Making your house more sustainable is an admirable and important, goal. But it can also be daunting — all those water- and energy-efficient appliances and fixtures can add up. A good place to start is the bathroom. With so many easy, inexpensive ways to go green in that most important room of the house, you can have a sustainable restroom in no time — saving water, energy and money all at once.
Sure, you can perform a head-to-toe green makeover in your bathroom, installing a low-flow toilet, bamboo flooring and recycled glass tiles. These will give you a high-end sustainable bathroom, but you can achieve the same effect with some low-cost alternatives. And you don’t have to make all these Earth-friendly improvements at one go — you can build your sustainable restroom gradually, starting with the less-expensive measures you can do yourself, and adding the pricier items when you can.
Let’s look at ways to be sustainable in the main areas of the bathroom: the toilet, the shower, the vanity, the lighting — and how you clean them.
Step 1: Make your toilet water-efficient
The toilet is where nearly a third of the water in your home is being used. If your toilet was installed before 1994, it’s not water-efficient. Today there are tons of options for new toilets that save water — low-flow, dual-flush, etc. — but you can make adjustments to your current toilet, and how you use it, to save water without having to pay for a new model.
By placing a half-gallon jug filled with water in your toilet’s water tank, you’ll reduce the amount of water that it uses. Then make sure the toilet is in good working order — meaning no leaks. Limit flushing when possible, and don’t flush items that can be recycled or thrown in the trash (such as used facial tissue).
While you’re at it, you can make a more sustainable water closet by switching to an environmentally friendly toilet tissue — one that is made with post-consumer fibers, is labeled PCF (indicating that it’s free of processed chlorine), and comes in reduced or recycled packaging. Keep a small recycling bin next to your trashcan for the empty paper rolls and other packaging, and you’ll be doing even more to be sustainable in the bathroom.
Step 2: Be water-conscious in the shower
Love your shower and can’t shave even a few seconds off your time in it? Consider replacing your showerhead with an inexpensive water-saving one. These can be purchased at home-improvement stores for as little as $10 and are a snap to install.
If you are up for the challenge and committed to being sustainable in the bathroom, try gradually cutting minutes off your shower time. Shower in five minutes or less, and you’ll see significant savings in your water bill. If you’re really gung-ho, turn off the shower when you’re shaving and shampooing. And while you’re waiting for the water to heat up, capture the runoff in a bucket so you can use it later to water plants, or even as drinking water.
Showers use less water than baths, so try to reserve the latter for special times — or, if they’re a necessity in your house, close the drain while the water heats up instead of letting that cold water go to waste.
You can be sustainable even in the way you dry off after a shower by choosing towels and washcloths that have been manufactured responsibly with environmentally friendly textiles, such as eco-certified bamboo and organic cotton.
Step 3: Be an environmentally conscious consumer at the vanity
Creating a sustainable bathroom isn’t just about saving water. It also requires being smart about the products you use. Check the labels on your cosmetics and other bath products (shampoo, conditioner, soap, shaving cream), whose chemicals will end up in your water system and, ultimately, natural waterways. Check the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org) to learn more about what’s good and bad in the various products you buy.
The packaging of these products is also a concern. Buy items with minimal packaging and recycle whatever you can. Better yet, choose products that come in refillable containers to eliminate one more piece of trash.
At the sink, be just as conscious about water use as you are in the shower. Don’t let the water run when you’re not actively using it; turn it off while shaving and brushing your teeth. If you have an old sink, consider outfitting it with a new aerator, which costs little and will conserve water and save you money in the long run.
Step 4: Conserve energy with responsible lighting
This step is simple, and you’ve probably already done it in other areas of your house. A sustainable restroom should use CFLs instead of incandescent lightbulbs in all fixtures. They last longer and are better to the environment, so the extra cost is worth it. Just be sure to dispose of them responsibly, as they do contain small amounts of mercury.
And of course, as in all rooms of the house, take care to turn off lights when you don’t need them — and even when you do! What’s more relaxing than a candlelit shower at the end of a long day?
Step 5: Clean with clean products
Cleaning products and air fresheners are big offenders when it comes to polluting the environment, so if you haven’t already, make the switch to green cleaning products or homemade all-natural versions (such as a simple and effective vinegar-and-water solution).
Candles or essential oils — or even just improving air flow in the bathroom — will clear the air just as well as artificial scents that are laden with harmful chemicals. When it comes to choosing green cleaning supplies, take note of their packaging as well as their ingredients, choosing something recycled, recyclable or refillable. And apply those products with a reusable microfiber towel rather than sheet after sheet from the paper towel roll.
• Water: Tips from saving water partnership
• Toilet paper: A shopper's guide to home tissue products (via NRDC.org)
• Low-flow fixtures: Reduce hot water use (via EnergySavers.gov)
• Eco-friendly textiles: Which textiles are the most eco-friendly? (via EcoStreet)
• Cosmetics: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Do you have experience building a sustainable restroom? Let us know more in the comments below.