Things To Do: Working With The Earth


This is a list of things individuals can do based on suggestions from a wide variety of environmentalists. It is not meant to be a list of things you must do but a list of actions you might consider. Donít feel guilty about the things you are not doing. Start off by picking the ones that you are willing to do and that you feel will have the most impact. Many of these suggestions are controversial. Carefully evaluate each action to see whether it fits in with your beliefs. Based on practicality and my own beliefs, I do some of these things. Each year I look over this list and try to add several new items.



∑ Develop a plan for t he sustainable use of any forested area you own.

∑ Plant trees on a regular basis and fake care of them.

∑ Reduce the use of wood and paper products, recycle paper products, and buy recycled paper products.

∑ Donít buy furniture, door, flooring, window frames, paneling, or other products made from tropical hardwoods such as teak or mahogany. Look for the Good-Wood seal given by Friends of the Earth, or consult the Wood Userís Guide by Pamela Weliner and Eugene Dickey (San Francisco: Rainforest Action Network, 1991).

∑ Donít purchase wood and paper products produced by cutting remaining old-growth forests in the tropics and elsewhere. Information on such products can be obtained from the Rainforest Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, and Friends of the Earth.

∑ Help rehabilitate or restore a degraded area or forest near your home.

∑ Donít buy furs, ivory products, items made of reptile skin, tortoiseshell jewelry, and materials of endangered or threatened animal species.

∑ When building a home, save all the trees possible. Require that the contractor disturb as little soil as possible, set up barriers that catch any soil eroded during construction, and save and replace any topsoil removed instead of hauling it off and selling it.

∑ Landscape areas not used for gardening should be planted with a mix of wildflowers, herbs (for cooking and for repelling insects), low-growing ground cover, small bushes, and other forms of vegetation natural to the area.

∑ Set up a compost bin and use it to produce soil conditioner for yard and garden plants.



∑ Waste less food. An estimated 25% of all food produced in the United States is wasted.

∑ Eat lower on the food chain by reducing or eliminating meat consumption to reduce its environmental impact.

∑ If you have a dog or a cat, donít feed it canned meat products. Balanced-grain pet foods are available.

∑ Reduce the use of pesticides on agricultural products by asking grocery stores to stock fresh produce and meat produced by organic methods.

∑ Grow some of your own food using organic farming techniques and drip irrigation to water your crops.

∑ Compost your food wastes.

∑ Think globally, eat locally. Whenever possible, eat food that is locally grown and in season. This supports your local economy, gives you more influence over how the food is grown (by either organic or conventional methods), saves energy required to transport food over long distances, and reduces the fossil-fuel use and pollution. If you deal directly with local farmers, you can also save money.

∑ Give up the idea that the only good bug is a dead bug. Recognize that insect species keep most of the populations of pest insects in check and that full-scale chemical warfare on insect pests wipes out many beneficial insects.

∑ Donít insist on perfect -looking fruits and vegetables. These are more likely to contain high levels of pesticide residues.

∑ Use pesticides in your home only when absolutely necessary, and use them in the smallest amount possible.

∑ Donít become obsessed with having the perfect lawn. About 40% of U.S. lawns are treated with pesticides. These chemicals can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye trouble, and even more acute effects in sensitive people (including children who play on treated lawns and in parks).

∑ If you hire a lawn-care company, use one that relies only on organic methods, and get its claims in writing.



∑ Reduce use of fossil fuels. Drive a car that gets at least 15 kilometers per liter (35 miles per gallon), join a car pool, and use mass transit, walking, and bicycling as much as possible. This will reduce emissions of CO2 and other air pollutants, will save energy and money, and can improve your health.

∑ Plant and care for trees to help absorb CO2. During its lifetime, the average tree absorbs enough CO2 to offset the amount produced by driving a car 42,000 kilometers (26,000 miles).

∑ Donít use electricity to heat space or water. Insulate new or existing houses heavily, caulk and weather-strip to reduce air infiltration and heat loss, and use energy-efficient windows. Add an air-to-air heat exchanger to minimize indoor air pollution.

∑ Obtain as much heat and cooling as possible from natural sources, especially sun, wind, geothermal energy, and trees.

∑ Buy the most energy-efficient homes, lights, cars, and appliances available. Evaluate them only in terms of lifetime cost.

∑ Turn down the thermostat on water heaters to 43ó49į C (110ó120į F) and insulate hot water pipes.

∑ Lower the cooling load on an air conditioner by increasing the thermostat setting, installing energy-efficient lighting, using floor and ceiling funs, and using whole-house window or attic fans to bring in outside air (especially at night, when temperatures are cooler).



∑ Test for radon and take corrective measures as needed.

∑ Install air-to-air heat exchangers or regularly ventilate your house by opening windows.

∑ At the beginning of the winter heating season, test your indoor air fur formaldehyde when the house is closed up. To locate a testing laboratory in your area, write to Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, DC 20207, or call 301-492-6800.

∑ Donít buy furniture and other products containing formaldehyde. Use low-emitting formaldehyde or non-formaldehyde building materials.

∑ Reduce indoor levels of formaldehyde and other toxic gases by growing certain house plants. Examples are the spider or airplane plant (removes 96% of carbon monoxide), aloe vera (90% of formaldehyde), banana (89% of formaldehyde), elephant ear philodendron (86% of formaldehyde), ficus (weeping fig, 47% of formaldehyde), golden porthos (67% of formaldehyde and benzene and 75% of carbon monoxide), Chinese evergreen (92% of toluene and 81% of benzene), English ivy (90% of benzene), peace lily (80% of benzene and 50% of trichloroethylene), and Janet Craig (corn plant, 79% of benzene). (Toxic removal figures indicate percentage of toxin removed by one plant in a 24-hour period in a 3.4-cubic-meter [12-cubic-foot] space). Plants should be potted with a mixture of soil and granular charcoal (which absorbs organic air pollutants).

∑ Consider not using carpeting and using wood or linoleum floors instead. New synthetic carpeting releases vapors from more than 100 volatile organic compounds. New and old carpeting is a haven for microbes (many of them highly allergenic), dust, and traces of lead and pesticides brought in by shoes.

∑ Remove your shoes before entering your house. This reduces inputs of dust, lead, and pesticides.

∑ Test your house or workplace for asbestos fiber levels and for any crumbling asbestos materials (fit was built before 1980. Donít buy a pre-1980 house without having its indoor air tested for asbestos and lead. To get a free list of certified asbestos laboratories that charge $25óSO to test a sample call the EPAís Toxic Substances Control Hotline at 202-554-1404.

∑ Donít store gasoline, solvents, or other volatile hazardous chemicals inside a home or attached garage.

∑ Donít use aerosol spray products and commercial room deodorizers or air fresheners.

∑ If you smoke, do it outside or in a closed room vented to the outside.

∑ Make sure that wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, and kerosene- and gas-burning heaters are properly installed, vented, and maintained. Install carbon monoxide detectors in all sleeping areas.



∑ For existing toilets, reduce the amount of water used per flush by putting into each tank a tall plastic container weighted with a few stones or by buying and inserting a toilet dam.

∑ Install water-saving toilets that use no more than 6 liters (1.6 gallons) per flush.

∑ Flush toilets only when necessary. Consider using the advice found on a bathroom wall in a drought-stricken area: "If itís yellow, let it mellow; if itís brown, flush it down."

∑ Install water-saving showerheads and flow resistors on all faucets. If a 3.8-liter (1-gallon) jug can be filled by your shower-head in less than 15 seconds, you need a more efficient fixture.

∑ Check frequently for water leaks in toilets and pipes, and repair them promptly. A toilet must be leaking more than 940 liters (250 gallons) per day before you can hear the leak. To test for toilet leaks, add a water-soluble vegetable dye to the water in the tank, but donít flush. If you have a leak, some color will show up in the bowlís water within a few minutes.

∑ Turn off sink faucets while brushing teeth, shaving, or washing.

∑ Wash only full loads of clothes; if smaller loads must be used, use the lowest possible water-level setting.

∑ When buying a new washer, choose one that uses the least amount of water and fills up to different levels for loads of different sizes. Front-loading clothes models use less water and energy than comparable top-loading models.

∑ Use automatic dishwashers fur full loads only. Also, use the short cycle and let dishes air dry to save energy and money.

∑ When washing many dishes by hand, donít let the faucet run. Instead, use one filled dishpan or sink for washing and another for rinsing.

∑ Keep one or more large bottles of water in the refrigerator rather than running water from the tap until it gets cold enough fur drinking.

∑ Donít use a garbage disposal systemóa large user of water. Instead, consider composting your food wastes.

∑ Wash a car from a bucket of soapy wafer, and use the hose fur rinsing only. Use a commercial car wash that recycles its water.

∑ Sweep walks and driveways instead of hosing them off.

∑ Reduce evaporation losses by watering lawns and gardens in the early morning or evening, rather than in the heat of midday or when itís windy.

∑ Use drip irrigation and mulch fur gardens and flower beds. Better yet, landscape with native plants adapted to local average annual precipitation so that watering is unnecessary



∑ Use manure or compost instead of commercial inorganic fertilizers to fertilize garden and yard plants.

∑ Use biological methods or integrated pest management to control garden, yard, and household pests.

∑ Use low-phosphate, phosphate-free, or biodegradable dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, and shampoo.

∑ Donít use water fresheners in toilets. Use less harmful substances instead of commercial chemicals for most household cleaners.

∑ Donít pour pesticides, paints, solvents, oil, antifreeze, or other products containing harmful chemicals down the drain or onto the ground. Contact your local health department about disposal.

∑ If you get water from a private well or suspect that municipal water is contaminated, have it tested by an EPA-certified laboratory for lead, nitrates, trihalomethanes, radon, volatile organic compounds, and pesticides.

∑ If you have a septic tank, have it cleaned out every 3-5 years by a reputable contractor so that it wonít contribute to groundwater pollution.



∑ Buy less by asking yourself whether you really need a particular item.

∑ Buy things that are reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and be sure to reuse, recycle, and compost them.

∑ Buy beverages in refillable glass containers instead of cans or throwaway bottles. Urge companies and legislators to make refillable plastic (PET) bottles available in the United States.

∑ Use reusable plastic or metal lunch boxes and metal or plastic garbage containers without throwaway plastic liners (unless such liners are required for garbage collection).

∑ Carry sandwiches and store food in the refrigerator in reusable containers instead of wrapping them in aluminum foil or plastic wrap.

∑ Use rechargeable batteries and recycle them when their useful life is over. In 1993 Rayovac began selling mercury-free, rechargeable alkaline batteries (Renewal batteries) that outperform conventional nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries.

∑ Carry groceries and other items in a reusable basket, a canvas or string bag, or a small cart.

∑ Use reusable sponges and washable cloth napkins, dish towels, and handkerchiefs instead of paper ones.

∑ Stop using throwaway paper and plastic plates, cups, and eating utensils, and other disposable items when reusable or refillable versions are available.

∑ Buy recycled goods, especially those made by primary recycling, and then make an effort to recycle them. If youíre not buying recycled materials, youíre not recycling.

∑ Reduce the amount of junk mail you get. Do this (as several million Americans have done) at no charge by contacting the Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, 11 West 42nd St., P.O. Box 3681, New York, NY 10163-3861 (212-768-7277) and asking that your name not be sold to large mailing-list companies. Of the junk mail you do receive, recycle as much of the paper as possible.

∑ Buy products in concentrated form whenever possible.

∑ Choose items that have the least packagingóor better yet, no packaging ("nude products")

∑ Donít buy helium-filled balloons that end up as litter. Urge elected officials and school administrators to ban balloon releases except for atmospheric research and monitoring.

∑ Lobby local officials to set up a community composting program.

∑ Use pesticides and other hazardous chemicals only when absolutely necessary and in the smallest amount possible.

∑ Use less hazardous (and usually cheaper) cleaning products.

∑ Donít dispose of hazardous chemicals by flushing them down the toilet, pouring them down the drain, burying them, throwing them into the garbage, or dumping them down storm drains. Consult your local health department or environmental agency for safe disposal methods.



∑ Find out their names and addresses. Then write, call, fax, or E-mail them. Contact a senator by writing: The Honorable U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; Tel: 202-224-3121, Web site:

∑ Contact a representative by writing: The Honorable _________, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20510; Tel: 202-225-3121, Web site: Contact the president by writing: President _________, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20500; Tel. 202-456-1414, Comment line: 202-456-1111, Fax: 202-456-2461,, Web site:

∑ When you write a letter, use your own words, be brief and courteous, address only one issue, and ask the elected official to do something specific (such as cosponsoring, supporting, or opposing certain bills). Give reasons for your position, explain its effects on you and your district, try to offer alternatives, share any expert knowledge you have, and ask for a response. Be sure to include your name and return address.

∑ After your representatives have cast votes* supporting your position, send them a short note of thanks.

∑ Call and ask to speak to a staff member who works on the issue you are concerned about: for the White House, 202-456-1414 (Web site:; for the U.S. Senate, 202-224-3121; for the House of Representatives, 202-225-3121. The E-mail address for the U.S. Congress is Web server: mail:

∑ Once a desirable bill is passed, call or write to urge the president not to veto it. Urge the members of the appropriations committee to appropriate enough money to implement the lawóa crucial decision.

∑ Monitor and influence action at the state and local levels, where all federal and state laws are either ignored or enforced. As Thomas Jefferson said, "The execution of laws is more important than the making of them."

∑ Get others who agree with your position to contact their elected officials.