As the Earth gets warmer and energy gets more expensive, "high-efficiency," in all its forms, is the grand designation of the 21st century. Cars, appliances and now entire homes have made the jump into the "green" realm, and eco-living doesn't stop with solar panels, tankless water heaters and double-paned glass. Aesthetics are going green, too.
We're not talking about trendy sculptures made of trash. We're talking about counters and furniture made of trash -- or at least what would've been trash. We're talking natural walls, fumeless paints and light bulbs that last practically forever.
Environmental stewardship meets the pursuit of beauty in the newest -- or the newly rediscovered -- green design materials. Here, 10 of the biggest trends in eco-friendly interiors, beginning with a surprisingly renewable stalk you could use in every room of the house.
Good as new
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Wood, at least as far as flooring goes, is not a particularly renewable material. It takes centuries for a forest to regrow -- it might as well take forever, for all the damage done to Earth through harmful harvesting methods and deforestation.
Bamboo, on the other hand, grows like a weed -- at eight times the rate of hardwood, to be exact. It's extremely renewable, not just because of the growth speed, but also because when bamboo is harvested, the plant doesn't die. It just grows back, and quickly, making it an excellent green option for floors.
It's at least as hard and stable as most hardwoods, often more so, and it typically doesn't dent as easily as hardwood floors. Pricewise, they're pretty comparable.
Floors are just one area for bamboo. It also makes a great countertop, butcher block and cabinet material. Bamboo rugs are big. Artists use it in furniture, too.
Concrete is used around the world to create sturdy, low-maintenance structures that withstand time and the elements. Now, concrete is coming inside, and you'd barely recognize it in its wide array of custom colors and designs that turn countertops and flooring into artistic endeavors.
The greenness of the material is a controversial topic. On the one hand, it's extremely energy efficient and can reduce power consumption. It produces little waste because it's custom-made for each project, and it's a zero-offgassing material, meaning it contains no toxic chemicals that evaporate under normal conditions. And producing concrete uses fly ash, a byproduct of the coal-burning industry that otherwise would just take up space.
On the other hand, producing traditional concrete creates a lot of CO2 -- about 7 percent of the world's CO2 emissions come from the process [source: Kriscenski]. Some companies, however, are now using a different type of cement in the process that reduces the CO2 contribution dramatically -- that concrete costs a lot more, but it's a truly green material [source: CNC].
The industry as a whole is instituting changes in manufacturing that should make it a more eco-friendly process in the future, so standard concrete could become a significantly green material going forward.
It may seem like an odd material for floors -- the soft, spongy thing you pull out of a wine bottle or stick notes on or find on the bottom of springtime shoes. But this ultra-green substance is growing in popularity as an interior staple.
Many cork floors are actually made entirely of recycled wine stoppers. Its features are quite different as a floor, of course. It's manufactured hard, for one thing -- it feels like hardwood. Cork is naturally water-impermeable, too, making it a natural choice for a floor.
Speaking of natural, cork floors contain no PVC or formaldehyde binders. It's a bark, harvested from living cork oak, leaving the tree alive and growing so it's incredibly renewable.
Since cork is naturally antimicrobial, it also makes sense in the kitchen and is growing in popularity as a countertop material.
It uses practically no energy at all compared to an incandescent bulb and is more efficient than a fluorescent while creating a warmer shade of light than a CFL. It can last 20 years, so you may only change your light bulbs a few times during the course of your life.
The LED is a marvel of energy-efficiency and longevity, consuming about 80 percent less energy than a traditional light bulb and about 5 percent less than a CFL; if you currently use incandescents, switching to LEDs can reduce your carbon footprint by hundreds of pounds per light fixture [source: Layton].
On the downside, an LED bulb can cost from $30 all the way up to $100. It'll save money in the long run, but it's a big expenditure, so it's currently mostly a commercial lighting choice. Prices are coming down, though, so ultra-green LED lighting could soon become a viable green option at home.
Think breathing the air during the morning commute is rough on your health? Try breathing inside your home after a fresh coat of paint.
It's the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the paint that are toxic both to humans and the environment. They eat away the ozone layer and contaminate groundwater.
In the last decade, though, new paint formulations have come out that are lower in VOCs. There are even no-VOC options. These greener paints are now mainstream, offered by most big paint manufacturers, and they don't cost much more than the regular, high-polluting stuff.
You might make up the money, too, when you go to dispose of the extra paint -- low- and no-VOC paint isn't considered hazardous waste, so there's no extra disposal charge [source: EarthEasy].
Most wall surfaces are drywall covered by toxic paint. Some are fancier, sporting traditional plaster that's textured -- "hand-troweled" -- for a rustic look or mixed with pigment for a Venetian or Moroccan look.
They're custom, high-end finishes that add real interest and value to a home. The problem, from an environmental perspective, is that these plasters are typically gypsum-based, and manufacturing them has a high carbon footprint. Plus, some of the brighter pigments can contain volatile organic compounds.
A relatively new product has solved the biggest of plaster's green issues. Natural plaster, or "Earth plaster," avoids the gypsum, allowing it to be manufactured at lower temperatures. This decreases the CO2 emissions associated with the process.
The most Earth-friendly (and fume-free) Earth plaster is unpigmented, going on in natural Earth tones and often textured for an organic look. If pigments are used, VOCs can still be a problem, so make sure you (or your contractor) go with nontoxic coloring agents. Earth clay also comes in paint form, which is zero-VOC.
Most wood floors come from trees harvested for that purpose -- they're cut down with beautiful flooring in mind. And when a homeowner pulls up old, beat-up wood floors during a remodel, that old wood is typically considered trash and is discarded accordingly.
Two types of wood floors take a more eco-friendly approach. There's reclaimed wood, which uses re-finished, old wood floors and other building elements (old beams, for instance) to make new wood floors that have a rustic look. These are antique wood floors. Reclaimed wood can be used for other design elements, like staircases, trusses, counters or mantles.
Another green option is recovered wood. This type uses trees that have been cut down for other purposes, typically in clearing land for building purposes. In this case, recovered trees that were being killed anyway are used to create brand-new wood floors.
One thing to look out for in both of these cases is the process used to prepare and finish the wood. Some companies that use reclaimed or recovered wood use environmentally damaging methods of turning that wood into your floors. Ask questions about the finishing process to make sure the green wood stays green.
Bet you never thought those wine bottles you recycled would end up back in your kitchen.
Recycled-glass countertops take the glass you throw in the recycling bin and turn it into a unique kitchen surface. The glass pieces can be any size and color -- recycled windshields produce clear glass, wine bottles green or brown glass, dinner plates can mean any color in the spectrum.
The glass is broken into small pieces and held together with concrete. The end result is a lustrous, speckled look. It's typically custom-made in molds, so there's very little waste, and it consumes a product that would probably otherwise end up in a landfill, will pretty much never biodegrade and takes a lot of energy to recycle.
You can find recycled glass furniture out there, too. Check out Earth911: Designer Uses 100 Percent Recycled Glass in Furniture.
Aluminum is all over -- soda cans, fixtures, industrial scrap metal, for a start. Wouldn't it be nice if it could be turned into something useful after it has outlived its original use, without having to expend a ton of energy breaking it down in the recycling process?
Companies are now recycling aluminum in a much less energy-intensive process than we typically think of when we imagine "recycling." They're cutting all that trash metal into pieces and turning it into countertops and backsplashes in the kitchen, and tiles for bathroom walls and floors.
Recycled metal isn't just for functional design, either. It's popping up in fine art, too, everything from garden sculptures to wall hangings, accent furniture and handbags. And while we're on the topic, even the medals in the 2010 Olympics contained some recycled metal.
Even with e-mail, PDF and texting, paper is a huge part of our lives. Newspapers, brochures, printable coupons, direct mail, stacks and stacks of printer paper, and loose leaf and legal pads -- trees are giving their lives every day so we have stuff to write on.
Recycling paper to make more paper is one way to help save trees. Recycling paper to make countertops is an even bigger step. It's bigger, more profitable and even trendier than eco-paper and packaging.
Counters are formed of compressed, hard blocks of used paper covered in a nontoxic resin to make it water-resistant, heat-resistant and stain-resistant. There's no petroleum or formaldehyde involved in the process.
The material is used for bathroom counters, dining tables, floors and decorative wall panels, too.