I have often been asked to define the most important thing an individual can do, and I’ve never liked the question because the answer is, “It depends.” On where you live, how you live, whom you live with, and how much time and especially how much money you have. I prefer to talk about principles that anyone can apply. But there are some things that almost all of us can do, so I thought I’d share this list of “10 Practical Ways to Green Your Home,” written for a magazine some years ago:
Everybody knows that there are changes we can make at home to help protect the earth, but many of them seem complicated or daunting. Busy people don’t have time to make non-toxic paint out of burnt baked potatoes. As a mother who runs her own publishing business, I have little patience with some of the silly suggestions I’ve heard from environmentalists, and I look for things I can do that take as little time and money as possible while having the most impact on environmental problems.
1) Regulate your heating. The best way to save money on home heating, and reduce your energy consumption, is to heat the rooms you use, when you use them. Separate thermostats for different zones, timers, and radiator values can control heating, keeping you comfortable without wasting energy.
2) Insulate, to keep your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Windows, floors, attics and doors can be made more energy-efficient. Insulation pays for itself faster than any other conservation measure.
3) Take advantage of solar energy. Leave curtains open throughout daylight hours but close them promptly when it gets dark. Plant trees that lose their leaves on the east and south sides of your home. Remember that dark colors absorb heat while light colors reflect it. Throw a dark blanket over a white couch to increase absorption from the sun.
4) Choose non-electrical equipment and appliances. Sturdy handheld equipment lasts longer and is often easier to use and wash, and requires only human energy to work. Examples are a mouli to grate cheese, a handheld can opener, a carpet sweeper for quick cleaning.
5) Clean out your cleaning cupboard. Most homes are overrun with cleaning products that have been used only once or twice. Give away what you don’t need, or take it to a toxic waste deposit (many towns have annual pickups). Most cleaning can be done with a few basic, non-toxic products – excellent commercial ones are available at wholefood stores, and there’s always good old baking soda, white vinegar, and borax. Tea tree oil cleaners are terrific as disinfectants.
6) Eat the unusual. Encourage biodiversity by choosing the newly available heirloom varieties of potatoes, tomatoes and apples. Shop at farmers’ markets, and buy brown eggs if white are common (the colors of eggs is determined by species, not rearing method), small plantains instead of large bananas, blue corn instead of yellow.
7) Buy old things. Antique furniture and household items, tag sale furniture to be refinished, and high-quality clothing from consignment shops are all ‘recycled’ items and thus reduce waste and do not place extra demand on natural sources.
8) Establish a donations center in your home. Don’t throw away things you no longer need or want. Schools, nonprofit organizations, and charities can make use of everything from excess building materials and computers to clothing and yoghurt cups.
9) Organize your errands. By making one trip instead of many, you can save time, and reduce your contribution to traffic congestion and pollution. The majority of trips we make are short ones which can often be done on foot or by bicycle.
10) Pay for labor. In ecological terms it makes sense to do certain jobs in a labor-intensive way – hand-weeding, for example, rather than using herbicides – so employ someone to do tasks which would otherwise require noisy, expensive and polluting equipment.
This material comes from Karen Christensen’s Home Ecology (Fulcrum 1990), a guide to green living also published in London as The Green Home (2nd edition 1995). Home Ecology was endorsed by Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, who passes on its tips in her employees’ newsletter, and Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute says that Home Ecology is the pick of the environmental lifestyle titles. Sara Parkin, a leading European green spokesperson, writes,”Turning the favorite green slogan ‘act locally, think globally’ into a practical reality is our number one challenge. This book explains how change on a simple, personal level can literally make a world of difference. A must for every home.”