Going green in your home can be a great way to improve energy usage, use fewer natural resources, and reduce the amount of chemical products you use every day. The following information can provide a guideline for how you can make the switch.
In the House
Beds and bedding
- Choose a mattress of either 100 percent pure natural latex or a natural latex core with organic cotton and wool. Natural latex is simply rubber, from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). It does not contain petrochemicals and is naturally hypoallergenic, antimicrobial and resistant to dust mites.
- Bamboo is a sustainable choice for a bed frame (instead of wood), or buy a used bed frame, or one constructed of reclaimed wood or metal.
- A box spring is not necessary, particularly if you use a bed frame.
- Some good choices for bedding are organic cotton or hemp/cotton sheets and pillowcases; down pillows and comforters; and pillows stuffed with shredded natural latex or buckwheat and seed fibers like kapok or flax. Make sure the materials are certified organic, not just labeled “natural”.
- Try to avoid upholstered furniture that is stain resistant, as it is likely that the stain resistant treatment contains formaldehyde.
- Inexpensive particleboard furniture is usually treated with formaldehyde and may contain toxic glues.
- Buy used furniture, or furniture made from bamboo or reclaimed wood or metal.
- Standard floor carpeting often contains glues, dyes, and chemical treatments that can off-gas (chemicals are released in the air). Use organic cotton, wool, sisal or hemp rugs instead.
- If installing new flooring, consider ceramic tiles, cork or bamboo flooring instead of wood floors.
- When refinishing existing wood floors, use no-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) finishes and stains.
Walls and Ceilings
- Use non-oil based interior latex, low or no-VOC paint.
- If you decide to use wallpaper, ask for natural, nontoxic or no-VOC wallpaper paste. Never use vinyl wallpaper.
Doors and Windows
- Poorly insulated doors and windows allow heated or cooled air to escape, so seal or caulk any leaks.
- Compact fluorescent bulbs use 75% less energy and last up to ten times longer than incandescent. They also generate less heat.
- Turn lights off when leaving a room.
- Keep it full. Chilled items help keep the inside of your refrigerator cold, so the unit doesn’t have to work as hard to regulate temperature each time the door is opened. Don’t put hot items in the refrigerator, since they make the motor work harder; let hot foods cool before refrigeration.
- Buy a new one. Although refrigerators can last decades, new ones use up to 60 percent less energy than twenty-year-old models. Consider purchasing a model with a bottom or top freezer; side-by-side units are less efficient.
- Vacuum the coils once a month to improve efficiency by 30 percent.
- Don’t refrigerate uncovered foods. They make the motor work harder.
- Install it away from the refrigerator; the oven’s heat makes the refrigerator work harder.
- Keep the door closed. Each opening drops the temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use glass or ceramic pans. They’re just as effective as metal ones and allow you to reduce cooking temperatures by 25 degrees.
- Use a toaster oven for small dishes or portions. A convection toaster is even more efficient.
- Use a pressure cooker whenever possible. It can reduce energy consumption by 50 percent compared to an oven.
- Keep it clean. Clean, shiny cooktop surfaces reflect heat better, and thus cook faster, than dirty, blackened ones.
- Don’t run the dishwasher unless it’s full.
- Turn-off the dishwasher after the final rinse and open the door slightly to allow the dishes to air dry.
- Use as little soap as possible.
- If the dishwasher must be installed next to the refrigerator, put a layer of foam insulation in between them.
- Though microwaves use a lot of energy, they use 50-65 percent less energy than ovens for cooking the same amount of food.
- Microwaves don’t heat up the kitchen, potentially reducing the demands on your air conditioning.
- Consider using fans or opening screened windows throughout the home.
- Only use the air conditioner when you are home.
- Unplug any electronics not in use, or use a power strip for multiple outlets and turn off the power strip. “Smart” power strips automatically shut down power to electronics that aren’t in use, like your printer or DVD player, but also have outlets marked “always on” for devices that need continuous power, like a DVR. Other advanced power strips come with a remote control, so you can switch them off without crawling around on the floor.
- The Home Energy Saver calculator, created for the Department of Energy, provides a customized list of tips based on information you enter about your appliances, home construction and energy use.
- Use a dishwasher whenever possible, as they use less water than washing dishes by hand. Otherwise let dishes sit in sudsy water for a few minutes before washing.
- More detergent equals more water needed to remove it.
- Take showers instead of baths; showering uses less water.
- Don’t let the water run while shaving or brushing your teeth
Many store-bought cleaners are made with strong artificial fragrances and harsh chemicals like bleach, ammonia, and acids. They fill the air you breathe with toxins that can irritate your eyes and lungs. By cleaning often with non-toxic cleaners, you can reduce your exposure to harsh chemicals, pest allergens, and other pollutants found hidden in dust. The following section provides recipes for natural cleansers.
- Wipe wood surfaces with a natural wood soap which can be made by combining one part white vinegar to one part vegetable or mineral oil; add a few drops of lemon oil for fragrance.
- Glass cleaner can be made by combining ¼ white vinegar with 2 cups of water. Put the mixture into a spray bottle. Windows can be scrubbed with newspaper since the newspaper eliminates streaking.
- Clean the bathtub by halving one medium grapefruit and sprinkle with salt, then sprinkle salt over the bathtub. Simply scrub, and when finished, rinse the grapefruit pulp from your shower or bathtub with water.
- Tarnished silver can be cleaned by rubbing with a little bit of toothpaste and a cloth.
- Baking soda and water can remove stains and clean dirty appliances.
- General stains, grease streaks and mildew can be removed by spraying the surface with lemon juice or vinegar mixed with some water. Let it sit for a few minutes then scrub with a stiff brush or sponge.
- Drains can be unclogged by pouring ½ cup of baking soda into the drain followed by 2 cups of boiling water. If clog persists, pour another ½ cup of baking soda in the drain followed by ½ cup of vinegar. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes. Flush with boiling water.
- Toilet bowls can be cleaned by sprinkling with baking soda and then drizzle with white vinegar. Let soak for 30 minutes and scrub with a toilet brush.
- Hardwood floors can be cleaned by combining ¼ cup white vinegar with 30 ounces (a little less than 4 cups) of warm water into a spray bottle. Spray on a cotton cloth and wipe down the floors.
- Boil lemons or cinnamon sticks for a natural air freshener.
- To remove smells from carpets or rugs, sprinkle cornstarch, let it sit for 30 minutes, then vacuum it up.
- Remove a juice or wine stain by coating the stained area liberally with salt or cornmeal. Allow it to dry and then brush or vacuum off the salt/cornmeal. If the stain persists, mix 1 tablespoon of white vinegar with ½ cup of water, pour the solution onto the stain, and then blot with a clean cloth. Club soda can also be blotted on the stain.
- To remove chewing gum, freeze the gum using an ice cube, then remove as much of it as possible by hand. For any gum that remains, follow the steps for crayon removal.
- For crayon marks, remove as much of the loose wax as possible by hand. Place a sheet of paper on the stain, then iron the paper with a warm iron. Shift the paper to a clean section and repeat, until the crayon has melted and transferred to the paper. Crayon on walls can be removed with a sponge soaked in white vinegar.
- For chocolate stains, soak the garment in cold water then apply a paste as for grass. A persistent stain may require two applications.
- Grass stains can be removed by mixing 1 tablespoon of cornstarch with 2 teaspoons of water to make a paste. Rub the paste into the stain. Allow to dry, then vacuum or brush it off.
- Dirt can be removed by rubbing natural liquid dish soap into the stain. Allow the garment to sit overnight, then wash normally.
- Pen marks can be erased with an ink eraser.
- Blood can be removed by either washing the garment in cold water, or, if not it’s washable, carefully blotting the item with a minimum amount of cold water.
- Urine can be removed by making a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water. Blot the stain, then soak the garment in warm water or machine wash it.
- Reduce clutter in your home so pests won’t have a place to live – stack papers neatly; throw away old towels and rags; hang clothes in your closet or keep folded in their drawers; store open foods, such as cereal, flour and rice, in containers with a lid.
- Use safer pest control products and avoid spray pesticides. Use glue traps or box traps for mice, and sticky traps, gels or bait stations for cockroaches.
- Repair holes, crack and plumbing so pests cannot enter your home – ask your landlord or superintendent to make repairs; use boric acid powder under floor moldings, cracks or holes in the wall; seal the floor and walls with caulking compound or metal screens; fix plumbing leaks since dripping water attracts pests.
- Practice family teamwork to keep your home free of pests by eating all meals and snacks in the same room, washing dishes and wiping down counters after meals, and taking out the garbage every day.
Products and cleaning methods that contain bisphenol A (BPA), perchloroethylene (PERC), perfluorochemicals (PFCs), pesticides, phosphate, phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, triclosan, and volatile organic compounds, such as products made with poly-vinyl chloride (PVC), products with "fragrance", oil based paint, antibacterial products, chlorine and petroleum-based chemicals should be avoided at all costs.
- If plastics must be used, look on the bottom of the plastic item to see what type of plastic it is; numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are better than 3, 6 and 7.
- BPA - which has been found to cause health risks such as diabetes, heart problems, cancer and infertility in adults and lower concentration, learning and emotional control issues in young children – is in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups, plastic water and sport bottles, plastic food containers, plastic wrap, lining of canned goods and cashier receipts.
The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health
CCCEH conducts community-based research in the United States and overseas to study the health effects of prenatal and early postnatal exposures to common urban pollutants, with the aim of preventing environmentally related disease in children. The results of the research are applied to interventions that reduce exposure to toxic pollutants through a community education campaign to increase environmental health awareness.
The Earth Institute
The Earth Institute brings together the people and tools needed to address some of the world's most difficult problems, from climate change and environmental degradation, to poverty, disease and the sustainable use of resources.
Environmental Health and Safety
EHS provides guidance and service through their commitment to health and safety, by promoting a productive and conscious work environment and setting an example for effective health and safety programs. Information on the website helps to minimize risk of exposure to hazardous chemical, physical or biological agents, minimize risk of work related injury and illness, and minimize risk to the environment.
Facilities is spearheading efforts to make Columbia a model environment, by managing the life cycles of new and old buildings, reducing waste, increase recycling and conserve resources. LEED certification, green roofs, hybrid vehicles, bike-friendly environments and historic preservation are just some of the initiatives.
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Lamont-Doherty is a core component of the Earth Institute, and seeks fundamental knowledge about the origin, evolution and future of the natural world. Its scientists study the planet from its deepest interior to the outer reaches of its atmosphere, on every continent and in every ocean, providing a rational basis for the difficult choices facing humanity.
This office provides information on waste and recycling, green building, energy efficiency and sustainable dining programs and initiatives.
Energy Star is a joint program between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Dept. of Energy to help protect the environment through the use of energy efficient products and practices.
New York City Clean Heat
Check the status of your building's conversion to less polluting heating oil, find out more about the conversion regulations, and the resources available for completing a conversion.
New York City Department of Buildings
The Department of Buildings has several resources available to assist homeowners in buying, building, maintaining, and greening their homes.
New York City Department of Design and Construction
The Department of Design and Construction provides several publications on sustainable building and remodeling.
New York City Department of Environmental Protection
The DEP offers information and seminars for local sustainability resources and environmental affairs.
New York City Department of Sanitation
The Department of Sanitation provides information on waste and recycling collection programs.
New York City Department of Transportation
The DOT promotes several policies to improve air quality in the metropolitan New York area.
New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
NYSERDA's aim is to help New York meet its energy goals of reducing energy consumption, promoting the use of renewable energy sources, and protecting the environment by supporting programs that help residential buildings become more energy efficient.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
The DEC provides resources and information on making environmentally responsible choices.
New York City has an extensive agenda to build a greener city by 2030. The initiatives cover housing, parks, brownfields, water supply, transportation, energy, air quality, solid waste, and climate change.
U.S. Department of Energy
The EERE web page informs consumers about renewable energy. The department also supports a searchable database of state, federal, local and utility incentives that support energy efficiency.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The EPA website contains information on its Green Team, Energy Star program (see above), Waste Wise program, Green Scapes guidelines, and Clean Construction USA program.
Bronx Health Link
Bronx Health Link provides information and resources about health concerns, as well as a newsletter that discusses health news and events.
Build It Green
With locations in Queens and Brooklyn, this non-profit has salvaged building materials for sale.
Community Environmental Center
Based in Long Island City, CEC is a non-profit group that helps homeowners meet LEED standards.
Under the "Energy Efficiency" section, there is information on how residential properties, small businesses and multi-family buildings can save energy and take advantage of incentives to reduce energy consumption.
The Daily Green
The consumer's guide to "green", sponsored by Good Housekeeping, contains information on living a greener lifestyle.
Delos partnered with doctors from Columbia University Medical Center to evaluate the current state of research in the areas of indoor environmental quality, levels of exposure to the urban environment, behavioral psychology, integrative approaches to healthcare and lifestyle effects on health and wellbeing. These findings were organized into 12 health domains that could be impacted by building design and features. From this, a list of requirements for building construction that supports health and wellness will be known as the WELL Building Standard.
Eco Broker is a green designation for real estate professionals. There is a searchable database for professionals with the Eco Broker certification.
Environmental Health News
Published by Environmental Health Sciences, receive a daily compilation of relevant news by signing-up for their listserv.
Environmental Working Group
EWG is a non-profit research organization with guides on pesticides, sunscreens, cosmetics, healthy cleaning, consumer products, and a database on farm subsidies. They also publish the fruits and vegetables highest and lowest in pesticides (Dirty Dozen and Clean 15).
Get Healthy Harlem
Get Healthy Harlem provides weekly health tips, as well as information about Harlem events and locations pertaining to health concerns.
Grace Communications Foundation
This foundation is committed to increasing public awareness of the relationships among food, water and energy systems, while educating consumers and advocating for more environmentally aware policies. They produce Sustainable Table, which provides information on sustainable food, water and energy.
Green America empowers individuals to make purchasing and investing choices that promote social justice and environmental sustainability by providing information on specific businesses and their products.
Green Home NYC
Green Home NYC is a great source for information on green building construction and tax incentives. The Green Home NYC's House Calls Program targets coop and condo boards in order to familiarize them with green building concepts by providing instructive case studies, conducting energy benchmarking, describing a green building philosophy and connecting them to local NYC resources.
Green Depot is a retail store that sells building products for the kitchen, bathroom, flooring, paints, insulation, adhesives, plumbing, lumber, weatherization, heating and cooling.
Green Roofs provides information and education, as well as organizing conferences, for the consumer and green roof professional. A green roof is a system of soil and plants on top of a roof. It adds insulation to keep buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, lowers urban heat, contains storm water run-off, lowers energy consumption, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Grow NYC provides information about, and the locations of, greenmarkets in New York City. Additionally, Grow NYC has a Green Infrastructure Toolkit that is designed to educate homeowners, community gardeners and others interested in storm water management techniques.
Healthy Child, Healthy World
Information is provided on ways to reduce exposure to harmful toxins.
The Institute for Sustainable Cities / CUNY
The CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities (CISC) works to realize cities as part of the solution to global sustainability challenges. By merging the science of sustainability with innovative public programming, they examine opportunities available to cities and their residents for proactive responses to on-going environmental change.
Just Food is a resource for finding a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) network near you.
Mother Earth Living Magazine
The magazine's topics encompass choosing natural remedies and practicing preventive medicine, cooking with a whole food focus, creating a non-toxic home, and gardening.
National Association of Home Builders
The NAHB has instituted a National Green Building Program that provides homeowners with more efficient and durable new and remodeled homes, as well as providing a database of builders and remodelers.
National Geographic's Green Guide
National Geographic provides information on home insulation, green bathrooms, plastics, sustainable food and buying guides on a variety of products from air conditioners to water heaters.
National Resources Defense Council
NRDC provides information on environmental concerns, along with helpful fact sheets.
Northeast Sustainable Energy Association
NESEA is an association for professionals in the sustainable energy business. The website provides information on conferences, open house tours, and a searchable database of green professionals.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition represents more than 11 million individuals and includes parents, health professionals, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesses from across the nation. The coalition is united by their common concern about toxic chemicals in our homes, places of work, and products we use every day.
Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx)
SSBx is a non-profit located in the South Bronx that addresses current environmental issues through educational programs and green roof installation assistance.
Urban Green Council
Urban Green Council is the New York Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
U.S. Green Building Council
USGBC sponsors the LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) green building program, educational offerings, a nationwide network of chapters and affiliates, the annual Green Build International Conference & Expo, and advocacy in support of public policy that encourages and enables green buildings and communities. They also publish the Green Home Guide. LEED is a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. LEED certification for buildings is a point-based system that is rated Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. Search for LEED certified organizations, projects and professionals (architects, engineers and contractors).
- Priven, Joshua. This Green House. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2009.
- Allen, Stewart Lee. Newcomer's Handbook for New York City. Portland, OR: First Books, 2009.
- The Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health, http://ccceh.org
This content is provided for informational purposes only. Listing of the websites above does not constitute a recommendation of these websites nor is the accuracy of the information listed in these websites verified by the Office of Work/Life. Columbia University does not assume any responsibility in connection with any of these websites, and recommends that any information listed therein be independently verified.