So, you love the look of sustainable, eco-friendly bamboo flooring, and the idea of low-flow toilets and geothermal heating get the green warrior in you all excited. There’s only one problem…
Your rental company.
Going green can be easy, if you own your own place. With total control over your environment, you have virtually limitless options to control your energy and water use. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the U.S. population doesn’t have that luxury… and that number is going to get bigger. This paper by Christopher Lee discusses how the current economic situation is leading more and more people away from home ownership, putting more people into rental properties where your creative (and conservation) control can be limited.
Luckily, there are a lot of ways for a renter to maximize their conservation efforts.
1. Look at your lighting situation. Compact fluorescent bulbs have gotten a lot of press lately for being much more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. The downside is that CFLs (like their predecessors, fluorescent tubes) contain mercury, which means that even though they last far longer than a standard incandescent bulb, disposing of them is much more complicated. An even more energy-efficient option would be LED bulbs, which, while more expensive than incandescents or CFLs, consume far less power (compare 60 watts for an incandescent bulb, to 9-15 for a CFL, to just 7 watts for an LED bulb). Best of all, the cost of LEDs has been dropping in recent times, making them an even more economical choice for people looking to upgrade their lighting.
2. Power strips have the power. Even if your laptop or cell phone is charged, as long as it’s plugged in, it’s drawing power. Plug your portable devices into a power strip, and turn it off when you go to sleep or work. It’ll keep them from continuing to draw power they don’t need, and you won’t have to remember to unplug every device individually. For hard-core energy savings, invest in a solar charge for your portable devices.
3. Multi-task: charge and drive. Why plug your cell-phone into a wall outlet (or a power strip) when a ready source of power is right in your parking lot? If you don’t have a solar charger, charging your cell phone during your morning commute is the next best thing. Investing in a car charger allows your phone to draw power from your alternator while you drive, saving you from charging it up with your home’s electricity. Just remember to unplug it when you park!
4. Be water wise. Everyone knows to have leaks repaired quickly, even small ones. Even if your rental situation doesn’t require you to pay for your water usage, there are few things more annoying than a noisily dripping faucet (or, for allergy and asthma sufferers, the mold than can accompany a water leak). However, there are other things you can do to save your water consumption. If you take baths, try taking more showers. Place a bucket under your shower while you’re waiting for the water to warm up; the clean water you catch can be used to water plants, or even mop floors or wash dishes. For added oomph, hang clean, wrinkled clothes in the bathroom while you shower- the steam relaxes wrinkles, and you’ll be using less energy than a dryer or clothes iron.
5. No low-flow toilet? Make one. This is an easy, old trick that can help save over ten gallons of water a day. Fill up a 20 oz. plastic beverage bottle (or more, depending on the size of your tank) with water, cap it, and sit it in your toilet tank. It will displace water, keeping your toilet tank from becoming as full as it would otherwise. Your toilet will still have enough water in it, but you’ll be saving thousands of gallons of water a year.
6. Turn water on, soap up, turn water off, repeat. Another way to conserve is as easy as remembering when to turn your shower or sink off. When washing dishes, turn the water on, wet your dish, turn the water off, soap up, and then rinse. Only leaving the water on when you are actively using it can save hundreds more gallons per year, and this works for showers and tooth-brushing, too.
7. Grow some tiny, carbon-scrubbing pals. Instructables.com has a great tutorial on how to build a simple carbon scrubber. A simple carbon scrubber is basically a little bottle of cultured algae and an air pump, but they can help consume CO2 in a big way. Major industrial operations sometimes use a larger version of this system, which is easy to maintain, and can mean big environmental payoffs in the long run. Even though the air pumps used run on electricity, the carbon scrubber will help remove its cost in CO2, and then some!
8. Mind your Ps and Qs. And by Ps and Qs, I mean the pint and quart-sized plastic bottles for soft drinks, household cleaners, and hygiene items that end up in your home. Juice concentrate takes up less space in your freezer (and in a landfill) than a large plastic jug. Many household cleaners can be purchased in concentrated forms that yield a lot more cleaner per bottle, or, even better, you can replace many of them with natural products like vinegar, coarse salt, and lemons. More and more hygiene items like shampoo and conditioner are being made available in low- or no-packaging solid forms, too. Online retailers like Lush have many types available, but, depending on your town, well-made solid soaps and cosmetics could be as close as your nearest grocery store.
9. Going shopping? Be lazy. A shopping trip can be pretty resource-intensive. There’s the energy needed to heat, cool, and power the storefront, the energy needed to produce all of the packaging, the gas needed to ship products to the store, the gas you need to get there… All in all, shopping can be even more expensive than you’d think. Online shopping, however, consumes far fewer resources… Especially shopping for music, where purchasing songs in mp3 format also helps you avoid the cost of producing and packaging a non-biodegradable plastic CD. For even more impact, place multiple orders in the same shopping “session,” as this article from Inhabitat.com suggests.
10. Treat your window treatments right. Insulated curtains can result in some dramatic energy savings, by helping to deflect sunlight that can heat homes in summer. In winter, draft blockers can be heaven-sent. Best of all, most insulated curtains are lined in white, making them in-line with most apartment companies’ requirements for window dressings visible from outdoors (this can vary, though, so check with your individual landlord or rental company). No curtain rods? No problem. Retailers that sell curtains and other decor items usually carry tension rods, a kind of curtain rod that mounts by using pressure against the wall on either side of the window. There are no nails, no screws, no glue, and no marks to cover up when you move out. Check out Gaiam for insulated curtains in a variety of colors and styles.
11. Choose wood floors for your would-be apartment. Not renting just yet? Try to find a place with tile or hardwood, as opposed to wall-to-wall carpeting. Sweeping uses up far less energy than vacuuming, and trap far less dust and odors. If bare floors aren’t an option, try using a manual carpet sweeper between vacuuming. It will help get the job done, and is electricity-free.
12. Refuse, Reuse, Recycle. Recycling can be a bone of contention to some people- with the energy required to sort, clean, and process recyclable goods, is it really worth it? What if curbside recycling isn’t offered in your area? What’s the most efficient way to separate plastics for recycling? What can and can’t actually be recycled? Fortunately, most areas aren’t too far from a recycling center, where you can drop your recyclables off as opposed to paying for curbside service. This FAQ at Gaiam.com can help answer a lot of common (and not-so-common) questions about recycling. If recycling still isn’t an option for you, refuse and reuse. Refuse to purchase goods with unnecessary amounts of non-renewable packaging (goodbye, styrofoam!) and reuse what you do end up with, to save it from going into a landfill.
So, while you might not be able to redo your digs in cork floors and no-VOC clay wall treatments, there are tons of things you can do to reduce your overall environmental impact. What’s even better is that, often, the most planet-friendly options are also the cheapest and healthiest for you. And that’s something everyone, renter or owner, can get behind!