| By Trina Ryan
When faced with a deadly threat, humans do what comes naturally—they adapt. To the extent that history serves as evidence of how resourceful mankind can be, it is to illustrate that pandemics spark a wave of innovation relative to their impact on the daily rhythm of life. Take the Great Plague, also called the Black Death, of the 14th century. Killing millions of Europeans, the plague prompted a widespread need for human labor, thus leading to the invention of clocks and longer work hours. In the early 18th century, debate over whether to inoculate the healthy during the smallpox epidemic gave rise to free press and the first independent American newspaper. More recently, in 2002, SARS forced many Chinese citizens into lockdown. With no other way to socially interact or buy necessities, e-commerce sales soared, providing a launchpad for Alibaba and JD.com, two of the world’s biggest online retailers.
Nearly two decades later, we find ourselves entrenched in another crisis: the novel coronavirus of 2020. For weeks we’ve been working from home, relying on technology for contact with the outside world, tethered to the news for updates on the pandemic and, to be frank, sanity during a seemingly endless quarantine. Sanguine articles about finding a silver lining amid so much chaos and death abound. People are coming out in droves to make face masks for health care workers; neighbors are forging relationships while tending community gardens, sharing conversation while digging their hands into dirt, a forgotten act of utility and camaraderie; “essential workers,” as they’re called—bus drivers, grocery store clerks, delivery people—are risking their lives every day, for minimal pay, to keep life humming along for the rest of us.
But for all the kindness we show one another in times of crisis, there’s one crucial aspect of our lives for which we show little compassion: the environment. In a recent article, David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, wrote, “This pandemic is, in a sense, a rehearsal for what awaits us if we continue to ignore the demands of climate change.” In other words, if we refuse to reconcile our needs of consumption with the survival of our planet, the deaths from rising global temperatures will far outstrip those of the current pandemic.
Small acts of moral virtue lead to wholesale change. Social distancing, staying six feet away or more from another person, has already showed signs of stemming the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. We have seen what is possible when individual actions, those that require us to alter daily habits for a greater good, accumulate as a collective response to a looming, sinister threat. While much of the U.S. remains shuttered, and as we heed public health directives, there are dozens of simple activities we can do at home to save our planet and keep ourselves entertained. Gardening, for instance, allows us to pour our nurturing instincts into something of our own creation, a living reminder that, in spite of our outsize anxieties over what awaits us on the other side of this pandemic, life, through nature, regenerates itself. Just as we’ve deemed humanity worth fighting for, so is the natural world. We are in this coronavirus fight together, and we will have an even bigger fight on our hands as climate change ravages the planet.
Now is the perfect time, as shelter-in-place mandates gradually lift and we adapt to a new world in the glare of coronavirus, to implement small lifestyle changes that will mitigate global heating and preserve the Earth for future generations. Here are six sustainable practices you can do at home (for free!) that will benefit both you and the environment.
No, we don’t mean composting. (More on that later.) Let’s all agree, now is not the time for producing needless waste. Give this a try for a fun experiment: plant the roots and seeds from your fruit and vegetable scraps, and you may soon find signs of new life—a leafy green sprout, a gnarled potato bud. Before long, your windowsill will look like a miniature garden, fit for a quarantined urbanite. You can find myriad blogs online for how to replant just about any herb or piece of produce (here’s a comprehensive one). The gist is that you take the uneaten portion of your food—the base of a celery stalk, for example—place the root portion (or cut side up) into a container with an inch or so of water, and voila, you have the beginning stage of a plant. You can replant your harvested scraps into potted soil outside, or you can put them into a decorative pot indoors to spruce up your home. (Just be sure that whatever container you use has holes in the bottom for water drainage.) Who knew food waste could be useful and beautiful.
Drainage projects, pesticide contamination, groundwater pumping, urbanization: Florida’s natural water systems have long been under siege, so much so that some parts of the state, particularly South Florida, face severe water shortages and compromised water quality. A recent report reveals that as the state’s population continues to rapidly increase—it’s expected to jump from 20 to 26 million by 2030—water demand will exceed supply. Remediating water pollution and preventing the plundering of our rivers, lakes and springs will require stricter ordinances and better infrastructure within municipalities, as well as a concerted effort by state Legislature to employ aggressive restoration projects. These are lofty goals, ones that take time and political pull; however, there are less complicated methods of attacking our water problems—but they demand a change of routine.
First, keep your grass clippings off the sidewalk. This is not only illegal in most counties but dangerous to waterways because it contaminates stormwater runoff with excess nutrients, leading to sludge-like algae blooms in lakes. Second, be conscious of the water you waste brushing your teeth or washing dishes. An easy rule of thumb: If you’re not using water, turn off the tap. This can save at least six liters of water per minute. Set a timer and challenge yourself to take shorter showers. Doing these simple activities helps you realize how much water you waste in a day. If you find social distancing a no-brainer to “flatten the curve,” think of what the small act of conserving water can do for the future of the planet.
The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change declared that to keep global heating below 2 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions must fall every year by 8% until 2030. A greenhouse gas is any gaseous compound capable of absorbing and emitting infrared radiation. If too many of these gases leach into the atmosphere, it causes what’s known as a greenhouse effect—trapping heat near the Earth’s surface, which subsequently leads to a rise in global temperature, or global warming. In 2018, electricity was the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for 27%, with the domestic sector figuring a large portion of that. Spring is an ideal time to curtail electricity consumption in your home by opening windows and doors. Your body will eventually adjust to warmer temperatures. Who knows, you may even find yourself wanting to spend more time outdoors. As natural as sitting inside with the AC blasting can seem to us Floridians, nothing beats basking in the sun.
Under normal circumstances, we would espouse DIY cleaning products. But we live in a strange and precarious world now, one that necessitates our vigilance and straying from the norm. When it comes to safeguarding your home against viruses, not all products are created equal. Baking soda and vinegar won’t do you much good in warding off contamination. Protect yourself—and loved ones—from infection by using chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide to disinfect high-trafficked surface areas, such as doorknobs, countertops, light switches, keyboards and phones. However, there is one product you can substitute with natural ingredients that is arguably the best defense against catching the coronavirus: hand soap. That’s right, you use it every day without much thought—but it’s one of the most failproof tools in your arsenal. Coronaviruses have an envelope around them that allow them to merge with other cells. Washing hands rigorously disrupts the coating on this envelope, preventing the virus from doing its job. The CDC recommends handwashing for at least 20 seconds. Any kind of soap will do, green or not. Give this recipe a try. Unless you have the products on hand, it’s not exactly free. But it’ll cost you less than $1.
No sustainability list is complete without a compost recommendation. Food waste comprises nearly half of the garbage we send to landfills, polluting our oceans and filling the atmosphere with smoke. Making matters worse, much of the decomposition begins before waste is incinerated or dumped into the ocean, releasing heat-trapping methane (a greenhouse gas) that contributes, in large part, to climate change. Diverting food waste is an easy solution, once you know the math. Don’t worry—it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. Most experts agree that a 3:1 ratio is the sweet spot for compost piles, which translates into three parts carbon (your dry materials such as leaves, cardboard, shredded paper) to one part nitrogen (aka your food scraps, barring meat and dairy products).
Start a pile in your backyard and be sure to stir every few days (or when you add new materials). Letting your compost breathe not only prevents odors and allows for better decomposition, but also creates an oxygenated environment that curbs methane emissions. You might also ask your neighbors if you can rake their yards, giving you extra carbon for your compost pile. Considering that we’ve all been in isolation for a while, they’re likely to appreciate the friendly gesture. (For a more in-depth compost guide, read this blog by Fleet Farming.)
It’s a marvel of our species—how connected to nature we are. A stroll through a park, listening to bird song, watching the ripples of a lake invites our minds to wander with abandon, to explore creative ideation without judgement. Now more than ever, outdoor activities offer a welcome distraction from a global calamity that feels beyond our control. Volumes of scientific studies have proven the physical benefits of interacting with nature, such as boosting vitamin D levels and cadiovascular health. But perhaps most relevant to our current moment is that it reduces stress and gives us a sense of well-being. Researchers have found that bustling urban environments—think traffic noise, construction, pedestrians on phones— quickly deplete energy reserves by forcing us to focus on multiple stimuli at once. Conversely, nature allows our senses to drift from one to another at a more digestible pace. Only when we take a moment to imbibe the beauty that surrounds us—breathe fresh air, feel the sun’s warmth—do we appreciate the value, and necessity, of preserving our planet. We don’t have time to waste. Let’s get to it.