Evidently, face masks have become a necessity in today’s pandemic-struck world. Seeing everyone around you wearing face masks in public is a hopeful, heart-warming feeling. However, disposable medical masks, one of the most popular choices for face masks, aren’t as beneficial as you might think they are in terms of their effect on our planet.
While saving millions of lives from COVID-19, disposable masks are terrible for the environment. THE UN Environment Program (UNEP) stated that if this large increase of disposable, single-use plastics isn’t handled properly it may result in uncontrolled dumping (United Nations, 2020). Not only is it increasing pollution, an infected surgical mask can spread the virus to people and animals. “In certain conditions, the virus can survive on a plastic surgical mask for seven days” (Roberts, 2021).
The use of these disposable has become so normalized that most people don’t even think twice about using them. With many countries putting nation-wide mask mandates on public places, surgical masks (which can now be found at gas stations and free at the entrances to many buildings) have become a common way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.
A quick Google search can expose the dangers these disposable masks can cause long-term damage to animals and plants. Smothered environments and ecosystems forcefully broken up are a couple results of large amounts of plastic waste. Smaller animals can become entangled or suffocate in the material of disposable masks; Larger animals can also eat bits and pieces of these masks and over time become malnourished from their stomachs filling up with plastic waste (Roberts, 2021).
Larger issues like this one usually take a significant amount of time to research and come up with the best solution, but with disposable masks, our answer has been right under our noses since the beginning of this pandemic: Reusable face masks.
A reusable face mask is any face mask that can be infinitely washed and worn again. They’re more stylish, better for the environment, and catered to your exact preferences. They come in every color, style, thickness and material you could ask for. A lot of these reusable masks also have slots for (reusable) filters that can be inserted for extra protection. These reusable masks aren’t hard to get your hands on, either. Almost every single retail store I’ve been to since the pandemic is selling reusable face masks: Target, Walmart, Ulta, and Pacsun are just a few.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have already made the switch from disposable to reusable, and if you haven’t, it’s your turn. Say goodbye to our beloved medical masks that have gotten us through the pandemic thus far and make room for the reusable fashion statements so many have already adopted.
“Five Things You Should Know about Disposable Masks and Plastic Pollution | | UN News.” United Nations, United Nations, 30 July 2020, news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1069151#:~:text=The%20potential%20consequences%2C%20says%20UNEP,transmission%20of%20diseases%20to%20humans.
Roberts, Keiron Philip, et al. “Coronavirus Face Masks: an Environmental Disaster That Might Last Generations.” The Conversation, 14 Jan. 2021, theconversation.com/coronavirus-face-masks-an-environmental-disaster-that-might-last-generations-144328.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
I think it’s safe to say that this has been a challenging few weeks for all of us, and admittedly more so for some than others. The threat of COVID-19 has forced us into our homes, distanced us from loved ones, and made simple acts like going to the grocery store something that can generate fear. Our neighbors are facing unemployment, food insecurity, and new realities for which they may not feel prepared. For those working in service sector positions–grocery workers, delivery people, health care professionals, etc.–who have to interact with many people daily, that fear is undoubtedly elevated even more. There are days when the gloom and dread of our new reality can be overwhelming, which is why reconnecting with the earth to support our physical and mental well being is more important now than ever.
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and while normally we in the Sustainability community would be busy hosting clean-up events, talks by environmental experts, and other activities to get people engaged, this year we’re being forced to rethink how we encourage people to connect to the Earth. It may seem like we’ve lost an opportunity, but if we change our perspective perhaps this experience gives us more of a chance to appreciate our global home. As we have turned to screens for learning, working, and communicating with those we love, many of us have also started to recognize (or perhaps remember) how much we need to step away from the screen sometimes too.
The great news is that there are tons of things that you can do to celebrate Earth Month from the comfort of your home and/or neighborhood! Here are some of our favorite suggestions and we encourage you to join the ARCC Sustainability Team for the Earth Day Ecochallenge for more ideas on ways that you can make this a memorable and impactful Earth Day.
While it’s still too early to plant most things and to clean up your garden beds (shh! Many pollinators are still sleeping. Check out this post from the University of Minnesota Extension about when to do your spring garden clean up), it’s not too early to start thinking about supporting our pollinator friends this growing season. The state of Minnesota is offering grants this year through the Lawns to Legumes Program to Minnesotans who are willing to plant pollinator-friendly native plantings in residential lawns. The second application period for Fall 2020 plantings is now open (through June 2nd). Learn more about the Lawns to Legumes Program, and find tons of resources on planting for beneficial pollinators, at the Board of Water and Soil Resources’s Lawns to Legumes page.
We may not be able to participate in “official” community clean-up events this spring, but the good news is that getting outside (while maintaining proper social distancing of at least 6 feet from other people) is highly recommended! Why not use that outdoor time to also help clean up your surroundings? The Friends of the Mississippi River have a great post about picking up litter as part of #DIYEarthMonth, so we encourage you to check out their post for tips. Remember to bring a trash bag (or waste disposal collection device of some sort) and wear gloves. We’d LOVE to see your good work, so feel free to comment on this post and/or post on your favorite social media with the hashtag #ARCCSustainability.
ARCC Psychology Professor Jim Biederman cleaning his local storm drain.
Jim and Ryan estimate that in two hours they cleaned about 300 lbs. of waste, filling twelve yard waste bags!
Jim’s husband Ryan cleaning one of their five drains.
Another wonderful program available here in Minnesota is the Adopt-a-Drain program. This program, run out of Hamline University, asks participants to locate storm drains near them using their online mapping tool, then to “adopt” one or more drains. As an adoptive drain parent, you’re asked to keep your drain clear of leaves, trash, and other debris throughout the year. The website has wonderful suggestions about how to do this safely, as well as how best to keep waste from your yard from making it to your storm drain, and eventually our local waterways.
Plant a Victory Garden
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” -Audrey Hepburn
While our food supply chain in the United States is still intact, the experience of being forced to stay-at-home has caused many people to think about their own personal food supply, and ways to make themselves more food secure. We can, of course, still make trips to the grocery store during this time, but why not also use this time to plan for longer term food sustainability? Victory Gardens were planted throughout the United States during World War II, and were promoted by the federal government as a way for citizens to provide their own fruits and vegetables when labor, and transportation shortages, as well as rationing, made it difficult to obtain them through markets. Seed companies have seen massive increases in demand over the past few weeks as a result of this global pandemic. Your Victory Garden could be as small or as large as you like, and the good news is that there’s still lots of time to plan and start seeds indoors before the outdoor gardening season begins in earnest. Here are some tips for Designing Your Coronavirus Victory Garden from Mother Earth News.
Monitor Invasive Species
Many invasive species threaten our state, and one thing that we can do during this time of social distancing is to identify, and potentially remove, those that are starting to show their face this time of the year. One such plant is Garlic Mustard. Garlic Mustard is beginning to be visible but has yet to go to seed, which makes it a great time to identify and/or pick it. If you’re interested simply in identifying it, check out the document at right, and consider downloading the Water Reporter app. This app allows you to take pictures of the Garlic Mustard you find and log where you found it using the #garlicmustard hashtag. If you want to pick it, be sure to pull it out at the root and dispose of it promptly in a trash bag.
Explore Natural Areas
“Recent research has shown that the smell of humus exerts a physiological effect on humans. Breathing in the scent of Mother Earth stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, the same chemical that promotes bonding between mother and child, between lovers. Held in loving arms, no wonder we sing in response.”
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Finally, not everyone has extra time on their hands right now, but if you do find yourself in that situation this is a wonderful time to get outdoors and explore your local parks and natural areas. Empirically-based studies support the beneficial impacts of being exposed to nature on our overall well-being and cognitive functions. We here in the Twin Cities metropolitan area are blessed with a wealth of options for getting outdoors, many of them within our very neighborhoods. While events have been cancelled, most parks are still open, and the City of Minneapolis has even recently closed the boulevards adjacent to some popular trails to allow for further social distancing. For ideas of places to explore close to home, visit the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Three Rivers Parks District, and Discover the Forest.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that you’re not doing it alone! We may be physically separated from one another at this time, but we are still very much interconnected and our actions can help to make our Earth a happier, healthier, and more sustainable place. Don’t forget to join the Earth Day Ecochallenge and Happy Earth Month!
The holiday season is upon us, and while we love the idea of sleeping in, spending time with family, and enjoying a few (or twenty) holiday cookies, the season is also ripe with waste. According to the Centers for Disease Control “Americans throw away about 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.” Yikes!! The good news is that there are a ton of great ideas and resources out there for making your holidays a little bit more green. Here are some of our favorite suggestions!
Cut Down Your Food Waste
The holidays are a time filled with abundance, which frequently means that we prepare more food than we can actually eat, and/or we eat way more than we actually need. While it’s understandable to want to indulge in the delights of the season, keep in mind that avoiding food waste will save you money and at the same time help the planet! According to Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, “up to 35% of food in high-income economies is thrown out by consumers” (2017, 43). Consider reducing the amount of food you make in the first place, but if you do have leftovers, get creative! Can you make a turkey and wild rice soup with the leftover Thanksgiving turkey? Would those potatoes be tasty on a Shepard’s Pie? Be prepared to properly store leftover food in advance too–lots of foods freeze really well, and consider how great it would be to dig that Thanksgiving meal out of the freezer come late January! In the event that you do have food waste, consider either backyard composting or organics recycling. For more tips on food preparation and preservation in order to reduce food waste, check out Save the Food.
Source Your Food Locally
We’re privileged here in Minnesota to have a lot of amazing farmer’s markets as well as local options for sourcing sustainable foods, and while you may think that the arrival of cold weather means those options are off the table, think again! Throughout the state there are Winter Farmers Markets, as well as opportunities to source directly from farmers. The food miles that our turkeys, potatoes, and cranberries travel to get to our dinner table add up, as does their carbon footprint. Locally sourced products from smaller scale farmers not only are frequently more sustainably raised/grown, but they also help to boost our local economy. Looking to skip the turkey altogether this year and opt for a more plant based diet? Thanks to Herbivorous Butcher, there are even local options for plant-based meat alternatives! For more information on where to find local turkeys, wine, veggies, and more, check out Minnesota Grown.
Rethink Your Purchases (and Green Your Black Friday!)
According to the National Retail Federation, 165.3 million US consumers are expected to shop either online or in-store over the coming Thanksgiving weekend. While we know that the deals are sometimes seemingly too good to pass up, the unfortunate reality is that our high levels of consumption are also leading to higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions. All of those televisions, iPhones, plastic toys, and clothes are embedded with materials that can be costly to our climate as well as environmentally burdensome to the communities producing them (externalized costs). Instead of buying more things that you (or your family and friends) don’t actually need, consider these alternative gift-giving ideas:
Homemade Gifts: Breads, teas, hand-sewn clothes, canned goods, and upcycled items are thoughtful and sustainable alternatives – who doesn’t enjoy a gift made with love?
Experience Gifts: Buy your family members tickets to a movie, passes to go ice skating, or even a gift certificate for a massage. Not only will they appreciate the lack of waste, you’ll also potentially be contributing to their wellness!
Buy Secondhand: While it may not be for everyone, previously loved items frequently still have a lot of life left in them and are less expensive then their newer cousins. Worried your family won’t like that it’s used? Just call it “vintage.”
Give an IOU ____________ Coupon: While things can be nice, who wouldn’t LOVE to come home to a clean house, be able to call upon a babysitter, or have help in their garden? Give the gift of your time and energy in the form of a coupon for something your friends and family will truly appreciate.
Support a Cause: Consider donating a small amount to an organization that’s meaningful to the gift recipient. Not only do you avoid producing waste, you’re supporting an awesome cause!
Buy Local: If you are going to buy something new, can you find it in a local store? You’ll be supporting the local economy while also reducing the carbon footprint of shipping directly to your house.
The aisles of Target are filled with adorable llama and RV-print wrapping paper, and while it may be tempting to snatch up the newest and cutest ones, keep in mind that they will likely be admired for all of 15 seconds before the excited recipients open their presents. Consider saving money and cutting down waste by wrapping with items around your house. Have an old map collection that you don’t mind parting with? Maps make for awesome wrapping paper! Done with the Sunday paper? Cover your gifts with the funnies! Have some old towels or handkerchiefs on hand? Try out Furoshiki, the Japanese Art of Fabric Wrapping. Finally, if you’re a die hard ribbon user, keep in mind that cloth ribbon can be used over and over again – after the unwrapping madness is over, collect your ribbons for reuse next year!
Traveling? Buy Carbon Offsets
Flying is unfortunately a huge source of our carbon emissions both in the U.S. and worldwide, and while driving is better, if you’re using petroleum you’re still emitting greenhouse gases. One smart option might be to forego a trip altogether, but if your family is far away (as mine is), the holidays might be one of the only chances you have to see them. While carbon offsets aren’t a perfect solution, they are one way to at least account for your emissions. Interested in offsetting? Check out this article from the New York Times on How to Buy Carbon Offsets.
Whether you choose to use natural decorations instead of plastic ones (remember: plastics are nearly always petroleum based, and therefore also have a high carbon footprint!), to make your holiday meals entirely plant-based, to stay home instead of traveling, or to wrap your gifts in magazine covers, keep in mind that your actions do have a collective impact, and your family and friends will notice! After I asked for a sustainable bridal shower last year, my family chose to stop using plastic water bottles at family events and to instead buy reusable containers and cups. It may not seem like you, as one person, can make a difference, but you can! Happy Holidays to all, and may your days be merry and green!
How do you get to school or work? Do you drive, walk, take public transit, bike, or canoe (we really hope you canoe)? For residents in the north metro, and for much of the rest of the Twin Cities, the answer is that you drive. You may commute 30 minutes or more one way, and sit in traffic for half of that. Once you make it to your destination, you likely have to fight for a parking spot (in the case of the Coon Rapids campus of ARCC, this hunt is akin to the tributes’ fight over resources at the Cornucopia in the Hunger Games. Rest assured, it will go well for basically no one). What if there was a way to commute peacefully while also getting exercise, spending time outdoors, and allowing you to score a front row parking spot once you arrive? There is!
In September the Sustainability Committee hosted our first “Bike Week” on the Coon Rapids campus. The week’s events included a Student Lunch Ride to Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, a Park & Ride event, an academic talk, and a Faculty/Staff Ride.
For many students, staff and faculty at ARCC bike commuting all the way from their homes may seem like a daunting task. One faculty member who has occasionally commuted by bike from St. Paul said she is faced with a 44 mile round trip ride, or just under 2 hours in each direction. The time alone is something that most of our community doesn’t feel they have to offer, and that’s not to mention the physical exhaustion association with biking that far. What’s an eco-enthusiast to do?
The Park & Ride event was designed as a solution to that problem. Participants met at various Metro Transit Park & Ride locations throughout the Twin Cities and rode in together to ARCC, dramatically shortening their bike commutes but still allowing them to receive the benefits of it. The Park & Ride strategy turned the St. Paul faculty member’s 44 mile round trip ride into an 18.6 mile one, and most of that was through beautiful trails along the Mississippi River.
Choosing the right gear can make your bike commute a much more enjoyable experience. Beyond the bike, you’ll also want a water bottle cage and water bottle, front and real tail lights in case you find yourself biking at night (thanks to Pioneer Cycle, some of our students were the recipients of brand new water bottles and tail lights for their rides!), and a sturdy lock (we recommend a U-lock). Another smart investment is a pannier bag, which allows you to carry a change of clothes, a repair kit, a snack, and anything else you might need along the ride or once reaching your destination. Pannier bags can be attached and removed easily from a rear rack and come in a variety of styles. While they will cost a little up front, think of all of the money you’re saving on gas! Finally, front and rear fenders can help to keep you from getting the dreaded “stripe” up your back (see below). If you do find yourself with the dreaded “stripe,” remember that ARCC has showers available in the Health and Wellness Center, as well as a brand new bike repair station by the bike racks for any repair needs.
In case you need more incentive to try biking, there are enormous environmental benefits from pedaling on two wheels. Check out this sampling of statistics from PeopleforBikes:
A NASA analysis found that motor vehicles are the greatest contributor to atmospheric warming because they release pollutants and greenhouse gases that promote warming, while emitting few aerosols that counteract it. NASA, 2010 – Road Transportation Emerges as Key Driver of Warming
Bicycle traffic in Copenhagen prevents 90,000 tons of CO2 from being emitted annually. City of Copenhagen, 2010 – Bicycle Account, 2010“
Ready to pedal off into the sunset (or at least to class)? We are too! Look out for our forthcoming Transit Survey, which will help us to understand current commuting habits and to gauge what barriers ARCC community members have to biking to campus. Happy Biking!
Think back to your last “first day of class.” You might have walked in, sat down, and been handed apaper syllabus 6-8 pages long (or more! Professors can be long-winded!). How often did you look back upon that syllabus over the course of the semester?
Professors, of course, hope that the answer is every single day, but in truth it was probably a couple of times throughout the semester. What happened to that syllabus after the class ended? Did you throw it away? Did you recycle it? Is it still stuffed somewhere in a folder, tucked into the back of the drawer, forgotten for the next twenty years (that’s where mine are…)?
Last year at Anoka-Ramsey the Sustainability Committee was contacted by our campus’s Central Services, who handles the printing for the college, to see if we could assist them in encouraging faculty to reduce their printing amounts. Like everything it seems, the cost of printing was increasing, and if printing continued at the current rates there was a risk that departments might greatly exceed their printing budgets for the year (and this doesn’t even touch on the environmental costs of using so much paper). The Sustainability Committee, led by Math Professor Christina Sonnek, decided to challenge departments to reduce their printing, and the results were somewhat staggering. Compared to the same month the previous year, faculty managed to save 52,844 sheets of paper in August 2017 and 101,811 sheets of paper in September 2017, for a grand total of 154,655 sheets of paper saved! If that wasn’t enough, the financial savings amounted to a massive $12,210.17!
How did they do it? Some departments did choose to go entirely “paperless,” putting course documents on D2L Brightspace and other websites, but it’s important to remember that even small actions can have a huge impact. The next time you need to print, consider:
Can you put it online instead (quizzes, exams, notes, etc.)?
If it needs to be printed, can you put it online and have students print it (eliminating the “extra” copies)?
Set your default page margins to small (this uses 14% less paper!)
Print double-sided–make this your default setting (Google how to do this or ask your friendly IT person)
Change your line spacing to “Exactly,” and your spacing to 0 pt. when creating documents on Microsoft Word
Can you have students turn it in online instead (via the Assignments folder in D2L Brightspace or turnitin.com, etc.)?
If you need to write something down, can you use scrap paper instead?
If you need to print something small out, can you put it on a half sheet of paper instead? Central Services even has a handy-dandy cutting service!
Don’t forget, once it’s been printed, used, and is ready for disposal, RECYCLE it! Even small actions can make a BIG difference!
On Monday, May 1st, 2017, the Coon Rapids Campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College instituted a brand new Organics Recycling program, with assistance from Anoka County, MN Waste Wise Foundation, the ARCC Facilities Department, and Lancer Catering. Organics bins were placed in the cafeteria, all restrooms, the Student Center and the science labs, and Lancer Catering switched to using compostable service ware in the cafeteria and coffee shop.
In order to help educate students, faculty, and staff on the new system, volunteers served as “Recycling Gurus,” standing guard by the trash cans in the cafeteria and helping diners to properly dispose of their waste.
(Students and Sustainability Club Members Skye Rygh (left) and Margo Fletcher (right) serve as Recycling Gurus during the first week of the Organics Program’s implementation)
Although the Sustainability Committee encountered some hurdles along the way in making organics collection a reality on campus, the program has proven to be a success. The Facilities Department has had to increase the frequency of organics recycling pick-up by our organics hauler, Republic Recycling, by one day per week, while at the same time decreasing landfill (trash) pick-up to three times a week from the previous five day a week pick up. It is estimated that we are currently diverting 52,800 pounds of compostable material every year, which is equivalent to roughly four African bush elephants in weight! An added but unexpected benefit of this program has been increased regular recycling as well, where pick up has had to been increased from once to three times per week.
We’re enormously pleased with the progress made by our institution and continue to work to ensure proper waste disposal on campus. Want to know more about the benefits of organics recycling and how to do it properly? Check out this link!