I am pleased with myself; I am putting my money where my mouth is with zero waste. For a year now I have been planning on getting a larger bed, and even though I'm watching every penny and worried about my job future, the time finally came. As with everything zero waste, the three keys are investing some time for research, investing some time in the process, and letting go of fear of new things.
Furniture is one of the most energy-intensive purchases a person makes. Of course buying a house is the most important. From a climate change perspective, by far the most important part of home purchase is location, location, location. Much better to buy where public transportation and/or short commute distances are possible--usually urban is best. Second on the list is not building a new home. Generally speaking it's much greener to buy an existing home than building from the ground up, even if green renovations aren't done. Building is a hugely energy intensive, resource-depleting process, and almost always an existing home will ultimately be greener than building new, even if the new is state-of-the art techno green. Earthships are the wonderful, economical, and zero-waste exception.
The purchase second in importance from a green point of view is a car. From a strictly zero waste point of view it is best to drive a car into the ground before buying another, and better to buy used than new. But from a green standpoint, I believe it is important to help support new hybrid and plug-in technology, so in this one case I think it is better to buy new to help innovative green car manufacturers thrive. That's why I bought a new Prius when my old beater caught fire and died as I was driving down the highway (and good luck buying a used Prius).
Third, of course is major appliances, particularly the refrigerator. I do think the green movement has done a good job getting the word out on this one. Hopefully most people are aware how important buying a green refrigerator is for both saving the planet and saving money on their electricity bill.
I would say the fourth most important major purchase when it comes to zero waste and fighting climate change is furniture. Certainly one's day-to-day purchases have a larger impact over time, particularly one's meat purchases, but I don't think most people realize just how much energy is consumed and resources wasted with furniture. Which brings me back to my recent bed-buying adventures.
Of course the easiest way to buy a bed is to go to a chain store and plunk down your credit card. You pay through the nose but it is hassle free. You show up at one spot, try out all the different beds and mattresses, select and pay and voila, delivery people magically show up, remove your old mattress (if you wish) and move in and set up your new bed. That's what I did when I got divorced six years ago. I was too emotionally fragile to deal with anything complicated, and getting rid of the enormous king-sized marriage bed was both emotionally and logistically urgently necessary. My girls were getting bigger and they needed a larger room, so I bought a twin bed for myself and set myself up in the half bedroom of our apartment. I needed it done immediately and without much thought.
This time was different. This time I had the time and emotional energy to follow a zero waste, anti-corporate path. Sustainable furniture-buying habits really do have an impact on the environment. In some ways the most green purchase of all is buying local antique furniture (but who has the money for that!)
In order to compare the footprint of the products based on their lifespan, the carbon footprint per year of use was calculated. This showed that the antique product has an annual carbon footprint of 0.72kg CO2e, whereas the new product has a footprint per year of use of 11.36kg CO2e. Therefore, a new chest of drawers will have a carbon impact sixteen times higher than an antique chest of drawers.
The best way to illustrate this is by an example (this can be applied to many different antiques) the humble Windsor chair:
The chair parts were made by craftsmen who lived in the woods where the materials came from. The turnings were produced on treadle-operated lathes, then parts were taken on foot to a local workshop to be assembled. From there the completed chairs would be distributed around the country by horse and cart or waterways. The chair saw a hard use but is still around today. What a green product and what a life cycle! By buying this chair to use again we have conserved our natural resources and prevented the carbon footprint of another chair being produced, that possibly would come all the way from the Far East. I expect that a new mass produced chair will hit the waste tip long before the antique Windsor chair is sold again at auction, goes to the restorers to be revived and is retailed again for another 40 years use!
For the crafty among us, renovating used furniture is both green and a creative outlet. These pieces are beautiful:
And here are some tips on buying used furniture in general:
Me, I hit craigslist with a vengeance. This is good time of year for Bostonians to shop for used furniture. Lots of college turnover. I lucked out with a seller near Boston University's medical school. They are moving so were in a hurry to sell. They had a beautiful full platform bed, hardly used, in their guest bedroom. I scored. Of course there is the worry about bedbugs when buying used (they threw in the practically mint mattress for a little extra--and yes I know that's rather illegal, breaking the law for zero waste). And I had to hire movers to get it to my place. But I got a steal. I'm happy to save the bed from the municipal dump and happy to give money to local independent movers instead of some big corporate furniture store paying its non-union delivery people minimum wage. I'm happiest that it wasn't necessary to manufacture and transport a new bed for my needs. This bed is less than seven miles from my place.
The bed is well built from solid wood and very sturdy and should last me for decades. That makes it a better choice for me than a disposable Ikea bed. I know that Ikea works hard at being environmentally sound and I'm sure that in the realm of disposable furniture they are the best choice, but I really am developing an aversion to disposable anything.
On the other hand, there certainly is a situation where Ikea would be the best choice. If I were young and very mobile, moving from city to city, it would make no sense at all to have an apartment full of heavy, nonpackable furniture. Flat pack or even more clever transformer furniture is the way to go for the modern urban nomad, and of course much more economical. But I've been in this place for over a decade and don't see myself moving in the future, so buying a very durable bed is the right choice for me.
And there is definitely a place for buying new. I would never buy a used crib, for example. And when I bought a bunkbed for my girls, I bought new and very, very sturdy. Safety considerations always come first with furniture.
Sturdy and durable were no-brainers for me, but usually there is a trade-off with space saving. Ikea and other disposable furniture are good with fitting in hidden drawers, skinnying down the furniture footprint to fit like a jigsaw puzzle into a room, that sort of thing. Five years ago that would have been my number one consideration by far. But the last couple years I've had a profound lifestyle change. As a divorced mom with two girls on the weekend living in a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment with one closet and one bathroom, I used to be intently focused on cramming every spare inch of space with things, and my basement area was overflowing. I saw this place as a temporary living space that I had gotten stuck in for too long on my way to a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom suburban dream home with a yard large enough that I couldn't see my neighbors' homes. But then I got into feng shui, found unclutterer.com, started reading about the minimalist lifestyle like the 100-thing challenge and so began the great purge. The books were the hardest and I still have six bookcases worth, but I did it. It was amazing how much useless crap I was storing in my home, and not even down in the basement, but up in my apartment where it was crowding up my heated living space. The smaller the space a person can live in, the lower their carbon footprint, at least in places with big heating needs like Boston. After my purging, I found that my place is the exact right size for me. Following the tenets of feng shui, like storing nothing on the floor under furniture and reducing clutter, I kept things I truly loved, needed and used, and gained a sense of physical freedom. So now I am able to have the space in my half bedroom for a full bed and nightstand, where with the twin bed the rest of the space was full of stored things. I didn't even realize a full bed was an option five years ago. Not only do I have room for a full bed, I have a beautiful hardwood bed with no underbed storage. That is even more astonishing. My clothes, aside from what can fit in my tall, skinny lingerie chest that fits in the corner between two windows, will be sneakily stored in the living room along with my shoes, and in the closet in my girls' room. The only other furniture in my bedroom will be my hamper, nightstand and bed.
Being able to live in a tiny place also affords me more financial freedom, which has been a lifesaver in this economy. Minimalism = freedom.
Finally, a little more on the very cool Earthships (NSFW language):