Q&A: Melissa Ozawa of Martha Stewart Living on going green in your home in 2020

Jan 23, 2020

As features and garden editor at Martha Stewart Living, Melissa Ozawa covers gardening, does profiles of tastemakers and artisans and covers environmental and eco-friendly topics as they relate to home and garden. She previously worked at House & Garden magazine, the Garden Conservancy, and got her start at the Academy of American Poets.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Thanks to Melissa Ozawa for joining us today to talk about how you can lead a greener life at home in 2020. Melissa is Martha Stewart Living's features and garden editor. She is part of the article I wrote about five ways to live greener  - you can read the article here. Now let's chat.

Good morning! This is Melissa Ozawa, features and garden editor at Martha Stewart Living. I'm looking forward to answering your green home questions.

I bring my lunch almost every day. So I keep at my desk a stainless steel fork, knife and spoon. Shock of ages, I have a coffee cup that I use daily too. No plastic wear or paper coffee cups. My household stainless steel utensils and a gift mug. All of the items are about 10 years old. It's a small way to be green but 10 years later how much plastic and paper did I not use.

Congratulations! This is wonderful news. I hope you can encourage your coworkers to do the same. It's so easy to do--and isn't it so much nicer eating off of stainless steel utensils and drinking from a real mug rather than using plastic or paper ones?

Is there an eco-friendly cleaner for wood floors that can stand up to teenagers and a dog?

I am a big fan of vinegar and water. I think it's the best for cleaning floors.

What are your favorite house plants that are low maintenance, attractive and are good for the home environment?

I love Sansevieria or snake plants. I have several at home. They are not at all fussy: don't require a lot of water, can handle different light conditions (though best in partial light), and can handle some neglect. Also Chinese money plants (Pilea peperomioides) are easy to grow and have been popping up at all the cool plant stores.

Hi Melissa! I've been stalling on buying reusable baggies for the kids' lunches, as they sometimes forget and throw them away. Do you have any recommendations for ones that are reasonably priced? We all take our lunches every day. Thanks!

That's fantastic that you all take your own lunch everyday! What about using reusable containers instead of baggies for your kids? They might be less likely to throw them away. They have all different sizes for snacks -- even ones that fit sandwiches.

In addition to the ideas from the original comment, I bring a cloth napkin in my lunch bag. To clean up afterward, I have a cloth (which I take home to wash) and non-toxic cleaner instead of paper towels. Do you have any other green suggestions for the office? Thank you!

I love all these green office suggestions! Keep them coming. A cloth napkin is another great idea. First avoid as much waste as possible. And make sure your office recycles: paper, plastic, metals, as much as you can. A company called Terracycle can help you take it to the next level. You can purchase a box, and they will accept all kinds of office supplies which they will recycle. 

While visiting Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, I fell in love with florist's cyclamen. On a whim, I bought a pink one at the grocery store. The tag says to give it plenty of sun and water regularly. Other than that, do you have any more helpful advice about caring for my 4-inch potted plant? I would like to have more of them, but I want them to thrive, not sadly linger on in my harp room. Help!

I love cyclamens! They offer a burst of color in the winter. However, they can be a little demanding. A little like Goldilocks, they don't like it too hot or too cold, preferring 60 degree temperatures, which I know is not ideal at home. Water about once a week -- test the soil, if it's wet, hold off a little longer. And when you do water, bring the plant to the sink and give it a long drink until the water flows out the drainage hole. Good luck! 

I received a stylish white teapot as a gift two years ago, and I realized that I had a white mug. They are in my office and I drink tea from there. Haven't mastered the art of stainless flatware yet, but your earlier poster may have inspired me to do so.

Great! And how lovely to have tea from a pot at work. I hope you will try stainless flatware and cloth napkins -- goodbye #sadworklunch.

We can do a lot (containers, paper bags), and the absolute best thing is to do whatever you can to avoid bringing plastic into your home, but note that some plastic bags and wrapping are (supposedly) recycled: https://www.plasticfilmrecycling.org/recycling-bags-and-wraps/find-drop-off-location/ Now what to do about dry cleaning bags!

I agree! I now think really carefully before I buy anything. I bring my own bags -- including produce bags -- so I can avoid taking home as much plastic as possible. Talk to your dry cleaners. See if they can switch to biobags. Every municipality is different in what they will recycle. If you don't think yours is doing enough, round up your neighbors and make some noise! Together we can make a difference.

Hope you'll read my story today about the Prince of Chintz's treasures. Right now, Sotheby's is having  a decorative arts auction in New York of Mario Buatta's 922 items. You can read it here.

I live in Delaware. Are there certain species of trees that are better for the environment. Of course native trees but any other

I'm so happy you want to plant trees. You're right, a native tree is often the best choice. They have adapted with your environment, so don't need a lot of extra fuss to thrive, they support pollinators, and they're beautiful! You can find a tree that works well in your area by plugging your zipcode at the Arbor Day Foundation's website (arborday.org).

Check your local recycling regulations -- you might be surprised at what you can't put it as well as by what you can. My system doesn't take #2 plastic, aka milk jugs. Milk jugs!!! *sob* Time to switch to cartons.

Good points. Thanks for this.

My room doesn't get much direct sunlight (north-facing window woes), but I'd like to get some plants for my room to liven it up. I currently have a little Jade plant I got at Trader Joe's and am looking to add. I wish I could have flowers, but it seems like I don't have enough light. I know plants are huge now but it seems like every Instagram, blog, magazine feature I look at features things like snake plants, Fiddle figs, etc.-- they're all the same! How do I find things that will work in my room but that aren't also in everyone else's house?

The good news about the popularity of houseplants is that there are many more available. What about plants with colored foliage? If you're room gets some light (4-5 hours) try a begonia or peperomia. They have incredible foliage that look great all the time.

I use linen napkins for both my household and when guests come. We use napkins rings the old fashioned way--so we can tell our napkins apart when we use them for more than one meal. They get washed every few days or after one use if they are particularly messy. But...not everywhere has abundant water or may be in drought. How do you tell when it's better to wash or use disposable? One of our nearby government complexes is heated in large part by trapped methane from a landfill, so it doesn't seem as simple an equation as "reusable is always better."

I like your idea about using napkin rings to differentiate napkins. There are some things you can do to cut back on resources for your reusables, like collecting rainwater, making sure your dishwasher and washer are full before running them, and really watching how much water you use.

Through some volunteering I do, I just found out about a great resource for the Audubon Society’s native plants database. Enter your zip code and receive a list of the best plants for birds in your area, as well as local resources and links to more information. You'll also get additional tips on creating your bird-friendly habitat. https://www.audubon.org/native-plants

Thanks for sharing this!

Good morning! I was saddened to learn that most paper coffee cups from coffee shops are not recyclable, because they have a wax coating. Just a reminder - the shops are more than willing to fill your own metal flask that you bring in. Ok for my question: why are so many manufacturers of, for example, soy milk, now packaging in the rounded-at-the-bottom plastic containers instead of the old carton containers? Even at Whole Foods I see nothing but plastic. Thank you.

Good question! Why don't you write the manufacturers to find out? Or start a social media campaign to encourage them to switch from plastic. They will listen to consumers -- they depend on us!

Here's todays Washington Post article about going green at home.

Hi Melissa - I make my own cleaner (white vinegar) and next will tackle making laundry detergent. What other things can we do to cut down on toxins and plastic use? Thanks

Excellent! I have ruled out pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and harsh chemical cleaners and detergents. You don't need them and they are harmful to us and the environment. Think about the packaging before you buy. Is there an alternative? Does your local store offer refills on bottles? If not, could you encourage them too?

I only just learned this so am sharing (but check you area!) - here in northern VA you can recycle a lot of plastic films - think ziploc bags, newspaper bags, toilet paper packaging, etc - along with your plastic grocery bags at participating locations.

Good idea.

We have just cleaned out the family house that was occupied by the same family for 67 years. In the process, we found tons of photos of the children, the aunts uncles, parents, grandparents both maternal and paternal and snapshots that fill boxes and boxes. What do we do with them? Should we digitize them and put them on CD's or what? If so, how do I digitize them? We can't have 30 boxes of photos sitting around when only 1 or 2 of certain selected persons will suffice.

Wow! What a treasure trove of family history. Do you have access to a scanner? You could scan the photos and share them with your family.

I had some major remodeling done two years ago. Previously, I had painted the entire house about 20 years ago and still had leftover paint. Some of the 20-year-old paint had a lot of rust inside the cans. I took them to the hazardous-waste drop off at my local dump. For the new paint, I transferred the leftovers to some large plastic peanut butter jars, and labeled everything. Next time I need to touch up paint, there won't be any rust in the jars.

Great idea!

Brand 365 nondairy milks are still sold in cartons in my Whole Foods, but since my local jurisdiction does not recycle cartons, I don't know which is better!

You could try Terracycle to see if they recycle these cartons. Or talk with your local recycle company to find out if they could start recycling them.  

Maybe a goldfish plant? They are so cheerful and beautiful, and I'm surprised they are not featured more. It does like light, but not bright, direct light, so maybe it could work in a north facing window.

I've never heard of that but will look it up.

A couple of comments...I keep utensils, cloth napkins, and a bowl at my office workstation and bring my lunch almost every day. It saves a lot of money. While a coffee cup might not be recyclable because of the wax coating, it may be compostable. My company has bins for trash, recycling, and compost in every pantry. For a plant that loves low light and is easy to maintain, try a Clivia. I have two that originated from a plant offshoot my mother gave me at least 15 years ago. They like low light, love being potbound (they bloom more when potbound), and spend the summer outside in my backyard under a tree. Their flowers are spectacular, if infrequent (for me at least).

Thank you so much for sharing that B'more Cat !!

FYI Sansevieria is not safe for pets/children https://pistilsnursery.com/blogs/journal/poisonous-houseplants-10-indoor-plants-for-pet-owners-and-parents-to-avoid

Good point. Thanks. If you have pets or small children, keep your houseplants out of reach.

Every plastic shopping bag I use is recycled for bathroom trash or cat litter or storage of garden items or grease disposal or .. Once banned I will have to buy virgin plastic bags for 1 use. So where is the green?

There are biobags that are compostable in an industrial composter. You could give them a try.

Thank you so much for all these fantastic questions and ideas. I hope you're encouraged to green up your home and office. The more we do (and the more people we can encourage to join in) the bigger impact we have.

The topic of green living is clearly on the minds of so many readers. Let's do more to write and talk about these issues. Thanks to Melissa for being such a thoughtful and informative guest. Next week I'm going to have another super guest host - Emily Evans Eerdmans, the woman who co-authored Mario Buatta's biography and went through all his storage units and homes to come up with the treasures being auctioned at Sotheby's today and tomorrow. See you then.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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