Sunday, April 22, 2018

Earth Day 2018: Doing More, And Less

Volunteer wild gladioli, the bee bath, and a broken pot as a snake refuge
Every year I try to post on Earth Day and reflect on what we've been doing to try to improve the state of the planet on a very local level. And I always wonder if we'll ever do anything really significant.

Some concerned folk may wonder how much more we can do to lower our carbon footprints and help change things, especially given the current political climate. So far I'm really doing all I have the psychic energy for, even though it's still not nearly enough.  And since much of the news just seems to get worse, one really does tend to wonder if small gestures can help at all.

Despite all my grousing on this platform, though, I really do think they can. And, as the years go by, I seem to be noticing that more people are tuning in, becoming aware of at least some of the problems. Even the local barbecue joint has started sourcing their meat from sustainable and humane farms, and packaging their takeout food in compressed cardboard and paper: not bad for a Texas-grown business that prides itself on maintaining tradition.

In the news this week is plastic. This is to some extent because the Earth Day people are focusing on eliminating plastic pollution as the central theme this year. It's actually difficult to remember a world before plastic became a problem. Once upon a time it was tin cans and paper on the roadway that got folks riled up about messing with Texas and got the anti-litter campaigns started. Some of us may recall the famous scene in The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire pulls Benjamin aside and offers him one word of advice ("Plastics!"), which then sounded preposterous. Really? Plastics were the future? (Thought she who wanted a Greek-patterned set of Melmac as a wedding gift in 1968. And probably a set of Tupperware, too.) But those were the days before ubiquitous plastic packaging, bubble wrap, blister packs, and bottled water.

Throwaway plastics have become the symbol of an impending dystopic future. Shredded plastic bags float out from shrubs, trees, and fences along highways, and blow about like sad, limp balloons through the air; plastic water bottles show up everywhere (including along my back fence, where people who walk through the alley behind the house toss them); and gyres of plastic garbage the size of islands collect in the oceans. David Mastio of USA Today (apparently I wasn't the only one to connect The Graduate scene to this topic) and several science-related organizations blame this on Asian countries and untidy fishermen; Mastio suggests that we not feel guilty about our part in the mess and points out that a large proportions of medical advances have been facilitated by plastics. But those aren't the plastics that get tossed into rivers, streams, and oceans. And I've seen enough gulls flying around over landfills to know that we do indeed have something to do with the presence of plastic trash in the oceans.

So there's plenty of guilt to go around. It's not just fishing buoys and lines and tsunami-transported trash that fill the piles. A trip to the local park pond indicates that people still think nothing of tossing their plastic food containers when they're finished with them, or stuffing them haphazardly into open trash bins that allow the ultra light-weight containers to blow about or get scattered by foraging wildlife. It shouldn't be that difficult for us to stop buying water in plastic bottles.  We could also boycott polystyrene cups and give up plastic straws.

For some time now, efforts to upcycle plastic bags and bottles have produced reusable tote bags with store logos on them. But just the other day I stopped in at a grocery store I used to frequent (before the appearance of Trader Joe's in the neighborhood). The clerk was amazed by my recycled-plastic-water-bottle wine bag, and by the fact that everything I bought besides wine fit into two canvas totes. The guy behind me bought about ten (doubled) plastic bags worth of food and other stuff, so it's clear that not everyone's a convert.  But it's really easy to avoid some of the plastic crap by using alternatives: mesh bags for produce, stainless steel water bottles, glass and ceramic fridge and freezer storage containers.

Locating alternatives to plastics has become a minor obsession in this family. With the exception of storage containers for the garage and closets to keep out mice and silverfish (nothing else seems to work), we try really hard to avoid bringing any plastics home. The apparently unavoidable ketchup bottle or yogurt tub goes into the recycle bin. But I could even remedy this necessity by making my own ketchup and yogurt, or buying Bulgarian yogurt in glass jars; at some point I probably will. And we have managed to reduce the setting out of blue recycle bins to once or twice a month, and the big green trash bins to less than once a month.  Mostly what gets recycled now is paper and wine bottles, a we've been trying not to accumulate much throwaway trash at all. If we could get Costco to stop over-packaging so many of the staples we buy, we might be able to become like those folks whose monthly non-recyclable debris can fit in a mayonnaise jar.

The reduction in trash goes hand in hand with a reduction in buying. This has engendered a bit of a political labeling paradox in our house. We're not particularly progressive, since we're not all that fond of progress for its own sake (except in social equality and fairness), and I've become especially conservative when it comes to my innate materialism. I still buy stuff, but--except for food--it's mostly "pre-owned." Or when it's new, like the big quilt I bought yesterday, it's to make something old last longer--like the chair I bought the quilt to cover. Were I a better person, I'd have used my stash of old fabrics to make a quilt, but I still haven't managed to learn to manage my time better. The quilt-making will follow planned mending of existing quilts and blankets, and cushion recovering, and the repurposing of various objects to use in the garden.

Our best effort this year has been to eliminate food waste. The smaller fridge has been wonderful for keeping us both aware of what needs using up, and we've had little except pits, skins, seeds, and coffee grounds to pitch into the compost bin. Even the skins and coffee grounds we often use for augmenting garden plantings. In the last year, only one or two things in the fridge have gone off before they were eaten, and at some point I'm wondering where our compost is going to come from, since we mulch our grass and rake leaves into litter piles to make soil.

The big purge will come this summer, when we rid the garage of what we've been stuffing in there so as not to feel like hoarders in the house. What can be recycled or repurposed will be, and as much as possible of we can't use or don't want will be donated. The plan is to eliminate what we don't use and to use the space for more creative endeavors. Beloved Spouse wants to learn about Japanese joinery and accomplish his own repairs on the house, and I want to get back to painting and potting (both plants and ceramics).  And so, perhaps, by the next Earth Day, we'll have found more, and more effective, ways of lightening our footprints, carbon and otherwise.

For anyone who's still trying to figure out where to start, the New York Times is featuring a good series on "A Year of Living Better," with sound advice on How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. The Earth Day network site has a nifty calculator for determining how much plastic you consume, and I'm going to use it to increase our own awareness.

And in case you need reminding about who really got this whole effort started, look back at Rachel Carson's three-part series for the New Yorker, "Silent Spring," which began running in the June 16, 1962 issue.

Happy Earth Day, Folks. We've spent a good chunk of the day working in the garden, fixing things, tidying up, and hanging out with the animal people. So far it's been a good day, and I wish the same to you.

Image information: The bees have taken over the old copper birdbath, and are busy swarming amongst the voluptuous blossoms on the wild gladiolus volunteers that increase yearly. They started out as "found" plants under a shrub, and I've just let them take over. We're working on building habitat for pollinators, including solitary bees, bumble bees, and butterflies. Some mornings are just glorious in the garden.