The Green Rooms
Cut a Rug
Wanna save the Earth? Put in a carpet: Yes, you heard that right — a carpet. Almost every flooring you can think of, even bamboo, exacts a price on the Earth in land and resources, and carpet is generally toxic. But two years ago, when Shaw Carpet of Dalton, Georgia, where they make 600 million square yards of floor covering every year, announced it would no longer use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its fuzzy rugs, it put carpet on the green list. Shaw now makes its carpets with EcoWorx, a polyolefin-based backing that replaces harmful PVC, and “nylon 6,” a synthetic fiber that can be broken down and reused without any loss of quality. Developed according to the principles of “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing, a materials standard developed by the famously green architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, not a single thread of either material will ever go to waste. When the kids have trampled your rug, the new puppy has peed on it, and the time has come to rip it out, Shaw will come and get it out of your house for free, and use the material to manufacture more.
Just so you know they’re serious, the people at Shaw participate with McDonough’s firm in a line of cradle-to-cradle greeting cards. Made of infinitely recyclable “technical nutrients,” the cards come with self-mailers addressed to Shaw. When they’ve been displayed long enough on the table, the recipient of the greeting can send them to Shaw, where each one becomes a little piece of carpet. Beats recycled paper any day. Carpet available at www.shaw?floors.com. Cards available at www.cradle?tocradle.net/c2cgreetingcards.html.
Of the 350 gallons of water an average household uses every year, nearly half is in the bathroom. The no-brainer solutions to bathroom water waste — low-flow toilets and high-efficiency showerheads — cost little to buy and install. If you have a regular flush toilet and have failed to at least displace some of the water with, for instance, a bleach carton (no bricks, please), well, you and I have nothing to talk about. I’m sorry. But for the rest of you, I have to ask: What good are the 1.5 gallons you save when you flush, or the 12 gallons not used with every shower, when you still gaze blankly into the mirror while you brush and floss, water pouring from the faucet at 7 gallons per minute? Of course, you can’t be trusted to shut the faucet off: You almost always brush your teeth when on one end or the other of sleep. But you can install an aerator on the faucet that will slow that flow to just under three gallons per minute: Water-saving aerators start at about $7 at any hardware store, and screw on easily to standard faucets. Presuming you spend about four minutes on your teeth, that’s a savings of 16 gallons twice a day.
On the other hand, you’re still wasting a gallon an hour in every 24-hour period. So how about if you install the aerator and at the same time learn to brush as you do when you’re camping in the desert? Remember: Water is for rinsing the brush, not for drowning out the sound of the neighbors.
Paint It Green
They saturate indoor air at concentrations two to five times higher than outdoor air; they rise from hair spray, solvents, cleaning products and paint; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says they can cause “eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system.” They can make you vomit, wheeze, or give you cancer. And most people have no idea they exist. The culprit is a “volatile organic compound,” or VOC, any compound of carbon that evaporates quickly into the atmosphere, and most paint — even interior latex paint — is full of them; it doesn’t even start “off-gassing” until it dries, and it continues for years.
Indoor house painters still believe they have to paint high-splatter kitchens with heavy-duty oil-based formulas that easily wipe clean; “green” paint, they’ve come to believe, deteriorates when you try to clean it. And while some of the wimpier milk-based paints deserve that rep, several lines of zero-VOC or low-VOC glossy paint have emerged in the last few years that can take that flying plate of spaghetti in stride: Almost every major paint line, from Sherwin Williams to Behr, offers one. But AFM Safecoat makes minimal-VOC paints exclusively, and consequently the company has learned over the years how to make even polyurethane floor paint durable as well as nontoxic. You’ll have to put up with a little indoor air pollution if you paint with a dark color — even if the paint contains no VOCs, the dye does — but if you start with VOC-free base, you lower the emissions of your walls considerably. AFM Safecoat is available locally at Par Paint (www.parpaint.com), where knowledgeable people will advise you on how to use it and other environmentally sensitive alternatives. They call it paint for the “chemically sensitive.” And even if you don’t already know it, they’re talking about you.
The sustainable-wood bed has been neatly centered in the room; windows have been thrown open for cross-ventilation and natural light. The unbleached cotton sheets contain no easy-care chemicals like formaldehyde, and neither the bamboo floors nor the deep-blue walls give off any of those awful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can make you woozy when you wake.
But open the drawer on that recycled wicker nightstand, and behold: It’s a veritable toxic-waste dump.
Sex toys — dildos, vibrators, that three-hole doll and even the hot vinyl nurse’s outfit you wore on your anniversary — generally reek of chemicals that can damage your body and poison the landfills. Especially nasty are the jiggly-jelly-type playthings, marketed as mimicking real skin. Fashioned out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and softened with phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”), these objects cause enough trouble when you mash them up against your privates — both PVC and phthalates contain toxic substances linked to fertility impairment and cancer. Nor are they safe stashed in the drawer: Because phthalates loosen up plastic molecules instead of bonding to them, they “off-gas” VOCs with little provocation.
But the real nightmare begins when you try to dispose of these toys and outfits, as you inevitably will: Incinerated PVC releases lead into the air; dumped in a landfill, it can leach dioxin; and in the recycling process, it turns into airborne benzene. Phthalates have now accumulated in our earth and water to the extent that almost everybody has some.
The solution: Look for PVC and phthalate-free sex toys made of elastomers such as silicone or natural rubber, or surgical steel and acrylic. Online, Toys in Babeland (www.babeland.com) and Womyn’s Ware (http://womynsware.com) offer plenty of enviro-conscious options, as does the Pleasure Chest (http://thepleasurechest.com), both online and in its West Hollywood store.
And please, dress up in something other than vinyl. It never really felt that good, did it?
Running a small solar-powered generator on the patio does more for a person than just shave a few kilowatts off the electricity bill, or provide relatively cheap outdoor electricity where there was none before. When you dedicate a few appliances to a limited power supply, you come to understand your own energy consumption in more tangible terms — you might think of it as raising your energy consciousness.
And unlike a full-on grid-tied home conversion, a homemade solar generator does not require massive capital investment and a certified electrical technician. True, those systems can now once again earn significant rebates from both the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Solar Incentive Program and California’s Million Solar Roofs initiative that your puny little backyard power supply cannot. But you don’t need $35,000 up-front to install it either.
First, figure out how much power you need in amps. Choose appliances designed to run off the direct current (DC) of a car battery or RV instead of the alternating current (AC) in your home; it will save you both the expense and the power consumption of an inverter (a device that changes DC to AC). Most DC gadgets already come with an amp rating; all you need to do is multiply those amps by the number of hours you want to run the device. This gives you a figure known as “amp hours.” (For instance, I have a radio that pulls 3 amps; if I run it for four hours a day, I need 12 amp hours.) Add up the amp hours of all your devices, then buy a 12-volt deep-cycle marine battery (or two) with double that capacity.
Next, buy a solar panel (or two) that will replace that power every day. If you need 20 amp hours, and you have four good hours of sun every day, you need a solar array that will put out 5 amps per hour. Solar, or photovoltaic, panels are generally rated in watts, though, so you have to do a little more third-grade math: Multiply the panel’s volts (usually around 17) by the number of amps (in this case, 5), and you come up with your required wattage (85). Go out and get yourself a 100-watt solar panel. (Look for bargains: It will cost you around $5 per watt.)
Last, wire the photovoltaic panel to the battery using a charge controller — a small device that will prevent your solar-panel output from overcharging your batteries. Popular models for small systems, such as Morningstar’s SunSaver series ($50 to $80, depending on the amp rating), tell you exactly where to put the wires from the battery, panels and load, which in your case will be a three-hole DC input device — think of three automobile cigarette lighters — from Radio Shack.
I typically power a long string of LED lights, a Sony “Job Site” boom box, and various battery and cell-phone chargers off my system, which consists of two 54-watt Evergreen solar panels connected to two 12-volt, 110-amp-hour Costco batteries. It has not made more than a trivial dent in my electrical bill. But it has made me think. And without it, I wouldn’t have outdoor lights.?
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