Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On the Soap Box.

Have you ever really stopped to think about what’s in the soap you wash with day in and day out?

Every time I grow curious and investigate these things, I find myself paramountly offended by the blatant lengths companies are willing to go to in the hopes of making a dollar—often at the expense of the common man.

It’s often been said that this is the most expensive time to live in, because the cost of everything is externalized. The real cost is never displayed—and really, it can’t be. Would you pick up anything, even if it was $4.99, if it also said Caution: use of this product supports poverty, and extended use of some of these ingredients is suspected to cause cancer and respiratory difficulties.

You’d cringe and pass it up, wouldn’t you?

As you should! Consumerism is the ultimate service industry (as in serve us). Now, most of the time, the industry tries to tell us what it is that we should want, so we have to show them that we already know! We will be given what we demand, so it’s time we start demanding some things.

Naturally, some soaps are better than others. Before you buy (because chances are you still have some at home), use your trust camera phone to snap a picture of the ingredient label, head home and fire up your computer. Check out everything on that label. If you cringe even once—next!

I live with some non-greeners, so I’ve taken over facilitating the purchases of a lot more of the household items—I’ve discovered they’ll go green if the stuff is readily available, but in general, they’re not that inclined to do the research themselves—recently, I found the not so eco-friendly packing of their last bulk-soap purchase, and I decided to try something:

Pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl hydroxyhydrocinnamate is probably the biggest offender, as well as the one no one will even attempt to say. It’s an eco-toxin, and triggers broad systemic effects, at large doses, in forms of life. If you think the doses you’re getting aren’t large enough to be worried, I have one word for you: bioaccumulation.

Titanium dioxide is another offender. Studies have shown that it causes genetic damage in mice—leading scientists to classify it as a carcinogen.

I used an ingredient list from Irish Spring, so the following is a colourant:
Chromium oxide greens is, again, guilty of bioaccumulation. It’s an eco-toxin that is readily absorbed by the skin. It causes cancer and organ system failure.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything with a heavy colourant, and avoid things where all you get for the smell is “parfum”—lord knows what chemicals the smell comes from.

Basic Vegetable Soap

This is a simple soap without any additions, so you can practice this recipe a few times until you feel confident enough to add perfume, nutrients, and color. Be prepared for the odd failure; very few soap makers get it perfect on their first attempt. If your first batch or two don’t work and you have to throw them away, at least you haven’t wasted oils and nutrients, which can be expensive. This soap is also lovely to use and is especially suitable for people with sensitive skin, as there is no fragrance or color—and it will be an excellent thing to use for our next post!

• 16 oz (455gm) distilled water
• 6 oz (170gm) of caustic soda
• 12 oz (340gm) coconut oil
• 12 oz (340gm) light olive oil (not extra virgin)
• 20 oz (567 gm) soya bean oil

Step 1 Place the water in a lye- and heat-resistant container with a good pouring spout. Wearing rubber gloves and safety glasses or goggles, slowly pour the caustic soda into the water.

Step 2 Gently stir the mixture until all the soda has dissolved, being careful to avoid splashing. The temperature of the lye will soar to well over 100°F (38°C) , so leave to one side to cool.

Step 3 Place the coconut oil, olive oil, and soya bean oil in a lye-resistant saucepan and heat gently, stirring to mix thoroughly and to evenly distribute heat. When the temperature is approximately 99°F (37°C), remove from the heat.

Step 4 Keep measuring the temperature of both solutions, and adjust if necessary by using a water bath. When both solutions are exactly the same temperature, ideally 97°F (36°C) Although anything between 95°F and 100°F [35°C-38°C] should work), slowly pour the lye into the oils. You should pour slowly but steadily stirring gently and often.

Step 5 Once all the lye is combined with the oils, continue to stir constantly but slowly; avoid creating air bubbles. Be sure to mix thoroughly enough to incorporate the two solutions.

Step 6 Watch carefully for signs of tracing--when the mixture turns opaque and thickens. As soon as this happens, pour the soap into greased molds. Seal the mold with plastic wrap, cover with blankets, and place in a warm, dry spot for 48 hours.

Step 7 After 48 hours, remove the plastic wrap. You now must assess the soap. Remember to wear rubber gloves as the soap is not yet cured and is still caustic.

Step 8 Gently touch the surface of the soap. If it is still quite soft, leave it to sit unwrapped for another 48 hours. If the soap is firm to the touch, but still soft enough to leave an imprint, then unmold the soap carefully.

Step 9 If you used one large mold trim off any rough or uneven edges, and place on waxed paper to cure. When the soap is quite firm to the touch and pressing on it no longer leaves any imprints, it’s time to cut it into individual bars. Start checking after a week.

Step 10 If you used individual molds, once the bars are removed from the molds, place on wax paper to finish curing.

Step 11 In both cases, you need to leave the bars of soap to finish curing in a dry, draft-free place for two to three weeks. After the final curing period, the soap should be hard, just like a commercially bought bar of soap.

Step 12 Scrape off any surface ash that may have come out and trim the bars of soap to make them neat. The soap is now ready to use.

Time for some chemistry:
Measure carefully! Measurements need to be as close to exact as possible or you won’t get the desired chemical reaction and the recipe won’t work.
You need to be careful what you use as the vessel to make the soap in because you are combining an acid (oils) and base (lye). The two must be the same temperature when you mix them, or they will cool at different rates and partially separate, causing uneven tracing and often, a soap that just won’t set--use a thermometer if at all possible. Both the oils and the lye can be harmful on their own, so please, please, please do not use an everyday cooking pot/bowl! Invest in two pots/bowls to be used exclusively for soap making. They can be really cheap, it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have to withstand high temperatures.
Note for step 6: when making soap, make sure you have all day. Tracing can take between 15 minutes and a couple hours, depending on the oil to lye balance. They say tracing can take up to 48 hours, but as a rule of thumb, I use the 5 hour mark, just because any longer starts to get to the point where it’s really not feasible to stand and mix. (Family is starting to prepare dinner, you have to go to bed, whatever the inconvenience may be.) After five hours, the chances it’s going to trace are slim, so don’t waste with a mixture that has decided not to work. Wrapping the mold in blankets slows the cooling process and stops the oils and lye for cooling at different rates and separating. (Your lye heats fast and it also wants to cool fast, causing it to fall from the mixture and leave sediment. This is also the reason for the ash described in step 12.)
Water bath: an basin of room temperature water that you can lower the lye or oil vessel in to cool them, drawing the temperature down to the desired 97°F so that they can be mixed.
Also: when you feel confident enough to use additives: warm your additives, cold additives can shock the soap mixture, and fall out, or even ruin the entire batch.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Asparagus Soup

Serves 4

1 ½ cups filtered water
2 cups chopped asparagus
½ avocado, peeled and chopped
¼ cup chopped celery
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp nama shoyu
2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp minced onion
1 tsp minced garlic
Leaves from 1 thyme sprig
1 ½ tsp fresh tarragon leaves
Pinch of freshly ground cayenne pepper
Celtic sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve

4 asparagus tops, sliced lengthwise
A dollop of natural yogurt

In a high speed blender, combine the water, asparagus, avocado, celery, olive oil, shoyu, lemon juice, onion, garlic, thyme, tarragon, and cayenne and purée until smooth.

Pass through a fine-mesh sieve and season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Once ladled into soup plates, garnish with a dollop of yogurt. If you want an artistic design, run a knife tip through the top a few times to send white veins through the soup and top off with the lengthwise-sliced asparagus.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Recently, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. I’m a creature of vanity, so I’ll call it a sabbatical. I did some reading, lounged around a bit, made some changes, and now I’m back.

As humans, we tend to run around with the blinders on, committed to the appealing ideal that ignorance is bliss. Every once in a while, we need to take the blinders off, lift our heads, and reassess our surroundings. We need to be ever aware.
I know that, personally, I get tunnel vision. I get so focused that all else fades away.

With all my head clearing, I found the time to watch Speak, a movie in which an awkward Melinda Sordino says the following:

“I think you should know what you stand for, not just what you’re against. You should be able to show how things can be better.”

Needless to say: it struck a chord.
So I gave it some thought. What do I stand for? What am I against? How do I show it can be better?

I’ve said before that I’m an environmentalist. Inherently, that’s a form of activism. In fact, I often think it’s the most difficult activist topic, because it’s the culmination of so many topics.

An activist can always tell you what they’re against.

I have a difficult time seeing myself as a conventional activist. I come from a family that plays by the government’s rules—even when the government does not. I don’t participate in protests because I find them counter-productive. I lead by example. I write. I lobby.

I’m not saying protesting is bad. In fact, I have many friends who participate in them. However, the act of protesting is intrinsically flawed: people do not listen when all you have to show them are the things that are wrong.

We know our way of life is broken. The problem is not that realization.

Another flaw is that protesting often brings out people who don’t particularly care about your cause. They’re often just looking for a riot, and as soon as a riot breaks out: you lose all your credibility. This is becoming harder and harder to avoid as governments of countries, left, right, and center, are being found guilty of “purposefully provoking” riots, with the intended end of debunking “rightful protests”.

I aim to be a different kind of activist. Let me tell you a little bit about that...
Being an activist is a bit like having split-personality disorder. You need to be a million people. You need to be a student. You need to be a teacher. You need to be a politician. You need to be a warrior. You need to be a professional. You need to be a visionary. And you need to be a sales-man.

Being an activist essentially boils down to trying to sell someone else on your lifestyle. You’re trying to activate them. You can’t sell somebody on something that looks unattractive to them. We all want something shiny—it’s our inner hunter at work—and we all want something easy. Nobody will follow you into a lifestyle riddled with hardships. It’s not in our programming.

Conscience will only get people so far!

Your best option is always to lead by example. If you look like you’re having fun, and thriving, people will follow.

Let me define “thriving”: you cannot look like your lifestyle change has caused you to either greatly lax your personal standards, or it has caused you to fall apart. Nobody will follow a slob.

Mainly, you have to show people that their choice to change would benefit them somehow, or cause them very little inconvenience.

(Personally, I’m a fan of the historically successful “bait and switch” tactic.)

That’s where being a teacher and a politician comes into play. The offensive play of an activist is to tactfully show people something that should offend them (not PETA style) or to charismatically remind them that they are offended.
Here is where we can spotlight Melinda Sordino’s words again:
You should be able to show how things can be better.

Every time you say don’t, have a do ready in the wings, to follow it promptly. Your solutions should accessible—and that is, unfortunately, where I tend to falter. I get people to the point where they ask “what can I do?” But my reflex answer is often subject to government action, such as solar panels and wind farms, or simply unrealistic, such as become a vegetarian (which is often considered by people to be a tremendous inconvenience) or build a house out of waste material (even I can’t afford to do this yet.)

So, how can the average person realistically make things better?

Carpool. There are 900 million vehicles on the roads of the world.

Eat 1 less meal with meat during the week. Becoming a vegetarian is unrealistic for you? It takes 100 liters of water to make 1 kilogram of potatoes, and 13 000 liters of water for 1 kilogram of beef. To break that down into a more tangible number for you: dinner took 6 months worth of showers. Carbon output: if everyone ate 1 less serving of meat a week, it would be the same as taking 5 million cars off the roads.

Buy less new. Your phone/MP3 player/computer still works? Use it. Studies show that less than 1% of the things we buy are in rotation (or use) as little as 6 months later.

Reassess the way you use paper. The demand for paper has gone up 5-fold in the last 50 years. How can you trim your paper use? First, ask yourself if it really needs to be printed. Yes? Narrow the side-margins, along with the head and foot margins, of the paper that you send through the printer. More words per page means less pages. Use both sides of the paper. Handwrite notes? You know that blank space at the top of the paper meant for titles but is dead space on all subsequent pages? Use it.

Use your grey water. Grey water is the water you use to cook. You rinse vegetables. You strain your noodles. Save the water and use it to water your potted and garden plants. There’s no need to use double the water if you don’t have to. If you can, use grey water to flush your toilets.

Compost. Vegetable skins and cores, once biodegraded a bit, would be lovely for that garden I just told you to water with grey water.

Put a stone in your toilet’s water reservoir. Each flush will use less water.

Be a green consumer. Buy bar soaps and shampoos. Shower lotions and conventional shampoos come bottled in plastic containers that are either un-recycle-able in your area or can never be fully recycled—and buy recycled goods when you can. The grain of the paper may be a little coarser, but no new trees from the (toxic to foreign plant life) eucalyptus farms went into it.

Change your light bulbs. Depending on where you’re reading from, you might have seen the Every Kilowatt Counts campaign. The truth is: every kilowatt does count. Low energy light bulbs, from as little as 13 watts, can be the light of your life.

Learn to sew. I’m not talking about learning to fully clothe yourself (although, if you can: why not?), I’m talking about learning to mend seams so that a simple tear doesn’t send you out to the stores for new clothing.

Bring your own utensils. Fast-food is never green, that’s a given, but sometimes, with our lives, they’re simply a matter of convenience. Ladies: keep a set of utensils in your purse. You can even go out and buy one of those camping tooth-brush cases to transport them.

Say "no" to receipts. It's that simple. Unless you're claiming them on your taxes, you don't really need them.

Eat wild oats for breakfast on busy days. How does what you eat for breakfast affect your ability to be green? Like this: oats fill you up. You’re less likely to need that fast-food pick-me-up throughout your day. They also settle nerves, anxiety, depression, and are a good source of protein (a plus for vegetarians). Keeping a level head is much easier when you’re not combating unnecessary external forces.

Develop a personal style. It doesn’t sound green, but trust me, having your own look or style will help you to not be swayed by all that glitters in fashion magazines and store windows. It will help you cut down on your consumerism.

Speak up. Talk to others. Share what you’ve learned and take in what they’ve learned. We’re all students.

Being an activist is about your ability to speak. Your ability to affect change. You need to communicate the desire, the means, and the need for others to choose to speak up and affect change.

Show them things can be better.

Otherwise… we’re just blowing hot air.