Top Six: Tips for Greening the Home
Green is such a buzzword these days that I often feel like if you just slap the word "Green" on a product or "Organic" on a food item then people will buy it, no questions asked. But what does “green” really mean, and how do we know whether it really makes sense?
There are two overarching reasons to be "green". First is of course to be friendly to the environment, leaving a smaller footprint so that Nature can do its own job, thereby leaving a better planet behind for our children. The second reason is to be kind to our own bodies, not introducing toxins into our own systems that can make us sick or cause future health problems down the line. Often people fall into one camp or another even though these two things should and do go hand in hand. I, admittedly, care more about the birds and bees outside then I do about myself (at least to a degree). I will happily snap into a Slim Jim while touting the benefits of composting your food waste (no, Slim Jims are not compostable). On the other hand, I know folks who would never buy a shampoo with parabens (see Amanda Storey’s article last week on green beauty products) and only eat organic, but don't bother to sort their recycling from their trash. In the end, nobody is perfect but a happy medium should be what we strive for when it comes to green for the future good vs. green for our own good.
When it comes to greening the home, the same general rules apply as with any other aspect of our lives. As much as we have heard the phrase "Reduce, Re-use, Recycle", how many of us have actually thought through the meaning of The Three R’s? Here is a quick guide.
- The best way to decrease our footprint is to reduce what we consume. In other words not using energy and raw products in the first place is the best way to be green;
- The second best way is to re-use things we already have;
- The third best way is to recycle the things we have already used (since recycling uses much more energy than re-using).
At home, we can follow these ideas as well, but to be more specific, here are some pointers that I like to follow when it comes to greening the home:
Go Vintage: This is a great example of re-using. A lot of people think that newer is better when it comes to furnishings, but that is a misconception. Often vintage furniture is built better than stuff we find now (or at least the vintage furniture that still exists was built well enough that it has stuck around). Vintage and second-hand furniture generally contains far fewer synthetic materials, and off-gassing of oil paints, lacquers and the like has already happened (which means it's healthier for you and your family too). Sure, you might re-paint or reupholster something old to breath new life into it but that certainly beats buying new when it comes to being green. And, if you think of re-using and going vintage from a broader standpoint, buying and renovating an old home is much greener than building something new from the ground up.
Use low-VOC paints: You may have read about this when you were pregnant and decorating a nursery, but from a health perspective, new paint and new carpet tend to be the worst offenders when it comes to VOC's (volatile organic compounds — those noxious fumes that are harmful to breathe). Most of the leading paint companies have low-VOC versions that make living with new paint much more pleasant and safe for you and your new baby. Ask your local paint store or painter to recommend a low VOC version of the paint you've selected. It might cost a few bucks more but if you have children in the house, it's definitely worth the added air quality.
Avoid wall-to-wall carpet: As I mentioned above, carpet tends to off-gas. The best way to avoid encountering the fumes and yuckiness in new wall-to-wall carpet is to avoid it altogether. Hardwoods and tile floors tend to be much greener. Plus, it’s far easier to clean hard surfaces, and avoid allergens such as dust mites which hide in carpet. You can add warmth to any home with area rugs, which tend to come in friendlier materials such as cotton and wool (versus nylon and olefin for many wall-to-wall options).
Introduce something really green: It's a known fact that house plants help clean the air. I'm not suggesting you go all seventies with macrame plant hangers and vines everywhere, but a strategically placed fern or fiddle leaf fig will make your house happier in general. Even cut flowers will help your house be and feel more green.
Lower your utility bills: Easier said than done, I know. Using less energy in the first place is definitely one of the greenest things we can do. A lot of regional power companies will come do an audit of your home and tell you how you can save on your utility bills. One obvious step is to replace boilers and water heaters and the like with more efficient, tankless units (which don't constantly heat up a giant vat of water that is not in use). Also, don’t underestimate the value of insulation, both installed and natural. If you're replacing windows, make sure you use tight, double paned windows. If you aren't replacing windows, consider your window coverings. Drapes work well as an insulative barrier to both cold and heat. Leave drapes wide open on a sunny winter day to take advantage of the sun and passive solar heating. Landscaping also influences insulation: deciduous shade trees planted near windows will keep things cool in the summer but after losing their leaves, allow the sun to warm your house on colder days.
Compost: Surprise fact: if you throw your organic food waste (think peels, rinds, fruit skins etc) into the trash with non-organic matter, they more than likely will not break down in the landfill. Composting is the best way to get rid of organic food and yard waste — and it makes for a fertile product that you can later use in your yard. Composting can be daunting for first-timers and those folks who aren't willing to get their hands dirty. But in truth composting is fairly simple and you really can't fail at it. I like to keep a silver composting bin in my kitchen. It has a carbon filter on top to keep in any unwanted smells. I empty it weekly into one of two composters in my yard. If you really don't have the space for even a small composter, you might be able to throw some of your food waste into your city yard waste bins (shhhh...I wouldn't go overboard but a few apple cores and lemon rinds won't be noticed in a pile of grass clippings) or even collect your compostable trash in a bag and throw it into the bin at your local Whole Foods.
Hopefully my little tips give everyone a place to start when it comes to greening the home. With so much greenwashing out there it pays to do your research (largely to avoid overpaying for things that use “Green” as a marketing tool!), but if you feel overwhelmed just remember that the Three R’s are the best place to start. And with spring around the corner, let's get out those worm bins, cut flowers, and low VOC paints and breathe some greenness into our homes.