When Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1952, it caused $1.5 million in damage to Cleveland. The city's industrial revolution had taken its toll: The oil and debris clogging the river had ignited eight times before, and the city had developed quite a rep. When the river went up in flames yet again in 1968, the situation gained national attention. The Cuyahoga became a poster child for early environmentalists.
One of those "green" trailblazers, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, had a plan to turn the then-grassroots campaign to save the environment into a mainstream movement. In 1969, he announced what would come to be the kick off for the movement, something called "Earth Day."
The mere mention of Earth Day 1970 drew the country's attention to the sad state of rivers, air and forests, especially when press outlets covering Nelson's announcement started running pollution stories that made people's hair stand on end. The environmental revolution had begun.
Earth Day has been celebrated every year since 1970, and almost 40 years later, its purpose remains the same: encourage social and political action by drawing attention to the cause. Every year, around the world, the damaged state of the environment comes to the forefront, and millions of people take the opportunity to pitch in -- if only for a day.
If you're one of those millions who would like to lend a hand in honor of Earth Day, you may be wondering what exactly you can do. In this article, we'll check out 10 great ways to commemorate Earth Day, whether you're looking to spend 5 minutes, 5 hours or a lifetime.
First up: Leave the car at home.
Since our cars are some of the greatest sources of pollution in our daily lives, it makes sense to start there.
A short commute to work may not seem like a big polluter. Let's say you drive 10 miles (16 kilometers) each way. That means about a single gallon (3.7 liters) of gas round-trip -- maybe even less.
But that single gallon of gas sends 19 pounds (8.6 kilograms) of carbon dioxide into the air [source: Slate]. That's almost twice as much as running central air conditioning for a day, and central air is one of the biggest household polluters [source: WTOP]. So keeping those 19 pounds of greenhouse gas out of the air is a nice way to pitch in on Earth Day.
There are lots of ways to get to work without driving your car. You can carpool with someone from work, take the bus or train, arrange to work from home for the day, or, best yet, ride your bike. Then you'll be getting healthier right alongside the planet.
Up next: Be a little dirty.
If you consider all the water shortages around the world, the amount of water we use to keep ourselves squeaky clean can seem a bit shocking. A daily shower isn't a matter of health; it's a matter of comfort. And for the comfort of a 10-minute shower, we consume up to 50 gallons (189 liters) of water [source: EPA]. To relax in a nice bath, it takes up to 70 gallons (264 liters) [source: EPA]. A typical family in Africa gets by on a tenth of that for an entire day, including drinking water [source: WPI].
So on Earth Day, stay a little dirty -- or, more accurately, slightly less than pristinely clean. In addition to saving up to 70 gallons of water for the people who really need it, you may even find it makes you look and feel healthier: Showering every day can wash away the natural oils that our skin and hair need to glow and can deprive the immune system of the germs it needs to fully develop [source: Salon]. (But keep washing your hands -- that habit is necessary.)
Up next: a time-saver that saves trees.
If you buy stuff, chances are you have at least one credit card. It may be necessary for conducting financial transactions these days, but it's actually not necessary to kill trees in the process.
Lots of people have started paying credit card bills and viewing statements online instead of through the mail. It's faster than writing checks, and you don't have to store all that paper. And if everybody in the United States started dealing with money online, it would save almost 19 millions trees every year [source: IdealBite]. It would also save some gas, since the post office wouldn't have to deliver your statements and your payment. If you haven't made the switch yet, Earth Day is a great time to sit down and set everything up.
It doesn't take long. You just have to register your bank account with your credit card's Web site, or register your credit card account with your bank's Web site. This half-hour Earth Day contribution will last for years afterward. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Up next: Offset your lifestyle.
Carbon offsets are the big thing right now, because they're easy and they might actually make a difference. They basically work like this: You pay for enough clean power (wind or solar, typically) to cover the dirty power you use. People buy them to offset travel, home power usage and any other energy-heavy expenditure.
If you're busy and you have some extra funds, this could be a great way to celebrate Earth Day. Just decide what you want to offset -- it could just be your home-power usage for Earth Day, or you could take the opportunity to offset your car travel for the whole year. Just go to one of many Web sites (type "carbon offset" into your browser to find a whole slew of them); use the Web site calculator to figure out how many offsets you need to buy; type in your credit number and you're done.
Up next: Speak your mind.
Writing a letter may not seem like much, but it's very much in keeping with the spirit of Earth Day. Contacting someone with the power to make large-scale change through legislation, like a senator or representative, can have some pretty grand and lasting consequences.
To find the name and contact information of your member of Congress, just go to the Web site for your state or local government. You'll find both e-mail and mailing addresses, and you could even call if you don't have the time to write a letter. Just pick a cause -- water safety, forest preservation, clean air, recycling, whatever speaks to you -- and tell your congressman or congresswoman how you feel. If you know of any pending legislation you can weigh in on, that's even better. Tell your representatives how you want them to vote! You never know when your opinion will have an effect. (And if you have kids, this can be a great civics lesson, too.)
Of course, the effect will be even bigger if you get some friends to write letters along with you. Earth Day letter-writing party, anyone?
Up next: Make an outing of it.
If you want to really be a part of Earth Day, there's nothing like joining other like-minded individuals in a common task. If you have the time, there are lots of opportunities out there to pitch in.
If you go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site page for events and volunteer opportunities, you'll find a list of Earth Day activities for your area. You might want to get in on planting some trees, cleaning up a park, or, if you have some extra time to get some pledges, doing a walk for a "green" charity.
Or have some fun but skip the work. You'll find museum programs, festivals, parties in the park and parades on the list, too. Some hands-on fun at a science museum can be a great way to celebrate Earth Day with your family.
Up next: You don't need a group to make things green.
There's no time like Earth Day to make your world a little greener -- in the literal sense. Planting trees, bushes and any plant life at all not only beautifies your home space, it also absorbs some of the CO2 from the air.
The destruction of the world's rainforests is a big reason why global warming is out of control; in a tiny way, you can help to offset that destruction by planting something in your own yard. Planting a tree is a great choice -- it might be around even longer than you will, and it goes a long way toward preventing soil erosion. But anything green -- shrubs, flowers, native grasses -- will help clean the air while celebrating the environment. (Just make sure it's not something you're going to have to water excessively. Water's a valuable commodity.)
Up next: a less strenuous way to green your home for Earth Day.
Been putting off switching your incandescent lightbulbs to energy-saving fluorescents? Well, you're going to have to do it in the next few years, with many governments (including Britain, the United States, India and Australia) looking to phase out energy-hogging incandescent bulbs by about 2012. And there's no time like Earth Day to make a contribution you're going to have to make anyway.
Replacing all the bulbs in your house won't take long, and it'll save you money on your energy bill since fluorescents are a lot more efficient than standard lightbulbs (go to Easy Web Calculators to figure out how much). This Earth Day activity will pay off in the long run in both cost and energy savings. Some stores even have fluorescent bulbs on sale for Earth Day, so you can save even more.
Up next: The good kind of decay.
Every time you throw out coffee grounds, paper towels or a pizza box, you're adding to a landfill -- and subtracting from your yard. All of this stuff, and much more, can be composted instead of trashed, and compost is an ideal way to fertilize your outdoor space. And once you set up a composting system -- basically a bin in your kitchen to put in compostable waste, and a bin in your yard where it can decay -- all of that rich fertilizer is free.
Setting up a compost bin is a great Earth Day project. It takes only a few hours - maybe less. You can build your own out of wood, chicken wire or even an old trash bin; or you can save time and buy one at any garden or home-improvement type store. They sell for as little as $50.
It's an ideal way to celebrate Earth Day because it's not a one-time thing. You'll be reducing waste and building up your soil for as long as you stick to the system, which isn't hard -- you just have to be willing to brave the smell of decaying organic material when you stir it every couple of days.
Next up: The best way to celebrate Earth Day is…
It's great to do something nice for the environment on Earth Day. It's even better to keep it going after Earth Day has passed.
The best way to celebrate Earth Day is to extend the celebration. So if you commemorate Earth Day by setting up a compost bin, make sure you stick with composting your kitchen waste. If you skip a shower to save conserve water, make it a habit to conserve water in other small ways, like only running the washer or the dishwasher when there's a full load.
Once you replace your lightbulbs, remember to turn them off when you leave the room. See if you can get a car pool together for work. Make planting a tree on Earth Day a yearly tradition. And if you find you like volunteering on Earth Day, who knows -- maybe you'll like volunteering for the environment once a month. The Earth will thank you for it, and Earth Day will have done its job.
For more information on Earth Day and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- "Earth Day." NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/8804.html
- "Earth Day 2008." The Nature Conservancy.http://www.nature.org/earthday/
- "Environmental Tips." U.S. EPA.http://www.epa.gov/earthday/tips.htm