Toothbrush Your Shoulder Off

Does anyone else keep their old toothbrush thinking they will use it at a later date to clean something?

Despite years of saving those things, I have NEVER cleaned anything with a toothbrush. The fantasy is that I adorn myself with the yellow, elbow-length, heavy-duty gloves and really get to work on those hard-to-reach spots. Like behind the faucet. What am I, Mr. Clean? No! Ain’t nobody got time for that. (Although, I probably should make time.)

Well, zero wasters, what should we do with our toothbrushes?

The most zero-waste approach, as with all things, is to not acquire toothbrushes. To use our fingers or something readily available in nature (read: twig). If you’re not willing to do either of those and you must buy a toothbrush, you should get the most sustainable one you can. But what does that look like?

So, what are we trying to accomplish? Zero waste, I know. But what does that mean? Does it mean we don’t generate trash? Does it mean we might make trash, but use less energy than if we didn’t make trash? How can we really break it down enough to know how much energy was used? These are the big questions, guys!

There are options, let’s look at them.* 

As with all products, we need to consider the embodied energy of the material and the useful life of the product in addition to the amount of trash it creates at the end of its useful life.

Brush With Bamboo looks like a sustainable option. The handle is made of bamboo (organic, wild, giant, Chinese Moso bamboo). The bamboo is picked wild from a mountain, so no water is applied to the crop other than that which naturally occurs. It’s organic, so no chemicals are applied to crop. Very little embodied energy so far. But what about the fact that the bamboo is sourced from China? I suppose you could say, well, there are ships coming over from China every day. No harm, no foul, right? I just don’t know. I plan to do some follow up on this in a separate post, but for now I have to be honest about the reservations I have with the sustainability of depending on materials on the other side of the planet (especially when we can grow bamboo here).

The bristles are made of castor bean oil and plastic.  The handle is 100% biodegradable, but the bristles are not (they are “biobased,” but not biodegradable). You can compost the handle yourself if you pluck the bristles. OR, you can use it as a seeding marker in your garden, as pictured. Cute!


Picture taken from the Brush With Bamboo website.

Okay great.

Here’s my question: how energy intensive is it to harvest the bamboo, ship it to the US, and manufacture the brush?

I’m not honestly expecting to find the answer. Not unless some engineer who has done the calculations happens to read my blog and provide me with the answer. (Are you out there? Can you hear me?) For now, it’s important to ask the questions and think more deeply about it.

I want to compare the embodied energy of the bamboo toothbrushes to the ones I’m going to discuss next: recycled plastic.

Here I go again with the plastic. Plastic already exists everywhere in the largest quantities you could ever dream of. It’s literally everywhere. Getting thrown away. Why not use it? Do I think we should use plastic forever? No. But I think we used the energy to pull it out of the ground and make it, so we should use it until its useful life is up.

I have been buying Preserve toothbrushes for a long time now. Honestly, I’ve never given the sustainability aspect much thought, or compared it to other products.  The handle is made with recycled yogurt cups, and the bristles are new nylon. These you can’t compost, but you can send them back to the company for recycling.

The whole premise of Preserve is to provide recycling services of #5 plastics. More than 1/3 of U.S. communities don’t accept #5 for recycling. Thus, Preserve makes its products out of #5 and accepts all #5 for recycling. However, the actual material that gets fabricated for products is made up of multiple other materials, so the company states it is not recyclable in your standard recycling bin.

Note: the City of Tulsa is not in the 1/3 that does not accept #5. We proudly do.

This whole post originated because I dropped my work toothbrush on the floor in the bathroom. I seriously took a moment to consider whether I should take it home to boil it. It only touched the floor for, like, two seconds! Then I realized: no one should put a toothbrush in their mouth that has touched the floor of a semi-public bathroom, no matter how brief a touch and no matter how hardcore a zero-waster one may be. So I have to replace it (I’m sure there are folks more hardy than I who would scoff at this conclusion). I knew the company recycled its used products, but I’d never done it before so I looked it up. Products may be recycled either in a “Gimme 5” dropoff location, or mailed in to the company. Lo and Behold: Tulsa actually has a Gimme 5 dropoff location where I can take this toothbrush!! Whaddaya know! There isn’t a bin, but you can hand off your used brush to an employee at the midtown Tulsa Whole Foods at 1401 E. 41st St. Tulsa, OK 74105. There isn’t a bin, you just have to hand it off to an employee.

Recycle your Preserve toothbrush at the midtown Tulsa Whole Foods at 1401 E. 41st St. Tulsa, OK 74105

Now, if we didn’t have a bin, I would mail in the toothbrush, but I would need to wait until I had more to recycle. (Isn’t that quite the catch: I need to use MORE to use less. All I can do is sigh and shake my head at this concept.) In fact, the more, the better. The company discourages returning less than 6 used items for recycling at a time. This prevents the amount of energy used to recycle the product from outweighing the beneficial use of the product itself. Remember our discussion of embodied energy? Here is an illustration of that. It doesn’t make sense to use more energy processing something something than it is actually worth.

SO, go on (tooth)brush your shoulder off. (One takes the opportunity to parody Jay Z when one is presented with said opportunity.)

*I derive no economic gain or payment from discussing any company or its products included herein, although I should.

Vehicles: Out with the old, in with the hybrid?

Is it better to keep your old car running or get a new one? Should I extend the useful life of something I already own, or in this situation would it be better to trade it for something more efficient? This question puts to the test our zero waste principle of using what you have (Refuse and Reuse). Here I’ll explore whether I should use what I have (my old Volvo) or upgrade to a Prius.

A little background on my transportation history and current situation. 

I used to live in Oklahoma City, and there I was a dedicated bicycle commuter. I had a car, the same one I got when I turned 16. I never drove it–it actually went dead sitting in my driveway because I didn’t even bother to turn it on. When I moved to Tulsa, I could no longer commute on my bike. The roads are too narrow and the traffic is too extreme. There are no bike lanes that will get me where I need to go each day. There is also not a workable public transit option for me. Tulsa has public transportation, and I attempted to start taking the bus but couldn’t figure out a good route. I sold my old car and bought a Fiat to get me to and from work. I wanted a Prius at the time, but didn’t want to spend that much money on a car payment. I opted for the Fiat because of its pretty impressive fuel economy (33 mpg, usually) and affordable price tag. Enter baby-child and the fact that I would then have to drive every day for at least the next 16 years (until we get a more flexible and workable public transit option). The Fiat couldn’t comfortably fit a car seat, and I had to get a bigger car on an extreme budget.

I bought a beater: a 1998 Volvo wagon. I love this car. We couldn’t afford a car payment at the time, and opted instead to pay cash for something that met our needs (albeit, that was old). The wagon had less than 100,000 miles on it and was in good condition. At the time, I was happy to extend the life of the vehicle. It already exists, so let’s use it until it’s no longer useful, right? That’s the traditional approach to all things zero waste. However, I’m starting to re-think that approach in this situation.


Today, I’m thinking about cashing in on the Volvo before any major mechanical work needs to be done (we did spend some money ameliorating some known mechanical issues shortly after we bought it). I have always dreamed of a Prius. Now that I’m a station wagon mom, I dream of a Prius V.


Soon, I will be able to afford an extra car payment and it’s given me the idea that I should upgrade. The question is: should I scratch the itch I have for a new, fuel-efficient ride or rough it in the Volvo as long as it will roll? Help me consider the pros and cons of either option. Obviously, my goal is to arrive at whatever choice that will be the least wasteful (which encompasses a frugality component). However, it’s not a simple calculus because there are many varieties of waste that come into play.

Categories of consideration are (in order of importance): (1) cost, (2) safety, (3) environmental factors, and (4) comfort. Each of these is extremely important to me, mind you. However, cost and safety converge at some point when you’re talking about a 17-year old car. At what point will the Volvo need significant work, and therefore become less safe and more expensive than it currently is, or even than a new car? There will be a point at which I have spent as much money fixing this car as I would have spent on a new car (that is, among other things, better for the environment). Because of this, cost and safety run together, but it’s necessary to categorize them separately.

Disclaimer: I am not one of those people who gets really nerdy about “the markets” and finance-type stuff–I was a Letters major in college. I’m also not very savvy with the car talk. I’m just trying to make a reasoned decision based on the best information available to me (on my sophistication level). If you see a pitfall in my logic, or have any opinions about a better method of weighing these considerations, pipe up!


Old car:

  • Monthly payment: $0
  • Regular Maintenance: I think it’s a rule of thumb that Volvos are more expensive to maintain than other cars, given their foreign parts. I’m not taking this wagon to the dealership to be serviced, since it’s so old, so the cost of oil changes and tire rotations are comparable to other vehicles. Beyond those basic things it gets pricier.
  • Unplanned Maintenance: Potentially thousands, at best hundreds. The risk of unplanned maintenance on a 17-year old vehicle is obviously much higher than a new car. I originally called this category “unforeseen maintenance,” but I decided that was not appropriate because it is foreseen that maintenance will have to be done–I just don’t know when. The risk factor is very high. This subcategory is what makes the old car potentially as expensive as a new car. It is also what makes it potentially less safe than a new car, despite its steel body. This category is where cost and safety converge.
  • Fuel: The fuel tank is 18 gal and I fill up once a week. The average cost is around $40. So, on average, I spend close to $160/month. The internet says the Volvo can get up to 20 mpg city, but I’m not buying that. Another consideration, which may ultimately go to the cost of unforeseen maintenance, is the potential damage caused by using ethanol gas. I get e-free gas whenever I can, since it’s usually more efficient, but it’s not always possible. My wagon is too old to have any built-in mechanisms for tolerating ethanol.
  • Durability: The Volvo is an extremely well-made car. It is made of quality, durable materials. If it continues to get serviced, it will run for a very long time.

New Car:

  • Monthly payment: Let’s say I buy a 2015 Prius V for $25,000 and put $4000 down. My payment will be roughly $450, depending on the interest rate and term.
  • Regular Maintenance: Beyond oil changes and tire rotations, maintenance costs will be cheaper than the Volvo since parts are more affordable.
  • Unplanned Maintenance: I can count on this number being $0 for several years if I buy a new car. The risk is all but eliminated (if it did occur, it would likely be covered under a warranty).
  • Fuel: The Prius V gets 44 mpg, over 2x that of my current vehicle. The easiest way to make this calculation is to just cut in half my fuel costs. Thus, fuel will cost me $80/mo rather than $160 (I’m betting this is a very conservative estimate, and I will save more than this in gas expenses).
  • Durability: In my research, I found articles showing the old, original Priuses held up to the test of time better than their critics projected. The fear about the Prius was that the battery would need to be replaced relatively early in the car’s lifetime, at a cost of $1000-$2500 (still pretty comparable to maintenance on the Volvo). This fear has been debunked. The materials used to make the Prius are obviously less diabolical than the Volvo. The Prius is not all steel, but does contain some. The front and back bumpers are mostly plastic. (I cringe at the thought that any part of a car’s exterior would be made of plastic.) Aluminum makes up a lot of the body.

Looking at the Unplanned Maintenance category, we can compare reliability of the cars. The Volvo is less reliable than a new car because we know its parts will give out sooner, but we don’t know when. Driving the Volvo, I need to have reserved at least a couple thousand dollars of savings to ensure I can cover the cost of said unplanned service. With a new car, the risk associated with both cost and safety is pretty much eliminated. Cost is fixed with a new car–I will pay only my monthly payment. The Volvo is a steel tank–probably the safest vessel you could drive. However, my check engine and service lights go on and off at their own volition, and it makes me nervous that something will happen and either cause me to wreck or break down. This is unnerving for cost and safety purposes. Furthermore, every time I shell out a few hundred or thousand dollars, I can’t help but compare that amount to how many car payments it would have been on my new Prius. For instance, I have spent roughly $5300 on the Volvo including the cost of purchase and initial repairs I mentioned above, which would have been just about a year of car payments on the Prius. I recognize it’s not likely I would spend that much on repairs each year, but it’s still a little hard to swallow when you think of it that way.


Old Car:

  • Volvos are reputed as the safest vehicles ever, especially this one because it was made in Sweden completely of steel. This particular model won many awards for safety at the time it was released.
  • However, as I state above, the longer it goes the more mechanical issues will crop up. I live in fear of breaking down or something going wrong while I have my baby in the car.

New Car:

  • Given that I won’t be concerned about mechanical issues jeopardizing safety, it’s mainly a question of whether the body of the vehicle will be as safe as the Volvo. The answer is very likely “no.” Crash test ratings for the Prius V can be found here. It looks like the 2015 models get an across the board rating of “good” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is the highest rating. In 2014, the Prius V lost the “Recommended” rating from Consumer Reports, due to some issues which have been remedied today. It is now a Top Safety Pick of 2015 according to the IIHS. It is worth mentioning that I do not have crash test ratings for the Volvo, so my notions of its safety are really just speculation based on hearsay.

Environmental Factors

Old Car:

  • Emissions: Let’s just say, it’s not up to current EPA emissions standards for new vehicles. I don’t know what this car is emitting, but I know it’s way more than I want to be responsible for.
  • Fuel Usage: As we’ve established, I use at least double the fuel that a Prius uses.
  • Solid Waste: This is the crux of the issue–should I throw away what I have for something new? There is a lot of life left in this car, and it is valuable enough for me to sell rather than trade in. Thus, I can rest easy that this car is not headed for the junk yard when it leaves my possession (especially if I sell it, rather than trade it).

New Car:

  • Emissions: Toyota claims the Prius V produces 66% less smog forming emissions than the average new vehicle. Those emissions would be ozone, made up of volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen. Thus, the Prius exceeds current emissions standards for new vehicles.
  • Fuel Usage: My gasoline use will be cut in half, at least.
  • Solid Waste: I’m not throwing this one away any time soon.


Old Car:

  • Cons: The Volvo isn’t uncomfortable, but it does have its quirks. It doesn’t have tinted windows, for one, so it is usually too bright or too hot (which, in turn leads to more fuel usage since I have to run the A/C more in the summer). The automatic window buttons are cantankerous. The back hatch (1) sometimes won’t close, (2) when it does, it won’t open, and (3) won’t stay propped up when open, so it falls on your head and almost knocks you out (thus, I pay for extra space in my car that I don’t get to use–a big zero waste no-no).
  • Pros: The seats are leather and heated, A/C and heat work (well) . . . nothing else is really broken. That is all I can say.

New Car:

  • It is a new car, I don’t have to describe the advantages in comfort it has over my 17-year old car. You already know.

Before I began writing this piece, I was salivating all over the internet on the search for my new Prius V. I had forgotten my principles, namely that I’m cheap and I don’t fork over good money for frivolous things. That is the big drawback for me–that I already have a functional, running piece of heavy machinery that is going to get me from point A to point B (for now). But you know, I want a nice ride! I got the skills to pay the bills, and I ought to enjoy the fruits of my labor (this is the devil on my shoulder). After all this, I don’t know if I’m going to get the new car. Zero waste is partly about being satisfied with the things you have. Currently, I am of the mind that it would be better for the environment to drive a hybrid, considering the reductions in air emissions and fuel usage and the fact that the car will continue to be used by someone else. Economically, however, it is a more frugal choice to drive the old car. As of now, I’m keeping the old car as a matter of frugality and prudence. I’ll follow up with posts as I explore this choice and as new considerations arise.

What are your thoughts? I am sure there are lots of other viewpoints on the issue of whether to keep your old car or get a new one. I want to hear them!

Here are some articles for further reading:

Should I Repair or Just Replace My Old Car?

Readers Agree: Keep the Old Volvo Running

The 200,000 Mile Question: How does the Toyota Prius hold up?

Ten-Year Old Toyota Hybrid Priuses Defy Early Critics

Frugal Shopper: No Hybrids Don’t Cost More to Repair and Maintain

Using the Carbon Calculator to Gauge Waste

If you haven’t ever figured your household’s carbon footprint, you can follow this link to EPA’s website. The calculator will not only show you how to reduce carbon, but also how to reduce COSTS. I like to reduce carbon and all, but if you tell me I’m going to save $$$ I’m way more interested. The average household of 3 in my midtown Tulsa zip code emits 48,621 lbs of CO2 per year. Let’s see how I compare…

The calculator measures your estimated carbon emissions in three categories: home energy, transportation, and waste. In the home energy category, you must input your average utility usage. Your utilities will provide this number for you in your bill or your online account. You may have to convert the units of measurement. For instance, my gas bill showed me the measured average in decatherms, but the menu option for unit of measurement that corresponded was therms. Now, this is not a complicated conversion, but Google will do it for me and I take advantage of that. I input into Google “1.117 therms to decatherms” and it Google spit out the conversion. (Those of you who can do that in your head are scoffing at me.) You also need to know your car(s’) gas mileage and how much you drive to calculate the emissions from transportation.

I intend to run my carbon footprint calculator once per season. This season’s results include the summer months with peak heat spikes. The calculator shows you your total both before and after suggested ways to improve your emissions. My grand totals were: 38,671 lbs CO2/year currently used, and 38,441 lbs CO2/year if I implement the actions to reduce CO2. For me, those actions would be decreasing the thermostat temperature by 2 degrees this coming winter and enabling the power management features on my computer (no, I haven’t done that before;  yes, I am embarrassed).

carbon 1

Interestingly: there is a vast discrepancy between my average emissions before and after installing our new AC unit in late August. We had some really temperate days this weekend, and evidently only used 19-25 kWh on those days. It was also pretty cool most nights this week, which helped the AC do its job. I ran the calculator by averaging the last 7 days’ kWh consumption and multiplying it by 4 to arrive at a monthly average of 170 kWh. This screen shot is from my PSO smart meter report.

daily usage

So, by averaging 170 kWh per month, it changes our calculated carbon footprint to 17,054 lbs CO2/year (21,617 lbs CO2/yr less than the original calculation).

Carbon 2

I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that this is my new carbon footprint post-new AC, but I like this number a whole lot better. This number means I’m saving a lot more money and fuel.

What do you think about the Carbon Footprint Calculator? What are your questions about it? How can you reduce your carbon footprint?

Whoops! I Composted Again

IMG_3857 IMG_3858

A good example of the first principle of zero waste, Refuse, is to avoid shopping bags. This is obvious. However, I’d like to share my current situation.

I messed up when I picked up my print order at Staples. I became absent minded and took the bag with me. I should have taken the pages out and left the bag with the salespeople. The pages I printed were sensitive and needed to be protected from dirt and wrinkling, but I could have brought a file folder and transferred them to it for protection. My head was elsewhere, I was rushed. Excuse, excuse, excuse.

So, I get back to my office and discover that I can’t just toss this bag into the recycling. As you can see from the picture, I need to deliver it to a participating Staples store for recycling. I’m not planning another Staples trip any time soon, and making a special trip to Staples would cancel out my recycling efforts. So, it’s either going to sit on my desk for 6 months or I’m going to throw it in the trash during my next desk-clearing fit. I need another option.

I have worms (well, really, my husband has worms). The most effective way for me to reuse this bag is to shred it and turn it into bedding for the worm bin. The details on the back tell me it’s suitable for worm bin use, since it’s chlorine-free and nontoxic.

If I stumble in pursuit of my zero wasting aspirations and fail to bring reusable grocery bags, I will get the paper grocery bags for this purpose as well. It’s always nice to have this possibility to fall back on, but it’s always best to be able to refuse in the first place.

What do you do with your accidental disposable shopping bags? There are endless possibilities.

Low-Waste Lawn Care

Although summer is nearing its end (good riddance), we still have at least a couple more months of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and herbicide sprayers. Let’s talk about lawns, shall we? Here we’ll discuss the wasteful drawbacks of having a traditional lawn and possible alternatives. Lawn enthusiasts: you may have your backs raised by the time you’re finished reading, but at least hear me out. My own father is a self-proclaimed grass farmer, and he takes great pride in his lawn. However, I would like to offer another perspective.

First, I want to know: why are lawns such a touchy subject? People can really get bent out of shape over a lawn. I’ll be forthright: I haven’t ever been one to care for lawns. I don’t really understand Its Holiness, The Lawn. Lawns are useless, and there is a lot of waste associated with lawns. We spend countless hours and dollars grooming our yardspace, which is not usually even used for anything besides putting on airs. Let’s be honest–how many of us use our front lawns for leisure? Alternately, how many of us use our front lawns to compete with our neighbors over whose is the greenest or shortest or best maintained? How many of us are waiting by the phone watching our neighbors’ weeds creep up to the legal limit, poised to dial the city’s nuisance hotline? Don’t deny it, too many of us fall into the latter category. I’m not saying we shouldn’t maintain our front yards. I’m just saying there are better (and perhaps more beautiful) ways to do it.

I do see the value in having grassy, pest-free areas for kids and adults to run and play. Playgrounds, ball fields, and parks are all necessary. I like yards that are landscaped thoughtfully with plants that are beneficial to the natural habitat. I just don’t care for your water-guzzling, pesticide-filled, once-a-week-you-blow-your-grass-into-my-driveway lawns. I don’t have one of those, and I don’t have much time for people who expect me to have one.

Let’s think through the cycle of our lawns today:

  1. Water the lawn, use too much water,
  2. Apply chemicals to the lawn (herbicide/pesticide/fertilizer),
  3. Let chemicals runoff into city water supply and also poison naturally occurring plant and wildlife,
  4. Mow and weed-eat the lawn using fossil fuels,
  5. Release air pollutants into the atmosphere, including ozone and CO2,
  6. Blow the grass clippings into street/neighbor’s yard or driveway/drainage ditches,
  7. Clog ditches with grass clippings,
  8. Bag up additional yard waste and send it to the landfill to turn into methane and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (unless your landfill has a methane catchment system),
  9. Repeat 1 through 9.


We could water our yards more efficiently, and therefore less (if at all). The EPA reports that 30% of individual household water usage in the U.S. is devoted to outdoor use, and 50% of it is wasted. I have seen countless sprinklers being run on a rainy day, or directed toward the street. Certain sprinklers are very inefficient (think: the kind you run through as a kid. Much of the water evaporates before it even hits the ground.)We also have to take the runoff into consideration. Poisons and grass clippings get into the water supply. This contaminates our water and clogs our sewer systems. And you know what fixes those problems? Tax dollars.

I took this photo on a walk one morning. These people’s sprinkler is watering the street. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Does this make sense to you? 

Another way to ensure your yard and gardens have enough water is to implement strategic water catchment systems. Earthworks, as it were. Swales and berms create topographic catchment mechanisms that allow the earth to hold more water and provide moisture to your plants naturally, without ever having to turn on the sprinkler or hose. When it rains, swales fill up with water (the berms help the water get to the swale). *Cue automatic fear of standing water and the liability of having what are essentially small rivers running through your yard.* The water seeps into the earth quickly enough that no problems from standing water arise. The swales can be filled with your favorite climate- and ecosystem-appropriate plant so there isn’t a hazard of tripping! Like elephant ears or a decorative grass.


We could choose to use less carbon-intensive methods of grass cutting, and/or reduce the amount of grass there is to cut. Not only do we spend valuable resources growing our grass, we then spend valuable resources cutting it. Ozone season is usually from about May to October. Ground-level ozone is a smog-forming pollutant that is created when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react in sunlight. The NOx and VOCs are what we call “precursors” to ozone. So, when we mow we release these precursors and they form ozone. Humans are susceptible to harm from ozone when it is directly inhaled. Among other things, ozone contributes to development and exacerbation of lung diseases such as asthma in adults and especially in children (learn more about ozone here). This is why you’ve heard not to mow your yard on ozone alert days. You will contribute to ozone in our atmosphere, and you will be in danger of inhaling a harmful pollutant.

I do have to admit, gas mowers and edgers are much more powerful and efficient than even electric ones (in my experience). Nevermind reel mowers. However, if you want to make the conscious choice to contribute less emissions to our environment, cutting the fossil fuels out of your lawn care strategy is imperative. The Tulsa area currently does not have a lawn service offering low-carbon methods. This is unfortunate.


Why is it acceptable to blow yard debris into the street onto passing cars? Or onto your neighbor’s property? Why do we have to dispose of it at all? INSTEAD, leave your clippings in the yard. The National Geographic reported a study showing that lawns are a great big carbon sink when the clippings are left in the yard to decompose. (Yes, that is my academic summary.) Above all, avoid sending your yard waste to the landfill in plastic trash bags, where it will decompose in such a way that emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In Tulsa, you may dispose of your yard waste separately. (Another blog post is dedicated to the topic of green waste in Tulsa.)

Here are some examples of my ideal (anti) lawn, pulled from the design website Houzz: