By Barbara Kessler and Julie Bonnin
Green Right Now

Tis’ the season to be…conservative? Afraid so. As the economic downturn and the need to better care for our planet converge into a new aesthetic, we are facing an unusual holiday season. We can show we care with holiday gifts that help us all to consume less.

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This might seem the antithesis of consumerism, too bah humbug to be any fun. But we think you’ll see that we’re talking about smarter consuming; buying durable goods that cut out the disposables, forsaking chemical-laden items and making some of your own stuff, whether its soda or energy. Read on:

The Sodastream Penguin – make your own soda, bypass plastic bottles

We admit we were easily sold on the idea of making our own soda because it cuts down on plastic proliferation. Even a family that recycles #1 and #2 beverage bottles, could reduce their carbon imprint by cutting out the purchase of petroleum-based plastic bottles.

So the key question was not whether the Sodastream Penguin was environmentally friendly, but did the thing work? (And would it be a cool gift?)
We eagerly set up the inaugural trial at the kitchen table. The 13-year-old did the honors — and let’s face it, figured it all out quicker than his elders would have. But then as our most avid soda consumer he was the most motivated.

Turns out that making one’s own bubbly is no more difficult than making chocolate chip cookies, and a good bit quicker. After loading the carbonation canister inside the appliance, you fill the glass carafe with tap water and lock it in on the opposite side of Mr. Penguin; a couple pushes on the button, a whistle, and you’ve carbonated the water. Add flavoring and you’ve got soda. We tried several of our sample flavorings over the next two days, finding that we liked Lemon Lime and Root Beer the best.

However – and here was the biggest stumbling block – we didn’t like the extra sweet taste or aftertaste of the sucralose that had been added to even the regular drinks. Perhaps we were a skewed lot because we avoid faux sweeteners such as aspartame and Splenda and are unaccustomed to the taste of sucralose. A spokeswoman for the company told us that the sucralose is less bulky than sugar, and that’s why it’s added. But whatever the reason, we found its inclusion to be not so refreshing.

Happily, the Lemon-Lime, Orange and Berry all-natural flavor essences that Soda Club sells do not have any sucralose baggage. They are not sweetened and add just a hint of flavor to make a fun seltzer. The flavor and the fizz was as good as we’d been buying, and this being our drink of choice anyway, we began churning out carafes of these sparkling waters. The economics of this look pretty sweet, actually: Each small bottle of essence makes 40 liters of flavored seltzer, meaning that a variety three pack (retail $9.99) would make 120 liters, enough to hold our family for months. Add about $25 for the cost of carbonating the water for those 120 liters and you’re talking about 30 cents a carafe, not counting the overhead cost of the machine. (I’m not sure how to amortize that.)

Picture too the environmental savings of 120 plastic bottles subtracted from the waste equation, or about four recycle bins that your family didn’t fill.

Which reminds me. Those carbonation canisters do not go in the trash! You send them in to be refilled at a cost of about $12.50 per canister. (See the Soda Club website for details.) A word about the carbonation: Home soda makers have received mixed reviews on the consistency and durability of their bubbles. Consumer Reports, though, found that homemade soda held its carbonation for 10 days in the refrigerator just as well as the manufactured controls.

And we discovered another healthier drink to make, celebratory sparkling juice. Just mix juice with the seltzer. We’ve found it’s best to use grape juice, which could stand to be diluted anyway, or real juice concentrates, sold in many health food markets. Our kids have come to expect their bubbly at holidays (in wine glasses of course), and now that we have the Penguin, they can make their own varietals!

So if you’re looking for a “conservative” gift that’s also got pizazz, no easy trick, the Penguin should make a splash.The Penguin retails for $199.95 (and includes a starter pack of 2 60-carafe carbonators and two glass carafes). It is available at Williams Sonoma stores, and online at the Sodastream store.
A soda maker called the “Design” is available at Sam’s Club stores for $79.99, with a starter carbonator and two BPA-free reusable bottles.