Climate Corner: This Earth Day it’s all about the Little Things

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Teenager Carley Wootton demonstrates that air drying laundry tree-to-tree isn’t always done efficiently. Jenny Noble photo.

By Jenny Noble

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Every day is Earth Day.” That seems a little bit optimistic. Sometimes when I’m digging in deep with research, I feel more like every day is emit-twenty-metric-tons-of-carbon-into-the-atmosphere day. I’m not sure that would make a good bumper sticker.

I wonder how we feckless mortals are supposed to fix such an existential crisis. Then I take a deep breath and realize that one day at a time, step by baby step, we can deal with this.

Yes, we need to make big changes now, but if this morning you don’t have the brain space to dedicate your day to the Earth, here’s something you can do. Pledge to make one of these changes as a token of appreciation for this generous planet. They don’t take much time or cost a lot of money.

No. 1: Plant A Tree

According to a recent United Nations report, about 18 million acres of forest disappear every year, and roughly half of the planet’s tropical forests have already been cleared. The longstanding Earth Day tradition of planting a tree is a simple and effective way to combat climate change. Aside from absorbing CO2 and releasing oxygen, reforestation improves soil, prevents erosion and increases groundwater retention. Trees that produce fruit and nuts help local communities in areas that are most at risk from climate change.

Go to earthday.org and donate to The Canopy Project. This year, organizers’ goal is to plant 7.8 billion trees. That’s one tree for every person on earth.

Time: One minute. Cost: One dollar.

No. 2: Air Dry Your Clothes

Laundry lines are the ultimate solar and wind powered dryer. In many households, the drying machine is the third most energy-hungry appliance, after the refrigerator and washing machine. Line drying clothes can reduce the average household’s carbon footprint by a whopping 2,400 pounds a year.

Drying al fresco saves money on energy and is also more gentle on clothes than a hot dryer. For me, it’s just one more excuse to be outside with laundry that smells sunny, a scent that hasn’t yet been patented by Downy.

If it’s raining or you’re just not an outdoor person, try an indoor collapsible rack. In the winter, it doubles as a low tech humidifier.

There are so many stylish laundry lines to choose from. The most high tech is the Brabantia Rotary Dryer with an adjustable height and spinning lines so you don’t have to move the laundry basket.

Time: 10 minutes. Cost: Nylon string $4.79, Brabantia $85; but save on electricity.

No. 3: Reduce Junk Mail

Since most everything is a click away, why do we continue to get junk mail? If you’re like me, it’s just that you haven’t bothered to stop the madness.

And it is madness. Each year, more than 100 million trees’ worth of bulk mail arrive in American mailboxes (that’s the equivalent of deforesting the entire Rocky Mountain National Park every four months). Put another way, the production and disposal of direct mail consumes more energy than 3 million cars. And when you’re finished not looking at it, 5.6 million tons of mail ends up in landfills every year.

Opt out of the onslaught of credit card and insurance offers for five years by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) or go to optoutprescreen.com. Go to dmachoice.org, and block entire categories of mail for 10 years. Catalogchoice.org lets you pick and choose the junk mail you actually want to receive by sending out requests to individual companies.

Because you can’t stop bills from coming (even if you treat them like junk mail), ask them only to email you.

The postal service has issued a stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Buy a pack, then try not to use them.

Time: Save years not checking your mailbox because you know that there’s nothing in it. Cost: Mostly free.

Monarchwatch.com helped Cindy Warne of Sag Harbor raise 24 Monarchs from larvae. Friends gave them names like “Frida Khalo” and “El Chapo” before watching them shed their skin and fly off to Mexico. Cindy Warne photo.

No. 4: Plant Milkweed Flowers

Every year, millions of monarch butterflies migrate to the forests of Mexico just in time for Day of the Dead, where it’s believed that the insects are our ancestors returning to visit us.

Unfortunately, our orange-winged ancestors are fluttering towards extinction.

Scientists estimate that the monarch population in the eastern U.S. has fallen by about 80 percent since the mid-1990s.

The easiest way to help them is by planting milkweed plants. Citizen scientist Cindy Warne describes milkweed as one-stop shopping.

“The butterfly gets nectar from the flower and the baby gets juice from the leaf,” she said.

Baby Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed. Plus, the flowers’ juice contains chemicals that make them poisonous to predators.

Citizen scientist Cindy Warne lures reluctant butterflies out of their cage with bright flowers before they flit off to Michoacan, Mexico. Sarah Alford photo.

Monarchs are the only insect that travels up to 3,000 miles round trip, even if it does take four generations to make the trip. Plant milkweed for a monarch to lay its eggs on this summer, and next year its great granddaughter will remember to fly back to your exact garden, even though she’s never been there before.

Time: One hour. Cost: Package of planting roots $12.95. Large plant $20

No. 5: Eat More Kelp

Kelp is the original climate cuisine. It’s the only vegetable crop on the planet that needs no fertilizer, pesticides or irrigation. It also puts oxygen into our water and protects the shoreline. Kelp forests absorb an astounding 20 times more CO2 than do forests on land.

Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish explains, “We’re now in an era where just being sustainable isn’t enough. It’s great if you’re eating local, but seaweed helps reverse climate change.”

There are many ways to eat more of this nutrient-dense superfood. Kelp goes naturally with Asian dishes, smoothies and anything from the ocean. If you’re feeling brave, try the kelp carrot cake recipe at atlatnicseafarms.com. Order a “DLT,” made with Dulce kelp at Provisions in Sag Harbor. And keep an eye out as more East End restaurants start serving kelp.

Help local baymen supplement their short oyster season by going to change.org and signing a petition to make kelp farming legal here. As Barrett notes, “Now weed is legal in New York, but not seaweed.”

Time: Depends how slowly you eat. Cost: Roasted Seaweed Snacks at King Kullen, $1.99

Even though Phil Bucking of Sag Harbor Garden Center sells potent kelp fertilizer, he points out that “kelp is easy to forage yourself because you don’t need that much and your garden doesn’t care what type you use.” Jenny Noble photo.

No. 6: Stop Using Plastic Straws

The banning of straws has been called a pseudo-solution and a token gesture. We need to eliminate plastic bottles, shopping bags, coffee cup lids and cutlery. But if you’re not there yet, giving up plastic straws is a start.

Because straws are too small and lightweight to be recycled, they often end up in landfills or storm drains that empty into streams, bays, and the ocean. Here they disintegrate into smaller bits of plastic, and are consumed by birds and marine wildlife.

Most people never use straws at home and manage not to shower themselves in liquid, so why not give them up in public? While driving, treat a cold drink like you would a coffee. Carefully. Tell restaurants and drive-thrus that you don’t need a straw.

If you can’t imagine life without straws, go reusable. Now there’s a very cool assortment of bamboo, paper, bamboo colored paper, candy, hay, pasta and metal. Dress up your Big Gulp with a Tiffany & Co. solid gold straw that, at $425 a pop, gives whole new meaning to the term “crazy straw.”

Time:  0-3 minutes. Cost: $0 to just say “No.”  Foldable straw that fits on a keychain $19.95 at finalstraw.com (#suck responsibly)

Earth Day has changed a lot since college kids were protesting against the use of Agent Orange and pounding cars apart with sledge hammers. Now, finally, the health of the planet is recognized as everyone’s issue. And while most of us won’t be celebrating Earth Day by marching in Washington, D.C., or joining an international climate summit this year, we can keep making small, quotidian changes in order to heal this spaceship we call Earth.

Jenny Noble is a writer and mother who enjoys food, water and clean air.

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