Happy Earth Day, everyone! Today is a day when I pause to reflect on how beautiful this planet is and how lucky we are to have another day to live on it. When you think about it, you realize how amazing it is that this rock in space can support all of our lives. And the earth does it with such noble silence and forgiveness for our human silliness. Aren’t we lucky?
In my own life, I try to do what I can to help the planet sustain itself. I’m not perfect, I still drive a combustible engine car and heat my home with gas. But until those new electric vehicles hit the market and solar panels come down in price, I do a few tiny things to emit less CO2 and curb my pollution and waste. Here’s what I do:
Recycle Everything I Possibly Can
Sometimes my husband thinks I’m a weirdo because I’ve trained my family to recycle almost everything. For instance, I discovered our local transfer station (read: dump) accepts styrofoam blocks, bubble wrap, and almost all plastic bags (including bread and veggie bags) for recycling. So every plastic bag that comes into our house goes into a bin in the pantry closet. After a month or two, I put all of those bags in one larger white trash bag and take it to the recycling bin at the transfer station. Easy.
I also recycle every can, bottle, and container. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that our recycling is only going into giant piles in the country and not shipped over seas where it’s properly recycled. But our waste service still wants us to separate and recycle anyway until they find a new solution. So I do because there’s no sense in all of those granola bar boxes going into a landfill. I mean after all, a tree helped us make that box.
With this approach, our family of five produces very little garbage. The only thing in the garbage now is styrofoam food containers and plastic that’s been soiled by food, and various bathroom items. Most everything else is recycled. And that small amount of garbage keeps our service bill down since we use a smaller can.
I Walk or Take Public Transportation Instead of Drive
On days when I don’t have a lot to haul, I’ll walk to the library or grocery store or for coffee. Because I still drive a combustible engine car, I take five seconds and consider whether my trip is worth the emissions. Sometimes it is, like when I take my daughter to her teen group meeting, or I have to bring home a load of groceries, but if it’s just to get a cup of coffee or buy a gift at the bookstore, I usually walk. This, in addition, to reducing emissions, gives me steps and extra exercise, which brightens my mood and improves my focus.
Similarly, Seattle now has a train that goes to the airport. One of my favorite little rituals is to ride the train to and from the airport instead of driving. Driving often means struggling through clogged traffic for almost an hour. So taking the train means I arrive wherever I’m going with less stress. Plus, I can relax and read a book!
I Keep the Temperature Lower
I’m not going to lie, I need to heat my house comfortably. If you live in the north, you usually do. But instead of cranking the thermostat to 72 like I really want to, I usually keep it at 68. What do I do to make up the difference? Well, one word: wool. A yummy wool sweater and a wool blanket. The beauty of wool over polyester (also a plastic) is that wool breathes well. It keeps you warm and cozy and dry. A polyester throw keeps you warm and then too warm and your body gets clammy. So I keep the thermostat a little lower and wear a wool shirt, socks, and sweater. I also use a beautifully knitted wool throw I bought from an Irish maker. Check it out here.
Along these lines, I lower the temperature on the water when I do laundry. Doing a load of clothes in cool water saves gas and emissions. Also, keeping your hot water tank at a higher temperature actually saves gas. I learned this from our hot water repairman. Because the temperature is higher, you use less hot water when doing dishes or showering. You just have to be careful to adjust the faucet so you don’t get scorched.
I Practice Organic and Sustainable Gardening
Of course, I could write a whole post on this. But overall, I plant plants that like the conditions of their location. For sunny areas, I plant sun-loving, low-water plants. For shady spots, I grow plants that like the shade and Seattle rain. I don’t grow a lot of plants that need extra care or fertilizer. When I do fertilize, I fertilize with an organic fish fertilizer rather than a chemical mix. This prevents chemicals from leaching down through the soil and into our water table below. And plants actually grow more robustly for a longer time with natural fertilizer anyway. If you want to learn more about good garden plants and their conditions, check out these articles.
I know a sprinkler system sounds fancy, but it’s actually a great investment, particularly the kind with emitters on shorter stakes. Or even just drip hoses. Instead of watering with an oscillating lawn sprinkler, which often waters a sidewalk or misses certain areas of the garden, I have a sprinkler system that sends water straight to the plants. This allows me to water for a shorter duration.
I Re-Use Bottles and Bags
Single-use plastic bottles and bags require energy and labor to make. And yet we use these things for maybe a few hours at most. Not to sound preachy, but we have a huge chunk of plastic hanging out in our oceans right now. This pollutes the water and affects sea life, sometimes even killing it. We don’t really need to add to that, right? So if you want to help our waterways, buy a metal water bottle and re-use it. Take paper bags back to your grocery store. The trees and fish will thank you.
Overall, if we just take a minute to think about our actions, we can make small easy adjustments to help the planet. For instance, if you wash your car at home, do it with eco-friendly soap so the runoff doesn’t go into the sewer and your nearest river, lake, or ocean. Because that’s where it often goes. If you have paint to dispose off, dry it out before putting in the garbage. If you have the financial resources, switch your kitchen stove from gas to electric. With a little extra effort, we can all do a tiny bit to help this big beautiful pearl we call home.
I have watched every episode of the show Parks and Recreation, many of them twice. And yet I never remembered Leslie Knope talking about Galentine’s Day. What is Galentine’s Day? Well, as Leslie says, it’s ladies celebrating ladies. A day, right before Valentine’s Day, when you recognize those special female friends, or “gals,” in your life. The friends who have supported you through thick and thin.
Coincidentally, I’m seeing a friend tonight. A friend I admire and a friend who is dear. A friend who has helped me along my writer’s journey and even helped me venture out into related ventures. We’re meeting up for drinks before attending a celebration of a local Seattle writer who, sadly, passed away this last December.
Seattle Author and Teacher Waverly Fitzgerald
Waverly Fitzgerald wrote historical fiction, mysteries, nonfiction, and more. She was a pillar in the Seattle literary community, having taught at Hugo House, the Hedgebrook retreat, and various conferences. Though I didn’t know her, I’d attended Sisters in Crime meetings, a writer’s organization she volunteered for. I always admired that she wrote about nature and was an advocate for the environment. Especially urban ones. But in December, she unfortunately died at the too-early age of 68 from illness. A huge loss to the Seattle writing community.
So when my friend asked if I wanted to meet up before attending a celebration of her life, I eagerly said yes. That the date coincides with Galentine’s Day makes it even better. Though the giving spirit of Waverly Fitzgerald is gone, I think she’d approve of two friends celebrating Galentine’s Day by attending a book reading in her honor.
These past couple of years, I’ve wondered whether a fake or real Christmas tree is better for the environment. Being a gardener, I want to do what’s right for our planet. Initially, I used real trees but then thought cutting down a live tree removed an oxygen-producing plant from our ecosystem. So, I bought a plastic tree and have re-used it for years. But then I thought about how plastic is made from oil. I don’t want to support oil companies.
I considered all of the angles, read a bunch of articles, and tied myself up into a ball of general confusion. However, in all of that, I learned a few things, which helped me decide what kind of tree to decorate during the Christmas season. Here are my thoughts on real versus fake Christmas trees.
Fake Christmas Trees Are Made From PVC
PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a chemically created compound that’s great for pipes and windows, but not so great for inside the home. PVC contains phthalates, which release dangerous VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and inhaling those can be hazardous to one’s health.
Also, artificial Christmas trees, especially older ones, contain lead, which, as the trees age, can degrade and get onto people’s hands as the tree or ornaments are handled. Lastly, the trees are sprayed with fire-retardant chemicals, which are also unhealthy to inhale or absorb through the skin.
Fake Christmas Trees Require a Lot of Resources
Apparently, 90% of fake trees are made in China. The factories that produce the trees often do not adhere to any carbon emission laws or provide decent working conditions for their employees. Workers often live in dormitories and don’t make a living wage.
Then the ships that carry the trees use a large amount of fuel, emitting an immense amount of carbon in the air. From there, trucks transport the trees to stores. And the trees are packaged in cardboard boxes, made from, what else, trees?
Fake Christmas Trees Can Be Re-Used
According to what I’ve read, if you use your artificial Christmas tree for six to nine years, you’re neutralizing the amount of carbon emissions used to create that tree. That’s a solid upshot. If you buy one artificial tree and then use it for a decade or more, that’s good for the environment.
But what happens when you no longer need or want that specific tree? You can donate it to a charity shop like Goodwill and it may have a new life at someone else’s house via that sale, but what if it doesn’t? Or what if it breaks while being transported? It will end up in a landfill. And we all know that plastic does not fully degrade for hundreds of years.
Real Christmas Trees Create Oxygen and Absorb Carbon Dioxide
I’ve read that, every year, one acre of real Christmas trees absorbs almost 500 pounds of carbon dioxide. Similarly, that same acre will create about 1000 pounds of oxygen. That’s amazing!
But if you buy a real Christmas tree, aren’t you supporting the end of that environmentally friendly tree? Not really. On tree farms across the U.S., there are 350-500 million trees growing but only 30 million are cut down annually. That still leaves a huge surplus of live trees to clean the air and produce oxygen. So overall, buying real Christmas trees helps clean the air and support a healthier environment.
Real Christmas Trees Support Local Tree Farmers
If you buy a live Christmas tree, you’re supporting a local farmer who may otherwise sell his or her land for development. So, keeping farmers in business not only helps the environment but also the local economy. The money stays local or at least within a region instead of going to China.
Real Christmas Trees That Are Sold Are Usually Replaced
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, tree farmers usually plant 1-3 seedlings for every tree cut and sold. That actually ensures the cut tree is not only replaced, but the farm itself may expand with more trees grown.
Real Christmas Trees Are Compostable
While many cities offer Christmas tree pick up and composting services, some cities don’t. Regardless, real Christmas trees can still be composted in one’s backyard. The branches can be cut off and laid over dormant perennial beds to protect plants. Trunks can be cut up and used for firewood or chipped and used for mulch. Or they can be left whole to edge garden beds.
Some folks worry that the needles will acidify their soil, but from what I’ve read, the pH of the needles neutralizes once in the soil. They just have a waxy coating that prevents them from breaking down quickly.
So after doing this research, I’ve realized the best thing for the environment, hands down, is to buy a real Christmas tree every year. There may be a risk of pesticide residue on the cut trees, but I think that’s a small price to pay compared to the positives. Plus, I’m sure there are organic tree choices if not entirely organic farms. Even though they can be expensive, real trees support local farmers and a cleaner earth. And that idea makes me merrier during the holiday season.