Not all new products represent progress (I'm looking at you, Slap Chop). As we try to learn how to live in harmony with our environment, we've come to a new appreciation of some old-time products and practices that still make sense today. Here are 10 examples.
1. Cloth diapers. The straight poop is, many mothers are returning from the wasteland of disposable diapers and using new versions of the old standby, cloth diapers. And these can be as good for your wallet as they are for Mother Earth: According to Time magazine, the overall cost for using these new diapers can be as little as a tenth of the cost of disposables.
While disposable diapers freed generations of moms from diaper laundry, they quickly began clogging landfills. According to recent estimates, we use an estimated 27.4 billion disposables a year. Just how much is this? A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that you could build 4,610 Washington Monuments with our dirty disposables every year.
For many years, the only alternative to the highway-decorating disposables was the traditional cotton nappy, which was difficult to clean and didn't retain fluids very well. Now, however, a new generation of designer diapers has provided clever answers to those shortcomings, resulting in more happy babies and happy eco-warriors. Cotton has been replaced with super-absorbent and durable microfibers, and safety pins with snaps or Velcro; the outside now comes in snazzy colors other than white. They also launder very well.
If you're looking for a way to return to an old-time product in a new form that's cheaper, healthier and more ecologically sound, this is it.
2. Clotheslines. Who doesn't love the smell of line-dried clothes? Most everyone, we'd say, given the fact that producers of laundry products have tried time and again to chemically introduce that fresh-air smell into dryer-dried clothing. Now, however, consumers who are concerned about the pollution produced by the electricity generation and those who are trying to save money have rediscovered the ultimate in solar-powered utilities; the clothesline.
Ten minutes to hang, another ten to take down, and you've saved a full dryer loads' worth of energy. According to the government's Energy Star website, a typical load for an electric dryer costs you $0.30 to $0.45, so a line-dried load is money in your pocket, not to mention great exercise without a trip to the gym.
Sadly, some private communities ban clotheslines, seeing them as declassé. This has inspired some states, including Colorado and Vermont, to pass legislation protecting the right to line-dry clothes. Right on!
3. The locavore movement. I vividly remember a corn roast in my childhood where we built a fire next to a sweet corn field, put on a kettle of water, and only when the water was boiling, did we walk into the field and harvest the corn, which went straight into the pot. The flavor was exquisite.
It's that freshly picked flavor that has made eating locally grown foods so popular. Many people also trust the quality and purity of food they can buy directly from the person who grew it. Others value the higher nutritional content of food that hasn't been harvested early and shipped cross country. Still others do it to support sustainable farming practices, or to make sure their money gets to the farmer rather than percolating down from the chain retailer.
While standards that define what is local can vary from area to area, the thought that the food is grown in a nearby location by people you could meet, if you so chose, is important to many. Even though locally grown food is often more expensive, locavores find that it nourishes the soul as well as the body.
4. Rain barrels and cistern wells. When I want to water my garden, I hook up a hose, turn on a faucet, and out comes potable water that's been stored in the city reservoir, piped to the treatment plant, then piped miles to my house. When it rains at my house, the relatively clean rain water is gathered into storm sewers and piped to the river where it eventually ends up in a water treatment plant. This just seem wrong.
The solution that many have adopted is as old as a stone jug: the rain barrel or cistern well. By capturing rainwater and using it to water our gardens, we save money and reduce water waste. According to Healthy Landscapes, Americans use 40% to 50% more water during the growing season, and a rain barrel can save as much as 1,300 gallons of H20 each season. While care is needed to keep from contaminating your produce with bacteria, with proper cautions, this bounty can serve you all summer long.
Using tap water to water your garden is like wearing your best suit to soccer practice. Yes, it will work, but oh, the waste!
5. Disposable-razor sharpener, like the old-timey leather strop. Back in the days of the straight razor, a barber would use a leather strop (a flat piece of leather like a very wide belt) to put the finishing touches on a sharp blade. Today, however, we use disposable razors or razor cartridges with multiple blades, discarding them once they get a bit dull. For the ecologically-concerned, just the word "disposable" is enough to put a sharp edge on their conversation.
And disposable razors aren't cheap, either. The Gillette Fusion 5-blade cartridges retail for $3 or more. No wonder, then, that inventors have brought to market new devices that promise to hone the edge back on to these blades to extend their life. One example is the Razor Saver, from Sustainable Village, which promises to quadruple razor life. At $11.95, it could pay for itself very quickly.
If you really want to go old-school, you could return to the straight razor, although we bet you'd be surprised at the cost of a high-quality blade. Still, you'd be set if your child's school decides to put on the musical "Sweeney Todd."
6. Roundabouts and traffic circles. Since the 1950s, when traffic density in the northeastern U.S. began causing grave congestion, towns have been replacing old traffic circles with conventional intersections. Now, however, communities across the United States are moving in the opposite direction, converting to modern-style roundabouts to help drivers save gas and time and to lower the chance of an accident.
Traffic circles save time and gas by not requiring drivers to sit through a red light when there's no intersecting traffic. Studies have found they also reduce the number of collisions by 40% and serious accidents by 90% compared to the intersections they replaced. These statistics are explained by the advancements in roundabout design since they were first built in cities like Boston long ago.
Not everyone benefits from roundabouts, though. Studies have found an increased risk of accidents for bicyclists, mostly because cars refuse to yield to a bicyclist when entering the roundabout. They're also harder for pedestrians and the visually impaired to navigate.
Still, I've used them extensively in Europe and found them a great alternative to the four-way stops. This old idea is a welcome way to keep our drivers moving forward.
7. Streetcars. At one time, most of our major cities were served by streetcars, but the advent of the automobile drove them to the edge of extinction. Now, however, several trends are causing cities to bring streetcars back. These include the increasing popularity of living in the city core, especially among boomers; traffic congestion; and the need to add aesthetic appeal to the downtown areas in order to attract customers and conventions.
Towns like Portland have found great success in bringing back the bucolic above-ground street cars, integrated with other public transportation options like its MAX light rail. Last fiscal year, Portland's streetcars logged 4 million riders. The new Seattle system connects neighborhoods in town to offer car-free travel for work and recreation. Other towns like Kenosha, Wis., and Tampa, Fla. have also realized great success with their streetcar lines.
Now cities like Washington, DC, Miami, Atlanta, Omaha, Neb., and Winston-Salem, N.C., are aggressively developing streetcars, particularly when federal funding is available. And now that U.S.-built systems are available, this green movement might even add more jobs, and the kind of green you can fold, to the economy.
8. Glass baby bottles. For mothers who bottle-feed their young ones, the news that plastic bottles could leach bisphenol A, which mimics estrogen, into the liquid inside was terrible news. The result has been a major shift back to the traditional glass baby bottle. Despite their breakability, the bottles have more than a century of use to reassure concerned mothers.
Today's glass bottles evolved from the first "banana bottle," a banana-shaped glass bottle with a valve on one end and a teat on the other, which was introduced in 1894. These replaced the banjo-shaped feeder, a bulbous container with India rubber tubing and a rubber teat, which was hard to keep clean and accounted for many infant illnesses.
At the time when a child is most vulnerable, it's no surprise that parents are willing to look to the past, if necessary, to find a more healthy alternative to the plastic bottle.
9. Farmer's markets. After decades of office or factory work, many people who enjoy gardening as a hobby have turned this passion into that most alluring of occupations, the green job. They've used the growing popularity of farmer's markets to connect with locavores and others interested in fresh, local, and sometimes organic food to create a thriving business. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 5,274 farmer's markets in 2009, almost twice the number that were held just ten years ago.
Some of these same growers also participate in community-supported agriculture programs, where consumers sign up for a flat-rate, season-long weekly delivery of whatever fruits and vegetables are in season. As with farmers' markets, this echos the days when farmers grew produce on a standing order for locals vendors and consumers. Nothing says "green occupation" like a handful of rich, black soil.
10. Using sheep and goats to control weeds. Before there were riding mowers and Bush Hogs and herbicides, there were sheep and goats. And unlike the aforementioned, the sheep and goats not only kept weeds down but provided manure for the garden, wool, leather, and roasts for the table. In an era where we long to reconnect with the earth, reduce our dependency on technology and eat locally-produced foods, the use of the grazing animal to keep down weeds is a growing movement.
In fact, an Oregon business, Rent-A-Ruminant LLC, will even bring its herd to your location to clear brush. Similarly, Oregon's Montinore Estate winery uses sheep to mow between the vines.
Just don't let the kids (the human ones) get too attached to your new lawn care specialist, or you could end up with another pet to feed, which could cost you some green.
10 old-time products that make green and healthy sense today