Building the Home Economy: How to Create a More Sustainable Home and Community

This post is from Energy Corps member Jordan Scheibel, Serving at Imagine Grinell in Grinell, Iowa.

It was originally published in the Grinell Chamber of Commerce Newsletter.

Even though it’s fallen out of fashion, I like the term home economics. Home economics is about achieving an optimal and sustainable living for individuals, families, and communities through education and skill building. We talk a lot about the state economy, the national economy, and the global economy, but we don’t talk enough about the economy of our homes and communities. How can we become more self-sufficient and conserve the resources that we have to import from elsewhere? Tips for “living green” often don’t get at the fact that building a more sustainable lifestyle is not always simple, straightforward, and easy and that it requires the space to learn and leeway to not do everything perfectly. Here are some of my suggestions for creating a more sustainable home:

1.  Use an indoor clothes rack for drying clothes. Unlike an outdoor clothesline, you can use it all year round, not just in the warm months. Clothes actually dry quickly inside in the winter because of the dryness. Save your dryer for when you don’t have time to let your clothes air -dry. Using a clothes rack takes a little more planning to make sure your clothes have time to dry and a little more time to actually hang them up, but once you get in a routine of using it you’ll forget why a dryer seemed so necessary. Using a dryer is like going to a laundromat and putting quarters into the machine. It’s expensive to dry clothes, even at home, costing between 30 to 40 cents a load in electricity. If you do three loads in the dryer a week, that’s over $50 a year. Air-drying doesn’t just save electricity and money. Its easier on your clothes than dryers (no heat or tumbling), it eliminates static cling, and it reduces wrinkles and therefore ironing.

2.  Compost your food and yard waste. How much of your trash is food scraps?  In the Department of Natural Resources’ 2011 statewide waste characterization food and yard waste combined made up over 20% of residential municipal solid waste. By composting your food scraps and yard waste, you save money on trash bags, save landfill space and hauling costs, and can produce a useful product for your garden and lawn. Want to learn how to compost? The Grinnell Community Garden is having a Composting 101 workshop at 10 am on April 21st where you can learn about outdoor composting and vermicomposting, composting indoors with worms. Compost bins and vermicomposting products will be available for sale.

3.  Bike or walk instead of driving whenever you can. You don’t have to do it everyday or in every season. Just not using your car one day a week is a start. Its not just about reducing pollution and carbon emissions. It will save you money in the long run on gas, oil changes, wear and tear, etc. and you will get exercise just by getting from here to there. Bikes are far cheaper to maintain and equip than cars, so its relatively inexpensive to get accessories that will make your bike more functional, safe, and pleasant to ride in varying conditions: a bicycle rack and pannier bags, front and back lights, puncture resistant tires, bike fenders, etc. Join Imagine Grinnell for Second Saturdays, which includes a non-competitive 5K, 10K or 20K bike ride along the Grinnell Area Recreation Trail, on May 12, July 14, August 11, and September 8.

4. Get a rain barrel and harvest rainwater from your roof for your garden. Municipal water costs money to use and requires energy to pump and treat. Rainwater is free and is better for plants than treated water. It’s especially good for houseplants and other potted plants.  Rain barrels also hold and slow water from running quickly off your roof into the storm sewer drain, which can be overwhelmed during heavy rainfall events and carry pollutants and sediments into the local waterways. During a ½ inch rain, just 220 square feet of roof will collect enough rainwater to fill a 55 gallon rain barrel. In April and May, Imagine Grinnell and the City of Grinnell will once again offer low-cost rain barrels for purchase by Grinnell residents who did not participate in the 2011 rain barrel sale. The sale launches April 14th at the Green Energy Showcase in the Chamber’s Home and Community Expo.

5.  Get rid of your TV. It’s not going to be popular idea but I think about it.  It could be one of the healthiest choices you can make. You save money on paying for TV service and electricity to run the TV and all the peripheral electronics. With the growth of Internet TV and movies, you don’t necessarily have to have a TV set. And the time you’re not spending being sedentary watching TV can be spent on better activities: conversations, cooking, reading, gardening, attending events, being outdoors, etc. You can always go to a friend or family member’s house to watch special events and games.

6. Replace a portion of your lawn with native tall grass prairie or rain garden. A beautiful, carefully maintained green lawn is pleasing to the eye but ill suited for the Iowa climate. It requires fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and constant maintenance to maintain. Consider removing a rarely used portion of your lawn and replacing it with native grasses and flowers. They will take several years to fully establish, but once they do, these hardy natives will survive harsh weather almost maintenance free, attract pollinators and wildlife, and help retain rainwater run-off from your gutters or rain barrel.  They will also provide a wonderful show of seasonal wildflowers. The Community Garden will host a workshop on “Establishing a Rain Garden” at 10 am on May 12th and a workshop on “Establishing Native Landscaping” at 10 am on October 13th.

7.  Grow your own food or buy it locally. Decades ago, families and communities used to be largely food self-sufficient through home gardens and local farms. The local foods movement is about rebuilding that capacity to feed ourselves. Having a home garden doesn’t necessarily require a lot of knowledge or have to be huge time commitment. Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew can show you how to create small, low-maintenance, but highly productive home garden. If you don’t have space or sufficient light for home garden, the Grinnell Community Garden at Miller Park offers low-cost rental plots and assistance with planning your garden for the most efficient harvest. Buying what you can’t produce yourself from local farmers and producers provides you with high quality food while keeping money circulating in the local economy, developing your relationships with farmers, the land, and our food, and eliminating many of the environmental and social costs of outsourced food production.

Jordan Sheibel
Jordan is a New England native and recent graduate of Grinnell College. He joined Energy Corps in November 2010 as environmental program coordinator for Imagine Grinnell. Since joining, Jordan has been able to initiate and work on many projects, including improving the community garden that he helped start as a student, holding two energy showcases for the Grinnell community, teaching energy awareness workshops, and starting a municipal rain barrel sale. In addition to serving with Energy Corps, Jordan works seasonally for Grinnell Heritage Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm serving over 200 CSA members.

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