This spring, do more than clean your house: Green it by reducing waste, toxic chemicals, and energy use. Here’s a room-by-room guide to making your abode more sustainable. Bonus: Many of these solutions don’t cost anything to implement—and most will save you money.
Around the house
1. Get smarter bulbs.
Switching five of your home’s most heavily used lights from traditional incandescent bulbs to Energy Star–certified CFLs, LEDs, or halogens can cut energy use by up to 80 percent and save the average household $75 annually, according to Energy Saver, an office of the U.S. Department of Energy. These newer types also last up to 25 times longer than standard bulbs. Using a smart-home system to intelligently control your lights can save you even more money.
2. Turn down the heat (or AC).
For maximum efficiency, keep your thermostat no higher than 68 degrees in winter and no lower than 78 in summer. Lower the temperature when everyone is sleeping and turn off the air or heat when no one is home. Better yet, invest in a smart device, like the Nest Thermostat, to control your indoor climate intelligently.
3. Seal drafts.
Does your home have adequate insulation? If not, it’s costing you extra on your utility bills. Hire a professional to crawl into your attic and check. A professional should also look for drafts around doors and windows and suggest needed repairs.
4. Unplug vampire appliances.
“Vampire appliances”—those that draw power even when they aren’t in use—can account for up to 10 percent of home electricity consumption, according to Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Chief culprits may include your TV, stereo system, cable box, game console, laptop, printer, microwave, toaster oven, coffeemaker, and blow-dryer. The solution is simple: Unplug them when they’re not in use. You can also plug them into power strips with on/off switches and turn off the strips when you leave the house and when you go to sleep.
5. Go solar.
Yes, solar panels are a big investment—the average rooftop 10 kilowatt (kW) system in 2021 may initially cost you around $20,000 after tax credits, according to EnergySage, an online marketplace—but the installation could pay for itself in the long run. EnergySage also says the average home can save between $10,000 and $30,000 over the lifetime of your solar panel system.
It’s also one of the greenest moves you can make. By installing solar panels that derive energy from the sun, you can help combat greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. But we’ve got a ways to go: In 2020, solar energy accounted for only about 2.3 percent of total U.S. electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
6. Check your heater and change your filters.
You should also change the air filters for your home’s climate-control system. It’s easy, and you should be doing it at least four times a year to make sure that you’re catching the tiny particles that foul up your indoor air quality and force your unit to work much harder. Having a clean filter will make your HVAC system last longer and can save you up to 15 percent on your power bill, according to the U.S. EPA.
7. Nix the new.
If you live with children, you know the battle to dam the constant onslaught of stuff. So instead of buying new, try recycling. Check out toy-sharing subscription services like NetBricks (for Legos) or ToyLibrary. You can also accept hand-me-downs or pay to borrow kids’ clothes through companies like Rent the Runway and Rainey’s Closet.
For books, there’s always the library, a friend’s shelf, or e-books and audiobooks. “The biggest impact of most products is the manufacturing side,” says Adam Minter, author of Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. “So if you want to reduce the environmental impact of your consumption … the best thing you can do is not buy more stuff.”
In the kitchen
8. Waste less.
The USDA estimates that Americans throw away up to 40 percent of the food they buy. To cut down on your waste, try to purchase only what you need, cook only what you’ll eat, and freeze or otherwise preserve as much as possible.
Get in the habit of composting food scraps, too. If your local waste management service offers curbside composting, use it. Otherwise, set up a simple home-composting system and turn those food scraps into potting soil.
You can also reduce the amount of food packaging you toss. Buy minimally packaged foods, forgo single-use items, and store bulk items in reusable bags or sealed jars.
9. Clean green.
Many commercial cleaning products contain toxins—bleach, petroleum distillates, phosphates, and more—that can hurt the environment when you pour them down the drain. Try a natural solution instead: One part vinegar to three parts water makes an effective all-purpose cleaning spray.
Or look for biofriendly alternatives. Trustworthy brands include Clorox’s Green Works, Dr. Bronner’s, Method, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, and Seventh Generation. Be sure to recycle the plastic bottles when they’re empty.
In the bathroom
10. Clean green, bathroom edition.
As in the kitchen, try to avoid toxic chemicals—including chlorine, ammonia, formaldehyde, and bleach—in bathroom cleaners. Again, you can make your own alternatives: Recipes for bathroom disinfectants are easy to find online. If you want a commercial product, choose one of the reliably green brands listed in tip No. 9 above.
11. Conserve water.
For folks who live in the drought-prone West, it’s extra crucial to treat the region’s fluid resources with care. To save water in the bathroom, install aerators on your sink faucets and swap your old showerheads for low-flow models. Turn off the tap while you’re brushing your teeth or shaving: This alone can save 3,000 gallons annually, according to the EPA. And take shorter showers; use a timer to keep yourself honest.
12. Wipe wisely.
Consider purchasing recycled toilet paper that rates well for its eco-merits, such as Seventh Generation and the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s brands.
Or make like Europeans and Asians do, and invest in a bidet—they’re more hygienic for you and the planet.
In the laundry room
13. Skip the dryer.
Dry what you can on a line or rack. After your HVAC system, your clothes dryer is probably your home’s biggest energy hog.
14. Cool your load.
Use cold water for your laundry. With warm or hot loads, up to 90 percent of your washer’s energy consumption goes to heating the water, according to Energy Star, a program run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Yet today’s machines and detergents are optimized for cold water, which cleans just as well and can help clothes last longer by preventing fading and shrinkage.
While you’re at it, use a detergent that’s free of phosphates, such as Ecos, Method, or Seventh Generation; wait until you have a full load to run the machine; and wear clothes more than once if they’re not that dirty.
In the office
15. Print judiciously.
When you really need a hard copy, use both sides of recycled paper. Ink-saving fonts such as Ecofont (about $8 per year at ecofont.com) cut down on toner by incorporating microscopic holes into each letter. When your old printer is no longer serviceable and it’s time to choose a new one, look for a model that’s Energy Star certified. Stock it with remanufactured ink cartridges or soy-based toner.
Avital Andrews is a freelance journalist covering travel, home, food, technology, and sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb, and read more of her work at avitalandrews.com.
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