Wednesday, April 22, 2009

three simple things

Twenty years ago, a little book called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth was published for the first time. I remember getting a copy shortly thereafter, around the time of the big 1990 Earth Day celebration, and I vowed to practice as many of the 50 things as humanly possible. I guess I lost track of my copy, but I've always tried to live by that vow to the best of my ability.

As luck would have it, I happened to find an old copy of 50 Simple Things on a neighborhood stoop a few weeks ago, so I of course picked it up. (By the way, the habit of leaving used books on stoops for others to take, instead of tossing them in the trash, is one of my favorite Brooklyn traditions.) I wasn't surprised to find that although 50 Simple Things was written decades before things like carbon credits and hybrid vehicles became mainstream ideas, it remains as relevant as ever. So on this Earth Day, I thought I'd pick out what I consider to be the top three truly simplest things from the book that you can do to pitch in.

Stop junk mail: According to 50 Simple Things, in the late 80s Americans received almost 2 million tons of junk mail each year, and could expect to spend eight full months of their life opening it. While these stats are now 20 years old, I can personally attest to the never-ending influx of catalogs, credit card come-ons, and other unwanted mail that continues to pour through. Indeed, the EPA estimates that the amount of junk mail Americans get today has doubled to 4 million tons. How many trees, and how much energy and money have we lost to the junk mail industry? Now that we're in the age of email and spam (which is another problem, but certainly not as detrimental environmentally), it's pretty shocking to contemplate just how much we're wasting on junk mail. The good news is, there are a number of easy things you can do to cut down on your mailings. One is to simply call the companies you regularly get mailings from and tell them to stop. But you can also get in touch with the Direct Marketing Association, which handles postal mail preferences on this handy website. Or, you can sign up with groups like, which strive to help eliminate unwanted mail from being sent. Of course, for any mail you do get, make sure you recycle it! (And if you're worried about privacy, I recommend purchasing a cheap shredder.)

Recharge your batteries: Since 50 Simple Things was published, battery technology has gotten a lot better. For one thing, the amount of toxic mercury in household batteries has decreased by some 98 percent. On the flip side, though, we're using and throwing out more batteries than ever before, what with the rapid increase in the number of electronics that now call for batteries, where electrical cords might once have been used. So the two simple things you can do to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals released into the ground and air as a result of battery use are: use rechargeable batteries and recycle the one-use batteries you do purchase. Rechargeable batteries have gotten significantly cheaper and longer-lasting than in years past, and they're really easy to use. And more and more companies are offering free recycling not only of basic alkaline batteries, but for things like cell phone and camera batteries, too. For example, many Whole Foods Markets feature battery recycling bins, where the public can drop off used batteries. If you don't have a Whole Foods in your neighborhood, go to Earth911 to find the battery recycling center nearest you. And for more on battery recycling in general, check out this page from the EPA.

Bring your own bag: Paper bags are making a comeback at some retail stores, but plastic bags are still cheaper to make, so they aren't going away anytime soon. You can recycle paper bags and reuse plastic bags for garbage or packaging, but your greenest option is to bring your own bag when you go shopping. It sounds simple, but there's one catch: you have to remember to bring your bag even when you don't anticipate going shopping! Pretty much every chain grocery store has made some money off of selling non-disposable grocery bags, which look and feel virtuous when you parade them out of the store. But so often, people forget to bring them the next time they go to buy something, which defeats the whole purpose of buying a reusable bag in the first place! So if you really want to make a difference, buy an easily collapsible canvas or sturdy plastic bag—and not one you care too much about keeping pretty—in your car or your handbag or briefcase at all times. You'll be surprised at how often you find yourself using it, and you'll feel a lot better when you get home and realize that there's no baggage to dispose of!

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