Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day

On April 22, 1993 – Earth Day 15 years ago – I went to Taco Time with my family for a delicious crispy burrito and mexifries. That day, my meal also came with a tiny evergreen sapling of a tree that I named Herb and planted in my parents’ backyard. Today, Herb must be 100 feet tall and growing. That is my earliest and most lasting memory of Earth day.

Sometimes I get the impression that people think I take things too seriously, that the little bits I obsess over every day don’t make a difference. I think that’s too bad, because they do make a difference and even if they ultimately don’t (which I will never concede because they do) they make a difference in that I feel good doing them, feel good caring about something that is bigger than me. So here it is, borrowed from David’s popular blog method, my top five things we can do to make the world a better place. They are all things I do (or have done when my life permitted it) that make me feel good about myself, and that you can easily add to your daily routine.

5) Compost.

This is really easy for those of you with yard waste, since anything you can compost you can put in the yard waste bin. In fact, in most areas, if you pay for yard waste service you can pick up mulch made from the area’s combined compostables for free! If you don’t have access to this service, never fear; it’s a bit more work for you but nonetheless relatively simple to build or buy a compost bin from which to make your own rich compost. See www.howtocompost.org for help.

Lots of the things we toss into the garbage are compostable: to wit, about 40% of landfill material could have been composted instead (which also would have cut down on the methane that landfills emit). Paper products (napkins, tissues, paper plates, paper towels), egg shells, any and all parts of vegetables and fruits, cooked and raw rice and grains, stale breads, chips, crackers, and baked goods are all compostable. Pretty much the only organic items you can’t compost are meat and dairy products. So, have three receptacles instead of two: garbage, recycle, and compost. It’s fun and easy!

If you can’t commit to composting, you can do one very easy thing differently with these compostable items: don’t put them in your garbage disposal. Adding solid waste to liquid waste pollutes our water resources. It also increases the cost of treating water in sewage systems, uses unnecessary electricity, increases our water use, and in general costs more - environmentally and fiscally – than simply throwing that waste out or composting it instead. If you don't believe me, think about this: some cities have already banned the installation of new garbage disposals.

4) Use fewer paper goods.

Each U.S. citizen uses, on average, 749 pounds of paper products per year (!!) (for other paper- and recycling-related facts, go here: http://www.resourcefulschools.org/facts.html). This figure is mind-boggling to me, so I’d like to invite you each to take the Paper Product Challenge. Spend one week actually thinking about each paper product you’re going to use before using it. This includes: grabbing a napkin at a meal – can you get by using only one? Wiping a counter clean – might you really only need half a paper towel? (I often rip paper towels as small as fourths, if that’s all I need.) If you must use a paper plate, is there only one plate or have two or three stuck together? And yes, even going to the rest room – most of us are guilty of using more than is necessary most of the time. I’m confident that after seven days you will have altered your paper product consumption, which will ultimately save you money on paper product purchases. Ppppp.

3) Bag it.

In the U.S. it is estimated that we use 60,000 plastic bags EVERY FIVE SECONDS. Worldwide, we use 1 million bags each MINUTE. Is anyone else appalled by this? (For other interesting facts about plastic bags, including how some countries have combated them, click here: http://www.reusablebags.com/facts.php?id=4) Here are a few things we can do to help out the plastic trees.

First, bring your own bags whenever possible. Whether you reuse old bags or buy cloth or mesh bags, the most important thing is to bring your own to avoid adding new bags to landfills. Second, be very aware of how your items are bagged. Sometimes you might not even need a bag. Most of the time you only need a single plastic (they’re sturdier than they look), and even more of the time all of your items can fit into fewer bags. Don’t be afraid to speak up during the bagging process and say ‘make them heavy’ or ‘please don’t double bag them.’ In fact, I usually bag my own groceries, which is sort of a fun puzzle and reduces the number of times I have to request they not give me 7 bags for 5 items. Finally, bring plastic bags back to grocery stores or other participating outlets and recycle them – believe it or not, you can recycle plastic bags, but you have to take them to a designated bin, usually at the back of most grocery stores.

2) Turn the water off!

This is probably my biggest shudder-inducing wasteful behavior. Despite this being the Number One “Save the Earth” provision taught to us from a very young age, it is disturbing how many people discard such a simple rule of thumb, so I think it bears repeating: Shut the water off between uses. The water doesn’t need to run while you’re sudsing up a plate, brushing your teeth, or washing your face. We don’t need to shower ever day (shock!), and we certainly don’t need showers that last longer than 10 minutes (15 for those of us who observe the ‘don’t shower daily’ rule). If you think there isn’t a water shortage, think again, especially those of you in drought-prone areas (is anyone else concerned about the Southwest?). Furthermore, heating water uses electricity, which is a huge contributor to – yes, skeptical readers, here it comes – global warming. Any effort you can make to reduce your electricity use – including switching to incandescent light bulbs, unplugging appliances when not in use, and turning lights and other gadgets off when not in the room – will help you do your small part to save the world (not to mention save you money on your electricity bill). Here's another Web site I like that gives 50 tips to help adjust your lifestyle to be more Earth-friendly. Even if you only do one or two of them, it's better than doing nothing: http://globalwarming-facts.info/50-tips.html

And, now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my number one way to improve the world:

1) Smile at people.

If you thought these would all be environmental tips, you were right! This is the tip that will have the most noticeable and immediate effects. Smiling at one another greatly improves our shared environment. Now, before you write this one off as far too corny, consider this: how often does a stranger smile at you, and how does it make you feel when it happens? It gives me a tingly feeling, like all is right with the world. On the other hand, when people project their anger onto others, it can ruin an entire day for no good reason. Think of the concentric circles our actions, both positive and negative, can create among one another. If you think no one is paying attention to you and how you behave, you’re wrong. This goes doubly, I think, for ‘poor people’: just because you aren’t going to give them money doesn’t mean you can’t give them respect and a smile.

I really tried to write this without being preachy, and instead offer practical, useful solutions to the “What can I do to help?” question that seems to be increasingly on a lot of people’s minds. Here’s your chance to get the warm fuzzies by being a good global and local citizen.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this post to Justin Hellier and Matt Roberts, two people who care more and do more for the Earth than almost anyone I know:

Happy Earth Day!


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Tess said...

Okay, I agree with everything, but the smiling thing. I used to smile at EVERYONE, and girls need to use disgression, cause I've had some creepos follow me, and that will ruin an entire day, too.
But, if someone is givin off a good vibe, then hell yes I will smile.
Also, I want to start composting, but I don't have a compost bin...maybe I could just give it to Mom?