by guest blogger Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper
The first Earth Day was an inspiration. On that day in 1970, 20 million people turned out to demand the protection and restoration of the earth, air, water, forests, natural lands, and species that support, sustain, and enrich every aspect of our lives.
In more recent times, Earth Day hasn’t had quite the same impact. Let’s change that. More important, let’s support and defend the earth every day, not just on Earth Day.
Here are three simple but meaningful things you can commit to that will help protect the earth for present and future generations:
1. Bring your own cups, bottles, and bags. When you picked up your morning coffee, did it come in a disposable cup? Was your bottled water in a plastic bottle? Out shopping, did you take your purchases home in a plastic bag?
Next time, plan ahead. Have your own cups, bottles, and bags ready when you need them. This simple act benefits not just the environment but also your own health in important ways. With regard to the environment:
- Only 18 percent of the plastic used in the U.S. are recycled. That means nearly 29 tons of plastic waste are thrown into the trash each year.
- Just one in five plastic bottles used in the U.S. get recycled. That means every year, more than 40 billion plastic bottles end up in the trash.
- By some estimates, 50 million plastic bottles a day—that’s 250,000 plastic bottles an hour—are tossed in the trash.
- Between 100 billion and 1 trillion plastic shopping bags are used and thrown away every year.
With regard to human health: Those 1 trillion plastic bags that are thrown away annually require about 12 million barrels of oil to make—which means that with every piece of plastic we use, our water, air, and soil are being polluted and our health and safety are threatened by oil and gas drilling.
In addition, dangerous chemicals in plastics, including endocrine disruptors that are a concern in reproduction and human development, leach into the water and liquids the plastics contain, which is harmful to human health.
A large proportion of plastic ends up in our waterways—in our streams, rivers and eventually our oceans—where it harms at least 267 species through ingestion or entanglement.
So this year, save a life—save many lives, human and animal. Set aside your disposable plastic bags and bottles. Set aside that disposable coffee cup. Protect the environment. When you choose to bring your own cups, bottles, and cloth bags, you are helping to reduce pollution and the harm associated with disposables.
2. Switch from disposed-of paper to reusable cloth. Reducing your trash generation at home is another easy daily step with a huge environmental impact. Although recycling is great, actually reducing the amount of waste you generate is even better. One easy and cost-saving place to start is the kitchen.
Paper towels and napkins have become the norm for drying hands and cleaning up messes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates we throw away 3.5 million tons of paper towels and tissues in any given year—this equals 7 billion pounds, which works out to be more than 20 pounds of paper towels and tissues per person per year. Paper towels can’t be recycled, and they usually come into our homes wrapped in plastic, another enduring and harmful piece of trash. All this waste takes up landfill space. It also comes at a price: loss of trees (for the pulp), use of water (for production), and the generation of greenhouse gases (during production and transport). Also, most are bleached, which further increases their environmental burden.
Instead of using paper towels or wipes, reach for a cloth towel. Cloth towels and wipes can be used, rinsed, and used again. Wash them along with the rest of your laundry, and cloth towels and wipes will serve you for many years to come. They can also become lovely kitchen accents. The tea towels I use are decorated with artistic whales, dolphins, and elephants. Whatever pattern I select, my dish-drying and hand-drying towels add texture and color to my home. And when I pull out my blue, yellow, or pink cloth wipes, the effectiveness of my cleanup job for the spilled juice, the dropped pizza, or the drizzled ice cream is much more effective and satisfying.
For more reusable fun, consider using colored cloth napkins instead of paper ones, and maybe find some fancy napkin rings so each person can identify his or her napkin for reuse between washings (the actual purpose of napkin rings, which were created during the 19th century).
Assuming you use three paper towels a day, even at $10 a pop for hand towels and $5 each for organic-cotton cloth napkins, those cloth equivalents become free in a matter of months. If you keep paper towels around for occasional use, buy recycled paper towels with no bleach and no dyes.
3. Shovel the snow and rake the leaves—leave gas-powered engines behind. Gas-powered leaf, lawn, and snow blowers require loud engines that run on polluting fossil fuels. Rakes and shovels require people power. By cutting out the gas, you are avoiding the harms that come with the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and saving yourself and your neighbors from the noise pollution they inflict.
Leaf, lawn, and snow blowers emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides. These small machines have not been subject to the same air-pollution mandates as other industrial operations and so are even bigger contributors to air pollution than you might imagine. The California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board calculates that “hydrocarbon emissions from one-half hour of leaf blower operation equal about 2,200 miles of driving, at 30 miles per hour average speed.”
The noise that gas-powered leaf blowers generate has led many communities to regulate their use, and a few have even banned them. Human health concerns associated with leaf-blower noise include noise-induced hearing loss; high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; and anxiety and physiological stress-related effects. Even at a distance, leaf-blower noise often reaches 70 decibels, the maximum safe level set by the U.S. for workplace noise. EPA recommendations for home and nonwork environments are 55 decibels (outdoor) and 45 decibels (indoor); recommended levels for schools and hospitals are even lower.
If you have a health issue that limits your physical activity, don’t endanger yourself by raking leaves or shoveling snow. But if you’re in good health, consider pulling out the rakes and shovels. In addition to saving on gas and cutting down on pollution and noise, you’ll get the added value of a little exercise and some time enjoying the out of doors.
Taking small steps can have big impacts that protect and enhance our environment and in so doing directly protect our communities, our health, and our safety.
Maya K. van Rossum is the Delaware Riverkeeper, and has led the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) since 1994. The DRN is a regional nonprofit advocacy organization that monitors the river and all of its tributaries for threats and challenges, and advocates, educates, and litigates for protection, restoration, and change.