One of three energy-efficient homes can be seen on Aug. 18 on Fern Street in Bangor. Bob and Suzanne Kelly, building renovators, are developing a "green pocket neighborhood" on the site of an old dry-cleaning facility. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Living simply, getting back to basics, reducing your carbon footprint, going green. Whatever you call it, taking steps to make your home and life more environmentally friendly just makes sense. But what exactly is sustainability? And what can you do to green your home?

From an environmental standpoint, sustainability at home means you are incorporating practices leading to a more ecologically responsible lifestyle. You are making choices that help protect the environment and its natural resources.

From a practical perspective, incorporating a green lifestyle in your home can make good economic sense. Green homes tend to use less energy, which translates to lower utility bills. Green choices are often good for the health of you and your family because they help create living space with fewer chemical toxins and because you can start supplying fresh food you grow yourself.

Here are 10 ways you can go green at home.

Rethink laundry

Set your wash and rinse cycles to cold on your washing machine. Using cold water means less energy is needed, plus cold water is gentler on your clothes, which means they will last longer. When it’s time to dry your clothes, instead of tossing them into a dryer, hang them from a clothes line either strung inside your home or — better yet — outdoors so they will dry with a natural, fresh air scent. If you are using a dryer, instead of using chemical dryer sheets, toss in wool dryer balls, which naturally soften clothes and get rid of static.

Go with a low flow toilet

The average toilet uses up to seven gallons of water per flush. Over time, that can add up to a lot of water — and money — going down the drain. Converting to a low-flow toilet can save you gallons of water per flush. You can purchase a low flow toilet to replace your existing toilet, or convert your existing toilet by installing an adjustable flapper in the tank that lets you control how much water is used. You can also reduce the amount of water in the tank by putting a solid object in it to displace the water. Bags designed for this purpose are available from most hardware or home improvement stores, but you can also use a plastic jug or large glass jar filled with water.

Turn down the heat

No one wants to live in a cold house, but take a look at your thermostat and you might discover you can lower it a few degrees and be just as comfy by throwing on a sweater. Likewise, hot showers are wonderful, but you can quite likely lower the heat on your hot water system a few degrees and never notice the difference. Both of these steps will cut back on the amount of energy you use.

Cut down on paper use

Paper is a renewable resource made from trees or recycled materials. But manufacturing paper requires energy, so using less means you are helping to reduce that energy consumption. One way to do this is have all of your bills, bank statements and any other documents delivered online instead of by mail. You can also pay your bills online; it’s a breeze. As for other paper in your house, try to get the most out of it by using both sides before you toss it out.

Reuse glass jars

Instead of throwing out empty jars that hold things like mayonnaise, jams or sauces, clean them thoroughly and use them to store leftovers or items you may buy in bulk like nuts or oatmeal. Glass jars can also help get and keep you organized. They make excellent containers for everything from loose nails to spare change to random buttons you want to keep for future clothing repairs. In the bathroom, use jars to hold and organize toothbrushes, hair brushes and cosmetics.

Ditch single use paper products for cloth

In the kitchen, instead of reaching for a roll of paper towels to wipe your counter, use a cloth that can be washed and reused over and over. You can even repurpose old t-shirts or towels to use as cleaning cloths. At mealtime, use cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. And get disposable diapers out of the wastestream by switching to cloth diapers.

Conduct a home energy audit

It’s not always obvious where your home is wasting energy. An energy audit will look at a home’s overall energy use and pinpoint areas of inefficiency or that create potential health issues. An audit will also provide recommendations for cost-effective fixes for any problems. In Maine an audit — which can take up to six hours — can be arranged by contacting Efficiency Maine at 866-376-2463. Efficiency Maine also has programs to assist with the cost of a home energy audit, which can run up to $600. You can also do your own audit using electric monitors that can detect where your home is wasting electricity either through phantom loads — things that still pull power even when shut off — or that are operating inefficiently. While you are at it, check your faucets to make sure there are no leaks wasting water.

Go natural with cleaning

Swap out those harsh chemical cleaners in the bathroom, laundry room and kitchen for natural, environmentally-friendly products. You can find eco-friendly cleaning products at most natural food stores and in many supermarkets. Better yet, make your own cleaning products with natural ingredients like baking soda, white vinegar and natural soaps. You can also add essential oils to get any special scent you would like.

Grow your own food

Few things are tastier or satisfying than eating food you have grown yourself. You can go small by starting an indoor kitchen garden growing salad greens or herbs potted in organic planting soil and placed on a sunny windowsill. You can also purchase small, self-contained units that have special places for soil and seeds, installed grow lights and wells for water. These units do require electricity to power the lights, but they can be placed virtually anywhere in your home and can grow vegetables including greens, herbs, tomatoes, peas, cucumbers and green beans. If you have the outdoor space for one, put in an outdoor garden. Depending on how much room you have and the configuration of your property you can plant a traditional row garden or build raised beds. If your outdoor space is limited, consider container gardening and plant vegetables or herbs in large pots or hanging baskets on your porch.

Compost

Compost is the end product of decomposing organic materials like food scraps, leaves, lawn clippings and weeds. When done properly, you end up with a nutrient rich material that can be turned right back into your garden. To compost at home you will need a container in which to place your compostable materials. This can be as simple as a lengthy of wire mesh fencing fashioned into a cylinder and placed on end or you can get a commercial home composter from a home improvement store. To start your compost bin you need to layer brown materials like livestock manure or old compost with green organic material. As you add more organic materials you want to stir them in with what’s already in the bin. It takes about six months for scraps to turn into compost, but your garden will thank you.

Collect rainwater

Collecting — or harvesting — the fresh water that falls from the sky is a great way to supplement the water you use from your home taps. It can be as simple as placing a barrel or buckets near your garden to capture rain that you then use to water your plants. Or, you can invest in a commercial rainwater catchment system that is capable of harvesting enough rain for you to wash clothes, shower and cook. Just be sure you properly filter or boil any rainwater before consuming it.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.