WHAT YOU CAN DO!
By Pam Moreside
Do you know the size of your ecological footprint?
There are many reasons to consider our lifestyle's effect on our environment both within our own homes and to our planet. One reason is that our rate of consumption is exceeding our earth's sustainability. In Oakland California an organization called Redefining Progress devised a method to calculate our ecological footprint by counting resources used with waste produced to determine the amount of land required to sustain each person. They found that 4.5 acres of biologically productive land is needed for each person. While some countries, India for example, use far less, the "average world citizen" is calculated to use 5.6 acres while other countries like the US are using up to 24 acres per person! In other words, we are consuming beyond our means and the resources necessary for our survival are running out!
Another cause for concern is the harm we are causing to our health. Sick Building Syndrome and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are just two of the many new illness which have proliferated since the 1980's and 90's. Although the origins are often as difficult to determine as the illnesses themselves are to diagnose they are very real indeed.
Citizens of the industrialized world now spend up to ninety percent of our time indoors, more than at any other time in our history. The computer has probably had the biggest impact - allowing us to "stay connected" to the outside world without having to leave our homes. Also the great energy crunch of the past few decades has encouraged us to seal our homes so tightly that ventilation is compromised and pent up gasses and chemicals mix to form what could be a deadly combination. Without warning smells to alert us of the danger initial feelings of malaise, fatigue, headaches, nausea and a host of other apparently minor complaints could actually be symptoms of poisoning leading to cancers and other serious illnesses. Toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and vinyl chlorides can be emitted from cleaning materials, flooring and wall coverings, plywood and particleboards, and paints and stains to name just a few. Radon gas and carbon monoxide can leak from malfunctioning appliances and virulent moulds and dust mites proliferate in cozy carpeted environments. So, rather than leave the house, never to return, what we can do to create a healthy environment in our homes without further compromising our earth?
Renovating an existing home is probably the easiest, least expensive and most environmentally friendly way to make improvements. It takes approximately fifty trees to build the average new home yet perfectly sound homes are being demolished every day in our quest to start "new". Using local materials reduces costs and the negative impact of transporting goods. Recycling from demolition sites and building in renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are also good places to start. Light, heat and air are serious considerations, which have huge impact in our home environment and to the earth's resources.
To increase light without increasing energy consumption consider installing skylights and keeping to an open floor plan. Small closed rooms require more artificial light. Hard finishes and light coloured surfaces reflect more light than dark surfaces so should be used in areas that receive natural sunlight. Mirrors, windows, and higher ceilings all give a feeling of more space and light.
The sun can also provide us with free heat. Adding a south facing sunroom with a glass front will provide heat to that room and spill into the rest of the house through open doors. A stone wall or flooring in this room will retain the heat for many hours after sunset. Living roofs made of sod, grasses and plants increase insulation, are beautiful to look at and can even put food on the table.
"The better the ventilation the healthier the home," according to Alan Berman in his book Your Naturally Healthy Home. Toxic gasses must have somewhere to go if we are to stay healthy. Open windows bring in fresh air and when positioned high also draw stale air out without creating a draft. Triple glazed windows and air stripping at doors is great for fuel efficiency but air must be allowed to circulate. Use breathable finishing materials whenever possible and don't forget the plants. Plants are effective in absorbing many household emissions like carbon monoxide, benzene, and xylene, often produced by carpeting. They also increase indoor humidity and add colour and beauty.
Choosing environmentally friendly finishing materials is the best way to ensure a healthy home and planet. Walls and floors cover the largest square footage so therefore have the biggest impact. Let us take a look at some of the flooring choices.
-Emits toxic gasses from petrochemicals and harbors moulds and mites.
-Synthetic and chemically treated carpets (like stain guard) are not biodegradable and end up in landfills.
-Backing and underlay are treated with carcinogenic chemicals like styrene butadiene, also not biodegradable
-All carpets are manufactured in pollution producing industrial factories emitting dangerous chemicals to the earth's atmosphere.
-Natural fibers and "organic" carpets made from plant, vegetable, and animal yarns are options and becoming more readily available but manufacturing and disposal are still issues to be resolved.
-Beautiful and long lasting
-Trees take years to mature and harvesting old growth forests destroy both the land and its habitat as well as damage our biosphere.
- Most hardwood comes from Africa, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia. Transportation involves burning vast amounts of fossil fuels
-Consider locally harvested, fast growing, medium density woods like alder
-Beautiful and environmentally friendly flooring material.
-Supply is plentiful, requires little energy to use, does not pollute in production or end use and is recyclable. -One caution: check quarrying methods and ensure the stone you choose is not being depleted.
- Whenever possible opt for stone quarried close to home
Ceramic Bricks and Tiles:
-Beautiful, abundant, easy to process in either small wood fired kilns or large commercial gas fired kilns.
-When left with a natural finish they are breathable, create little pollution to produce and are safe to the indoor environment.
- Vast variety to choose from
- Can be reused in mosaics or other decorative applications
-Looks similar to wood but grows six times faster on otherwise unusable land and does not require pesticides or fertilizers.
-Harvesting this plentiful resource is easy and helps to support the economies of developing countries
-New developments in finishes are producing very beautiful fine grain looks
-Watch that harmful finishes and adhesives are not used during installation.
-Transportation concerns are still and issue
-Completely sustainable - harvested from live trees that regenerate growth within nine years.
-Naturally water-resistant so stands up well in bathrooms.
-Warmer and softer than linoleum it rates high for indoor air quality as long as solvent free finishes are used.
- Shows wear easily so use caution in high traffic areas
-Wood and tiles are often easily available. Watch newspapers for notices of demolitions or shop at recycling stores such as Demex in Coombs, Syds Demo Salvage in Victoria, or the Restore in Nanaimo.
-Second Wind Timber in Vancouver, The Rediscovered Wood Floor Company in the Nicola Valley, and Coast EcoTimber in Vancouver all specialize in Reclaimed Wood salvaged from old commercial and residential buildings.
-Reclaimed wood is beautiful, often from extinct exotic wood, and comes with its own rich and unique history like an old barn or factory, fish plant or heritage building.
Choices for wall finishes include:
-Made from petrochemicals and uses dangerous plasticizers, chlorines, inks and dyes in processing.
-Can off-gas into rooms causing sick building syndrome and development of allergies
Grasscloth and other natural fiber wall coverings:
-Watch backing material, many use synthetics
-May require harmful gas emitting glues to apply creating poor indoor air quality. Ask for low VOC glues
-wallpapers making a big comeback in Interior Design, many beautiful designs to choose from
-Requires no energy to process, is stable and biodegradable.
-Versatile - can be applied rough or smooth or poured into forms to create flowing surfaces
-Attractive natural colours mean paint is not necessary.
-Sound absorbent yet breathable.
- Excellent choice if you can find a contractor experienced in this old style
-Inexpensive, easy to apply, and can create a dramatic change to a space.
-Synthetic solvent based paints are manufactured using highly dangerous chemicals, need more chemicals to clean during and after application and are difficult to dispose of safely.
-Chose water based latex paints or white wash and milk paints made from natural materials such as lime, chalk, and linseed oil or even organic paints made from vegetables and minerals.
-new low VOC paints are much improved and widely available - every paint store now carries a line
We can't change the whole world overnight but we must not lose sight of what we can do to protect our health, our earth and our environment. Starting with the environment over which we have the most control, our home, can be relatively easy, inexpensive and fun to do. Informed decisions regarding the materials we chose for our homes will have far reaching benefits as we reap the rewards of better health and strive to lessen the load of our own footprint on this earth.
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