Dear Earth Matters: A lot of things about the environmental movement don't make any sense to me. For instance, here's one that really bugs me: cloth napkins vs. paper. Paper napkins represent an infinitesimal fraction of our paper use -- and bulk. Cloth napkins, well, one little dab of your lips, and boom, back into the laundry. A lot of water and energy and detergent just to wipe spaghetti off your face. So how can it be better to use cloth napkins?
Dear Reader: I'm so glad you asked. My distinguished colleague, Miss Manners, probably should respond to your query, since it strays into the field of etiquette, which is not my strong suit. But I'll do my humble best. In order to use cloth napkins frugally, environmentally, you must have a napkin ring for every member of the household. You can use silver napkin rings with engraved initials (preferably those of some illustrious ancestor, but if not, lie) or you can commission your 10-year-old to produce lumpy masterpieces from clay.
The main thing is everyone must be able to distinguish his or her own ring. Then, at the end of the meal, you give your napkin a delicate shake, roll it up, and stick it back in your napkin ring to use next time. You keep using your napkin, covered with your germs and kept in your napkin ring, until you determine that it really MUST be washed. For some of us, this will be sooner than for others. In this way, most cloth napkins can go for almost a week before washing.
What about guests? People joining you for just one meal don't warrant a napkin ring, and their napkins must be washed after a single use. But you could keep a couple of extra napkin rings for house guests. Introduce them to their own napkin rings at your first meal together, and explain your custom.
Dear Earth Matters: I recently purchased by mail some automatic dishwasher detergent that I'm unsure about, and I hope you can help. I'm a big proponent of using products that have not been tested on animals, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) offers a cruelty-free, "environmentally safe" automatic dishwasher detergent.
Before I opened the package, however, I read the ingredient panel, which states: sodium carbonate, non-ionic surfactant, acrylic polymer, sodium silicate, sodium sulfate, isocyanuric acid, sodium tri-poly phosphate.
Once I saw the word phosphate, alarms went off in my head. Are all phosphates undesirable? Should I return this product and complain about misleading claims?
Dear Reader: Yes. Detergents, in general, are not terribly environmentally unsafe, when used in water connected to a septic tank or city sewage system. The one ingredient of environmental concern is phosphates. This stuff acts as fertilizer in fresh water. It causes excessive algae growth that can choke a lake or stream, robbing it of oxygen as it decays, and suffocating fish and other forms of aquatic life. Because of this very serious problem, phosphates are banned from laundry detergents in many states (including Maryland). They are still heavily used in automatic dishwasher detergents, however.
It seems to me that the only valid reason to claim an automatic dishwasher detergent is "environmentally safe" would be if it excluded phosphates, unlike most of its competitors. By all means, send it back with a letter indicating your distress.
Dear Earth Matters: Is there a safe and environmentally correct way to clean cutting boards? After cutting chicken on my cutting board, should I use a disinfectant? I know they're not supposed to be great for the environment, but will we get salmonella if we don't disinfect?
Dear Reader: Salmonella contamination of our food -- especially chicken -- is a serious problem. Huge numbers of people get sick from it every year, often by cutting contaminated chicken on a cutting board, then not cleaning the board adequately. What is adequately?
Hot soap and water and a good hard scrub is the best antidote to salmonella and other bacteria, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The idea is that the mechanical action of scrubbing is what really does the job. The Cooperative Extension Service's official word is much more conservative: Wash your cutting board with a clorox bleach solution.
Remember to wash up right away if you're cutting chicken or meat. If you have a dishwasher, wash the cutting board in there. The very high temperatures should finish off the bacteria. And consider buying one of the new, non-skid nylon or plastic cutting boards and reserving it for chicken, fish and meat. While wooden cutting boards are fine for bread and fruit, the tiny grooves cut into them by your knife make ideal habitat for bacteria -- dark and moist.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Earth Matters -- on recycled paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)