And this mess is so big
And so deep and so tall,
We cannot pick it up.
There is no way at all!
— Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat
It is commonly accepted that we are living in the Anthropocene era — a geologic time period that began with the Industrial Revolution or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The actions of humankind in this era have been so vast and dramatic ao as to cause mass extinctions of plant and animal species, pollute the oceans, alter the atmosphere, and heat the earth’s core temperature Congratulations human kind! We have our very own geological age, born of abuse, exploitation and greed sugar-coated under the guise of progress.
But where are we progressing to? Our own end?
Our systems are implemented by enterprises which plunder the earth of its resources. The coral reefs are bleached, the Amazon shrinks, heat waves and fires scorch the earth, and an occasional snowfall leaves climate deniers, mistakenly thinking that an act of weather is the same thing as climate, jumping for joy.
We may all look at this environmental pogrom differently. In the end, however, I would guess that most of us would want a sustainable earth for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit. They deserve a life that is not all plastic refuse, abandoned strip malls and parched pavements covering up the things we love: rivers, streams, waterfalls, tree canopies, forests, meadows and farmland.
As Dr. Seuss once wrote, there are times in all our lives that we feel overwhelmed, It is beyond our individual scope to reverse the tide of this destructive impending cataclysm. What do we do?
There are some small steps we can all take. Changing our basic lifestyles within our homes can help keep us more aligned with what is hopeful, sustainable, and not only good for the planet but also good for ourselves. If we can begin to create a space within our own dwellings that reflects our values of treading a bit more lightly on this earth we all share, we will find ourselves becoming a bit more hopeful, healthier and happier.
We start at home
But how? Where do people start to make their homes more environmentally friendly?
One of the biggest ways that people attempt to live in way that creates less waste and uses up fewer resources begins with how they shop for food. New Paltz resident Janelle Peotter suggests that people understand that most plastics are not recyclable, and those that are might make it one round before ending up in the landfill.
“You can seek out places such as food coops and health-food stores where you can shop for items in bulk and refill your own container,” Peotter said. “In New Paltz, we have a new store called the Second Nature Refillery at Zero Place where nothing is encased in plastic or excessively packaged.”
When shopping for produce, buy things that are “naked,” meaning not encased in plastic. “If you want a melon, buy a melon rather than a pre-cut melon in a plastic container,” she suggested. Pre-cut costs more money and adds plastic to the waste stream.
She encourages people to avoid buying “flying food,” things that have been shipped in rather than those that are in season where they live. “For example, asparagus grows in the spring around here. Buy it then. Asparagus bought at other times of the year may be air-freighted here from another continent, which is 50 times more carbon-costly.”
“After fossil-fuel use — travel, heating, etc. — I would say thinking about your diet is important,” said New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez. “You do not have to become a vegan or even a vegetarian. Just cutting back on the amount of meat, especially red meat, can have an impact. It is not only better for the planet, it is better for your health and your budget.
“Also, eat local food. Maybe join a CSA or shop at a local farm. I am huge fan of Wallkill View Farm. This will reduce the carbon footprint of the food you eat and support our local farms, which also help store carbon.
“Finally, waste less food by planning your meals out for the week. You not only save money, when you shop you can reuse leftovers for another meal or for lunch.”
We waste food waste
Rosendale resident reverend Dr. Leonisa Ardizzone, a visiting professor at Vassar College, stressed the importance of reducing food waste. “Buy what you need, and eat what you have,” she said. Compost food waste rather than throw it into the landfill.
“Have almost no food waste,” she counseled. “According to Project Drawdown, this is one of the biggest causes of global warming, so we only buy what we are going to eat and we also try to only by things that are grown locally.”
Try to make as little waste as possible. Compost food waste rather than throw it into the landfill. Don’t use paper towels, paper napkins, or paper plates. Instead, use handkerchiefs, rags, cloth napkins, glass containers. Avoid anything that is single-use whenever possible. She counsels using only biodegradable packaging.
“Food, tissues, paper products we put into our compost and clean fill area in our yard,” Ardizzone said. “This means we make almost no garbage. Anything that can’t be composted goes to the dump as recycling — which readers should know is not the panacea we are sold on.”
Peotter shares the emphasis on waste management
“Did you know that Ulster County throws away 40 million pounds of food scraps every year?” asked Peotter. “If they are put in the garbage, they go to landfill, where they do not compost but create methane. a powerful greenhouse gas. You can compost at home, or if that is not practical you can bring your compost to many available community sites. In New Paltz, you can bring your compost to the Community Center or to the New Paltz ReUse and Recycling Center at 99 Clearwater Road.”
Buy fresh local produce whenever possible. Eat lower on the food chain (plants, veggies and fruit). Buy only what you are going to eat, and if waste is created, throw it in a compost bin. What you do doesn’t have to be fancy or perfect. It just needs to be kept out of the waste stream and be broken down organically — which is also great for the soil.
When shopping, think about places you can buy in bulk in an attempt not to use plastic. Try to purchase things in season and not encased in plastic. If that becomes challenging, as it can be at many larger grocery stores, tell the management that you’d prefer bulk items and food not packaged in plastic. Beyond Plastic is a great resource for how to combat single-use plastic and effectuate policy change. It’s at https://www.beyondplastics.org/learn/.
We must recycle
The kitchen is an area where people gather, sit down for a meal, or grab something fast. We shouldn’t be wasteful in it. Just as it’s healthier to eat more vegetables, it’s better for the soil if we compost waste. Try to live so you have less garbage to cart out to the street or to the dump. You can use real plates, real cups, mason jars, cloth napkins.
When the meal is done, throw those food scraps in a bucket or canister and put them out in the yard. Your compost bin could just be a pile in the back corner of your lawn or a box with worms that break down the food waste, as Ardizonne and her daughter did when they lived in an apartment in the city.
Clare Hussain, the owner of Runa, the French bistro and B&B in the Village of New Paltz, is a committed composter. “I believe 100 percent in composting. Rotting scraps in trash that is brought to landfills is incredibly damaging, with the amount of methane gas being released into the atmosphere.”
The myth of recycling as a cure-all is one that people need to be more critical of, particularly when it comes to plastic, 90 percent of which is never reused even when brought to a recycling center.
“To recycle, of course. but to understand that not all items are recyclable or even being recycled,” Hussain said. “The thought of those large oversized vessels with Tide detergent, etc. going into the landfills makes me cringe. I recycle the oil in the restaurant, and all beverages are in cans, glass bottles. No plastic vessels.”
As Bettez noted, the basic idea of reuse is simple once you make the commitment to it. Make coffee at home. Thrown the coffee grinds into the compost. Carry a refillable coffee cup with you. Tap water is healthier than bottled water. as it has to go through so much local, state and federal testing. All you need to do is use a glass and carry a reusable water bottle with you.
Tap water is a huge luxury that we all have. Yet we treat it as something we need to avoid.
Peotter called single-use plastic water bottles one of the biggest problems. Having your water encased in plastic at all different temperatures unhealthy, as the plastic and toxins leach into the water. It also has to be transported, and then the plastics buried or burned.
“For most people, water out of your kitchen tap is of better quality than you will find in bottled water,” argued Peotter. “If you have any issues with your tap water, an inexpensive water filter can address most problems. A 2007 study found that making the billions of plastic bottles manufactured every year to hold all the bottled water American buy used the equivalent of around 17 million barrels of oil, enough energy to fuel more than a million American cars and light trucks for a year.”
Turning off lights, heat and electricity whenever possible is the next big item that people can use to make their homes more ecofriendly on the inside. There are alternative electricity options that they can buy into, like community wind or solar.
“We try to be mindful of our use of heat and electricity, and we joined a solar farm since we can’t put solar panels on our house, said Ardizonne. “We capitalize on our passive solar working with window shades and spending time in parts of the house that are warmed by the sun.”
A basic clothesline or drying rack for clothes shoulf be considered rather than running a dryer. There’s that fresh scent of clothes hung out in the fresh air. If you’re going to wash clothes, do it sparingly and only when necessary.
“For clothes, use a front-loading high-efficiency washer,” advised Peotter. The old top-loading washers with agitators are hard on clothes and create more microplastics faster as they break down synthetic fabrics. Start using laundry detergent sheets that don’t come in plastic jugs such as TruEarth or Earth Breeze. They are ultra-concentrated, lightweight and packaged in paper. Whenever possible, hang your clothes out to dry on a clothesline or drying rack. Clothes dryers use a tremendous amount of energy.”
Mother, business owner and chef Hussain makes her own cleaning solutions at home with vinegar and eucalyptus oil. She also subscribe to companies for washing detergents, and uses vegan bar soap to wash dishes.
“There are also affordable compostable sandwich bags these days to store food,” she noted. “It is not necessary to buy produce in the supermarket and put them in the plastic bags. Just throw them into a shopping basket.”
When it comes to clothing or bedding, try to buy quality rather than quantity. Move away from the fast, disposable and child-labor heavy synthetic clothes industry.
Repair rather than discard
“If something breaks, try to fix it rather than throwing out the old one and simply buying another one. Here in Ulster County, we are fortunate to have Repair Cafes in almost every community,” said Peotter. “A Repair Cafe is a free community event. You bring your broken but beloved items, and together with volunteer repair coaches you fix them! People bring all kinds of things to a repair cafe: clocks and other mechanical items; chairs, frames, and other wooden items; electrical items and small appliances; digital devices.”
For Ardizzone, it basically comes down to rejecting consumerism. “We live in a world of exploitive capitalism and we’re told to buy, buy, buy, when we really don’t need much to live a full life. Buying less things and supporting local businesses is the way to go.”
Everyone agreed that there was no need to buy the endless amounts of chemical cleaning products lining the shelves at supermarkets. Hot water, soap and a bit of baking soda and vinegar can clean just about everything. With some old dishrags and cloth, there’s no need for a Swiffer!
Having more plants in and around your dwelling is a great way to hold carbon. Let your lawn rewild and plant native pollinator plants and trees — anything that is green and alive will help create shade, texture and food for all.
How small steps add up
“According to the International Panel on Climate Change, we have less than six years to limit the release of greenhouse gases in the environment to cap the increase in planetary temperature rise,” said Ardizzone. “We all need to do our part — big and small — to protect our planet. In the USA, we are tied in first place as the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, yet we don’t always feel it, so we tend not to think it’s our responsibility. But as we see, people around the world are being displaced due to ocean levels rising, or flooding, or wildfires. So something has to change. We also have to realize that we are part of an interconnected web of life, and that we each play a part in caring for all of creation.”
What can we do? We have to vote for leaders who support environmental initiatives and policies that will work to slow or stop climate change. We can become those leaders ourselves, put our names on a petition to get on a ballot, join the volunteer boards in our communities that are working together to help combat an unsustainable lifestyle, a culture of excess, and a pattern of fuel consumption that cannot have a good ending.
We can write letters, sign petitions, work within our means to switch to more regenerative energy systems or simply use public transit, walk, bike, get out of the cars that we’ve built our entire country around. It has become a luxury to live in a walkable community, to be in a place that is willing to pay for greater access to public lands, trails, parks and sidewalks. Many small steps add up to big steps.
Contact the local Climate Smart task force in your community and get involved. Go to https://climatesmart.ny.gov/ to learn more.