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Blog/Opinion: Eco-friendly bathroom remodel: part 2

How much do I love my new bathroom? So much that I clean it all the time. Not just quick run-throughs to make sure all the germs and hairs disappear, but near-obsessive deep cleanings that reflect my continued investment in the loo I helped build.


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I love this bathroom. Here's why:

Freshen Up with a Fan

I started to detail this journey last week, explaining that my priorities were to create more space and use fewer resources. Bathrooms are notorious water hogs. The varieties of ways to improve upon water efficiency were the subject of last week's post and will be addressed again next week in my interview (in honor of World Water Day) with The Green Blue Book author Tom Kostigen.

Renovating the bathroom has also given me an opportunity to use products that incorporate the core tenets of environmentalism: reducing pollutants and waste, reusing inputs and recycling materials. Selecting eco-friendly paints and varnishes is one way to minimize indoor air pollution. Ensuring you have proper ventilation is another. Spot ventilation can reduce the indoor air pollutants ranging from formaldehyde offgassing from furniture to, well, the smells one finds in a bathroom. I'd never paid any attention to ventilation fans until this project. Now, I understand they are an important way to control moisture and prevent mold. An EPA Energy Star rating is a good starting point for seeking out the appropriate ventilation. My choice was a Panasonic WhisperGreen fan. The company has a great online application to help you determine the most appropriate fan for your needs and sells units that are more than 300 percent more energy efficient than Energy Star requirements.

A Concrete Countertop

When my contractor, Ian Hurst, first suggested a concrete countertop, I was intrigued, then excited. Concrete is extremely durable and can be sourced locally before being poured into a Plexiglas mold and transformed into a countertop. However, it requires a lot of energy to make and transport. Although I love the surprisingly warm look of the material, I would not use it again.

The water-based sealant MexeSeal was generously passed on to me by Asa Collier, the owner of the eco-friendly building store Blue Sky, whom I had called in a panic when I learned the finish Ian was planning to use was not green enough. MexeSeal—from AFM Safecoat, a company that has become my primary source for all finishes—was designed to repel oil and water. However, it can't really do the job because concrete is just too porous. Even though I love cleaning my bathroom, the care I have to take to keep makeup, soap, toothpaste and more off this counter is not fun. Next time I'll explore recycled glass or a more stain-resistant cement/recycled paper composite.

Lovely Lighting

Another suggestion from Ian was tube lighting. Knowing that lighting accounts for about a quarter of the electricity used in a home, I had planned on going with energy-efficient lighting. But fluorescent tubes conjured thoughts of my very unflattering high school cafeteria. I was hesitant about the tube light right until the very end of the renovation—but it's actually perfect.

My final choice was to use Oxygen Lighting. When making your own decision, check out YLighting, an outlet that lets you filter your search for really beautiful lighting for energy efficiency and LED lighting. LED lighting offers better hues of light and far surpasses compact florescent bulbs in terms of energy efficiency, but their price is still out of my reach.

Staying Warm

My bathroom is tucked into the southwest corner of my house, nestled against two exterior walls. I hadn't really considered the significance of exterior walls until I became a homeowner and had to ponder the placement of plumbing to avoid frozen pipes. Exterior walls increase exposure to the elements. In a sweet old home facing a nearly record cold winter, that equals a very cold bathroom. Well, it would have, were it not for the radiant heat underneath my aluminum tiles.

According to the Department of Energy, radiant floor heating is "more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts." Radiant heat usually involves the use of electric mats or a series of pipes that circulate heated water. My house wouldn't easily allow for a liquid system, but it's great for new construction. Ian's incredible builder, Dustin, installed a Suntouch mat just under my aluminum tile flooring.

Electricity isn't cheap, so I have the mat programmed (using a programmable thermostat) to warm up just before I wake. The floor is charged during off-peak hours and then stays warm for most of the day. Because I am not heating my floor during the times when electricity rates are at their peak, I save on energy costs while enjoying an indulgently warm bathroom.

Keeping Organized

Ian works with an enormously talented man named Ryan Comment. Ryan was responsible for the most important—and priciest—part of my bathroom: the cabinet and countertop. He has been using environmentally friendly materials for a long time. When I started to describe what I wanted, Ryan mentioned he had some leftover Lyptus from an earlier project and thought it would be just enough to build my skinny little counter. Lyptus is made from eucalyptus trees that have been sustainably harvested in Brazil.

Had I used new wood, I would have opted for a tree native to Kansas. Because it was leftover from another project, eucalyptus was a low-impact, sustainable option.

A Shiny and Sustainable Floor

Well before I was a homeowner, there were two items that I had envisioned in my house: Kirei Board made from pressed sorghum and recycled aluminum tiles. The Kirei remains a dream, but the aluminum tiles are now on my floor and backsplash.

These tiles are like little gems on my floor. They feel industrial but still manage to work with the warmer wood in the rest of the house. Although they scratch pretty easily and the coating drove my contractor nuts (he said he would never work with them again), I absolutely love them. They come from the Mexico-based company Alumillenium, which is dedicated to reclaiming scrap aluminum and brass and transforming them into tiles and sinks that feel handmade and heartfelt.

Tackling Toilet Paper

Even if you're not in a place to use wood remnants for a new cabinet or recycled aluminum for a new backsplash, you still have an opportunity to embrace the eco-tenet of recycling in your bathroom—in your toilet paper. As I explain in my post about our morning ritual, the average American uses over 100 rolls [of toilet paper] a year, most of which is made from a combination of softwood and hardwood trees. Southern pines and Douglas firs make the paper strong, while maples and oaks make the paper soft.

I am not convinced that oak trees should be chopped down in order to give our bums a little more comfort—or that dioxin contamination from the chlorine bleach used to make traditional toilet paper bright is the right price to pay for white T.P.

Toilet paper made from recycled paper uses colored and white paper stock and is usually whitened with hydrogen peroxide. My choice is Seventh Generation because of the integrity the company shows throughout their product line.

Cherished Curtains

There are smells that I grew up with that I once thought were good things. I believed the smell of bleach equaled clean and the scent of plastic shower curtains made them new. I now know better. The 2008 Center for Health, Environment and Justice report, Volatile Vinyl, determined a sampling of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) shower curtain released up to 108 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which lingered nearly a month after the curtains were hung.

As I have detailed in this series, VOCs are known to cause health problems ranging from headaches to respiratory problems and may be possible carcinogens. Each of the curtains tested (purchased at big box stores) contained phthalates (known endocrine disruptors) and heavy metals including mercury and lead. PVC is commonly used in everything from shower curtains to car interiors and is increasingly known as the "poison plastic." There is no safe way to manufacture or dispose of PVC because of the host of chemicals contained within it. PVC creates toxic emissions in recycling processes and can't be recycled.

All of this contributed to the Small Design Collective Grain's decision to create a simple plastic shower curtain that doesn't offgas toxic chemicals and can be recycled. Their Ty shower curtain is one of my most cherished bathroom items. It moves and breathes like a natural fiber, resists mold and mildew and is made from HDPE, a commonly recycled plastic.

Eco-Friendly Towels

My friends Angela and Jeff gave me the most surprisingly indulgent housewarming present I have ever received: bamboo towels. Bamboo is a rapidly renewable fiber that's grown without pesticides—unlike cotton crops, which use approximately 25 percent of the world's pesticides. Although transforming the bamboo stalk into fiber does require a fair amount of water, I usually consider it a pretty eco-minded choice.

During the past few months, my focus has been on bathroom hardware. I hadn't yet considered my towels but, fortunately, Angela and Jeff had. They gave me Pure Fiber towels. I have never in my life coveted towels, but these ones are spectacularly soft and absorbent. Can't give up cotton towels? Just make sure it's organic cotton.


See Eco-Friendly Bathroom Remodel: Part 1


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Eco-friendly bathroom remodel: part 2:  Created on March 18th, 2010.  Last Modified on June 19th, 2011

About Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel's environmental programming The Green and the creator of the Sundance Web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism. She is also an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Simran is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and is currently writing a year-long series about making her first home more resource efficient for Oprah Winfrey’s Web site She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.  She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio Graduate School and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College.  She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities and the 2009 recipient of the University of Kansas award for Leadership in Sustainability.


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