've only had them for a couple of years. But I can say that in the time we've been using them, they've shown no signs of wearing out or losing their suppleness.

These lids probably aren't saving us a huge amount of money, since we never were in the habit of using plastic wrap all that often to begin with. But it pleases me every time I use them and know I'm not putting any disposable junk into the waste stream. Plus, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, they're protecting us from a whole host of toxins.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Thrift Week 2019, Day 2: Non-paper products

Continuing with my Thrift Week series on reusable alternatives to disposable stuff, I'd like to talk a bit about paper products—or rather, the lack thereof.

Pretty much the only disposable paper product we use in our home is toilet paper. There are people out there who have replaced even this with reusable alternatives, such as a bidet or "family cloth," a euphemism for reusable tush wipes. However, as I discussed in my TP tracking article, the amount of amount we could save with these alternatives is so small compared to the hassle involved that I've never seriously considered them. (And anyway, the flushed paper just goes into our sewage sludge, which typically gets used as fertilizer—so in a sense, it's being recycled.)

Most Americans, however, use a lot more paper products than this. Here's a rundown of the products that mainstream Americans use and we don't, what we use instead, and how much we're saving by doing so.

Paper Napkins

Last spring, I was quite pleased to see a headline suggesting that Millennials, among their many other crimes, were "killing" paper napkins. I assumed this meant that, like us, they were using cloth napkins instead, which not only look nicer but also cost less in the long run. However, to my disappointment, this turned out not to be what Gen-Yers are doing at all; instead they're just setting their tables with paper towels. After all, they're basically the same thing, and paper towels are cheaper, so why buy two separate products?

My response to this is, okay, but why buy even one? Swapping out paper napkins for paper towels may be cheaper, but you're still using something once and throwing it away. At our house, we use only cloth napkins, which are significantly cheaper. True, each cloth napkins costs more up front than a single paper one, but most of the cloth napkins we use every day were gifts from relatives; we also have some that we bought for larger parties, but these cost no more than a dollar apiece. So even up front, a set of four cloth napkins doesn't really cost any more than a jumbo-pack of paper ones.

However, the real savings come from the ongoing costs. Since we each reuse the same napkin until it gets dirty enough to need a wash, we only wash an average of one to two napkins per week, which adds up to maybe one extra load of laundry per year. And according to Michael Bluejay's laundry calculator, that single load costs us about 40 cents. By contrast, using paper napkins at every meal would cost us around $35 a year. (See my Money Crashers piece on green living for more details on these calculations.)

At that rate, even if we had to buy all our cloth napkins new, they'd pay for themselves in a matter of weeks. I can't calculate exactly how much we save over the course of each napkin's lifetime because, to be honest, I'm not sure what a cloth napkin's lifetime is; even the oldest ones we own are nowhere near wearing out.

And, of course, we're also not tossing over two thousand soiled paper napkins into a landfill every year. (I guess you could always compost them instead, but you'd be at risk of overflowing your bin pretty quickly.)

Paper Towels

Another reason we would never considering paper towels in place of napkins, as our Millennial friends do, is that we don't have paper towels in the house. In fact, the only time we've ever had any paper towels in this house was when we first moved in and my in-laws bought three rolls of them, along with various other cleaning supplies, to get the place spic-and-span. I think it took us over five years to use them all up.

What we use for everyday cleaning is cloth rags. These cost us nothing, as we make them ourselves by tearing up old socks and T-shirts when they're so worn out they can no longer reasonably be repaired. In the kitchen, we keep them in a plastic dispenser from IKEA, originally designed for storing plastic bags for reuse, which we've bolted to the inside of the cabinet door under the sink. We just stuff freshly washed ones in at the top and pull them out as needed.

When they start to look too ratty and dingy for use in the kitchen, we downgrade them to "shop rags," which we store in the workshop for cleaning. If we ever use these to clean up a particularly nasty mess, we can just toss the entire rag in the trash, as you would do with a paper towel, without guilt. However, we don't have to do this very often, so we produce significantly less waste with these rags than we would by using and discarding a paper towel every time we want to clean something up. (I'm not sure how many rags we actually discard or wear out in the course of a typical year, but I know that it's fewer than we produce as our shirts and socks wear out. And since those worn-out clothes would probably just end up in the landfill if we didn't turn them into rags, you could argue that we're producing no additional waste at all this way—we're just keeping our clothes out of the waste stream a little longer.)

I've never counted how many rags we actually go through in a week, but whenever we do a load of laundry, it typically contains half a dozen or so. If we do a load of laundry each week on average, that means we're using about six rags per week. Furthermore, most of those get used two or three times before going into the laundry, since they can hold a lot more liquid than a paper towel. So those six rags are probably taking the place of around 15 paper towels, which would add up to around 780 paper towels per year—about three-quarters of this $10 12-pack from Staples. So that's about $7.50, minus, say, $1.20 for an extra three loads or so of laundry, for a net savings of $6.30 per year.

In short, using rags in place of paper towels isn't saving us nearly as much as using cloth napkins. But on the other hand, it's really no more work, and it might save as much as one whole tree every year for all those paper towels we're not using. So really, what's the downside?


The most controversial non-paper product we use is cloth handkerchiefs. This often gets a reaction of "Ewwww," even from people who are otherwise environmentally conscious. But should it, really?

According to an analysis by ABC Australia, disposable tissues are "likely" more hygienic than reusable hankies when you have a cold, if—and this is key—you not only dispose of them immediately after use, but also go and wash your hands right afterwards. But how many people really do this? If you have a really serious cold, one that has you sneezing or blowing your nose every minute, following these rules would mean not only going through several whole boxes of tissues a day, but also washing your hands dozens of times every hour. I don't know anyone who actually does this—and if you don't, the experts say, there's no difference between tissues and hankies. (It also bears noting that if you don't have a cold, but are sneezing or sniffling due to allergies, germs are not an issue, and there's no advantage to using tissues at all.)

However, for those who are still freaked out about germs, there is a product out there that claims to solve the problem. The Hankybook is a set of eight organic cotton "pages" sewn into a sturdy cloth cover, which protects your hands from contact with any germs so that you won't spread them to other surfaces. They cost about $8 apiece, while plain cotton hankies from Target cost only $5 for a set of six—but then, one HankyBook can really take the place of up to eight plain hankies, and they're organic to boot.

Whichever type you buy, it'll definitely be cheaper than disposable tissues. A 120-count box of Kleenex costs $1.59 at Target, which is a little over a penny a pop. That doesn't seem like much until you think about how many of those things you can go through with one cold, or on a bad day during allergy season. I did a quick search and found that Statista puts typical tissue use in the U.S. at two boxes per person per month, which works out to $38 a year. Meanwhile, our plain old cheap hankies from the dollar store merely produce maybe three loads of laundry per year, costing $1.20 for the two of us. (And yes, the experts at ABC Australia say washing your handkerchiefs with your regular laundry is quite sufficient to get them clean and germ-free—no need to use a special "sanitize" cycle or even hot water.)

I should note that, for the convenience of guests in our home, we do keep one box of tissues in the kitchen. However, in Millennial-approved fashion, the box doesn't actually contain special "facial tissue" bought for the purpose; it's just a roll of toilet paper concealed in a nice holder.  

If you had to rank the non-paper products we use from most to least mainstream, the cloth napkins would probably be most normal, while the cloth cleaning rags would be most likely to rank as truly extreme. But if you think about it, they're all based on the same principle: it costs less to wash a piece of cloth than it does to buy and discard a piece of paper, and it produces less waste, too. Plus our cloth napkins and cloth handkerchiefs earn Miss Manners' seal of approval and make us look like much classier individuals than we really are.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Thrift Week 2019: The Reusable Edition

One of the cornerstones of the ecofrugal life is replacing single-use items with reusable ones. For folks who care about both the environment and their bank balance, this is generally a no-brainer. After all, what kind of sense does it make to keep spending money on things you're just going to discard? And why flood the waste stream with disposable napkins, tissues, whatever, when you could just buy one thing and use it over and over again?

Some time last year, I got the idea to write a post about all the different ways we've put this principle into practice in our own lives. I started making a list of disposable things we've replaced with reusable ones, and when I got to seven items, I thought, hey, wait a minute—why not give each one of these its own post for Thrift Week?

Thus, I'm dubbing Thrift Week 2019 the Reusable Edition. Each day this week, I'll be focusing on  a specific disposable item we no longer use (or never did use) and what reusable item we've replaced it with. And since we're starting off Thrift Week on a Thursday, which is Morris dance practice night for me and Brian, I thought I'd make my first post about an item that always accompanies me to my dance practices and gigs: my reusable water bottle.

As I've said many times, both here and on Money Crashers, I think the whole concept of bottled water is about as far from ecofrugal as it's possible to get. I mean, think about it for a minute: you're taking something that anyone can get out of a faucet for practically nothing, and instead putting it into single-use plastic bottles and charging a buck or two apiece for them. How on earth did this idea ever catch on? I can see why you might be forced to buy your water in bottles if you live in one of the few places in this country that doesn't have a safe drinking water supply, but how did it ever become the standard across the entire country, to the point that drinking from the tap never even occurs to people?

Now, I realize there are some people who regularly drink tap water at home but buy bottles to take with them on the go, since you can't exactly tote the kitchen sink along with you. Well, it's true, if you want water ready to hand when you're out and about, you need to bring your own bottle—but there's no earthly reason why that bottle needs to be disposable. The kit bag I tote along to every Morris practice contains a stainless-steel water bottle I acquired on Freecycle, which holds—I just checked—a good 28 ounces. It has a twist-on top with a pop-up drinking valve, and an additional guard that fits over that valve to catch any leaks. In the few years I've had it, it's developed a few scratches and dings, but it holds water just a securely as ever. Most of the time, I don't even bother to clean it, and I've never noticed any kind of crud growing in it—but if I did, a good rinsing and air drying would leave it as good as new.

I chose this large, sturdy bottle for my Morris bag because it sees a lot of heavy use, and I wanted something that would both hold a good supply of water and stand up to being hauled around and buffeted in my kit bag. However, we also have a couple of others that see regular use. We regularly keep two glass bottles in our car cup holders that originally held juice; I believe one was originally a Snapple and one was a Nantucket Nectar. Spending two bucks on a bottle of juice may not seem very ecofrugal, but if you look at it as a reusable water bottle that comes with a free serving of juice as a bonus, it's actually a great price. All we had to do was drink the juice, take the bottles home and give them a quick wash with a bottle brush (originally bought for our reusable milk bottles, back when we were regularly drinking powdered milk), and refill them with water. In the wintertime, we make a point of never filling them more than about two-thirds full, lest they freeze and crack the glass, but in the summer we can fill them right to the top. We take them inside for rinsing and airing every now and then, but otherwise they need no care.

Even when we want bubbles in our water, we no longer buy it in disposable containers. My Primo Flavorstation, which I received as a gift four years ago, is still working fine and can supply all our fizzy-water needs. When I first got this, it came with a warning that the plastic bottle supplied with it shouldn't be used for more than two years, because the PETE plastic in it would slowly degrade until it could no longer handle high pressure, resulting in a dramatic explosion. So I bought a second bottle for it just in case, but I've been tempting fate by continuing to use the original bottle for the past two years, and so far it's still holding up. (I did start turning the machine to face away from me before hitting the carbonator button, just so that in case it does suddenly go off with a bang, I'll have the machine between my body and any flying plastic fragments.)

So, basically, for the last four years, we have had no need to buy any form of water in a disposable bottle, and we hope not to need any for the foreseeable future. I suppose some day both the bottles for my Primo will give up the ghost and I'll have to find some other solution, but maybe by that time someone will have come up with a creative solution that will allow me to use the machine with some other type of bottle. (Maybe something along the lines of this 3D-printed adapter someone made for the SodaStream.) Or maybe I'll have to trade in the Primo for a SodaStream with an adapter that allows it to be used with a standard, refillable CO2 tank.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The organic dilemma

As I observed last week, I've been trying over the past couple of months to make my diet lighter on the earth. After reading a study back in October arguing that eating less meat and dairy was the single best way to shrink your total ecological footprint, I've eliminated milk from my everyday eating, and I'm now working on finding alternatives to cheese. And Brian has started habitually making more of our everyday meals vegan when he can, using substitutes like flaxseeds and water in place of eggs.

So you might think that, while I'm at it, I should also be making a point of eating more organic food, right?

Well—maybe not.

My doubts about organic food began last summer. That's when I listened to an episode of "Science Versus," a podcast that explores the science behind controversial issues of the day, called "Science Versus Organic Food." At the outset, chipper host Wendy Zukerman announced that she would be addressing three specific questions about organic food: does it taste better, is it better for you, and is it better for the planet?

I figured I wouldn't learn much of anything new from this podcast, since I was already pretty confident that the answers were no, mostly no, and yes. I listened impatiently through the first half of the podcast, as Zukerman revealed that people can't tell organic tomatoes from conventional ones in blind taste tests, that there's no evidence organic food contains more nutrients, and that there's no difference in cancer rates between people who eat organic food regularly and those who don't (although there is evidence that the workers who pick the food suffer higher rates of cancer). All this was old news to me, and also, I felt, beside the point. I was waiting to hear the evidence explaining why organic food was better for the environment—lower water use, lower carbon emissions, less damage to wildlife, etc., etc.

At first, it looked like the second half of the podcast was going to confirm these views, as Zukerman cited a study showing that organic farms have better soil health than their conventional counterparts. But then things took a turn for the worse as she started exploring the question of pollution. She pointed to studies showing that one of the main types of pollution associated with farming, nitrogen runoff from the soil, was actually worse on organic farms, which rely on slow-release organic fertilizers like manure rather than chemical fertilizers that can be carefully timed and measured to release nitrogen just when it's needed. And then she followed this up with the real kicker: since organic farms have lower overall yields than conventional ones, making more of our food supply organic will divert more land from other uses, while also producing still more of this harmful runoff. (She did concede that if the shift toward organic were accompanied by a shift toward vegetarianism, we could feed the world organically without using more land. But just buying organic won't necessarily help make that happen.)

Hearing this threw me for a bit of a loop, but I quickly rallied. After all, there was no reason to take this one half-hour podcast, which necessarily can't cover any topic in all that much detail, as the final word on the subject. I knew it had left out one of the main reasons I'd always had for choosing organic over conventional food, a lower carbon footprint. And while it had discussed pollution from nitrogen runoff, it hadn't mentioned the environmental impacts of all those nasty pesticides and herbicides used on conventional farms. Clearly it was worth taking little time to look into these issues on my own before just deciding to drop organic food altogether.

So I did a little Googling, making sure to focus on the most reliable sources I could find. But to my shock and dismay, these sources generally seemed to come down on Zukerman's side of the argument. For instance, a highly detailed analysis of organic versus conventional farming in Environmental Research Letters concluded that "per unit of food, organic systems require more land, cause more eutrophication, use less energy, but emit similar greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as conventional systems." Even the environmental site Treehugger was forced to admit the validity of this study, though the author argues that "surely there are other reasons why Earth-friendly food production is a good idea" aside from carbon footprint.

That might be true, if organic farms really were more "Earth-friendly" in other ways. But the studies I found just don't seem to back up that conclusion. A piece from the Genetic Literacy Project noted that the rules for organic labeling often prevent organic farmers from following the most sustainable practices—for instance, blocking them from "using state-of-the-art soil building practices" and forcing them to rely on "older, ‘natural’ less targeted chemical pesticides" that can cause more collateral damage to beneficial insects. And an article in the Guardian pointed out that "for every acre increase in certified organic farmland there was an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production in the United States." (The author argued that organic farms could have a lower carbon footprint than conventional ones, but the current standards give them no real incentive to do so.)

So what does this all mean? If I really want my diet to be as low-impact as possible, does it make sense to drop organic foods from my shopping list entirely?

Well, again—maybe not.

You see, as I've explained before, I don't always buy organic. I insist on it for only a few products—the ones that are most damaging to the environment when grown conventionally, including coffee, sugar, and bananas. The studies that conclude conventional farming is less damaging than organic farming are looking at agriculture as a whole, not at these specific crops. So until I see evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to continue to assume organic versions of these are less harmful, and shop accordingly.

As for the rest of the food I buy, I go by cost. I will buy the organic version of a product if its price is no more than 50 percent higher than the conventional versions. (I used to allow a markup of 60 percent, based on a study I'd seen that said this was the average price premium for organic foods. Hence, I concluded that if the markup was under 60 percent, it was a good deal. However, in 2015, Consumer Reports looked at over 100 foods and found that the organic ones, on average, cost only 47 percent more than their conventional equivalents. So I switched my "Rule of 1.6" down to a "Rule of 1.5," which also has the advantage of making the math easier.)

Now here's the thing—the biggest problem with organic food, and the biggest reason its carbon footprint can be higher than conventional foods, is that it requires more land to grow the same amount of food. This is also why the price difference for some organic foods, like grass-fed beef, is often so ridiculously high. But as Consumer Reports found, there are other organic foods for which the price difference is much lower, or even nonexistent. And it stands to reason that these cheaper organics must also be cheaper to grow—which means they probably also use less land. And if that's true, then the cheaper an organic product is compared to the conventional version, the more eco-friendly it's likely to be.

I admit I can't really prove this theory, since most studies comparing the environmental impact of organic versus conventional foods don't break it down by specific crops. However, I found one piece at the Genetic Literacy Project that shows the "yield gaps" between organic and conventional versions of specific crops, and there seems to be some correlation between those figures and the price differences between the corresponding foods shown in this Business Insider article. For instance, tomatoes, which have a yield gap of 61 percent, have a price gap of 50 percent; avocados, with a yield gap of only 12 percent, have a price gap of about 12 percent as well; almonds have a yield gap of 43 percent, and almond butter has a price gap of 35 percent. It's not perfect, but there's at least a hint of a pattern there.

So all in all, it looks like what I always thought was the organic dilemma—that doing the right thing for the earth was more costly—is exactly backward. Instead, if you let price be your guide about when to buy organic, you'll end up making the right choices for both the planet and your wallet. In other words, buying organic, which I thought of as one of the few exceptions to the rule that ecology and economy go together, actually turns out to be a perfect example of it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Money Crashers: Amazon vs. eBay

Until a few years ago, I used to shop fairly often on (I split up with the company in 2014 over its inhumane treatment of employees, both in its warehouses and in the office—though I will confess to backsliding a couple of times when I simply couldn't find an item anywhere else.) Since then, I've taken to shopping more on eBay for those hard-to-find items.

However, though I know what it's like to buy on both sites, I've never used either one to sell anything. So when Money Crashers asked me to update an old article about which of the two sites is better for sellers, I had to rely on the companies' own websites to give me the lowdown. The article covers all the official details, what types of items each site will and won't accept; the processes for signing up, listing your items, and getting paid; and the seller fees charged by each site. However, I wasn't able to share any personal experiences with either site, since I don't have any (and I didn't really have the time or the inclination to start selling stuff online just for research purposes).

So, readers, I'm putting it to you: Do any of you have experience selling with Amazon, eBay, or both? Can you offer up any details about what it's like to sell on either site that provide a more complete picture than what I've discussed in the article? Let me know in the comments, either here or on Money Crashers.

Amazon vs. eBay – Which Is Better for Selling Your Stuff Online?