Earth Day: Six things you can do right now to help the environment

piles of garbage on Ward's Island in Toronto
(photo by Hans Neleman via Getty Images)

The headlines about the state of the environment make for grim reading. 

Canada is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a federal report released this month, and it’s falling short of its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 70 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030.

It’s easy to think a single person can’t make a difference when it comes to a problem of this magnitude – but that’s not true, says Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. 

“Yes, there’s high-powered industry underneath it all, and there’s government that needs to help us,” she says, “but the reality is we vote with our wallets for industry and we vote for government.

“We have a voice, so if we change our habits and spread the word to other people we actually can make a difference.” 

With Earth Day coming up Monday, U of T News asked three U of T researchers for their tips on what people can do to help the environment.

Each of the researchers approaches environmental issues from a different angle. Rochman’s research focuses on the sources, fate and consequences of contaminants in marine habitats. Jessica Green is an associate professor of political science and author of a book on non-state actors, such as NGOs, in global environmental politics. Kent Moore, of U of T Mississauga, is a professor of physics whose research touches on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

1. Think before you bin

(photo by Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

According to a City of Toronto report last year, about 25 per cent of items tossed into Toronto’s recycling bins don't belong there. The trend spoils otherwise recyclable materials and costs taxpayers millions each year. Some of the biggest culprits? Food scraps, plastic-lined coffee cups and the black plastic used to make take-out containers.

Coffee pods – even those marketed as recyclable – should also go into the trash or be taken back to stores with a return policy.

How do you know what should go into each bin? Rochman suggests using the city’s Waste Wizard desktop tool or TOwaste app, which explain how to sort items.

It’s not always obvious. “You want to avoid compostable greenware that a lot of the ‘green restaurants’ give us, because they go to the landfill,” Rochman says. “Unfortunately, we don’t have an industrial compost facility so those go in the trash.”

2. Reduce your use of plastics

(photo by Michel Ponomareff via Getty Images)

“Plastics are so ubiquitous in our society and they require quite a bit of energy to produce,” notes Moore, who is in U of T Mississauga’s department of chemical and physical sciences. He brings reusable bags to the grocery store and makes the greener choice whenever possible.

“I’ll choose things that aren’t triple-wrapped in plastic to minimize that carbon footprint,” he says. 

3. Carry a mug or water bottle

(photo by Natalie Board via Getty Images)

Single-family homes in Toronto throw out more than 1,000 tonnes of paper cups each year, according to the city. Canadians use about 1.6 billion cups annually. It’s a small gesture, but carrying a reusable cup or water bottle can help make a difference, according to Rochman.

4. Help your neighbours clean up trash

(photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In 1994, employees and volunteers helped clean up a beach in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. What started as a small conservation effort has since become a national campaign: the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. Volunteers have collected 1.3 million kilograms of trash, including more than 244,000 cigarette butts. People interested in taking part can organize their own clean-ups through the group’s website, or join one. Rochman and the U of T Trash Team are recruiting for a clean-up along the Don River on May 5.

5. Walk, ride a bike or take transit

(photo by Laura Pedersen)

In Canada, transportation is responsible for 24 per cent of emissions, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. Green, in the political science department, says she cycles to campus for much of the year, drives less and participates in some meetings by teleconference.

6. Make your voice heard 

(photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Green suggests starting small by writing local elected officials. Collective movements start with individuals and, as Green points out, there’s power in numbers. 

“The most important thing you can do is get involved and get organized,” she says. “It’s important to remind the people who work for us that they need to do things differently.”