OK, St. Louis, here are the facts: Missouri is behind on renewable energy and climate-change policy, our per-person carbon dioxide emissions are the fifth highest in the country, and we are ranked among the dirtiest ten percent of all counties in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency. We all know we're supposed to stop buying plastic bottles, start recycling, driving fewer miles, and taking shorter showers. We hear about being and living "green," but the solutions seem to be time-consuming ... and expensive.
In fact, greening your life can save you money (though, we admit, some of the suggestions below require a time investment). Instead of burying you with a generic list of ways to change your life and better the environment, assuming they're applicable to each individual situation, we've broken up our tips to suit your schedule as well as your budget.
The Quickest Fixer Uppers
Making your home environmentally friendly does not have to interfere with your workweek, driving the kids to camp, or even your Monday night House viewing. Pick a week this summer or fall, and use it to implement a program of these eco-friendly quick fixes.
Turn off the lights whenever you leave a room. Lights, however, are not the only problem. All of the appliances we use—from alarm clocks, laptops, toasters and coffee makers, to shavers, hair irons and blow dryers—suck energy all day long. The solution? Install surge protectors for every room in your house, and you'll only have one switch to press in the morning when you leave the room. For those with back problems, there are surge protectors that turn off with a foot switch, or that clamp onto furniture (belkin.com). There are also compact styles that conceal cords, keeping a room clean and orderly; find them at Home Depot, Sears, Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Staples.
Install those "curly light bulbs." Compact fluorescents will save you money by paying for themselves in about six months. You've probably heard about them from your kids' school science projects or from commercials; they use 75 percent less energy and have a 10,000-hour lifespan. Get your family to help and spend an hour or two one weekend buying and replacing your household light bulbs—the price of CFLs has down considerably since they were first introduced to the market, and they're available from Home Depot, Best Buy, IKEA, Lowes, and Sears, just to name a few.
Get with the program. We like the pleasures of not having to wear a jacket in the winter, or cleaning the house without sweating in the summer. The good news is you don't have to sacrifice comfort for the environment—just buy a programmable thermostat. Come home to a comfortable temperature, not a high electricity bill, by setting your thermostat to turn off when you leave in the morning, and come on 30 minutes before you come home in the evening. Find one at Lowes, Home Depot, or prothermostats.com, and check out energystar.gov for tips on how to set your thermostat to suit your daily schedule.
Ditch the paper towels. Many of us spend hundreds of dollars each year buying paper towels, which only add to the billions of tons of waste we produce each year as a country—and drain your wallet. There's no excuse, with so many new and handy re-usable cleaning cloths out there to choose from. Skoycloth.com offers bright, biodegradable reusable cloths for just $6 for a pack of four (you can even put them in the dishwasher or microwave to get rid of any bacteria). MysticMaid Reusable Cleaning Cloth ($11.95, from surlatable.com) is another option; LapPads are reusable, versatile, and have a surgical-grade texture and absorbency ($3.75 per package, getlappads.com); and cheap microfiber towels clean up any mess just as well as the paper alternative, but you can wash and reuse them (8 for about $5, walmart.com). And old bath towels, cut into squares, cost nothing and make the perfect dishrag.
Buy non-toxic cleaning materials. If there's one area where it's worth spending a little more money, it's this. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, most poisonings are due to cleaning products. Pets are at risk when lick their paws after walking on floors that have been cleaned with toxic products (or drinking from a toilet bowl, where products linger). If you have a baby or young children at the crawling age, cleaners can be seriously hazardous to their health. Air fresheners, hair sprays, bleach, carpet shampoos, chlorine, and other household cleaners have harmful effects if inhaled or touched. Most grocery stores now carry nontoxic cleaning supplies; look for products such as Seventh Generation, Ecover and Ecopath. Whole Foods has an even wider selection. Better Life, a green cleaning products founded by two St. Louis dads concerned about exposing their families to chemicals, maintains a website at cleanhappens.com.
Water, water everywhere... The concept of cutting out a shower every day or washing our hands less is not something people are willing to do in the name of water conservation. However, there are easy ways to conserve without sacrificing comfort, relaxation, or hygiene. Install low-flow showerheads and low-flow aerators on your faucets. You can find an aerator for about $3, and a showerhead for $17 at eartheasy.com, or find other options at Home Depot or Sears.
Reuse, Recycle ... Remodel
Since very few of us are taking on large home-building projects or buying new houses at the moment, remodeling is a great opportunity to make your house more environmentally friendly. Whether you're tearing out your kitchen or just painting a couple of rooms, here's how to stay green every step of the way.
Breathe Deep. According to the EPA, poor indoor air quality is one of the top five leading health risks in the U.S., and St. Louis is one of the worst and dirtiest counties in terms of volatile organic compound emissions. These compounds, also known as VOCs, are found in paints, sealing caulks, upholstery fabrics, carpets and adhesives. Their levels are generally two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, and exposure can cause eye and throat irritation, as well as breathing problems, headache and dizziness. Look for low-VOC or no-VOC paints. Inexpensive brands include FreshAir by Glidden (available at Home Depot, homedepot.com) or any Green Seal paint product made by Benjamin Moore, General Paint, Yolo Colorhouse, or MAB Paint, and others.
Good Woods. If you're replacing floors or cabinetry, bypass traditional oak or maple and look to Lyptus wood, bamboo, or Skyblend. Lyptus wood comes from eucalyptus trees, which grow quickly and can be harvested within 14 to 16 years of planting. Steven Horn of MasterCraft Design & Build is an expert in building custom homes as well as in "green" construction. "Lyptus flooring is around $6.50 per square foot," he says. "Basically, the same price as any premium grade wood floor. This is a premium product that is extremely hard and is available in many finishes." Another option is to use bamboo (considered a rapidly renewable product because the plant is not killed when it is harvested) though Mr. Horn warns that bamboo is soft, prone to denting, and is a modern and unique look that only works in certain home designs. For cabinetry, countertops, and shelving, look for Roseburg Skyblend (rfpco.com), a formaldehyde-free particleboard. SkyBlend is produced from wood fiber, has cleaner edges, smoother finishing, and more consistent cutting. Also check greenhomeguide.com for more information on green flooring and cabinetry materials.
Flush with Pride. Whether you're remodeling or not, seriously consider a dual-flush toilet. Mr. Horn, who recently ordered a conversion kit for his existing toilet, transforming it into a dual-flush system, says these toilets can save the average family of four 6000 gallons of water per year, if installed in every toilet in the house. The kit cost him about $65, and took about an hour to install (go to mastercraftdesignbuild.com for Mr. Horn's blog with step by step instructions for easy installation). He adds that it conserves so much water, the payback for the cost increase is only about two to three years. Order your kit at twoflush.com, and if you don't feel comfortable installing it yourself, ask a plumber to install it for you.
Super Star. If you're looking to get rid of old appliances and upgrade, look for Energy Star certified appliances. They can be found at Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy, Target, and many other stores in the area, and will save about a third of your energy bill. If you replace your old refrigerator with a new, more energy efficient model, don't leave it running in the basement as a "backup"—this is a huge waste of energy.
Green Acres. Once the building and renovating is finished, look to local "green" stores to furnish or decorate your space. Environmentally conscious furniture is generally pricey; if every item in your new kitchen or living room is not exactly green, don't worry. Think about incorporating one or two green items into each room in your house. Go out and support local stores by purchasing an organic rug, art made from recycled materials, or locally produced candles and soaps. You can find all of these things at Home Eco (4611 Macklind, 314-351-2000, home-eco.com).
Green It Yourself
Time is something many of us struggle with, and creativity an attribute not all of us are blessed with. For those of you who have one or the other (or if you're lucky, both), invest it in projects like these.
Compost. We've all heard of it, some of us thought of it, most of us too timid to try it. Instead of throwing hair, dryer lint, coffee grounds, tea bags, and even brown coffee filters into the garbage, throw it in your compost; any organic waste can be used. (Go to wikihow.com for help in constructing your compost bin.) Terri Winkleman, co-owner of Home Eco, says composting doesn't even require a backyard; you can stash a bin under your sink or in your pantry, and then donate the results to a local park or a neighbor who gardens. This is a great way to reduce your household waste, use fewer garbage bags and thus save money, and even become friendlier with your neighbors. Go to kitchengardenfoods.com or visit Home Eco to learn more.
Break out the baking soda and vinegar. If you have the time, making your own cleaning products is the cheapest and safest route to take. Ounce for ounce, these formulas cost about one tenth the price of the green cleaning products in the store, and the ingredients can be found in your pantry. Make a quick window cleaner with one half of a teaspoon of liquid detergent, three tablespoons of vinegar, and two cups of water, dump it in a spray bottle, and you have a cheap, convenient window cleaner. To polish your furniture, combine half a teaspoon of olive oil and one quarter of a cup of vinegar or fresh lemon juice; use a rag to apply. And white, distilled vinegar will kill mold and mildew. A quick Google search will bring up hundreds of quick, easy, cheap (and green) cleaning recipes at sites like care2.com.
The Future is Green
If you're not planning to move, and willing to wait to see a seven-year payback on something like a geothermal HVAC system, investing in larger scale green home technologies can be the biggest money-saver of all.
Get audited. An energy audit is part of a whole-home solution to energy efficiency; a great place to start is the Missouri Botanical Garden's EarthWays Center. According to their green resources manager, Jean Ponzi, the average audit runs about $400-$800, based on the size of your house and on the test being done. A blower-door test reveals where the leaks are, and a thermal imaging test can show weak spots in insulation, pinpointing which places need attention. (Mr. Horn recommends going green with blown cellulose insulation as opposed to fiberglass; the blown cellulose is tightly and densely packed, reduces infiltration of air into the house by 38 percent (or up to 70 percent if combined with a caulk-and-seal package) and the "tight envelope" produced pays off in lower energy bills in three to four years.) Go to earthwayscenter.org, or visit them in person (3617 Grandel, 314-577-0220), for more information.
Hot and cold. The EPA estimates that as much as half of the energy used in our homes goes to heating and cooling. To increase the efficiency of your HVAC system, check your filter every month, especially during the winter and summer seasons, and change the filter every three months at a minimum. (Dirty filters slow down air flow and waste energy.) If you're looking to upgrade your system, Horn says switching from a system with 92 to 98 percent efficiency can cost as much as $3000, but will pay off in about three years.
Let the sunshine in. If it's time for a new water heater, the way to go is solar. While the initial cost is certainly higher than natural gas, there is a significantly lower annual upkeep cost, and it will last you 7–18 years longer. You'll also receive a tax credit, and in less than a decade, it will have paid for itself in almost non-existent gas bills. Mr. Horn is also a proponent of sun tubes (also called sun tunnels or solar tubes) as a way to increase interior natural light and to decrease the need for powered lighting. (Detailed information on how they work can be found on his "Shades of Green Blog" on his website). Sun tubes come in various diameters for installation in a wide range of ceiling locations. Mr. Horn recognizes that solar lighting takes about seven years to pay for itself, but notes that there are "proven psychological benefits to having natural lighting in your house, as the natural fluctuation of light during the day can have a positive effect on your mood." If you want to be happier, healthier, and save money in the long run, ask your contractor about solar lighting, or learn more about the products available at solatube.com and veluxusa.com.