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Issues Of The Environment: Greener Ways To Ring In The New Year

Happy 2016
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2016 is just around the corner, and many of us have made New Year's resolutions.  So, why not make a few changes that could benefit the environment?  WEMU's David Fair speaks to Mackenzie Maxwell, Environmental Educator for the Ecology Center, who offers some ecologically sound New Year's resolutions.


  *   The new year is a great time to think about being more sustainable and make a commitment to habitats that are greener.

  *   Green New Year’s resolutions are easy in Washtenaw County with resources for recycling and public transportation available in every township, and in 2016 a plastic "bag ban" may be implemented county wide.

  *   MacKenzie Maxwell is the Environmental Educator for the Ecology Center, and she has developed outreach programs to make access to resources accessible in all parts of the county.

Green Resolutions for the New Year

1. Plan Ahead

Who hasn’t run back to the grocery for a vital ingredient or intended to walk a few blocks, but run late and ended up driving anyway?  Recycling is the most touted route to waste reduction, but a little forethought and preparation can arguably make more impact.  Resolving this year to write out shopping lists, to set the alarm a few minutes earlier, or to stow a blanket in the car for cold mornings will cut down on wasted fuel.  To proactively head off future wastefulness, make premeditated modifications to your regular activities like planting native flowers instead of grass in order to mow less often, upgrading to Energy Star appliances, or relocating to a yoga studio within walking distance.

2. Refuse Plastic Bags

Want to help marine life, quell pollution, and make a statement about your commitment to the environment—all while shopping? Decide to forego plastic bags from now on.  Americans use about 100-billion shopping bags annually.  Less than 1% are recycled, and the rest leach contaminants into soil and water for centuries as they break down. Be prepared the next time you are offered, “Paper or plastic?” by storing durable, reusable totes in the trunk, and carry a compact version in your backpack or purse.

Bag Ban May Be Coming to Washtenaw County in 2016

Nationwide, more and more cities and counties are banning the use of plastic shopping bags.  One main reason is the problems they create for recycling efforts.  At the Michigan Recycling Coalition Conference held in May, all 57 recycling facilities in the state agreed that plastic bags are the biggest challenge to efficient recycling.  For this reason, Washtenaw County will be examining such a ban in the coming weeks.

Single-stream recycling has greatly increased public participation everywhere it has been introduced. However, the mechanical sorting equipment is highly vulnerable.  Think of it as “plastic bag bacteria,” the constant “infection” of plastic bags in the equipment.  Most people recognize that constantly eating sugary treats defeats the purpose of tooth-brushing or oral hygiene.  Similarly, constantly exposing recycle-sorting machinery to plastic bags defeats the purpose of efficient recycling hygiene.

In WWRA’s case, the “tooth-brushing” takes 1 to 2 man-hours per day to cut the bags out of the sorting equipment, adding $1,900 in costs to the WWRA budget in the last 6 months. Additionally, the “cavity filling” replacement cost (both equipment and labor) during that time has been about $12,000. For a year, that comes out to almost $30,000 of tax-payer money, spent on an entirely preventable problem.  Despite many efforts, nobody has yet developed a sorter that can effectively sort the bags from the recycling stream. In fact, the problem is international. A significant number of countries have banned the bags altogether because of environmental and trash issues.

3. Buy Sustainable Stuff

What you put in your shopping bags has a far greater potential to shrink the size of your carbon footprint than the type of bag you choose.  One of the best ways to overhaul a wasteful, consumer-driven lifestyle is to commit to buying locally produced and organic food, biodegradable household products, and items with the least amount of excess packaging.  Package-free staples like flour, rice, or sugar can be bought by the pound; farmer’s markets supply seasonal produce year round; and plain vinegar effectively disinfects and cleans without chemical residues.  Finding greener products takes a little extra effort, cash, and research, but short of giving up your car, the cumulative impact of a year’s worth of green purchasing packs a bigger, greener punch than any other personal choice.

4. Just Say NO to Bottled Water

Contrary to the marketing hype of the bottled water industry, filtered tap water is the safest and purest water around.  Washtenaw County’s tap water is high-quality and municipal water systems are highly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while bottled water is not. Additionally, in the U.S. one and a half million barrels of oil are squandered annually producing the bottles themselves, not including the fuel wasted transporting them.  Unless you were diligent about recycling bottles, every water bottle you ever gulped from is still around somewhere, perhaps swirling in the ocean or buried in the landfill. To make refillable, stainless bottles convenient, keep one at home, one at the office, and another in the car, and add a filter to the tap or keep a pitcher in each fridge.

5. Brew Shade Grown Coffee

Drinking coffee is good for the environment when the beans come from coffee grown under the rainforest canopy.  Tropical forests are being cleared to make way for monoculture at an alarming rate.  Shade grown coffee farms produce coffee in the understory of an intact rainforest, providing habitat for a rich diversity of species, especially migratory birds.  A Mexican study found close to 200 species of birds on shade coffee farms, while sun-coffee farms had less than ten.  Be sure to use a travel mug!

6. Quit Smoking

A resolution to stop smoking not only improves your health and the air quality in the immediate atmosphere, but also protects the environment.  Anyone who has collected litter from a park or beach will attest to the ubiquitousness of cigarette butts.  Made of plastic and saturated with toxins, cigarette filters percolate chemicals into the water for decades.  In addition, tobacco farming is water-intensive, plants are soaked in pesticides, and most tobacco is cured using high heat from burning wood or fossil fuel.  Smokefree.gov offers a host of tools to help make quitting successful, including apps, peer and professional support, and information about ways to suppress cravings.

7. Go on a Diet

No list of resolutions is complete without the hackneyed pledge to lose weight.  To the more than half of the country who are already struggling to slim down: dieting is good for the environment!  Obviously when less food is eaten, less energy is spent growing and transporting it, but more fuel is also used to transport heavier passengers than lighter ones.  Due to weight gain, cars burned a billion extra gallons of gasoline annually between 1960 to 2002.  Even the “Jack Sprats” among us can curtail their overindulgence by resolving to dine on vegetarian cuisine at least once a week.

8. Skip the Drive-Thru

Don’t worry, you needn’t abstain from french fries for an entire year.  Rather than waste fuel idling near the drive-through window while your burger is flipped, park the car and purchase inside at the counter.  If the average wait for a milkshake is 159 seconds, every year Americans burn 50 million gallons going nowhere, waiting at fast food joints!

9. Carpool or Bike to Work at Least Once a Week

Unless you regularly criss-cross the country in a private aircraft, driving less this year is the number one way to curtail your contribution to climate change.  The average round trip commute is 32 miles, so deciding now to carpool to work on Tuesdays is a good start.  The University of Michigan’s GreenRide and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s (AATA) VanRide programs can connect you with potential carpoolers.  Can’t handle sharing your Prius with smelly coworkers?  Commit to bike to work as soon as the mercury hits 40 degrees or only run errands once a week.

10. Unplug Everything

Rid your home of vampire power in 2016.  No need to grab the garlic, the vampires in this case are electronic chargers, gadgets, and appliances that continue to suck energy from the socket even when a device is idle.  A miniscule amount of electricity is drawn by a single vampire, but most homes average about 40, consuming 10% of the total household power.  So, if you're not using it, unplug it!  Make a new habit of unplugging all electric items as soon as you are finished with them—microwaves, the oven, coffee pots, videogames, TVs, lamps, etc.—everything, except devices that must run continuously like the refrigerator.  For computers and related peripherals like scanners or printers, use a power strip that switches off when the computer is in standby mode.

11. Stop the Bleeding

Americans are blessed with an abundant flow of inexpensive electricity and water.  Without a thought, we run water while shaving, warm and cool our homes while we are away, and luxuriate in the shower.  Start the New Year with a pledge to green your daily routine by making small changes that save energy and water.  Invest in a smart thermostat that learns your patterns and adjusts to save energy or set an older thermostat to 68°F in the winter and 78°F in the summer.  Turn off the tap whenever possible, take 5-minute showers, wash clothes in cold water, and run the dishwasher only when full.  The savings from these modifications can be substantial.

12. Go Paperless

Today, virtually any activity that once required paper can be accomplished electronically, toilet paper being a notable exception.  Start the New Year by switching to direct deposit, online billing and statements, and opt for the digital version of magazines, catalogues, and books when possible.  Instead of printing photos and documents share them instantly via the cloud.  Every year 87,500,000 trees could remain standing if Americans used half as much copy paper.

13. Start a Compost Pile

Washtenaw County makes disposing of most recyclables fairly effortless, just rinse and toss them in the bin.  Composting your organic waste is just as easy once you are in the habit.  Not sure how to start the pile?  Washtenaw County’s Solid Waste Program offers instructions online and workshops for groups.  Composting keeps methane and leachate out of landfills, and come spring your plentiful supply of organic fertilizer may inspire a garden or two!14. Volunteer for Conservation or Sign Up for Planned Monthly GivingWe all hope the world will be better in 2013, but volunteers make it happen.  Count toads for Natural Areas, clean ovens for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore program, pull garlic mustard with the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, record your “wild” observations for Nature Abounds, or grow tomatoes for the needy at Edible Avalon.  Can’t spare a minute?  Enroll in planned monthly giving for a deserving conservation group, and give all year without a second thought.15. Travel GreenerWhen traveling this year, try out some greener alternatives to flying.  Take the train for day trips, and for vacations, take a road trip with your family packed in the backseat.  The perfect resolution for frequent flyers: choose only direct flights this year.  If you book in advance, a non-stop option is almost always available for domestic flights, and since half of the carbon emissions are generated during takeoff and landing it’s worth a few extra bucks or a slightly delayed departure. 


MacKenzie Maxwell has served as an Environmental Educator at the Ecology Center for more than a year.  She has presented over 150 tours at the Materials Recovery Facility, focusing on recycling, composting, and solid-waste management issues.  Using her training as a Certified Interpretive Guide, she has developed and presented numerous hands-on, interactive programs on a wide-variety of environmental topics from wetlands to toxics to audiences from preschoolers to seniors. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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