Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

Across the country, environmentalists are waging campaigns to get people to drink more tap water, to save our environment from the scourge of up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste generated each year by the bottled water industry. According to Food and Water Watch , that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce, and over 80 percent of plastic bottles are thrown away instead of recycled–so drinking from the tap not only saves waste and protects the environment, but helps reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil and offshore drilling, too. So it’s pretty clear: Tap is the way to go.

But there’s a downside to drinking tap water, which is that it’s usually at least somewhat polluted—at least in the U.S. and most of the Western Europe. Some of that pollution is simply left in after insufficient purification by municipal water supply utilities, but some of it is added in by those same utilities in the name of protecting our health–fluoride (to protect our teeth) and chlorine (to kill bacteria and other organisms) are two of the most common additives. Most states require water processing plants to add both to our water, so they’re pretty much impossible to avoid. But they’re both associated with elevated risks for certain illnesses, including cancer, with the evidence for a chlorine-cancer link emerging as the strongest.

Numerous studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and other widely respected medical journals around the world have documented a strong, significant increase in the incidence of bladder cancers among people who drink unfiltered, chlorinated tap water on a regular basis–with higher cancer rates among those who have been drinking it for the longest periods of time.

And bathing in tap water isn’t too much better. We not only absorb chlorine through our skin, but breathe it in as chloroform in the steam from a long hot shower, where it irritates our lungs and can cause asthma. Yes, chloroform is the stuff evil criminals in movies make people breathe to knock them out. And for one more scary fact, a study conducted by Dr. Niels Skakkebaek of the University of Copenhagen documented a nearly 50 percent decrease in male sperm counts in areas of Denmark where the water supply is chlorinated. Yikes.

Fortunately, however, it’s possible to enjoy the environmental (and political) benefits of using tap water and avoid the health hazards of the toxic chemicals in it, by using some form of home water filtration. A wide range of water filtration options can be found among the many other green products carried by Green Depot, ranging from simple filter pitchers to whole-house water supply filtration systems. A popular one among design junkies is the Aquaovo Ovopur system, a nifty ceramic giant egg that uses carbon, ceramics and quartz to remove not just chlorine but a host of other toxins naturally. See it and many more here.

(Well, for one thing, some are due to expire!)

While retrofitting a house or apartment can provide substantial energy savings – and, by extension, ecological benefits – many people worry about the initial costs of retrofitting a home.  The cost of insulating a home, buying new energy-efficient appliances, or even installing a renewable energy system, can entail a substantial investment that is sometimes beyond the means of the average person.

Acknowledging this dilemma, however, both state and the federal government have in place numerous rebates and tax exemptions to incentivize homeowners to upgrade their homes and appliances.  Utility companies and state agencies – like ConEdison and NYSERDA – also have incentive programs.  The kinds of rebates for homeowners are diverse – there are literally hundreds of them, and the process of wading through them can be daunting, to say the least.

But why care? Why are rebates important, and would it be worth the effort to determine which rebates a homeowner is eligible for, considering the overwhelming number of options available?

Of course, the answer to this question is that it is entirely worth it.  Put frankly, these programs are free cash for investment.  In the short-term, rebates and exemptions save the homeowner up-front costs for buying green products like high-efficiency washers, driers, and other appliances; and they can bring the cost of installing even the most advanced systems, like photovoltaic panels, within the reach of the average American.  In the long-term, having these products in the home not only saves money, but natural resources like water and fossil fuels used to power appliances.

One incredibly important reason to care about the ENERGY STAR federal tax credit for energy-efficient green products, in particular, is its expiration date: December 31, 2010.

This federal tax credit is a comprehensive one and covers a number of products, some of which are carried by Green Depot, like the GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater or the Solatube Solar Star Attic Fan.  So many products are eligible for tax credits through 2010 – including biomass stoves, central A/C, electric heat pumps, furnaces and boilers, main air circulating fans; insulation materials or heat control systems; metal and asphalt roofing; water heaters, electric heat pumps; exterior windows, doors, and skylights.  The federal tax credit can cover up to 30% of the cost of these products, up to $1,500.

State rebates and incentives exist too, and some can cover the additional costs of installing the above products.  Some incentives go even further than federal incentives – for example, New York State includes a tax break of up to $2,000,000 (million!) for green building.

There are so many rebates and tax breaks that apply to so many different products that everyone can benefit from – proving that rebates are something anyone can and should care about!

There are numerous resources available for the homeowner looking to upgrade their homes and appliances to green products:

DSIRE to see which rebates and tax breaks are available federally and in your home state.

U.S. DoE Energy Savers Program with information on incentives.

ENERGY STAR’s compendium of rebate-eligible products.

For many of us, the feeling of a new year beginning is stronger in the fall than at New Year’s. This is when we make those home repairs we didn’t get to during the busy summer, crack down on those organizing projects we’ve been putting off, and give things a fresh coat of paint—sort of like a second round of spring cleaning, if we ever did it in the spring to begin with! Something about the kids going back to school inspires the rest of us to get going too.

With that in mind, here’s a tip sheet for your next paint job. Thought it might be tempting to just grab a brush and bucket and jump in, any paint job will be easier with a little preparation and planning. The first step, of course, is choosing your paint. And as you probably already know, low-VOC or zero-VOC paint is not only the healthier choice, but it’s better for the environment, too.

Green Depot carries a whopping four lines of zero-VOC paint: Ivy Coatings (proudly made in our hometown, NYC), Yolo Colorhouse, AFM Safecoat®, and Ana Sova Food Paint. With the Ivy Coatings and AFM Safecoat paints, we have the capability to match any color from any brand line—and our tinting pigments are zero-VOC too, so even the wildest custom colors remain zero-VOC.

These paints don’t contain any of the harmful components found in conventional paints, so the application process might differ.  Here are three useful tips that will help ensure durability and performance without compromising the air you breathe:

  1. Don’t apply water-based paint on cold, damp days or if your surface, container or air temperature is below 55 degrees.
  2. Get to know your equipment—read the instructions, if there are any. The better you understand your equipment and how it works, the more satisfied you’ll be with the application process. Countless types of brushes, rollers and sprayers are available for different kinds of jobs, and each kind is best used in a particular way. It’s worth it to figure out what are the right tools for your situation, and how to use them properly.
  3. Fifty percent of any good paint job is surface preparation, so be sure you know what you’re painting.  What is it made of?  Is it porous? What type of paint is on it now, if any—is it oil- or water-based?  And different surfaces require different techniques, so below are some examples regarding specific conditions:

Transitioning from oil-based to water-based paint

  • Sand the surface before any water-based coating, to promote adhesion.
  • If you’d rather not sand, use a transitional primer like this one from Safecoat.  When applied to a clean surface, it will both stick to the oil-based paint and accept the water-based coating on top.

Painting Wood Surfaces

  • Different woods react differently to water-base coating.  Variables to consider include the density of the wood, and whether it has an existing finish that will make surface preparation necessary before painting. Completely unfinished wood usually needs a coat of primer, whereas previously painted or stained wood often receives paint better if you sand it lightly first.
  • Consider the moisture level of the wood. Making sure the wood is fully dry can help avoid problems with the paint not sticking.

by flickr user caveman_92223

When we think of where our energy comes from, we more often than not envision the billowing smokestacks of a coal plant.  It’s true that coal is a major source of energy for most Americans, accounting for over 50% of our energy production according to the Department of Energy, but it’s also important to remember that it is not our only source of energy.

Take, for instance, the massive proliferation of wind power over the last few years.  In 2008, new wind projects accounted for 42% of new power-producing capacity for the United States, and an additional 10,000MW of new capacity were brought online in 2009.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, this sets the U.S. on track to produce 20% of our electricity from wind by 2030,

Wind power accounts for nearly 2% of the electricity produced in the United States, but represents a power source that is considered more-or-less environmentally-friendly.  Wind turbines, after production and installation, do not necessitate the use of fossil fuels to produce energy.  The attributable benefits are substantial – the wind power fleet in the U.S. avoids an estimated 62 million tons of carbon dioxide annually – an equivalent of taking 10.5 millions cars off the road and conserves 20 billion gallons of water annually otherwise slated for cooling or steam production in fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants.

Compared to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, wind power is indeed an environmentally-option, but is beset by some other challenges.  One of the foremost is local opposition to the aesthetic appearance of a wind farm on agricultural or ocean landscapes (notoriously, construction on the Cape Wind Project was delayed for years for this reason).  There have been accusations that wind farms disrupt migratory bird patterns, and that windmills produce low-level vibrations and noise (a claim which has yet to be scientifically verified).

Still, the future of wind looks bright – the DoE’s Wind and Water Power Program notes the proliferation of small scale and distributed wind turbines, large-scale offshore wind projects, and 20% targets for wind production by 2030.  Weaning ourselves off of fossil-fuel consumption can only mean good things for the state of the planet.

The building at 222 Bowery, in Manhattan, was built by the YMCA in 1885 to be its Young Men’s Institute. But over the decades on the way to its current LEED Platinum status as the headquarters and flagship retail store of Green Depot,  it has been everything from a Buddhist meditation center to the home of William S. Burroughs–and most recently, a restaurant furniture supplier. Architects Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena of Mapos, LLC saw value and beauty in the building’s past lives, and sought to preserve elements of them for its current incarnation. In the process, they not only created a unique and dynamic environment for the company’s operations and sales, but managed to preserve and recycle resources (and help us continue preserving them) like the green design champs they’re known to be.

To coincide with an article in the current issue of GreenSource magazine about their work on the project, we took a moment to speak with them about their involvement in green building and what they’re excited about for the future.

Green Depot: Were you guys involved in green architecture and design before you got the Green Depot commission?
Colin Brice: Yes, we were. We didn’t and still don’t really market ourselves as “green architects” per se, but sustainability has always been a big part of what we do and how we work—it’s who we are. In terms of marketing, we focus more on the attention we pay to how we work to understand our clients’ values and design with them in mind—the green part is in the second paragraph, if you will. But it’s always been a fundamental part of our design process.

GD: Do you guys follow what’s going on in the green building movement in general, or do you pretty much stick to your own inspiration?
CB: We definitely keep up what else is going on. We take classes, go to lectures, participate in forums, even teach classes and give lectures ourselves sometimes. We try to play a really active role in the green building community.

GD: What are you most excited about, as architects, with regards to green building? Is there a kind of green building product or philosophy that you see really catching on among your clients and other architects?
CB: I’d say what we’re most excited about is the growing awareness among building owners that green building and design are things that they can do; that they can afford. And one of the things we find really interesting is the growing understanding among business owners that going green is about more than just building materials and green products—that their business practices and maintenance habits are just as important, if not more so, than their construction techniques. For example, it only does so much good to use all-green building materials if you have your air conditioning cranked all the way up with the windows open all the time. Things like that are only just starting to become part of the general consciousness, but they definitely are becoming so—and it’s nice to see. Even the LEED criteria are being updated all the time to reflect more of that way of thinking, and it’s great.

Another thing we’re excited about is that the more fundamental principles of green building, which start before the materials are even considered, are becoming understood by the general public—like the importance of repurposing existing buildings instead of building new ones, choosing the best orientation for the majority of the windows, and making the best use of prevailing breezes. Something like 75% of green design, in terms of energy conservation, can be handled at that level if you start there—and considering those things doesn’t even necessarily involve any more expense than not considering them. Then choosing energy-efficient materials and power and ventilation systems make up only the other 25%.

GD: Are you working on any green projects at the moment that you’re really excited about?
CB: We actually have two—one is a residence in upstate New York that is probably the greenest project we’ve ever done. The owners aren’t applying for LEED certification, but they’d certainly get it if they did—they’re going all out, starting with things as basic as the orientation of the house, like I was just talking about. But on top of that they’re installing geothermal heating and cooling, radiant-heat flooring, sun shading for the massive windows, and lot of recycled materials. It’s really an amazing project, incorporating a lot of passive house principles.

Then we’re also working on a new office for a big internet company, and recycling is playing a huge role in the design process for that project. The previous tenant left everything—all the cubicles, chairs, lighting—and we’re taking it apart to reassemble it as new furnishings and new lighting. We’re actually calling the part of the project that’s usually called demolition “disassembly” instead, for there are very few dumpsters involved. And a fun part of that project is that we’ve developed a new working process to help keep the employees involved in the design process. As a company, they place a huge emphasis on their identity as a community and preserving their sense of that. As architects, we feel it’s important to be able to tap into a community’s values and create environments that support its goals. So we’ve been meeting with this client throughout the process and have come up with games they can play to help them figure out what they as a group want for their office, and they’re really enjoying it.

GD: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Colin. We look forward to seeing some of your future work!