Stop Junk Mail With PaperKarma

Be mindful of your paper karma. This one's worth reducing. Photo © Liesl Clark

Be mindful of your paper karma. This one’s worth reducing. Photo © Liesl Clark

According to some estimates, the average US household receives 850 unsolicited pieces of mail each year. Our household was once way over that average, and for years I tried to reduce it. I can say, two and a half years after subscribing to PaperKarma, that our junk mail is now GREATLY reduced! PaperKarma is my personal junk mail pitbull, chasing that unwanted paper advertising away, nipping at the heals of those bold solicitors, telling them to remove me, forever, from their memory banks.

Here’s a picture of one month’s-worth of junk mail, two years ago, sitting on my desk:

One month of junk mail -- unsolicited. Photo © Liesl Clark

One month of junk mail — unsolicited. Photo © Liesl Clark

Today, that pile is about a quarter as high.

Enter PaperKarma.

As a Buddhist, I admit I was immediately drawn to the app.

I’m on every do-not-send-list I could possibly sign up for through the Direct Marketing Association, and I’ve diligently kept up with Catalog Choice in getting rid of unwanted (that means all) catalogs, but I still find that I have to call companies in-person to request no more catalogs around Christmas-time. My last ditch effort was to try the mobile app called PaperKarma.

PaperKarma, a free app that'll reduce your junk mail for you.

PaperKarma, a free app that’ll reduce your junk mail for you.

This app, named “The Catalog Killer” by Entrepreneur Magazine is FUN! Imagine receiving an unwanted piece of mail, taking a picture of it, hitting a button and seeing all future solicitations from said company (eventually) disappear forever. That’s what PaperKarma offers. And I can tell you from experience that they follow through with their promise. Since I started reducing my own paper karma we’re definitely receiving less junk mail. Some days we even receive, gasp, no mail. A few pieces of unwanted mail keep trickling in, but they’re ones we haven’t reported to PaperKarma yet. So I diligently send a quick picture to the PaperKarma bot that gracefully sends a notice to the offender to make sure they, ahem, TAKE ME OFF THEIR MAILING LIST.

PaperKarma is like having a mail (not male) secretary who handles something that’s offensive to you which you have scant time to deal with. I feel like the CEO of my mailbox domain every time I get a notice from PaperKarma saying they’ve successfully reached one of those corporations I didn’t ask to be targeted by. This is what apps were meant to be: our behind-the-scenes-clean-up-our-messes-while-defending-our-ideals-and-hence-saving-the-environment-type of digital enterprise. PaperKarma is also local, i.e. they’re Seattle-based and we’re just a hop on a ferry away, so I feel like we’re supporting a local enterprise that has huge national environmental impact.


If you have a smartphone, download PaperKarma — it’s free. If “karma,” like “samsara,” is an action or deed that brings light upon the cyclical reality of cause-and-effect, PaperKarma’s bots are truly karmic. Join me in looking forward to getting a rare piece of junk mail, just to experience the sweet pleasure of being a tattle-tale, reporting that offender to PaperKarma’s database that’ll set in motion the cause-and-effect of requesting to be removed from unwanted mailing lists. Federal law says companies must comply if such a request is made. And if they don’t, PaperKarma will check in with you to see who’s not listening and follow through on your behalf. Your personal paper-chasing lawyer, getting it done. It’s joyful, this process, and will save hundreds and thousands of trees as well as carbon in the delivery of your unwanted mail and wasted marketing brain cells on people like you and me.

25 Uses for Silica Gel

The Many Uses of Silica Gel. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Many Uses of Silica Gel. Photo © Liesl Clark

Silica gel is one of those little-understood materials. Although the little silica gel packets say “Do Not Eat, Throw Away” that doesn’t mean you have to follow this misguided advice and think the little gels are poisonous. You’ve likely unknowingly put some in your mouth already or rubbed it all over your body as it’s used in some toothpastes and also exfoliants. They’re a non-toxic inert desiccant that will dry out anything they sit near. Their uses are many and hence it’s worth thinking twice about throwing them away. I collect them and share them in my local Buy Nothing group every 6-13 months with artists and others who praise their worthiness for reuse.

The Carolina Poison Center has this to say about silica gel:

“The gels are a form of silicic acid, which is similar to sand. Silica gel is non-toxic, meaning that it is not poisonous if eaten. The package says “DO NOT EAT” because (1) it is not food, and (2) it could be a choking hazard.”

The ASPCA also deems it nontoxic, usually producing only mild stomach upset, which typically resolves with minimal to no treatment for your pet.

So, now that we’ve determined it’s not a poison to be avoided, we’d like you to not throw it away because those little packets are useful! Silica gel can be reused over and over again and has some excellent applications in the home and office.

This list will go from the most obscure reuses to the most common:

1) If you have trouble keeping your car windshield from fogging due to moisture trapped in your car, place a couple of silica packets on the dashboard and they’ll go to work for you.

2) Put a silica gel packet inside your halloween pumpkin to stave off the mold.

3) Extend the life of your razor blades by placing silica gel packs in an airtight container with silica gel.

4) Throw in your ice skating bag to help keep the blades from oxidizing.

5) Store a few with your fishing gear, especially dry flies.

6) Fight mold! Stash silica packets in the damp corners of your home.

7) (My favorite.) Use silica gel packets as tiny throw pillows for your doll house. If you cover them with scrap fabric, all the better.

8) Use a little in your kitty litter. Your commercial kitty litter manufacturer does.


9) Put packets of silica gel in with your silverware. It slows down the tarnishing process.

10) Place them inside your camera cases, with lenses, to keep your equipment dry.

11) Put silica gel in with your boxes of stored photos and slides to preserve them longer.

12) Your down jackets and down sleeping bags will benefit from a few packets of silica gel to keep moisture out.

13) Put a few packets in with your garden seeds to keep them dry.

14) Stash a packet or 2 with your jewelry to prevent tarnishing

15) All keepsakes in the attic in boxes can benefit from a few silica packets nearby.

16) Keep a couple packs in the pockets of your luggage to keep your clothes and travel items dry.

17) Silica gel and dried flowers are excellent friends.

18) Store them with your electronics.

19) If you have video tapes, DVDs or old audio cassettes, silica gel would be welcome nearby.

20) If you think your silica gel has been exposed to a lot of moisture, you can put them in a 150 – 200 degree oven for a few minutes to dry them out and restore them to functionality again.

21) If you still have silica gel packets hanging about, pass them on to a receptive neighbor through your local Buy Nothing group. Share them, so no one ever has to actually buy them.

22) Use them with your kids to teach about volume. Here’s how one science teacher writes: “I use them in science class. The students love playing with the silica balls when they swell up with water. We measure how much water they can absorbe by measuring them when they are dry then measuring again after a few hours.”

23) When your cell phone falls in the dink, place several packets in a ziplock bag with your wet phone. Leave for 12-24 hours and check for signs of any remaining condensation on lenses, etc. You may just save your cell phone!

24) Another reader tells us that if you put your hearing aid in a ziploc bag overnight with silica gel it can help to keep the moisture out of the hearing aid.

25) Melita tells us they’re a huge help with dirty diapers: “I tape them to the top of the rubbish bin I put nappies in. It absorbs the smells. Every week I change them over. Works a treat!

Don’t stop at 25!

26) Put them in an airtight container with your leftover nori. It’ll keep your nori crisp, not gummy.

27) If you have trouble with dampness in our under-sink cabinet, causing all sorts of damage or the dishwasher powder box to get damp and clump up. Silica gel to the rescue! Throw some packets in with your dishwasher powder.

If you have more reuses for these little packets, please share them here.

20 Reuses For Orange Peels

Citrus Peels Have Many Reuses. Photo © Molly McCoy

We’ve been going through a lot of satsumas and clementines lately. This time of year, we save the skins for reuse. Turns out orange peel skin, and citrus peel in general, whether it’s dried orange peel or fresh, is a versatile material used widely from the kitchen, to the garden, and in the fireplace. If you don’t compost, here are our top 20 orange peel uses to entice you to keep them out of your garbage.

1) Make a natural cleaning product. It will work wonders in your house and office and is really easy to make. Saves a bundle, too.

DIY All-Purpose Household Cleaner

2) Dry your orange peels and use as fire starter. They’re naturally flammable and burn longer than your ordinary stick.

3) Orange peels in water make a great insect repellant for the home. Keep ’em out!

4) Create an orange peel candle.

5) Orange peel essential oil is a really strong ingredient to add to any natural house cleaning product.

6) Put all your orange peels in the compost for natural fertilizer for your garden.

7) Use your peels for orange zest in recipes.

8) Place some dried peels in your old brown sugar to make sure it doesn’t solidify due to moisture.

9) Make spiced candied orange peel and give it as a gift.

10) Orange peel roses look beautiful as a centerpiece.

11) Try your luck with an orange peel sugar scrub to kiss winter skin goodbye.

12) Start your garden early by growing seedlings in a citrus peel starter pot.

13) Squeeze orange peels onto your dryer lint to enhance their ability as fire starter fodder.

14) Dried orange peels can extend the life of your potpourri.

15) Orange peel deodorizer: Put a few orange peels in the bottom of your trash cans. They are a great deodorizer.

16) Natural mosquito repellent: Try rubbing orange peels over your skin to deter those bugs.

17) Make an orange peel bird feeder for the birds.

18) Simmer with your favorite whole spices like allspice, cinnamon, and cloves to create a lovely aroma in your home.

19) Make some cool looking orange peel teeth for Halloween.

20) Occasionally put an orange peel down into the garbage disposal to clean out your disposal and make it smell fresh.

Don’t stop at 20!

21) Craft some adorable orange peel boats with the kids.

What do you do with your orange peels?

Have Yourself a Handmade Christmas

In our house, Christmas is a special time to create things together and follow traditions we’ve established since our children were born. There are so many wonderful projects to undertake together: Wreath-making, gingerbread house constructing, ornament crafting, cookie baking, tree-finding, gift-making, creative wrapping, card-garlanding, and candle-making. Every day our activity advent-ure calendar is filled with yet another family-bonding event that makes this time of year so alluring. I try my best to use this special time as a model for the rest of the year. The lessons learned from these projects spill over to the new year and beyond as we work together to create outdoor garden and play spaces, grow our own food together, and transform everyday things back into useful items for our household.

Felted wool elf hats are easy for children to make. Photo © Liesl Clark

Felted wool elf hats are easy for children to make. Photo © Liesl Clark

Elf Hats: If you have an old wool sweater, either green or red, felt it and then have the kids craft little elf hats. They’re really easy to sew together and embellishing them with your saved-up scraps of fabric, ribbon, bells will make them a permanent part of Christmases to come.

Edible Zero Waste Snowmen: If your children are having a Christmas gathering or a party at school, they can contribute to the party by making zero waste snowman treats! How are they zero waste? We buy the candies from our supermarket’s bulk bin, the marshmallow bag can be recycled with plastic bags, the baking cups are compostable (and the box recyclable), the sprinkles container can be recycled, the toothpicks are compostable, and the toothpick box can be recycled with our paper.

Little Marshmallow Snowmen, A Zero Waste Treat Handmade by Kids

Little Marshmallow Snowmen, A Zero Waste Treat Handmade by Kids

We love these little snowmen because they’re fun to make and appeal to the nut-free gluten-free crowd. We use our favorite vegan marshmallows, Dandies, which are smaller than traditional marshmallows.

Marshmallow Stacking is Fun, Photo © Liesl Clark

Marshmallow Stacking is Fun, Photo © Liesl Clark

First thread 3 marshmallows through a toothpick leaving the end of the toothpick sticking out. Next, place a spice gumdrop on the snowman’s head for a hat, spearing it with the toothpick tip. Use another toothpick to poke eyes and buttons into the marshmallows. Press jimmies or sprinkles into the holes for eyes and buttons. Break the toothpick in half and place them in as arms for your snowmen and women.

Enough for the Entire Class, Photo © Liesl Clark

Enough for the Entire Class, Photo © Liesl Clark

Use some paper baking cups (stack 2 together so they’re sturdy enough for small hands) to hold your snowpeople in a bed of organic jelly beans — just enough to make any child’s mouth water.

Graham Cracker Gingerbread Houses: Another zero waste edible we love to create are our holiday graham cracker gingerbread houses. With the leftover jelly beans, gum drops, snowmen and some powdered sugar and graham crackers, we were able to build little houses for display on the dining room table.

Graham Cracker House Magic, Photo © Liesl Clark

Handmade Christmas Magic, Photo © Liesl Clark

The key is to have good “sugar glue” by making your own royal icing. I had a cup of powdered sugar, some cream of tartar and an egg in the hen house so we were able to whip up the icing and the rest was our own hands.

Cottage Construction Zone, Photo © Liesl Clark

Cottage Construction Zone, Photo © Liesl Clark

All on a Fancy Cardboard Platter

All on a Fancy Cardboard Platter

Metal or Plastic Rakes? A Review.

We’re still raking leaves. And as I rake, I think about the fact that every purchase we make can actually make a difference on our planet. By choosing a rake made with the right materials, you can have a positive impact on the environment. If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you might already know the answer I’ll have for this question of metal vs plastic rakes — metal wins! So what is my judging criteria? It’s not just sustainability and end-of-life scenarios that I’m taking into consideration.

Two plastic rakes, not very old, both just about useless. Photo © Liesl Clark

When you buy a rake, you’ll likely want your money’s-worth, i.e. you’d like your rake to be effective and last a good long time. As we know from our studies of plastics in the ocean, plastics photodegrade, they break down into smaller pieces over time, and most will never ever go away. Plastic rake tines are no exception. With repeated sun exposure and certainly in the cold, plastic rakes become more brittle and crack and break over time. My backyard trials have proven they’ll do this rather quickly. The 2 rakes photographed above were bought at the same time, about 1.5 years ago. The green one lost 2 center tines early in its life and then cracked at the point where the wooden handle meets the plastic rake. The orange rake lost 2 side tines and is now cracking down the middle of the rake. I figure we’ll get another couple of months out of it. We do a lot of leaf raking around here.

Leaf Dreams. Do you see the face in there? Photo © Liesl Clark

So what kind of rake do we prefer? A working and sustainable one that can ultimately be recycled in the metal bin, the wooden handle burned in our fire pit? Or one that will work for a shorter amount of time and will stay on the planet forever, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces and entering our waterways over time? I know that sounds extreme, but this is what plastics do. They’re buoyant and are doomed to become microplastics one day.

Introducing my favorite rake. Metal, and about 10 years old. It gets all jobs done. Photo © Liesl Clark

A metal rake may be a little more expensive, but it will last longer as a useful rake than your plastic one and when it has reached the end of it’s useful life, you can either recycle the metal part or use it in your garden art. We reuse our wooden handles for replacing the wooden handle of another garden tool, like another rake or a shovel. Metal rake tines can rust but the rust won’t deter you from raking. If they bend, they can be bent back!

Backside of another very old metal rake (likely 8 years old). The one bent tine can easily be bent back into place. Photo © Liesl Clark

Some landscapers prefer plastic rakes for heavy wet leaf raking and metal ones for dry lighter-weight jobs. I’ve used both for both jobs and don’t notice much of a difference. Even bamboo rakes can tackle both jobs well. My favorite bamboo rake is nearing the end of its life (probably because I left it out in the rain too often) but every part of it can be reused: We’ll compost the bamboo, the metal will go in our local scrap metal bin for recycling, and we’ll save the handle for replacing that metal rake we’ve been meaning to mend.

Our zero waste bamboo rake is nearing the end of it's life. Photo © Liesl Clark

Here's the metal rake I need to mend. The handle broke off but the head keeps on working! It's been a nice child-sized rake, but I'm selfish, I want it back! Photo © Liesl Clark

So when you look at the end-of -life options for your leaf rake, metal and bamboo rakes definitely win out.


3Rs for Ribbon: Rethink, Reuse, Refuse

Ribbon Found on Our Beaches (including the spool), Photo © Liesl Clark

Ribbon Found on Our Beaches (including the spool), Photo © Liesl Clark

You should never need to buy ribbon for wrapping gifts. Here’s why:

“If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet.”

I tried to find the source for this fact but was unsuccessful, even though there are thousands of us on the web sharing it. Verifying it would take some simple mathematics, but more importantly the practical truth is that every time we walk our favorite shoreline, we find several feet of gift ribbon washed ashore. I’d like to submit a new version of the above quote and ask each family to do more:

If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon that they found in the environment, the 38,000 miles of ribbon recovered from our wilds could tie a bow around the entire planet.

We have gobs of plastic ribbon in our environment. You just have to look for it — it’s all around you: Ribbons hang from our trees attached to balloons set free by helium, they’re tied to mailboxes of birthdays gone by, they’re tangled in the seaweed at your feet. Frankly, if you’re in need of ribbon, I’ll happily send you a sampling of what we’ve found on our roads and beaches. It looks as good as new. Each year I stockpile the ribbon and then Freecycle what I’ve saved for someone to reuse on their gifts. Plastic-coated ribbon doesn’t break down or look anything but new after hundreds of days at sea.

Ribbon Attached to Balloon Found on the Beach, Photo © Liesl Clark

Ribbon on the Beach, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you’re interested in learning more about the ribbons’ common partner-in-crime, the balloon, go visit our friends atBalloons Blow, Don’t Let Them Go, a dynamic duo doing what they can to explain the simple facts about the damage balloons do to the environment and our wildlife. Balloons do blow and so do the ribbons they’re attached to, entangling countless creatures in their plastic clutches.

So the next time you need some ribbon for prettying-up a package, take a walk and I suspect you’ll find some. Or use an alternative like pretty jute, bailing twine, fabric scraps or filament line you’ve collected from the beach. Help keep this stuff out of our waters. Refuse to buy more of it, and get creative with the ribbons you find to help teach others about the sad abundance of wrapping resources found choking our trees and wildlife.

Seal Pup in Distress, Labored Breathing, Point No Point, WA. Photo © Liesl Clark

Seal Pup in Distress, Labored Breathing, Point No Point, WA. Photo © Liesl Clark

Garlic Press Gingerbread Hair

Plate of Gingerbread Cookies for the New Year, Photo © Liesl Clark

Plate of Gingerbread Cookies for the Holidays, Photo © Liesl Clark

As we’re in the heart of the holiday season, baking gingerbread men is a tradition our family has endured since I can remember. True to form, my mom, “Grandma,” has come up with yet another innovative reuse for an everyday kitchen tool: Use a garlic press to make gingerbread people hair!

Squeezing Dough Through a Garlic Press for "Hair," Photo © Liesl Clark

Squeezing Dough Through a Garlic Press for “Hair,” Photo © Liesl Clark

Use a knife to cut the hair off at the length you’d like and then press the hair into the top of your gingerbread person’s head.

Applying Hair, Photo © Liesl Clark

Applying Hair, Photo © Liesl Clark

Adding Decorations, Photo © Liesl Clark

Adding Decorations, Photo © Liesl Clark

Bake your cookies and you have a more 3D cookie for your family to enjoy!

Gingerbread Man with Hair, Photo © Liesl Clark

Gingerbread Man with Hair, Photo © Liesl Clark

Gingerbread People Love to be Decorated, Photo © Liesl Clark

Red Haired Gingerbread Girl, Photo © Liesl Clark

Yum! Photo © Liesl Clark

Yum! Photo © Liesl Clark

What cool reuse traditions do you have in your home over the holidays? Please share.

Reuse Your Wreath Frames!

Rosemary Wreath, All From Salvaged Materials. Photo © Liesl Clark

Rosemary Wreath, All From Salvaged Materials. Photo © Liesl Clark

When it’s time to take down your wreath after the holidays, get out your pruning clippers and cut the wreath frame free from the pine boughs, compost your pine boughs and you’ve got a wreath frame for next year.

Last Years' Wreath Adorns the Chicken Yard and Still Smells Nice. Photo © Liesl Clark

Last Years’ Wreath Adorns the Chicken Yard and Still Smells Nice. Photo © Liesl Clark

We place our aging wreaths around the chicken coop fence to adorn their abode and when Christmas comes around the next year, I reuse my frames. But this year I was lazy. My husband, Pete, and friend Rebecca found 3 wreath frames on the beach when we were on one of our “Mapping Plastics” legs circumnavigating our Puget Sound Island.

Plastic Wreath Frames Rescued From the Beach

Plastic Wreath Frames Rescued From the Beach

Seems some islanders throw their grass, tree, garden, and bush clippings along the banks of the shore, including their wreaths. This is a long-standing practice as evidenced by the number of yard debris dump sites we’ve found along the shore. Residents want to fortify their bluffs and low banks with grass, sticks and garden waste. But now there’s evidence this practice isn’t great for our waters.

Pete and Rebecca, Recovering Plastics Embedded in the Bank. Photo © Liesl Clark

Pete and Rebecca, Recovering Plastic Wreath Frames Along the Banks of Puget Sound. Photo © Liesl Clark

According to Island County’s Shore Stewards News, “If you use fertilizer or other chemicals on your lawn, those chemicals will make it to the shoreline along
with your clippings, killing fragile marine life. Grass without chemicals can be dangerous, too, as the excess nitrogen can raise temperatures and pose a danger to marine life.”

Yard Debris Piles Along the Banks of Puget Sound Pose Problems for the Marine Ecosystem. Photo © Liesl Clark

Yard Debris Piles Along the Banks of Puget Sound Pose Problems for the Marine Ecosystem. Photo © Liesl Clark

The dense organic debris in piles, which will ultimately end up in the Sound, can pose problems for shellfish beds, too. Our discovery of the wreath frames wasn’t a surprise, after all, because they’re plastic. They were destined to begin a journey onto our waters, but we plucked them from the bank as they easily rested on top of some sticks. We had no idea what they were at first and it wasn’t until we later inventoried the plastics that we determined their purpose. I shared some on our local Buy Nothing group, saved one, and now I have a homemade wreath to show for it!

Rosemary Bush Gets a Haircut, Photo © Liesl Clark

Rosemary Bush Gets a Haircut, Photo © Liesl Clark

Truth is, my rosemary bush needed a haircut. Pete pruned it and I’m using the clippings for my wreath. A trip to the back yard with pruning shears resulted in a few sprigs of salal and holly. And with a few pieces of salvaged thin wire found on the beach, I wove together my rosemary wreath — all from salvaged materials.

A Rosemary Wreath Smells Lovely. Photo © Liesl ClarkA Rosemary Wreath Smells Lovely. Photo © Liesl Clark
Share with us your own homemade wreath ideas!