Many of us installed fluorescent lightbulbs long ago in order to lower our monthly utility bills, or we planted drought-resistance gardens to save on water. But, in truth, there's still a lot that most of us can do to make our homes, condos, and apartments more eco-friendly, while shrinking our carbon footprint. There's no better time to do it than in 2013.
Yes, you really should change those lightbulbs if you haven't already. You won't just save electricity, but also money because fluorescent bulbs last much longer than traditional incandescent ones (just don't throw the fluorescents in the trash when they burn out; they contain mercury). And while you're in an energy-saving mood, make sure you turn off your computer at night, or go one step further and unplug most of your appliances when you go to bed to save even more electricity. Tip: Plug several of your appliances into a single power strip, and then just turn off the strip. Check out your local Ace Hardware stores for plenty of choices (AceHardware.com).
To lessen your greenhouse-gas emissions even more, line-dry your laundry (if you can) or put on that extra sweater or fleece in the winter and turn down the thermostat to no more than 68 degrees during the cold months, and 60 degrees at night. And if your heater is more than a decade old, consider buying a new Energy Star-labeled efficient one; it will save money and energy. Same goes for your old refrigerator.
When cleaning up around the house, use natural/biodegradable cleaning agents. Many traditional cleansers contain nasty chemicals that end up fouling the bay and the ocean. If you're unsure of what brands to choose, check out Berkeley-based GoodGuide.com or Oakland-based Environmental Working Group (EWG.org); both have scientific reviews of household products. GoodGuide.com, which was created by UC Berkeley scientists, also will help you select the best environmentally friendly personal care products, including toothpaste, shampoo, and sunscreen. Once you decide what you want, head over to Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, or Farmer Joe's Marketplace; they all carry large selections of green products.
Nontoxic is also the way to go when painting your house — inside or out. A good rule of thumb is: If you open a can of paint and it smells like paint, it's probably full of toxic chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that cause respiratory illnesses inside your home and smog outside of it. To find out what paints are free of VOCs and other toxic chemicals, check out GreenSeal.org, Greenguard.org, or Eco-Label.com. Sherwin-Williams now also now has VOC-free lines of paint.
Furniture, Fixtures, & Flooring
If you're a regular Express reader, you probably know that your couch is toxic and has been since the 1970s — unless you bought one in recent years made of organic/natural fibers. All other couches, unfortunately, contain unhealthy flame retardants. But the good news is, California has changed its flammability standards to eliminate the need for flame retardants, so if you're thinking about buying a new couch, you might want to wait until late 2014 or early 2015 when toxin-free ones will be readily available on the market.
Couches aside, it's generally greener to buy used or antique furniture or furniture made from reclaimed or recycled wood. Check out Wooden Duck in Berkeley for an impressive selection of reclaimed-wood furniture (1823 Eastshore Hwy, 510-848-3575, TheWoodenDuck.com). But if you really must have new furniture, look for products made with sustainably grown wood; they'll have the FSC label (Forest Stewardship Council), which is roughly the equivalent of the organic or fair trade labels.
Buying used also makes sense for many household fixtures. The choices available at Urban Ore in Berkeley will blow your mind (900 Murray St., 510-841-7283, UrbanOre.com). Likewise, used clothing is far greener than new. But if you can't find what you need at used clothing stores, check out the GoodGuide.com ratings for new clothes that are the most environmentally friendly. Or, better yet, log onto OaklandUnwrapped.org for a list of outlets that sell locally made clothing and other items.
In general, floors made of sustainably grown or reclaimed wood are greenest. And whatever you do, stay away from vinyl flooring; studies show it contains a toxic stew of chemicals, including phthalates, organotins, and possibly even lead or cadmium. Likewise, rugs made of organic or all-natural fibers like hemp or cotton or grasses like jute or sisal are much better than traditional rugs and carpets that contain off-gassing chemicals.
Food & Water
If you're not already buying organic and sustainably grown food, you should for obvious reasons: They're much better for the environment. One of the least recognized environmental problems nationwide, however, is the massive amount of food we waste. Quite simply, people tend to buy much more than they need, and then end up throwing it away when it goes bad. In fact, food thrown in the trash is still the single largest contributor of waste in American landfills. For that reason, you can become instantly much greener by thinking twice before buying food in bulk quantities: Don't do it to save money, because you won't if you end up throwing some of the food away. Also, think about all the energy that went into producing the food in the first place.
Planting your own vegetable garden, of course, or homesteading with bees and chickens and other backyard critters, allow you to save money on groceries and you won't have to go to the store so often. Homesteading really isn't an option if you live in an apartment or condo, but if you have a terrace or porch, you can try installing a vertical vegetable garden, or if not, you can share in a community garden.
Residents of Berkeley and Oakland and other communities east of the hills already use substantially less water than our counterparts in other areas of the country. But we can always do more. If you own or rent a home, at minimum, plant California natives and other drought-resistant trees and shrubs. And if you're determined to have a lawn, don't overwater it. Your grass doesn't have to be emerald green during the summer dry season.
Inside your home, save water by taking quick showers or military-style ones (turn off the water when you're soaping up). Also, don't let the water run when washing dishes, and if you use a dishwasher, put it on the water-saving setting. For laundry, the most effective way to save water is to do fewer loads. Most of the time, you just don't need to wash those jeans after wearing them once.
If you're ambitious, you can install a rainwater reuse system, and use rainwater collected in the winter to water your shrubs in summer. Or better yet, connect your rainwater system to your toilet so you can flush it with rainwater rather than pristine mountain water from the Mokelumne River.
Think Small or Go Solar
Finally, one the best ways to go green is to live small — in a small home or an apartment or condo. When it comes down to it, you really don't need all that extra space. That's especially true if you don't have kids or if your children are grown up and have moved out. If you're in that latter category, downsize. Apartments and condos are greenest, because they typically require less energy to heat, have no gardens that need water, and are more likely to be near mass transit or job centers.
But if you have a large house and downsizing isn't really an option, then by all means go solar. The solar leasing options from Oakland-based Sungevity or the San Mateo-based Solar City make installing solar panels on your roof headache-free. You can do it with no down payment, and in many cases you'll break even or better each month because your new low electricity bill will offset your lease payments. Plus, both companies will maintain the system for you.