A Homeowner’s Guide to Going Green: Sustainable Design Tips


Some of the most important changes we can make to support a healthier environment start at home. The scientific evidence about global warming, the impact of pollution and waste on our natural environment, food supply and quality of life has inspired people around the world to look for ways to lower their carbon footprint.

The choices you make every day can not only have a positive or negative impact on the environment, but can also dramatically impact the health and wellness of your family. We will discuss easy steps that you can take to create eco-friendly habits in your home.

Hiding Beneath the Sink: Reducing the Chemical Load in Your Home

In places you would least expect it, your home is hiding chemicals that can have a short and long term impact on your health. The first place to start is under the kitchen sink, where most people store their household cleaning products. While you probably don’t realize how serious some of those chemicals can be, it is a collection of toxic compounds that are known to harm the environment and human health.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are found in the following types of domestic consumer products:

  • Air freshener sprays and scented deodorizing oils
  • Chlorine bleach (solid or liquid forms)
  • Upholstery and floor cleansers
  • Oven cleaner (foam or liquid spray)
  • Laundry soap, fabric softener and dryer sheets
  • Dish detergent
  • Hairspray or aerosol hair or skin products
  • Insect repellent and pest control sprays

The use of everyday chemicals creates two hazards in your home. First, the immediate impact of breathing in the VOC’s during the use of the cleaner or product. Inhalation of VOC’s over time can lead to chronic respiratory problems, including asthma, emphysema and even certain types of cancer. Mold and mildew bathroom cleaners have been shown to correlate to an increased risk of breast cancer in women.

Did you know that non-stick cookware also poses a threat to your health? The chemical coating that provides the frying-pan with its non-stick properties is created from perfluorinated compounds (PFC’s). Non-stick cookware releases toxic emissions every time you expose the coating to high heat (during cooking). Some of the toxic chemicals released may be breathed in during the cooking process while others can saturate into soft fabrics like carpets or upholstered furniture, and continue to emit chemicals for weeks or months after each use.

Reduce your chemical load by eliminating as many sources of VOC’s from your home as possible by:

  1. Switching to homemade or organic cleaning supplies that are made from natural substances, including lemon juice and baking soda.
  2. Avoiding upholstered furnishings treated with a ‘stain resistant’ coating to protect the air quality of your home.
  3. Eliminating non-stick cooking utensils and the use of plastic containers that contain bisphenol A (BPA), or eating excessive amounts of canned food which typically contain high levels of BPA.
  4. Replace plastic food and storage containers with glass or surgical stainless steel alternatives to reduce the amount of plastic in your home.

Switching to Local Organic Produce

Just because the amount of pesticide used on commercial fruits and vegetables is within ‘safe’ limits, does not mean that it is safe for long term consumption. The FDA advises that all fruits and vegetables should be washed thoroughly with water (they do not recommend using a vegetable washing detergent) to reduce harmful bacterial infections and other food-borne illnesses.

Making the switch to organic produce will increase the cost of fresh foods for your household, but when you consider the long term impact of pesticides and risk of cancer and other chronic illnesses related to chemical ingestion, it is worth the investment. Check out “The Organic Effect” video, which chronicles one large family and their laboratory results after switching to only organic foods. The case study with the family was conducted by The Swedish Environmental Research Institute.

Composting Kitchen and Yard Waste

Are you still bagging up your leaves and yard waste and sending it to a landfill site? Leaves and other waste from your lawn are biodegradable and provide a number of benefits to soil, including insulating your lawn against erosion by supporting healthy root systems.

Consider purchasing or building your own composter, and diverting vegetable and fruit food waste into valuable compost material, which can be used to fertilize vegetable or flower gardens, or your lawn. Not only will you be reducing the amount of waste you generate every year, but your backyard will thank you.

Using Natural Wood Instead of Plastic

Plastic is one of the least environmentally friendly options. Since municipal and federal governments have instituted plastic recycling, the common belief is that all plastic can be recycled, and that the process of recycling benefits the environment. Unfortunately, that is not true.

One of the reasons consumers and industrial manufacturers love plastic is its innate durability. Plastic is composed of long carbon chains with repeating units that arrange into monomers that are either rigid, hard or soft in final form. Unfortunately, all plastics are made from fossil fuels like oil, and utilize mass production that burns excessive natural gas and water waste.

Plastic is a flexible, low cost material that is easy to work with from a design and manufacturing prospective, but the same resilience is responsible for environmental problems. About 21 million metric tons of plastic are put into waste management every year (not recycling) where it takes a very long time to dissolve. Plastic toothbrushes alone account for approximately 50 million pounds of refuse every year, with the average American is replacing their toothbrush 2-3 times per year.

Replace plastic garment hangers with natural wood options like pine or cedar hangers. Not only will you lower the VOC emissions in your home by reducing the plastic products around you, but cedar hangers also provide a wonderful, natural and subtle scent. Consider switching to an organic toothbrush or one that is biodegradable. Replace your bottled water habit with fresh water filtration systems or sports bottles that provide filtration of tap water. American’s discard 2.5 million water bottles every hour of every day.

When it comes to choosing artificial flooring, educate yourself on the VOC (volatile organic compound) rating. While natural wood and tile have virtual no VOC emissions that impact the quality of air in your home, artificial products such as plank laminates and vinyl flooring are frequently treated with chemicals to water and stain proof the surfaces, making them a detriment to the air quality of your home.

For more great tips, check out “50 Cost-Efficient Ways to Make Your Home More Eco-Friendly” on The Huffington Post. The article also shares a great infographic packed with small do-it-yourself changes that add up to a healthy home (and environment).

Francesca Holmes