Zen and The Art of Household Maintenence
How-To Green Your American Dream
Photo by Robert Grant
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Once upon a time, environmentalists were looked upon as holier-than-thou scolds, politically correct eco-police in vegan Birkenstocks extolling the virtues of their under-the-sink composters (worms optional) and bean-curd burritos.
Now, doing one’s part to save Mother Earth is not only de rigueur, it’s downright cool. Last year, Vanity Fair magazine gushed over the Method line of eco-friendly, sweet smelling, beautifully packaged cleaning products: “Method has made cleaning your shower as Zen an experience as yoga.”
As Zen as yoga? Well, not quite, but just 24 hours after I plugged in Method’s “air-care device,” I walked past the litter box and smelled “cut grass” instead of eau de kitty—a pretty Zen moment indeed.
Zen moments aside, there are plenty of things—simple things—that each and every one of us can do to make our world a better place. Sure, we already march to the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We’ve switched our incandescent bulbs for CFLs, bring our own canvas bags to the grocery, tote our recyclables to the curb, and just say no to junk mail and ATM receipts.
Ready to go the extra carbon-neutral mile? It’s time to rethink business as usual, redefine what’s important, and revise our buying patterns to have less of an impact on our Mother Earth. Here’s where to start your carbon diet.
Spray No Evil
If a cleaning product claims to disinfect or kill germs or bacteria, you can be sure it contains a registered pesticide. (Think about that the next time your toddler is crawling on the kitchen floor or Fido laps up crumbs off the counter.) Replace toxic cleansers at home and at work with eco-friendly products from companies like the aforementioned Method, Greening the Cleaning, Ecover, or Seventh Generation. Even some big-name brands are going green: Clorox recently launched Green Works, its first new brand in 20 years. These new products don’t contain bleach, but are made from coconuts and lemon oil, formulated to be biodegradable and non-allergenic, packaged in recyclable bottles, and not tested on animals.
Other cleaning products were green long before it became fashionable: Bon Ami is a biodegradable scouring powder; Murphy’s Oil Soap is a vegetable-based polish. You can find lots of green choices in your pantry, too. Plain old baking soda doesn’t just help baked goods rise, it also deodorizes drains, cleans countertops, and polishes stainless steel. Cream of tartar gets rid of stains on aluminum cookware (just fill a pan with water, add two tablespoons cream of tartar per quart of water, bring to boil, and simmer 15 minutes). White vinegar cuts through soap scum and is terrific on coffee, rust, and tea stains. Run it through your coffeemaker periodically to get rid of lime build-up or add half a cup to a bucket of hot water to mop floors. Cornstarch absorbs grease—just sprinkle on and wipe up the spill.
Ever wonder why so many cleansers are lemon-scented? It’s because lemon juice is a natural cleanser—the acid dissolves household grime. Use lemon slices or fresh lemon juice to cut through mineral deposits and tarnish or to clean rust stains around faucets and drains; mix half a cup of lemon juice with one cup of olive oil in a spray bottle for a naturally nice furniture polish. You can even speed-clean the microwave by placing a slice of lemon in a dish of hot water and zapping it until it steams, making it a cinch to sponge away grime.
To clean toilets, try pouring a cup of liquid chlorine bleach into the toilet bowl. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes, and scrub with a long-handled brush. (But never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia—or any household cleaner—it’s a killer combo).
Got clogs? Forget Draino or Liquid Plumber and try CLR Power Plumber. Instead of toxic chemicals, this is a can of compressed air with a gasket on top. You turn the can upside-down, fit the gasket on the drain, and push down on the can for one second while the air inside blows down. Presto: clean drains with a fresh lemon scent!
Reach for Recycled Paper Products
It’s not feasible to totally give up paper products, but when you grab Bounty, Scott, or Kleenex brand paper towels, you’re basically destroying virgin wood to mop up your messes. Switch to unbleached (or lightened without chlorine) recycled paper products, looking for those with the highest “post-consumer waste” content.
Marcal, Seventh Generation, or 365 (a Whole Foods brand), are good options. If every household in the U.S. replaced just one package of 100 percent virgin paper towels with 100 percent recycled ones, one million trees would be saved. Switch paper napkin and toilet-paper brands too and we’ve saved a veritable forest!
Smart Heating and Cooling
Think you have to invest a small fortune converting your home to solar or geothermal systems to get green energy? Think again. Consumers can choose 100 percent green electricity from both NYSEG and Con Ed—it costs about a penny and a half more per kilowatt hour (half that for 50 percent green energy) than traditional electricity. To switch, call your provider or visit nyseg
solutions.com or coned.com. While you’re at it, ask for a free audit to find hidden energy wasters. You can save up to 40 percent on your energy bills by sealing leaks, adding insulation, and tightening up ductwork.
If you heat your home with oil, switch to biofuel. It costs the same as regular oil (and may have tax incentives), is made from domestically produced renewable sources, creates fewer emissions than fossil fuels, and contributes virtually no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Other ways to reduce energy costs? Raise your thermostat in summer, lower it in winter to reduce energy use: you’ll save about three percent per degree. And if you use a ceiling fan along with the AC, it makes a room feel six or seven degrees cooler. A whole-house attic fan sucks all the hot air out of the home, making air conditioning more effective or, in many cases, unnecessary.
It may seem obvious, but we do it all the time: don’t heat or cool rooms you don’t regularly use. Adjust the thermometer when away from the house for extended periods of time. Insulate windows with acrylic energy panels, and use floor-length lined curtains to block drafts in winter and sunlight in summer. Seal outlets on exterior walls with foam insulators behind the faceplates of light switches and electrical outlets.
When big-ticket appliances need replacing, it’s a prime-time opportunity to go green. Look for the Energy Star, which connotes energy efficiency. Since the Environmental Protection Agency started the Energy Star program in 1992, emissions equivalent to those of 25 million vehicles have been cut and $14 billion in energy costs saved. For washing machines, the front-loading models have the best overall performance, according to Consumer Reports, and can reduce water consumption by up to 25 percent. Use cold water instead of warm or hot for added savings.
Replace high-volume toilets (pre-1994) and consider automated faucets in kitchens and baths. (Look for fixtures with the new WaterSense labels to find models that use the least amount of water.) For about $50 more than a standard low-flow toilet, you can get a low-flow dual-flush toilet by Kohler or Toto that allows you to select between two flow amounts—one for liquids and another for solid waste. It can shave about $20 to $30 a year off your water bill.
Install low-flow showerheads and faucets if yours predate 1992 to reduce overall water consumption. Or, if you don’t want to change the fixtures, simply add aerators, which screw on to the end of the faucet, mixing air with water. They don’t affect water pressure, but will reduce the flow.
When it comes time to replace your conventional hot water heater, buy a tankless model, which only heats the water that you use (you’ll save on fuel and never run out of hot water again). In the meantime, wrap your conventional unit in an insulated jacket. It can reduce water-heating costs by 25 percent.
Detox Your House
When remodeling, make sure you choose formaldehyde-free building materials, PVC-free wallpapers and blinds, and low- or zero-VOC paints. Brands to look for include Christopher Peacock Paint, Anna Sova, YOLO Colorhouse, American Pride, BioShield, AFM Safecoat, the Eco Spec and Aura lines of Benjamin Moore, and the new non-toxic Mythic Paint (see page 23). American Blinds, Wallpaper and More now offers lots of eco-friendly products, including a new line of Graham & Brown wallpaper that is made from recycled material or sourced from managed forests. Its Easy Walls line is pre-pasted, washable, vinyl-free, and fully breathable.
For carpets, natural fibers like organically grown cotton, sisal, sea grass, jute, or 100 percent sustainable New Zealand wool are the greenest choices. If you do buy conventional carpet, ask the store to have it rest outdoors or in an open area for a day or so to release some of the toxins. Use tacking strips instead of glue for installation and keep windows open and the room well ventilated for as long as you can smell the carpet’s odor.
For non-carpet flooring, consider natural linoleum, cork, or bamboo, and recycled glass or porcelain tiles. Consider these brands: EcoTimber and Plyboo (bamboo), Expanko (cork and recycled rubber tiles), Marmoleum (linoleum from linseed oil, pine rosin, and pine floor), Restoration Timber (reclaimed wood), Vida and Cortica (cork planks and tiles), and Vida Grandis (tropical hardwood made from Argentine eucalyptus). Leather, too, can be used on floors, walls, and even crown moldings.
Go natural, too, when buying new home furnishings. Instead of endangered teak, choose wicker, made from fast-growing willow reeds. On a budget? Even Ikea has jumped on the green bandwagon with its PS collection with storage cones made from recycled paper and plastic and cushions hand embroidered by Indian cooperatives.
Upscale designers and manufacturers Phillip Jeffries, Mitchell Gold, and Odegard are using hemp (which requires little or no pesticides in farming) in everything from wall coverings to upholstery to carpets. Indika Organics Malabar and Valley View Collections use hemp for their fabrics, ideal for chairs or drapes. Angela Adams Sustainable Collection for Architex features fabrics made from 100 percent recycled polyester and Sam Kastens’ new Twill Textiles collection incorporates Climatex fibers, wool-based biodegradable fibers.
Want to be mindful when it comes to kitchen design? Instead of particleboard cabinets, which have toxic resins and are made from timber products, look for Kirei (KireiUSA.com) and wheat-board panels made from sorghum stems and reclaimed agricultural fiber respectively; Medite II, a medium-density fiberboard bound with formaldehyde-free resin (EarthSourceWood.com); and Varia and Organics, resin panels from recycled industrial material and hand-dyed banana fibers respectively (3-Form.com).
Building a green home is more cost effective than remodeling green—just three to five percent more than traditional methods versus five to 15 percent. A 2007 survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) showed that home buyers would be willing to spend nearly $9,000 more for a house if it could cut their utility bills, so it makes sense to explore your eco-options.
A geothermal system is the gold standard of energy systems, taking the heat out of the earth (which stores it at a constant temperature of 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) and sending it directly into your home. In summer, the process works in reverse, drawing heat out. You will still need electricity to power your home.
Despite Westchester’s periodic gloomy weather, we are surprisingly well situated for solar power, producing about 90 percent of the electricity that California panels do. With rebates and tax credits covering roughly two-thirds of the cost, solar panels are a much more affordable way to cut your electric bills than you might think. (NYSERDA.org and solarelectricpower.org both list recommended contractors.) While radiant heat initially costs about 25 percent more than a forced-air system, it makes up for that over time with lower energy costs. Added bonus—no more cold tootsies!
There are other considerations that can be helpful for earth-conscious building. Windows should have a low E coating, which reflects heat, keeping it out in the summer, in during the winter. For roofs, choose light-colored shingles over dark ones; studies show the lighter ones cut AC use by up to 40 percent. Enviroshake is a roofing material that looks like cedar and costs about the same, but it’s maintenance free and made of 95 percent recycled or reclaimed materials. The manufacturer claims that it won‘t rot, warp, crack, or blister, and is resistant to hail, mold, mildew, and insects—and it backs up the product with a 50-year, non-prorated, and transferable warranty. RoofRoc is recycled plastic and limestone that looks like slate.
We love the look of granite and marble in our kitchens and baths and, heaven knows, these are natural materials. But they must be removed from the earth and transported long distances, making for a mighty big carbon footprint. Consider countertops made of recycled paper, glass, or porcelain that are both attractive and green.
The Great Green Outdoors
Do your drive around town with a muddy Prius because you hate to waste the H²O? There’s no reason to use water anymore to wash your wheels. Just spritz on Eco Touch Waterless Car Wash ($9.99) and rub off dust and dirt. (The company also has a green clean car kit for $39.99, complete with eco-friendly cleansers for the dashboard, carpet, and upholstery, as well as a metal polish.) If you opt to clean your car the old-fashioned way, consider parking on the lawn, so soapsuds can filter through the earth.
When it comes to the great outdoors (or a small yard), buy drought-resistant shrubs and grass that only need to be cut once a month rather than once a week (check out NoMowGrass.com). A water-sipping drip irrigation hose instead of sprinklers eliminates wasted water. Mulch around shrubs and flower gardens to suppress weeds and preserve moisture.
If you’ve got a pool, instead of that nasty old-school chlorine, how about a salt-water or solar-ionized pool? And, for goodness sake, cover it when not in use—you’ll save about 1,000 gallons of water a month due to less evaporation.
Finally, if you use compost to fertilize your garden, heed this: indoor composters have definitely improved their profile. The NatureMill model fits under the sink or any standard-size cabinet, has a powerful carbon filter that kills even a hint of odor, and can turn 60 pounds of food waste or junk mail into rich, loamy, compost for your garden in just two weeks. Turning garbage into black gold, now that is Zen indeed.
Nancy L. Claus is a features editor at Westchester Magazine and frequently writes about home décor and gardening.
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