Installing a new wood floor? Instead of traditional hardwood, you may want to consider an eco-friendly alternative: bamboo. It may be hard to imagine that reedy green plant growing wild in your yard making a good flooring material, but some varieties of bamboo (when mature and properly dried) are as hard as oak–and some are even harder.

Photo: chefranden at Flickr.com

Green Depot carries bamboo flooring by Foundations, a New York state-based company that offers click-together “floating” strand boards, as well as traditional tongue-and-groove solid-strip options, both in prefinished and unfinished varieties. Foundation’s strand planks are made of the Moso variety of bamboo, which proves to be two times harder than red oak when subjected to the industry-standard Janka ball test. And Moso isn’t a natural food supply for a pandas, so harvesting it even in the wild doesn’t endanger their habitat.

But why else is bamboo such a good choice? The reasons are many, beginning with bamboo’s rapid renewability, which makes it one of the greenest of green products used in building. A tree takes 80 to 120 years to grow to a size where it can be harvested for hardwood flooring planks, but a bamboo plant reaches maturity in only 3 to 6 years with minimal (if any) fertilization or pesticides, and it renews itself without replanting. This means it requires not only fewer natural resources to thrive, but less labor, as well. And bamboo can easily grow up to a foot a day, so it’s not just fast, but plentiful.

Photo: Ajari at Flickr.com

Bamboo is also a boon to the natural environment itself, in a number of ways. Mature bamboo has a very complex and dense root structure (which, incidentally, is why is can be so hard to get out of your garden), which goes a long way to avoid soil erosion in areas where it’s planted. Furthermore, a bamboo forest absorbs up to twice as much carbon dioxide as trees.

From a social responsibility perspective, as well, bamboo is winner—600 million people worldwide depend on income from it, and the industry employs nearly 6 million people in China alone. And as it grows in popularity, those numbers only expand.

Then there’s affordability, which ties back to bamboo’s ability to renew itself rapidly. The laws of supply and demand are at work here: A product that springs back into place quickly and with so little effort and expense can easily be kept in abundant supply, so prices for it can be lower, even in times of great demand. And its durability gives it another layer of affordability, as many kinds of bamboo flooring can go for long periods without refinishing or replacement. Several brands, including Foundations, coat their pre-finished planks with multiple layers of a water-based, zero-VOC, aluminum oxide-infused polyurethane that doesn’t off-gas at all. Nice!

And that’s not even touching on the design options bamboo flooring offers. Bamboo is available in any number of colors, many of which can be achieved using eco-friendly methods. Heating bamboo makes it darken to a rich amber color without the use of stain, and bleaching it in non-toxic hydrogen peroxide gives it a birchlike white-blond color. Its natural tone is a warm golden hue that lies somewhere in between the two, and bamboo can be colored with traditional wood stains to take it to anywhere from a medium chestnut brown to a near-black ebony.

Bamboo’s narrow-strand structure allows it to be pressed into planks in a number of different formats, unlike wood, which of course comes naturally bound into wide pieces (tree trunks). Some bamboo flooring manufacturers even offer planks made of mixed dark- and light-colored strands, for an unusual streaky look. Still others turn the plant’s fibers the short way, so the cut ends of the stalks are what make up the visible surface. The effect is a sort of small-dot pattern that is unique to bamboo.

As a side note, Green Depot also carries Plybam, an excellent companion to bamboo flooring. Plybam is plywood made entirely of bamboo instead of wood veneer, and it’s perfect for use in cabinetry, furniture, paneling or any other project that usually calls for plywood. Its edges have a multidirectional pattern that offers an alternative to plywood’s striped edges, and is attractive enough to make edge veneers a thing of the past.

After three nail-biting months, it looks like the BP oil spill in the Gulf is finally being sealed. This week, drilling engineers are expected to complete the “bottom kill” relief well linked to the main well that had been capped and plugged on July 15th. A combination of mud and cement will be pumped into the well to plug it permanently. Since the oil spill began, an estimated 190 milllion gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Solar ad campaign from 1BOG

In a post on July 12th, before the successful capping, I described the spill in Prius-mile equivalencies: how many hybrid car-miles could have been driven with the lost oil, and  I said that if 1 million Americans bought hybrid cars in the next year, they could save 270 million gallons of oil–three times more than what had been spilled to date.

The solar dealer 1bog (One Block Off the Grid) has done something similar—but with better graphics—describing the oil spill in solar panel equivalencies.  In one scenario, they take the area affected by the spill (roughly the size of Kansas) and calculate how much power could be generated by a Kansas-sized block of solar photovoltaic panels. They estimate that all the electricity needs of the United States, Central America, and South America could be met by such a vast array: for 25 years. (Why not indefinitely–as one commenter asked? Because after 25-30 years the panels lose efficiency and should be replaced). In another scenario, they point out that the spill has cost BP $32 billion to clean up, an amount, they say, that had it been spent on solar panels instead, could have provided enough electricity for all of Los Angeles County for 30 years.

So it’s clear from these whimsical yet hard-hitting ads that solar can indeed pack a punch if enough is invested in it, displacing significant amounts of electricity generated on the fossil fuel-based grid.

Solar array at Hancock Shaker Village

In my neck of the woods, the Hancock Shaker Village recently installed a photovoltaic array on and adjacent to its visitor center, supplying the museum and grounds with 66% of their power needs.

Residences can do the same thing. With prices for photovoltaic panels steadily dropping, they’re more affordable than ever. The federal government offers a 30% tax rebate (with no cap) for solar installations, and most states have their own tax incentives. You can find your state on the DSIRE website database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

Residential PV array by Radiant Complete

In the tri-state area, Green Depot recommends Radiant Complete for residential and commercial solar jobs. Their strengths are in evaluating a project to determine what the clients’ specific goals are (hot water, electricity, or space heating, for example), and the site’s physical parameters (trees and other shading, roof area and angles, building orientation, etc). Then they custom-design a combination of renewable options to fit your needs and budget, and manage the installation using highly skilled professionals.

SolarStar Attic Fan

If you want to cool your house on the cheap and preserve the integrity of your roof shingles and insulation,

Solio Charger

check out the SolarStar Attic Fan. Running on the sun alone (not hardwired into your house), it vents hot air from your attic, keeping the space cooler: preventing destructive ice dams on your roof in winter, and saving you money on air conditioning in the summer.

If you’re a student or a renter on a low budget, there are more green products than ever before on the market. The Solio charger has 3 mini PV panels that allow you to capture and store solar power so you can recharge your cell, iPod and other handheld devices anywhere the sun shines.

Verilux Flashlight

Tired of replacing batteries for your flashlight? You’ll never have to again with the rechargeable, solar-powered Verilux flashlight. Comes with 6 bright LED lights, and casts a wide beam.

So: big or small, there has never been a better time to look at how solar might fit into your life.

ants

Ants. We all have ‘em from time to time. In our kitchens. In our patios and porches.  Around the BBQ. In our pants. (Just kidding.) And despite what magnificently interesting social creatures they are (read what famed biologist E.O. Wilson has to say about them), we want to get rid of them when they get too close.

But how many of us want to use a product with a label like this?

“Caution: Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through skin. Avoid breathing spray mist. Avoid contact with skin orRaid ant killer spray clothing. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. Provide adequate ventilation of area being treated. Do not apply to humans, pets, or plants, or contaminate feed, foodstuffs, dishes, or utensils. Cover and avoid spraying fish aquariums. Cover or remove exposed food, dishes, utensils, and food handling equipment. Keep out of reach of children. …If on skin or clothing…call a poison control center or doctor for treatment advice. “

YIKES! That’s RAID.  We’ve probably all used it at one time or another. Many of us may have a can under our kitchen sinks right now. This is one product where using it up isn’t best; you’d be better off disposing it at a household hazardous waste collection day (call your local Public Works Department to see when one is offered).

AntEater Bug Power Ant Killer St. Gabriel Organics

AntEater by St. Gabriel Organics

Thankfully, there are alternatives. Green Depot just picked up some cool new green products that won’t have you pressing the panic button. One of them is AntEater, made by St. Gabriel Organics. It contains food-grade diatomaceous earth: a white, chalky natural mineral that was formed in shallow seas millions of ago from the remains of single-celled algae called diatoms.  These silica-shelled creatures still exist today, and look beautiful under a microscope.

Diatoms

Diatoms under an electron microscope

Diatomaceous earth (see if you can close your eyes and spell “diatomaceous”) has the effect of absorbing the lipids (fats and waxes) from the ants’ exoskeletons and dehydrating them. So they die. It’s not toxic to pets, or children, or to aquatic ecosystems. It won’t hurt your skin if you touch it. (But do not apply it directly ON pets’ coats; it can dehydrate their skin.)

Diatomaceous earth also has many other interesting commercial applications, including filtering, acting as an abrasive, thermal insulation, and as an ingredient in dynamite. AntEater is simple to use as an insecticide; you just sprinkle the powder in the areas where ants are trafficking: indoors and out.

There are other purveyors of insecticides containing diatomaceous earth–including Safer and Concern. Planet Natural also carries an ant killer that uses the mineral borax as its active ingredient.

So the next time you see them marching two by two in your cereal cabinet, reach for an ant killer that won’t make your skin crawl.

The BP oil spill has been on all our minds since April. Much press coverage has focused on the ineptitude of BP’s cleanup efforts, the cozy ties between industry and government, and the environmental and economic impacts of the spill on the Gulf coast.

BP wellhead leakingBut every time I listen to the news while driving in the car, I can’t help but think about the sheer waste of oil and gas.

As of today, about 90 million gallons of oil have leaked from the ruptured wellhead: 8 times what was leaked by the Exxon Valdez. (PBS News has a cool running counter on the amount of oil spilled to date, including how much has been flared.)

Less than half of that has been contained or managed in some way: by skimmer vessels, through messy controlled burns on the surface (creating air quality problems for Gulf residents), and by the cap on the broken pipe leading to the Q4000 rig that flares the oil and gas. Although BP’s website refers to flaring efforts as “recovery,” in fact a only a small part of the oil leaked from the Deepwater Horizon is actually being recovered (saved) for refining and use. According to Max McGahan, a press officer I spoke to at BP today, the Q4000 rig has been flaring about 8,000 barrels (336,000 gallons) per day since its deployment on June 15th . Mr. McGahan would not reveal how much oil has been recovered for refining, although he did say that as of July 10th, the total volume of oil “collected or flared” (not including surface burns) is 749,100 barrels (31.5 million gallons). Do the math: (24 days x 336,000g flared/day = 8 million gallons flared). Subtract that from 31.5, and you see that as of July 10th, only about 23 million gallons had been captured to be refined. In other words, as of July 10th, about 67 million gallons have been lost.

Q4000 flaring BP oil in Gulf
The Q4000 flaring oil in Gulf

I cannot help but measure this loss in terms of Prius-miles. My used blue Prius gets about 42 mpg in the winter, 51 in the summer, and 47 in spring and fall (So let’s say 48 mpg on average). Compare this to the 25 mpg I got in my last car, a 10-year old Ford Taurus wagon. On a 325-mile road trip (to New York City and back), that adds up to about 6 gallons saved. Over the course of a year, if I–like the average American–drive about 12,000 miles, I am now saving about 230 gallons over what I did with my former car. Not a huge amount, but more than a drop in the bucket. In 2009, 23.1 mpg was the CAFÉ standard (corporate average fuel economy) standard for cars and light trucks. Compared to this mediocre rate, I am saving almost 270 gallons per year.

When I bought the Prius, my brother gave me a hard time for paying a premium for a hybrid. We did the math together—at that time gas was $4/gallon—and over the long term I still didn’t break even over paying cash for a cheaper used car in similar condition. But I told him that the economics weren’t the only issue for me; doing the right thing was. I wanted to reduce my personal carbon footprint as much as possible. I’d already insulated and air-sealed my house, replaced my old leaky windows and doors, and had remodeled a few rooms with as many green building products and green materials as I could. I recycle and compost. We’ve cut way back on meat. I hang the laundry on the line to dry. Buying a Prius was the next big consumer step I could take to reduce my impact on the world. I thought that saving a few hundred gallons per year through my autombile selection was a choice worth making.

If only a million Americans (one third of 1% of the population) bought a Prius or similar hybrid this year, they could save an additional 270 million gallons per year—three times the amount of oil spilled to date by BP in the Gulf. Imagine a world with fewer oil wells that blow out or are abandoned, creating a permanent risk of leakage.

I’d like to see the federal government offer better financial incentives for individuals and companies to buy hybrids (check out these state and federal incentives), and to make a host of other energy efficiency moves. Because when a huge corporation loses control of its operation in an environmentally sensitive area, the problem is absorbed by everyone. It’s in all our best interests to maximize the ways that society as a whole can use less energy, and make more green product choices.