Sustainability Simplified: Ten Solutions In and Around Your Home
Lee Warren and Richard Freudenberger
Life is full. We understand. That’s why we made a list of sustainability solutions that are easy, fun, and hopefully doable.
If you pick three to implement each year for three years, then you’ll nearly tackle the list. These solutions often have additional benefits of money savings and community building.
1. Alternatives to Dryers
One of the cheapest, simplest, and maybe most satisfying sustainability solutions is the good old-fashioned clothes line. The dryer involves a fairly high use of energy, so anything we can do to take advantage of the universally free solar-drying technology that is the sun, the better off we’ll be. Also, your clothes will be better for it. Regular dryer use creates wear on most fabrics, and woolen blends, socks, and delicates should likely never go in the dryer. Some ideas:
- Old-Fashioned Clothes Line. A simple line from a tree to the house, either retractable or not, is super cheap and easy. Even if you have to sink in a post, it should be fairly inexpensive.
- Racks. There are nice, low-impact, in-house foldable racks which can be used in summer or winter, and are good for drying smaller things. In the winter, they add much needed humidity to the house as well. Visit clotheslines.com/clothes-drying-racks for additional ideas.
Saving kitchen scraps can be as easy as tossing them into a bucket in the kitchen. But what to do with them when the bucket is full? There are three simple options:
- Worm Bin. Make an indoor worm bin with some help from a local garden store. The worms will eat your kitchen scraps, gladly. And it’ll be a learning experience for the whole family. Make sure to size it for the needs of your household.
- Compost Pile. Create a simple outdoor compost pile with four pallets and some T-posts. Add the kitchen scraps along with grass clippings and leaves. Don’t worry about maintaining the pile (unless you get excited about compost, which you likely will). Over time, it will decompose on its own. And it’s a great way to make a nutrient-rich addition to your garden beds.
- Compost Service. Subscribe to a compost service in town such as Compost Now. They come and pick up your kitchen scraps and then bring you back compost at the end of the season. They make use of the scale and also create jobs in the local economy. Everyone wins.
3. DIY Passive Solar
Western North Carolina summers aren’t as hot as other places in the south but we do tend to get a few weeks of temperatures in the 90s. And winters aren’t near as challenging as our northern states, yet sometimes we’re running heat for six or more months out of the year. A simple technique can harness the natural heating and cooling cycles of nature to make our homes more temperature friendly.
- Summer. In the summer, open all the windows and doors at night and run fans to cool down the home. Our nights offer some significant cooling, even in the summer months. In the morning before the heat index rises, close everything up, including curtains (ideally insulated ones) so the cool air stays in the home. I have experienced a 15-degree difference inside versus outside by using this technique.
- Winter. In the winter, do the reverse. Let the sun come through the windows to warm the rooms as much as possible during the day. If you have a concrete floor, that sun will store warmth in the mass of the floor to be released later on. Make sure to tightly close curtains and doors at night to hold the heat in.
4. Electricity Reductions in the Home
- Phantom-Load Management. Do you know those black boxes that come standard with computers, TVs, printers and most other electronics these days? Well they stay on, absorbing power, whether your device is on or not. One way to mitigate this is to plug in these devices (think entertainment center or home office workstation situation) to a power strip that you can shut off all at one time. You’ll save a little bit every day, which can really add up over the year.
- Water-Heater Timer. It shuts your water heater off except when you know you’ll be home and using it, which allows for the water heater to take a break from the constant heating of the entire tank of water. There will be an investment in the initial installation but the efficiency savings are significant. This only applies to electric water heaters of the old-style tank variety.
5. Garden, Garden, Garden!
- Plant a Garden in the Front Yard. If you’re in the city or suburbs and have neighbors, a great way to contribute to community, also known as social sustainability, is to engage. A front-yard garden keeps you visible, and neighbors are often interested in what you’re planting and why. Sit on your stoop and drink some coffee or better yet, put some chairs and a table in your garden and create a place for folks to sit and chat. Maybe it’ll turn into an impromptu gathering spot.
- Kitchen Herb Garden. Having herbs on hand, right outside the kitchen door is a great way to engage with not only growing, but the healing power of medicine that is in culinary and medicinal herbs. If you put them close to the house, you’re likely to use and enjoy them on a more regular basis. Three really easy-to-grow herbs include parsley, sage, and oregano. Run out to snip some off for a super fresh addition to your meal, gather some for a table bouquet, or pick, crush, and inhale for a boost of delightful smells. Get started with these and you’ll realize how fun growing herbs is.
6. Insulating Windows and Doors
Take a piece of tinsel (yes, Christmas tinsel) or a candle and walk around to all your closed windows and doors to see if there is any airflow (leaks) along the joints, seals, hinges, latches, and edges. Mark the spot with tape and then go back and seal those areas with inexpensive weather stripping. It’s that simple. If there are significant or chronic problems, consider replacing windows with storm windows, which are not cheap, but will save money and fuel in the long term.
- Drink the Local Water; Stop Buying Plastic.Asheville has some of the best water of any city in the U.S. Just ask all the breweries that have moved here; it’s mostly because of the water. Some of us can’t tolerate or don’t like to drink the chlorine and fluoride chemicals that are added to the water and even feel nervous about the potential of pharmaceuticals in the water system. A great solution for this is a whole-house water filtration system. This may be the most expensive option on this list, but is well worth the health and environmental benefits. The filtration system can take out all of the unwanted components and leave the minerals. These systems can last for years and also support a local business.
- Buy Local. This may be the very best sustainability solution on the entire list. Buying local keeps money in the community, circulating to as many folks as possible and enriching projects, lives, and local businesses. We vote with our dollars. When we buy from big corporations with headquarters elsewhere, we are saying that we want more of that. When we buy from local businesses, we are voting for more vitality in our own communities. Buy local whenever possible.
8. More Efficient Lighting Choices
- Switch to LEDs. It’s hard to find a sustainability solution with more impact for the least investment. LEDs are the best choice on the market today, even better than compact fluorescent bulbs which had challenges with longevity and temperature and color issues. LEDs are efficient and reliable, and perform well on temperature and color. The K rating on the packages will help you select within a range of warm to cool lighting. Additionally, the prices are now lower than ever. In fact, Duke Energy has programs that provide free or highly discounted bulbs for your home. Visit duke-energy.com/home/products to explore the offers available in your area.
- Sun tubes. Instead of skylights — which are expensive, require major construction, and have a higher probability of leakage or damage — check out sun tubes, aka solar tubes or sun tunnels. These bring in the natural light in a significant way but are more affordable and more protected than skylights. There’s still an investment for installation but it’s well worth it to light up a dark room or hallway, especially for people who work at home all day. They’re so effective, you’ll have guests reaching for the nonexistent light switch.
This is the one appliance that matters most.. Refrigeration is one of the biggest consumers of energy in your household. If you’re looking to take a conservation approach, this one appliance is a great place to start. Find out the energy rating of your fridge, or any appliance you have or want to buy. Buy appliances certified by ENERGY STAR®, and reference their website’s helpful lists and comparisons at energystar.gov/productfinder. This research will help you figure out the kilowatt consumption and likely cost per year. If you’re in the market for a new fridge, consider the following tips:
- Most people need a smaller refrigerator than they currently have. Consider stepping down a size.
- Double-door side-by-side refrigerators are notoriously leaky. Consider a single-door model.
- Consider a fridge without an ice maker. While convenient, they use more energy and break over time.
10. Water Reduction in the Home
The water you drink is less than 5 percent of the water used in the house. So how can we easily reduce water use?
- Rainwater Collection. A simple rainwater collection system with a barrel can be obtained from a hardware store for less than $80. More sophisticated ones are available, but we recommend starting simple. The water of course is not potable (drinkable) but you can use it for gardens or outdoor washing of any kind. They’re effective when used properly. Be sure to keep the gutters clean and have an overflow plan so the water doesn’t just splash down and create damage to the soil or the foundation.
- Replace Your Toilet. New construction requires efficient toilets but older homes almost always have toilets that use as many as five gallons per flush, which is an egregious use of purified drinking water. Buying a new toilet will cost in the $100-and-up range, but they are equipped with significant water-saving components. The dual-flush model, for example, uses about 1.1 gallons per flush on the low end or 1.6 gallons per flush on the high end. There are also some inexpensive retrofit float valve devices that will save you a little bit and you don’t need a plumber. But a new toilet is really the way to go for the most impact.
- Flow Reducers. Faucet nozzles for the kitchen or bath, and low-flow showerheads are very inexpensive to buy and easy to install. When in the market for new plumbing fixtures, seek out WaterSense-labeled products, which meet the EPA’s specifications for water efficiency and performance.
Lee Warren is the executive director of Organic Growers School, which has been offering organic education to Southern Appalachia since 1993. She is the co-founder, designer, and builder of an off-grid, sustainably-built CoHousing Neighborhood at Earthaven Ecovillage; founder and manager of Imani Farm, a five-acre pasture-based cooperative farm; and managing partner of SOIL, School of Integrated Living, which teaches organic food production, regenerative systems, and community living.
Richard Freudenberger is the energy and resource coordinator for Living Web Farms in Mills River, where he develops long-term sustainability and renewable energy strategies and teaches a variety of energy, green building, and biofuels workshops. He was the former research director of Mother Earth News.
You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 36-37 of the 2018-2019 edition of the directory.