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Ideas on Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living
Emily Gertz, 5 Oct 07
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The weekend is here: a couple too-short days when, after a hectic US work week, many of our thoughts turn to cleaning up, tinkering with, and otherwise improving our homes. Based on the available evidence, we do a lot of it -- there seems to be a big box hardware store plopped into the landscape every few miles, even here in ultra-urbanized Brooklyn. Even more telling are the seemingly dozens of magazines about decorating, gardening, and getting organized (around my place these lately include the new IKEA catalog, wish book extraordinaire). And then there are the probably two dozen home improvement shows on cable television, each seeming to devote more air time to how to make our domiciles more enviro-friendly and healthy.

One thing about most of this "green home" information, though: it's usually geared at people in houses. With yards. And their own water heaters. And funds to renovate entire kitchens. Qualities that many of us may not share, living as we do in apartments, with windowboxes, a clanky old boiler in the basement, and very modest amounts of money to spend on fixing up our kitchens (certainly not enough to go all HenryBuilt or Plyboo).

I've sought to redress this imbalance a bit with my periodic "Greening the Co-op" posts on Worldchanging NYC; even when there are not answers quite yet on how to do things more sustainably in apartment settings, I try to at least get thinking about it at the scale of an apartment, and through the lens of managing the wants and needs of the many residents of a multi-unit building. Here are some highlights:

Solar Power on the Roof?

Making greener choices about the kinds of products we use inside our own apartments is a good step, especially for our own health and self-regard. But bigger impacts will come a lot faster with more fundamental changes -- like using something other than fossil fuel to power the building's boiler.

So: solar power and the co-op. In today's edition of The New York Times real estate section, the weekly Q&A feature asks, "Are there any laws governing the installation of solar panels in New York City? If our board refuses to install a buildingwide system, can I install a personal unit on our rooftop?" [Link]

According to the co-op legal expert consulted by The Times, "there are no laws in New York City that require a property owner or board to allow the installation of solar panels." And, the co-op board has the right to forbid any installations of anything at all in or on common areas of the co-op, which include the roof.

So some questions come to mind: Are there solar systems out there that can be draped outside one's own window, or off a private balcony or deck? How do you channel the juice they generate into your own apartment's electrical systems? And are there any co-ops in the city that are installing solar or other forms of clean energy?

Countertop Compost Chic

No sooner did I grumble/comment to Amy's introduction to community-supported agriculture that composting wasn't feasible in my apartment, than the following little helpmate popped up on Apartment Therapy: a compact stainless steel composting pail. It's a petite 11" high with a 7 1/2" diameter, has a capacity of 1 gallon, and features a charcoal filter to cut down on the fragrance of rotting veg trimmings and apple cores...which are likely to be minimal anyway, if the organics are breaking down at the right rate.

I wouldn't call the price especially petite -- about $45 plus shipping at But it's an interesting addition my current options for keeping kitchen waste out of the garbage stream: either saving everything up and periodically lugging it to the compost bins at the 6-15 Green Community Garden, or going for tabletop vermiculture.

Imagine if even five percent of the apartment-dwellers in a megacity like New York used one of these little buckets. How much biomass could we be reclaiming and making useful for our windowboxes, blocks, gardens, yards and parks, instead of trucking or barging it to out-of-state landfills as useless waste? And what might the city save on garbage hauling costs?

Least Toxic Home Pest Control Chronicles

Over the past six years in my current home, an apartment in a 16-unit building, I could have probably counted on one hand the number of roaches I saw. Between that and the cats earning their keep catching the extremely rare mouse, I felt very lucky...until this spring, when I began to spot juvenile roaches regularly in my kitchen. Strangely, ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away didn't work...[A]nd since I really don't want to bring hard-core chemical poisons into my small home, I was going to have to trade sweat equity for a quick pesticide fix.

And to my ecstatic relief, it seems to be working.

So here are the steps I've taken, largely informed by the information in "Dan's Practical Guide to Least Toxic Home Pest Control," by Dan Stein (a slim volume that has not let me down over the years). If you're facing a similar situation, dear Worldchanging reader, I hope they'll help you in your quest to live green and relatively roach-free.

  • First off, clean the kitchen top to bottom. Yes, this means rolling the fridge away from the wall and coming to terms with whatever you find underneath. Wash the floor down really well, including the baseboards. Clean the gasket on the fridge. Wipe down the tops of things you haven't looked at in a long time, if ever, like the top of the fridge and the tops of your wall cabinets. Consider taking the cabinet doors off their hinges and cleaning under them as well.
  • I also scrubbed down every exterior part of my stove (bleargh, but I feel a lot happier now when I cook).
  • Next step is where the sweat equity really comes in: caulk every gap in sight. Do not fear the caulk; it is your friend. These days you don't have to invest in a caulk gun and a big tube of goo. At Home Depot, I found small tubes of caulk with conical lids that you can trim to create an applicator -- perfect for the casual caulker.
  • For bigger gaps, you may need to use some lightweight spackle to fill the space. Mix a bit of the spackle with a little water to make it easier to apply. A cheapo spackling knife will be more than sufficient for this task.
  • Put down new roach traps under the fridge, dishwasher, and stove. I got these from the exterminator that comes around regularly in my building, free of charge.
  • Now, watch. If the crawlies don't seem to be vanishing, you may have to root out a particular bug haven. In my kitchen, this might have been a schmancy lidded trashcan I bought used off Craigslist, which eventually went out on the curb on garbage night -- with a big warning note to potential scavengers.
  • Finally, with the roach population ebbing but still disturbing, I've applied some boric acid into roach-prone zones. This is a pesticide of relative low toxicity, but you'll want to be careful not to breathe the dust in as you apply it, or put it down anywhere a pet or child could get to. On the plus side, you only need to apply a mere dusting of boric acid powder to have the desired effect.

Have you got tips for least toxic home pest control? Other books to recommend? Have you organized your apartment building, landlord or co-op to follow least toxic practices across the building? How the heck did you manage that?! Let us know in the comments.

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Well, I've had earthworms eat my kitchen scraps for close to thirty years now and have one room basically off-grid with a couple of solar LED lights and a solar/dynamo radio that I had modified so that it also charges AA batteries. I also keep a pantry and shop at a food coop and the local farmers' markets.

Check my blog or youtube page for videos of at least the solar experiments.

Posted by: gmoke on 5 Oct 07

George, I think you are the definition of an early adopter!

I was moving around too much for jobs and school to make any big investments in my living spaces practical. Now that I have finally settled down in this apartment, I have years of pent-up home improvement ambitions to catch up on.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 6 Oct 07

For a great green cleaner around the house or apartment, try Vital Oxide. They have a website at

Posted by: Doug Phillips on 8 Oct 07

I'm a big fan of Seventh Generation, which is a wonderful company that makes a range of very effective non-toxic cleaning products, including a bleach substitute. I discovered this while working at a natural foods store: we not only carried their products, but also used them for our own cleaning at the registers. (

Posted by: Erica Antill on 12 Oct 07



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