Reusable shopping bags are a simple lifestyle change that makes a big difference.

Earth Day (April 22) came and went last month as it often does, without much recognition.

Although environmental issues make the news more often now than they did in the past, Earth Day has never been given much consideration in the United States. The holiday was founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. In his article “All About Earth Day,” Nelson remembers feeling troubled, as early as 1962, that the state of the environment was “simply a non-issue” in American politics. Speaking with people at venues from coast to coast, Nelson discovered that environmental degradation could be found in every community, and while politicians seemed not to be interested, the American public was.

Nelson was inspired by the grassroots anti-Vietnam war efforts of the late sixties. He hoped that by tapping into the conservation-related concerns of the general public and “infusing the student anti-war energy into the … cause” he could bring the state of the environment into the political limelight. And he did. At a conference in Seattle in 1969, he announced his plans for Earth Day, “a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf on the environment,” to occur in the spring of 1970.

“The response was electric,” he writes. “The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air – and they did so with spectacular exuberance.”

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day, in 1995, Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an American civilian. Praising Nelson, President Clinton said “he inspired us to remember that the stewardship of our natural resources is the stewardship of the American Dream.”

Earth Day was a big deal in 1970, and its twenty- and twenty-fifth anniversaries were also in the national spotlight. But when it’s not an anniversary year, the holiday seems to fade into the background, regardless of who is in office. Still, I like to employ each Earth Day as an opportunity to assess how much I am doing – or could do – to protect and preserve the environment.

While cleaning my office earlier this spring, I came across a battered copy of 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth, a best-selling book from 1989 that I was surprised to find still relevant 15 years later. Thumbing through the well-worn pages, I found a number of reminders of how to make my home, my yard, and my actions more Earth-friendly. Here are a few suggestions.

• Stop Junk Mail – You can reduce the junk mail coming to your postbox by up to 75% by writing to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, 11 42nd St. PO Box 3861, New York, NY 10163-3861. Less junk mail means fewer trees felled in the name of waste paper.

• Use a Clean Detergent – By using a low-phosphate or phosphate free detergent (like Arm & Hammer, or most liquid detergents), you help to keep algae bloom-causing chemicals out of our ground and surface waters.

• Aerate Your Faucets – By attaching inexpensive ($10) low-flow aerators to your faucets, you can reduce your water consumption by up to 50%. While the flow will be reduced, the force of the water will seem stronger, due to the air mixed with the water as it exits the tap.

• Insulate Your Water Heater – Wrapping your basement water heater in an insulated “blanket” (available at hardware stores) can save 7-8% of the energy you use. It might not sound like much, but those gas/electric bills do add up over time.

• Turn Off The Water While Brushing Your Teeth or Shaving – Keeping the water running — it’s something we do without thinking. By turning the water off while we brush or shave, we save 3-5 gallons per minute.

• Consider Reusable Shopping Bags – The clerks at the grocery stores are always impressed by the expandable mesh shopping bags I bring with me to the register. You can fit much more in them than in the disposable bags the store provides, they last for years, and they roll up into a small, lightweight ball when not in use, so you can bring them almost anywhere without looking like a total dork. I typically fit an entire week’s groceries into four such bags. That saves over 200 paper or plastic bags per year.

That’s only six suggestions. 50 Simple Things offers plenty more, many of which are very simple and easy to integrate into your life without causing much disruption. Earth Day may have passed for another year. But it’s never too late to start taking steps to protect and preserve the environment.

Sources: All About Earth Day,; 50 Simple Things You Can Do o Save The Earth by The EarthWorks Group (Earthworks Press; 1989)

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
April 2004

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.