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Earth Day:
Taking baby steps to save our planet

By Kelly Averill Savino

Probably somewhere this month in honor of Earth Day, you'll hear something depressing about the state of our water, air, landfills, forests or natural resources. What you don't often hear is what you can do to help.

When I was a kid, I drew a picture of myself flying an airplane towing a giant cork, which I was dropping into the smokestack of a factory. In Oregon, I knew people who camped out in old growth trees to stop the loggers, and I always read about the Greenpeace folks with their grand, dramatic gestures.

The truth is, though, if we're going to leave our kids anything that isn't polluted, extinct, carcinogenic or toxic, we need to make a lot of small changes. It seems kind of pointless when you feel like the only one, but look at the changes since my childhood. Who knows how many tons of pull-tabs from pop cans were scattered before they redesigned the can? And remember when everything was aerosol? Fast food no longer comes in Styrofoam, and people volunteer to clean up stretches of highway that once were strewn with trash. People are less likely to throw garbage out a car window (if only from fear of fines).

DDT is gone. And those six-pack rings that have strangled so many ocean birds and animals are rare these days. Leaded gas, a cause of liver, kidney and brain damage, is no longer the norm; a report I heard on NPR said that if we went completely unleaded, the IQ scores of American children would rise measurably. People who never recycled before now have curbside pickup or drop their cans, bottles and newspapers off at the local supermarket. Any cereal box that's gray inside is made of recycled material.

If enough people make these simple changes, then the world changes. Companies only sell what people buy, so you have a lot of power in your checkbook to make big decisions at the corporate level. And a lot of these tips will save you money at the same time.

Try some of these tips from 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth by the Earth Works group.

Kill your junk mail. Send a postcard to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, 6 East 43rd St., New York, NY 10017. Tell them to remove your name from mailing lists and list any names and addresses used by your catalogs and junk mail. You can call the catalog companies you like and ask them to send one or two a year. Whenever you order something by mail, write Do not rent next to your name and address; one company can rent your name to 10 or 20 more.

Snip six-pack rings before you throw them away. They are hazards to animals and birds who get their heads caught and suffocate or drown. Just cut each loop with scissors before throwing them away.

Use low-flow aerators on faucets. Cheap and easily installed on kitchen and bathroom faucets, these mix air into water as it leaves the tap. The flow seems stronger and it saves hot water, reducing water use for a family of four by as much as 3,300 gallons a year! When you consider how many people die every year all over the planet due to a lack of clean water, you're less likely to run clean water down the drain.

Turn down your water heater. Water heaters are the second-largest energy users in American households. Many are set at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to badly burn a child. Turning yours down to 130 degrees can save you six percent of the energy you're paying for.

Check your tire pressure. Fifty to 80 percent of tires in America are underinflated. This means they wear out faster and are scrapped, and cars on underinflated tires use more fuel. Blowing up all those tires would save up to two billion gallons of gas per year.

When you buy new tires, ask if your dealer recycles the old ones. If not, find one who does! Recycled tires are crumbled to mix into asphalt for roads, playgrounds and running track and made into wire and pipe insulation, carpet padding, hoses and tractor tires.

Manage your appliance energy use. Ninety percent of the energy used for washing clothes goes to heating the water. Warm wash, cold rinse works great and saves energy and money. Vacuum the condenser coils behind your fridge and keep the temperature between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

Reset your thermostat. If we all raised our air conditioning temperatures by six degrees, we'd save 190,000 barrels of oil per day!

Shut off the water. A running faucet uses three to five gallons per minute. If you brush your teeth with the faucet on, you waste five gallons or more two to three times a day. Washing dishes with the tap running wastes 30 gallons, shaving with the water on another five or 10, and washing the car with a hose uses up to 150 gallons. Fill the basin and shut off the faucet while brushing. Wash your car with a sponge, bucket and shutoff nozzle for the hose. You can also save water by putting a plastic bottle of water in your toilet tank.

Pump it right. The plastic hoods on gas pump nozzles fit over the tank opening, where they suck fumes into an underground tank so the vapors don't escape. Don't pull it back when you pump.

Avoid Styrofoam. Chlorofluorocarbons in Styrofoam and some types of hard foam house insulation (check the labels) destroy the ozone layer. Americans produce enough Styrofoam cups every year to circle the earth 436 times. Styrofoam is made from benzene, a carcinogen, injected with CFCs. Avoid foam egg cartons, picnic goods, etc., and take your own coffee cup to places that use Styrofoam.

Use tightwad lighting. Compact fluorescent bulbs put out the same light as incandescent bulbs; use one-fourth the energy and last five to 10 years with normal use. Each bulb you replace with a fluorescent will keep a half a ton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A fluorescent bulb costs about $20 per bulb but replaces 13 incandescents and uses $10 worth of electricity instead of the $45 incandescents require.

If every household in America put in one compact fluorescent bulb, the energy saved would be equivalent to the power produced by one nuclear power plant operating for one year.

Recycle. If we all recycled our Sunday papers we could save 500,000 trees a week. The energy saved from one recycled glass bottle could light a 60-watt bulb for four hours. If you throw away two aluminum cans, you waste more energy than is used daily by each of a billion human beings in developing countries.

Avoid packaging. How many bags do your bananas need to get home from the store? One-third of the garbage in landfills is packaging, 60 percent of which we pitch when we open a product. Buy bulk when you can, choose products with less packaging and carry a canvas grocery bag for small trips. When the bagger says "Is plastic ok?", ask for paper -- and reuse it!

Use cloth diapers. Disposable diapers eat 1,265,000 metric tons of wood pulp and 75,000 metric tons of plastic yearly. Since most people don't dump them out before throwing them away (like it says to on the wrapper), three million tons of untreated feces and urine go into landfills.

Remember the rainforests. Rainforests make up only two percent of the earth's surface but contain over half of the world's plant, animal and insect species. One in four pharmaceuticals comes from a plant in the tropical rainforest; 70 percent of plants found useful in cancer treatments are found only in rainforests. (More than 1,400 rainforest plants are used to treat cancer.) Rainforest soil is not rich in nutrients, so when it's cleared by corporations like McDonald’s for pasture land, the soil is depleted within two years and abandoned.

Choose unbleached products. Reusable containers save aluminum foil and plastic wrap, and unbleached coffee filters save dioxins. Dishrags instead of paper towels are a good choice for wiping up counters, and waxed paper is good for wrapping sandwiches. Instead of tampons, consider The Keeper, a reusable rubber cup that is emptied a few times a day. It pays for itself in about 8 cycles. Cloth pads are simple to launder with cloth diapers.

Reconsider beef. Not only am I not a vegetarian, but I kill my own chickens for meat. Still, according to Diet for a New America, if Americans reduced their meat intake by 10 percent, the savings in grain and soybeans could adequately feed 60 million people -- the same number of people who starve to death worldwide each year. In order to graze cattle (mostly for American consumption), we have deforested 220 million acres in the United States, 25 million acres in Brazil and half the forests in Central America.

One-third of North America is grazing land, and half the cropland is raising cattle/livestock feed. In short, the land it takes to feed one meat-eater could support 20 vegetarians. Considering the high cost of meat at the grocery store; the higher cost of angioplasty, heart surgery and cholesterol medication; and the amount of steroids, hormones, antibiotics and carcinogens in beef, maybe cutting down on red meat is a good idea all around.

If you choose beef, consider paying a bit more to support the small farms raising organic, healthy and happy dairy cattle. Same goes for poultry, veal and eggs. If we are what we eat, do we want to eat factory-farmed misery?

The hand that writes the grocery checks
As for me, I'm trying to raise kids who see that they have power in choosing what to buy and what companies to support and that they have a responsibility to find out where their money goes and whether it's ok with them.

Parents have lots of power to raise savvy kids who aren't easily sucked in by marketing and slick ads, especially the TV commercials that elevate peer pressure to an art form. My kids are happy and thriving with no commercial TV, which means a greed-free Christmas and a real sense of "What's the big deal about this?" when they encounter plastic Power Rangers, Furbies or the latest hunk of Disney plastic made in a sweatshop.

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world ... and the hand that writes the grocery checks can set corporate policy.

Reprinted with permission from Earthworks Studio.

Kelly Averill Savino is a potter and an attachment parenting, unschooling mother of three in Ohio. Her web site features a recipe for making your own tofu and soy milk, a gallery of pots including specialty pots for women, original poetry and plans for constructing an inexpensive hoop "greenhouse." Visit Kelly at Earthworks Studio.


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