Five ways to make your home more Earth-friendly

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The classic Earth Day advice about what individual people can do to help save the planet boils down to three words: Reduce, reuse, recycle. When it comes to your home, there are more than a few ways to put that into practice — and some can really move the needle, both for the planet and your wallet. And while not all are inexpensive changes, for some of the more substantial options such as installing solar panels, local and federal governments may offer tax rebates and other financial incentives. The Department of Energy has more about the possible benefits.

Here are five Earth-friendly changes you can make to your home:

1. Consider a cool roof

Making your roof white can lower your energy bill and reduce your emissions, particularly in relatively urban areas. According to Yale Environment 360, if every roof in every large city across the globe were white, daytime temperatures could be lowered by an average of 0.6 degrees Celsius. The impact would be even greater in warmer climates. In the U.S., white roofs could decrease the temperatures in Washington, D.C., by 1.8 degrees Celsius and up to 1.5 degrees Celsius in Los Angeles.

Earth is on track to be 2.5 degrees Celsius to 4.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit to 8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by 2100, according to NASA. However, world leaders are aiming to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which scientists believe could stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

How do cool roofs help? A white coating reflects sunlight — up to 60-90% of sunlight, according to the Department of Energy. In comparison, asphalt reflects 4% of light and grasslands reflect 25%, Yale Environment 360 said.

If everyone on the planet installed a white roof, it would slow global warming by 11 years, Yale Environment 360 reports. Although this number isn’t significant in the grand scheme of our planet’s existence, cool roofs could reduce the number of people who die from heat-related issues each year, particularly in urban areas.

Another way to create a cool roof is to add plants. This option is “ideal for urban buildings with low-sloped or shallow-pit roofs, and can include anything from basic plant cover (extensive vegetative roof) to a garden. or even small trees (intensive vegetative roof),” the Energy Department says. Water evaporating from the plants on the roof keeps the home cool, and the soil layer helps to insulate the home. However, a green roof is more expensive, harder to maintain and much heavier than other cool roof options.

If you’re ready to replace your roof, consider a cool option. If your roof is still in good shape, look into applying a white roof coating designed to reflect the sun’s rays — New York City even has a program to help building owners coat qualifying roofs for free or at a low cost. EnergyStar.gov has a list of certified options.

2. Replace your grass-dominant lawn 

Your yard — no matter how big or small — can have an impact on climate change. Although well-manicured grass lawns have long been the standard for most American homes, experts say a lawn that more closely resembles its natural surroundings could be beneficial to the environment’s health, and your wallet.

The problem: Treatments for maintaining a “perfect” grass lawn harm the environment. Certain fertilizers and pesticides can damage ecosystems and sicken the animals that live in them, and, when those chemicals travel in runoff water, they can reach other animals and other ecosystems. Scientists at Princeton University say that mowing your lawn or reworking its irrigation system can also decrease some of your lawn’s positive impacts on the environment. And gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers, when taken altogether, can emit significant amounts of CO2.

The solution? In short, researchers at Princeton and other experts in the field recommend keeping your lawn natural. This includes reintroducing more native plants to the landscape, adding grass alternatives such as mulch and gravel and “leaving the lawn to its own devices” — which means less manicuring. 

While most towns in the U.S. have certain restrictions on how much your lawn can grow, they may be more flexible than you’d think. Check out local government resource pages to learn what those regulations are. Meanwhile, other cities are pushing for change in local legislation. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland, amended their rules to allow for more natural lawn growth, according to the nonprofit organization NRDC.

Several local governments in the U.S. even offer residents incentives for ditching an all-grass lawn. In Colorado, the government offered rebates to people in certain towns who changed their landscaping, according to The Denver Post. The reason? The state was in a severe drought, and too much water was being wasted on lawn maintenance. Several other western states, including California, Nevada and Utah, offer similar incentives. 

3. Buy secondhand furniture

Nearly 12.5 million tons of furniture and furnishings are discarded each year in the U.S. — up from about 2.5 million tons in 1960, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Although about a fifth of that waste is combusted with energy recovery, the majority of the rest of it is sent to landfills. The EPA found similar patterns for other household items, including rugs and carpets.

The solution? Instead of throwing out your old living room rug or headboard, take it to a local second-hand store. And if you’re in the market for some new furniture, check out preowned options before buying new. Thrifting is already popular among millennials, though it’s often done for clothing and accessories, because it’s cheaper and greener. Not only will you limit the amount of waste, you’ll also lower the expenditures, including water, electricity and chemicals, that come with producing new products.

4. Install solar panels

Every home on the planet emits carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, which impact the cleanliness of our water and air, and contribute to climate change.

How can you reduce your impact? Installing solar panels on your home is one option, and a good one at that. According to the Energy Department — which has an entire guide to how to go solar on its website —  solar panels can lower your electricity bills, reduce emissions and even add to your home’s resale value.

Solar panels can be installed and be functional at most homes. The amount of power they will generate, how much they will cost and how much money they will save will vary based on location. However, there are many government incentives for solar panels, including from state and local programs. For more, check out the Department of Energy’s website.

5. Use curtains

Similar to painting your roof white, installing and using curtains, shades, blinds, screens, awnings, draperies and shutters in your home is a simple and effective way to up your home’s energy efficiency. 

In the summer, keeping curtains lowered can prevent sunlight — and heat from outside — from getting in. As a result, you’ll need and use less air conditioning. And they are also a good way to keep warm air contained in the winter: Curtains, according to the Department of Energy, can reduce heat loss in a home by 40% or more. 

In total, about 30% of a home’s heating energy is lost through windows, the Department of Energy says. Using curtains effectively can greatly reduce that waste, and also reduce your bills — although the Energy Department says that figure will depend on which kind of curtains you use, the season and the climate.

The department added that the most effective kind of window covering is insulated cellular shades, which usually fold up like an accordion at the top of the window. The Department of Energy also has more information about different types of curtains.

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