GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With all the concern around climate change and the environmental risks of the years to come, talking about global warming can be a bit overwhelming. Yes, the science shows us some drastic shifts are needed to avoid some catastrophic events, but there are a lot of simple changes you can make in your everyday routine to make a big impact on the environment.
For decades, when people have thought about “going green,” they have thought about recycling. It has a positive impact and is an easy habit to set. People who recycle reuse materials and reduce the number of natural resources harvested to make those products. Take paper as an example: Using paper made from recycled material means less trees need to be cut down. But keeping paper out of landfills has another advantage.
“Landfills create methane, a serious climate bad actor, and the less that goes into the landfill, the better,” Keefe Harrison, the CEO of The Recycling Partnership, told The Atlantic. “From a system point of view, recycling protects the climate by keeping natural habitats in place, limiting the need for carbon intensive harvesting of virgin natural resources.”
The West Michigan Environmental Action Council has a page full of resources for recycling centers across West Michigan, including a detailed list of what can and cannot be recycled.
When it comes to going green, WMEAC says there are two big things to focus on: protecting water systems and conserving energy.
Elaine Sterrett Isely, the deputy director of WMEAC, says stormwater systems don’t get a lot of attention when it comes to protecting the environment, but a lot of little things can add up to big problems.
“Stormwater pollution is the biggest source of pollution to our waterways because it’s coming from everywhere,” Sterrett Isely told News 8. “You can’t say who contributed what to the water. It includes things like road salts. It includes grease and oils from your car. It includes loose sand and soil that get into the water and cloudy up the water column.”
Debris in the water runoff inevitably plays a role in shoreline erosion, eating away at the land and depositing more sediment into rivers and lakes. It can also look unpleasant.
“If you look at an aerial shot of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Grand River at Grand Haven, there’s a big plume there and that’s mostly gravel,” Sterrett Isely said.
There are lots of ways to reduce your stormwater runoff. One way is to install a rain garden or a rain barrel. They work in the same way. Plant a garden or set a barrel near a collection point where rain would roll off the roof of your home. The plants in your garden will help absorb the excess water and the barrel can collect the rain, which you can dump later to water your lawn or plants when it’s dry.
It’s also important to keep an eye on what is leeching into stormwater. Try to limit the amount of salt you use in the winter to keep driveways and sidewalks clear. If you are applying fertilizer to a lawn or garden, make sure it’s not going to rain and wash those chemicals away before they are absorbed. And for both salt and fertilizer, try to get environmentally friendly options. For salt, look for products made with magnesium or calcium chloride instead of rock salt. For fertilizer, look for slow-release products and fertilizers that are phosphorus-free.
Another common chemical found in stormwater: soap. Sterrett-Isely says a simple way to conserve water is to wash your car on your lawn instead of your driveway. It allows the grass to soak up the water instead of allowing it to runoff, and the grass acts as an extra filter, keeping chemicals out of the water system.
One of the less-pleasant ways to protect the water is to pick up after your pets.
“We know that’s polite. That’s the good thing to do for your neighbors, but there’s also bacteria in (the feces) … and that can create other problems downstream,” Sterrett-Isely said. “It can create algal growth; it can create other problems. It can cause bacterial contamination, which can make people and dogs sick if they come into contact with it.”
When it comes to the big picture of climate change, it boils down to greenhouse gases: how much people are generating, how much we are taking out of the atmosphere, and what people can do to lower emissions.
There are lots of simple ways to conserve energy: turning off the lights when you leave the room or unplug appliances when they aren’t in use. You can convert to LED lights, which use up to 75% less energy and last much longer than incandescent bulbs.
WMEAC also reminds people to make sure vents aren’t blocked and forcing furnaces to work harder and consider dressing in layers instead of turning up the thermostat in colder months.
Kate Madigan, the director of the Michigan Climate Action Network, says one of the biggest things people can do is to focus on transportation.
“That’s the largest source of climate pollution in the country right now,” Madigan told News 8. “And in Michigan, our lives are very car-centric. There’s a lot we can do to drive less. We can bike more. We can walk more. We can take public transportation. That often takes a little bit more planning but there are a lot of side benefits, including more exercise and being outdoors more.”
Another helpful option is to make sure you are shopping for groceries locally. In the 21st century, foods from across the globe are available virtually anywhere, but they still need to be transported here and that has a major environmental impact.
“We’re so fortunate in Michigan. We are one of the top states for agricultural production in the country,” Madigan said. “I think just starting by being mindful of what’s in season or what’s local and treating things like bananas as maybe a delicacy.”
Meatless Monday is another popular trend. Raising livestock uses a significantly higher amount of water compared to most crops, and unlike vegetables, the animals also give off greenhouse gases.
THINKING BIG PICTURE
To go further, Madigan says its important to think long-term. The world is moving away from fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy sources. If you are able, make investments in green technology like an electric vehicle or solar panels for your home. When you must replace an appliance, consider the environmental impact.
On top of all the lifestyle changes and decisions you make, Madigan encourages people to be active and vocal.
“The fossil fuel industry is the most powerful and wealthy industry in the country. So there’s a lot of ability to push back against policies that we know that science is clearly showing are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Madigan said. “Here in Michigan, environmentalist and climate organizations have been working to move forward policies to (remove) an arbitrary cap on solar distributed, renewable energy. That is set at 1% and we’ve been working to lift that cap so that more rooftop solar can be built in certain utility areas. The big utility companies have been fighting and have kept that from passing.”
Madigan said she believes progress is being made at the state and federal level to protect the environment and the Great Lakes, but more needs to be done. She hopes Earth Day helps draw more attention to green initiatives.
“I think it’s really great that we have this month and this day, and this kind of season,” Madigan said. “(Time to) really think about how our everyday decisions are impacting the planet and how we can all live more sustainably and do more to live more sustainable lives.”