April 15, 2010

Earth Day is Coming: Can We Give it More Than Just Lip Service?

Ten years ago I lived temporarily in a suburb of Boston that didn’t recycle its trash. Coming from coastal California, my mind could not comprehend that everyone in the community threw noxious junk into a pile without attempting to recycle it. This was 30 years after the advent of Earth Day when we all began learning about the detrimental effects of pollution on our planet.

Now 40 years have passed since April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. Since then, air, water, and land pollution has steadily increased. New illnesses have cropped up in our bodies.

This week the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County reported that many more mammals than usual are turning up sick. Twice as many sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals are being treated for illness than last year. Officials tell us that sea lions are indicators of the health of the ocean. They don’t know why so many sea lions are found without their mothers, malnourished, tangled in fishing lines, or affected in some way by marine trash. But the situation has worsened.

In a separate report this week researchers warned of “the great Atlantic garbage patch,” made of harmful swirling plastic debris in the ocean. It is a global problem as our throw-away culture continues to use products that don’t break down and end up in waterways. It is estimated over 100,000 marine mammals could die trash-related deaths each year.

For 40 years, millions of people and school children have been taught about the necessity to preserve our environment, yet pollution and disregard of the planet has increased. What does this say about us? About our priorities? Or, about our intelligence?

It says we allow companies to market harmful goods to us and we buy them. It says the influence of advertisement is more powerful than common sense. It says we value convenience and high profit, no matter the means to get it. It tells us that most human beings have little respect for the earth, a disregard for the sanctity of nature, and a lack of concern for the health and wellness of other living creatures.

Yet, the most conscientious among us would find it nearly impossible to have no negative impact on the environment. There is the ubiquitous use of plastics we can’t seem to avoid, to say nothing about the trash we generate. Still, the health of the planet and ourselves depends on each of us. There are a few primary things we can easily do.

The first step is basic: get control of your trash. At the end of the week there should be very little in your trash bin. Your recycle bin should hold the majority: paper, boxes, plastics, cans, and bottles. Secure your bins so debris doesn’t end up in the streets.

When you travel, visit a park, get on a boat or an airplane, manage your trash. Take it with you or don’t create any. If you live in an area that doesn’t recycle, begin complaining loudly to your town officials.

Rethink grocery shopping. Purchase food that isn’t prepackaged. You can get meat, fish, and chicken wrapped in paper. This way you avoid the polystyrene (Styrofoam) plates most meats come on. Polystyrene leaches toxic chemicals into your food and beverages, affecting your health.

To manufacture polystyrene creates hazardous waste and affects the health of those exposed. It is made with non-sustainable petroleum, harms the ozone layer, and is dumped or blown into our streets and waterways as litter where living creatures ingest it and die. Polystyrene is not accepted by most recycling agencies. It is not necessary. Avoid everything that touches it.

If you buy six-packs of cans held together by plastic, cut or tear apart the plastic. Never take one of these onto a boat or leave one lying around. They end up in the streets and the earth’s waters where they suffocate birds and sea animals.

All plastic containers are polluters. Yogurt, for example, can be bought in a large container and put into smaller reusable containers. You can replace myriad products for cleaning windows, countertops, and floors with vinegar and water. With a little research you’ll discover many ways to use vinegar (and baking soda) for most of your household cleaning, including clogged drains.

Recycle plastic bottles and tubes that hold your personal care products. Bring your own cup for the daily coffee or tea. Take water from home in a sustainable, non-plastic water bottle. Bring lunch or eat where take-out packaging is compostable or recyclable. Use only compostable doggy clean-up bags. Be mindful of plastic toy purchases for both people and animals.

Meanwhile, it’s almost Earth Day 2010. I’ll cut back on plastic in every way possible and reduce my trash, now and throughout the year. What will you do?

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