Green Up Your Earth toDay

Take these 10 steps to make your life more environmentally friendly

by Mark Harris, reprinted from Vegetarian Times, April 96, with permission
hile packing for our move east last year, I came across one of those "save the Earth" checklists that were circulating the planet during the 1990 Earth Day extravaganza. This one had been posted on our refrigerator for a couple of years, and as I read it I was struck by how many of the suggestions actually had become part of our domestic routine: the canvas shopping bags that we tote to and from the grocery store, the ceramic coffee mugs we stow in our book bag and briefcase, the low-voltage compact fluorescent lamps that still burn strong after five years of heavy use, the low-flow shower head in the bathroom, the cloth napkins at the dinner table.
Some of the checklists from that period even went as far as to suggest eating less meat (though few were bold enough to advocate a vegetarian diet). Going vegetarian certainly "outgreens" many other actions because of the dramatic environmental cost of the meat and poultry industries. A diet centered around grains and vegetables requires one-sixth the amount of cropland, a fraction of the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and one-thirteenth the amount of water needed to support a meat-based diet. Every 16 pounds of grain or soybeans fed to cattle yields only one pound of meat, and one-third of our gas, oil and coal is used by the beef, poultry and dairy industries.
But as I perused that list, it occurred to me that I was probably in good company in asking "what next?" What we're already doing is beneficial, but after half a decade, we're ready to do more.
The 10 steps that follow will challenge you. Some will require a bit of effort; some will be possible only if you make some big changes in your life. And some you will choose not to do. Few people will be able to adopt all of these Earth-friendly strategies, and certainly not all at once. So pick and choose among those that resonate for you. Adopt them partially, or in the whole. But follow even one or two and you'll tread that much more lightly on the small corner of the planet you call home.


Composting has a reputation as a labor-intensive, grimy art, the kind of Herculean endeavor one might expect only from rural homesteaders, longtime subscribers to Organic Gardening or the phylum of horticultural environmentalists who own a shed of precision English gardening tools and grow vegetables in glass hot-boxes during the winter months. But composting can be a surprisingly painless operation, thanks to a natural law that says kitchen scraps and yard waste - which account for three-fourths of our household garbage - will decompose of their own accord. During a busy part of my life, I relied heavily on that law, simply tossing my compostables onto a more or less open pile in the backyard. For my minimal effort I was rewarded with crumbly compost that nourished our spring vegetable plot.
Of course, better compost - the loamy stuff chock full of the nutrients that boost a garden's harvest - comes from a more scientific approach: mixing a good 20-to-1 ratio of carbon (brown leaves) to nitrogen (green grass and kitchen scraps). Allow air to circulate through the pile, keep it moist, protect the mix from the elements, and give the pile an occasional turn with a pitchfork or shovel. The quality of my compost improved dramatically when I began dumping my organic waste into a wooden box I fashioned from four discarded shipping pallets lashed together at the comers. The eco-catalogs have prefabricated models, some of which practically eliminate effort altogether. One is a compost-containing ball that spins in place to aerate the contents; another is a compact plastic bin filled with scrap-eating worms. Toss kitchen trimmings into the bin and these wiggly composters will break it down into supercharged potting soil. The bin fits under the sink, perfect for apartment dwellers.

2Keep your car parked

Thanks to some major downsizing and innovative tinkering, the automobile has become a leaner and, consequently, greener machine in the last decade, but it's still hardly a friend to the environment. The exhaust puffing from the tailpipes of our nation's 190 million automobiles contributes to smog, depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect, as well as their accompanying health effects. The infrastructure that supports the automobile isn't kind to the environment either: enough countryside has been paved over for roads to cover the entire state of Georgia.
Give your lungs a breather; keep your car parked as often as you can. Hop a bus, bike or walk. Consolidate a list of errands into a single outing or carpool to work.

3Buy less stuff

Want to really help the environment? Stop buying unnecessary stuff. It's our demand for more things that fuels destruction of the natural environment: the trees that are felled for our Sunday morning newspapers and Adirondack lawn chairs, the mountains stripped for coal to fire the factories churning out everything from sauté pans to minivans.
You'll be more green - and save more green - if you can check the impulse to reach for your credit card when those catalogs arrive in the mail, when the electronics outlet showcases an even bigger, wider-screen television, or when you simply have an urge to buy something. If the urge is overwhelming, enlist help to stay the consumer twitch. Require a skeptical mate to clear all purchases over $15 dollars (tightwads are best). We record every dime we spend on a sheet posted in the pantry closet as an inspiration to keep purchases to a minimum and come in under a previous month's outlay. Friends of ours designate two "poor months" each year, during which they buy only the absolute basics. Then they bank the savings.
Other tactics that work: don't seek entertainment in places of commerce, such as the mall, where it's nearly impossible not to buy something. Head to the store with a shopping list in hand and stick to it. Think first to borrow, barter or rent, and then to buy used.

4Spend time in nature

Perhaps the reason we don't fight as passionately against the degradation of our natural environment is because we spend so little of our time in it. It's hard to get worked up about the felling of a forest you've never camped in, the silting of a river you haven't rafted, the bulldozing of the woods you never walked. Maybe that's why our greatest advocates of natural spaces actually lived there: Thoreau on Walden Pond; John Muir in the Sierra Mountains; Aldo Leopold on Sand Island; Edward Abbey in the canyon country of southeast Utah.
Go for a day hike in the mountains, spend a night in a national park or simply walk into a wild spot off the beaten path. Don't know where to go or don't want to venture out alone? Contact your local Sierra Club, which sponsors regular group outings.


We seem to have forgotten about this high-green option that keeps otherwise discarded materials in the loop. Recycling grabs our attention, but it typically takes much less energy to keep goods in play by reusing them.
Repairing makes reusing possible: well-worn shoes can be resoled, dated suits can be salvaged by having their lapels tailored. One saint of a mechanic re-welded a cracked clutch in our Honda, saving the material required for a new replacement (and a fair amount of money). There are a host of companies that refurbish old computer discs, video tapes, computer ribbons and toner cartridges.
We can also choose reusable alternatives for the things we routinely need, such as cloth handkerchiefs over paper tissues, cloth or metal coffee filters instead of the paper ones. Feeling adventurous? Start shaving with a straight razor and keep a small fraction of the 2 billion disposable blades discarded every year out of the trash.

6Landscape for fuel efficiency

You can cut home energy needs by 30 percent by arranging plants and landforms so that they shade a home in the summer and buffer it from icy winds in the winter.
Generally, you want to plant broadleaf, deciduous trees along the south front of your home, where the summer sun strikes at its fullest. A Norway maple, for example, can block up to 75 percent of the sun's energy and 95 percent of its light during the hot summer months, and since it's sparsely foliated at ground level, it allows low-lying cooling breezes to reach the house. The maple sheds its cover in winter, allowing the sun's warming beams to reach the house unhindered. Shorter, lower-density trees planted along the eastern and western side of a home can block the summer's bright early morning and late afternoon sun; a row of thick evergreens on the north and northwest perimeter can blunt frigid Arctic winds.

7Invest in your community

Decisions are being made every day that have some bearing on the quality of the environment around you. Approval of a zoning variance allows a developer to build a strip mall next to a neighborhood; a local cement kiln is given the right to increase the amount of toxic refuse it burns in a year; the city council agrees to sell a park to a company that would blacktop it into a parking lot. These are just a few of the issues that have been raised in my area.
Decisions of potentially huge consequence are made at public meetings that go largely unattended by the people most affected by them. Attend your city council meetings and community boards, run for a spot on the planning commission, speak up at the open mike, circulate petitions around your block or write editorials for your local newspaper. Want to improve the quality of your community but not sure where to start? Meet with your neighbors, walk around and survey your neighborhood, and draft a vision of the kind of place you want it to be. And then work together for it.

8Plant a garden

Dig out a plot that gets the bulk of the day's sun and plant the vegetables you eat most often. The fare you pull from the ground will be healthier and tastier than store-bought, and you'll bypass all the environmental costs that are racked up in the production and transport of commercial produce. Don't forget to mix in the compost from step one.
Cook your meals from scratch, making as much use as possible of your home-grown produce. Every time you eat a garden-fresh tomato or cucumber, you've saved the environmental toll of harvesting and transporting supermarket produce. If you grow enough food so you shop less often, you eliminate some of the costs associated with driving to and from the store.

9Eliminate your lawn service

The plush, uniform carpet of green grass we ardently strive for is anything but natural. Every year, American homeowners shell out $6 billion in lawn-care aids, arming ourselves with an average of five to 10 pounds of chemical pesticides per acre of yard in order to keep real nature at bay. Most of these pesticides are suspected of causing long-term health problems; a report in the American Journal of Public Health (February 1995) found that children whose yards had been treated with chemical weed and insect killers were four times as likely to develop cancer than other kids.
A "greener" lawn is the casual one favored by our early American ancestors - a mixture of wildflowers, colorful weeds and odd plantings that sprang from the ground of their own accord. It was low on maintenance, high on aesthetic appeal. If such a lawn is too great a departure for your neighborhood, at least plant grasses that more naturally fit their sites; your local agricultural extension agent can tell you what varieties to look for.
Once you've got the right variety planted, consider using a human-powered reel or push mower. A power mower running one hour spews the same amount of smog-causing volatile organic compounds as a car travelling 50 miles. In fact, the total toxic emissions of the 18 million gas-fed mowers out there is significant enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set emission standards for new models of gas mowers.
The human-powered mower eliminates air pollution altogether - and it's better for your lawn and for you! The push mower snips grass as neatly as scissors, producing a clean, even cut and sealing in fluids that are vital to the health of the plant. The blades on a power mower dull easily, and with their slashing motion don't cut grass as cleanly, leaving it vulnerable to disease and drought. Need more incentive? Pushing a reel mower burns up to 350 calories an hour - a workout equivalent to singles tennis, downhill skiing and aerobic dance.
Mowing less frequently, and during times of the season appropriate for the strain of grass you've planted, will also help you maintain a healthy lawn naturally. If fertilizer is a must, go for natural mixes, such as manure compounds or all-in-one fertilizers made from dried sewage sludge. Still too much effort? Then contact NaturaLawn, a national lawn-care company that employs organic fertilizers and more natural approaches to weed and pest prevention.

10Teach your children well

You can cap your shower head, caulk your windows and slice up your credit cards, but your efforts won't cause the kind of long-term environmental gain you're seeking unless your kids - the next generation - follow suit. Environmental awareness, I'm convinced, begins at an early age, learned by 2-year-olds who carry their finished apples out to the compost pile and see that over time they rot. In the spring, our own little girl will help dig the compost she helped create into our vegetable garden and know her apple is in there somewhere, bringing us fresh tomatoes.

Mark Harris writes a weekly column on environmental issues for The Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
The Vegetarian Times is published monthly by Vegetarian Times, Inc., 4 High Ridge Park, Stamford, CT 06905.

Green Up Resources

Diet for a New America by John Robbins (Stillpoint Publishing, 1987), $10.95. The goods on the health and ecological benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Let It Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell (Storey communications, 1990). $8.95. Composting demystified and made easy.

Seventh Generation, 49 Hercules Drive, Colchester, VT 05446-1672; (800) 456-1177. Catalog of environmentally friendly clothing, and house and garden products.

Choose to Reuse by Nikki and David Goldbeck (Ceres Press, 1995), $15.95. Practical tips for keeping goods in circulation, from air filters to zippers.

Planning to Stay by William Morrish and Catherine Brown (Milkweed Editions, 1994), $16.95. How-to on learning to see your neighborhood afresh and improve it.

Energy-Efficient and Environmental Landscaping by Anne Simon Moffat and Marc Schiler (Appropriate Solutions Press: Dover Road, Box 39, South Newfane, VT 05351), $19.95. Detailed instruction on how to weatherize a home by modifying the landscape surrounding it.

The Chemical-Free Lawn by Warren Schultz (Rodale Press, 1989), $14.95. The bible of a natural, holistic approach to yard care, calling for increased vigilance, careful watering and mowing, and natural bug deterrent.

NaturaLawn Inc., 141 W. Patrick St., Frederick, MD 21701: (301) 694-5440. National organic-based lawn-care company. - M. H.