Greening the Smiths
St. Albert family gets makeover from Canada's Queen of Green
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Dec 15, 2010 06:00 am
It’s Wednesday morning, and Melanie Smith is making some green soup with the kids. As twins five-year-old Jack and Lauren mix the ingredients together, she tries to convince Deacon, one year, not to drink the soap.
OLIVIA KACHMAN/St. Albert Gazette
Lauren splashes a load of water into (and around) the bucket. “Oh, you’re pouring it all over the place!” Jack says.
“It is such a mess!” she agrees. Soon they go back to squabbling over who gets to stir next.
Add a little organic soap, Borax and vinegar, and their concoction is ready: a frothy, cheap, all-purpose cleaner that’s toxin-free and environmentally friendly. It works on everything, says Smith, and takes three minutes to make. “It’s absolutely fantastic.”
Homemade cleaners are just one of the many eco-tricks Smith learned this month as part of her green makeover. The Smiths recently won a contest run by Canadian Living magazine and the David Suzuki Foundation to get a makeover from Lindsay Coulter, known to some as the Queen of Green.
Smith says the makeover really opened her eyes to the ways she can go green around the house. “I never thought that I’d be making my own cleaner, let alone raving about it to other people.”
The green queen
The Smiths are a young St. Albert family with four kids, two cars and a house in Braeside. “We’re a big family with a big house,” Smith says. “We leave a big footprint.”
Smith says she started thinking about greening her life when she was driving by an Edmonton factory with Lauren. Seeing the huge plumes of steam it produced, Lauren asked, “Is that a cloud machine?”
“I didn’t know what to talk about,” Smith says. How could she explain the complexities of fossil fuels, air pollution and global warming to a five-year-old?
Smith knew she had to do something about her family’s environmental impact, but didn’t know what. “I didn’t have the time, and I didn’t know where to start.”
Enter Canada’s Queen of Green. Coulter is an environmental columnist and the Suzuki Foundation’s expert on green living.
Canadian Living put out a call for families who wanted a green makeover, says Coulter, and the Smiths had the winning entry. They were a typical suburban family, she says, and Lauren’s cloud story really tugged on the heartstrings. The Smiths seemed ready to go green, and she was happy to help.
The Smiths’ makeover involved a home tour by Coulter followed by six weeks of online coaching. Coulter says she focused on simple, practical steps people could take at home, and steered clear of expensive ones like buying solar panels.
Food for thought
The Smiths had previously installed high-efficiency windows and furnaces in their home, Smith says, reducing heat loss and natural gas use. About 40 per cent of a typical home’s emissions are due to heating, according to Environment Canada.
They also happened to live in a walkable neighbourhood, Coulter says, which means they can drive less. Road transport causes half of a family’s emissions, Environment Canada says. The Smiths had big cars, but they also knew to combine trips and avoid idling to reduce waste.
Coulter decided to have the Smiths work on their food instead of transportation. “When it comes to the choices you make three times a day with the meals you eat,” she says, “it can make a much bigger difference with your environmental footprint than the model of car you drive.”
Take meat, for example. “A plant-based diet can make a lot less of a footprint than something that is meat-based,” Coulter says. It takes about 43,000 litres of water and grain to make one kilogram of beef, according to the Suzuki Foundation, compared to 500 litres for a kilogram of potatoes. Coulter encouraged the Smiths to have at least one meat-free meal a week.
The Smiths now eat two meat-free meals a week, Smith says, and no one seems to mind. “The kids haven’t noticed ... I don’t think my husband [Steve] noticed either.”
Clean up your waste
One of the first questions the Smiths asked Coulter when she arrived was about garbage: should they keep their garbage disposal?
Nope, says Coulter. Garburators send perfectly good organic material down the drain at the cost of water and electricity, and clog sewers with gunk — many communities ban them as a result. “People should break up with their garbage disposal.” Most homes can shave about 40 per cent off their trash through composting, Coulter says, so she suggested the Smiths try it.
It didn’t work so well, Smith explains, as she opens the backyard composter. “We didn’t get started early enough in the year,” she says, so the compost pile didn’t have the mass it needed to retain heat. It froze solid after November’s cold snap. “We’re back to the garburator for now, at least for the winter.”
Coulter says she noticed that the Smiths did a lot of recycling. “One of my challenges to them was to consider recycling less.” Recycling takes energy, so you can use less energy by reusing containers. Glass jars are toxin-free and great for storing dried goods, for example — her pantry is a hodgepodge of them. “Not a jar leaves our house now.”
Smith also brought Coulter into the kids’ bathroom, where she’d laid out the family’s soaps and lotions. Were any of these toxic, she wondered?
Yup. Every one of them contained a substance on the foundation’s “Dirty Dozen” list of harmful chemicals, Smith says. All her soaps had triclosan, for example, an antibacterial compound that’s a suspected endocrine disruptor and contributor to superbugs.
“I was really upset,” Smith says. “Not only is it not good for the family or the kids, it’s not good when it goes down the drain.” She’s making her own soaps now. “It took me like two minutes to make up a bunch of hand soap with four ingredients,” she says — much quicker and cheaper than buying them at the store.
The Smiths knew they had a water-wasting 1970s-era toilet, Smith says, and had been meaning to replace it. Fortunately (or not), one of the kids jammed it with a My Little Pony seahorse during the makeover. Inspired by Coulter, the Smiths replaced it with a dual-flush model that saves them up to 15 litres a flush.
Laundry was a big part of the Smith’s footprint, Coulter says — they do 15 loads a week — so she was glad that they were already washing with cold water. Washing with cold water uses half as much energy as warm, according to Environment Canada. She also saw that they had a front-loading high-efficiency washer, which uses about 40 per cent less water per load than top-loaders.
Coulter noticed they had a drying rack that was collecting dust, and suggested they use it more often. “It’s a lot easier on your clothes,” she says, and you can use it year-round. The Smiths now make regular use of their rack — occasionally as a jungle-gym, in the kids’ case.
A lasting impression
Big issues like climate change can seem overwhelming to people, Coulter says, and it’s important to bring them down to a household level. “The small steps do make a difference.”
Going green doesn’t have to be expensive, Smith says, and doesn’t mean reinventing your life. “It doesn’t take a lot of time. It doesn’t take a lot of money. In fact, it saves you money.”
Smith says she’s getting a lot of questions on her makeover from friends and neighbours, and she’s started passing on tips and hand soap. “We’re a family and I’m a mom,” she says. “What mother wouldn’t want to do things that are healthier, friendlier to the environment, and better for her kids?”
For more green tips, visit Coulter’s blog at www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/queen-of-green.