Monday, March 30, 2009



Finding a contractor for your healthy home

It's hard enough finding a builder who will do the work you want for the price you're willing to pay, and deliver it on time and on budget. Add to those criteria your need for a green-building expert, and you can assume that your search for a general contractor is going to take some time.
Build an eco-friendly home

But don't despair. Half the battle is finding a builder with a reputation for doing high-quality work. Many green building strategies, like carefully sealing ducts and air leaks, properly installing insulation, and reducing and recycling construction waste, boil down to quality construction practices. If you find a builder who knows how to build right, chances are that builder knows how to build green. Moreover, builders with more specific expertise in energy efficiency, resource-saving building methods, and healthy-home construction practices are becoming more common.

Top Tips

When remodeling or planning a custom-built home

  • Licensed to build? Make sure your builder is a licensed general contractor in your state.

  • Leaning green? Can you create a healthy, eco-friendly home even if your builder has no interest or expertise in building green? Yes, but it means you'll have to provide exact specifications for materials, products, and even building methods and then make sure they are being followed. You may even wind up having to educate the builder about green building strategies, or worse, you may find yourself in conflict with the builder over green practices and products. Your project is likely to go much more smoothly if you hire a builder who has experience building healthy, energy-efficient homes. Many regional green building programs offer education and certification to builders; having green building certification is no guarantee the builder will do a good job, but does indicate they have a basic familiarity with the practices and principles of building green.

  • Clearly describe what you want. Don't wait until after signing the contract to surprise the builder with your green wish list. Let the builder know from the start what your priorities are, especially when it comes to green practices that aren't yet standard in the building industry, like using FSC-certified lumber. Resource conservation and energy efficiency need to be integrated into the entire design and construction process, not tacked on at the end.

  • Meet the team. When you interview a general contracting firm, you'll typically sit down with either the owner or a project manager. Before signing a contract, though, you should meet the crew, including the job-site supervisor who will be working on your home. Ask if any of the crew has received green building training or certification. It's important to be impressed by the owner or project manager, but it's also important to feel good about the people doing the hands-on work.

  • Be nosy. When talking to previous clients on the builder's reference list, don't just ask the standard questions about budget, schedule, and quality. Also inquire about the builder's green expertise. Did the he or she bring green ideas to the project, or did the homeowner have to push for them?

  • Put it in writing. Include your green goals in the contract between you and the builder. If you are working with an architect, ask him or her to provide a green specification (or "spec") sheet that will also become part of your contract. The spec sheet should spell out your general requirements for green building practices and products, such as:

    • Reducing construction waste, reusing materials, and recycling as much as possible.

    • Protecting the site to avoid compacting the soil and disturbing vegetation.

    • Reusing as much of the material in demolished structures as possible.

    • Using salvaged, FSC-certified or engineered wood.

    • Using zero- or low-VOC paints, caulks, sealants and construction adhesives.

When buying a newly built home

  • Ask good questions. Healthier, eco-friendly homes don't necessarily look much different from conventional homes, so how can you tell if a home in a new development is green or merely greenwashed? Ask the builder these questions:

    • What steps were taken to improve the home's energy efficiency beyond what's required by the building code?

    • How was indoor air quality taken into account when choosing equipment, materials, and finishes?

    • If the land was previously undeveloped, what steps were taken to mitigate the loss of open space?

    • During construction, what steps were taken to protect the natural environment, such as preserving vegetation or avoiding building on ecologically sensitive areas?

    • Is the neighborhood sited and designed so that residents can walk, bicycle, and take public transit to local stores, schools, and parks?

  • Ask about options and upgrades. If the new home you're buying is still under construction, perhaps you can make it greener by requesting certain options or upgrades. Ask at the sales center about options for more energy-efficient appliances, heating and cooling equipment, and lighting. Depending on how far along in the construction process the home is, higher levels of insulation and more energy-efficient windows may be possible. These days, some developers offer green finish options, such as low-VOC paint, and FSC-certified wood or bamboo flooring. Some builders even include solar electric systems, either as a standard feature or as an upgrade.

Benefits... your health
Green builders generally use materials that ensure excellent indoor air quality. your wallet
A green builder should use materials and methods that minimize waste and maximize durability, which will save you money. A green builder is also an expert at building energy efficient homes. the Earth
If your house uses less virgin material, fewer trees are felled, less is ore mined, and less petroleum is burned--all of which lessen the stresses on natural habitats and reduce emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Common Mistakes

Not speaking up. If you want a healthy, eco-friendly home, make that clear from the moment you first interview the builder. If you wait until too late to bring up your green wish list, some options may be off the table.

Getting Started

  • If you're planning to buy a brand new home, look for homebuilders with a green reputation. The U.S. EPA's Energy Star website lists homebuilders who meet Energy Star guidelines for energy efficiency. Also try contacting local green building organizations or your local chapter of the Home Builders Association (HBA), a trade association for homebuilders and remodelers. Some regional HBAs sponsor programs that certify green builders.

  • In addition to the green considerations mentioned here, there are many other general steps involved in hiring a general contractor. For advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have additional information.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009



LEED Accredited Professional

Do it right from the start

An architect isn't required for all work in your home, but for certain projects, an architect's services are indispensable. You'll want one, for instance, if you are planning to build a custom-designed home. You should also consider hiring an architect if you are planning a renovation that will significantly alter a home's structure, such as adding a room or another story.

Not all architects have experience designing green homes, however. Until recently, few architecture schools gave more than a cursory nod to energy efficiency, passive solar design, renewable energy systems, indoor air quality, and resource conservation. To be fair, few clients asked for green homes. But that's changing fast as architects and homeowners alike come to grips with the immense impacts that homes have on our health as well as on the climate, energy, and other resources.

Your best bet is to look for an architect with experience designing green homes. Otherwise, it may fall to you to become the project's eco expert.

Top Tips

  • Hire early. Many decisions need to be made very early in process of planning a green home, so it's worth bringing the architect on board as early as possible. Making up your mind about a certain orientation or layout before hiring an architect may preclude options that would make your home more enjoyable and less expensive to live in, such as passive solar design.

  • Find a green match. Look for architects who do the type of green home design you are interested in. If you like modern design, seek an architect who has done modern green homes. If your main concern is healthy indoor air quality, look for an architect with that expertise. When reviewing an architect's portfolio, ask about each project's green elements and whether they would or wouldn't be appropriate for your project.

  • Check for a license. Make sure the architects you are considering are licensed to practice architecture in your state. Also ask about their green credentials, such as LEED Accredited Professional status from the U.S. Green Building Council or certification from a local green building organization.

  • Say what you want. Let the architect know from the start what your priorities are, especially when it comes to green practices that aren't yet standard in the building industry, like advanced framing techniques that reduce the amount of wood used in home construction. The clearer you can be about your green wish list, the more likely your architect can fulfill it.

  • Who's on first? When you interview an architecture firm, you'll typically meet with a principal or partner in the firm. But once you hire the firm, the work may be assigned to a more junior staff member. During the interview process, figure out who will actually be working on your project on a day-to-day basis and what they know about green architecture and home design.

  • Be nosy. When talking to previous clients on the architect's reference list, don't just ask the standard questions about budget, schedule, and quality. Also inquire about the architect's green expertise. What green elements did he or she include in the design? Once built, were these elements successful? Did the architect bring green ideas to the design table, or did the homeowner have to push for more eco-friendly solutions?

  • Put it in writing. In the contract between you and the architect, clearly spell out your project's green goals and requirements. You may not know details like the type of materials that will be used or even the number of rooms, but you can include some guiding green principles, such as, "The owner has established as a goal that this new house be designed to be at least 50% more energy efficient than required by the state building code."

Other Considerations

  • The traditional design process is linear, with the architect handing the completed building plans off to your builder, who is expected to execute them to the letter. Unfortunately, significant efficiency and cost savings opportunities can be missed if the builder doesn't have a say in the design process. The builder may have good ideas about, for example, where to locate the bathrooms, laundry, and water heater to reduce pipe runs, which could save money and water-heating energy. To enhance communication, you might suggest "integrated design," which basically means your design and construction professionals have frequent discussions about how to make your home as eco-friendly and healthy as possible. Integrated design isn't easy to accomplish, however, since the builder is often hired after the plans are complete. At least look for an architect who is a team player--someone willing to take into account suggestions even after the drawings have been completed.

  • When you interview architects, ask if they have signed on to the 2030 Challenge. This global initiative establishes aggressive goals for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of new and remodeled buildings. The 2030 Challenge states that all new buildings and major renovations be designed to produce 50% less greenhouse gas than the regional average for that building type. The targets get more aggressive as time goes on, so that by 2030, new and remodeled buildings will be "carbon neutral," meaning they will use no fossil fuel-based energy to operate. Hiring an architect who has signed the 2030 Challenge means that you are also committed to making your house as energy efficient as possible.

Benefits... your health
A green architect can suggest design strategies and materials that will keep the air inside your home cleaner, promoting better health for your family. your wallet
A green architect can help you build a home that will cost less to operate, lowering your utility and water bills. the Earth
If your home uses less energy and water, you'll emit less climate-changing greenhouse gas, year after year. Some green architects have even figured out how to build carbon neutral homes!

Common Mistakes

  • Rushing the planning process. In your eagerness to get your project under way, you may be tempted to race through the process of hiring an architect and getting completed drawings to your builder. Take some deep breaths and slow down. Good green design requires careful planning and sometimes additional legwork to investigate options or track down products. Taking plenty of time early on will help you avoid costly mistakes.

  • Not speaking up. If you want a healthy, eco-friendly home, make that clear when you first interview the architect. If you're not sure what your green priorities are, ask the architect to help you define them before design work gets started. If you wait too long to clarify these ideas, some options may be off the table.

Getting Started

Decide whether your project would benefit from an architect's services. The American Institute of Architects, a professional association for the architecture industry, has fact sheets and other online publications explaining what architects do. If you're not planning any major structural changes but need professional help with the interior layout of rooms or with product selection, consider working with an interior designer. Some building companies also provide design services using their in-house designers or architects.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Healthy Eating


Changing the world, one meal at a time

Ever watch kids pluck green beans off the vine and gobble them up like candy? The pleasures of wholesome food go beyond good taste and good health. Eating well--fresh, uncontaminated, responsibly produced food--is as good for the Earth and other species as it is for our bodies.

Watch this video clip from GoGreenTube to learn more about shopping for healthy food.

Top Tips

  • Keep it simple. What should we eat to be healthy? It may seem complicated, but it's basically common sense. Nutrition scientist and food writer Marian Nestle boils it down to ten words: "eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables." Journalist Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, puts it slightly differently: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." (By "food" he means fresh whole food, not processed food products.)

  • Grow your own food. In 1943, with the country's resources devoted to the war effort, Americans planted 20 million victory gardens, producing 40% of the country's fresh food. In the 21st century, there's been a resurgence of victory gardens, as more people look for ways to free their families from rising food prices and uncertainties about food safety. Of course, the main reason for planting a vegetable garden hasn't changed: it's hard to beat the taste of a juicy tomato still warm from the sun or peas that go straight from the garden to the pot. Growing food at home covers the gamut from potted herbs on the windowsill to vegetable beds and fruit trees to poultry and other small livestock. If you wind up with an abundance of basil or chard, pass some to your neighbors--you might get homemade jam or fresh eggs passed back.

  • Eat whole food. That means unprocessed or minimally processed food that is close to its natural state. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and unprocessed meat, poultry, and fish. Whole foods typically contain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber than processed, packaged foods and few or no additives. As Nestle points out in her book, What to Eat, "heavy processing does three things to food: diminishes the nutritional value of the basic ingredients; adds calories from fats and sugars; and disguises the loss of taste and texture with salt, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives." Whole food also tends to have a lower carbon footprint than processed food because less fossil fuel-based energy goes into producing it.

  • Eat local. Eating food grown in your region is a terrific way to reduce your carbon footprint. The New York Times reports that if you live in Iowa, the carrot in your salad likely traveled 1,600 miles from California, the chuck roast came 600 miles from Colorado, and that side of baked potato covered 1,200 miles getting from the Idaho soil to your plate. So how do you go about reducing food miles? Grow some of your own food. Also, shop at farmer's markets and farm stands, and look into becoming a member of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. When you join a CSA, you pay in advance for a weekly box filled with ripe produce from the farm. The box may be delivered to your home or to a neighborhood pick-up spot. The farmer gets a stable source of income and you get delicious food from near your home.

  • Buy organic. Once a niche market, organic food has become big business, with U.S. sales exceeding $30 billion annually. Organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers that degrade the soil, contaminate waterways, harm non-target species, and endanger the health of farm workers and people who eat the food.

  • Take care with kids. Children, in part because of their smaller body mass, are even more susceptible to the harm caused by pesticides and mercury. For this reason, take special care when thinking through meals for your entire family.

Other Considerations

  • Organics cost more than conventionally produced food, so if your budget is tight, focus on choosing organic when you buy what the Environmental Working Group calls the "dirty dozen," the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticide residue: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach, and potatoes. To see if the produce is organic, look at the PLU (product look-up) number on the item's sticker, twist-tie, or bag. If it begins with 9, it's organic.

  • For decades, health advocates have exhorted us to eat more fish. It's low in saturated fat, rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and a good source of protein, minerals, and vitamins. But these days the arguments for eating fish aren't so cut and dried. Many species, especially tuna, swordfish, and shark, are poisoned with mercury (much of which comes from emissions from coal-burning power plants). Mercury contamination is especially harmful to developing fetuses.The environmental news about fish is equally dire. According to WWF, an international conservation group, the populations of all species currently fished for food will collapse by 2048 if humans don't dramatically change our fishing and fish consumption practices.Unfortunately, fish farming has not turned out to be a panacea. Huge quantities of wild fish are caught to feed farmed fish, exacerbating overconsumption problems. Waste from fish farms contaminates the oceans, and the flesh of farmed fish may contain artificial dyes, as well as PCBs and other chemicals from industrial and agricultural waste.What to do? If you choose to eat fish, be a conscious consumer. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch provide handy lists of best and worst seafood choices that are tailored to regions of the country. Download the one that is right for you clicking on your region of the country - Hawaii, West Coast, Southwest, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast. If you happen to live in the Midwest, you can also download the Right Bite Wallet Card of preferred fish provided by our partner, the Shedd Aquarium. In addition to containing ocean fish, it also contains advice on lake fish.

Benefits... your health
Your health can be directly related to what you eat. Less meat in your diet reduces your risk of cancer and heart disease. Buying organic food and avoiding certain fish can reduce your exposure to pesticides and mercury. Eating locally likely ensures that your food will be fresher and more full of nutrients. And remember, avoiding pesticides and mercury and eating healthy is even more important for children. your wallet
Buying whole foods that are in season usually costs less than buying processed foods or out-of-season imported foods. Organic food usually costs more than food grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But with giant retailers and agribusinesses getting into the organics game, the cost of pesticide-free food is coming down. the Earth
Responsible food consumption can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support environmentally sound agriculture and aquaculture practices that conserve soil and protect waterways, and transform the inhumane and unsustainable practices in the livestock and fishing industries. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions--more than the transportation sector. What's more, livestock uses 30% of the planet's land surface, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate to create pastures to grow corn and soy for animal feed, and the livestock industry is one of the major polluters of fresh water and even the oceans.

Common Mistakes

Buying organics at the store but using pesticides at home. Whether you're growing your own food or just trying to keep ants out of the kitchen or thrips off your roses, nix the nasty pesticides. Unhealthy chemicals don't belong anywhere near your food, your kids or your pets.

Getting Started

Changing to a healthier, more environmentally responsible diet doesn't mean you have to go whole hog. If you do, in fact, you risk becoming overwhelmed and slipping back into old habits. Try making one positive change this month that feels manageable: cutting out two meat meals per week, for instance, or buying organic milk, or steering clear of fast food restaurants. Next month, add another positive step, like shopping at a farmer's market one Saturday morning or taking fresh fruit to work a few days a week so you're less tempted to grab that jelly donut. The following month . . . well, you get the idea.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wood Floors


Good looks, long life

Forest Stewardship Council Wood

If you have an older home, check underneath the carpeting. It may be concealing a high-quality wood floor that just needs sanding and refinishing. If it isn't, consider using wood salvaged from old buildings or old factories and barns. And then there's virgin wood, which can be either solid or "engineered," with a hardwood veneer glued down over plywood or fiberboard. Regardless of its source, the beauty and warmth of wood will add value to your home.

Top Tips

When shopping, look for

  • Good wood. That means reclaimed lumber from local buildings, or, if it's virgin lumber, make sure it's certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). (Certified wood is often more expensive, though.) Never buy virgin products made from tropical or old-growth forests or trees harvested from ecologically sensitive areas unless they are FSC certified. See if you can find flooring made from trees harvested in your region (or at least domestically).

  • Healthy finishes and adhesives. Buy flooring that is factory finished, so finishing chemicals cure in the factory not your home. If you do apply the finish at home, use low-VOC stains and sealants (preferably with less than 275 grams per liter of VOCs). Plant-based finishing oils may have a lower petroleum content than synthetic wood finishes, but are not necessarily low in VOCs. If buying engineered wood flooring, choose a product made without urea formaldehyde adhesives.

Other Considerations

  • From a resource-conservation perspective, engineered wood flooring makes good sense: the rarer and more valuable hardwoods are used in smaller quantities for the veneer, while the bulk of the material comes from fast-growing plantation trees. Solid wood flooring uses more high-quality wood than engineered products, making it particularly important that any solid wood flooring you buy comes from FSC-certified or reclaimed sources. Reclaimed wood flooring keeps valuable materials out of landfills and reduces pressure to harvest trees.

  • Be sure you know whether you are buying a hardwood or softwood species. Hardwood floors better resist scratching and denting. Some reclaimed wood floors sold today are softwoods, such as Douglas fir and pine, that will easily scratch and dent. This can be fine for people who like the character of a well-worn floor, but it's not to everyone's taste.

  • Many wood floors are nailed down or installed as glueless floating floors. If using a wood flooring adhesive, choose an adhesive with less than 100 grams per liter of VOCs.

  • If you have in-floor radiant heating, check with the flooring dealer. Not all wood products are designed to be used with these systems.

Common Mistakes

  • Buying laminates. Don't mistake laminate flooring for wood flooring. Laminates are made with a printed image that's glued to fiberboard and then sealed with a top coat to reduce wear and tear. Laminates are inexpensive, but you can't refinish them and they don't provide the beauty and long life of real wood. If you do choose laminate, look for products with no added urea formaldehyde and no vinyl. A few manufacturers use FSC-certified wood for the backing.

  • Buying faux "vintage." Reclaimed flooring is big business these days and dealers throughout the country specialize in providing it. Make sure you're dealing with a reputable company and not with someone who's buying cheap new wood, banging it up, and passing it off as vintage.

  • Underestimating labor costs. When buying reclaimed wood flooring, check its condition carefully; it may require considerable work to install and refinish it.

Benefits... your health
Factory-finished flooring and healthy finishes and adhesives help protect air quality in your home. your wallet
Solid wood flooring can be sanded and refinished many times and can last for a hundred years or more if well cared for. Many engineered wood floors are also refinishable, depending on the thickness of the veneer. the Earth
FSC-certified wood helps ensure that your flooring materials were not logged in a way that scars the landscape and displaces wildlife. Engineered or salvaged wood minimizes your use of precious natural resources.

Getting Started

  • Solid and engineered wood flooring is widely available from floor dealers and home improvement centers. For FSC-certified flooring or products made without urea formaldehyde, however, you may have to go to a green home store, or flooring company, or lumberyard that specializes in eco-friendly products.

  • Find reclaimed wood products at local building-reuse stores and flooring dealers that specialize in reused woods. You may find some of this wood available at discount prices (usually in poor condition), and some that is quite expensive, especially if it is a rare or extremely high-quality wood.

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing wood floors?

    • Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Linoleum Floors


Take pride in a floor made of flax

People often use the word "linoleum" to refer to vinyl flooring. But from an environmental perspective, these two products are poles apart. Vinyl flooring is a petrochemical-based product that produces highly toxic dioxin when it's being manufactured and may give off phthalates, chemicals that can cause damage to human and animal reproductive systems.
Linoleum Floors

Old-fashioned linoleum, on the other hand, contains no vinyl. It's made from boiled linseed oil (from flax seeds) mixed with powdered cork, ground sawdust, and pine resin, as well as minerals such as ground limestone, zinc, and pigments. It typically has a burlap backing and an acrylic finish.

Though it's been around for a hundred years, linoleum was largely supplanted by less expensive vinyl flooring in the 1960s. Now it's back in vogue as long-lasting green flooring. Linoleum comes in dozens of colors and patterns, and is durable, easy to keep clean, and biodegradable. It also has antibacterial properties, which makes it popular for healthcare facilities.

Top Tips

At home

  • Keep it tidy. Dry mop and vacuum regularly to get up dirt and grit that will dull the finish. Damp mop occasionally.

  • Don't worry about scratches. The color and pattern runs all the way through the linoleum material, so minor scratches can be gently sanded out with a nylon cleaning pad.

  • Pay now, enjoy longer. You can buy vinyl tiles for half the cost of linoleum ones (about $2 versus $4 a square foot) but linoleum lasts four or five times as long--40 to 50 years.

Other Considerations

Linoleum requires installation by a certified installer.

Benefits ...

...for your health
We've mentioned linoleum's natural antibacterial properties. It also emits small amounts of certain VOCs (volatile organic compounds), but health experts don't believe these particular ones are a concern.

...for the Earth
Currently all linoleum is imported from Europe, so shipping it to U.S. consumers takes a lot of energy. But its manufacturing impacts are relatively benign.

Common Mistakes

Buying vinyl. Some people think they are buying wholesome linoleum when they are actually buying unhealthy vinyl.

Getting Started

  • Although linoleum is only made by a few European manufacturers, it is widely available from flooring dealers in the United States.

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing linoleum floors? Linoleum installers should be certified by the linoleum manufacturer.

    • Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Concrete, Stone, Terrazzo


Floors for the ages

Floors made of tile, concrete, and stone are long-lived and perfect for some kinds of healthy green homes. Here's a materials primer to help you decide whether they are a good choice for you.

Ceramic and porcelain tile are made primarily from clay, an abundant although nonrenewable natural resource. Although the manufacturing process is energy intensive, tile is nontoxic and easy to clean if the grout is sealed. If a tile ever cracks, it can be chiseled out and replaced. (Quick tip: buy extra tiles initially to make replacement easy.)
Concrete, Stone, Terrazzo, and Tile Floors

Concrete floors have crossed over from industrial buildings to stylish homes. The concrete can be colored, stained or patterned for a one-of-a-kind look. The finished floors are durable, easy to clean, and compatible with radiant floor heating systems and passive solar design. However, concrete is prone to cracking. Some people think that adds character to the floor but if you can't live with cracks, then concrete isn't for you.

Stone floors are about as natural as you can get, but that's not to say they're without environmental impacts. Digging stone out of the earth can damage wildlife habitat and scar landscapes. Although the stone for floors is minimally processed, it's a heavy and bulky material that takes a lot of energy to transport. It may be quarried in one part of the world, shipped to another for cutting and polishing, and to yet another to a wholesaler or retailer before it makes its way into your home. On the other hand, stone floors can last for generations.

Traditionally a mix of marble or other stone in a matrix of concrete, terrazzo is making a comeback because of consumers' interest in recycled materials. A few companies have started making floors with poured-in-place terrazzo and terrazzo tiles using a high percentage of recycled glass set in concrete or epoxy. The slurry is poured onto a subfloor, smoothed and allowed to cure, then ground to a smooth polish. Although expensive at about $15 a square foot (plus installation), terrazzo is also becoming popular for countertops, tub enclosures, and backsplashes (the protective panels behind sinks and stoves).

Top Tips

At home

  • Listen up! Hard-surface floors can be noisy especially in homes with open floor plans. They can also be hard on joints (and dropped dishes). They can feel cold underfoot unless used as part of a passive solar design or with radiant floor heating.

When shopping, look for materials that are

  • Local and recycled. Choose products extracted and manufactured within 500 miles of your home or salvaged from a building in the area. If it's terrazzo you're after, find a product with high recycled content. In the case of recycled-content tile, some manufacturers are just recycling their own waste, but a few companies use post-consumer recycled content.

  • Healthy for your home. When installing tile or stone, use zero- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) tile-setting adhesives, grouts, and sealants. In the case of stone, check with the supplier about whether it requires sealing to prevent staining; if it does, ask about low- or zero-VOC sealants.

  • Made specifically for floors. When choosing tile, stone or terrazzo, make sure it's a product designed for floors, with a nonslip finish.

Other Considerations

A concrete floor makes the most sense for new homes that are built on a slab that can do double duty as the finish floor. This reduces your use of materials (you're not adding extra material, like wood or carpet, on top of the slab) but it does require protecting the slab during construction. In existing homes, a thin concrete floor can be poured over a wood subfloor if there is sufficient structural support. For installation, use an experienced concrete floor specialist. If using acid-based stains on the concrete, be aware that they are noxious when installed (although inert when dry). Use water-based, low- or no-VOC sealants.

Benefits... your wallet
These materials cover the budget gamut, from $2 a square foot for the cheapest ceramic tiles to $35 a square foot for glass tiles and rare stones. Labor costs are usually higher than for other types of flooring. But these products can easily last as long as the home. So their cost over the lifetime of the flooring may be lower than that of flooring that is less durable and harder to maintain. the Earth
Some concrete is made with recycled fly ash, a powdery byproduct of coal-burning electric power plants. While tile and traditional concrete take a lot of energy to manufacture, concrete made with fly ash keeps waste out of landfills and reduces air pollution and global warming impacts.

Common Mistakes

  • Covering the mass. If your home was designed for passive solar heating, you may have tile, stone, or concrete floors. These materials have a high thermal mass, which means they moderate temperatures in the home by storing the sun's heat during the day and releasing the heat at night when temperatures cool. Don't put carpeting or rugs over thermal mass floors if they're part of a passive solar design; the thermal mass won't be able to do its job.

  • Sinking the subfloor. These floors can be heavy. Make sure the subfloor can bear their weight. If in doubt, consult a flooring installation specialist.

Getting Started

  • Search our site for local concrete and terrazzo flooring specialists. Visit tile and stone dealers in your area and ask about locally quarried or salvaged stone and locally manufactured, recycled-content tile.

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing the type of floor you selected?

    • Ask to for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Related Products & Services

Cork Floors


Renewable and resilient

Cork floors were originally made from scrap left over from wine-cork manufacturing, but because of rising demand, many floors are now made with cork harvested specifically for flooring. It comes in tiles or click-together planks, in shades of brown, as well as other colors and patterns. Some products have wood backing covered by a veneer of cork.
Eco-friendly cork flooring

The source material is the outer bark of the cork oak (Quercus suber), a tree indigenous to Spain and Portugal. It's a renewable resource. Workers strip off the outer bark, which grows back and can be harvested again in about ten years. The resource is not unlimited, however. It's grown commercially primarily in Portugal and a few other Mediterranean countries.

Cork is resilient, which makes the flooring comfortable to stand on and easy on dropped dishes. But it can dent--especially if you have heavy furniture or friends with stiletto heels. Among cork's other virtues are fire- and stain-resistance and the ability to absorb sound. But like wood and bamboo, it can fade if exposed to direct sunlight. And while it doesn't soak up moisture (think about your wine cork), it's not impervious to water. If your family members tend to splash in the tub, cork may not be the best option for your bathroom.

Watch gogreentube's video of Martha Stewart discussing her cork floor.

Top Tips

At home

  • Keep it tidy. If you want your cork to last a long time, you'll need to be a diligent housekeeper. Dry-mop and vacuum regularly to keep it free of grit that can scratch the finish. Wash it with a damp mop occasionally. Clean up any liquid spills immediately.

  • Use pads under heavy furniture.

When shopping, look for

  • Healthy materials. Choose cork flooring made without added urea formaldehyde in either the top or bottom layers of the floor. For glued-down cork floors, use low- or zero-VOC adhesives or choose a floating floor product-planks that click together and require no glues.

  • Flooring that is prefinished. To avoid using finishing chemicals in the home, prefinished products are best. But check with the supplier about whether an additional topcoat should be applied after installation.

  • Good wood. If your cork floor has a wood backing make sure it is veneer is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as sustainably harvested.

  • Durability. Cork flooring comes in a broad range of prices. To avoid wasting time, money, and materials, buy a quality product with a warranty of at least 10 years.


  • Vinyl. Some cork flooring comes with a vinyl top coating or vinyl backing.

Benefits... your health
Cork floors can make a nice addition to a healthy home--if you shop carefully for products without urea formaldehyde or high-VOC adhesives. the Earth
Cork is a renewable resource made from bark. Harvesting it doesn't kill trees. It does take a lot of energy to transport it to the United States, however, since it's commercially grown mainly in Portugal and Spain.

Common Mistakes

Corking the heater. Cork is a good insulator, and will block heat coming from an in-floor radiant heating system.

Getting Started

  • Getting a look at your cork options should be easy: Cork is widely available at flooring dealers and home improvement stores.

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing cork floors?

    • Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Related Products & Services

Monday, March 23, 2009



The trouble with fuzzy floors

Be it basic Berber or retro shag, carpet feels good underfoot, absorbs sound, and can add color and style to a room. No wonder it covers nearly 70% of the floors in the United States.
Best options for carpet

But some indoor-air quality experts suggest thinking twice about blanketing your floors with wall-to-wall fibers. Some new carpets emit a host of noxious chemicals that you'll be breathing for months and even years after they're installed. Another concern is that carpet acts as a reservoir for dust and dust mites, pet dander, soot, pollen, odors, fleas, and lots of other stuff you'd rather not have take up residence in your home--especially if you've got young children who spend most of their time down at floor level.

Smooth-surface floors--think hardwood, ceramic tile, linoleum, or concrete--are easier to keep clean than carpet, so they're usually a better choice from a healthy-home perspective. And carpet has a host of other environmental problems: it's a short-lived material that ends up in landfills or incinerators. Also, the majority of the carpet sold in the United States is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals.

But you don't necessarily have to give up on carpets. Over the past decade a number of manufacturers have led the way toward cleaning up their industry's practices. Products are now available that are healthier for people and the planet.

Top Tips

At home

  • Air it out. Carpet emits the most chemicals when it's new. Leave windows and doors open, and run a portable fan or the fan of your heating or air conditioning system for 48 to 72 hours after installation to remove chemical vapors. If you plan to do this, consider installing carpet when the weather is mild so you don't waste as much energy.

  • Keep it clean. Frequent use of a vacuum is a crucial to any carpet cleaning strategy.

When shopping look for

  • Durability. Choose high quality carpets--either made from natural materials such as wool (which require much less petroleum to manufacture) or recycled synthetic materials.

  • Healthy adhesives. Choose carpet, pads, and adhesives certified to have low emissions of VOCs and formaldehyde. Or skip the adhesives altogether and tack down the carpet using tack strips. Look for the Green Label Plus seal of approval from the Carpet and Rug Institute. Be aware, however, that while the Green Label Plus covers emissions of some worrisome chemicals, it doesn't cover others, such as flame retardants and perfluorocarbons.

  • Carpet tiles? Consider carpets sold in small pieces called "tiles" rather than "broadloom" (or sheet) carpets. Some brands of carpet tiles don't require any adhesive and can be picked up and rearranged when you want to change a room's look. If areas become worn or stained, tiles can be selectively replaced. (You might want to buy some extras for the future in case the color or pattern you choose is no longer made.)

  • Recycled fiber. If you want a synthetic carpet, choose one with recycled content in the "face" fiber, the backing, or both. The higher the post-consumer recycled content, the more waste is diverted from landfills. Recycled carpet looks and performs as well as virgin-fiber synthetic carpet, and it keeps plastic waste out of landfills and incinerators. It takes about 40 two-liter plastic bottles to make a square yard of recycled polyester carpet.

  • Earth-friendly manufacturers. Favor companies who guarantee they will take back the carpet at the end of its life for recycling. Recycling 500 square feet of carpet saves 24 gallons of oil, 550,000 Btu of energy and 247 pounds of landfill waste.


  • Petroleum-based carpets. Wool carpets are one option, as are floor coverings made from jute, seagrass, cotton, and other natural fibers. Some manufacturers are now making carpets with polyester-like materials derived from corn. And some are using soy instead of petrochemicals to make carpet backing. Agricultural products aren't a perfect solution, however, considering the high levels of petroleum, pesticides, and other chemicals used for conventional farming.

Benefits... your health
Remember that old advertising slogan "better living through chemistry"? Well, it didn't quite work out that way with most carpets. Their fibers and the pads below them often emit potentially hazardous levels of VOCs and other chemicals. The worst fumes come from the carpet backing but even the face of the carpet is typically treated with stain-resistant, soil-resistant and antimicrobial chemicals. Some health and environmental experts oppose the use of antimicrobials in particular, concerned that they may lead to the growth of strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Carpet fibers can also absorb the odors from new paint and furniture, holding onto these noxious chemicals and then releasing them into the air when someone walks on the carpet. For people who are sensitive to these chemicals, the fluff under their feet starts looking more ominous than elegant. the Earth and your wallet
Carpet is also the most short-lived of the flooring alternatives, often lasting only 10 to 15 years. That makes it a problem in landfills, and a drain on your pocketbook. For example: The upfront costs of carpet and hardwood floors can be about the same. But, the hardwood floor may last two or three times as long.

Common Mistakes

Getting Started

  • See if your area has one of the handful of organizations that accepts used carpets for recycling. They charge a fee for your old carpet, but it may be cheaper than sending it to the dump.

  • If you're still mystified about how to find a greener carpet, consider buying from a store that specializes in environmentally friendly home products. They'll be knowledgeable about the best choices.

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the contractor have installing carpet?

    • Ask to for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Related Products & Services

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bamboo Floors


An easy-to-grow grass that looks like wood

Bamboo flooring

Bamboo flooring has the look, feel and durability of wood. This rapidly renewable resource can be harvested in four to six years (compared with decades for most trees used for wood floors). And don't feel bad about the pandas. Of more than a thousand varieties of bamboo, only a few are used for flooring, and they're not the ones that pandas eat.

Bamboo is available with three distinct patterns: horizontal (or flat) grain, vertical grain, and strand (or woven) bamboo. It's available in two shades: natural (blond) and a caramel achieved by steaming the bamboo before drying it (the sugars in the bamboo fiber caramelize, creating the darker color). Strand bamboo is harder than horizontal or vertical grain. The caramel-colored bamboo in either horizontal or vertical grain is a bit softer than the natural color because the fibers are weakened during the steaming process, so it may not be as appropriate for high-traffic areas like entry halls or kitchens.

Top Tips

At home

  • Seal it. In high moisture areas such as kitchens and bathrooms, check with the manufacturer or supplier about whether a topcoat is recommended to help prevent moisture damage.

When shopping, look for

  • Healthy adhesives. Choose a brand made without urea formaldehyde adhesives, which can irritate your lungs and may cause cancer.

  • Low moisture. Choose bamboo that has been properly kiln-dried down to 6% to 8% moisture content compared with 9% or 10% for lesser quality products. More moisture means the bamboo is more likely to expand and contract or even delaminate after it is installed in your home.

  • Long life. Buy from a reputable supplier, and choose products with a long warranty. One reputable supplier guarantees that its bamboo flooring will be free from defects for its lifetime and that the factory finish will last 27 years.

Other Considerations

  • For solid bamboo flooring, bamboo stalks are sliced into thin strips, pressed flat, dried, and laminated with adhesives to create solid boards that are then milled into planks or tongue-and-grove strips. To make engineered bamboo, a second type of flooring, a veneer of bamboo is laminated on top of wood, such as pine, fir, or rubberwood. From an environmental perspective, solid bamboo floors may be a better choice because bamboo grows so much more rapidly than the wood under the veneer.

  • Bamboo flooring can be purchased prefinished or unfinished. From a healthy home perspective, prefinished products are usually preferable because the chemicals cure in the factory rather than in your home. The finish often used on bamboo is a UV-cured acrylic urethane, which has almost no emissions once it's cured in a factory. Aluminum oxide is sometimes added for scratch resistance. If a sealant or topcoat will be applied in your home, choose a low VOC product.

Benefits... your wallet
Solid bamboo flooring can be sanded and refinished multiple times, extending the product's life. Engineered bamboo floors may also be refinishable; check with the manufacturer. the Earth
Bamboo comes from Asia (primarily China), so it takes a lot of fuel to ship it to U.S. consumers. But it also has environmental virtues. It's a rapidly renewable resource. It produces a high yield of fiber per acre, can be harvested in four to six years, and naturally regenerates after it is harvested. Suppliers say that bamboo is grown with little if any irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizer. Until recently, no independent organization certified these claims, but in 2008 a U.S. supplier became the first company to offer FSC-certified bamboo flooring on a special order basis.

Common Mistakes

Buying "bargain" bamboo. All bamboo floors are not created equal. Don't settle for the cheapest bamboo or the first brand you come across. Shop around, find out about formaldehyde emissions, finishes, and warranties. Choose products that meet Europe's E1 or California's 2012 formaldehyde emissions standards (0.05 ppm or lower).

Getting Started

  • Ask any potential installer the following questions:

    • How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing bamboo floors?

    • Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you've chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.

    • If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.

  • For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.

Related Products & Services

Saturday, March 21, 2009



The best ways to buy, run, and bury your PC

There's no shortage of energy to be saved in the world of computers. Today almost 90 million U.S. homes have at least one computer, and about 65 million new ones are shipped to homes and businesses every year. Computers and their attachments ("peripherals") vary widely in their hunger for electricity. An efficient laptop, for instance, uses only 20 percent as much energy as some desktops. Big potential savings are also available to those who know how to set their computer "preferences" and make liberal use of the on/off switch.

Top Tips

At home

  • Consider an upgrade. Perhaps you don't need to lay out the cash for a new computer just yet. Maybe refurbishing your old machine would give you the performance boost you need.
  • Recycle computers

  • Turn on sleep or standby. Depending on the type of computer and peripherals and the cost of electricity, it's possible to save up to $200 a year simply by setting your computer to go into "sleep" or "standby" mode when you aren't using it. If there is more than one computer left on at full power in a household, even greater savings are possible.

  • Use the on/off switch. It is not true that turning computers off damages them, but it is true that turning off computers saves a lot of money.

  • Power down the peripherals. Turn off the printer and other peripherals when you are not using them as well, and if they have a standby or sleep feature, use it. If you plug everything into a surge protector, or "power strip," you can use it to turn everything off at once. Remember that many peripherals, printers especially, can be big energy hogs.

When shopping, look for

  • Energy efficiency. If you decide that you need a new computer, printer, scanner, or all-in-one device, have a look at the government's Energy Star site, which identifies the most energy-efficient models and allows you to compare their energy usage.

Other Considerations

Think about how much speed you need. In the case of printers, the faster they are, the more energy they use. The slowest printers may use only 15% as much energy on standby power as the fastest. If you really don't need a printer that spews out 45 pages a minute, settle for a slower, but less energy-demanding model.

Benefits... your wallet
Buying an efficient computer and running it wisely can save you money year after year. Start with the up to $200 a year you can save by using "sleep" or "standby," and know you're adding a coin or two each time you turn the machine completely off. the Earth
Wonderful as they are, computers are not clean, post-industrial products. In fact their manufacture and use puts out as much greenhouse gas as all the world's airplanes. The simple act of recycling your old computer keeps not only the lead and mercury out of our air and water, but (in older computers) cadmium and brominated flame retardants. An excellent guide to recycling is provided by a national source of recycling information, Earth911. Comprehensive listings and advice for electronics recycling are also available at an EPA site.

Common Mistakes

  • Thinking a screen saver saves energy. It doesn't. It saves the screen from having an image burned onto its surface--which is no longer a problem for modern computers.

  • Forgetting about the old computer. More than 1.5 million tons of computers and peripherals are being sent to the dump each year, and only 15% to 20% of this material is being recycled. Plus, a lot of the recycled material is being sent to countries with poor safety standards, which expose recycling workers to the serious hazards mentioned above.

Getting Started

  • If you are not using your computer's sleep or standby option yet, go to the "preferences" menu and enable it. That move tells the computer to power down after a certain number of minutes of inaction at the keyboard or mouse. (You decide exactly how many minutes when you set the preference.) Don't worry--the computer will quickly wake up again when you hit a key.

  • If you are buying a new computer, remember to recycle your old one. Fortunately, it's easy to learn how to either recycle electronic equipment safely or donate it to organizations that will make good use of it. For information on places closest to you, an excellent guide is provided by a national source of recycling information, Earth911. Comprehensive listings and advice for electronics recycling are also available at an EPA site.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Green Dry Cleaning


Green dry cleaning

Clean your clothes without harmful chemicals

You may recognize it. That faint solvent smell on clothes fresh from the dry cleaners. But those clothes are anything but fresh if they were cleaned with perchloroethylene (perc or PCE). Minor exposures to this solvent can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and respiratory irritation. Sustained exposure may cause a host of adverse health effects, including kidney and liver damage and cancer. Perc released to the environment pollutes the air and can contaminate groundwater supplies.

Fortunately "green" dry cleaners have been sprouting up all over. Here's how to tell the real environmental innovators from the imposters--and keep your old clothes looking great.

Top Tips

At home

  • Wear an undershirt. Having something underneath your dry-clean-only items will allow you to wear them longer between cleanings.

  • Handwash or use the delicate cycle. Many fabrics can be safely hand or machine washed at home, even if the tags say to dry clean them. This is because manufacturers, who may be held responsible if the cleaning method on the tag causes damage to your clothing, tend to play it safe by recommending dry cleaning more often than necessary. Handwash with cold water, or use your delicate cycle with a mild detergent and line or flat dry. Cashmere can be safely washed at home. Silk, wool, and rayon can, too, if you watch the temperature and agitation to eliminate damage and shrinkage. Wool items must be "blocked"--laid flat and stretched to correct size and shape before drying. But bulky wool items such as jackets are probably best taken to a dry cleaner.

  • Air out. If you do get your clothes dry cleaned, keep in mind that they can release perc into your home. While the levels are highest in the room in which the clothes are stored, perc will spread throughout your home for as long as a week. So, you might want to hang your clothes in the garage or outside before bringing them in.

When shopping

  • Buy clothing that doesn't need to be dry cleaned.

  • Try wet cleaning. Water-based cleaning systems use water and biodegradable detergents in special computer-controlled equipment. That's right--water replaces the perc as the solvent. Many different formulations are used for the detergents, but the EPA has examined the human health and environmental hazards of the primary components and found no expected health risks. The process is gentle on delicate fabrics and uses less water and energy than traditional perc dry cleaning. The results are usually comparable to perc dry cleaning and the cost about the same. Not all businesses do a top-notch job though. To avoid unpleasant surprises, you might want to test your local wet cleaner before handing over your favorite clothes.

  • Try carbon dioxide. A relatively new alternative, CO2 dry cleaning has no reported health risks. Under high pressure liquid CO2 from existing industrial and agricultural emissions is used as the cleaning solvent. There's a downside, though: The equipment is expensive, and the process uses detergents and spotters that may contain volatile organic compounds.


  • Solvair machines. If your dry cleaner says it uses carbon dioxide, ask whether it uses a Solvair machine. Dry cleaners using Solvair may rinse the clothes in carbon dioxide, but this isn't the carbon dioxide process described above. Instead, glycol n-butyl ether, which is suspected of causing adverse health impacts, including hormone disruption, is used as the solvent.

  • Hydrocarbon solvents. A number of dry cleaners that claim to be natural, green, or earth-friendly use "high flashpoint hydrocarbon solvent" technology. These use hydrocarbon solvents, such as DF2000, PureDry, EcoSolve, Shell Sol 140 HT, or Stoddard solvent. Hydrocarbon solvents are petroleum based, so they still emit volatile organic compounds.

  • GreenEarth. A process already widely used in California, GreenEarth uses methyl siloxane, or D5, as the dry cleaning solvent. The EPA is still assessing whether siloxane is safe, although an EPA study of rats found a significant increase in uterine tumors following exposure to D5 at high concentrations. Another concern is that manufacturing D5 requires chlorine and may release dioxin.

  • N-propyl bromide (1-bromopropane). This technology, also known as DrySolv, has the advantage of being usable in machines that once used perc. But animal studies have shown that n-propyl bromide causes sterility in both males and females and harms developing fetuses.

Other Considerations

  • Those plastic bags you get at the dry cleaners aren't particularly friendly to the environment. Reuse and recycle them. Better yet, if you have a lot of dry cleaning, purchase a reusable cloth garment bag for your dry cleaner to use.

  • And what about those wire hangers? Take them back to your dry cleaner to be re-used. Or ask your dry cleaner to use your own hangers. Another alternative? Try hangers made from 100% recycled paper.

Benefits... your health
Skipping perc dry cleaning will reduce your exposure to air contaminants and probable human carcinogens. your wallet
If you skip dry cleaning entirely--or at least reduce the number of items you clean this way--you'll save money. the Earth
Saying no to perc dry cleaning will help clean up waterways. (In California alone, perc has contaminated one out of every ten public drinking water wells.) You can also save resources and reduce waste by bringing your own hangers and using a cloth garment bag when you go to the cleaners.

Common Mistakes

Not asking questions. Find out what process your "green" dry cleaner is using. Ask for specifics.

Getting Started

  • Figure out which clothes can be safely cleaned at home.

  • Locate a green dry or wet cleaner.

Related Products & Services

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Home Composting


Garbage in, money out

[youtube][/youtube]Watch Owen Bailey from the Sierra Club teach you how to compost at home.
Making compost from food waste and garden trimmings is fun, easy, and profitable. Even if you live in an apartment and don't have room for a compost bin, you can make compost indoors.

It's basically just organic material that gets broken down into soil by trillions and trillions of bacteria, earthworms, insects, and other organisms. If organic material didn't decompose, our world would soon suffocate in dead plant material and the corpses of everything in the animal kingdom from mites to whales! Composting is nature's way of recycling.

Almost any type of yard or food waste can be placed in your compost: banana peels, egg shells, vegetable trimmings, leftovers, and grass clippings. All you have to do is cover the material with a few inches of soil, moisten it a bit, and let nature make something out of nothing.

Top Tips

At home

  • Grab a bucket. You'll need a small bucket with a lid for collecting food waste in your kitchen. If you want to go high end, stainless steel buckets with filters in the lid let air in but absorb odors.

  • Get a bin. You can buy compost bins, tumblers, and other composting devices for anywhere from $30 to $1,000. Some of the simpler, cheaper models work as well as or better than the more complicated or expensive models. Unless you have a huge yard, bins are a must. They'll keep things tidy and prevent flies and rodents from invading.
  • Home Composting

  • Chop, chop. The finer the material you put in your bin, the faster it decomposes. Also, long stems make it hard to turn the compost to air it out. If you have a garden shredder or chipper, use it to grind up plants, twigs, and branches. A sharp machete is great for chopping, if you don't have a machine.

  • Add water. A spray of water helps speed up the process if your raw material is dry. But too much water can make the compost so soggy that it won't decompose as fast. So if your compost bin doesn't have a cover, it's best to cover it with plastic if there is heavy rain.

  • And turn. Fast, effective composting needs oxygen. Whatever system you use, make sure you keep the compost well aerated. If the compost smells bad, it's not getting enough air. If you have regular compost bins, turn the compost each week. A pitchfork is handy for this purpose. If you get a tumbler-type bin, give it a good spin each time you feed it, or more often if the compost is clumping, clotting, stinking, or not brewing fast enough.

  • Add a nitrogen kick. Compost takes at least eight weeks, but if yours seems to be working too slowly, add blood meal from a garden shop. Green materials such as grass clippings also add nitrogen.

When shopping, look for

  • A composting bin that fits your lifestyle. There are dozens of compost bins and tumblers on the market. They all work--but some take more effort on your part than others. You also need a model sized to fit the space you have available. Here's a brief survey of your choices:

    • Some are simple bins--basically boxes with enough holes to allow oxygen to make the refuse break down into compost. With these, you need to turn the compost.

    • Stacking bins are square or round modules that fit together to make a box of whatever height you need. You can break these down into several boxes to keep the finished compost separate from the less finished.

    • Separation screen bins are rectangular bins that allow the finished compost to sift to the bottom for easy removal rather than requiring movement of more finished compost to another box for finishing. Some compost tumblers also have this feature.

    • Compost tumblers are closed cylindrical bins that stir up and aerate the compost when you crank or spin them around. With these, you don't have to turn your compost. And you don't have to worry about getting too much moisture from rain. Remember, though, that unless the tumbler has a mechanism to separate finished or unfinished compost you'll have to wait until a batch of compost is finished before adding any more garbage or clippings.

    • Worm composting bins might sound yucky, but earthworms are harmless creatures that can turn waste to compost in very short order. Worm composters ideal for apartment dwellers who want to make their own soil for flower pots and other containers. Our partner, the Shedd Aquarium, has great advice on how to start composting with worms. One important caution: The red wiggler earthworms sold for worm composting are non-native, and can harm northern forests. If you live near a forest in a northern state, don't let your worms escape. If you use worm compost outside or are giving it to somebody who will, freeze it for a week to kill worms and eggs.

Other Considerations

If you're the least bit handy, you can make your own compost bins or worm composters or tumblers. All it takes for a compost tumbler, for example, is drilling lots of holes in a garbage can, securing the lid with bolts, twine, or bungee cords, and rolling it around frequently.

Benefits... your yard
Compost is rich in organic matter. Adding it to your soil helps it retain water, reducing the need to irrigate. A healthier soil makes healthier plants, which require little or no fertilizer and pesticide. your wallet
A typical household of four could make about 500 pounds of compost each year from its food and yard waste. Purchasing the same amount of compost or potting soil from a garden supplier would cost about $40. the Earth
Of the 31 million tons of food waste Americans send to landfills each year, only 3% is recycled. More composting would reduce the amount of fuel it takes local governments to deal with this mountain of waste. Well-managed home compost also avoids the release of methane, a global warming gas emitted by organic matter decaying in the absence of oxygen in landfills. And composting improves soil quality, reducing need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

Common Mistakes

  • Failure to finish. Part of the art of composting is separating the fine, finished compost from the newer, unfinished, still-basically-garbage stuff. So if you only have one compost box, bin, tumbler, or other device, be sure it has a screen or other form of separation.

  • Haste. Don't get in a rush. Finished compost is dark, fine, crumbly, and odorless--even earthily fragrant--like good soil. It really takes at least eight weeks, even if compost bin manufacturers claim their devices will produce it faster. Unfinished compost can damage or even kill plants.

  • Using pet waste. Never! Cat and dog feces can contain very dangerous organisms. On the other hand, manure from rabbits, chickens, cows, and horses is fine, and will enrich the compost.

  • Using fatty food, meat, or dairy products. Fats, meat, or dairy products can attract rodents and insects.

  • Using material that's too big. Twigs and branches more than an inch or so in diameter will take a long time to break down. If you have a shredder or chipper, use it.

Getting Started

The first order of business is to find the right site. If you have to run an obstacle course to reach your compost bin, you're less likely to take garbage out and maintain the compost. Also, it's best to put compost bins in full sun, especially in cold climates. It's also handy to have it near a water faucet, because it may need to be moistened in dry weather. In cold locations, cover the heap with straw to keep it warmer.