Kate Ensign-Lewis - March 01, 2012
Small efforts in your home, room by room, can add up to big savings—for both you and the earth.
The earth could use a little relief. And every year around Earth Day - April 22, this year - we really think about what that means. Like many other corporations (and the Church itself), we at LDS Living make efforts to reduce our "footprint"; but we also know there are many more, individual things each of us around the world can do to lessen our impact on the earth. After all, as Henry David Thoreau said, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
With that in mind, here are some suggestions—small and large—that you can use to make your house a little greener. Some are suggestions to keep in mind as you think about replacing some of your worn-out items; others are measures you can take immediately.
What you’re looking at: detergents and washers.
Ever wonder why you can always smell when somebody is doing laundry? It’s because of all of the fragrances in detergent, fragrances which have been linked to everything from asthma to cancer. Fabric softeners are even worse for you and the environment, and have been found to contain neurotoxins. Instead of traditional detergents, try one of the many eco-friendly detergents, which sell for comparative prices and clean just as well, such as, Seventh Generation, Ecover, ECOS, and BioKleen brands. And stay away from fabric softeners altogether, which dull clothing color and prevent absorption anyway.
But what are you putting that detergent into? Invest in a front-loading washing machine as soon as you can. Most full-size washers of this kind use eighteen to twenty-five gallons per load, compared with forty gallons in conventional (top-loading) washers. Not only does this conserve, but it saves for you: you’ll use an estimated 7,000 gallons less of water each year. If you buy an Energy Star model, you will be using 40 percent less of water and energy for laundry. Today’s dryers, on the other hand, are the same as yesteryear’s; keep the one you have.
What you’re looking at: furniture and carpet.
What makes furniture eco-friendly, anyway? First off, companies trying to reduce their footprints, like Crate and Barrel, Green Culture, and IKEA, frequently use sustainable wood—or wood that comes from fast-growing forests (like bamboo, cork, and eucalyptus), wood from old buildings, and salvaged wood from streams and rivers. They also avoid varnishes that gas VOCs (volatile organic compounds), favoring instead finishes that use natural ingredients and pigments.
Eco-friendly furniture of comparable price to conventional furniture is available at many stores, including those well-known and lesser-known companies listed above. Just make sure to look for certification, something the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) can help you with at their website, fsc.org.
What your furniture sits on is equally important. Because even eco-friendly carpets can cause environmental concerns—partly because they hold on to dirt, chemicals, and mold so easily—sustainable wood and tile the best flooring options. (They’re easier to clean, too.)
If you do choose carpet, there are some useful guidelines to help your family and your environment. Consider everything: carpet, carpet pads, and installation. The carpet should be made of natural fibers (like wool—naturally flame retardant) or recycled materials, such as carpets made out of newspaper or plastic bottle fibers. For carpet pads, buy those made from wool, jute, or natural rubber, and when installing, favor tacks rather than chemical adhesives.
What you’re looking at: trash and fridge.
Trash is one of the most obvious ways we hurt our environment. From the plastic bags we toss it in to the amount we generate, it’s hard to know the earth’s condition and not feel guilty when you look at your nearest trash can. The first way you can resolve trash problems is to cut down: avoid buying foods that require a lot of packaging (pre-cut vegetables, fast food meals, etc.). Use towels, not paper towels; use food containers, not plastic bags. Doing these things will significantly cut down on your use of (and spending on) disposable items.
Next, if you live in an area that composts garbage, use bio-based trash bags, which can be composted. (You can find out about composting programs in your area by going to epa.gov.) If you live in one of the areas where trash goes to landfills—which are so air tight that even bio-degradable items can’t break down—buy recycled plastic bags. If you’re really ambitious, consider composting your own garbage (see sidebar).
The next place to evaluate is your fridge. Most homes waste energy and money on inefficient refrigerators. To avoid this waste, first look at the door: can you feel it catch and seal when you close the door? Next, look at the temperature; it should be between 38 and 40 degrees. To test this, put a thermometer in a glass of water inside the fridge. Finally, make sure to clean your coils every three months. Coils attract dust like a moth to a flame, which makes the fridge inefficient, wastes energy, and costs you money. Simply vacuum or use a wet sponge (after unplugging) to clean.
What you’re looking at: computers, electronics, ink cartridges, and paper.
Of all the rooms in the house that you’d like to make green, this is the most confusing. Most of the products constitute hazardous waste. You know to recycle your computer (don’t you?), but what about the other stuff?
You’re in luck. The folks at earth911.org have put together a database where you can find your nearest electronics recycler; you can also go to freegeek.org to find similar service. (For TVs, contact Best Buy or Office Depot.) Hewlett-Packard will also recycle electronic hardware for $13-$34, and they’ll recycle inkjet cartridges for free—you don’t even have to pay postage. Go to hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/recycle/ to order or print postage-paid envelopes. For non HP ink cartridges, go to Staples. (Note: before you recycle your computer, make sure all personal information is taken off the hard disk.)
Other than electronics, you also have all that paper. For this, follow the “reduce, reuse, recycle” program. While recycling is good, it is the least ideal option. Resources are still used and wasted in recycling, so first reduce your consumption; read that article on the computer instead of printing. Reuse what you can, and then recycle the rest. Then, look in the government section of your phone book for the City or County public works refuse department to find out about the local recycling programs, and find out where you need to take the paper. Sometimes it’s only as far as your curb.
What you’re looking at: toilets and soaps.
Toilet technology has boomed within the last few years, including waterless urinals and waterless composting toilets. Most airports have incorporated the dual-flush toilet, which uses 1.6 or 0.8 gallons of water to flush—depending on the type of waste—and reduces water usage up to 67 percent. The award-winning Coroma dual-flush is priced between $150 and $450 and virtually eliminates blockages with its four-inch trap. If you plan on keeping your conventional toilet, encourage your kids to use less toilet paper, at the very least.
Soaps in the bathroom also contribute to environmental problems, causing many of the same problems as laundry detergent. When buying eco-friendly soaps, look for specific claims (“paraben-free” vs. “natural”); avoid fragrances, antibacterials, and ingredients that sound manufactured. Burt’s Bees, Method, Kiss My Face, Aubrey Organics, and Green Ridge Organics offer good cleansers of comparable cost to conventional soaps and shampoos.
Aside from details, one of the best guidelines for creating a green house is to reduce what you use, reuse what you have, and recycle whatever is left. If we all turned down our thermostats by two degrees, we’d save an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil each day; if one of us just fixed our leaky faucet, we’d save roughly 3,000 gallons per year. With just small efforts (and hopefully more large ones), we can make our houses green . . . and we can make a difference.
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And for outside . . .
Composting recycles organic material (plants—including food—and manure); the recycled product is compost, or fertilizer. Because air is required for organic matter to break down, compost piles usually sit somewhere in your yard for the few months it takes them to break down. Here’s how to create your own:
Separate compostable items from your garbage to create “green waste” (visit epa.gov/wastes/conserve/rrr/composting/basic.htm to see what can and cannot be composted).
Gather 2 to 3 parts of green waste for every 1 part of brown-dry waste (dried leaves and soil).
Place composting material in an open pile (when you do it right, it won’t stink) or a container (plastic with air holes on the sides or a wood box with burlap on top).
Let it sit. The microorganisms in the brown waste will break down the waste and create the compost. If the compost isn’t breaking down as well as it should, buy a compost starter from your local garden center ($5 to $20). If it’s working, it will get very hot (about 150° F).
Stir the composting material around when it starts to cool or you notice it’s shrinking, which moves outer material into the middle where bacteria works best.
Spread it over your garden—the compost is nutrient-rich. Using this method, and depending on how much you want it to decompose, compost will take a couple months to break down. It will no longer heat when it has completely broken down.
© LDS Living, March/April 2012.