The beauty of nature has always astounded me. Some of the most memorable days of my life have been spent collecting seashells beside luxurious, rolling waves at a Floridian beach, hiking up Mount Le Conte in Gatlinburg’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park, or touring the windy roads of Yosemite and glimpsing steep waterfalls cascading over foliage-covered rock faces. I have had a healthy dose of naturalism in my blood my entire life; growing up climbing trees and clambering through the woods evolved into camping with friends and hiking in parks. I have a deep respect for our Earth and all she has to offer us—the land, the trees, the animals and plants that help feed us. So as I get older, the urge tugs at me to do something to help protect our Earth, in what little ways I can, in order to preserve all of this lush beauty for future generations. I cannot imagine future children growing up unable to enjoy the bounties I have witnessed in nature. A few, relatively easy ways that I try to do my part to preserve the environment are by recycling, composting, and limiting my use of disposable plastics.
Recycling has been around for years and is second nature to many Americans; it is even mandatory—by law—in some cities, though the methods differ. Some municipalities bundle curbside recycling with regular trash pickup, while others require citizens to pay extra to a private company on top of regular fees. And in some places, there is no option at all. My city does not offer recycling, but a few private companies do, so I pay extra for it for two reasons. One, because our landfills are quickly filling with items that will not break down for many (hundreds, even thousands of) years—thus making it more difficult for our ancestors to enjoy our lovely Earth, as it will overflow with rubbish. And two, because paying for recycling makes me a more conscious buyer—I tend to look for products that are packaged in recycled and recyclable materials, especially paper, aluminum, or glass, rather than plastic (which can be recycled, but only up to a point—after a while, it will no longer break down). Recycling is an easy way for me to feel as though I’m doing something, when really, all I do is transfer which bin my trash is tossed into.
The second thing I do goes hand-in-hand with recycling—composting. All of the bits of food left after a meal, or inedible pieces of produce, or even paper towels, can be composted, rather than thrown away. Yes, they will biodegrade if they’re trashed, rather than composted, but for those of us with gardens, composting is a great way to fertilize an organic garden and reduce waste. For those without a garden, though, there are still options—one might use it for fertilizing flowers. Or, one can still collect items to compost and give away to people or organizations who need it, like neighbors or public gardens. In our house, we throw all the unused food items (except meat and dairy) and paper towels into a compost bin on our counter (you can purchase them at many stores; we got ours as a wedding present from Target, but before that, used a large coconut oil container). Once the container is full, you’ll want to transfer it to a larger container in your yard, stirring it around occasionally (ours is actually leftover garden fencing that my husband made into a large cylinder with no bottom, but you can also buy a handy compost container that makes compost faster, without “stirring”). After the compost is at least halfway decomposed, my husband plants it in the garden, covering it with dirt, to fully decompose it as fertilizer—this is called trench composting, which is basically burying your compost in a hole. Full disclosure, I only compost because of my husband—now that we’re married, he has chivalrously taken over all of the yucky, dirt-and-garbage duties, so if you also aren’t into all that and your city offers it, consider a curbside compost service to pick it up and haul it away.
Along with dirt and garbage, another thing I try to avoid is single-use plastic. Americans started using all of this plastic stuff for convenience, and now, it has become a regularity for many families to use and throw away bags, cups, plates, silverware, etc., just because it’s easier than washing dishes, or more convenient when traveling—and I totally get that. Don’t get me wrong—I am all about convenience; I will be the first to tell you how many ways we come up with to avoid having to do dishes in our house (we don’t have a dishwasher, so the struggle is real). But in the long run, the basic facts convinced me—I just couldn’t stand to put all that plastic into a landfill, knowing it might not break down in my lifetime. Once I looked into it, I realized it’s not that difficult to give up single-use plastic. I had to buy a few items, but since I reuse them over and over, it is more of an investment. Things like metal straws, Mason jars, and cloth produce and grocery bags are now regular fixtures in the backseat of my car. I try to take them when I go anywhere to shop, and I keep a set of my own silverware, a plate and a bowl at work for lunch, too—I quickly clean the dishes at work or take them home to wash. If it’s just not practical to avoid single-use items (like a big event or picnic), consider buying compostable plates, cups and silverware—I bought those for my wedding and we took them home to compost. It’s really all about being prepared, and once the preparation (i.e. buying or finding the tools) is done, it just takes remembering to use them…that is definitely something I still have a problem with (I am the most forgetful person, really), but I try my best.
These are just a few of the things I am conscious about in my life as ways I can do something, even if it is small, to lessen my own contribution to the growing problem of waste on the Earth. I am by no means great at it—I am not perfect (by far); I forget my bags occasionally when going to the grocery, still buy some products packaged in plastic (because let’s face it; there just aren’t many that aren’t), and sometimes, without thinking, still drink from the plastic straws they give me at restaurants. But I’m trying, and I think that is all any of us can do—just try, in our own small ways, to be conscious of what we can do to help, not hurt, the beautiful world around us.
Susan Swanson is an Associate Professor of English at Owensboro Community and Technical College in Owensboro, KY. She spends her time dabbling in various pursuits, from cooking to yoga to wine, and learning how to manage her curly hair (this takes more time than one might think). She believes in the sustainability of the planet as well as the self, and being conscious of those areas where we can improve in order to live healthier and happier lives.