On our website, we make it no secret that ethical, sustainable, green living is one of our priorities. One of our main goals is to promote the use of natural, renewable materials such as cork in fashion, and to prove that you can be environmentally responsible while still looking great and expressing your personal style.
But, living in accordance with nature takes many forms. So, we decided to take a few minutes today to talk about some other important ways (beyond our normal discussion of ethical fashion) that we can make small efforts to live greener on a daily basis.
Here are five tips that we practice personally to create a green, healthy home, that with little effort, you can implement in your home too.
1. Choose Natural Cleaning Ingredients
For many people, one of the hardest old habits to kick is that of using harsh, toxic cleaning chemicals and personal hygiene products. Today, we have been conditioned to believe that it is necessary to use a different type of "soap" for everything, for example, body soap, hand soap, dish soap, laundry detergent, floor cleaner, etc. In reality, most of our different "soaps" are actually better termed as "detergents," which are usually made from a base of sodium laurel sulfate, which acts as a surfactant. "Surfactant" is a term that refers to a substance that lowers the surface tension of water, making molecules of dirt more slippery and easier to remove. (1) However, these cleaning products usually are mildly to extremely toxic (often with added carcinogenic preservatives), and can cause health problems upon consistent exposure and be persistent in the environment.
The truth is that most household cleaning can be done with a simple, natural soap containing few ingredients. Traditional soap differs from detergent-based cleaners in that it is completely biodegradable, entirely natural, and non-irritating to the skin and eyes. We recommend Dr. Bronner's soap, which can be easily found in many American supermarkets and stores, including Whole Foods Market and Target Stores, as well as online for the European market. Dr. Bronner's soap is made following the traditional soap-making method of combining natural oils and sodium/potassium hydroxide. The sodium or potassium hydroxide (used to make bar soaps and liquid soaps, respectively) completely breaks down in the process of transforming oils into soaps, and leaves behind a fatty-chain with a polar head (and glycerin as a by-product), which attracts dirt to the fatty part of the soap molecule and attracts water to the polar head of the molecule, thereby removing the dirt. We personally use Dr. Bronner's soap in our daily lives for everything, including hand-washing, dish-washing, mopping the floors, and even on our clothes in the washing machine. We use the bar soap for hand-washing and the liquid soap for dishes and for the washing machine. Our personal favorite scents are orange, lavender, and peppermint.
Besides naturally-produced Castille/Marseille soaps such as Dr. Bronner's, other green cleaning ingredients include baking soda, white or apple cider vinegar, ethyl alcohol, lemons, herbal essential oils, and citric acid.
2. Go Reusable
Although it is true that the majority of ocean pollution actually comes from discarded fishing nets and other fishing-related debris, a huge part of the plastic waste found in the oceans and landfills can be attributed to single-use plastics. Plastic water bottles, shopping bags, straws, silverware, food packaging and take-away containers, for example, are huge culprits in the wide-spread environmental plastic pollution problem.
It may seem like nowadays we live in an extremely wasteful culture, especially in America, but it hasn't always been this way. After World War II in America, there was a culture of reusing, re-purposing, and making things last, due to the scarcity during the Great Depression. In fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, a "public relations" campaign by the US government and the plastic industry was created to, in essence, "teach" people that it is okay to use plastics once and then throw them away, in direct contrast to the previously resourceful mentality of fixing what is broken. In order to take the eyes of the public away from production of plastic in the first place as being problematic, these campaigns, such as "Keep America Beautiful," which seemingly promoted a message of environmental stewardship, focused on "littering" of plastics as the main problem. Basically, the end game was to convince the public that as long as single-use plastics are placed in the designated waste receptacles, that plastic does not pose an environmental problem at all.
But in reality, the chemical manufacturing companies knew that this was not the case from the beginning. Plastic takes hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade, and certain types of plastic, such as plastic wrap, are not even able to be recycled. While refraining from littering is important, it doesn't even remotely solve the problem of massive amounts of plastic being sent to landfill and winding up in our oceans every day.
Perhaps some people think that it's silly to preoccupy oneself with not using plastic straws when the plastics industry is still pumping out new single-use plastics every day. And we agree that it shouldn't be on the shoulders of the individual consumer to remedy a problem that needs to be addressed at a level of global production. Plastic producers (and the chemical industry in general) should be held accountable for cleaning up their waste, and severely penalized for the extreme levels of pollution that they have knowingly created.
However, that is not to say that our everyday choices don't matter on the grand scale. It may seem like just one water bottle, just one straw, or just one bag, and sure, we all have days where we'd forget our heads if they weren't attached to our bodies and we forget our reusables behind. It's not to guilt us into feeling embarrassed if we forget a reusable bag, but only to say that with a little preparation, we can make everyday choices that don't weigh so heavy on the planet. We believe in striving toward a zero-waste lifestyle as much as possible, whether at home or when out. At home, we can do our best to avoid disposables by simply not buying them, and always using ceramic plates, metal silverware, and glass cups, for example, rather than paper or plastic disposable items. Also, when going out for the day, by taking the extra few minutes to grab our reusable items before leaving the house, such as a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, cloth bag, straw, or food container, we can make a huge difference in the amount of plastic that we use on a daily basis and bring into our home, and therefore lower the amount of waste that we create on a personal level. In this way, we also make our voices heard as consumers, that we do not approve of the way that the planet is being exploited for resources, and we will no longer continue to support polluting industries.
3. Pay Attention to Electro-Domestics
Of course, we are all aware that home appliances use electrical energy to operate and can be taxing on the environment. As a disclaimer, I'll be the first person to say that I love my washing machine and my dishwasher. Home appliances can make life much easier and make it so that tasks such as washing clothes and dishes take much less time. There are certain home appliances that can actually have a beneficial effect on the environment, and others that are best avoided.
As I said before, the washing machine and dishwasher are two home appliances that I greatly appreciate. When buying appliances, the first thing to check for is the Energy Star rating, to be sure that when buying new, you are purchasing the most energy-efficient appliance possible. Both of these appliances actually take cold water from your home water system and heat the water inside of the machine, rather than using hot water directly from the pipes. The best practice is to not run either machine unless it is completely full. For clothes, it is best to only wash things that are actually dirty, rather than just throwing everything indiscriminately into the dirty clothes hamper after one usage. For dishes, if there are only a few items in the dishwasher, wash them by hand or leave them until there is enough to run the machine.
In fact, some sources state that using a washing machine and a dishwasher actually can save water, with respect to washing clothes and dishes entirely by hand. As long as a natural, biodegradable soap is used in the machines, and energy-efficient appliances are purchased, these electro-domestics can have a very low energy usage and help us to save water, while not contributing to waste water runoff.
However, there are some home appliances that are best avoided if you are looking to reduce your environmental impact and create a healthy home environment. The top 2 appliances that we recommend avoiding are the clothes dryer and the air-conditioner.
In our home, we actually do not even own a dryer or an air-conditioner. In Europe, it is extremely rare to find a dryer in a person's home. Really, the usage of clothes dryers doesn't even make a lot of sense. Clothes dry naturally when hung on a rack or a clothes line within 24-48 hours, and although this might be longer than it would take in a dryer, it is a much better practice for the sake of the planet, and is actually quite rewarding. Dryers pollute - the exhaust from a dryer has to be routed to be released outside of the house. When "scented laundry freshener" chemicals are heated from wet clothes inside of a dryer, the exhaust released from dryer vents can potentially contain a myriad of hazardous air pollutants. An article from the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives recognizes that dryer vents are an overlooked source of pollution, and that research into this topic is severely lacking. (2)
The air-conditioning unit is also an energy-intensive home appliance that not only consumes large amounts of electrical energy during its use, but is also a potential source of indoor and outdoor air pollution. Air conditioning units contain a variety of chemical components, such as but not limited to Freon, that are damaging to the environment and potentially damaging to health if inhaled, in the case that an air-conditioning unit is not functioning properly. Also, air conditioning units can harbor mold and bacteria, due to the condensation created inside the unit while running. If the condensation does not drain, the vents inside the unit can grow mold, which can lead to respiratory as well as other health problems for the people breathing the air being passed through the vents of your home. Besides the risks of airborne mold and chemical pollutants, living in an air-conditioned environment can make it harder for your body to adjust to outdoor temperatures and make your body predisposed to catching a cold. (3)
Understandably, using an air-conditioning unit at times can be almost necessary if you live in an extremely hot environment, such as South Florida for example. If you absolutely have to use an air-conditioner to prevent heat stroke, we simply recommend using the unit only when it is truly necessary, rather than keeping it running 24 hours a day. If there is a breeze outside, turn off the AC and open your windows to create natural cross-ventilation. Remember that for the best energy efficiency and for your health, don't keep your air-conditioner running at a temperature that is too cold respective to outdoor temperatures. During warm months, indoor ambient temperature should be set to 78 degrees F, and during cool months, indoor temperature should be 68 degrees F or lower.
Reducing food waste that goes to landfill is incredibly important. Food waste, as well as paper towels and yard scraps, are entirely biodegradable, yet often mixed in with non-biodegradable items in the trash. The problem is, not only are we adding to the material going to landfill by throwing our food waste in the trash can, but this food waste actually can be a large contributor to methane gas in landfills. Shockingly, it has been found that more food goes into landfills than any other single material in municipal waste. Even though food waste is completely biodegradable, it cannot properly biodegrade when it is buried in a landfill. It remains untreated and can create a slew of chemical run-off and fumes when combined with other hazardous materials in the trash. (4)
Even if we do our best to not throw uneaten food in the trash, it is nearly impossible not to create any food waste when cooking at home, such as potato and cucumber peels, tomato skins, or melon rinds, for example. Sometimes it can be hard to not use paper towels, for example, to clean up oily kitchen spills, where a regular kitchen towel might be destroyed in the process.
So what to do? The answer is simple - start composting!
Composting is a beneficial activity from all perspectives. First off, adding your food scraps and paper towels to a compost bin allows them to fully biodegrade naturally into dirt. In a healthy compost, food biodegrades without creating mold in the process, as worms naturally begin to eat the food. This is called vermi-composting, and it allows for full aerobic respiration of your compost bin. Some composting bins can be turned upside down to facilitate movement and respiration and prevent mold growth.
Besides the important fact that composting diverts otherwise biodegradable waste from going to landfill where it adds to the problem of waste sludge, creating a compost bin has rewarding benefits also on the home-front. Having a compost bin allows you to personally create living, nutrient and enzyme rich soil at home, which can be used to naturally fertilize your garden. When turning the soil before planting a garden, your freshly-composted soil can be spread on the ground where you intend to plant.
Composting can help you if you want to start living according to "zero-waste" principles. Not mixing in food with your other non-recyclable trash can help you visualize better what actually is making up the bulk of your waste production. If your trash is filled with food and paper towels, you might not realize that, for example, its actually wrappers from processed foods and plastic food wrap packaging that is filling up your trash bin. With time, it will become natural to bring your food scraps outside rather than tossing them in the trash.
When composting, keep in mind that you should never add "sick" or moldy foods to your bin, or toxic substances such as motor oil. It is also recommended to not add citrus peels to a compost bin if they are not organic, as pesticide residues can harm the growth of a healthy compost.
5. Grow an Organic Garden
Continuing from the idea of creating a compost bin, an incredibly beneficial activity for your health and sustainable living is gardening. Starting a garden may seem complicated, but it can be as simple as planting a couple of rows of seeds, small plants, or small trees. Not only can gardening relieve stress and be a good form of exercise, but planting a seed and watching it grow is an experience that allows us to connect with nature on a new level. Cultivating food is a form of meditation that facilitates a greater respect for the earth and a greater understanding of the cycles of nature and the seasons.
Beyond the benefits to our health inherit in being outside and putting our hands in the dirt, growing your own food is a great way to reduce energy and material usage. For example, let's say you need to go to the grocery store to buy all of your food for the week. You will probably need to use a car to transport a large food purchase home, which requires the gasoline to drive to the store and back. When buying food, sometimes it is hard to find fruits or vegetables without plastic packaging, especially if buying organic in a grocery store that is not specifically designed for organic produce. If the entire produce department is sprayed with pesticides, organic food is required by law to be placed inside of plastic packaging. From one thing to another, buying food usually means bringing some form of packaging into your home. When harvesting food from your own garden, no plastic packaging and no driving is necessary!
On a side note, in order to reduce food packaging when shopping in a supermarket, the best bet is to buy everything that you can from bulk dispensers and carry your own reusable produce bags. Most stores that sell in bulk allow you to bring your own jars and refill them with beans, nuts, grains, etc. in order to reduce packaging and allow you to buy only what you need.
Another benefit to starting your own garden is that you will know exactly what is going on your plate. Buying organic can be expensive, but not buying organic can be detrimental to your health. Conventional fruits and vegetables in the US have been found to contain up to 20 different pesticide residues in a single batch tested. The US Department of Agriculture found in an analysis that conventionally-grown strawberries and spinach contained the highest amount of pesticides, where the spinach contained nearly twice the pesticide residue by weight than any other fruit or vegetable. (5)
With these frightening statistics, it is more important than ever to take control of our food quality at home. By growing your own food, you will be able to rest assured that it is grown organically (granted that you have not sprayed any pesticides or used any chemical fertilizers), and that the food that you are serving your family is full of nutrients, not toxic substances meant to kill insects. No longer will you have to choose between expensive organics and inexpensive vegetables inundated in toxins. You will save money by simply going outside to harvest your own food to cook, rather than having to buy all of your food. Food grown locally, especially in your own backyard, tastes completely different than food grown with pesticides or transported from halfway across the world. If you have never experienced the joy of harvesting and preserving your own food, we couldn't recommend it more. It is truly a feeling that can only be fully appreciated first-hand.
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These are our most important five tips for green living at home, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned for many more tips in further posts. If you have something to add to the conversation, feel free to leave a comment below!