Dream on

DJ Peter Tripp. Google this guy right now if you don't know who he was.

DJ Peter Tripp. Google this guy right now if you don’t know who he was.

I’m talking about the nocturnal hallucination kind, not the “reach for your” kind.

Weird new things have been happening in my dreams. At times, my dreams have been more vivid. I have had a few dreams recently in which I could smell things. I don’t remember ever experiencing smell in a dream until now. Last night there was a new setting (read further for an explanation of that). Strange new scenarios have occurred. Also some really interesting stuff I’m not going to mention on a blog my parents read.

So what’s up? My life is much different now than it was just five years ago. Even though I live in the same place and I’m still married to the same man, if the me of 2010 saw the me of right this minute she wouldn’t recognize me. So has my new mindset penetrated the subconscious layer? Are my hormones a-changin’? (Come on, menopause!) Or am I just paying more attention now that I have less stress and more free time (and a mild addiction to self-help books)? Beats me. Science says it could be any or all of the above.

Facts about dreams.

Science has long held that everyone dreams, though not everyone remembers dreaming (and we’ve all met that person who insists they do not dream) but studies are beginning to speculate that, perhaps, some people really don’t dream. Either way, the brain activity of people who do and do not remember their dreams, is different when they are awake.

We don’t just dream in REM sleep, as was once thought. Dreams during REM are more vivid, but what we dream closest to when we wake, regardless of what sleep stage we are in, is what we remember best. Also, both more dreaming  and more REM happen later in the last third of our sleep cycle, so the odds are simply better.

You cannot invent new faces or places in your dreams. You can, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, warp, combine, divide, swap, and otherwise alter already known places and people, but the subconscious mind cannot create. It only records. If you begin tracking and analyzing dreams you will be amazed at the bizarre ways in which your subconscious rearranges people, situations, relationships, and features into strange new-seeming stuff.

Facts about my dreams.

I started to pack on the pounds in high school (in an inverse correlation to my falling confidence levels) and continued to steadily gain weight into my twenties until, at my zenith (the zenith of the numbers, but the nadir of my self-worth) I weighed an estimated 220 pounds on a 5′ 5″ frame, making me officially obese. I was not an overweight kid, and for the last few years I have teetered on the line on the BMI chart separating “overweight” and “healthy,” but I have spent approximately half of my life overweight. Interestingly, in my dreams I am never overweight. Even when I was obese my subconscious apparently saw me as height/weight proportional. I also never limp in my dreams.  In my sleeping mind I can run, jump, swim, and dance with the ease, energy, and flexibility of a healthy child, although I can do none of those things in real life and haven’t been able to since elementary school.

Recurring dreams are a real phenomenon. Some people have them sometimes. I found, however, through dedicated use of a dream journal, that dreams I thought were recurrent were not. Just as your weirdest dreams seem perfectly normal when you are in them and can only be seen for the Dali-esque freak shows they really are after you are conscious, my “recurring” dreams were suffused deeply, while I was dreaming, with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. But after some months of religiously entering every detail of every dream I could recall into my dream diary I found no actual recurrences of dreams that I had been so sure were haunting me. In fact, none of the dreams that presented themselves as reruns had anything in common.

When I dream about “home” – that is, when my subconscious pulls up a set and declares it to be “home” for the purposes of tonight’s production – it has always been one of two things: A) something I have seen on TV or in real life, B) the rambler I spent the first 17 years of my life in. But it has never been any other place I have lived. Not the house we moved to when I was 17, nor my three rentals, nor my husband’s first house, nor this hovel. Until last night. In an extra-weird twist, the dream was totally up-to-date: all our current vehicles were parked right where they are this minute (including the backhoe, Candy, who is taking up most of the driveway) and my garden was just as it is now, including the recent enlargement and the new plants I bought just weeks ago. I had thought that if I ever lived anywhere long enough for the prop department of my subconscious to catch up that there would be a lag, like on Google Earth, where you find your house and say “Jesus, I sold that car three years ago. And Jerry still lives next door, I can see him!”

What have you been dreaming about?

— Amanda

[1] MedicineNet.com http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=11852

NOTE: The subconscious and the conscious mind are real psychological things but the “unconscious mind” is an outdated term co-opted by Freud (ew) and in modern science “unconscious” means to be in a medical state of “interruption of awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, lack of the ability to notice or respond to stimuli in the environment,” [1] not a part or function of the psyche. When you are in a state of unconsciousness you cannot access your conscious mind.)


Nuke the microwave myths


I let my dishwasher sit unused for years because I ass-u-me-d that it was less efficient than hand-washing. Then one day I sat down to write a blog post about what a great person I am for hand-washing all my dishes even though I frickin’ hate doing it and the internet took me down a peg.* This led me to question many of the kitchen myths I had absorbed. Last year I looked into the very popular belief that there is a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease and was thrilled to discover that there is none whatsoever.

The longtime use of microwaves at my family’s favorite natural foods co-op (the venerated “Hippy Connection”) was my sole basis for using a microwave oven in my own home for years. I couldn’t imagine them asking us to heat all our deli items with electromagnetic radiation if there was any doubt whatsoever as to its safety.  The Hippy Connection works on the Precautionary Principle, a sort of guilty-until-proven innocent system for food and other products they sell, in which they vet everything before it crosses their threshold, getting proof of its wholesomeness, and any “natural,” “environmentally safe,” or other claims that it makes.

I encountered some extremely staunch resistance to microwave usage not too long ago and while the other party had no solid argument against I had no data for, either, so I decided to get some. Let’s fight anecdotes with data, shall we?

1) Microwave ovens are unsafe even to be around. Nope. Microwave ovens are regulated by the FDA. “Manufacturers must certify that their microwave ovens comply with strict FDA emission limits. The emission limits are well below the threshold for risk to public health.”[1] Given your stance on government in general and the FDA in particular, this may not put you at ease, but it works for me. And unless your oven is physically damaged the waves can’t “leak”.

What about folks with pacemakers, you ask? “Today’s pacemakers are now designed to be shielded against electrical interference.” [1] Come to think of it, the last time I saw one of those little plastic “CAUTION: MICROWAVE IN USE” placards was more than ten years ago.

2) Microwaves zap the nutritional content of foods and/or make them otherwise unsafe to eat. Nuh uh. OK, I totally get how the “microwave radiation” thing sounds scary.  It does! But keep in mind that radio waves are also electromagnetic radiation (they are shorter than radio waves, hence the “micro”) as is visible light. The “radiation” part is what’s scaring us, of course. But what you’re thinking of us nuclear radiation, not electromagnetic radiation. “Nuclear radiation is the electromagnetic radiation that occurs in nuclear reactions. Nuclear radiation is usually highly penetrating so can be very hazardous, but only high-energy electromagnetic radiation is hazardous. Nuclear radiation mainly consists of gamma rays and other high-energy electromagnetic rays as well as small particles such as electrons and neutrinos. Electromagnetic radiation only consists of photons.” [2] X-rays are nuclear radiation, which is why your doctor or dentist lays a lead-filled shield over you (and flees the room) before taking an X-ray image, but microwaves are not nuclear radiation, which is why you can “nuke” a corndog in the nude with your arms around the unit without doing yourself any (physical) harm.

As the raw food enthusiasts refuse to let us forget any form of cooking can alter the nutritional value of food (whether with heat or without (with acid, for instance, as in ceviche, salt or alcohol in the case of gravlax, or through fermentation as in the case of cheese and yogurt). What they are less enthusiastic to have us know is that it alters the nutrition very very little — and not always negatively.  Both lycopene and biotin are more available when heated. [3]

3) Microwave ovens were invented by NASA. No. Percy Spencer, who was working at government contractor Raytheon, on radar technology during WWII, noticed that the microwave radar bursts he was experimenting with melted the chocolate bar he had in his pocket.  After running some other food projects (resulting in the world’s first microwaved popcorn and an egg exploding in a coworker’s face) he developed a cooker he called the Radarange. The first model was 6 feet tall.  A countertop model wasn’t available until 1967.[4]

4) Microwave ovens cook food from the inside out. No.  Microwave ovens cook through molecular agitation. “When exposed to microwave energy the water molecules in the food try to aline[sic] themselves with the rapidly time-varying electromagnetic field. [. . .] The oscillating molecules rub against each other and heat is generated by this intermolecular friction. Heat transfer by convection and/or conduction is a secondary process which occurs after the outer surface of the food has been exposed to the microwave excitation.” [5] Uneven heating, such as almost always occurs when cooking butter in a microwave oven, or heating primarily on edges or center of food is caused by the distribution of water molecules.  If you are heating a piece of chicken which has dried out on the edges, even imperceptibly, then the moister center will become hotter because it has more water molecules to excite.

5) Microwave ovens are an inefficient cooking method. Not even! While not suited to all kinds of cooking (one cannot use a microwave for canning, or to slow-cook a roast, for instance) microwave ovens not only use dramatically less energy to cook than gas or electric ranges, but they use this small amount of energy for a remarkably short time, too. Just look at this impressive chart:


Imaged used with permission from Home Energy.org. [6]

6) Microwaving plastic allows it to leach badness into your food. Sadly, this is sometimes true. Keep in mind what the FDA says: “As is the case when foods are in direct contact with any packaging material, small, measurable amounts of the packaging materials may migrate into food and can be consumed with it.”[7] I imagine that when you heat the food and its container that the possibility for interchange, while the molecules are, essentially, freaking out, is greater. It has long been recommended that glass and ceramic vessels, which are essentially inert and also not very porous or permeable, be the standard for cooking in microwave ovens. But this issue flared into prominence during the Bisphenol A (BPA) scare.  BPA has been used since the 60s — and not just in plastics — so keep that in mind.  There may be other ingredients and coatings we haven’t determined toxicity of yet. If you are a frequent microwave oven user don’t use plastic! If you aren’t a frequent user then use your best judgement.  I don’t use the microwave terribly often and when I do I avoid plastic only if convenient. (If I can cover a bowl with an overturned plate I will but if I’m steaming something under plastic wrap or heating a commercial frozen dinner I shrug and hope for the best.) This may be outside your comfort zone. Me, I’m hard on the research and lax on the action.

Also worth noting: “The term “microwave safe” is not regulated by the government, so it has no verifiable meaning.” [8] Also, since the whole BPA thing happened relatively recently (just a few years ago) and the FDA is as slow-moving and ponderous as a Vogon** institution “microwave safe” may not necessarily reflect an absence of BPA on all labels yet.

There you have it: microwave ovens are quite safe, provided one does not use plastic or metal in them, and they are incredibly efficient. I knew the co-op folks wouldn’t steer me wrong!

— Amanda

* The University of Bonn, Germany scientifically proved that even a half-load of dishes washed in the machine uses less soap, water, and electricity. At least, that was their stand in 2005. In their 2011 revisitation of this study they changed their stance somewhat: machines are still the winner if washing a full load but for partial loads hand-washing ties and sometimes outperforms if carefully laid-out “Best Practices” are utilized.  This is seriously one of my favorite non-Ignoble Prize scientific studies of all time.  80 bilingual pages, carefully detailed, with dozens of cited sources and 14 charts — all devoted to the best way to wash dishes.

** Vogons, for those of you poor souls who haven’t gloried in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, are hideous civil servants who are “one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy — not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. they wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.”

[1] “Use Your Microwave Safely” (http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm048953.htm) Accessed 02/18/15.

[2] “Difference Between Electromagnetic Radiation and Nuclear Radiation” (http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-electromagnetic-radiation-and-vs-nuclear-radiation/) Posted 12/23/11. Accessed 03/04/15.

[3] Katz, David. “The Raw Food Diet, Overcooked.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-katz-md/raw-food-diet_b_2015598.html) Posted 10/25/2012.  Accessed 03/04/15.

[4] Wikipedia: “Percy Spencer” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percy_Spencer) Accessed 03/04/15.

[5] Hagberg, Calvin and Graff, David. “SP-202 Aerospace Food Technology: Airborne Microwave Oven Development.” (http://history.nasa.gov/SP-202/sess6.3.htm) Accessed 03/04/15.

[6] Meier, Alan and Mitchell-Jackson, Jennifer. “Cooking with Less Gas” (http://www.homeenergy.org/show/article/id/244) Posted 05/01/01.  Accessed 03/04/15.

[7] “Bisphenol A (BPA): Use in Food Contact Application” (http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm064437.htm) Posted 01/10, updated 11/14. Accessed 02/18/15.

[8] Howard, Brian Clark. “11 Surprising Facts and Myths About Microwave Ovens” (http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/recipes/microwave-radiation-ovens-460709) Accessed 02/18/15.

No link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s


No more avoiding my beloved macchinetta!

Can I get a hell yeah?


When I learned recently that what I and so many others had accepted as fact – that cooking in or drinking out of aluminum containers and bakeware had a direct link to the contraction of Alzheimer’s – was a myth, I almost cried. My whole life I have been living in terror of Alzheimer’s because it runs in the family and I didn’t want to make my chances even worse by using aluminum in the kitchen. But what’s a cook to do? Aluminum is cheap and light and conducts evenly and doesn’t corrode, so damn near everything’s made out of it! There’s plenty of good casseroles that are ceramic or glass, but there aren’t many good aluminum alternatives in the category of cookie sheets, muffin tins, and cake pans. You can get them in stainless steel but it doesn’t bake as evenly. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. That very day I went out and replaced my warped, scratched, and unreliable cookie sheet with a nice new insulated aluminum sheet. My cookies slide right off that thing. I love it.

So here’s the deal: As with the anti-vaccination debacle (don’t get me started on that one) this myth began thanks to one study that published erroneous conclusions.* Researchers found aluminum in the brains of autopsied Alzheimer’s patients and concluded that aluminum had been a factor in the patients’ developing the disease. But this is not correct because aluminum shows up in the brains of people without Alzheimer’s and plenty of Alzheimer’s patients do not have aluminum in their brains. You have an equal chance of having aluminum in your brain whether you have Alzheimer’s or not. No study since this one – which unfortunately got a lot of press – has been able to solidly confirm the original study’s findings, which is, by definition of the scientific method, one of the ways you know your hypothesis is wrong. If it can’t be repeated under identical circumstances then it is incorrect and the results were a fluke, a normal aberration, or the result of flawed research conditions or application of logic.

Allow me to quote Zaven S. Khachaturian, director of the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute:

. . . aluminum is one of the most abundant and pervasive elements. It is found everywhere–it is in the water we drink, it is in the dust we breathe, it is in many of he substances we use every day such as coke in glass bottles, food preservatives, many cosmetics and food dyes. Even if we stop using pots and pans or underarm deodorants, it will be virtually impossible to avoid aluminum. Given this type of exposure of the general population, if aluminum is playing a major role then one would expect the numbers of people affected by Alzheimer’s to be much higher than they are found in epidemiological studies.

(Since I know some of you are wondering, there is also no conclusive link between the use of antiperspirants/deodorants containing aluminum and breast cancer, but this hasn’t been researched as long or as thoroughly and it’s still being hotly debated. All I know is that my skin doesn’t like something in most commercial deodorants – nor does Matt’s. But we don’t know what the offensive ingredient is.)

I think we should all celebrate this good news by baking way too many muffins (in our grandmother’s aluminum tins) and making lots of coffee to wash them down with (in aluminum percolators and macchinettas). In the meantime, spread the word: blunt force trauma (and perhaps zombies) remain the largest legitimate threat to your noggin. Aluminum is your friend.

— Amanda

*The doctor who first made the claim that there was a link between vaccinations and autism has since been discredited, stripped of his license, and has admitted to having made it all up for money. I think that the Alzheimer’s/aluminum researchers made a mistake or were misquoted by the press. However, Andrew Wakefield committed deliberate fraud. (Source: Radford, Benjamin. “Anti-Vaccine Doctor Planned to Profit from Scare.” Discovery News.http://news.discovery.com/human/health/anti-vaccine-doctor-planned-to-profit-from-scare.htm)


“Controversial Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Factors.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/guide/controversial-claims-risk-factors

“Controversial Alzheimer’s Disease Risk Factors.” Alzheimer’s Association (US). http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_myths_about_alzheimers.asp

“Am I at risk of developing dementia?”Alzheimer’s Society (UK) http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=102

“Is there any proof that Alzheimer’s disease is related to exposure to aluminum–for instance, by using aluminum frying pans?” Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=is-there-any-proof-that-a

“Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer.” National Cancer Institute.http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/AP-Deo

The most energy-efficient way to boil water

hot drinks 002

This time of year I seem to put the kettle on a half dozen times a day. After inhaling two or three cups of coffee in the morning I pass through the kitchen again and again: black tea with lunch, green tea with my snack, hot cider in the afternoon when the fireplace is flagging (ooh, that was good – I think I’ll have another), and cocoa after dinner as a sort of “dessert.”

Recently, I got to wondering: is firing up a burner on the electric range really the best way to heat that water? I use a good, tight kettle, I put it on a burner it fits, and I generally only heat as much water as I’m going to use. But maybe I should be using the microwave? Or maybe I should invest in one of those snazzy electric kettles the Brits swear by? Help me, Google!

Well, I consulted the great oracle and here’s the upshot: It’s no biggie. Really. The Christian Science Monitor, in an article on this very topic, quoted Michael Bluejay of the energy use website michaelbluejay.com: “You’d save more energy over the year by replacing one light bulb with a CFL [compact fluorescent light bulb] or turning off the air conditioner for an hour . . . at some point over the whole year.” (For the record, the microwave is a teeny bit more efficient at heating that cuppa than the stove, and quite a bit better for reheating small amounts of food.) At the end of their article, the Christian Science Monitor adds another bit of advice from the energy guru:

“However, Mr. Bluejay reiterates that most of us won’t put a dent in our overall energy use just by choosing one appliance over another. “Focusing on cooking methods is not the way to save electricity [at home],” he says. “You should look at heating, cooling, lighting, and laundry instead.”

Still gotta know? I don’t blame you. Even though, as the Christian Science Monitor article says, even the most hardcore tea drinker will hardly even save a dollar a year by fiddling with boiling methods, you may still be curious or need to know the environmental impact. Stanford Magazine rated the methods thus, from most to least efficient:

  1. An electric kettle or induction cooktop powered by renewable energy (solar panels on the roof)
  2. An electric stove powered by renewable energy (solar panels on the roof)
  3. A gas stove
  4. An electric kettle with grid electricity
  5. An electric stove with grid electricity
  6. A microwave

Keep in mind that the wattage rating of your microwave, the age of your stove, and the efficiency of your electric kettle all play into this. (And if you’re approaching it from a purely environmental angle, the source of your electricity does, too. Is it hydroelectric? Coal burning? LP? Wind? Solar?)

Another ranking, done by Pablo Päster of TreeHugger, gives an entirely different order to the list because Mr. Päster tested his own (and we can assume, given where he works, very efficient) appliances.(Electric kettle followed by microwave followed by stove. Interestingly, he also had a much higher estimate of possible yearly money savings, as high as $5.00.)

In the end, this is the only way you can really know: personal testing. If you still have the manuals for your appliances they should list the wattage. Wattage x time to boil 8 oz of water = energy usage. If you don’t have a clue what the wattage is (or you want to be really really sure) your local library or public utility district probably has Kill A Watt® meters that you can rent. Plug your appliance into the Kill A Watt®, plug the Kill A Watt® into the outlet, and go to town. (On a side note I have always wanted to rent of these but I am afraid that I would go bonkers and test every single electrical item in the whole house and take a whole notebook worth of notes and spiral out of control. I can get pretty obsessive about science.)

In conclusion I would like to reiterate my original point: it’s not that big a deal. As interesting as this is, if you want to save money or lessen your environmental impact, focus elsewhere. Think bigger.

— Amanda

Plastic bag recycling

One of the plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo.

One of the plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo.

I carry at least one reusable bag with me almost all the time. Emphasis on almost. Try as I might, plastic bags still infiltrate our home: the plastic carrier bag that the new girl at the local grocery store insisted on putting all my stuff in before putting it in my canvas bag, the produce bags I still use sometimes when my lettuce or radishes have just been misted, and bags from the deli counter that carry home my cheese and meats. (I haven’t gotten the nerve yet to ask them about putting my stuff in a reusable container – but I’m working on it.) I keep the nice bags (the ones without holes) and use them to line the little wastebaskets in the bathrooms.

I wad up all the other bags inside a bigger bag which I eventually take back to WinCo with me and cram into the plastic bag recycling bin in the foyer by the carts. This has worked magnificently for me. Well, it did until I started asking questions. The whole month of analyzing my garbage thing got me second-guessing myself all over the place. If masking tape was compostable and tea bags could be nylon of all things, then maybe the bags I was putting in the recycling bin weren’t actually recyclable –or maybe there were other plastic films I could be putting in there and I was missing out.

The plastic bag recycling bins at my local WinCo are provided by Hilex, one of the leading manufacturers of poly films in general and plastic bags in particular. They have especial emphasis on bags with post-consumer content. Have you seen the “Gray is the new GreenTM bags? That’s them.

This is their official acceptance policy from the Bag-2-Bag® Program’s website:

  • Yes – clean HDPE grocery bags, retail bags, dry cleaner bags — These are items with and SPI symbol 2 or 4 (2 or 4 inside of chasing arrows)
  • Yes – LLDPE pallet stretch film
  • Yes – clean LDPE merchandise over wrap shrink film — These are items with and SPI symbol 4, or 4 inside of chasing arrows – this is the plastic often used to cover flats of soda, water bottles and bulk purchases of toilet paper and paper towels as well as other products.
  • No – PVC or PVDC (Saran) films (meat wrap is PVC)
  • No – moisture – dry bales only
  • No – trash, paper or corrugated materials inside bales (attached paper labels ok)
  • No – strapping twine or tape (within the bale)
  • No – wood, broken pallets
  • No – polystyrene, polyurethane foamed, polypropylene
  • No – PETE trays
  • No – plastic bottles
  • No – oil or grease
  • No – hazardous materials, medical wastes, or packages of these products
  • No – metal
  • No – food or food packaging
  • No – produce packaging

Here’s the list from their blog post “What can be recycled in the Bag-2-Bag program?

  • Grocery bags (don’t forget to remove the receipt!)
  • Produce bags (make sure to clean bags to avoid pests!)
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • News paper bags
  • Toilet paper packaging and paper towel packaging
  • Bottle overwrap (the plastic casing around packages of water or other beverages)
  • Bread bags (make sure the bread is gone!)
  • Zip lock bags (remove the zipper – it can’t be recycled with the bag!)
  • Trash bags (remove the draw string!)
  • Plastic packaging around consumer electronics

And here were my questions:

  1. One list says yes to food packaging and one says no. Does that even mean bread bags? Many bag recycling programs accept bread bags (on the theory, I believe, that bread is fairly dry and the crumbs can be shaken out).
  2. I was also curious about the exclusion of other food packaging, in particular fresh and frozen produce bags. It seems that if they were rinsed and dried they should present no hazard to the recycling process –but from what I understand, the process of sorting is largely visual and since I am likely the only person in my whole county who would go to the trouble to wash and dry a bag before recycling it that most of this kind of bag that end up in the stream are “contaminated”.
  3. Degradable (fragmenting) and biodegradable (compostable) bags are not recyclable, correct?
  4. I have heard for years that one incorrect item in a bale of recyclable material will cause the whole bale to be rejected and sent to the landfill. Is there any truth to this?
  5. I have a stash of frozen food bags because I stopped taking them to the Bag-2-Bag® bin after reading that they weren’t acceptable –but when I looked over the bags I had in hand they were marked LDPE, resin code 4. This makes them technically acceptable, but if the sorters are going to remove and destroy them I think it would be best for me not to include them in the first place.
  6. Is polywrap (the white on one side silver on the other plastic sheeting used by many mail order companies) acceptable in the program? I recently received a large package swathed in the stuff and it bears no useful markings whatsoever.

I put these questions to Philip R. Rozenski, Director of Marketing and Sustainability at Hilex, and he was kind enough to answer them all for me. Here are his answers:

  1. Yes to food bags. “This includes empty bread bags and other plastic food bags as well!”
  2. “To answer your question about frozen produce bags, packaging made from polypropylene [PP, or #5] or polyvinyl chlorides [PVC], such as the plastic used to make frozen produce bags, are not recyclable and can cause problems in the recycling process. These plastics are used to solve specific problems with exposure to oil, water, bacteria, or oxygen, which is used to keep food items from perishing.”
  3. “In response to your other questions about degradable bags, these bags aren’t generally recycled at recycling plants as they are actually designed and intended to break down on their own so they can contaminate other plastics if recycled. As a sustainable manufacturer we promote recyclable product rather than degradable.”
  4. I was relieved to learn that “the most common item recovered during the sorting process is paper receipts from stores. Any recovered non-recyclable items are properly disposed of or sent off to the appropriate recycling facility.” If you want to see the actual recycling process watch this video from Earth911 that Mr. Rozenski suggested to me. (Further reading* has reinforced the debunking of this myth. In other recycling – the commingled curbside kind – an incorrect item does not stop the works or “spoil” the product, but it does slow it down.”
  5. “If it has a 2 or 4 please put it in, we are good about letting the right items through.”
  6. For 3 many “mailers” are made of multiple plastic types. It is best to look for a 2 or 4 resin identification code or RIC. If not on it you may contact the maker for an answer and it could lead them to include markings in the future. If not known it should not be included. As a side sealed air bags used to ship from Amazon and other online shippers is typically recyclable 4 as well.”

I have cut down on my use of plastic bags – and plastic in general – quite a bit over the past year, but it does sneak in! But now I feel less leery of the film and bag type. There’s still nothing I can do about bottles and jugs in our area, since the transfer station doesn’t accept them, but I do have an easy disposal method for plastic bags that I feel I can trust. (I’m not just saying that because Mr. Rozenki is reading this!)

As for the bags and films I can’t recycle through the Bag-2-Bag® program: just you wait. I have been reading up and doing some experimenting and I have found some clever reuses for non-recyclable plastics!

One last note: Please keep in mind that these acceptance policies are unique to Hilex’s Bag-2-Bag® program. Hilex is the company that collects bags at the grocery store where I do most of my shopping – and, indeed, they have “over 30,000 locations” for consumer bag dropoffs –but they are not the company that collects bags at the other, smaller grocery store where I do occasional shopping. These guidelines may not be anywhere near what your collector accepts, so please check with them.

— Amanda

*The Zero-Waste Lifestyle by Amy Korst. Review here.

Getting down to chili and beans


Subscribing to Cooking Light magazine changed the way we eat in this house. For one thing, I was able to lose forty pounds between the time Matt popped the question in February of 2007 and my last dress fitting in August (when I was ordered by the seamstress to “knock it off” because there would be no more chances to alter the wedding dress before our September date). For another, I have become downright adventurous in the kitchen. I don’t know if it’s the fault of those tantalizing photographs or what, but I became compelled to try all manner of recipes that were quite different from my usual, very limited, repertoire. One Cooking Light recipe that has been firmly ensconced in my personal collection is for Beef, Black Bean, and Chorizo Chili. We liked it so much and made it so often that when we planned the 2009 garden we decided to grow the black beans and pinto beans that are called for in the recipe, as well as kidney beans, which I have always liked. We knew we should eat more beans because they are one of the cheapest forms of protein available and nothing could be easier to store. However, we had no idea how to cook dried beans. The vast majority of modern recipes (and most of my vintage ones, too) call for canned beans. As I plunged into what seemed like it should have been the simple matter of cooking with dried beans, I soon came up with three quandaries with no clear answer: 1) Do I or do I not add salt to the soaking/cooking liquid? 2) At what point in cooking can I add acidic ingredients? 3) Can I cook dried beans in my slow cooker?

  1. (Un)salted soaking and cooking water – At one of our favorite junk stores I picked up a book called Beans: Seventy-Nine Recipes for Beans, Lentils, Peas, Peanuts, and Other Legumes by Bonnie Tandy Leblang and Joanne Lamb Hayes which gave me, I thought, all the information I needed on cooking with dry beans. They recommend preparing dry beans by starting with a slow salt soak: “10 cups water and 2 teaspoons salt to 1 pound of beans” for 6-8 hours or overnight at room temperature or in the fridge. They also recommend cooking them with salt though they note that this will lengthen the cooking time. I went merrily along until I encountered this statement in the back of Cooking Light Slow Cooker (Terri Laschober, ed.): “Dried beans may take longer to tenderize if salt, sugar, or an acidic ingredient (such as tomatoes) is added at the beginning of the cook time. For best results, add any of these ingredients after beans have cooked until tender.”
  2. Acidic ingredients – The other issue raised by the statement in Cooking Light Slow Cooker as quoted above is the issue of acidic ingredients. Neighbor-Lady recently acquired a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, to which I’ve heard reverent references on the internet. She dropped by one day a few weeks ago with a cup of the tastiest homemade hummus I have ever encountered. While on my porch, she mentioned that Nourishing Traditions says that acidic ingredients “pre-digest” the ogliosaccharides responsible for the musicality of the fruit. (“Hmm.”) The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (or, as we call it, the “Plaid Book”) remains mute on this subject, but another slow cooker resource I had on hand, Rival Crock-Pot Cooking (Rival Manufacturing Company 1975) agrees, saying “sugar and acidic foods, such as tomatoes, tend to have a hardening effect on beans; therefore, always soften beans thoroughly before using them in baked beans, chili and similar recipes.” Beans does not make any statements about the acid issue, either, and as their recipes all specify precooked or canned beans the issue never arises.
  3. Slow cooker or stove top – During that chat with Neighbor-Lady she wondered aloud about cooking beans in her crock pot. I told her not to because I had read in the Plaid Book that “soaking dry beans overnight does not work for crockery cooker recipes because the beans never become tender.” (Her turn to say “Hmm”.) Cooking Light Slow Cooker makes no specific statements on this issue, but it does include a recipe calling for dried beans with no mention of soaking. Rival Crock-Pot Cooking agrees that beans should be cooked before adding to slow cooker recipes. Beans makes no mention of slow cookers.

Answers! After two failed attempts to contact the American Dry Bean Board I got my answers from the FAQ pages of the United States Dry Bean Council: 1) Yes, salt will toughen the beans and should be added just before serving. 2) “Add acidic foods, such as tomatoes, vinegar, lemon or calcium-rich molasses, near the end of the cooking time, because these ingredients may toughen the skins.” 3) You can cook beans in a slow cooker, but it takes a long time and can’t be hurried. They need 6-8 hours or overnight.

— Amanda

Photo by Teodoro S Gruhl on PublicDomainPictures.net