As concerns about global warming, pollution, habitat loss and plastic islands in the Pacific grow, more and more households are making small, daily changes to live a more eco-friendly life. Greener-living ideas are being chronicled on blogs, Pinterest, podcasts and Instagram, and a new generation of research, ideas and products is sparking an increase in Earth-friendly action.
Considering a reboot? Here are five ideas for greening your household.
It's easy to make some simple changes while doing laundry that will be healthier for you and the planet, and that might save you money, says Melissa Ozawa, Martha Stewart Living's features and garden editor. Use cold water as much as possible. Don't overdo the detergent. (Consult your washer care manual and the detergent package to determine how much you need.)
Over the years, Ozawa has changed her drying routine. She uses a dryer less often, hanging clothes on a rack indoors, or outside in warm weather. When she does use a dryer, she has dumped dryer sheets in favour of wool dryer balls. (Put a drop of essential oil on them for a natural fresh scent, she says.) She hand-washes things like cashmere sweaters instead of dry-cleaning them. She also wears some clothes more than once to save on washing machine use. She often consults the Environmental Working Group's website when choosing laundry or cleaning products.
Not too long ago, Ozawa learned about Guppyfriend Washing Bag for fleece and acrylic items. The bag collects microfiber particles released during the washing process so they don't go into the water.
"These are not scary things; they are very easy things to do that don't require a lot of effort," Ozawa says. "You'll have the benefit of knowing you are doing something good that is not damaging the Earth."
Take a good look under your sink and in your utility closet. Are there piles of one-use plastic bottles holding cleaning products? How much do you know about their formulas?
Some consumers are eschewing harsh chemicals and creating cleaning potions using baking soda, vinegar and lemons. Some seek out brands with plant-based, natural or non-toxic ingredients, such as Seventh Generation, Mrs Meyer's or Method. Ikea just introduced Borstad, a spring-cleaning collection made of natural, sustainable materials, including a steel dustpan/beech brush set ($12.99) and a rattan carpet beater ($5.99).
One cleaning product start-up is combining ingredients on the Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Chemical Ingredients List with BPA-free, refillable acrylic bottles. Blueland sells four types of cleaning products; the bottles are shipped empty, and you just add water and a dissolvable cleaning tablet. The cleaning system, which launched last year, made an appearance on "Shark Tank" and is attracting social media attention from celebrity influencers such as Kim Kardashian and Drew Barrymore.
Sarah Paiji Yoo, co-founder and chief executive of Blueland, imagined the line when she became a new mom, cut back on her own plastic consumption and started questioning ingredients. Starter kits ($39) have four bottles and four corresponding tablets: bathroom, glass and mirror, multi-surface and hand soap. (Additional tablets are $2 each.)
"People think cleaning in an eco-friendly fashion will be less effective, more expensive and more work," Paiji Yoo says. "We wanted to put all those notions on their heads."
Recycling, repurposing or donating clutter is a worthwhile project, but when you start straightening what's left, don't begin by buying unnecessary organizing supplies, says Margaret Richey of Margaret Richey Design Sense, whose Maryland business combines home organizing and interior design.
"My goal is to create order and design out of chaos and clutter. In most cases, I try to do that without bringing anything else into the mix," Richey says. "A lot of my clients don't have huge budgets. They just need to know how to better work with what they have."
She shops the house first. "I am amazed at what I find," Richey says. Sometimes she spray-paints glass jars and cans or dips them in paint, to make them into decorative storage containers.
Richey, a designer with Crate and Barrel for 18 years before starting her own firm in 2016, has lots of ideas: When sorting, use a colour-coding system to mark items and bags destined for various places. Richey's system is as follows: Pink is trash, yellow is donate, green is sell and orange is keep.
Before tossing half-empty paint cans, consider using the paint for another DIY project. "There is often enough paint to do a bedside table or dresser and you don't have to buy more," she says. Leftover wrapping paper, anchored with a bit of double-sided tape, can be used to line drawers. It makes opening and organizing them more fun, she says, and if you're lucky, it might encourage kids to keep them neater.
When you assess your household's carbon footprint, you might not initially think about rugs. Most sold today are nylon or polypropylene, making them difficult to recycle.
When buying carpeting, ask about the materials and the company that makes it, says Catherine Connolly, chief executive and owner of Merida, a high-end rug maker based in Fall River, Massachusetts. Merida has been all about natural fibres throughout its 40-year history. The company works with fibres from rapidly replenishable materials: jute, sisal, wool, alpaca and linen. No toxic chemicals are used in spinning or dying.
When shopping for a rug, the Environmental Working Group suggests looking for rugs made of wool or other natural materials such as sisal, jute or seagrass; padding made of wool or felt; and no stain or waterproofing treatments. Look for certification labels such as Green Label Plus or Greenguard low-VOC (meaning volatile organic compounds that can affect indoor air quality).
Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, also suggests choosing PFAS-free rugs. (Lowe's and Home Depot recently announced that they would no longer be selling carpeting with PFAS, a category of chemicals that do not break down in the environment and can cause health issues.) Stoiber recommends rugs with backings made of natural rubber and not PVC, a plastic that can off-gas and contain other harmful chemicals such as phthalates.
If you need to get rid of a rug, it can be hard to find eco-friendly solutions. Rug backing has to be removed for recycling, and it's expensive to do that. There also aren't many recycling facilities. Connolly suggests the Carpet America Recovery Effort website for information.
You can also donate or give your old rugs away. As Connolly says, "If you buy good-quality rugs, you'll probably be able to pass them down to the next generation." That's living green.
Cheaply made plastic or particleboard furniture (fast furniture) is likely to end up in a dump before long. Instead of heading to the big-box store, consider giving an old piece of furniture a new life in your home. And when you're in the market for a new table or chair, check online or in your neighbourhood for what's available in the previously owned marketplace.
"With old furniture, you get a lot of bang for your buck and you get your own signature look, instead of the same style everyone else has these days," says New York designer Anthony Baratta. Baratta is a fan of antique and vintage stores and is always scrolling through online auctions such as liveauctioneers.com or invaluable.com.
"I like giving something a third or fourth life in my home," says Julia Noran Johnston, president of Business of Home, a media company that recently published a sustainability issue. She shops Facebook Marketplace, Chairish and other consignment platforms.
Baratta showcases his finds in his book "Decorate Happy: Bold, Colourful Interiors," which comes out in February. In many of the spaces, including at Colonial Williamsburg, where he was designer-in-residence last year, he shows examples of taking antique or vintage sofas and chairs and upholstering them in unexpected fabrics such as menswear plaids, bright tartans and large-scale florals. Old wood end tables can be lacquered black for a classic look. Mid-century modern bedroom furniture sets can be broken up; the chests look great in living rooms.
"You can look at your grandmother's dining table, a reproduction French provincial table from 1960, and say you hate it and don't ever want to see it again," Baratta says. "Or, you can cut it in half and make a pair of console tables out of it."