Easy and affordable eco-friendly decorating ideas

Kermit the Frog famously said, “It’s not easy being green,” and when it comes to our homes, a lot of people agree. There is a perception that for a home to be environmentally friendly, it needs to be remodeled, or built as such from the ground up, with state-of-the-art features such as solar panels, energy-efficient appliances and building materials made exclusively from sustainable sources. And for someone in an existing home, all that sounds too expensive. 

But living in a green home doesn’t have to be so out of reach. After all, eco-friendly living is not about having all the latest bells and whistles — it’s about reducing our carbon footprint to make less of a negative impact on the planet. And when you think about being eco-friendly from that point of view, you’ll find there are some easy ways to be good to the environment while decorating your home. You might even save money instead of spending it.

Buy pre-owned

Purchasing new furniture and accessories means considerable energy and materials were expended to create them. But when you choose items that were previously owned and loved by someone else, you’ve saved valuable resources — and rescued something from likely spending eternity in landfill. Beyond the obvious places like estate sales and thrift shops, Southern California has some excellent resources for used goods, including resale emporiums that sell items ranging from used hotel furniture (like Hotel Surplus Outlet) to barely used props and furnishings from movies and television shows (which you can find at Previously On and It’s A Wrap). And browsing is always fun on eBay and Craigslist. I limit eBay purchases to smaller items, like accessories, as the shipping charges for larger pieces are usually high. Also, you want to be able to see major furniture items in person before purchasing, which you can’t do with eBay. And for Craigslist, you are dealing with a stranger, so be safe and bring a friend with you when checking out the item. And remember that you can negotiate a lower price — but do so via email or phone, before you meet.

Renew or upcycle

Another eco-friendly alternative to buying something new is to refresh or repurpose something you already own. Reupholster old furniture. Refinish the wood on chairs and case goods — or paint them for a whole new look. Turn old curtains into pillow shams. Just by keeping what you have, you’re helping the earth.

Donate rather than discard

Of course, there are times you just don’t want to keep a piece of furniture. I’ve told many a design client to get rid of an outdated sofa. But instead of throwing it in the dumpster or putting it out in an alleyway, I always advocate donating. Some places, such as the Salvation Army, are notoriously picky about what they’ll take. But you know who isn’t so choosy and will take anything? Anyone who reads the “free” listings on Craigslist. I’ve given away televisions, area rugs and chairs just by listing them as free on Craigslist — and they’re picked up sometimes within mere minutes. Once I had about 50 table legs from Ikea coffee tables (don’t ask why I had all those extra legs), and I almost threw them in the trash because I didn’t think anyone would want just table legs. But within one hour of posting an ad on Craigslist offering them for free, I had more than a dozen takers. 

Rethink your wish list

If, like most homeowners and renters, you have a list of all the fun and fabulous furniture and accessories you just absolutely must have, take a step back and ask yourself if you really need them all. I’m always in the market for something: I wish I had new window treatments. I could use a new coffee table. That new waffle maker would make my life so wonderful on Sunday mornings. Before buying something new, ask yourself how often you will use it, how long it will last and what you’re going to do with it when you don’t want it anymore. They’re tough questions when you’re ready to pull out that credit card. But just being in that mindset will inform all your purchase decisions and make you more environmentally conscious. 

Buy things that will last

When purchasing something for your home, consider how well made it is and what its projected life span would be. In the long run, something cheap often isn’t good for the environment — or your pocketbook — if you’re just going to have to replace it in a few years. 

Plan a décor swap party

These may become the book clubs of the new millennium. Invite a group of friends and neighbors for a gathering at which each person brings small furniture pieces, accessories, books or any other household goods they no longer want. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as everyone trades items. In the end, each person ends up with new things for their home. And you can donate anything unclaimed to a thrift store.

Just keep it

Here’s a tip that might blow your mind. It might be more eco-friendly to keep something you already own that wasn’t eco-friendly in the first place than to replace it with something that is eco-friendly. For example, you might have some carpeting in your home that doesn’t contain a single sustainable fiber, so is it better for the environment to tear it out and install sustainable bamboo flooring? Not necessarily, if that carpeting is going to end up in landfill. Don’t start replacing everything in your home with eco-friendly alternatives. By doing absolutely nothing, you might just be saving the environment. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

11-year-old is focusing on the (re)Cycle of life

When Avery Sax discovered a year ago that she has a life-threatening malformation of blood vessels in her brain, it altered her life — in one way, for the better.

“I think everything’s completely changed for me,” the 11-year-old from Moorpark said. “I always think about everything as a good thing now. I used to think stuff was a bummer, and I was mad about stuff. Now I’m happy almost all the time. I know everything going on with me is not good, but I think of the bright side.”

The proof is in the enthusiasm of her voice, in the way she continues to pursue her favorite activities, and in her determination to create a recycling project that she hopes will improve a world in which her own future is uncertain.

“With my illness, I don’t know every morning when I wake up if I’ll be here at the end of the day, or tomorrow, or even next week,” Avery said. “But I do know the world will always be here, and other people will always be here, too. So I think we should just take care of the world, not for us but for future generations.”

To that end, the perky fifth-grader at Flory Academy of Sciences and Technology in Moorpark started a campaign called “Recycle With brAvery.” Originally a school project that began in February, Avery has expanded its reach and added a goal of collecting 100,000 cans and bottles by Earth Day on April 22.

The next collection drive is scheduled for March 30 and 31. Public contributions may be made at various rePlanet Recycling centers in the Conejo Valley, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Canoga Park and Irvine. Avery’s mother, Kimber Sax, said people should mention her daughter’s name when they drop off bottles and cans so their contributions will be put toward the cause by rePlanet, which has pledged to add an extra 10 percent to whatever is collected.

All of Avery’s efforts are the positive outgrowth of a frightening episode in March 2011, when she suffered a brain hemorrhage and was airlifted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Her diagnosis? An arteriovenous malformation.

“The arteries and veins in certain areas of her brain are completely malformed, twisted, knotted up. Because of that, blood flow in several areas branches off and goes to dead ends and creates other problems,” Sax explained. “We don’t know exactly where the bleed came from, but at one point she had 100 aneurysms.”

While doctors at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center are hoping that radiation will reduce the size of the malformation over time, there remains the problem that she could bleed again at any time, Sax said.

Avery, who also attends Chabad of Moorpark, said that part of what sustains her is her faith. That was especially true at the beginning.

“I was scared and all about everything, because I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “Before every treatment, I said all my prayers. I said the Shema.”

Avery said she has refused to let her condition get her down. Instead, it has made her closer to her family, synagogue and community. And rather than living in a bubble, she’s hitting life head on. That means continuing to pursue her passions: singing, hiking, sketching and more.

When her hair started to fall out in places, other girls her age might have despaired at shedding their long, gorgeous brown locks. Avery managed to see the positive in the situation:

“When I lost my hair, the first thing I said was, ‘Let’s go buy some new hats.’ ”

Avery has even managed to continue cheerleading for the football team of one of her two brothers, despite the fact that her head isn’t supposed to be exposed to the sun. As a solution, she wears a hat that a family friend custom-ordered for her.

Kimber Sax, a former chief operating officer of Los Angeles Jewish Publications Inc. (the predecessor to TRIBE Media Corp., parent company of The Journal), said community support has been incredibly helpful. Sax, a single, full-time parent and cancer survivor, left her job as a consultant when her daughter became ill.

“Our financial situation is very, very tight,” she said.

Money raised through “Recycle With brAvery” (braverynow.org) makes its way to the Sax family by way of the Talbert Family Foundation, which provides financial support to families dealing with catastrophic illnesses. Avery has been a Talbert kid since last year.

Still, Avery said her plans for “Recycle With brAvery” have greater aspirations than her own assistance. It’s more about empowering others — especially young people like herself — and cleaning up the planet.

“Just one can of something from one person really can make a difference,” she said. “A lot of people don’t think they can do it, because they’re just one person, but every single … person can make a difference in the world. It’s less landfills to fill up and it’s less trash and garbage around, and it makes the world a more beautiful, nicer place to be.”

Avery hit upon this particular idea after seeing an aunt raise enough money through recycling to take a trip to Tuscany.

While most of the proceeds will go to the Sax family, Avery wants to make sure that some of the money raised is passed on to others in need, as well.

“Everyone has always been trying to think of fundraisers for me. I think: Why just fund-raise for me? There are so many other things in the world to be worried about,” she said.

At school, most of her classmates were unaware of the severity of her condition until she told her story when she involved them in her recycling project. It was originally intended by Avery to benefit the school, but the principal insisted that the funds go to her family.

“Most don’t truly understand how serious her condition is. She doesn’t look or act different. To them, she acts normal, not sick.” said principal Tammy Herzog.

Herzog said the outgoing girl’s response to her condition has been inspirational.

“She exudes happiness and cheerfulness and has never let this get her down,” Herzog said. “Any time you see a child struggling with such a major illness, it makes you realize what’s important in life and … how much we have to be grateful for.”

And just how strong and hopeful a young person can be.

“Avery is absolutely an amazing child,” Sax said. “If you ask her how she feels, she says, ‘I’m going to be fine. I just know it.’ ”

What really happens to all those plastic bags?

Plastic or paper?

Lior Alkoby was never asked that question during a recent Sunday morning trip to Super Sal Market in Encino. He checked out, wheeled a cart brimming with plastic bags half-filled with fruits, vegetables and canned goods to the parking lot and loaded them into his SUV. For Alkoby, the lack of choice was a non-issue.

“I throw the bags away, just like everyone else,” he said.

Super Sal Market, like many small stores, offers only plastic bags. And Alkoby, like most Americans, tosses them in the trash.

In fact, of the estimated 92 billion plastic bags consumed in the United States annually — 19 billion in California and 6 billion in Los Angeles County alone — less than 5 percent are recycled, according to the nonprofit environmental organization Californians Against Waste.

“I don’t have time,” Alkoby said.

Millions of these bags, unlike Alkoby’s, don’t even make it to a trash bin and eventually a landfill. As a result, plastic bags can be found clogging gutters and storm drains, billowing out from tree limbs, blighting neighborhoods and choking off birds and marine life.

“Plastics are bad,” said Lee Wallach, president of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (CoejlSC). “As with most other things, we have to start thinking about the lasting impact.”

And for non-recycled plastic bags, which are made from non-renewable resources such as petroleum, natural gas or other petrochemical derivatives, the lasting impact translates to a life expectancy of a thousand years or more.

But paper, surprisingly to most people, is not the answer either.

“Paper bags are an enormous user of natural resources. They take four times the energy and emit over 70 percent more global warming gases than plastic bags,” said Lisa Foster, founder of the reusable tote company One Bag at a Time.

In addition, paper bags are more costly to produce and are responsible for considerable deforestation, using 14 million trees to make the 5 billion paper bags that Americans use each year. Less than 20 percent of those are recycled.

And while paper bags do biodegrade, that can’t happen in a landfill, which lacks the necessary oxygen, sunlight and water. In fact, a municipal solid waste landfill, which receives household waste and other non-hazardous materials, is not meant to promote biodegradation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site. Rather, federal regulations require that these landfills have impermeable barriers to contain the waste and thus protect surrounding areas.

“A landfill is really just a big garbage bin,” Foster said.

So what’s the solution?

For California Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), it starts with recycling. He sponsored Assembly Bill 2449, which went into effect July 1, 2007, and requires grocery stores with more than $2 million in annual sales and pharmacies with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space to establish at-store recycling programs for plastic carry-out bags. Those retailers must also sell reusable bags. The bill, however, precludes local governments from assessing a fee on plastic bags though individual retailers may impose one.

Building on the success of that bill, Levine introduced Assembly Bill 2058 on Feb. 19, which would require retailers to reduce plastic bag usage by 35 percent by July 2011 and by 70 percent by July 2013. If those objectives are not met, those businesses will be charged a mandatory 15 cents fee per bag.

“The goal is to reduce litter, not produce revenue,” Levine said, explaining that people need education and time to make lasting behavioral changes.

San Francisco, however, became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags outright when the Board of Supervisors passed the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance in March 2007.

Effective November 1, 2007, for grocery stores with more than $2 million in annual sales and March 1, 2008, for large chain pharmacies, plastic bags made from petroleum products are outlawed. These retailers can distribute only compostable plastic bags, paper bags made of 40 percent recycled materials or reusable bags.

According to Dave Heylan, vice president, communications for the California Grocers Association, member stores in San Francisco that are subject to the ban on noncompostable plastic bags, representing a majority of grocers, have all opted to go straight to paper rather than to offer compostable plastic, which can cost upwards of 15 cents per bag.

As for the higher price of paper bags, which cost 5 to 9 cents per bag while plastic bags cost 1 or 2 cents each, “We haven’t seen any numbers, but retailers typically don’t share those,” he said. “But we have not heard any complaints.”

Santa Monica is moving in the same direction. On Feb. 26, the Santa Monica City Council voted unanimously to instruct the City Attorney to draft an ordinance banning single-use plastic carryout bags, including biodegradable plastic bags, at all retail outlets within Santa Monica and to explore imposing a fee on single-use paper bags.

But in Los Angeles, on Jan. 22 of this year, the County Board of Supervisors adopted a voluntary ban on plastic bags for large retail stores. A mandatory ban kicks in only if stores cannot coax customers into reducing their plastic bag usage 30 percent by July 2010 and 65 percent by July 2013.

Many environmentalists criticized the County Board of Supervisors for adopting what they considered a weak ordinance.

“It’s too little too late,” CoejlSC’s Wallach said. “They ducked the issue. This is the time for bold action.”

One Bag at a Time’s Foster, however, applauded the collaborative effort, as she is not a proponent of banning plastic bags.

“It’s a great sound bite, but not a great solution,” she said.

Neither does she favor recycling, which she believes is more “to assuage our guilt over over-consumption.”

Foster suggests that people become educated about the true cost of a bag — be it plastic, paper or a reusable material — by assessing the total costs of manufacturing, usage and disposal.

Think Green Tips

Ten ways to begin greening your synagogue from Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life:

  • Switch to cost-effective and energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs.
  • Buy recycled paper products. Use both sides of the paper, then recycle it again.
  • Precycle. Buy products that are in recycled packaging or that can be recycled, such as cans, glass, plastic, paper and cardboard.
  • Minimize use of disposable plates, cups, paper towels, napkins, plastic and silverware for synagogue functions. Avoid using Styrofoam products.
  • Turn thermostat down a few degrees in the winter and up a few degrees in the summer.
  • Encourage congregants to carpool to religious school and to turn off engines while waiting to pick up children.
  • Buy Energy Star (energy-efficient) appliances. Turn off lights and office equipment, such as copy machines, when not in use.
  • Buy flow restrictors for sinks and water-saving toilet tank dams.
  • Use nontoxic cleansers.
  • Don’t use pesticide on the lawn and use a nontoxic integrated pest management system.