Green Home Checklist: Room-by-Room Steps We Can Take, Starting Right Now
Mar 14, 2012 10:58AM
● By Crissy Trask
Green living is being embraced by more folks than ever, in ways both large and small, giving the Earth some much-needed kindness. If you’re interested in some good ideas that fall between a total home solar installation and basic recycling—with many delivering big impacts—check out Natural Awakenings’ room-by-room green checklist. You’ll find inspired, practical changes that are doable starting right now.
The kitchen can be a hot spot for waste. Eileen Green, with EcoEvaluator.com, says that reducing waste, conserving water and increasing energy efficiency are all important considerations within an environmentally friendly kitchen.
Eat up food. Each year, a typical household discards an estimated 474 pounds of food waste, according to University of Arizona research—at large economic and environmental cost. Buying more fresh food than we can eat before the expiration date is up and allowing leftovers to expire in the fridge are culprits. “Drawing up menus and avoiding buying on impulse can help,” advises Green.
Compost food scraps at home or sign up for curbside composting, if it’s offered locally. Disposing of food in garbage disposals or landfills is not environmentally sound.
Dispense with disposables. Replace disposable paper and plastic products with durable, lasting alternatives: cloth napkins instead of paper; dishwasher-safe serving ware instead of single-use paper or plastic; glass or recycled food storage containers in place of throwaway plastic bags and wrap; and natural fiber dishcloths to replace paper towels and plastic sponges.
Clean naturally. Chemical powerhouses have become the norm in household cleaning products, but they are not essential. Non-toxic cleaners are up to the task, from cleaning a sink to an oven.
Shop for the Energy Star logo. Appliances bearing the Energy Star logo are up to 50 percent more energy efficient than standard ones. This translates to significant savings in annual operating costs.
Filter water with less waste. Bottled water is expensive and wasteful. Instead, purchase a home-filtering system that uses recycled or reusable filters. On the road, carry tasty filtered water in a reusable glass bottle.
Conserve water. Run dishwashers only when fully loaded and fill the sink with water, rather than running it down the drain, when washing by hand. Use water only to wet and rinse; otherwise turn it off.
Phase out non-stick skillets. Teflon coatings can leach toxins when damaged or overheated. Play it safe and begin assembling a set of cookware that includes properly seasoned cast iron, which is naturally non-stick.
Avoid cheap reusable shopping bags. Flimsy reusable bags end up as trash within a few months under normal use. Buy a set of high quality reusable bags that will give years of use.
“Most people spend more time in the bedroom than in any other room of the house,” remarks Huffington Post EcoEtiquette columnist Jennifer Grayson. “So it’s important to focus on making bedrooms as green and healthy as possible.” She advocates paying special attention to sleepwear, bedding and furniture people sleep on.
Start with a good foundation. Box springs can be constructed of plywood or particleboard, which commonly contain formaldehyde, classified as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a toxic air contaminant by the state of California. Choose those that have been certified as formaldehyde-free or with low emissions. A platform bed made of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, sourced from sustainably managed forests, is a healthy alternative.
Don’t sleep on a cloud of chemicals. “If your face is pressed up against a conventional mattress for seven hours a night, then you’re going to be breathing in whatever chemicals are off-gassing from that mattress for seven hours a night,” warns Grayson.
Find more big ideas in Natural Awakenings’ article, “Spring Green Rehab.”
Mattresses are commonly treated with fire-retardant chemicals to comply with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission rules. To avoid toxic chemicals like the hydrocarbon toluene, emitted from mattresses stuffed with polyurethane foam, instead look for untreated, wool-covered mattresses (wool is a natural fire retardant) filled with natural latex or containing a spring system wrapped with organic cotton batting.
Non-organic cotton production relies on lots of hazardous synthetic chemicals in its production. Organic cotton, linen and wool bedding are safer bets, especially when certified to meet strict environmental standards.
Block the afternoon sun. During the day, shut off air-conditioning vents inside bedrooms and block the afternoon sun with interior or exterior solar shades. By day’s end, even in warm climates, bedrooms should be cool enough for sleeping with the addition of a slight breeze from an open window or a slow-running floor or ceiling fan.
Go wireless. It’s impossible to completely avoid electromagnetic radiation from today’s technologies, so lower exposure in the bedroom by removing wireless devices and placing electrical items at least five feet away from the bed.
Forget fabric softeners. Most fabric softeners contain highly toxic chemicals that latch onto sheets and can be inhaled or absorbed directly into the bloodstream through skin. Instead, add a quarter-cup of baking soda to the wash cycle to soften sheets and other laundry.
Leave the lights off. Motion-detecting nightlights save energy while allowing safe passage in the wee hours.
In a typical U.S. home, the washing machine accounts for 21 percent of home water use and combined, the washer and dryer comprise 5 to 8 percent of home energy demands. Diane MacEachern, founder of BigGreenPurse.com and author of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World, explains that a good way to conserve key resources is to use these appliances less—reducing the number of loads and drying items on outdoor clotheslines or indoor racks.
MacEachern says, “You can probably wash things like sweatshirts and blue jeans less frequently without much consequence, and a clothesline requires no energy other than the sun.” Also, make sure that whatever goes into the washer or dryer with clothes is nontoxic, or else you’ll be wearing toxic chemical residues next to your skin all day, cautions MacEachern.
Select cold water. On average, only 10 percent of the energy used by a clothes washer runs the machine; the other 90 percent goes to heat the water. The typical American household does about 400 loads of laundry each year, resulting in much energy squandered on hot water. With the exception of laundering greasy spots or stubborn stains, routinely wash in cold water, using a cold-water eco-detergent.
Install a clothesline. Running a dryer for just 40 minutes can use the energy equivalent of a 15-watt, compact fluorescent bulb lit for a week. Stretch out a line and hang clothes outside to dry in the fresh air to save about $100 a year on electric bills. The sun imparts a disinfectant benefit as a bonus.
Replace an old machine. A washer or dryer that is older than 10 years has hidden costs. EnergyStar.gov notes that an older machine uses more energy and can cost from 10 to 75 percent more to operate than a new, high-efficiency appliance.
Choose eco-friendly laundry products. Conventional laundry soaps contain chemicals that can be problematic for us and wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. Look for cold-water brands that are fragranceand phosphate-free.
Switch to concentrates. Concentrated detergents translate to less energy used in shipping, less waste and more value.
Stop static cling without dryer sheets. Never over-dry clothes and always dry natural fibers separately from synthetics to prevent static cling.
The smallest room in the house is a disproportionately large contributor to household environmental impacts. In an average non-conservation-minded American home, 38,000 gallons of water annually go down the drains and toilet. “Along with that water,” says MacEachern, “You’ll be washing lots of personal care and cleaning products down the drain, as well, where they could get into local natural water supplies and make life difficult for birds, frogs and fish.”
Sara Snow, television host and author of Sara Snow’s Fresh Living: The Essential Room-by-Room Guide to a Greener, Healthier Family and Home, cautions against personal skin care products with questionable chemical ingredients. “A good percentage of them are being absorbed right into our bloodstream, so focus on ingredients that do no harm; ones that help our bodies instead, such as nourishing and healing botanicals.”
Slow the flow. Ultra-efficient showerheads use as little as 1 gallon per minute (gpm); aerated types that mix air into the water stream to enhance pressure provide a good soak and rinse using less than half the water than some other low-flow showerheads. At the sink, aerators should flow between 0.5 and 1 gpm—plenty of pressure for brushing teeth and washing hands.
Flush responsibly. According to the EPA, the toilet alone can use 27 percent of household water. Replace older toilets (pre-1994) with new, higher efficiency models for savings of two to six gallons per flush.
Heat water wisely. A tankless water heater supplies instantaneous hot water only as needed. Or, install a timer on a traditional water heater to cut warming time to a few hours a day at most.
Shun a plastic shower curtain. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has been called “the poison plastic” for its highly toxic lifecycle, which includes the release of dioxins into the air and water. These toxic chemicals persist in ecosystems and can cause cancer.
PVC shower curtains are also a short-life product that cannot be recycled, so switch to a PVC-free alternative. Organic hemp is the eco-shower curtain gold standard.
Ban antibacterial products. Triclosan is a popular antibacterial agent found in many household cleaners, hand soaps, cosmetics and even toothpaste. It’s also a registered pesticide and probable human carcinogen that’s showing up in the environment and children’s urine. The Mayo Clinic suggests that triclosan may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant germs and harm the immune system, making us more susceptible to bacteria.
Install a shower filter that removes chlorine. Chlorine, which is increasingly being linked to some cancers, is used by many municipalities to disinfect water supplies. People absorb more chlorine through the skin and by inhaling chlorine vapors when bathing and showering than from drinking it.
Use recycled and unbleached paper products. Using recycled bath tissue helps close the recycling loop on all the paper we dutifully recycle at the curb. Unbleached varieties keep chlorine byproducts like dioxins out of the environment.
Remove bad odors instead of covering them up. In a University of California study, chemical air fresheners were found to have higher concentrations of polluting volatile organic compounds (VOC) than any other household cleaning product. Long-term exposure to some VOCs have been linked with adverse health effects.
This Natural Awakenings checklist suggests steps that are possible in making any home healthier, safer and more enjoyable. Start checking off items today and begin shrinking the family’s ecological footprint right away.
GREEN UN-ROOM CHECKLIST
by Crissy Trask
Kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms earn the most attention in greening up our homes, but what about the miscellaneous spaces? Attics, garages, closets and entry halls can get overlooked, although they also yield benefits from some green-minded attention. Here are tips for the most common “un-rooms” to get the ball rolling.
• Empty the car of extra weight and optimally inflate tires to improve gas mileage by up to 5 percent.
• Replace poisonous windshield wiper fluid with a make-it-yourself solution that combines seven cups of distilled water, one-half-cup isopropyl alcohol and one-half-teaspoon ecodishwashing liquid. Properly dispose of old wiper fluid in a boldly labeled container at a hazardous waste center.
• Clean with a broom instead of a hose to save water.
• Install a whole-house fan to pull warm air out of the attic, keeping rooms below cooler.
• Blanket the attic with a reflective heat barrier to reflect heat before it has a chance to enter.
• If the tops of floor joists above the insulation are visible, EnergyStar.gov recommends adding more insulation until they are no longer visible when viewed at eye level.
• Leave shoes, along with allergens and dirt, at the door for a healthier home.
• Reduce unwanted mail by opting out of catalogs, credit card and insurance offers and Direct Marketing Association-member mailings at CatalogChoice.org, OptOutPrescreen.com and DMAChoice.org, respectively.
• Doormats made from recycled plastic soda bottles keep millions of them from entering landfills.
• Get organized with bins and shelves made from recycled plastic, reclaimed wood, salvaged and repurposed items, formaldehyde-free plant-based boards or Forest Stewardship Council certified wood.
• Shop for local, previously owned clothes and accessories from consignment boutiques, thrift stores or a local clothing swap.
• Slip into some vegan or Earth-friendly shoes; there’s a lot more to choose from than hemp sandals.