YES! But How? :: Electricity, Dry Cleaning, Birch

Troubled by the difficulties of a clean & green existence? Whipsawed by confusion because you want to live sustainably, but you just don't know how? Don't worry... Ask Doug & Annie!


Dear Annie & Doug,

I hear that I'll soon be able to choose who to buy electricity from, just like I do now with long distance services. How can I buy the least environmentally damaging form of electricity? How can I tell a scam from true "green" electricity? —Still on the Grid in California

Dear Still on the Grid:
You're right. Deregulated electricity has already arrived in California, and it's coming soon to other states. The principal marketing tool for deregulated electricity is bound to be price. But there are going to be plenty of companies claiming that their product is green-- whether it truly is or not.

What is "green" electricity? It's electricity that comes from sustainable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, sustainable biomass (plant or animal products produced sustainably; not, for example, wood waste from clearcutting old growth) and small hydro (the kind that doesn't produce salmon puree). So far, most green offerings are a mix of new renewable, existing renewable, and existing system power.

Before you sign on with a company offering green power, find out why it thinks it's green and where its electricity is coming from.

Of course, the utilities can't sort out electrons to make sure that you get only the wind-generated ones. When you choose green energy, what you're really doing is directing where your money goes. Buying from a company because they offer 50 percent solar power assures that they buy 50 percent of the power you pay for from solar sources. By directing your money to that source, you're both increasing demand for solar power and directing new investment there.

Before you sign on with a company offering green power, find out why it thinks it's green and where its electricity is coming from. Choose the mix that pushes power generation the direction you want it to go.

Two sources of information about green electricity are already in place. The Center for Resource Solutions ( is a nonprofit group offering a voluntary certification process for electricity vendors. A vendor qualifies for "Green-e" certification if its mix is more than 50 percent from renewables and meets other clean air and non-nuclear criteria.

The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) (, 212/727-2700) has its own ratings for the California electricity offerings. The NRDC's criteria are a bit stricter than Green-e. For instance, NRDC gives bonus points for emphasis on new renewable sources; it's stricter on biomass production, disallowing use of municipal waste and biomass from non-sustainable sources. Here's the surprise of greener electricity: For most of America, the cost isn't that great. In California, you'll pay an additional 1 to 3.4 cents per kilowatt hour, an increase of 10-34 percent. There's no reason to expect the price to be much different elsewhere, although the percentage change will be greater in places like the dammed Pacific Northwest.

There are some downsides to deregulation, but this opportunity to promote sustainability directly, and to prove that people are ready to trade a few present dollars for the long-term health of the planet is one of the upsides. And of course, the greenest electricity of all is no electricity. Go fluorescent, turn off the lights, put on a sweater, and dry your clothes on the line like your grandma used to do.


Dear Annie & Doug,

How can I wet-clean wool and rayon at home so I don't have to send it out to a dry cleaner? All the dry cleaners in my community use Perc, something I want to avoid.  —Stuck In the Spin Cycle

Dear Stuck in the Spin Cycle:

Great question! I have eliminated many rayon clothes from my wardrobe because they have dropped a few sizes after I tried to wash them! Rayon and wool absolutely must be hand-washed. Here are some specific tips for wet-washing these fabrics:

Rayon is a synthetic material which feels a lot like cotton but is much weaker. Never twist or wring rayon; gently swirl it in the water. Press water out after rinsing. Wash rayon in water that is between 120 degrees F and 140 degrees F. Strong (highly alkaline) soaps and detergents are OK to use, since rayon is an alkaline fabric. Don't use vinegar or lemon juice in the rinse water, as acids can damage the fibers. If an acid-based material such as fruit juice or tomato sauce spills on it, immediately rinse the rayon in cold water. Use a medium-high heat when ironing rayon, and store it away from sunlight.

Wool is a protein fiber made from sheep's hair. Never twist or wring wool; gently swirl the wool in the water, and press water out after rinsing. Wool is an acidic fabric, and you must use a very mild soap or detergent with as close to a neutral pH of 7 as possible. Any alkaline soap or detergent with a pH above 8 will harm wool. To lower the pH of a soap or detergent, add some vinegar or lemon juice. Soaps are better to use than detergents for wool, so as not to strip too many of the wool's natural oils. Rinse in vinegar to remove soap scum. Water temperature should be cool-- 100 degrees F or so.

Never use bleach on wool or other protein fibers. After washing, lay it flat and stretch it out to the correct size and shape for drying. Make sure it is not left in the direct sunlight, as it degrades more quickly. Wool is also very resilient and recovers quickly from wrinkling if hung. Storing wool clean is the most important preventative for protecting the cloth from moths.


Dear Annie & Doug,

I have a lot of sweet (black) birch on my land. This is the kind of birch used to make birch beer as its sap has a peppermint-like flavor. Are there other uses for the sap? —Clueless about Birch

Dear Clueless:

Having black birch nearby is a real gift. It is full of salicylates, or acids that are anti-inflammatory. (Salicylate is the active ingredient in aspirin.) Black birch is also powerfully antiseptic. Besides being used for birch beer, it was a staple in 19th century personal care products for clear complexions and as an excellent shampoo and conditioner for hair. Black birch cuts body oils: this attribute that makes it valuable for cutting the grease in the kitchen sink!

A basic birch water formula that can be used for many purposes, including as a refreshing summer drink, is to break twigs and small branches into pieces long enough to fit into a quart mason jar. Pack fully and tightly. Pour boiling water over the twigs. Cover and set overnight. In the morning, strain the birch water into a clean jar.

For a softening, exfoliating astringent for the skin, combine 3 parts of birch water with 1 part pure vegetable glycerin (available in health food stores) and pat onto the skin without rinsing. Use less glycerin if you have oily skin.

A basic birch water formula can be used for many purposes.

Make your own emollient and cleansing shampoo by combining in a jar 6 oz. birch water, 4 oz. organic apple cider vinegar, 1 oz. liquid castile soap, and 1 teaspoon of pure vegetable glycerin. Blend and shampoo as usual.


Dear Annie & Doug,
How do I make my own non-toxic wood stain? I am refinishing some furniture and want to do it in a way that is ecologically sound.
—Stainless in Seattle

Dear Stainless:

A good rule of thumb for buying stains is that the darker the stain, the fewer chemicals, since the pigment provides more protection from ultraviolet light. Clear sealants exposed to the sun won't last long, so more chemicals are added.

Natural pigments make exquisite, mellow colors and can be made from minerals (earth and clay) and vegetables (roots, bark, leaves, alkanet root, beets, walnuts, purple cabbage, coffee and tea, indigo, and madder root).

If you want to make your own plant dye/stains, simmer a handful of plant matter in 4 cups of water for an hour, adding more water as it evaporates. Cool, strain, and add 1/2 teaspoon of alum (available in the spice section of supermarkets) as a fixative. Paint on, dry, and recoat two to four more times or as desired.

You can also buy natural earth pigments that have been screened for heavy metals and other impurities; all you do is mix them with water. Some sources include The Natural Choice/Eco Design catalog (800/621-2591), Earth Studio (701/823-2569), and Sinan Company (916/753-3104).

Annie Berthold-Bond is the author of Better Basics (Clarkson Potter, 1999); The Green Kitchen Handbook (HarperCollins, 1997); and Clean & Green


Doug Pibel is a freelance writer living the simple life in Snohomish, WA.

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