Suburban Pioneers

The Adventures and Misadventures of Homesteading in 21st-Century America

T2T: the humble box February 2, 2014

The best fun is free!

The best fun is free!

Blocks are the best.  Forts, castles, roads, bridges, ramps, houses, train tracks, and hours of imagination can come from a good set of blocks, and toddlers seem to love the large sized blocks.

Sure.  You could buy these for $42.99.

You can find these blocks on Amazon from various sellers.  There are several different companies that make them.  These are from Smart Monkey Toys.

You can find these blocks on Amazon from various sellers. There are several different companies that make them. These are from Smart Monkey Toys.

Or you could just use what you already have in your house and are planning to recycle at some point anyway. It’s T2T (trash to treasure) in the best way!

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Little Bear discovered these building blocks all by herself in the grocery bags as we were putting things away. Voila! Instant fort.


T2T: Kitchen Containers September 3, 2013

T2T (Trash to Treasure) is a new series we’ll be featuring periodically to offer reuses for common household objects.


Today’s T2T Pick: Kitchen Containers (plastic tubs, wooden spoons, spice jars, metal camping dishes)–who needs to buy plastic sand toys when the old containers from your kitchen are more fun?!

Old camping dishes, plastic cups and bowls, sour cream containers, and a strainer are perfect for the park!

Old camping dishes, plastic cups and bowls, sour cream containers, and a strainer are perfect for the park!


Little Bear could play in the sand for hours!


T2T: Altoid Boxes August 28, 2013

T2T (Trash to Treasure) is a new series we’ll be featuring periodically to offer reuses for common household objects.


Today’s T2T Pick: Altoid Boxes (You don’t use crayons?  First of all, you’re missing out…but if you don’t have time to color, see if a preschool, church school, homeschool group, or kindergarten can use them!)

Perfect fit!

Perfect fit!


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This is how I reused them for our church kids!


Sarah: New(born) Reasons to Shop Secondhand July 10, 2013

Who wouldn't want to pick outfits for this cutie?

Who wouldn’t want to pick outfits for this cutie?

What follows is a parenting rant.  I know, I know.  This blog is about sustainability, but I really feel the need to post this.  For those of you out there who are wrinkling your noses, I promise to make it all connect in the end.


I’ve never considered myself to be super girly–no eyelash curlers or painted fingernails for me, thank you.   But then I found out I was expecting a little girl, and people started giving me all these adorable outfits.


Most of the outfits were pink, which at first I resisted.  After Little Bear was born, though, I could see the advantage of having an infant girl wardrobe that had lots of pink:  I didn’t have to worry about a diaper leaking poop onto the one pair of pants that matched her little yellow shirt because all of the pink matches.  Easy!  Even Keith can dress Little Bear in matching outfits when all of her clothes are pink.


But then she started eating solids.  And crawling.


Now I get it.  There is a gender bias in clothing.  I theoretically knew this from various readings in women’s studies, but now I’ve watched it play out, and it’s not just about color associations or stereotypes or emotional responses to certain colors.  Allow me to show you.


Figure 1: typical boy’s outfits

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.11.53 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.12.38 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.13.17 PM

(Pictures from Carter’s website, boys section)





Anyone see a theme?  These are all the color of grass and dirt.  We dress our boys expecting them to get dirty exploring, running, and playing.


Now, compare with Fig. 2: typical girl outfits

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.17.17 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.18.51 PM Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 10.19.34 PM

(Pictures from Carter’s website, girls’ section)







People, can you imagine what a romper like one pictured here looks like after an 11-month old crawls in it all day?



I realize I’ve selected certain examples–obviously, not ALL boys’ clothes are dark, bold colors, and not ALL girls’ clothes are light colors or white.  However, there does, in my experience, seem to be a definite trend.


This isn’t a revolutionary discovery on my part.  Of course our gender biases influence our responses to our children, but before I had Little Bear, I didn’t realize how ingrained those responses were…and how much they were based on what she was wearing.  I’ve begun to bite my tongue often.


“Don’t grab those raspberries!  Momma will feed them to you.”  “Don’t go off the sidewalk into the dirt!”  “Don’t touch that puddle!”  These are all things I’ve wanted to say in the past week, but I have restrained myself…though I know there are times I have let such no’s escape.


Should Little Bear be prevented from tactile exploration of the world just because I know that raspberry stains won’t come out of her light pink onesie?  I wonder how often we teach our little girls “don’t touch” and “do worry about what you’re wearing”?


I haven’t stopped dressing Little Bear in cute clothes, but I do have a rule: no clothes are sacred.  She shouldn’t miss out on crawling around on the floor with the boys just because her clothes are lighter colors than theirs.


The “no clothes are sacred” rule is helped by the fact that I hardly ever buy her new clothes.  Second-hand clothes are abundant, cheaper than new ones, and more environmentally sustainable.  Thanks to generous friends who give us hand-me-downs and awesome thrift stores, used clothing fills Little Bear’s drawers.  I don’t feel bad or make Little Bear feel bad about stains.


While cute clothing is fun, the utilitarian function is the most important!  Moreover, true suburban pioneering is about sharing, community, and preventing waste.  It’s a win-win!


Sarah: It’s Garden Time! April 24, 2013

Again, Colorado?

Again, Colorado?

My enthusiasm for dirt is brimming up again.  It happens every spring, but I’ve always made do with container gardens at our rental units.  This year is different, though.  This year, we own our own house, and I get a REAL garden, an honest-to-goodness, compost-filled, earthworm-lovin’ garden!


Or at least I will get a real garden as soon as Colorado decides it’s done with winter. We’ve had about 16 or 18 inches between the two storms this past week.


Seed Start Reuse: 1. Poke holes in the bottom of the egg carton for better drainage.
2. Fill with soil.
3. Plant seeds.
4. On nice days, set the tray outside to get sun.



It snowed for three days straight last week, and I almost climbed the walls after being cooped up for that long.  Our Little Bear, in fact, learned to climb the stairs (out of sheer boredom, I imagine).


I shouldn’t complain.  REAL gardeners, after all, rejoice at any winter moisture.  These snows are great for the two grape plants and one cherry tree we planted two weeks ago.  Also, some of you might remember the bad fires here last summer.  Any water now will help our drought and reduce fire risk.




So until the snow melts and our last average frost date comes (that’s May 15th, folks…don’t plant your delicate summer veggies before then), I will content myself with the small garden in the downstairs bedroom where our seed starts are drinking in all the humidity from the diaper laundry that’s hanging out to dry.


I’ve been cheering on the different plants as they come up.  The peas are early sprouters, apparently, real overachievers.  I can relate to that. I hope they don’t burn themselves out (I can relate to that, too).  The beets and corn have taken a bit longer, but they seem to be the competitive sort as they’re racing to catch up to the peas.  The tomato shoots are tiny and fragile, but they’re numerous, which is excellent, since it’s entirely possible I will inadvertently kill a few when transplanting.


I haven’t seen any sign of the bell peppers or acorn squash, but I’m hoping they are just late bloomers like me.

Also, an excellent reuse for clothespins!  Just label them with a sharpie.

Also, an excellent reuse for clothespins! Just label them with a Sharpie.

When the snow melts, I have big plans for killing my front lawn (see a future post) and working on a few raised beds for the back yard.  In the meantime, I’m hoping the earthworms are holed up cozily somewhere preparing for their big summer job in the garden!


Sarah: For Your Next Party… February 26, 2013

Fall Clothing Swap, 2011

Fall Clothing Swap, 2011

For your next party, might I suggest an instant crowd-pleaser?


It began in graduate school when I (and all my fellow grad students) were very poor (and, since we’re all now English graduates, we’re still poor, so the tradition has continued).  None of us could afford to buy new clothes.  I mean, we all rocked the thrift store fashions–like any self-respecting grad students–but after the first year of grad school, we were too poor even for thrift store prices (and have you SEEN the tags at Goodwill lately? $5.99 for a pair of pants?!).


Then a brilliant idea occurred to us.  If we just brought all those clothes we were tired of, the clothes that didn’t fit right, the shirts that were the wrong color, or the pants we’d bought meaning to lose 5 lbs., we could all have new clothes–for free!  And that’s how it started:


The Great Graduate Girls’ Garment Giveaway (hey, we’re English majors, folks; alliteration is apropos).

Cat Not Included in Swap

Cat Not Included in Clothing Swap


When we cleaned out our closets, we realized it was pretty amazing and distressing how many clothes we had that we didn’t want, need, or wear.  When we piled all of those clothes into one of our miniscule offices (and then crammed all of the graduate girls into that 6 x 6 foot space), not only did we have lots of fun, we really got to know each other better–nothing like seeing people’s castoffs and unmentionables to promote instant bonding!  Every person took home a few new things, and it was amazing how many of the things that didn’t fit me well perfectly fit one of my friends.


Now that I’m out of graduate school, I see no reason this gathering shouldn’t continue.  Some things have changed.  There are other wonderful friends involved (who also have clothes-trading traditions), and it’s called the Clothing Swap since only some of us are still in grad school.  Also, and very importantly, my friends and I now have actual jobs (or at least part-time jobs), so when we gather at someone’s house, we serve coffee and wine and dessert as we try on each others’ castoffs.


I highly recommend this form of entertainment, but I would issue a warning.  While wine (like unmentionables and castoffs) promotes bonding and hilarity, it also means that you might just come home with something you never imagined yourself owning…

the infamous tiger pants

The Infamous Tiger Pants


Sarah: 10 Common Products You Never Need to Buy February 4, 2013

reduce-reuse-recycle-4Trying to be eco-friendly? Much has been written in other places about how the recycling process itself has environmental consequences.  So what’s an aspiring environmentalist to do?  First, REDUCE!  Three R’s, remember?  If we just buy less, we’ve gone a long way towards being green.

Second, REUSE (a.k.a. repurpose)!  That might be why we’re thrift store junkies, but you don’t have to go Goodwill hunting to reuse.  Here are some simple things you can NOT buy but instead use common household items in place of.  And, on that note, I would like to dedicate this post to my Grandmother Elliott, who lives on in my memory as the most practical re-user I’ve ever known.  I like to think I’m channeling her thrifty spirit now and again.

10. Post-Its

How many pieces of paper with blank backs do you throw away or recycle each day?  And why buy special, oftentimes fluorescent paper (which can’t be recycled due to the heavy dye) when you can reuse paper with a tiny piece of tape?  I quarter my letter-sized sheets to reuse both at work and at home (I’m also the office fairy who hands out stacks of this paper to my colleagues).  Admittedly, this has caused some marital strife in our house when Keith tried refusing to pack and move to our new house a ten-inch high stack of quartered sheets that had once been drafts of my Master’s thesis. Fortunately, I packed it when his back was turned.   Now when he looks for a piece of paper, I say helpful things like,

“Wow.  It’s a really good  thing we have all this scrap paper handy.  So glad we moved it, huh?”

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

a funnel of the wide-mouthed variety

9. Plastic Funnels

How many plastic bottles do you toss every week?  Whether it’s a wide-mouthed juice bottle or a streamlined soda bottle, cutting off the bottom half of your plastic bottle produces a lovely funnel. I’m all about owning a nice metal funnel for canning and hot liquids, but if you’re going to buy a plastic funnel anyway, you might as well use some plastic you already have.

8. Microwavable Neck Pillow

My mother always had what she called the “Lonely Socks Club” sitting on the dryer, a repository for all of those singles to wait…and wait…to find their sole mates again.  But every now and then, it would become apparent that some of those lonely socks would never again be a pair.  If you, too, have a Lonely Socks Club, you have the casing for a microwavable neck pillow:  just add rice and herbs and tie off the sock with a piece of string.  No sewing is necessary, and you can congratulate yourself on having saved $14.99 you might have spent on Amazon.

oh, so many uses for this product

oh, so many uses for this product

7. Pet Fur Remover (brush or stone)

Our sure-fire method for removing cat fur from sofas, blankets, clothing, upholstery, carpet, and pretty much any other cloth surface is the magic of a rubber glove.  No, really.  Those rubber gloves that you have lying around for washing dishes can double as pet-fur removers.  Simply put on the glove and run it over the furry surface.  All the hair will clump together, and you can just pick it up and throw it in the compost–because pet fur is, in fact, compostable, as we have previously discussed (just make sure to get the really basic ones, not the ones with extra-lasting power or what-not…when they add extra plastic and stuff to make the gloves tougher, it decreases the fur-clumping abilities of the glove).

6. Travel Toiletry Containers


Reuse these and avoid buying more plastic!

Because we all need more small plastic containers in our lives…um, not really, no.  If you look around your domicile and in your purse or backpack, you’ll find you already have plenty of travel-sized containers: pill bottles, dental floss containers, hand sanitizer bottles, empty chapstick tubes or tubs, small plastic bottles, to-go dressing containers, empty spice bottles or jars, plastic containers for cake or ice cream sprinkles, plastic Easter eggs (come on, I know you hunted for those when you were a kid), jars of fingernail polish, small plastic containers with candy (M&M’s or Pez to name a few), tubs for face cream or other moisturizers, etc., etc.  When I travel overnight, I put the face wash in one side of an old contact case and the moisturizer in the other.  What’s that you say?  “Sarah, I don’t have any of these types of containers.  I live a plastic-free life!”  “Wow,” I respond, “Kudos for being more awesome than the rest of us.  But I’m pretty sure your neighbors or friends have some small plastic containers you can borrow.”

5. Rubber Bands

Each of these is reused--nothing new here!

Each of these is reused–nothing new here!

If you’ve ever bought produce at the grocery store, you have rubber bands.  They come around the green onions, the celery, the leeks, the asparagus, you know, things that are long and green.  However, if you never buy produce at the grocery store (I applaud your commitment to local produce or I question your healthy eating choices, depending on why you never buy produce), you can reuse those rubber gloves from #7.  When they are worn out from washing dishes or removing pet fur, just make a cut all the way across the wrist of the glove about an inch from the bottom.  Voila! A one-inch, heavy-duty, stylishly yellow rubber band (and you can make more than one rubber band from a pair of gloves…even a small pair yields at least three).  I learned this trick from my aforementioned thrifty Grandmother Elliott.  Thanks, Grandma!

4. Reusable Grocery Bags

Okay, I do buy these every now and then…as a tax on myself when I forget a bag.  In Europe, they charge you 10 pence/cents/pennies/pfenigs/whatever-you-call-it or so each time you have to use a plastic bag instead of bringing your own.  So if I forget mine, I buy a reusable bag because I figure I should have to pay for the resources I use.  BUT there’s no need to buy them on purpose because you don’t have enough.  You can reuse an old t-shirt to make a grocery bag…WITHOUT SEWING it.  There are two different methods, beautifully explained by our awesome friends at Trash Backwards: 1) The Upcycled T-Shirt Bag and 2) The No-Sew Hobo Bag (the English teacher in me loves the rhyming name of the second, but the time-limited crafter in me loves the first one and has made several).

3. Pet Poo Bags

Where all our bags go to die...

Where all our bags go to die…

Seriously, think about how many bags you already throw away or recycle: the bags inside your cereal box, the tortilla bags, the chip bags, the Triscuit or Cheez-It bags, the bread bags, the bag around your newspaper, the plastic packaging around your toilet paper, the bagel bag, the bag of lettuce…I could go on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned the obvious grocery bags or produce bags (because we really try not to ever get those–did you know there are reusable produce bags, too?).  Even if you, as we do, make a lot of your own bread or snacks, you still probably have way more bags than you want to admit.  So DON’T BUY SPECIAL BAGS FOR PET POOP.  Just don’t.  There’s absolutely never a reason to do so.

2. Cleaning Rags

We all like that virtuous feeling of cleaning out the closet and donating old clothes to Goodwill or the Salvation Army: “Ahhh.  My closet is clean, and I’ve helped the needy,” we think (perhaps a tad self-righteously).  However, I have worked in a thrift store before, and I’ve volunteered to sort things for many a donation center.  What I can tell you is that people donate the most awful, disgusting, and unusable garbage you can imagine.  They donate expired food to the Food Bank, sweat-stained clothing to the Goodwill, and broken toys to the Toys for Tots program.  Oh, yes, they do.  And if you think about it, you probably have done one of these things yourself.  My friends, if you are too grossed out to wear it, most other people will be, too.  There are places that you can donate old, stained clothes to farm workers spraying pesticides so that the clothing can be disposed of afterward, but some clothing with holes, you should reuse yourself as cleaning rags.  Really, there’s no need to buy cleaning rags when old t-shirts, boxers, and tank tops can be used to wash cars, clean bathrooms, and scrub floors.

1. Plastic Leftovers Containers

First, I try to be conscious of packaging.  Does the item come in glass, metal, or paperboard instead of plastic?  If so, I buy that.  Think of the few extra cents you might pay as an environmental tax of sorts.  Then reuse those glass containers for storing bulk foods, making yogurt, or holding leftovers (hey, glass is microwavable while plastic isn’t).  But when there is an item that does come in plastic and nothing else, keep the container.  For a kid’s lunchbox, for giving away food to friends and neighbors (I do a lot of this), or for freezing things, you might want plastic instead of your more versatile glass.  So save those cottage cheese, yogurt, and peanut butter containers to reuse!  You don’t have any of these containers?  That’s okay.  Your neighbor’s trash will yield plenty.  Just wait until nighttime to raid their garbage bin, or you might have some explaining to do!

Updated: Feb. 7 at 10:00 a.m.: Want more ideas?  Check out Trash Backwards’ new post: 10 Things You Should Never Have to Buy!  I challenge all of you to make and share your own top 10 lists of things to reduce and reuse.  If we all share our best practices, we can learn from each other!


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