Doing your part to protect the environment once meant separating paper from plastic in your recycling bin and buying organic greens that you carried home in a reusable tote. But these days, there is a lot more you can do to create a green and healthy home.
Global warming, soaring energy costs, and other environmental concerns are front-page news -- and eco-friendly living means conserving natural resources whenever and however we can. It also means making some lifestyle changes to help save the planet. But the good news is that these changes will help keep your family healthy, and they don't need to cost a lot - in either dollars or time.
"You don't necessarily need extra time or money, or the powers of a superhero, to do your part to look after the planet," says Joanna Yarrow, author of 1,001 Ways to Save the Earth. Yarrow is a sustainable living expert and co-founder of Beyond Green, a company that focuses on sustainable communities. "Pretty much everything we do has an impact on the natural world. So changes to any of our daily activities represent an opportunity to look after the planet better without adding too much to our 'to do' list."
It turns out that "going green" doesn't have to mean expensive investments like solar panels, sustainable wood flooring, and nontoxic paints. Experts say that simple changes in your everyday life are all it takes to make your home a healthier, safer, greener place to be. But don't forget that human beings are creatures of habit, and change takes time. Begin with small steps. For example, make a commitment to change just one habit every month.
To help you get started, WebMD asked experts on environmentally friendly living for tips on how you can turn your home sweet home into home green home.
Creating a green and healthy home: Save energy
- Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs: These bulbs - now available to fit many light fixtures - use just a quarter of the electricity of regular incandescent bulbs. Plus, they last up to 10 times longer, Yarrow says in 1,001 Ways to Save the Earth.
- Turn off the lights: If you or others in your household are forgetful, install movement sensors so lights only activate when needed. Another way to save energy is to install automatic timers for lights frequently left blazing in empty rooms.
- Set cooling and heating temperatures correctly: Your refrigerator and freezer are probably the biggest electrical energy consumers in your house. Take steps to make sure they're not working harder than necessary. Fridges do their job at around 37 F. Freezers set at -3 F keep things nice and frosty. Be sure to close the fridge and freezer doors. Leaving them open for just a few extra seconds wastes a lot of energy. Get an electronic thermostat so your furnace heats your home to a lower temperature while the family sleeps and returns it to a toastier temperature before you get out of bed. In the winter, set your thermostat at 68 F in the day and 55 F at night. In the summer, keep it at 78 F. Water heaters work most efficiently between 120 and 140 F.
- Get unplugged: Electronic appliances, including TVs, computers, and CD players can consume almost as much energy when in standby mode as they do during the relatively small amount of time they're being used.
- Use appliances efficiently: Wait for a full load before turning on the washing machine, dryer, or dishwasher. Clear the lint filter after every dryer load and air-dry clothes when weather allows. Use the air-dry function on your dishwasher. Preheat your oven only when necessary.
- Let the sun shine: The cheapest and most environmentally sound heat and light source is just outside your window. Open blinds, drapes, and shutters to let solar energy warm and brighten your home naturally.
- Stop leaks: Plug, insulate, replace, repair, caulk, or seal to make your home as leak-proof as possible - and watch your utility bills drop. To gauge how your home stacks up in terms of energy-efficiency, you can conduct an energy audit by visiting www.eere.energy.gov/consumer.
Creating a green and healthy home: Clear the air
- Ban smoking: The number one way to combat indoor air pollution is to never let anyone smoke in your home, experts tell WebMD. "It's like inviting a diesel bus into your living room," says Gina Solomon, MD, PhD, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "Cigarettes are full of toxic chemicals, and secondhand smoke exposure can cause cancer. It's a no-brainer. No smoking at home."
- Grow plants indoors: Live plants around your home act as natural air filters, and some plants are particularly effective absorbers of harmful pollutants emitted from carpets, furniture, and electronic equipment. So clean your indoor air and "green" your living space by filling your home with spider plants, Boston ferns, rubber plants, and palm trees.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector: Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas and exposure to it can be deadly. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, pick-up a detector at your local hardware store.
- Check for radon: Radon is a radioactive gas that is naturally present in soil, and it can enter your home through cracks in your foundation. Radon is also the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Radon test kits are available at most hardware stores.
Creating a green and healthy home: Shun toxic products
- Choose non-toxic cleaners: Find eco-friendly alternatives to harsh chemical cleaners, which can cause health problems and pollute the environment as well. Several brands of non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning products are available at both natural grocery shops and chain stores. Or make your own: Baking soda is a cheap and effective all-purpose cleaner, scourer, polisher, and fungicide. Switch to natural disinfectants such as tea tree oil or citrus oils. Try borax and white vinegar as a toilet bowl cleaner.
- Use cloths instead of cleaners: Skip the cleaning products altogether and switch to micro fiber cloths designed to attract dirt on their own. Used damp, the cloths clean most surfaces like glass, stainless steel, brass, wood, and ceramics. When dry, they give off a natural positive charge, which attracts dust. Simply wash the cloths after each use, and you can reuse them again and again.
- Give bug spray the flick: "You want to minimize the use of pesticides in your home - and that's what insect repellents are," says Philip Landrigan, MD, chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and co-author of Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World: 101 Smart Solutions For Every Family. Instead of using repellents, Landrigan says to keep insects out by sealing cracks and holes around doors, windowsills, and baseboards. And keep food stored away and kitchen and eating areas as clean as possible.
Creating a green and healthy home: Grow a greener garden
- Plant an edible garden: Grow your own salad greens, veggies, and herbs. A garden can help reduce soil erosion and reduce air pollution. Aim to plant a plot that doesn't use a lot of water and tend your garden without using toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Instead, purchase organic and earth-friendly garden products at your garden store.
- Compost kitchen scraps: Eggshells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peelings - pretty much any organic matter can find a home in a compost pile or bin. Mix with yard trimmings and add water and presto - you have a nutritious soil enhancer, and you're doing your part to reduce landfill waste.
- Water wisely: Water your garden in the early morning or evening when it's cooler - water evaporates more slowly when it's cool. Water that's been used in sinks, bathtubs, showers or the washing machine - known as gray water - can be used again to water the garden, if it contains only biodegradable soaps.
- Leave grass clippings on the lawn: Grass cuttings act as natural fertilizer when they decompose. So take advantage of them.
Creating a green and healthy home: Beyond paper, plastic, and glass
- Use durable goods: Ditch disposable razors for reusable ones. Swap plastic cups and paper plates for ceramic ones. Choose reusable food containers over plastic wrap. Choose rechargeable batteries over the conventional single-use kind.
- Buy recycled products: Look on labels for products - like writing paper and toilet tissue - with the greatest percentage of post-consumer recycled content. Choose food items like cereals and crackers packaged in recycled cardboard.
- Find creative ways to recycle household goods: Donate used toys to a worthy organization, or start a toy library in your community, rather than tossing them in the trash. Host a clothing swap for grown-ups, and set up a kids' clothing exchange. Do the same with books. Before you toss that cardboard box in the recycling, let your child turn it into a space ship, robot, dollhouse, or secret hiding space for hours or even days of earth-friendly fun.
Create a green and healthy home: Conserve water
- Wait for a full load: Don't turn on the washing machine or dishwasher until it's full. Each washing cycle uses more than 25 gallons of water; make sure that every drop counts.
- Save baths for special occasions: A shower uses about half as much water as the average bath - as long as you keep it to less than 5 minutes. An egg timer suction-cupped on the shower wall is a good way of keep track.
- Fill the sink to do dishes: You'll use a fraction of the water that's used by leaving the faucet running. Ditto on the rinsing front. If you don't have a double sink, use a tub for rinsing.
- Think before flushing: Don't waste water flushing tampons, condoms, or flushable wipes down the toilet, where they can block the sewage system. Dispose of these items in the trash, and save flushing for when you really need to (hint: not after every pee). Up to a third of the drinking water that comes into the typical Western home goes straight down the toilet, says Yarrow, which is a terrible waste of this precious resource.
Create a green and healthy home: Household hazardous waste
Inside nearly every household's garage, basement or kitchen sink cupboard lurks harmful substances like old paint cans, used motor oil, garden pesticides and weed killers, used batteries, old computers or electronics, harsh cleaning chemicals, or pest killers. If you dump this noxious stuff down the drain, you'll pollute the water supply. And if you dispose of it in landfills, they'll leak dangerous chemicals. Instead, do some research to find the best way to dispose of your household toxic waste. Some cities or counties have monthly or annual pickups. Others have special drop-off sites. Call your local government to learn more.