Making our homes healthier and greener doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Very often, just a few changes can vastly improve household sustainability while also preserving the wellbeing of our families.
Green Initiatives’ May Forum, Greening Your Home, brought together two experts to discuss the subject:
• Niels Woelders – Electronic engineer, Technical Director at Greentec, and co-founder of Greenbook
• Jason Inch – Author of Supertrends of Future China and Founder of the social enterprise LOHAUS (an acronym for “Loft of Health and Urban Sustainability”).
Both speakers drew on their own personal experiences as well as the latest scientific research to offer practical, cheap and efficient strategies that everyone can use to minimise their consumption and create greener, healthier households. These ideas were complemented by short film pieces from Andrew Nisker on food waste and The Story of Stuff Project with Annie Leonard about the sustainability of cosmetic products.
All our presenters agreed that even if you’re an expat always on the move, many of these tips are cheap enough to be implemented at each of your destinations. Other tips are issues you should raise in discussion with your local landlord, who will likely see the benefits of reduced bills and improving the value of the property for future renters through sustainable installations.
CREATE INDOOR GARDENS
Often, Shanghai’s old buildings come complete with mold, lead paint, and poor air quality. Indoor gardens provide a cheap and effective air filtration system that anyone can install in their own home. Inch noted that aquaponics are the most efficient natural filtration process. In addition to improving air quality, an aquaponic system also brings beautiful fish into your home lifestyle and provide an opportunity to grow edible herbs and plants for cooking. Shanghai Aquaponics sells systems starting at 60 RMB, making them an inexpensive addition to any household. If 60 RMB is still more than you’re willing to spend, Inch said that simply buying as many plants as you can will result in major improvements. The more plants the better!
MINIMIZE FOOD WASTE AND UNDERSTAND LABELS
European and North American consumers produce between 95-115 kg of food waste per person every single year, and Asian consumers are quickly catching up. If you’re looking to improve the sustainability of your household, food is one area where you can dramatically change your habits and make a significant impact on the environment. Nisker recommends setting up a meal plan to ensure you don’t purchase unnecessary items. Your meal plan should focus on products that have a long shelf-life or can be frozen, such as root vegetables, meats, and bread. Proper storage also complements this approach by improving the shelf-life of your purchases. Another nifty idea is to keep a journal of what you throw out to document and highlight your food waste patterns and allow you to make more informed decisions in the future.
It’s also important to recognise the environmental cost of food imports and the need for high quality local products. Importation places a significant burden on the environment, with transportation and packaging incurring significant climate-related and other costs. We all worry about food safety in China, but there is evidence that imported foods are not necessarily better in that regard. Woelders himself undertook a food comparison test with noodles, testing the metal content of Chinese and imported products to verify whether imported noodles are a healthier alternative. Woelders found that, despite expectations, all of the products, both domestic and foreign, contained unexpected and unwelcome metals such as cadmium and titanium. The study highlighted that imported food doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, and that you can’t always trust a label. The best strategy is to research your food and seek out high quality local produce.
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INSULATE YOUR HOUSE PROPERLY
Decades of poor building standards mean that local homes often do not have adequate insulation. Poor insulation drives up heating costs in winter and air conditioning costs in summer and delivers a heavy blow to energy use and our environment. Installing insulation in ceilings, walls, floors, and windows can dramatically improve energy efficiency and cut energy bills.
A great example of how a local Chinese buildings can be modified with proper insulation is LOHAUS. Inch described how his organization managed to overcome the challenge of thin-pane heritage windows by installing a secondary layer of air-tight insulated windows. The secondary layer preserved the heritage of the building, improved energy efficiency, added an extra layer of glazing, and provided the added benefit of helping to reduce noise pollution. Surprisingly, the installation was undertaken by a local window businessman, who charged less than 100 RMB. Woelders noted that insulation projects can even be executed yourself, with DIY guides readily available online including video how-to guides on Youtube.
If space or renovations pose a problem, insulation can be provided in the form of special carpets. Insulation can be built easily into hemp carpeting , for example. As an inexpensive, sustainable, and domestically produced product, hemp offers a great alternative for those unable to install floor-based insulation. Hemp carpets are widely available on Taobao, and since they are custom-made, the addition of insulation layering is simple and straightforward. 300 sqm costs less than 1000 RMB, a bargain compared to most carpets.
Where to go for insulation products and installation help:
• Your local craftsman
Much like insulation, air leaks make sealing your rooms an important step for sustainability. Sealing rooms properly improves energy efficiency and keeps pollution and dust particles at bay. Woelders identified kitchens as one of the biggest challenges. Exhaust fans let air out, but also let poor quality and temperature-variant air back into your home. Simple steps such as installing one-way air valves in exhaust vents or purchasing door snakes are relatively inexpensive solutions.
Where to find products for sealing rooms:
BUY ENERGY EFFICIENT APPLIANCES
It might sound obvious, but buying energy efficient appliances is a simple step towards a more sustainable home. Look for energy efficiency labels, or if they are unavailable, do a quick bit of research to identify the best models. For those concerned about cost, Woelders confirmed that the price you pay for a cheap low-efficiency product over its lifetime is usually much higher than the price difference between it and a high quality efficient appliance at the point of initial purchase. Energy efficient products provide a great return on investment.
For more information:
• Read Jiang Lin in the Annual Review of Energy and the Environment
INSTALL LED LIGHTS
LEDs are another great way to minimise your energy consumption and cut your energy bills. They provide a great return on your investment and to the environment as well. Woelders calculated that over a period of 8 years, LED lights cost 90 RMB, whereas a typical CFL costs 178 RMB and an incandescent light costs as much as 532 RMB.
Have you ever touched your lamp and burnt your finger? Old lights generate an incredible amount of heat and could even be adding to your air conditioning use. LEDs use a lower wattage at about 3-9watts, minimising additional heat generation in your apartment.
There have been concerns about the materials that are used to create LEDs and whether they really offer a sustainable solution. Audience members questioned whether they used more energy to produce and whether creating larger windows for natural daylight was a better office solution. In response, the speakers pointed out that old lights such as CFLs have mercury, which dissipates into landfills and pollutes soil and groundwater. So while LEDs do require high levels of energy to produce and have varying levels of quality in their sourced materials, the absence of dangerous chemicals and their longevity make a strong case for their sustainability. LEDs can last up to 20 years, and if you research LEDs prior to purchasing, you will be able to find lights that are made with well-sourced materials and can be recycled. While windows are ideal for providing natural lighting, in a high-rise city known for long working hours, this is often impractical. LEDs offer the most sustainable alternative.
Where to find cheap LEDs:
• Ikea has cheap affordable LEDs that are all made locally here in China.
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ONLY PURCHASE RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES
Batteries are full of all kinds of heavy metals, even ‘green batteries’. Trying to minimise your battery consumption helps to reduce landfill and minimises the risk of these toxic chemicals leaching into the soil. You can easily increase the longevity of your batteries by opting for rechargeable batteries. Woelders undertook an analysis that identified that over a period of 10 years, a rechargeable battery costs as little as 15.15 RMB (including the cost of electricity during recharge). An alkaline battery, on the other hand, requires replacement several times in 10 years, leading to a total cost of 150RMB (plus the landfill burden).
Minimise your use of heaters and air-conditioning
A simple but golden rule: avoid unnecessarily varying temperatures and try putting on some more clothes in winter or taking some off in summer! Every degree you alter the temperature requires energy.
KNOW YOUR COSMETICS
Generally, most people give little thought to the contents of their cosmetics, assuming that they are safe and healthy. However, the ingredients that make up our cosmetics are largely unregulated. Terms such as “natural” and “herbal” have no legal definition for packaging and labeling in most countries around the world, including the US. Indeed, the most common ingredients found on the back of our cosmetic bottles are all but unpronounceable. Leonard claims that many of these chemicals have unknown effects or links to dangerous health conditions such as asthma, cancer, learning disabilities, and reduced male fertility.
You might ask how such potentially toxic chemicals could end up in cosmetic products? Leonard explained that the majority of these chemicals are included in such small quantities that they often do not qualify for human health impact assessments by government regulatory bodies.
Problematically, however, most of us don’t just use these products occasionally. Not only are we using more products more often but we are also ingesting more chemicals through food, water, and air pollution. In many cases, this may mean we are actually ingesting significant amounts of potential toxins over the course of a week. We need to ask are ourselves – are these products actually safe for us and for the environment? Right now, we don’t have concrete answers. Leonard advocates adopting a precautionary approach and recommends making efforts to get clean and beautiful without toxic products. At least, she says, make sure you read the label.
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