Econundrums: Your Green-Living Questions Answered
Cleaning an Oven
Q: Is there a natural way to clean your oven?
A: Conventional oven cleaner and other degreasers are among the most toxic household products around, according to the Washington Toxics Coalition. I never use anything but a homemade paste: Mix 2 cups baking soda, 1 cup washing soda (found in laundry aisles), 1 teaspoon dish soap and 1 tablespoon white vinegar. (You can thin it with a bit of water if necessary.) Wearing gloves – I prefer heavy cotton to plastic – scour the oven’s interior with a scrubber, rag, and hot water to remove crust that hasn’t yet stuck solid. Apply thickly to all sides of the oven and leave overnight. In the morning, put gloves on and scrub, wiping with a wet cloth until all traces are gone.
Q: How can I find knitting wool that’s processed and dyed in environmentally sound ways?
A: A certified humane or USDA organic raw wool label means the sheep were raised sustainably and humanely, but it doesn’t cover the processing of the wool. If the yarn itself is labeled GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), then it was processed with low-impact chemicals. Look for one of three types of dyes: Oeko-Tex certified are free of lead; fiber- reactive won't run off in wastewater; and cold patch dyes use less energy, water, and chemicals. Purchase organic yarns from O-wool or the Green Mountain Spinnery, or find local shops through knitmap.com.
Sleep vs. Shutdown
Q: Is it better to shut my computer down or put it in sleep mode overnight?
A: While sleep mode reduces energy drain by 70 percent, using none is even better – and so the U.S. Department of Energy advises turning your computer off if you’re not going to be using it for 2 hours or more. Do make sure it’s plugged into a power strip and switch this off to prevent phantom energy drain from the socket. Or better still, use a smart power strip, which registers your absence and turns itself off.
Compostable Trash Bags
Q: Do biodegradable trash bags actually make a difference in the landfill?
A: Alas, while the idea of biodegradability is enormously appealing, all these bags are likely to do is add bulk to the pile. The typical landfill, whose compacted contents never get sunlight and oxygen, cannot support the bacteria that do the biodegrading. While manufacturers claim their plant-based, bioplastic bags will biodegrade in 45 days when composted, trying this in your backyard will only disappoint. A 2010 test placed five brands of bioplastic bags in compost piles for 180 days and found that, while one did turn a rotten brown, four did not change at all. Bioplastic composting requires an industrial omposter that reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, whether or not your town is one of the few that composts them, bioplastics are a greener option than conventional trash bags because they’re made from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels. (Make sure your bags bear the BPI compostable label.)
Choosing a Greener Paint
Q: How important is low-VOC paint? Don’t the VOCs go away after it dries?
A: Low- or no-VOC paint is very important for achieving cleaner air, indoors and out. The VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that evaporate from regular paint can include some nasty respiratory irritants, nervous-system toxicants and chemicals linked to cancer. Tests conducted by the EPA found these gases can migrate out of latex paint for more than six months.
C Cooking with Aluminum Foil
Q: Mom always told me cooking with aluminum foil will result in chemicals leaching into my food. Is that true?
A: Mom was probably thinking about the Alzheimer scare a few decades back, in which aluminum cookware was suspected of contributing to the onset of dementia. Aluminum was released from culpability on that score once all the studies were in, but, according to Dr. Janet Gray of the Breast Cancer Fund, aluminum can mimic estrogen and, although there as yet are no studies that make the connection, a possible risk factor for breast cancer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a long list of the possible toxic properties of aluminum, none of which have been conclusively proven, but still ... For intensive daily cooking, you might prefer to use pots and pans made of glass, cast iron, stainless steel or anodized aluminum, which will not leach toxins or toxic chemicals into food. But one can’t beat the convenience of lightweight foil in a toaster oven or as a cover for a roast or pie, and I wouldn’t worry, because it’s not as if you’re really cooking in it. Do wash, reuse or recycle foil, though, if it’s not too stuck- or gunked-up, because the extraction of aluminum from bauxite ore is environmentally damaging.
Q: Set the record straight once and for all: Is taking a bath better for the planet than taking a shower?
A: As much as I love a good soak in the tub, I have to admit that it’s a bigger drain on the earth. A typical bath takes 30 to 70 gallons of water, according to the EPA, while the average eight-minute shower uses only 17 gallons, reports the Alliance for Water Efficiency. A bath also uses more fuel to heat water, which means more pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions from the power plant that supplies your home. I find a five-minute wash under a low-flow showerhead gets me squeaky clean with only 12.5 gallons and no sense of deprivation (well, almost!). The reward: You’ve earned the occasional indulgence of a good, long bath.
Removing Lead Paint
Q: I just learned I have lead paint. What do I do?
A: Although lead-based paint was banned in 1978 because the neurotoxic metal can damage children’s developing brains, more than half of U.S. homes still contain it, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Don’t try to remove lead paint yourself. Note its condition: If the paint is flaking, peeling, or creating dust, it can easily be eaten or inhaled. Don’t vacuum it! Whether you’re spring-cleaning or starting a renovation, use a licensed lead abatement specialist and keep yourself and your family away until the work is finished and thoroughly cleaned up. Happily, EPA regulations implemented in April, 2010 require all contractors working on renovations and repairs of pre-1978 homes to be certified for lead paint removal. To find one, and get more lead safety tips, go to EPA.gov/lead or call the National Lead Information Center Hotline and Clearinghouse for a free pamphlet: 1-800-424-5323.
Q: Can I recycle my old sneakers somewhere?
A: Absolutely. You can extend the life of wearable old shoes by donating them to non-profits that give footwear to the needy all over the world. See a list of organizations at eco-officiency.com. If your sneakers have plumb run out of juice, Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program accepts all brands of athletic shoes and has repurposed millions of pairs into sports surfaces for playgrounds, running tracks, and basketball courts.
Reducing Junk Mail
Q: How can I reduce the amount of junk mail I get?
A: Stopping the deluge is free and easy through Catalog Choice. On their site, you search for participating companies (they’re almost all there!) and check them off. It can take up to three months to fully take effect, but trust me, it works. Another free – and often faster – option is to call companies on the toll-free customer service phone number in the catalog. To remove your name from junk-mail lists, use the Direct Mail Association’s online service. It costs only $1. Or, subscribe to Precycle (formerly Green Dimes). For $36 a year, they’ll declutter your mailbox and plant five trees on your behalf.
Bottle Cap Confusion
Q: Can you recycle bottle caps along with bottles?
A: Actually, we must keep bottle caps out of the recycling bin. Not only are they not recyclable in most cities, but it turns out these little nuggets can really gum up the works at the recycling plant.They’re generally made of a different plastic resin – Polypropylene (PP) #5 – which has a much higher melting point than the bottles, which are mostly Polyethylene (PET) #1. The unmelted caps in a vat of liquid PET can ruin the whole batch, not to mention clog the machines. What to do with these pesky PP toppers? Drop them off at the nearest Aveda store for recycling, or mail them to the Recap Company in Ohio.
Throwing Away Glass
Q: I’ve heard that throwing away some glass is actually good because it helps break down other trash in the landfill. Is that true?
A: No. Honestly, the tons of trash in landfills are usually so tightly packed that there’s no oxygen available to enable decomposition. Glass is inert, which means it doesn’t react with other substances, so it’s one of the rare materials that can be recycled over and over without any loss of quality. Dumping it in the landfill would be an unconscionable waste of the energy and natural resources used to produce it, says Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute.
Disposing of Mattresses
Q: What’s the most eco-friendly way to get rid of a mattress?
A: You could try donating it to a local charity, but often health departments won’t allow it. Try giving it away on Craigslist.org or Freecycle.org. Or search Earth911.org to see if there’s a center near you that can recycle the steel and the fiber inside the mattress.
Unclogging a Drain
Q: How can I unclog a drain without loads of toxins?
A: A clogged drain is bad enough – why add injury to insult? Conventional drain cleaners contain toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, the active ingredient in chlorine bleach. The fumes can cause breathing difficulty and nausea; the product can burn your skin. Furthermore, drain cleaners can react with ammonia, another common ingredient in household cleaners, to produce a form of chlorine gas, used as a chemical weapon in the First World War. Finally, their corrosive action can damage pipes.
To tackle a clog without these chemicals, you’ll want to try a combination of boiling water, vinegar and baking soda. You may also need a wire coat hanger or a plumber’s snake, or a greener enzyme drain cleaner.
Q: What’s an eco-friendly dry cleaner? Should I be using one?
A: The best eco-friendly dry cleaners use green alternatives to the standard highly toxic cleaning solvent known as perchloroethene, or “perc.” Perc fumes cause that cloying, sweet dry cleaning smell. Symptoms of perc exposure can include dizziness, headache, nausea, and skin and lung irritation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists perc as a “probable human carcinogen.” In short, perc’s bad stuff and should be avoided as much as possible, even if it means washing delicates in cold water at home.
If you need to send your clothes out, look for a professional cleaning shop that uses an alternative method, such as “wet cleaning” or liquid CO2.
Q: Can clothes really get clean in cold water?
A: Yes, really! Cold water will clean your laundry as well as hot most of the time. Plus your laundry area will be cooler, and you’ll use 90 percent less energy.
But there are exceptions. Unsanitary items, such as diapers, should be cleaned in hot water; so should bedding, to kill allergenic dust mites. For other heavily soiled items, try warm water; it still saves energy compared with hot.
Q: Do I need to wash out my bottles and containers before putting them in the recycle bins?
A: Yes, but gently: Think degunked rather than pristine clean. Plastics, glass, and cans will be sorted, cleaned, and broken down at the recycling center. All we need to do is prep them for their journey, the way we scrape dishes before loading them into the dishwasher.