Legendary Kentucky writer and conservationist Wendell Berry once said he doesn’t like the term “environment.” In a 2011 interview, Berry said, “We need to stop talking about ‘the environment’ and start talking about places we call by name…Nobody ever called their home place ‘the environment.’”
As it turns out, the places we call home—our houses, yards, and neighborhoods—need just as much attention as the atmosphere or the oceans. There are also plenty of relatively easy steps we can take to preserve them—and ourselves.
“Sustainability” has become a buzzword in the corporate world. When you look at Web sites of leading Kentucky businesses like Yum! Brands, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, and Papa John’s, you’ll find pages discussing their sustainable business practices. Even so, the concept of integrating concern for the natural world into daily life, by using fewer resources and having a low impact, makes as much sense in a household kitchen as it does in a corporate suite.
One prime area of concern is that the chemicals used in many farm and household products can cause potential harm to people, animals, and plants. Two of the biggest causes for chemical concern are nitrogen, which is found in fertilizers, and phosphorus, an ingredient in many household cleaning agents.
When nitrogen and phosphorus enter your water system in too high a concentration, the result can be toxic. Drinking water that’s overloaded with these and other chemicals can lead to rashes, respiratory troubles, stomach problems, and more. The health dangers are more severe for small children. Even if you’re not putting these or other chemicals into your own water, if they go down your drain, they can end up in other people’s drinking water or in their food through livestock or game that drink contaminated water.
Cindy Shepherd decided she didn’t want any part of this and started making her own cleaners from nontoxic ingredients. She and her husband, Randy, live near Oneida in Clay County and are members of Jackson Energy Cooperative.
“I use eucalyptus oil,” she says. She orders it online (it’s available from Amazon and other retailers) along with other materials like lemon essential oil and Dr. Bronner’s nontoxic soaps.
Instead of buying a spray bottle of multisurface cleaner from the store every few weeks, she makes her own.
All-Purpose Household Cleaner
1 cup of water
1 tsp Dr. Bronner’s liquid, all-purpose Castile soap
5 drops eucalyptus oil
5 drops lemon essential oil
Use a funnel to pour into a clear spray bottle; shake to mix.
More household cleaning ideas and recipes on Pinterest.
Preparation time: “About two minutes.” Cost? “It’s super cheap, maybe 10 cents a cup.” (For comparison, the same amount of store-bought cleaner might cost about eight or nine times that.) Shepherd says there’s also a satisfaction beyond the savings. “I know exactly what I’m using. I know I’m not harming the earth or my loved ones.” If you’re thinking about this approach, she says, “Try it. Do the research. See how it makes you feel.”
Kelly and Mark Saderholm are members of Farmers RECC in Summer Shade in Metcalfe County. They built their house themselves and are among the roughly 400,000 Kentuckians the state estimates get their water from a well or spring. The Saderholms also have a septic system. Kelly says she started wanting to use more natural cleaning agents when they moved there 15 years ago. “We had small children and cats and just thought it made sense to use things that were not as toxic.”
Saderholm uses plain white vinegar as one of her primary cleaning tools. “It works beautifully on toilets, glass, countertops, hardwood floors.” Some people mix vinegar with water, but she says, “I just use it straight. There’s a little bit of a vinegar smell, but it dissipates pretty quickly.”
To clean drains, she says baking soda and vinegar make an effective combo. “Put a cup of baking soda down the drain, let it sit a minute, then pour vinegar down there.”
Making a green home was part of the Saderholms’ plan from the beginning. They chose white asphalt for their roof shingles, which she says absorb less heat than darker-colored shingles. (Our energy advisors also add that when choosing shingles to be sure both the reflectance and emissivity values are high, in the mid .8 to .95, since both properties determine the absorption and retention of heat. An ENERGY STAR shingle typically meets these standards.)
Kelly started looking into more natural cleaners in part because, she says, “I became concerned about chemicals we use leaching into the water supply from the septic system.”
Seepage is a legitimate concern for the thousands of Kentuckians who use septic systems instead of a municipal sewer system. Amy Sohner is executive director of Bluegrass Greensource, an environmental education nonprofit that serves 20 counties in central and eastern Kentucky.
“The septic system is really a very simple and effective mechanism for getting rid of waste. Just by pumping and getting your system inspected every three to five years, it can practically run forever,” she says. “But if you don’t do that, the leach lines clog and the soil clogs and it can cost thousands of dollars to fix.”
Sohner says that water is something people use without much consideration to what happens after it leaves the house. Nonetheless, how we use it and what we send down the drain with it are decisions that merit some thought.
She says people assume the biggest source of water pollution would be large industrial facilities like factories or refineries. “In fact, the number one source of water pollution is people,” Sohner says. That’s because everything the people put on the ground ends up in the water. Cigarette butts, untended pet waste, motor oil leaking from the car in your driveway. With time and rain, all of that material and the chemicals and bacteria along with it soak through the ground and into the water table.
Sohner says, “Water treatment systems catch some of the chemicals, but they’re not designed to catch all of them.” In addition, just keeping an eye on how much water you’re using is important. If you have an unusually high water bill, check your faucets and toilets for leaks. Sometimes the problems—and solutions—are simple.
Bluegrass GreenSource, based in Lexington, is conducting a series of rain garden workshops in central Kentucky this spring and planning a May 23 Green Fest of workshops on topics like keeping backyard chickens, composting, and how to use rainwater as a resource (see box above).
Sohner says, “There are small things everyone can do that can make a big impact.”
GREENING UP OUTDOORS
For many Kentuckians, particularly those in rural areas, caring for what’s outside their house is as important as caring for what’s inside. David Allen is director of the Center for Environmental Education at Murray State University. He offers these tips for greening up the way you care for your great outdoors.
Use rain barrels. These work in conjunction with your gutters to collect rainwater, which can then be used to water the landscaping or yards between rain showers.
If you own land near a stream or river, leave an undisturbed area along the waterway. This will help prevent erosion and thus preserve topsoil. It will also help prevent substances such as fertilizers and pesticides from getting into the waterways and impacting the plant and animal life there (and possibly humans who may eat the fish from the waterway).
Use native plants when you’re landscaping. They require much less maintenance, including less chemical application.
Create a compost pile. Many things can be composted (don’t forget to use your daily food scraps) and turned into rich organic matter that can be used in gardens, landscaping, etc.
Build a water garden. These can help collect water before it becomes runoff, which can remove your topsoil.
Dispose of your trash properly. This is especially important for fluids like oil and paints. If it’s poured on the ground, it will often find its way into someone’s drinking water.
UK Cooperative Extension Service The University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service has extensive resources on the subject of sustainability in the home, including videos, definitions, how-tos, FAQs and more.
My Green Home has plenty of information and ideas for green living in the home in this blog.
Mindful Momma Health, recipes, and green living are among the topics explored in this blog by a wife and mother of two.
Proud Green Home Homebuilders and homeowners can find information and resources in this site dedicated to “creating high performance homes.” Also search keyword “laundry” to read 5 Ways to Be More Eco-Friendly When Doing Laundry.
Home Composting Made Easy Find lots of information and a quick-start guide under the “How to Compost” section, which includes how to use food scraps, grass clippings, and leaves.
Photos: Jim Battles