Tiny living

Tiny living—or the idea of tiny living—is still having a moment in the U.S.

Even where I live, far from the squeezed rental markets of the big coastal cities, we have a newly constructed building of microapartments. Curiously, the apartments are marketed to a demographic I didn’t even know existed: young, single professionals who are apparently able to store most of their possessions somewhere else, who are free of onerous student loans and are uninterested in cooking. Although priced and described as “luxurious,” in this case “smart living” means making do with a kitchenette.

Like many people interested in simplifying, I’m drawn to examples of truly luxurious small spaces like this New York City pied-à-terre, where cost, young children, and long-term storage were non-factors. Ordinary small living, like what we are doing as a family this summer, looks very different.

In a tiny home, “embarrassing, ordinary objects like the [laundry] hamper are empowered,” writes a tiny-apartment dweller from Boston (What No One Ever Tells You About Tiny Homes). There just isn’t enough space to help differentiate items that are intentionally displayed from items that are simply visible, or between public space and private space. I think this is why I feel compelled to make the bed, take out the trash, and carefully edit toothbrushes, shampoo bottles and other self-care items from the bathroom before anyone comes over. It helps me feel less exposed.

The disorder of normal living is also magnified many times over in a small living space. The stack of library books on the dining-cum-work table, the drying rack of wet swimsuits and towels in the living room, the full bag of recycling occupying the space between the dining table and the door, the multiple pairs of shoes piled directly in front of the door, plus a nine-year-old’s ongoing projects demanding multiple vertical and horizontal surfaces can very quickly feel like trying to squeeze a 16th person onto an elevator with a posted maximum capacity of 15. There’s very little tolerance for clutter in a small space.

“Even smells take up space,” notes the Boston writer. Forget cooking unless you can make peace with temporary odors. Accept that humidity from cooking or showering and even the smell of sleeping people can accumulate unpleasantly. In our small space, an oscillating tower fan is life-improving.

Our small living is short-term, and it comes with considerable financial and logistical benefits that make it more than worth occasional minor frustrations. But given the choice, there’s no question I’d prefer to live a bit larger.



Small (and I mean small) ways to extend the life of your devices

Most smart phones, tablets and laptops are designed and marketed to last for about two years.

(Pause now and imagine billions of mobile phone, iPod and tablet users across the globe dumping their devices on a two-year cycle.)

There are, however, small things we can do to extend the life of the lithium-ion batteries inside our devices, which could extend the life of the devices themselves. (Check your device manufacturer’s specific recommendations. Here’s Apple’s info.)

  • Avoid extreme ambient temperatures, especially those above 95F/35C — don’t leave your device in a hot car, for example, and don’t use a case that allows heat to build up when the device is charging
  • Aim for moderate charging — regularly allow your battery to run down to 25%, but avoid allowing the battery to go to 0%; you don’t need to worry about over-charging
  • Lower your battery demand —keep WiFi on at all times (accessing WiFi uses less power than accessing cellular data), reduce display brightness, select low power mode or manually disable background applications, and disconnect peripherals and quit applications not in use
  • Avoid ultra-fast chargers
  • Update to the latest software

The “why” part of this post is at least two-fold.

One, most of us avoid thinking about what happens to our e-waste because we feel powerless. However, we can’t even begin to organize our power as consumers unless we become aware of the problems created by our e-waste. Scientific American magazine outlines the issues well in this blog post.

Two, the money we spend on devices goes somewhere. It goes to employees and middle class shareholders of companies like Samsung and Apple. It goes to tremendously wealthy shareholders. And it goes to support and grow the tech industry. Currently, two of those groups are well-organized and politically influential around their particular interests. We consumers can organize, too, to demand less exploitative and less environmentally damaging products and packaging. Greenpeace International and the International Campaign for Responsible Technology are two of many groups advocating for greener electronics.

Lastly, look for the least bad way to dispose of your e-waste. In the Twin Cities, TechDump is one option.


Feel good about giving

In a post on Becoming Minimalist, Johsua Becker describes the American gift-giving season this way:

Over the next several weeks, new possessions will enter homes at an alarming rate. The new possessions will arrive in stockings, gift bags, gift wrap, and envelopes. And the new products will come in various forms: electronics, clothes, books, toys, jewelry, gift cards, video games, decorations, DVD’s, and cookware. In America alone, over $600 billion dollars will be spent on retail goods during the months of November and December.

Some gifts will meet legitimate needs. But most gifts during the holiday season are purchased to satisfy wants: another new doll for your daughter, a new video game system for your son, or a K-cup coffee maker for the parents. Worse yet, many of the gifts we give will satisfy neither needs or wants—instead, they will only satisfy an obligation.

Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can instead choose to give “gifts of meaning,” as New York Times editorial columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, by giving a gift to someone who truly needs it.

To make things easy, Kristof shared a list of nearly a dozen American and international non-profit organizations that he thinks are truly improving people’s lives. If you want a third-party opinion on another charity, CharityNavigator.org rates the financial health and accountability/transparency of organizations based in the U.S. You can read more about Charity Navigator’s methodology on their web site.

Recycling (it’s complicated)

Sometimes problems are so far-reaching and entrenched and involve so many moving parts that you cannot, or should not, try to understand and address the problems all at once or you will very quickly feel completely overwhelmed and hopeless and likely give up.

That’s what I told myself yesterday as I left a presentation on creating a zero waste home. While our household has taken some really good steps to reduce our waste, there is so much more we could and should be doing—including things we didn’t even know we could be doing.

Here are some things I learned related to recycling:

  • some community recycling programs opt to accept all plastics—even ones that are going to be pulled out for landfill/incineration—because it reduces the amount of community education needed and potentially results in greater collection of plastics that actually can be recycled (my city recycling program explains why they chose the greater education approach)
  • my city accepts plastic bottle caps only if they are attached to their plastic bottles; if the caps are loose, the sorting equipment doesn’t recognize them for what they are and they get pulled out for landfill/incineration; paper milk and juice cartons get recycled as paper, so the plastic caps must be removed and put in the trash
  • metal bottle caps cannot be recycled at this time; funneling your supply to artists—perhaps via freecycle.org or ArtScraps if you’re in the Twin Cities—is one way to give the caps a second use
  • the U.S. organization USAgain (pronounced “use again”) accepts clean clothing and rags at drop off bins; textiles that can’t be resold (typically in overseas markets) are repurposed when possible into things like carpet padding (read more)
  • hard plastic—commonly used in point-of-sale packaging for things like electronics—cannot be recycled; in general, if a piece of plastic does not have a number on it, it cannot be recycled and will go to landfill/incineration
  • black plastic, which I see in certain microwave meals I have been buying, cannot be recycled
  • the packaging used for Capri Sun drink pouches—and all those convenience pouches of puree intended for babies/toddlers (my son loved them)—is made of layers of aluminum and plastic that cannot be separated and is in no way recyclable; there’s a campaign called Make It Take It to pressure the industry leader, Kraft Foods, to change the packaging so that consumers can get the products they like without also causing so much environmental damage
  • a handy way to calculate the cost of plastic packaging—raw materials, processing, manufacturing, shipping, recycling when possible—is to multiply the cost of the item in your hand by 70

And here are some things I learned about organics composting:

  • lint from a clothes dryer is compostable, but ideally we would only use lint that comes from drying a load of cotton fabrics (scientists have discovered that fish in the Great Lakes have ingested all kinds of microfibers that likely come from the synthetic fabrics we clean in our washing machines—if you’re like me, that fact is so ominous and potentially hope-shattering that you’re going to save it to process later)
  • paper designed to hold food—microwave food trays, paper drink cups, carryout boxes—is coated with a thin layer of plastic unless the packaging explicitly states otherwise; this paper may be accepted by commercial organics composting facilities with the understanding that some plastic is being added to the compost

My advice to myself and to you is to pick ONE thing that you can change starting today. For me, it means no more palak paneer microwave meals that come in black plastic.

What one thing are you going to do starting today?

* * *

A good resource if you really want to dig into plastics is myplasticfreelife.com.

You can find many resources about zero waste, including the aspirational zerowastehome.com.

Simple household cleaners

simple home cleanersI am not an early adopter, but once I find something I like I am fiercely loyal. This was my trajectory with simple cleaning products. If you haven’t already made this switch, like 10 years ago, I’m here to say it’s easier than you think and yes, they work.

You can see most of my kit in the picture.


There are recipes for making your own laundry soap, but I’ve heard that they can be hard on fine fabrics, so I use a “green” commercial laundry soap. No dryer sheets—they coat your clothes and your dryer filter, and that coating can eventually cause your dryer to fail. No bleach—it’s not good for human or pet health or the environment, and like dryer sheets I consider it unnecessary. I do use a stain spray because I have a six year old boy and, yes, I totally cheated by not including that in the picture (it ruined the composition).


Switching to homemade bathroom cleaners requires an upfront investment that quickly pays off:

  • two spray bottles
  • funnel
  • tea tree oil plus a good-smelling essential oil (if you use lavender oil or lemon oil, you’re adding to the antibacterial properties of the tea tree oil, borax and vinegar)
  • borax (look for it in the laundry soap aisle)
  • white vinegar (oh, wait, I already had that)
  • liquid dishsoap (had that too)
  • baking soda (…had it)
  • water

Glass cleaner: mix 1/4 c. white vinegar with 2 c. water in a spray bottle (that’s an “official” recipe—I don’t actually measure); the vinegar scent quickly disappears and if I wipe sufficiently there’s no streaking.

Surface cleaner (I do measure these ingredients): dissolve 1 t. borax in 2 c. hot water and let cool before adding in a spray bottle to 1/2 t. liquid dish soap; 3 T. white vinegar; 5 drops tea tree oil; 15 drops good-smelling essential oil

Boosting the surface cleaner: if you use bar soap (see my recommendation for an alternative to shaving cream), or have mildew on your tile grout, or for some other reason you need to scrub your sink, bathtub or tile, baking soda works well; spray surface cleaner or glass cleaner (vinegar kills mildew), sprinkle baking soda, and scrub away with a sponge or old toothbrush; of course there are mildew and soap scum sprays that allow you to skip most of the scrubbing, but over the long term they’re not good for tile or grout and they’re not good for human health.

Toilet bowl cleaner: I use borax the way I would any other powdered toilet bowl cleaner, i.e. the borax crystals boost the friction power of the toilet brush and act as an antimicrobial agent.

plastic sink uncloggerUnclogging the sink: you’ve probably heard that commercial drain cleaners can ruin your pipes if overused; a better alternative to removing the horribleness that prevents the water from draining is a saw-toothed piece of plastic designed just for this job.

(Yick. Glad to be done writing about bathroom cleaning.)


Oven: you know those oven cleaner sprays that smell so toxic–especially when heated–that you need to leave the room or house when they’re doing their job? yeah, toxic. I have an ordinary oven and, because of multiple bubbling over incidents, it needed to be cleaned. I used a plastic scrubber (that blue thing in the picture that originally had a ball shape), some baking soda and my spray glass cleaner, and some cloth rags I threw away when I was done. Because I am a careless/distracted cook, I should probably just line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil (I found 100% recycled aluminum foil at my food coop).

Surfaces: I use a clean dishcloth and a little soapy water.

Garbage disposal: I run the disposal with a chunk of fresh or frozen lemon.


Hardwood, laminate and tile floors: for normal dirt, I vacuum or use a dry Swiffer to pick up hair and other bits, then get on my knees with a cloth rag and warm water (wring most of the water out)—it’s more work than just going over the surface with a wet Swiffer cloth, but also more effective. I was told by a hardwood floor specialist to never use Murphy’s Oil Soap.


I use a cloth rag. No spray.


If you have other suggestions for simple, green cleaners, please share them!