We’ve got a friend who still has his snow shovel on the porch; every Mainer should have trust issues when it comes to the end of winter and the beginning of spring, he believes. While we agree, it has technically been “spring” for over a month and the lilacs are budding. It truly is time for a deep clean of home and garden, and Source writers and editors have put together a list of “green” solutions for common spring cleaning tasks. Read on for sustainability tips, in random order, for everything from finally tackling those old cans of paint cluttering your cellar shelves to washing windows and putting in the first plants of the season.
DON’T IGNORE LABELS: There’s nothing like spending many grey days inside to convince you that maybe mustard yellow isn’t your dream color for a kitchen, after all. If you need a fresh start, colorwise, for spring, don’t reach for the cheapest paint. And definitely don’t skip reading the labels.
DO BANISH VOCS: Look for paints with low VOCs or none at all (our preference). VOCs stands for volatile organic compounds, but don’t let the word organic fool you. In the case of paint, those are harmful solvents that are released into the air as the paint is applied and dries. They can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea in the short term, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may cause damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system. The impact of exposure to these VOCs is greater indoors, where the lack of circulating air concentrates their effect. Maine is one of many states that adheres to VOC limits established by the Ozone Transport Commission, starting at 100 grams per liter for flat paints.
Even better, within the last 10 years manufacturers have been producing more and more paints with zero VOCs. Typically they cost more, like Benjamin Moore’s premium Aura and Natura paints or Milk Paints and Sherwin Williams’ Harmony. But they’re worth it, says Holly Kidder, owner and operator of Portland-based Handy Gal painting service. As an art student in the 1990s and later running a print shop, she was exposed to a lot of chemicals, which left her with sensitivities. More stringent regulations for VOCs went into effect in Maine in 2006. It’s been a welcome change for Kidder.
“They are not perfect, but they are a lot better,” she said. “What I have noticed is I don’t get headaches like I used to. I don’t get so exhausted at the end of the day, probably because I am breathing a lot more oxygen.” Good options are out there, she says, just remember to read the labels.
— Mary Pols
DON’T PUT UP WITH A LEAKY HOSE: In all likelihood, you’ve got some outside washing to do, whether it’s cleaning off screens or spraying spider webs off the deck chairs. Don’t just connect the hose, turn it on, see how much water is spurting out of the connection to the spigot and go about your business. Even in a relatively wet state like Maine, water isn’t something to waste. Among the many looming environmental problems facing the world, water scarcity is one of the biggest. And don’t forget last summer’s terrible drought, which the state hasn’t entirely emerged from yet.
DO STOP WASTING WATER: Do think about how that little bit of water spraying out of the various connections between spigots and hoses can add up. For you and the planet. “If you are leaking greatly, it is going to make a big difference,” said John Jemison, University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor of soil and water quality. You don’t have to replace the hose; you just need a very small part, a rubber hose washer available at most hardware stores. Most hoses have standard dimensions and take the same size washers, but if you’re worried that yours is off size, take a measurement and ask for help at the store. Insert it into the top of the hose, where it joins the spigot, and that will almost certainly take care of the leak. It’s a cheap fix. “I can’t imagine they cost more than a quarter,” Jemison said. While we’re at it, if you can handle the upfront labor and costs associated with putting in drip irrigation, that’s a great way to save water, and make sure your garden gets a gentle soaking regularly.
— Mary Pols
DON’T USE THE BLUE STUFF: Nothing makes us happier than the transition from storm windows to screens, even if entails some work. In the fall we caulk our windows with the press-on goop, or rope caulk, and while it’s tempting to yank it out and throw it out, don’t. We’ve got a tip on that coming up. After we remove the storms, the rest of the windows typically look pretty grimy. Don’t reach for the old standby, the blue fluid in the spray bottle, which almost always contains ammonia. That change is new for us, and for Martha Stewart (she used to use Windex, but in this year’s spring cleaning blog, she went with a greener approach).
DO MAKE VINEGAR YOUR FRIEND: That’s what we’re doing as well. We’ll wrap the rope caulk around an empty toilet paper roll to store it neatly to use again next fall. We’ll scrub the screens with a stiff bristle brush, following the suggestion of Green Clean Maine founder Joe Walsh (see Meet, page S6). Then we’ll wash the windows using his suggested combination of 4 parts water to 1 part vinegar, with a few drops of vegetable-based dish detergent (Walsh likes Seventh Generation). We love to use old newspaper to wipe the windows down because it leaves them streak free, but Walsh has persuaded us to give microfiber cleaning cloths a try. We’re going a step farther to track down Durafresh cloths, which are reusable, absorbent, soft and ultimately compostable – and they’re made (in Maine) of wood fibers.
— Mary Pols
DON’T CLEAN WITH TOXICS: Carpets looking the worse for the wear after winter? Floors tracked with mud from this week’s rains? Don’t reach for the chemicals and don’t underestimate your own ability to tackle the problem with non toxic cleaners, some of which may already be in your cupboards. And please don’t toss a dirty carpet on the waste heap. As it stands, 15 million tons of textiles end up in the waste stream annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And you’d be surprised what a little elbow grease, hot water and/or a good appliance can do for a carpet.
DO APPLY BAKING SODA: First, assess the dirt. You might not need to go whole hog on deep cleaning. Barry Walter, who owns Five Star Vacuum in Brunswick, said deep steam cleaning isn’t needed more than once every three years. Excess cleaning will make your carpets stretch and shrink, he added. To spot-clean carpets, sprinkle on baking soda (a quick and all-natural deodorizer), let it sit and then vacuum it up for. For stains, mix baking soda and white vinegar into a paste, work it into the carpet and after it dries, vacuum it up. Or shop for a natural product (uber environmentalist/actor Ed Begley Jr. makes a spot cleaner called Begley’s).
If you decide to do it yourself and rent a steam vacuum, we will not fault you. Yes, the machine requires energy, but consider that it’s extending the life of a major purchase that we don’t want in the waste stream. Look for Energy Star appliances if you’re buying, and if you’re renting look for one that doesn’t demand you use only their products; a solution of hot water, white vinegar and a few drops of a plant-based detergent (like Castile soap) works just fine. Stay off the carpets for a good 24 hours after steam cleaning yourself; they take a lot longer to dry.
That’s why Walter recommends going with a professional to steam cleaning; they’ve got better tools. “They will be a lot drier afterwards because they’re using a lot more suction and heat,” Walter said. Most professional carpet cleaners will use environmentally friendly products, he said, just be sure to ask.
— Mary Pols
DON’T DUMP TOXICS: Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine in Augusta, understands what it’s like to walk into the garage and discover mountains of old paint, paint thinner, wood and deck stains, ancient lawnmower oil and other questionable household projects leftovers containing who knows what. When she moved into her house a couple of years ago, she discovered the previous owner had left behind paint so she could touch up the walls, “which was really nice, but I inherited 30 cans of paint, and some of them, you could tell they had gone bad. They were oily and weird on the top.”
Such stuff used to end up in the trash.
“You really shouldn’t send it to the landfill,” Lakeman said. “You can technically let latex paints dry and take them. They’re not toxic, necessarily, but then the metal doesn’t get recycled. But the oil-based paints really are toxic if they go into a waste-receiving facility.”
DO FIND COLLECTION POINTS: Investigate Paintcare.org. This “paint stewardship” program, set up by paint manufacturers, recycles old paint as well as the cans it comes in. Enter your zip code, and the website will list nearby drop-off sites. We entered a Portland-area zip code and it spit out 25 businesses – most will take up to 5 gallons. The website also offers tips on how to buy the right amount of paint in the first place. To support the program, you pay a few cents extra for your gallon of paint.
Other options? Many municipalities hold household hazardous waste collection days. The Riverside Recycling Facility in Portland, for example, accepts household hazardous waste on the first Saturday of the month, April through November.
To get rid of used oil – say you’ve changed the oil in your car – look up the Maine Oil Recycling Program at maine.gov. It lists businesses that have volunteered to act as community collection sites.
Still not sure where to turn? Search for “recycle” at earth911.com. Type in your zip code and what you’re trying to get rid of, from paper and plastic to batteries or metals, and it will list nearby disposal locations.
— Meredith Goad
DON’T TOSS OUT OLD HOUSEHOLD GOODS: The detritus from spring cleaning often ends up in the trash. But there are much better ways to deal with the everyday household goods you no longer want – maybe somebody else does. Don’t make the garbage bag your default.
MAKE THEM INTO ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE: Instead, give your old stuff new life. Consider Craigslist.com, Freecycle.org, places like Goodwill, even a yard sale.
Ruth’s Reusable Resources is a Portland-based organization founded by Ruth Libby that transforms your junk into classroom materials. Local schools buy memberships, which let their teachers “shop” at the organization’s store. Ruth’s accepts a range of products, including office supplies, craft supplies, games and puzzles (even puzzles with missing pieces), children’s books, costume jewelry, thread and all that other stuff junking up your shelves and drawers. No toys with rare exceptions.
Donate old tools to the Maine Tool Library in Portland, a membership lending library for tools and kitchen equipment. A $50 annual membership lets you check out up to eight tools each week.
Outdoor enthusiasts looking to recycle (or purchase) old bicycles, kayaks, canoes, camping gear, life jackets, snowshoes, wet suits, ice skates and more should try the non-profit Portland Gear Hub. (Got just one ski? They’ll pull off the binding and save it to replace a broken binding on a pair). Much of such material would otherwise end up in the dump, at swap shops, or as metal scrap, Service Manager Tucker Smith said. “What we provide over a thrift store is advice. We double check everything to make sure everything is in functional, safe condition,” Smith said.
Portland Gear Hub does not accept used helmets, fishing or golf equipment, or equipment used in team sports.
Donations are refurbished and sold. An average high-end bike, for instance, sells for about half its original price. Proceeds go to Camp Ketcha, sending kids to summer camp who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
— Meredith Goad
DON’T INSTALL ASPHALT: Need a new driveway? Avoid asphalt. Three simple reasons. It isn’t local, it requires petroleum products to make it, and it increases the runoff of pollutants into nearby waterways.
DO OPT FOR PERMEABLE PAVERS: Their sales are growing at 14 percent a year nationally as more and more people realize how harmful runoff from parking lots is to the environment. Locally, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay is using permeable pavers in its new parking lot, now under construction.
“Permeable interlocking pavers reduce stormwater runoff and pollutants from automobile gas, oil and grease,” explained Ray Petrarca, sales manager for Genest Concrete Works in Sanford, which is providing the pavers for the botanical garden.
Sometimes, making the right environmental decision comes with fringe benefits. Permeable paving systems come in many shapes and colors and are more attractive than asphalt, Petrarca said. Plus if you live in Portland, installing it can help reduce your stormwater fee.
— Tom Atwell
DON’T ADD PLANTS TO YOUR SHOPPING LIST: Come gardening season, it’s tempting to give in to the convenience and low prices of vegetable seedlings and flowers sold at local supermarkets and big box stores. Try to resist.
“You don’t know what they’ve been treated with or where they are coming from,” said Amy Witt, a horticulturist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Are they coming from the South? Are they cold hardy for our climate?”
Azaleas sold at these large stores, for example, were raised in the South and may find Maine inhospitable. Moreover, the plants have often traveled far, been handled poorly – which can stress them out, making them more likely to fail – and been sprayed with pesticides and fungicides.
DO PATRONIZE PLANT SALES: Put on by garden clubs, churches and other local community groups, plant sales offer bargains, expert advice and a wide variety of healthy plants (often including natives), which are more likely to thrive in your garden. Proceeds usually benefit local causes.
“There’s a lot more variety and a lot more unusual plants” at local plant sales, Witt said, “especially if somebody’s interested in vegetable seedlings, you probably have more chance of finding heirloom varieties.”
The plants are typically handled better, too. At the annual Cumberland County Master Gardener Plant Sale that Witt helps coordinate, for instance, volunteers wash the roots of plants for sale and repot the plants in sterile soil to prevent unwanted pests from hitching a ride into your garden.
Amy Polyot, district manager of the Penobscot County Soil and Water Conservation District in Bangor, is putting together her district’s annual sale of organically grown annuals and perennials. She touts the bargains and the community spirit. “What you put in, you’re getting back as a community,” Polyot said.
Also check out local farmers markets and nurseries for Maine-grown garden plants.
— Meredith Goad
DON’T ENABLE INVASIVES: However appealing you find them, avoid purchasing invasive plants. In fact, your options to do so are narrowing: as of next January, 33 plants that have been deemed invasive in Maine will be illegal to sell or propagate here.
Invasive plants are aggressive, stealing resources from native plants and often crowding them out. That, in turn, harms the wildlife that depends on native plants for food and shelter. According to the Nature Conservancy, “Invasive species have contributed directly to the decline of 42% of the threatened and endangered species in the United States.”
You can see that impact even in one of Maine’s most beloved spots: “Acadia National Park has 205 non-native plant species that make up 26 percent of the park’s flora,” according to Marjorie Peronto, an Extension educator based in Hancock County.
DO GO NATIVE: At a recent talk in Falmouth, Peronto passed out bookmarks that list mostly native plants to use in place of four especially destructive invasives.
• Highbush blueberry instead of burning bush. Other alternatives: Fothergilla, redvein enkianthus, red chokeberry, summersweet or Virginia sweetspire.
• Ninebark (physocarpus) instead of Japanese barberry. Other alternatives: Highbush blueberry, chokeberry or weigela.
• Winterberry instead of Asiatic bittersweet. Other alternatives: American bittersweet (it’s hard to find), trumpet creeper, Virginia creeper or Virginia rose.
• A copper beech tree instead of a Norway maple. Other alternatives: Crabapple, flowering plum, purple-leaved birches and red or sugar maple.
— Tom Atwell
DON’T ADHERE TO THE FOUR-STEP PROGRAM: Have you seen the advertisements on TV for a four-step lawn care regimen?
Step 1: Apply pre-emergent weed killer for annual weeds like crabgrass and chickweed, plus fertilizer in April.
Step 2: Apply a different weed killer for broad-leaf perennial weeds like dandelions and violets, plus more fertilizer around Memorial Day.
Step 3: Apply fertilizer around July 4.
Step 4: Apply a final dose of fertilizer in September.
Such programs, promoted by fertilizer companies and lawn-care companies, douse your property in nitrogen and weed killers. And not just your property, either. Much of these materials will run off your lawn into nearby streams, marshes, lakes and oceans – causing algae blooms, and threatening aquatic life and drinking water.
DO HAVE A REAL GREEN LAWN: For a green lawn in both senses of the word, learn to YardScape. YardScaping is a way to maintain lawns and gardens with less fertilizer and pesticides by using low-maintenance plants that require minimal tending. You can find an explanation of its methods at maine.gov (search for “YardScaping: lawns”).
“The pursuit of the ‘perfect’ lawn now drives many homeowners to use an unprecedented volume of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers and herbicide-fertilizer combinations known as weed and feed products,” the guideline says.
Yardscapers say that lawns 10 years old or older usually require no fertilizer, especially if they are cut at 3 inches or higher with a mulching mower, so that the grass clippings feed the lawn.
If you do fertilize, do so in late August or September, using only nitrogen, with no phosphorous or potassium. Overseed with fescue grasses to prevent weeds in bare spots in either spring or fall; spring is better.
— Tom Atwell
DON’T SPRAY WITH ABANDON: Megan Patterson, manager of pesticide programs at the Maine Board of Pesticide Control, has seen cases where a homeowner has used 10 times as much product as its product label advised. That amount would likely kill the plants and probably isn’t doing much good for the human applying the product either.
DO YOUR RESEARCH: Pesticides are any chemical product, organic or not, that kills or repels pests, be they insects, mammals or weeds. Count as pesticides everything from benign vinegar to the kill-almost-everything carbaryl, Patterson said. The big print on the label is easy to see: “Caution” means a low chance of harm, “warning” a moderate chance, and “danger” a high chance of harm. Labels also tell you what garden problems the product is intended to control. If you want to kill grubs and you use a chemical that kills only caterpillars, you’re wasting time, effort and money – and you’re damaging the environment. Follow label instructions for how to mix the product, how much to put on a given area and what protective gear to wear for your own safety, and that of the environment. Ignore labels at your peril.
— Tom Atwell