Today is Earth Day, which raises awareness about the health and preservation of our planet. While today might be the one day that really drives the point home, the big changes will come when Earth Day is celebrated every day by changing old habits into more ecologically-minded ones.
Here are some small and easy ways to conserve resources and create a better world. The best part? Most of these result in financial benefits for you as well. Everybody wins!
Also, remember that this is a relatively short list. If you have some great tips and tricks, be sure to add them in the comments!
The “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” campaign has been around for decades, so it almost seems like a cliche to bring it up. But, it’s not, so we’re going to bring it up anyway. The three Rs aren’t just a list of things to do; it’s a hierarchy. If your garbage can is overflowing with “green” products, your garbage can is still overflowing.
This one is the easiest to do and has the biggest impact: buy less stuff. If you want a new movie or your favorite band just released a new album, download it from iTunes instead of buying a physical disk. If there’s a book you’ve been dying to read, think about picking it up as an e-book or borrowing it from your local library. Instead of just rolling your eyes when you get a mailbox full of junk mail, open them up and call the company to get taken off of their mailing list. This saves on paper and also saves you the hassle of having to sort through the clutter on a daily basis.
Empty peanut butter jars, paper towel cardboard rolls, old t-shirts, bottle caps, dryer lint… All of them can be reused and repurposed. If you have not heard of Pinterest yet, you need to head over there (I’ve made a board filled with ideas from the items listed to get you started). Nearly anything can have a second life. Not only does this reduce the amount of garbage and recycling you need to drag out to the curb every week, but it also saves you from having to pay for whatever you end up making. If you’re not crafty or can’t find a good use for certain items, bring them to an elementary school or daycare center instead of tossing them out. I guarantee they will be put to good use.
If you’ve reduced the amount of things that you’re really just ready to get rid of, recycle what you can. If you do not have curbside recycling offered to you, just wash what you can and keep it until you have enough to take to the recycling center. First, find out what kind of recycling services are available in your area. Just because a plastic container has the recycling icon stamped into it doesn’t mean that your facility is capable of processing it.
Recycling can sound like a lot of work if everything needs to be sorted, but you can make a sorting center yourself that will make everything a bit easier. Cut a hole into plastic tote containers and stack to make a recycling sorting center. It doesn’t take up that much space in the garage and makes a difference.
I’m going to preface this section by saying that I am not a vegetarian, but eating an animal-free diet just one day a week can have a major environmental impact. Half of all of the grain produced in the world is used to feed farm animals, who generate triple the waste of a human. If every American began participating in Meatless Monday, a billion fewer animals would be eaten every year. This would drastically reduce the amount of water, fuel, and waste associated with feeding, processing, and shipping the animal. Eating meat is actually one of the most environmentally damaging things you can do, so even if you're not quite ready to give up your steaks permanently, consider reducing how much you eat.
LED bulbs are relative newcomers to the home lighting scene and are therefore more expensive up front, but they offer huge savings and can pay for themselves incredibly quickly. An LED bulb requires a tenth of the electricity of a regular incandescent bulb, and can last about 25 times longer, which reduces the materials used to manufacture and ship the bulbs. An LED bulb averages about 451 pounds/year of carbon dioxide and other energy emissions, while a regular incandescent bulb produces about 4500 pounds/year.
While we’re on the topic of lighting, also be cognizant of how much light pollution you are creating outside of your house. Excessive artificial light disturbs human and animal sleep cycles, impacts nocturnal animals, and washes out the view of the night sky. While many people use external lights for security reasons, install a model that is motion activated and directs light down, instead of acting like a general spotlight.
In the United States, each household uses about 300 gallons of water per day. There are several ways to reduce this number. For starters, turn off the water when you’re not using it. Turning off the faucet instead of letting it run while you are brushing your teeth can reduce the water usage associated with tooth brushing by 84%, which is 2340 gallons per year. If every American did that, it would save 740 billion gallons of water each year, just by changing the way we brush our teeth.
Over a quarter of water usage goes into flushing the toilet. A traditional toilet uses 13.2 liters (3.5 gallons) per flush, though toilets made since 1992 are low flow, which use a maximum of 1.6 gallons. You can reduce this number even more by getting a dual flush conversion kit for your toilet which can either use 1.6 gallons for a full flush or 1.1 gallons for a reduced flush, based on what is needed. Specialized shower heads can temporarily switch off water flow without having to alter temperature (or, you could spend $5 and install a regular shut off valve behind the shower head). By turning off the water while you soap up, you could cut your shower water usage down from 230 liters (60 gallons) down to 11 liters (3 gallons). This equates to a savings of 56,000 liters (15,000 gallons) per year for an individual.
Step Away From the Plastic
Each year, about 1 trillion plastic shopping bags are used around the world, and it is estimated that about 10 percent of them will end up in the ocean. If Americans switched to reusable shopping bags (which you could either buy or make yourself), it would reduce about 12 million barrels of oil needed to produce those bags.
Bottled water is a $15 billion industry, resulting in the use of 50 billion plastic water bottles each year in the United States alone; less than 15% of which get recycled. Bottled water may be marketed as a pure alternative to tap water, but about half of bottled water is actually derived from public sources and isn’t even held to the same purity standards by the EPA that tap water is. Buying bottled water is over 500 times more expensive than getting it from a tap. If you’re really concerned about the taste or perceived quality issues with municipal water, filter it yourself and carry a reusable bottle.
A growing number of people are buying organic produce (in part) because of perceived environmental benefits, due to a belief that “organic” means “pesticide free” which isn’t remotely true. Farmers can still get USDA Organic certification while using a wide range of pesticides, which isn’t going to be made entirely clear while standing in your grocery store. Also, even if you get organic, pesticide-free avocados, it doesn’t do the environment a lot of favors if they need to be shipped in from Chile or Peru.
Utilizing local farmer’s markets are a great way to solve both of these problems, as you can connect with the person responsible for growing your food and reduce the distance your food has traveled. This has an added bonus of getting produce that has been allowed to ripen on the vine, making it much tastier.
You don’t need to be a conservationist by trade or chain yourself to a tree in order to make a big difference. There are many citizen science projects you can help out with, including spotting birds, tracking migratory insects like the monarch butterfly, star gazing to estimate light pollution levels, tracking air or water quality, and many more.
While going for a walk with your dog or your kids, wear a glove and pick up litter that you come across. Not only does this improve the look of your neighborhood, but it also prevents the garbage from being carried by the wind and harming wildlife.
Additionally, if you don’t live in an area where you can plant trees yourself, you can have organizations like the Arbor Day Foundation or Trees For the Future plant trees in a protected area to help rebuild forests. You can also have trees planted in someone’s name, which makes a much better gift than sending flowers and can also be done to honor the memory of a loved one.
Nature is fine and all—you’re not against it. But you dig civilization and the finer things and don’t leave the city unless there’s some guarantee that everyone and everything you enjoy in your metropolis will be available on your exodus.
I get it. We are alike. Not long ago, I too dwelled among the many and dressed as awesome as possible and bought coffee and jostled and brunched and loved it. Now, I live in a redwood forest yet I remain deeply superficial and hedonistic.
So believe me when I say you can celebrate Earth Day—your way—and gain from the experience. You don’t have to hug a tree, get dirty, or leave the city to pay tribute to the planet. Here are some suggestions, in order of most-to-least-taxing in terms of actual interaction with nature:
Pack a picnic basket, and grab a blanket and jacket. Lunch in a local park, look good as you sip wine in the sunshine, and improve your mental and physical health with absolutely no effort.
Scientific studies have shown that being in greenery, especially spending time with trees—even in a city and even very briefly, soothes the body and mind, lifting mood and improving physiological responses to existence for some time after exposure.
If you’d really rather not hang outside, buy a bouquet of flowers. Stopping to sniff the roses (or any other type of bloom) is a good mindfulness practice that does double duty as aroma therapy, reducing anxiety. Plus, the benefits of this purchase will last beyond Earth Day (if you remember to put water in the vase).
Researchers have found that hospital patients who have flowers in their rooms take less pain medication and feel less anxious. “Smell is one of the most primal of our senses, and sight is our primary sensation,” Dak Kopec, an environmental psychologist, tells Elle Decor. “Combining our primary sensation with our primal sensation evokes strong feelings, happiness, and brings about a lot of positive moods.”
This is easy. You know salad. You eat it all the time. But do you ever think how amazing it is that you can access Earth’s jewels without knowing how to grow anything?
Well, think about it. Get real close to your fruits and vegetables. They’re a treasure and offer many sensual pleasures! Caress the velvet skin of a peach, see how lettuce leafs like a rose, delight in the deep pink skin of radishes that taste like Earth herself.
Notice the small miracles that make it to your grocery, and you will gain a new appreciation for food and civilization (yay supply chains!), all while enriching your body with fiber, protein, nutrients, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Be seen on the scene, naturally
If you enjoy being seen doing things as much or more than actually doing things, you are not alone and need not celebrate Earth Day alone either. Read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay “Nature,” in print, at a cafe—or at least place it on the table—and enjoy the intellectual and social benefits that accrue.
The Penguin Classics paperback version is a particularly aesthetic choice for its charming cover and will no doubt arouse the interest of other cool cats. They’ll know you know where it’s at and you might start chatting.
If nothing else, you’ll glimpse the natural beauty and mystery that barely moves you through the eyes of a great American writer. In Emerson’s words, “Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.”
Eschew synthetic fabrics for one day and contemplate your cotton, as well as the genius of the loom. Making materials out of plants may not seem like such a big deal today, but inventing textiles took imagination, and scientists still use traditional techniques to make futuristic fabrics.
Cotton grows naturally as a wildflower but transforming cotton balls into materials for the manufacture of consumer products takes a lot of work. First, farmers plant, grow, and harvest cotton, then deliver it to a material manufacturer who separates seed and chaff in a gin, and spins the soft puffs of cotton into threads to be woven on a loom, sometimes dyed. Only then, the material can be cut, sewn, and sold in stores to consumers like you.
Since you spent the day contemplating the wonders of the supermarket produce aisle and of textile creation, you have gained appreciation for farming already. Like, you totally wouldn’t want to do it yourself but you get why humans still need people who know how to work the earth (we can’t live off of our social media feeds alone!).
Take your newfound understanding of nature to a whole new level by dining at a farm-to-table restaurant that boasts local sources. The benefits will be immediate, even before you begin eating.
While your eyes will delight in the constructed rustic atmosphere—gingham tablecloths, mason jar wine-glasses, wildflower sprigs in the restroom, bearded server in flannel shirt, etc.—your spirit can breathe a sigh of relief. Thank goodness for restaurants, cities, and the fact that you don’t have to farm or even make your meals!
Indulge.Fine things all originate in nature—coffee, booze, chocolate, cashmere, lavender, and you, for example. There’s no finer tribute to the Earth for a hedonist than to recognize this by thoughtfully enjoying the simple pleasures that make being on the planet delightful every day. So, have a drink, take a bath, don fine clothes, smoke, or do them all! Just do you, naturally.