When Matthew Modine shows up at the charming 19th-century, New Jersey home the Drakes have been renovating, the fresh paint is their first eco-lesson. "There are so many chemicals flying out of that paint," the actor says. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, architectural coatings such as paints and varnishes are one of the largest sources of fumes from volatile organic compounds, substances that evaporate at room temperature and react in sunlight to form photochemical smog. (Automobiles are the biggest culprits.) "No VOC" paint is better for the environment and humans.
All sorts of greener options are available to renovators, home builders, and do-it-yourselfers like Brandi Drake, 39, the associate pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, and her husband, Evan, 41, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, the parents of two young boys. Matthew is partial to an insulation material called Bonded Logic that's made from recycled denim scraps. It contains no formaldehyde, as most fiberglass does, and requires very little energy to manufacture. Landscaping can help temperature control as well: If the Drakes planted trees strategically on their property, they could have summer foliage to block the infrared radiation that otherwise makes the house hotter, while bare branches in winter would let this heat source through. Looking around inside, the NRDC's Dale Bryk, who works on energy policy issues, suggests a programmable thermostat, set for one or two degrees higher than what the family is used to in warm weather, and one or two degrees lower in the cold. "Check the seals on your doors and windows," she says, "so whatever temperature you're trying to create is not flying out."
In 1994 Matthew basically halved the paper use in Hollywood by getting the William Morris Agency to print movie scripts on both sides of each sheet (double-sided scripts are now an industry standard), and he talks to Evan about fostering a similar policy at the university. Even switching to recycled paper (rather than the kind made from virgin lumber) uses up to 90 percent less water and half the energy, producing about one-third fewer greenhouse gases. Dale recommends that the family pay bills electronically. And the Drakes can visit the Direct Marketing Association's Web site to "opt out" of most junk mail.
Three other backyards abut the Drake's property, and Matthew is enthusiastic about the possibility of cooperative composting. When organic matter ends up in landfills and decomposes without air, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Every ton of organic matter that's diverted from the garbage prevents the creation of more than 1,000 pounds of greenhouse gases. "Let's work this piece of land," says Matthew, who encourages composting even for black thumbs, and a kitchen compost for urban dwellers. "You don't have to be a brilliant gardener. The healthiest thing you can do is put your hands in the soil," he says. "And it's great for kids."
Even children as young as the Drakes' sons, Ethan, 5, and Miles, 3, can start practicing some environmental awareness. "If you get an ice cream cone instead of a cup, then you're eating your dishware instead of using plastic," says Matthew. "It's all about consuming less, using fewer of the resources needed to make products and packaging. A smaller ribbon of toothpaste will do. You can dilute shampoo and dish detergent by half. A short wash usually takes care of dirty clothes." As Matthew scans the laundry room supplies, he suggests avoiding chlorine bleach, an environmental toxin, and brings up the idea of using natural, homemade cleaning solutions. "There are so many things you can clean with vinegar and baking soda," he adds. "And a little vegetable oil and lemon juice makes a great wood polish."