It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of the people in the world cannot see the Milky Way from their homes. We light up our environment for safety, to allow us to move about at night, and to decorate our homes and businesses. But this light is also obliterating the stars–a source of inspiration and information for diverse cultures across the centuries.
Light pollution doesn’t just wash out the glories of the night sky and frustrate amateur astronomers. It wastes energy and money. Poor lighting design creates glare that actually makes it difficult to see well at night. Misdirected light crosses property lines and intrudes into homes, disturbing sleep. Hundreds of studies have documented the adverse effects of light pollution on the environment. It has devastating impact on some animal behaviors. More than 1,600 investigations into its impact on human health have been published. It may be a carcinogen. The American Medical Association is sufficiently concerned to have voted to “support light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts” and to “support efforts to ensure all future streetlights be of a fully shielded design or similar non-glare design to improve the safety of our roadways.”
Municipalities all over the United States, including towns in Westchester, are replacing their older streetlights with brighter LED streetlamps. The main reason is economic: LED streetlamps use much less power and have very long lives, reducing costs. New York City is replacing a quarter of a million street lamps and each year expects to save $6 million in energy costs and $8 million in maintenance. Another positive factor is that these fixtures are better shielded than the old “cobra head” sodium vapor lamps, projecting more of the light where it’s needed and not uselessly up to the sky. However, while shielding is better than before, it’s not as good as it could be. New York City’s LED streetlamps still project 5% of the light upward and up to 20% into the “glare zone” at or above 80 degrees. Many municipalities are installing similar “semi-cutoff” street lamps.
In addition, most of the fixtures installed to date use LED’s that emit light that is enriched in the blue part of the spectrum. Blue-rich LEDs produce three times as much skyglow as the older lights because blue light scatters much more efficiently than light in the “warmer” (yellow) part of the spectrum, a phenomenon known as “Rayleigh scattering.” The daytime sky is blue because our atmosphere scatters blue light in the sun’s spectrum more than other colors. Blue-rich light also causes more glare, poses greater difficulties for older eyes, has more damaging ecological impacts, and more readily disrupts human circadian rhythms. LED’s that have a warmer color temperature and produce nearly the same amount of light per watt consumed as blue-rich LEDs are now available for outdoor use.
We may have to wait until the end of the 15-year life span of new LED street lamps to try to get them replaced with warmer lamps. If your town is still in the process of acquiring and installing LED street lamps, ask it to use the warmer, more ecologically and medically friendly bulbs in fully-shielded fixtures.
A source of light pollution you can control is your own home. Replace decorative lighting that throws light upwards where it’s not needed with fixtures that direct the light downward. Use warm LED bulbs. Turn off outside lights when they’re not needed. Ask your neighbors and businesses you frequent to do the same.
For more information, check out http://www.darksky.org, the web site of the International Dark-Sky Association.
As if the impacts of environmental issues such as climate change and pollution weren’t bad enough, they can also affect some populations disproportionately more than others. For instance, research published in Nature Scientific Reportshas shown that some countries that have emitted more greenhouse gases, including the United States, will experience fewer effects of climate change when compared to countries in Africa or island communities.
In addition to having unequal impacts on a global level, environmental issues can also impact populations differently within a community depending on factors like class, race, and more. For instance, as recounted by Bill McKibben in the New York Times, the Dakota Access Pipeline was initially
supposed to cross the Missouri just north of Bismarck, until people pointed out that a leak there would threaten the drinking water supply for North Dakota’s second biggest city. The solution, in keeping with American history, was obvious: make the crossing instead just above the Standing Rock reservation, where the poverty rate is nearly three times the national average.
As cited in the Washington Post, researchers at the University of Minnesota who were studying exposure to NO2 have shown that “the New York/Newark metropolitan area ranks as having the widest disparity in average exposure between lower-income minority census block groups and upper-income white ones across the entire metro area.”
Many urban highways, for instance, were originally routed through minority communities that were politically easier to uproot than middle-class white neighborhoods. Rumbling highways and landfills also depress nearby property values, meaning that people who can afford to live elsewhere do, while those who can’t remain within their influence.
Environmental justice seeks to account for these differences and ensure that all populations’ voices are heard, no matter their gender, race, or other identities. According to the EPA:
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
For a 3-minute crash course on environmental justice, check out the video below:
What can we do about it?
Curious about what we can do about environmental justice? Below are our notes about first steps we can take from a webinar by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
One key takeaway was to make decision-making processes as inclusive as possible, whether by reaching out to people through different channels or ensuring that information is available in different languages. The EPA’s Environmental Justice site includes additional resources on ensuring that environmental justice is included in decision-making processes.
Approaching issues from an environmental justice perspective leads to actions that are more inclusive of all community members!
We’re thrilled to feature a guest post about Scarsdale’s food scrap recycling program by Darlene Haber, Michelle Sterling, and Ron Schulhof:
Scarsdale Launches the First Food Scrap Recycling Program in Westchester County … and wants to share the program with other municipalities in Westchester!
In January of this year Scarsdale launched the first municipal food scrap recycling program in Westchester County! Residents Ron Schulhof and Michelle Sterling partnered with the Village of Scarsdale to launch this program. The first six months have been a resounding success with over 67,000 lbs. of food scraps collected and recycled into useful compost!
The program is set up as a voluntary municipal drop-off site where residents can bring their food scraps. Residents collect their food scraps at home in a fully sealed countertop pail lined with a compostable bag. Once the countertop pail fills up, the bags can be stored in larger storage and transportation bin until the homeowner is ready to bring their food scraps to the drop-off site. The larger bin, which locks for transportation, is taken by the homeowner to the Scarsdale Recycling Center and dumped into larger toters at the drop-off site site. From there the food scraps are picked up and brought to an off-site composting facility and turned into useful compost!
Just six months into the program 67,000 lbs of food scraps has already been collected recycled into compost! Each week more than 2 tons of food scraps are brought to the Scarsdale Recycling Center! There are currently more than 750 Scarsdale households (13% of the community) participating and the number grows every day!
If you are interested in starting a similar program in your community, please email the Scarsdale Food Scrap Recycling Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org and they would be happy to give your community everything you need to get started!
Together we can reduce our waste and help our towns and Westchester County be an environmental leader. Together we can all do it!
All views presented are those of the speakers, and do not necessarily represent those of FCWC or co-sponsoring organizations of Conservation Café.
Around 35 people attended “Pesticides All Around Us,” a panel presentation and interactive discussion at Pace University’s Pleasantville Campus, held on June, 2, 2017. Topics included the possible health impacts of pesticides, ways to engage community members and local officials in reducing pesticide use, and the political landscape of pesticide regulation.
Patti Wood, Grassroots Environmental Education
Patti Wood, Founder and Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, started off by talking about the impact that pesticides have on the environment and on our health. According to Patti, “We’re killing off our army — all the microorganisms in the soil that help us.” In addition, pesticides can also harm pollinators that are essential for the growth of food crops.
Unfortunately, the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs has not been effectively regulating the use of pesticides, providing contradictory information about the safety of pesticide use. In addition, Scott Pruitt, current head of the agency, has reversed the EPA’s own recommendation on chlorpyrifos, which may have adverse impacts on children’s neurological development (see “EPA Decides Not To Ban A Pesticide, Despite Its Own Evidence Of Risk” for more).
As far as local action on pesticides goes, “municipalities can’t pass pesticide ordinances stricter than that of the state.” However, local governments can restrict pesticide use on their own land and can run public education campaigns to help residents manage land without pesticides as well. Some are adopting “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) policies, which mean that a non-toxic solution needs to be attempted first, but afterwards any type of pest management can be used. Unfortunately, the reduction in pesticide use under these policies can be highly dependent on whoever is running the IPM program.
According to Patti, we have “more organic landscapes in Westchester than any other county in the United States.” We also have a lot of land bordering important waterways, like the Long Island Sound, so there is a lot at stake when it comes to regulating pesticide use. In her words, “We have an obligation and a responsibility not to poison this land.”
Peter deLucia, Westchester County Department of Health and Mike McCall, Pest Management Committee
Peter deLucia, Assistant Commissioner of Westchester County Department of Health, and Mike McCall, Westchester County Pest Management Coordinator, spoke about efforts at the County level to reduce pesticide use. Before applying pesticides, they send mosquitoes to be tested for disease like the West Nile Virus and train employees to recognize which catch basins could be possible breeding grounds for mosquitoes. They also test for pesticide residue in water bodies like the Long Island Sound to ensure that they aren’t entering waterways through runoff.
Mike McCall also spoke about the “environmental impact quotient” (EIQ), which can be used to compare pesticides with each other based on characteristics like their likelihood of leaching, toxicity to fish and bees, etc. and which is now used by the County when deciding which pesticide to use.
In addition, they discussed some ways to reduce mosquitoes and ticks without pesticides. For instance, Westchester County gave away minnows to homeowners with standing bodies of water. These fish can help control populations of mosquito larvae in an “organic” way (for more information, see “Westchester helps fight mosquitoes with fish.” They also recommended cleaning out gutters and emptying any containers that contain water because “usually mosquitoes that are biting you were breeding in your or your neighbor’s property.”
They also presented some facts about how to prevent ticks. For instance, they recommended creating a barrier out of mulch or gravel around a yard, which ticks would be unlikely to cross. When returning from the outdoors, they suggest putting clothes in the dryer to kill ticks, before putting them in the wash. To prevent mosquitoes inside the home, ensure that there aren’t any holes in screens on doors and windows.
If using insect repellant, they suggested using 20% DEET and applying as little as possible. They also cautioned against using insect spray along with sunscreen that includes repellant in it, and to wash it off immediately after coming back inside (for more on potential health impacts of DEET and some alternatives, here’s a short article in Scientific American).
Sara Goddard, Chair of Rye Sustainability Committee (RSC)
Sara Goddard discussed ways to work with the community to reduce the use of pesticides at the town level and in residents’ own homes. She had a few recommendations for anyone looking to start their own campaign like the Rye Healthy Yards program:
Understand what the needs of the community are; for instance, natural landscaping is better not just for the environment, but for the health of humans and animals too. As Sara said, “it’s neighborly” to reduce pesticide use and protect those around us.
She recommended creating “community buy-in” through events and educational campaigns. For example, some Rye residents with healthy yards held neighborhood coffees at their homes. They would invite neighbors to hear an expert speak about topics like how to compost or talk to a landscaper. Attendees also had the opportunity to take a pledge to start taking action in their own homes.
Online communication is also important and provides a great platform for sharing educational videos or engaging preexisting groups (like Chappaqua Moms). Email newsletters are also a great way to reach anyone who doesn’t use social media.
Community engagement should be “positive, personal, locally-focused, and empowering for individuals.” After all, each resident is an important part of the solution. Rye created a Healthy Yards Gallery to allow homeowners to share photos of what their yards really look like, thereby normalizing pesticide-free yards and showing that “healthy is beautiful: your neighbors have healthy yards and you can too.”
Another idea from Rye Healthy Yards was to have a design contest for yard signs. In addition to getting more people involved through a competition, the signs could be placed on Healthy Yards to give even more visibility to the program.
She also had some suggestions for how to work with local governments on reducing pesticide use:
First understand what other communities have already done for ideas and inspiration. For example, here’s a list of different ordinances in towns in Maine. Get in touch with some of the leaders in these communities to understand what challenges they faced and for any advice they may have.
In addition to being a source of ideas, this can also show local officials that there’s precedence for these types of laws. They can also demonstrate how our own towns could be potential leaders when it comes to pesticide reduction.
She also recommended speaking with lawncare professionals, city staff, the chamber of commerce, local non-profits, and more to build a network of community support.
Some of the challenges of developing this type of initiative are that no one wants to be told what they can or can’t do on personal property, and that these efforts can be difficult to enforce. According to Sara, the “will of the people” is necessary for enforcement to work, which is why it’s helpful to build community support as well.
After the panel presentation, attendees had a few questions for the speakers:
Q. “Could you give us a brief outline of what constitutes organic lawn care and where to start?”
A. Patti suggested starting with aeration and overseeding at the end of August or September. This helps ensure thick turf with fewer weeds. Compost or compost tea should be applied before the winter. In the spring, she recommended doing a soil test to understand what the soil’s pH and other characteristics are like and then “feeding the soil with whatever the soil test tells you,” such as corn gluten meal. If fertilizer is necessary, use organic fertilizer with water-insoluble nitrogen, which will prevent the nitrogen from immediately being washed away as runoff.
Q. “How do you convey information to homeowners in a way that gets to them?”
A. Try to get the message out through different means, like with neighbor coffees, through photo galleries, workshops, etc. Delivering lawn signs in person creates another avenue of communication with homeowners.
According to Peter and Sara, enforcement tends to be “complaint-based” like with idling laws, showing the importance of community buy-in. While the ideal would be municipal ordinances banning pesticides, Sara also noted that unfortunately, municipalities’ “hands are tied” given the current dominance of the states when it comes to pesticide regulation, so it’s especially important to work with local community members and businesses along with local government officials.
Repeated education may be necessary, like with leaf blower bans; otherwise, residents may forget about the issue. Incorporate resident feedback into educational campaigns. Create trust that neighbors think that having a healthy yard is ok.
Pattie also highlighted how children can help spread the message as well, just like they did with recycling. She also talked about highlighting the potential neurological and endocrine risks for children’s health.
Q. Is anyone monitoring the health impacts on landscapers, who go home to their families after applying pesticides on lawns?
Q. Are crabgrass and dandelion native, and are they ok to leave in your yard?
A. According to Mike, they’re “not going to hurt anybody” and can even be a source of food (like dandelion salad). He hasn’t applied pesticides in five years and has started to view his lawn differently; for instance, he now sees it as a food source for bees.
Some other suggestions:
There were suggestions of weeding by hand if a homeowner cannot tolerate weeds; after all, “it’s amazing what you can do in 30 minutes.”
Sara also reiterated the importance of visual markers like yard signs showing that a yard follows natural landscaping practices: “Once you see one sign, then 2 signs, then people are like: why don’t I have a sign?”
Mike also recommended that if you live in a condominium or apartment complex, it can be helpful to ask the building manager about what pesticides are being used and when. Ideally more than one resident will be concerned about this issue. It’s also helpful to have some alternatives to pesticide use and to be prepared to address any possible challenges to changing the current lawn care regimen (like cost).
Peter suggested getting business on your side; after all, local governments do not want to make their own towns less friendly for certain businesses. Having landscapers who are behind an initiative will make it much easier to pass.
Patti reiterated how important it is to have organic landscapers within the community, and that there are already many resources available for towns looking to make a change.
Co-sponsored by Untermyer Gardens and the Westchester Community College Native Plant Center
Wondering what you can do to help support wild birds, wildlife, and beneficial insects at home, despite the impacts of climate change? On Thursday, April 6th, over 25 attendees braved the torrential rain and thunder to continue the discussion started at our “Birds, Bugs, and Bushes” event to learn about even more steps they can take in their own backyards.
Unfortunately, much of the news about the current state of wildlife and the impacts of climate change was sobering:
Although it’s well known that monarch butterflies are threatened, there are also many other butterflies that are at risk of extinction but are not extensively studied because of a lack of grant money. Here’s a list from the Xerces Society with around 50 species that could be in danger.
In addition to butterflies, native bee species may also be threatened (did you know that honeybees aren’t native?). In New York, there are around 450 native bee species, but there isn’t a lot of historical data available to compare current numbers with. For reference though, in the Midwest, around 50% of their native bees have disappeared.
Piling onto all this, climate change will alter the cyclical relationships (also known as “phenology”) between different species, and it’s uncertain if they will be able to adapt. There are certain temperatures, hours of sunlight, and amounts of precipitation that trigger flowering or migration. As the growing season starts earlier and ends later, these triggers will change, creating “phenology mismatches.” For instance, if birds miss the period when insects emerge, it may become difficult for landscapes to support them as there will be insufficient sources of food available in regions where they previously thrived.
According to Kim, there is also research that suggests that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be more beneficial to invasive plant species than to native ones (here’s a paper with more on the phenomenon). Although it may seem like a good thing to have more plant growth, invasives are “not ecologically equivalent to natives.” For example, Japanese Honeysuckle thicket does not protect Northern Cardinals from predators as well as that of native species, and its fruit is “like junk food for migrating birds” (read more here about the differences between native and invasive fruits for migrating birds).
Unfortunately, current gardening practices are resource intensive and dominated by “monocultures” (like turf grass, which Kim calls the “green desert”),typically using around 15% or more of the average household’s total water usage. Kim cited a stat by NASA showing that turf is the “single largest irrigated crop in the US” (more info available here).
What you can do
Although it may not be possible for us to single-handedly help all birds, “we can help the ones in our backyard.” Kim offered some ideas of what we can do:
On a 1/5 acre plot of land, less than 20 miles from midtown Manhattan, Kim found that by planting host plants like Serviceberries (aka Juneberries/Shadbush) shrubs, she was able to attract many species of wild birds back to her landscape. Her talk focused on creating landscapes that are wildlife-friendly and on how to use resources more sustainably.
Rethink traditional gardening practices – instead, think like a bee!
Kim recommended that instead of thinking simply about how plants look, prioritize a plant’s function.
Instead of creating homogenous landscapes with a single variety, she recommended that we “think about mixed hedging.” Birds, bees, and other species need a variety of different services from yards, including food and shelter. Monocultures can’t meet all of these needs.
By planting a diverse group of species, and by planting enough of them, it’s easier to ensure that species are getting more of what they need out of a landscape. In addition, turn to native plant species, which have evolved along with local wildlife. The berries produced by native species are better able to provide adequate nutrition and energy for migrating birds. Kim pointed out that some native plants – like Spicebush, Winterberry, Sassafras, and American Holly – require both male and female plants in order to produce berries. Plant the males and females close together, making it easier for bees to visit all the plants at once. Only one male is needed to pollinate multiple female plants.
Kim also called for rethinking our philosophy towards gardening. She recommended the work of Dr. Doug Tallamy, who says that “we’ve been unwilling to tolerate messiness, imperfection, and damage” in our landscapes, but need to start allowing for it. Even if a plant isn’t visually appealing, it can still serve a number of ecosystem services as a source of food or shelter. For example, we often think of leaf “damage” as something to “fix” – when, in fact, our native caterpillars must consume leaves to survive. In addition, adding layers of plants that are at different heights into a garden makes it have a better resemblance to natural landscapes.
Some of her suggestions included doing less. Instead of neatly clearing out all remnants of trees, she recommended leaving dead trees or stumps standing (“snags”) or leaving fallen logs in a landscape, which can serve as habitat or sources of nutrition. For instance, she encouraged leaving perennials standing through the winter, which can serve as shelter for ladybugs, which gather in the stems.
“We aren’t perfect and our landscapes don’t have to be either.” – Kim Eierman, EcoBeneficial
Reducing carbon emissions
Kim recommended not just planting more trees to mitigate climate change,but also “keeping trees safe” by protecting their extensive root zones that may be 2 to 3 times the width of their canopy. If there’s construction occurring at home, keep heavy machinery away from trees, which can compact the soil. She also asked us to reconsider our “tree-fear” (which prompts many Westchester residents to prophylactically take down trees that think might fall during future storms) – and to only remove trees when truly necessary – pointing out the variety of benefits that trees can provide. For instance, it “takes 1/2 acre of trees 1 year to absorb CO2 from driving car 13,000 miles.”
In addition toreducing the carbon dioxide in the air through planting trees, she suggested that we “minimize carbon inputs” by using human power or electric equipment instead of gas. Some towns and villages in Westchester have their own gas blower bans; here’s some information about the County’s law.
Not just plants…
In addition to the plant life in our landscapes, there are also other features thatKim mentioned we should pay attention to:
Water: By substituting impervious surfaces (like pavement) with permeable ones (like gravel), we can keep stormwater within the landscape. Other ideas include rain gardens. In addition to sustainable stormwater management, bodies of water can be kept clean by creating “riparian buffers” instead of having lawn growing up to the edge of a water source(bonus: fewer geese!) Even native plants need watering (especially when they are first planted, before they have fully established. However, try to use as little water as possible by watering in the morning, with soakers, and fewer times a week (but for longer periods of time) so that the water is absorbed more deeplyinto the soil.
Soil: For healthy soil, avoid synthetic fertilizers and use organic fertilizer only when necessary. To find out if your soil needs fertilizer, do a soil test first (can be done with a home kit – or by sending a sample to the local cooperative extension school). Other natural supplements include compost, compost tea (which can be made at home), and leaves (“nature’s mulch”). Check out the Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em initiative in Westchester for more!
“Don’t treat your soil like dirt.” – Kim Eierman, EcoBeneficial
Signage: According to Kim, it’s helpful to “give your neighbors a cue that you’re doing things differently for a reason.” Add signage to your garden to show exactly what you’re doing (visit the National Wildlife Federation website and Grow Organic for ideas).
Tips for buying plants
Here are some tips for buying plants:
Try to pick species that can survive in a variety of hardiness levels and have deep roots, which may be able to withstand extremes in precipitation and shifts in our climate.
Try to find plants that are as close to their“natural” form as possible (“no funky colors or big berries”). In addition, look for ones that have a “long flowering time” and “persistent fruit” which can be an important food source for birds migrating in colder weather (more info here). Steer clear of “double-flowered plants,” which offer less nectar to wildlife and have fewer seeds.
“Plant diversely and sufficiently”: In addition to getting a diversity of plants, try to get at least a few plants of each kind; when pollinators venture out, they’re often looking to pollinate a single species at a time. It’s easier for them to spot multiple plants of the same variety that are planted closer together.
For “dioecious” plants (plants having the male and female reproductive organs on separate individuals, as opposed to those that are “monoecious”) be sure to buy both male and female varieties of plants; you may only need 1 male for every 4 or 5 females.
If your local nursery doesn’t already carry a wide variety of native plants, request it! In addition, try to get plants that flower at different times, ensuring a steady supply for wildlife.
If invasive species are an issue in your landscape (Japanese Barberry, Burning Bush, Oriental Bittersweet, Japanese Stiltgrass, Garlic Mustard, etc.) Kim suggests that you replace them thickly and quickly with “competitive natives” that will be able to outgrow invasive species that may already have established seed beds in the soil. It may take a few years to completely remove invasives, but having native plants that are able to compete with them can help.
Kim cautioned against “assisted migration,” which is the planting of species that are adapted to the warmer temperatures we can expect over the coming decades. These could be the “invasives of the future” – after all, many invasive species originally entered the landscape because of horticulture.
Creating landscapes that are beneficial to wildlife, even with the impacts of climate change, is becoming more important now than ever; after all, our yards may be one of the few remaining places where creatures can still get a “piece of nature.”
Shifting and shrinking ranges of habitat caused by climate change will have serious implications throughout our natural world.
In fact, Audubon’s findings classify nearly half of all North American birds as severely threatened by global warming. Sea level rise will put pressure on estuarine marshes and the birds and other wildlife they support.
Plant community shifts within the forests in our region where trees with northern range distributions are becoming locally extinct and southern ranged trees are migrating in will have impacts of this on this region’s carbon storage capacity.
Larger and more frequent insect outbreaks may occur, but in other cases recurring outbreaks may be disrupted or diminished.
On March 2nd at the Chappaqua Library, we were joined by over 50 attendees to hear from three experts about the effects climate change is likely to have on local flora and fauna, along with some simple action steps we can all take to help mitigate these effects.
However, there are some instances where a small group of people have been able to help out wildlife, like the bald eagle. In addition, he encouraged us to focus not just on the impacts of climate change, but also to continue appreciating the beauty of the natural world around us. Enjoying nature through citizen science, birding, and more can be a social activity!
Louis Sorkin, an entomologist from the American Museum of Natural History, pointed out that some insects actually need cold weather in order for their life cycles to progress properly. Climate change can make insects appear earlier in the spring, and, according to research by Erik E Stange, cause fewer insects to die during the winter, allowing them to spread to higher latitudes.
In addition to the direct effects that changing temperatures will have on insects, climate change can disrupt the symbiotic relationships that bugs have with other species. Here’s how that might happen:
The changing climate could impact the other species in an insect’s food chain, which in turn would impact the populations of insects. The impacts of climate change will vary depending on a number of different factors, but it’s expected that in our region, insects will “benefit most from climate change through more rapid development and increased survival.”
Source: Stange, Erik E, and Ayres, Matthew P (Nov 2010) Climate Change Impacts: Insects. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022555]
Angelica Patterson, a plant ecophysiologist at Columbia University, showed us how forests can actually store a large amount of carbon dioxide, acting as carbon “sinks.” Over time, the amount of temperate forests has increased while the amount of tropical forests has decreased, affecting the amount of CO2 that can be stored by trees.
Because of the increase in temperate forests in our area, they’ve been acting as a carbon sink. However, their ability to store carbon may be impacted:
Whether your town is working on passing a reusable bag initiative or already has one in place, many of the ideas discussed at our recent Greening Our Towns event could be helpful!
On Thursday, January 19, 2017, representatives from 10 municipalities that have not yet passed single-use bag legislation came together to hear from New Castle, Hastings, and the City of Rye to learn how they passed it in their towns.
Steve Wolk from New Castle’s Sustainability Advisory Board gave a presentation on how they accomplished their Reusable Bag Initiative. We then opened up the conversation to include Haven Colgate and Coco Zordan from Hastings, and Sara Goddard from the City of Rye to answer questions from the audience on more specific issues related to passing this type of legislation.
General tips for passing a new initiative in your town
There was a ton of great advice shared about working together with elected officials and the community that could be useful for any kind of initiative:
Speak with residents and get their support by going door-to-door or tabling at a public space, like a supermarket. If you’re collecting signatures, it’s helpful to have two different petitions: one for residents who are of voting age and one for students. Get residents’ emails and ask them to write to the town/village board so that the board can see how much support there is for the initiative.
Try to collect evidence of the problem, like the litter caused by plastic bags. For instance, Greenburgh Nature Center held an exhibition of photographs taken by students of all the plastic bags they encountered in two hours. Have a group of people take photos of plastic bags seen in the environment as they enjoy a walk around their community. These visuals have a big impact.
If there are any issues within the community with this initiative, identify where the skepticism is coming from and speak directly with those groups. Dig into the sources of information that they’re using and rely on reputable sources for your research.
Discuss the initiative with businesses so that they’re not blindsided. A reusable bag initiative can help businesses by reducing the number of bags they have to purchase; stores can also make money from selling reusable bags. If you have a petition available, show the stores that they have many customers who would be happy to have a reusable bag initiative. Also, help make it clear to shoppers that it’s really an initiative coming from the town, and that it’s not “the store’s fault.”
Then, “reduce perceived risk” and “make it easy” for the town to pass it. Show the signatures of all the voters who want the initiative to be passed and will be pleased with their elected officials. In addition, point out any current costs to taxpayers: for instance, it takes the Department of Public Works time to clean up plastic bags (especially picking them out of trees!). According to one estimate in Los Angeles, it cost their waste transfer stations $1,500 to $25,000 each month to pick up bags.
Meet with individual board members to answer any questions and follow up to check that you addressed their concerns. If possible, it’s always better to meet in person. There may be questions about legal issues: for example, Hastings was sued because their law was considered “arbitrary” since it only covered plastic bags. Including paper bags in the law as well could reduce this risk (more details here).
Do all the extra work that comes along with passing an ordinance—like providing sample text—and be available to notify the public, create posters, and answer questions. Check out local online forums and respond to any concerns that arise. Most of all, keep it fun! Involve the public local schools, and community groups.
What are some ways to work together as municipalities?
Get help from each other: Reach out to other municipalities who have done what you’re hoping to do and ask their advice. If you’re part of a community that has successfully passed an initiative that someone else would like to try, consider writing a letter to the editor about what happened in your town after you passed it.
Share resources or presentations (or even a plastic bag outfit!)
Show up for each other’s public meetings
Keep legislators updated on what’s happening at the municipal level
Specific information for reusable bag initiatives
Why eliminate paper bags and plastic bags?
The production and distribution of paper bags can lead to higher carbon emissions than plastic bags; according to “How Bad Are Bananas? The carbon footprint of everything” by Lancaster University Professor Mike Berners-Lee, the heavier weight of paper bags means that more carbon emissions are produced to manufacture them. Therefore, decreasing the use of all single-use bags is important.
Is it better to include styrofoam containers along with plastic and paper bags?
There are a few different perspectives on this. Hastings tackled litter all at once by ending the distribution of plastic bags and styrofoam containers, which were replaced by aluminum or paper. New Castle didn’t add another material to the mix and will focus on Styrofoam later. It really depends on the constituents of each town: if they seem receptive to the idea, it can be a good idea to include styrofoam.
How do I get and distribute reusable bags?
Local companies may be willing to sponsor reusable bags, and students can compete to design the artwork that will go on the bags. Reusable bags can be sent out with students or distributed at stores, community events, or farmers’ markets. In addition, reusable bags can be swapped within the community; for instance, there may be some households that have many extra bags and would be willing to donate them for a “Leave a bag, take a bag” table. Materials like old t-shirts can be upcycled into reusable bags (here’s an example of how to make a bag in ten minutes without sewing).
Dispelling common misconceptions:
Although there may be objections that come up to a reusable bag initiative, the good news is that they usually fall into a few categories:
Objection: “But we use our bags as trash liners or for picking up after dogs.”
Solution: Produce bags are still available in supermarkets, which can be used to pick up after dogs or as trash liners for small containers. In addition, there are still many things that come in plastic covers (newspapers, items delivered in the mail) that can be collected in a basket in the kitchen. Many people likely already have a stockpile of plastic bags in their homes that can last for quite a while.
If people are worried about having to pay for bags, bags that were once provided for free aren’t anymore. Even if people need to buy bags, they will be using less plastic overall, which has made a difference in countries like Rwanda that have banned plastic bags.
Finally, these bags are relatively new. According to “How the Plastic Bag Became so Popular” in The Atlantic, “Plastic grocery bags were introduced in America in 1979; Kroger and Safeway had picked them up in 1982. But relatively few stores were using them…By the end of 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers.” According to the New York Times, plastic bags “were first put at check-out stands in 1977.” Before these bags were distributed in stores, people were lining containers with paper or wiping wastebaskets clean.
Objection: “Can’t we recycle plastic bags?”
Response: Although large stores have recycling facilities for plastic bags, the process can be inefficient. For instance, many bags are transported long distances (Shoprite’s facility is in Elizabeth, New Jersey), emitting greenhouse gases. According to this interview with the manager of a recycling facility in Brooklyn, the profitability of recycling plastic bags depends on the price of oil, and “When the price of oil gets really low, using recycled plastic can actually be more expensive because it has to be sorted and cleaned…Outerbridge says he can find a buyer for his plastic bags about half the time. The other half of the time, the bags go to a landfill.”
Objection: “Aren’t reusable bags a public health hazard (ex: by spreading salmonella)?”
Solution: Food needs to be washed first no matter whether you use a plastic bag or a reusable one, especially after being placed in a shopping cart.
What’s happening at the County and State level?
As of today, it does not seem as if the Westchester will go through with a county-wide initiative unless there’s a lot of pressure.
As for New York State, Senate Bill S362 was introduced that “Establishes a prohibition on the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” (A “fee” is a charge that a store must keep and print on the receipt). It was passed in Assembly earlier this month, and unfortunately on February 14, one day before a law in New York City charging a 5-cent fee on plastic bags was set to go into effect, Governor Cuomo signed a bill,effectively killing the law.
While the law does not directly affect any Westchester County towns since it’s for municipalities with over 1 million in population, it certainly does impact what we are trying to achieve in encouraging people to bring their own reusable bags to stores and reducing our addiction to single-use bags.
We still encourage residents to call Governor Cuomo to express your displeasure to him over signing this bill at (518) 474-8390.
Plastic Bag Laws – by Jennie Romer: “In an effort to facilitate research for cities and states interested in adopting plastic bag laws, we have compiled the text of laws, related litigation, and relevant studies.” There’s also a series of short videos available about bag ordinances.
Update: Read our report of the event here. Includes links to posters, petitions, talking points, and other resources for passing your own initiative, as well as contact information for leaders in local communities who have successfully passed reusable bag initiatives.