Once upon a time, environmentalists were looked upon as holier-than-thou scolds, politically correct eco-police in vegan Birkenstocks extolling the virtues of their under-the-sink composters (worms optional) and bean-curd burritos.
Now, doing one’s part to save Mother Earth is not only de rigueur, it’s downright cool. Last year, Vanity Fair magazine gushed over the Method line of eco-friendly, sweet smelling, beautifully packaged cleaning products: “Method has made cleaning your shower as Zen an experience as yoga.”
As Zen as yoga? Well, not quite, but just 24 hours after I plugged in Method’s “air-care device,” I walked past the litter box and smelled “cut grass” instead of eau de kitty—a pretty Zen moment indeed.
Zen moments aside, there are plenty of things—simple things—that each and every one of us can do to make our world a better place. Sure, we already march to the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We’ve switched our incandescent bulbs for CFLs, bring our own canvas bags to the grocery, tote our recyclables to the curb, and just say no to junk mail and ATM receipts.
Ready to go the extra carbon-neutral mile? It’s time to rethink business as usual, redefine what’s important, and revise our buying patterns to have less of an impact on our Mother Earth. Here’s where to start your carbon diet.
Spray No Evil
If a cleaning product claims to disinfect or kill germs or bacteria, you can be sure it contains a registered pesticide. (Think about that the next time your toddler is crawling on the kitchen floor or Fido laps up crumbs off the counter.) Replace toxic cleansers at home and at work with eco-friendly products from companies like the aforementioned Method, Greening the Cleaning, Ecover, or Seventh Generation. Even some big-name brands are going green: Clorox recently launched Green Works, its first new brand in 20 years. These new products don’t contain bleach, but are made from coconuts and lemon oil, formulated to be biodegradable and non-allergenic, packaged in recyclable bottles, and not tested on animals.
Other cleaning products were green long before it became fashionable: Bon Ami is a biodegradable scouring powder; Murphy’s Oil Soap is a vegetable-based polish. You can find lots of green choices in your pantry, too. Plain old baking soda doesn’t just help baked goods rise, it also deodorizes drains, cleans countertops, and polishes stainless steel. Cream of tartar gets rid of stains on aluminum cookware (just fill a pan with water, add two tablespoons cream of tartar per quart of water, bring to boil, and simmer 15 minutes). White vinegar cuts through soap scum and is terrific on coffee, rust, and tea stains. Run it through your coffeemaker periodically to get rid of lime build-up or add half a cup to a bucket of hot water to mop floors. Cornstarch absorbs grease—just sprinkle on and wipe up the spill.
Ever wonder why so many cleansers are lemon-scented? It’s because lemon juice is a natural cleanser—the acid dissolves household grime. Use lemon slices or fresh lemon juice to cut through mineral deposits and tarnish or to clean rust stains around faucets and drains; mix half a cup of lemon juice with one cup of olive oil in a spray bottle for a naturally nice furniture polish. You can even speed-clean the microwave by placing a slice of lemon in a dish of hot water and zapping it until it steams, making it a cinch to sponge away grime.
To clean toilets, try pouring a cup of liquid chlorine bleach into the toilet bowl. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes, and scrub with a long-handled brush. (But never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia—or any household cleaner—it’s a killer combo).
Got clogs? Forget Draino or Liquid Plumber and try CLR Power Plumber. Instead of toxic chemicals, this is a can of compressed air with a gasket on top. You turn the can upside-down, fit the gasket on the drain, and push down on the can for one second while the air inside blows down. Presto: clean drains with a fresh lemon scent!
Reach for Recycled Paper Products
It’s not feasible to totally give up paper products, but when you grab Bounty, Scott, or Kleenex brand paper towels, you’re basically destroying virgin wood to mop up your messes. Switch to unbleached (or lightened without chlorine) recycled paper products, looking for those with the highest “post-consumer waste” content.
Marcal, Seventh Generation, or 365 (a Whole Foods brand), are good options. If every household in the U.S. replaced just one package of 100 percent virgin paper towels with 100 percent recycled ones, one million trees would be saved. Switch paper napkin and toilet-paper brands too and we’ve saved a veritable forest!
Smart Heating and Cooling
Think you have to invest a small fortune converting your home to solar or geothermal systems to get green energy? Think again. Consumers can choose 100 percent green electricity from both NYSEG and Con Ed—it costs about a penny and a half more per kilowatt hour (half that for 50 percent green energy) than traditional electricity. To switch, call your provider or visit nyseg
solutions.com or coned.com. While you’re at it, ask for a free audit to find hidden energy wasters. You can save up to 40 percent on your energy bills by sealing leaks, adding insulation, and tightening up ductwork.
If you heat your home with oil, switch to biofuel. It costs the same as regular oil (and may have tax incentives), is made from domestically produced renewable sources, creates fewer emissions than fossil fuels, and contributes virtually no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Other ways to reduce energy costs? Raise your thermostat in summer, lower it in winter to reduce energy use: you’ll save about three percent per degree. And if you use a ceiling fan along with the AC, it makes a room feel six or seven degrees cooler. A whole-house attic fan sucks all the hot air out of the home, making air conditioning more effective or, in many cases, unnecessary.
It may seem obvious, but we do it all the time: don’t heat or cool rooms you don’t regularly use. Adjust the thermometer when away from the house for extended periods of time. Insulate windows with acrylic energy panels, and use floor-length lined curtains to block drafts in winter and sunlight in summer. Seal outlets on exterior walls with foam insulators behind the faceplates of light switches and electrical outlets.
When big-ticket appliances need replacing, it’s a prime-time opportunity to go green. Look for the Energy Star, which connotes energy efficiency. Since the Environmental Protection Agency started the Energy Star program in 1992, emissions equivalent to those of 25 million vehicles have been cut and $14 billion in energy costs saved. For washing machines, the front-loading models have the best overall performance, according to Consumer Reports, and can reduce water consumption by up to 25 percent. Use cold water instead of warm or hot for added savings.
Replace high-volume toilets (pre-1994) and consider automated faucets in kitchens and baths. (Look for fixtures with the new WaterSense labels to find models that use the least amount of water.) For about $50 more than a standard low-flow toilet, you can get a low-flow dual-flush toilet by Kohler or Toto that allows you to select between two flow amounts—one for liquids and another for solid waste. It can shave about $20 to $30 a year off your water bill.
Install low-flow showerheads and faucets if yours predate 1992 to reduce overall water consumption. Or, if you don’t want to change the fixtures, simply add aerators, which screw on to the end of the faucet, mixing air with water. They don’t affect water pressure, but will reduce the flow.
When it comes time to replace your conventional hot water heater, buy a tankless model, which only heats the water that you use (you’ll save on fuel and never run out of hot water again). In the meantime, wrap your conventional unit in an insulated jacket. It can reduce water-heating costs by 25 percent.
Detox Your House
When remodeling, make sure you choose formaldehyde-free building materials, PVC-free wallpapers and blinds, and low- or zero-VOC paints. Brands to look for include Christopher Peacock Paint, Anna Sova, YOLO Colorhouse, American Pride, BioShield, AFM Safecoat, the Eco Spec and Aura lines of Benjamin Moore, and the new non-toxic Mythic Paint (see page 23). American Blinds, Wallpaper and More now offers lots of eco-friendly products, including a new line of Graham & Brown wallpaper that is made from recycled material or sourced from managed forests. Its Easy Walls line is pre-pasted, washable, vinyl-free, and fully breathable.
For carpets, natural fibers like organically grown cotton, sisal, sea grass, jute, or 100 percent sustainable New Zealand wool are the greenest choices. If you do buy conventional carpet, ask the store to have it rest outdoors or in an open area for a day or so to release some of the toxins. Use tacking strips instead of glue for installation and keep windows open and the room well ventilated for as long as you can smell the carpet’s odor.
For non-carpet flooring, consider natural linoleum, cork, or bamboo, and recycled glass or porcelain tiles. Consider these brands: EcoTimber and Plyboo (bamboo), Expanko (cork and recycled rubber tiles), Marmoleum (linoleum from linseed oil, pine rosin, and pine floor), Restoration Timber (reclaimed wood), Vida and Cortica (cork planks and tiles), and Vida Grandis (tropical hardwood made from Argentine eucalyptus). Leather, too, can be used on floors, walls, and even crown moldings.
Go natural, too, when buying new home furnishings. Instead of endangered teak, choose wicker, made from fast-growing willow reeds. On a budget? Even Ikea has jumped on the green bandwagon with its PS collection with storage cones made from recycled paper and plastic and cushions hand embroidered by Indian cooperatives.
Upscale designers and manufacturers Phillip Jeffries, Mitchell Gold, and Odegard are using hemp (which requires little or no pesticides in farming) in everything from wall coverings to upholstery to carpets. Indika Organics Malabar and Valley View Collections use hemp for their fabrics, ideal for chairs or drapes. Angela Adams Sustainable Collection for Architex features fabrics made from 100 percent recycled polyester and Sam Kastens’ new Twill Textiles collection incorporates Climatex fibers, wool-based biodegradable fibers.
Want to be mindful when it comes to kitchen design? Instead of particleboard cabinets, which have toxic resins and are made from timber products, look for Kirei (KireiUSA.com) and wheat-board panels made from sorghum stems and reclaimed agricultural fiber respectively; Medite II, a medium-density fiberboard bound with formaldehyde-free resin (EarthSourceWood.com); and Varia and Organics, resin panels from recycled industrial material and hand-dyed banana fibers respectively (3-Form.com).
Building a green home is more cost effective than remodeling green—just three to five percent more than traditional methods versus five to 15 percent. A 2007 survey by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) showed that home buyers would be willing to spend nearly $9,000 more for a house if it could cut their utility bills, so it makes sense to explore your eco-options.
A geothermal system is the gold standard of energy systems, taking the heat out of the earth (which stores it at a constant temperature of 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) and sending it directly into your home. In summer, the process works in reverse, drawing heat out. You will still need electricity to power your home.
Despite Westchester’s periodic gloomy weather, we are surprisingly well situated for solar power, producing about 90 percent of the electricity that California panels do. With rebates and tax credits covering roughly two-thirds of the cost, solar panels are a much more affordable way to cut your electric bills than you might think. (NYSERDA.org and solarelectricpower.org both list recommended contractors.) While radiant heat initially costs about 25 percent more than a forced-air system, it makes up for that over time with lower energy costs. Added bonus—no more cold tootsies!
There are other considerations that can be helpful for earth-conscious building. Windows should have a low E coating, which reflects heat, keeping it out in the summer, in during the winter. For roofs, choose light-colored shingles over dark ones; studies show the lighter ones cut AC use by up to 40 percent. Enviroshake is a roofing material that looks like cedar and costs about the same, but it’s maintenance free and made of 95 percent recycled or reclaimed materials. The manufacturer claims that it won‘t rot, warp, crack, or blister, and is resistant to hail, mold, mildew, and insects—and it backs up the product with a 50-year, non-prorated, and transferable warranty. RoofRoc is recycled plastic and limestone that looks like slate.
We love the look of granite and marble in our kitchens and baths and, heaven knows, these are natural materials. But they must be removed from the earth and transported long distances, making for a mighty big carbon footprint. Consider countertops made of recycled paper, glass, or porcelain that are both attractive and green.
The Great Green Outdoors
Do your drive around town with a muddy Prius because you hate to waste the H²O? There’s no reason to use water anymore to wash your wheels. Just spritz on Eco Touch Waterless Car Wash ($9.99) and rub off dust and dirt. (The company also has a green clean car kit for $39.99, complete with eco-friendly cleansers for the dashboard, carpet, and upholstery, as well as a metal polish.) If you opt to clean your car the old-fashioned way, consider parking on the lawn, so soapsuds can filter through the earth.
When it comes to the great outdoors (or a small yard), buy drought-resistant shrubs and grass that only need to be cut once a month rather than once a week (check out NoMowGrass.com). A water-sipping drip irrigation hose instead of sprinklers eliminates wasted water. Mulch around shrubs and flower gardens to suppress weeds and preserve moisture.
If you’ve got a pool, instead of that nasty old-school chlorine, how about a salt-water or solar-ionized pool? And, for goodness sake, cover it when not in use—you’ll save about 1,000 gallons of water a month due to less evaporation.
Finally, if you use compost to fertilize your garden, heed this: indoor composters have definitely improved their profile. The NatureMill model fits under the sink or any standard-size cabinet, has a powerful carbon filter that kills even a hint of odor, and can turn 60 pounds of food waste or junk mail into rich, loamy, compost for your garden in just two weeks. Turning garbage into black gold, now that is Zen indeed.
Nancy L. Claus is a features editor at Westchester Magazine and frequently writes about home décor and gardening.
Continue Reading For Expert Advice
Greening homes—and entire towns
Photo by John Rizzo
Having grown up in Israel, one of the driest countries in the world, Mayan Metzler learned early on that “every drop of water matters” and that energy should be conserved. That eco-consciousness has translated well to his full-service design and remodeling firm, MyHome, which is working to bring new meaning to the term “green house.”
His company, which has a Westchester showroom in Mount Kisco in addition to others around the tri-state area, has long had an eco-friendly bent, but Metzler and partner Yoel Piotraut recently proclaimed their intent to promote green building throughout the New York metropolitan area. In addition to loading the company‘s website with ideas on earth-friendly projects and materials, the firm has an entire outfit devoted to green home improvement: the MyHome CleanTech division focuses on renewable energy alternatives, such as solar or geothermal heating and wind turbine power.
“One of the things I love about the whole green movement is that it’s an opportunity to get everyone—regardless of who they are or what they do, regardless of sex or nationality or religion—to create something important,” Metzler says.
Content with their progress here, the two entrepreneurs are now looking to spread their wings wider. Their latest endeavor, MyPlanet, takes the MyHome model to the next level by pooling green development professionals from around the world “for the sole purpose of combating climate change with sustainable building strategies.” MyPlanet recently got the green light to make the Israeli town of Eilat more environmentally friendly, with the goal of saving 10 percent in energy and water each year. It’s a project Metzler hopes to apply to buildings—and even entire towns—in Westchester in the near future.
Mayan Metzler’s Tips
- Use green materials like cotton, soy, foam, and cellulose for insulation. Not only will this save in heating and cooling costs, materials with low VOC ratings create a cleaner environment with fewer allergens.
- First used in Europe, solar hot water and solar pool heating is a relatively inexpensive way to save energy.
- Consider using products by Textured Coatings of America (texcote.com) for your home’s exterior coating. Because it reflects sunlight, the product reduces energy consumption for cooling by 20 percent.
74 South Moger Avenue
Transforming factories into livable spaces
Photo by John Rizzo
As a student during America’s first energy crisis, Stephen Tilly was focused on solar and environmental design before Ronald Regan sat in the Oval Office. “I was always aware of environmental issues, so it became a way of linking my professional activities to larger issues,” the architect explains. “I saw the connection immediately.”
Three decades ago, Tilly says, his projects were seen as ahead of their time. “Now I have people coming to me through the network who are asking for this,” says the principal owner of Stephen Tilly, Architect, in Dobbs Ferry, with a tinge of amusement in his voice. Tilly and his team of 11 architects, a landscape designer, and an historic preservation specialist have flexed their green muscles all over Westchester—from “recycling” a historic factory into a structure encompassing the Irvington Public Library and affordable housing units to serving as consulting architect for Lyndhurst in Tarrytown to renovating the 36,000-square-foot Music Conservancy of Westchester in White Plains.
Residential renovations also are becoming more and more popular, as people realize that using fewer materials, machines, and modes of transportation “has a lot less impact on the environment,” according to Tilly. Right now, his team is helping Westchester County create a sustainable plan for the conversion of a 183-acre Yorktown farm into an environmental resource center to be shared by the County, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Watershed Agricultural Group. It’s a project that will have many returns, open some eyes, and, if we’re lucky, create a whole new generation of Stephen Tillys.
Stephen Tilly’s Tips
- Insulate your attic.
- Invest in high-quality interior or exterior storm windows.
- When planning renovations, look first at making the space you already have more efficient. Minimize demolition and recycle construction debris.
Stephen Tilly, Architect
22 Elm Street, Dobbs Ferry
Recycling a Kennedy’s cabinets in your kitchen
Photo by John Rizzo
Picture the satisfaction of buying a drop-dead gorgeous kitchen for less than half the price you’d expect. Now go a step further: imagine that the money you pay for that kitchen is going to a good cause. Feel good? Thank Green Demolitions.
From fixtures to furniture, cabinetry to countertops, Green Demolitions accepts donations from people looking to renovate or demolish their homes, resells them at 50 to 75 percent off the retail price, and gives donors a tax deduction to boot. In addition to saving money for customers and homeowners (Green Demolitions picks up most donations, eliminating hefty disposal costs), less construction debris means a healthier environment. And, in a win-win-win program, proceeds from sales go to Recovery Unlimited, which supports All Addicts Anonymous (AAA), a 12-step group for addicts of everything from alcohol to food to anger.
Steve Feldman, president of Green Demolitions and a onetime addict himself, came up with this inspired idea back in 2001, while raising funds for the AAA outreach programs in Greenwich, Connecticut. Stumbling across a razed 10,000-square-foot onetime Rockefeller estate owned by former Iranian Empress Farah Pahlavi, he had to wonder what would become of the “old” cabinets and appliances and furniture inside.
“I stood there in the driveway thinking that queens do not live in shabby houses. There just had to be good things in there,” he recalls. “Why not start a demolition donation program to support my outreach project?”
In 2005, he did just that, incorporating the nonprofit organization Recovery Unlimited to operate Green Demolitions and to earn the funding for AAA programs. The company now has three stores (including its flagship showroom in Norwalk, Connecticut), a website through which customers can preview and buy donations, and a long roster of satisfied customers. Having recently scored two truckloads of goodies in Westchester from the Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. family, Feldman is ready to tackle the entire New York area, spread across the East Coast, and, perhaps, beyond. “I’d like to get a shot at every good quality kitchen that gets thrown out,” he says. “Every single one.”
Steve Feldman’s Tips
- Evaluate your good-condition kitchen cabinets, appliances, and countertops to form a true appraisal of what can be donated.
- If you decide to donate recycled items, contact a charity early in the process.
- Keep your kitchen designer and/or contractor in the loop about your donation plans to prevent valuable items from being demolished or discarded.
19 Willard Road
(203) 354-7355 /(888) 887-5211
Introducing enviro-chic to Kips Bay
Photo by John Rizzo
Dining rooms are a given, bedrooms are standard, but there was a new space at the revered Kips Bay Decorator Show House last year: an environmental room outfitted by interior designer Cheryl Terrace. Tented with organic materials and finished with an oxygen-emitting, plant-covered “living wall,” the room was proof positive that sustainable and locally sourced elements are both possible and pretty.
Having been raised in Louisiana, the owner of Vital Design Ltd. always had a reverence for nature and animals. She “walks the environmental walk” both with her design company, which was founded in 1997, and through a lifestyle that centers around hiking, yoga, and the absence of meat. Still, Terrace prefers to consider herself a “mindful” designer rather than a green one, decorating clients’ homes with an environmentally sound focus that enriches the mind, body, and spirit. Characterized as “part sustainable design, part Feng Shui, part luxury style, and part cutting-edge innovation,” her Manhattan-based company has been greening up Westchester with projects in places such as Katonah, Briarcliff, and Irvington.
Single father Peter Goldich came to this eco-friendly—and just plain friendly—designer for help pulling together his Ossining townhouse. In addition to finding ways to reuse his old furniture, rugs, and artwork, she showed him how to reduce his electricity use by covering the windows with solar shades, moving furniture from the heating vents, adding insulation, and wrapping his hot-water heater. “I laugh when I see the words ‘save the planet,’ ” she says. “The planet will be fine; it may not be the place we know now, but it will be here long after we no longer are. It’s more about saving our future generations.”
- Take off your shoes at the door so you don’t track in dirt and pesticides from outside.
- Reuse furniture by having pieces repainted with non-toxic paint and and reupholstered with organic textiles.
- Buy live plants, which help clean the air, instead of pesticide-sprayed roses, which not only are toxic but also exploit workers.
Vital Design Ltd.
102 West 85th Street
New York City
Hitting the roof for greener landscapes
Photo by John Rizzo
Now a green landscape designer, speaker, consultant, and blogger, there was once a time when even Richard Heller gave up on Mother Earth.
While researching a Vassar College thesis on alternative technology, the then-young idealist came to the disturbing conclusion that society would never shake its oil dependency because the huge corporations “have us by the throat,” he says. Seeing nothing but a futile, uphill battle, he admittedly gave up and went into landscaping.
But, by a twist of fate some 10 years ago, Heller was commissioned to build a garden directly on top of a roof—an unfamiliar concept at the time. He had no idea that the greenroof was an environmentally friendly tactic designed to double the lifespan of the roof, lower heating and cooling costs by acting as an insulator, curb storm-water runoff, and reduce global warming by absorbing pollutants and carbon dioxide. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the alternative technology that I wrote about in college,’ “ Heller says. “So I made the decision that I was going to base my whole business on sustainable practices.”
Self-described as “very Al Gore” about the environment, the father of five now owns the Pelham landscape-design firm Greener by Design. Originally founded as Mornhurst Gardens by his mother, Ann Roberts Levine, Heller expanded the company from interior plants to exterior landscape design, changing its name in 2005.
With his newfound inspiration, this forward thinker now lives and works with a devout eco-friendly consciousness. In addition to earning kudos as a builder for his greenroofs, his company uses water-conserving irrigation systems, low-voltage lighting, organic fertilizers, and non-chemical weed controls, installing native plants “as much as possible.” For Heller, the grass is always greener.
Richard Heller’s Tips
- Use organic fertilizers. For every pound of chemically produced nitrogen, 6.2 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
- Five percent of air pollution in the United States is produced from gas lawn mowers, so swtich to one that runs on electricity. (It’s cheaper in the long run as well.)
- Use drip or low-pressure irrigation instead of pop-up sprinklers, which are 80 to 90 percent more efficient.
Finding second homes for your castoffs
Photo by John Rizzo
When Sleepy Hollow native Callie Sullivan realized that she needed the help of a professional organizer to clear out her closets and office, which were “filled to the brim” with books and items she had inherited, she enlisted Niña Weireter to help tackle the task. Weireter, owner of Ossining-based My Divine Concierge, combats clutter with a twist: she doesn’t dump, she donates. Three carloads later, the local thrift shop had new clothes, eBay had new listings, and Sullivan’s office had wood shelves transplanted from her library.
Many people have clutter in their homes—the closet full of clothes that no longer see the light of day, the garage that houses little Johnny’s playhouse rather than the family car. Weireter not only gets rid of the mountains of stuff most of us have accumulated, she finds second homes for as much of it as possible (and sends you a receipt for tax deductions).
Having once helped a woman who had 50 pairs of pajamas she was unwilling to part with, Weireter believes reducing consumption will make the earth better for our children. Americans consume “like it’s endless” she says, and we believe our castoffs disappear when the garbage truck hauls it away.
Why bring in an outsider to help pitch your junk when you can do it yourself? Because chances are you won’t. “I don’t have that emotional eye that owners do,” Weireter explains. Translation: she doesn’t have a problem hauling off that tacky, unused vase (a wedding gift from your aunt) or the My Little Pony your daughter (now at college) once played with. Weireter, a mother of three, doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, however. “Niña doesn’t encourage you to toss everything,” says Sullivan. “She just separates the wheat from the chaff.”
Niña Weireter Tips:
- Pay as many of your bills online as possible and convert financial statements from paper to digital files.
- Keep a bag or container in your closet to collect hangers from laundered shirts. A single person uses 300 hangers a year that can be returned and reused by the dry cleaners.
- In your work area, keep a paper shopping bag with handles into which you can throw paper recycling. The bag gets reused and the handles make it easy to carry to the curb on recycling day.
My Divine Concierge