Sustainable Living In Saratoga Springs


The public is becoming more aware of the hazards of chemicals found in building materials and their impact on our indoor air quality. The out gassing of VOCs have been linked to: cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, fertility issues, autism and asthma.

 In colder months it is critical to be aware of the materials we use during renovations, as our houses are closed tight to reduce energy consumption.  Finishes such as paint, upholstery, flooring, cabinetry etc... can all contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's).  The United States Environmental Protection Agency cautions us that "VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands." They are carbon compounds that evaporate at room temperature; most common ones are formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, xylene, benzene. They are found in many building products (insulation, carpet, ceiling tiles, wall coverings, plastics) and furniture (pressed wood, particle boards, plywood, fabrics and foams), and in paints, lacquers, coatings, sealants, stains, varnishes, paint strippers, adhesives and glues.

Other chemicals to know about are lead (in old paint), mercury (in old switches, thermostats), Polyvinyl Chloride, known as PVC's (in carpet backing, pipes and wiring, siding, window treatments, flooring, furniture and upholstery fabric), and fire retardants (in plastic and synthetic materials, foams and textiles; required for fire safety standards)

 Most of these chemicals are odorless, and even if you're not allergic now, you may develop reactions some years later, as they tend to weaken our immune system.

 Consumers need to read the labels, ask questions, and encourage safer and healthier building practices. Look for GREENGUARD certification which uses neutral, third party laboratories to test the amount of chemicals emitted from manufactured products.

As more people are looking into green renovations the question arises "What makes kitchen cabinets green?"  There has been a lot of buzz regarding green counter top options and  that is primarily what customers coming in the store are looking for.  Don't get me wrong, I am very happy about that, but why put a green counter top on kitchen cabinetry that is at best not sustainable in nature or worse actually out gassing toxins into your home.

Below I have outlined some important aspects of cabinetry to consider when purchasing non-toxic and sustainable cabinets.

1. Let's take a look at what is inside your cabinets.  The "box" is usually made from plywood or pressboard which are glued together, most often with glue that contains formaldehyde. Instead look for the box to be made with formaldehyde-free plywood, FSC certified solid wood or wheat board. Any adhesives should be low VOC.

2. Options for the face of your cabinets can be FSC certified wood, reclaimed wood, metal, bamboo, or other architectural panel such as Kirei board.

3. Finishes: Paints and/or stain and hardware.  Choose a low or no VOC finish. Hardware such as handles, knobs etc can be  recycled or made from recycled material.

4. Lastly, think of distribution.  Ideally you don't want to ship your cabinets from California to New York.  Keep production as close to home as you can.

What should you do if its too late.  You can't replace your cabinetry for budgetary reasons or just installed cabinetry . Not to worry, all is not lost!  A solution is to remove the face of your cabinets and thoroughly cover the cabinet boxes with a no VOC water based sealant. If purchasing a sealant, it is highly recommended that you make sure to completely cover every square inch of surface as well as all cracks to prevent further outgassing, otherwise it will continue to contribute to outgassing.

So what's the most important aspect of your green renovation project?

Now is the time of year that I start getting phones calls regarding spring renovations that went wrong.  The complaint is usually that they brought in soil and seeded in the spring and now they have a lot of crab grass and very little actual grass.  They are particularly frustrated because they often have spent a lot of money and expected to have a lush lawn by summer.


Spring is actually a very difficult time to seed a lawn because it is the start of weed season and of hot dry weather in general.  Grass is a plant that, even when well established, likes cool wet weather.  Those little seedlings don't stand a chance to the weeds that are inherently  suited to hot, dry weather and poor soil.  However, the good news is that Fall is a great time to reseed or renovate your lawn.


A couple pointers:

1. If you bring in top soil or even compost, test the pH and adjust accordingly.  It is always good to test your pH every couple of years. Cornell Cooperative does a soil pH test for a buck.

2. Aerating or dethatching can help improve soil to seed contact which will increase the amount of seed that germinates.

3. It helps to remove the crabgrass plants so that they don't drop their seeds on the soil. Pulling out the plant will also loosen the soil as well.

4. Keep the area manageable in size. If your seed completely dries out before it germinates its lost its viability and won't germinate no matter how aggressively you water after the fact.  It's hard to keep up the water schedule if you don't have a sprinkler system.

5. Use a starter fertilizer, preferably organic.


Most people aren't aware of strand woven bamboo let alone strand woven poplar, however, award‐winning independent news source Sustainable Industries announced EcoTimber Woven Recycled Poplar as one of its 2010 Top 10 Green Building Products award winners. Sustainable Industries' Top 10 Green Building Products guide is an annual publication profiling industry‐leading green building products selected by a panel of expert judges and Sustainable Industries' editorial team.

So what is this floor made of..Woven poplar is comprised of 100% post industrial scraps of FSC certified poplar from the furniture industry that is combined with a proprietary process of resin infusion and high compression. This makes it not only the most environmentally friendly floor on the market but also extremely durable and extraordinarily beautiful.

It's woven construction makes is "engineered yet solid". It is "engineered" and "solid" - wood veneers are compressed using a heat reactive glue, so it acts "engineered" in the sense that it is made from individual wood fibers (as opposed to a big chunk of wood; this is beneficial from a "stability" standpoint since bigger pieces of wood move more than smaller pieces), but acts as though it is "solid" in the sense that there is no concern of wearing through the "wear layer" to expose a different core material below (which is the case with other "engineered" woods that consist of a "wear layer" on either a plywood and HDF/High Density Fiberboard core).

The adhesives are E0 and low‐VOC adhesives [Formaldehyde emission: 0.4mg/L ‐‐ anything below 0.5mg/L is considered E0].  Adhesive is Phenol‐based (ie: "No Added Urea formaldehyde" [NAUF]), and therefore suitable for LEED inclusion.

Woven poplar can be installed at or above grade, nailed or glued and can even be installed over hydronic (water) based radiant heat systems. As far as maintenance the floor is 3000 on the Janka hardness scale (white oak is 1360) and while it can be sanded and refinished it is thought that it will need less refinishing over it's life cycle. 

So finally, let's see some pictures..poplar_last_dance.jpg


Even if you are already convinced that choosing low-toxicity furnishings made without harmful chemicals (that do not off-gas in your home) is the way to go, finding it can still be quite a challenge.

Here is what you may want to look for and consider doing to limit your exposure to toxic volatile organic compounds.


- The right wood.  Look for the FSC label (Forest Stewardship Council), which ensures that the harvested wood comes from sustainably managed forests.

- What you already have.  Why not refinish your current furniture with a non-toxic paint, oil, or stain? You can replace the hardware too for a fresh new look.

- Non-toxic  finishes. You can now find primers and paints, sealers, stains, oils, waxes, polish, grout, thinners, resin and plaster that have no or low VOC's. To name a few reputable brands: AFM Safecoat, Mythic Paint, Vermont Natural Coating, Bio Shield, and natural penetrating oils.

- Find re-cycled and re-used pieces, antique and vintage. They have been fully off-gassed, and that will help save raw materials while saving landfill space. Be cautious of refinishing pieces with lead paint.

- Healthy foam. When it comes to mattresses, natural latex seems to be the best choice. Look for a latex that has no fire retardants and has not be treated with pesticides or glued with toxic adhesives. For replacing foam in upholstered furniture, latex is available but can be costly. Select a certified organic upholstery fabric. Here is an interesting article on the Sustainable Furnishings Council website:


Know that your eco-friendly discoveries are very welcome. Thanks for sharing them!

 It can seem like a daunting task to transform our entire home into the "green" ideal we have imagined. When we consider that we pretty much spend a total of 120 days sleeping on a bed, there is no doubt that one particular room requires our attention at all times: the bedroom - our own, and our children's.  It is also a logical first step when attempting to create a healthy, organized and happy household using sustainable, natural, and toxin free materials.


    Sleep is the time when the body rebuilds tissues and replenishes physical and mental energy supplies. If we deprive it from this important step, a number of things can go wrong: our thinking and cognitive processes are affected, as well as our creativity, coordination and immune function... to name a few. The amount of sleep a person needs will vary with each individual. But most people require around eight hours ... if one can fall asleep easily and remain asleep, that is.


    There is a handful of important elements that can make a difference in ensuring that we get a healthy night sleep.


1. Mattress

    Although mattresses are largely a matter of preference, it is important to consider what materials our body comes in contact with, and what we inhale for several hours every night, all lifelong. What is the mattress made of? Is it safe?

     In the book 'Prescriptions for a Health House', Mary Cordaro writes: "Most ordinary mattresses are made almost entirely of raw ingredients from the petroleum industry, which are made into synthetic components, such as visco-elastic and polyurethane foams, including Dacron that may be made with formulations containing TDI (toluene discarnate, which OSHA labels as a hazardous material) and other toxic chemicals.  To meet the federal flammability regulations, they may also contain synthetic chemical fire retardants, called organophosphate chemicals.  Mattresses containing natural materials, such as conventional cotton and wool, may also contain pesticide residues.  The older a mattress gets the more toxic it becomes, if it contains organophosphate flame-retardants and/or pesticide residues, because those chemicals never completely dissipate. Instead, they are released as chemical molecules that never completely "out gas"  (which is why you often cannot smell them), and then they bind to house dust, which is then inhaled or ingested(...) Mattress layers can also be held together with glues, and their fabrics treated with chemicals and harsh dyes.  These materials are then wrapped in a quilted surface layer of synthetic fabric stuffed with polyester.  These ordinary mattresses trap moisture, dirt and dust creating a dust-mite haven, which can exacerbate allergies." 

    An organic alternative to conventional inner spring or visco elastic mattresses are natural latex mattresses. Natural latex is made from the sap of the rubber tree. They offer the benefit of not transferring motion, relieving pressure points, and hypo allergenic properties of visco elastic mattresses using a sustainable, natural product without chemicals.  Needless to say that crib mattresses should also be taken into consideration.


2. Pillows

   It is important to consider fibers that will not grow mold (like down and feathers tend to do). You may want to use organic wool pillows, which keep moisture and mites away. Another option are natural latex pillows, which provides good support. For extra support and proper neck alignment, consider buckwheat pillows  that mold the head contour gently. In case you suffer multiple allergies, kapok pillows might work well for you.


3. Bed linen

    The choice of our bed linen also plays a role in keeping us healthy during our sleep hours. Favor sheet sets made of natural fibers: 100% cotton, or a blend of cotton/bamboo or linen or silk. Once again keep in mind that toxic chemicals are used in the fabric processing, such as formaldehyde, bleach, and synthetic dyes. Certified organic fibers are your best choice.

    Another invisible source of toxicity are the carcinogenic petroleum distillates (or naphtas)  and phenols present in the laundry detergents we use. Residues get embedded in the linen fibers and can be absorbed through the skin. Use perfume and phosphate-free, biodegradable detergents when washing your bedding. It's better for our bodies and our water supply.

Living in a neighborhood, I often go out on my deck to drink a cup of coffee, read a book, or enjoy visiting with friends and family.  More often than not there is a high pitched sound of a leaf blower or lawn mower in the back ground.  Not only are lawn mowers noise polluters, they account for 5% of US air pollution and the amount of spilled gasoline when tanking up has to be enormous. So when it is time to replace that old gas guzzling lawn mower, why not consider a reel or electric mower?  Either is preferable to a gas powered, but depending on certain variables one may be a better option for you.

A reel mower is for you if you have a small level yard, 5000 sq ft or less, very little weeds and you keep up on the mowing 1-2x week.

An electric is a better option if you have some uneven ground, larger lawn between 5000-10,000 sq ft, and sometimes let the mowing go.

Neuton is a company based in Vermont that makes electric lawn and garden equipment.  Not only can you replace the mower but the weed wacker, blower, chipper , tiller, you get the picture! Other manufacturers include Black & Decker, Earthwise, Cub Cadet, and Craftsman.
Do you have an electric mower? How do you like it?
Last year digging in the soil, my daughter got upset that I was killing a "baby" grub, "but it's so cute", she said. Oh, the innocence! I didn't want to seem like a heartless killer, so instead I tried to explain that there are insects that we want around our gardens and homes, the "good bugs", such as lady bugs, butterflies, earth worms, millipedes, etc and then there are the "bad bugs", mosquitoes, wasps(can be helpful at times), ticks, japanese beetles, grubs etc.  In an idealistic state, things will be in balance and you don't have to worry about the "bad bugs". Of course, there is also reality, the wasps decide to build a nest where you come in and out of the house, the japanese beetles are decimating your rose or hibiscus plant, or your lawn is being ruined by grubs. 

Below, I have outlined some alternatives to toxic chemicals that are typically used to fight the "bad bugs".

The culprit: aphids, mites, white flies and powdery mildew.
The alternative: Neem Oil -Organica K+ Neem Insecticide and fungicide

The culprit: grubs
The alternative: Beneficial Nematodes-not usually stocked in nurseries but can be mail ordered

The culprit: Flying Insects such as flies, wasps, gnats, and mosquitoes
The alternative: EcoSmart Flying Insect Killer-uses only ingredients such as peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon, and sesame oils.

Looking for alternatives that aren't highlighted here.  Let me know and I would be happy to help. 
A couple who own We Are Living Lean,stopped in to the store today who are making reusable, cotton bags for groceries, mall, work, school or travel.  They are stylish, washable and you can pack them in your purse or keep them in a coat pocket.   Most of the re-usable bags are either ugly ones from the grocery store or made from synthetic material. What I particularly liked about these bags is they are  affordable, made locally and from cotton material, and functional.

Every time I walk into my local grocery store I look over to the check out to see how many people are using reusable bags.  I am amazed at how many people are still using the plastic bags.  Of course, who am I to talk, my husband uses them only half the time, and I have stopped complaining because I am afraid he'll stop doing the grocery shopping.  As much as I hate plastic bags, they seem to be like magnets, they just are everywhere and find a way into your home even if you don't want them.  I sort of wish all stores would stop providing free plastic bags.  How many times would you forget to bring your bags in from the car or from home if there just wasn't any back up?  Maybe once?

Another source of the pesky plastic bag are the ones that come from the pharmacy or drug store or all the other little stops you make in the week.The key is also to keep a bag handy in your purse or on you in some way like in the pocket of the coat you wear so the next time you are in Target or CVS or some other errand other than the grocery store you are prepared.

Good luck kicking the plastic bag habit!

I would like to say I lead by example, however, I have confession to make about my recent vacation to the Delaware shore.  I was busy preparing coverage for the store, wrapping up loose ends, so when it was time to pack for our vacation I forgot several items that would have made our trip more green.  The first thing I discovered was on the drive, I had forgot our coffee mugs for the car so on the Thruway we either had to buy another travel mug that we really didn't need or use a disposable cup.  Next, the reusable grocery bags that are usually in the car were reduced to only 2 when we could have used 4 because we did all of our grocery shopping there.  A tiffin and reusable bamboo utensils could have saved some of the plastic utensils and Styrofoam containers used while eating out or getting Italian ices on the beach.

Fortunately, we were able to do some things right, the recycle center wasn't too far from from our rental so that we recycled the same as we always do.  We turned off the a/c during the day while we were at the beach and turning it on before bed for an hour or two. We found out when the local farmers markets were so that we could purchase produce and other goods from local farmers. We used the clothesline to dry our clothes, towels and suits.

Although, I already know that being green is a culmination of multiple decisions and choices we make everyday. My vacation botches were a reinforcement of the importance of developing green habits, planning ahead and being prepared.  If you haven't taken your vacation yet you can ease my conscience by not repeating the same mistakes that I made.

If you are on vacation in Saratoga then consider using stainless steel water bottles and travel mugs instead of plastic and Styrofoam cups. For your shopping excursions downtown you can use a designer reusable bag.  Happy Vacation!

Leave a Comment


Karen Totino, owner of Green Conscience in Saratoga Springs, has a history of caring about environmental issues starting with her own family and neighborhood. Beginning with her already successful organic lawn care business, Karen became actively involved in community efforts supporting work on cleanups and conservation through Friends of Kayaderosseras, a not- for -profit organization focused on conserving the creek. As an energetic entrepreneur, Karen wants to effect change in a greater way through offering green alternatives to consumers who seek better choices for their families and for the environment.