There are many common products found in homes that have HUGE environmental footprints. While you probably avoid toxins in your cleaning supplies or have ditched plastic water bottles, there are still hundreds of things in your home that could be harming the environment.
According to the Silent Spring Institute, levels of toxic chemicals are between 200 and 500 higher indoors than out. Yikes! So who invited all of these harmful pollutants into your house? Chances are they steaked in on any number of common household items.
In an effort to make our homes healthy for our families and for the environment, there are a few items you should look out for when decorating your home. While you see the effects of poor indoor air quality through more colds and stuffy noses, there are other hidden environmental impacts associated with household products.
Check out this list for a few products you should look out for when shopping for your own home (or redecorating your current one). A smart house starts with a smart homeowner!
In October 2013, a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found that the U.S. flooring giant, Lumber Liquidators, had purchased illegally logged wood. The high demand for flooring products across the world has long fueled corrupt logging practices that contribute to mass deforestation. In the Russian Far East, illegal logging has caused large-scale deforestation, associated with increased carbon emissions and the destruction of critically endangered tiger habitats.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency’s report, Lumber Liquidators is one among many companies across the U.S, the European Union, Japan, and China that supports illegal timber exports. Nearly 80 percent of all timber exported our of the Russian Far East is done so illegally.
Fortunately, there are strict legal guidelines in the U.S. to prevent the trade and sale of illegally sourced wood. In the U.S, for example, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative works to promote legal and sustainable forest management across the world.
The World Wildlife Fund has also created the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) which links companies with environmentally responsible forest products. GFTN works to responsibly manage forests used for wood and paper products
What you can do
- Buy flooring that is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. You can find a list of certified companies on the SFI website.
- Avoid tropical woods like”Brazilian Walnut” or “African Teak” when shopping for flooring.
- Look for reclaimed wood, bamboo, or cork flooring.
Ever noticed the chemical/plastic smell new couches and chairs have? That distinct smell is actually the off gassing of thousands of chemicals that were used to product that piece of furniture. Among the chemicals being released into your indoor air are VOCs, formaldehyde and other carcinogens. These pollutants can seep into your air for weeks and remain in indoor air for longer depending on how effective your ventilation system is.
Paints, wood stains, and furniture glues have been known to contain off gassing carcinogens that can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, and even cancer. These chemicals are especially dangerous to children and pets who have a lower tolerance. When VOCs off gas into the atmosphere they contribute to smog production.
Like flooring, some furniture is made with illegally logged wood. This not only contributes to deforestation, but also increased carbon emissions as illegally harvested lumber is shipped long distances to reach U.S. markets.
What you can do
- Look for furniture made from recycled metal or plastic instead of wood. These materials require less processing to convert into new pieces and help save old furniture from the landfill.
- Go for reclaimed wood furniture that is finished with non-toxic wood stains and varnishes.
- Shop for furniture in vintage stores or flea markets instead of buying new.
- Always consider the future of the furniture you buy: can these materials be recycled? Check out HermanMiller.com for inspiration — all their chairs are made with a full-life cycle evaluation minimizing their environmental impact.
Cell phones and computers can have very large environmental footprints. According to the EPA in 2007, up to 1.8 billion tons of electronics were disposed in landfills, only 18 percent were recycled.
This is really hard to hear if you are like me and spend 90 percent of your time staring at a screen of some sort. This is not to say you should go off the grid but you might want to reconsider upgrading to the latest phone/laptop/tablet just for the sake of having the newest gadget.
Electronics are made from many non-renewable resources like the oils used to make plastic and heavy metals for wiring and circuitry. There are finite supplies of the metals used to make computers and other electronics and global demands contribute to material scarcity. The environmental impact of mining these metals also create social issues. According to RISI, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the profits from mining coltan (a metal used in computers) have been used to finance civil war.
Screens, hard drives, and plastic casings are usually made by different companies, meaning various components need to be shipped across the world to assemble a single device. RISI estimates that amount of fossil fuels used to produce a computer screen is about 10 times its weight.
What you can do
- First you should try and hold on to your old devices for as long as possible! Opt to replace broken parts rather than getting a whole new device. Or buy refurbished electronics.
- But if you must upgrade…recycle, recycle, recycle! Chemicals such as mercury, lead and nickel can leak out of electronics sitting in landfills causing more environmental damage. By recycling one million laptops, the U.S. could save the same amount of electricity used to power over 3,657 homes a year.
- Check out the EPA’s website for instructions on how-to “eCycle” your old computers, TVs, and cell phones.
4. Carpet, Curtains, and Upholstery
Carpet, curtains and other decorative upholstery are all hiding places for indoor air pollutants and toxins. These household decorations are commonly made from petroleum byproducts and synthetics like nylon, polypropylene and acrylic. While these fabrics are used for their durability, they are filled with VOCs and toxins that can be harmful to your family and pets. The same qualities that make these items last for long periods of time in your home make for even longer lives in landfills. Synthetics do not biodegrade overtime but will continue to leach toxins into the environment for decades.
(Not to mention the use of petroleum products for household furnishings adds to our nations dependency on oil.)
Upholstery fabrics used on furniture and curtains are often treated with flame retardants that are hazard to human health. According to the NRDC, exposure to flame retardants has been linked to attention problems in young children, male birth defects, infertility and cancer.
What you can do
- Always look for non-toxic carpet. Low and Zero VOC carpets still contain toxic chemicals.
- All-natural carpets and upholstery fabrics are the best option. Check out Earth Weave for carpets.
- Check out this list of the best Green Upholstered Furniture companies.
- This is awesome guide to all natural upholstery materials you can use on furniture and drapes.
Image source: Vermont Timber Woods Inc. / Wikipedia Commons