4 Sustainable Ways to Make a Difference Now

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By Meghan Cass

Usually North Brooklyn makes the news for being polluted, but being green in our neighborhood has never been easier. A thriving culture of sustainability is empowering residents to reduce their own environmental impact, and the benefits extend far beyond our corner of the city. There are many ways to take advantage of the eco-conscious infrastructure in our community. And leaders of our local green movement are striving to make environmental action social and fun.

“Incorporating environmental principles in your life is about embracing pleasure,” says Anne Lappé, Brooklyn-based author of Diet for a Hot Planet. “It shouldn’t be a downer; it should increase your happiness and health.”
Here are the WG’s top four ways to green our neighborhood, city, and planet.

1. Get the Dirt on Composting
New York City law mandates the recycling of certain paper and plastics, but did you know that about one third of our remaining residential waste is compostable?

“Anything we can do to reduce the export of solid waste in New York City has very real effects for our neighborhood,” says Kate Zidar, founder of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, a community-based compost site.

According to statistics from the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, about 38 percent of the City’s trash is brought to waste transfer stations in North Brooklyn before being exported out of state. That means we bear the brunt of excessive garbage truck traffic and noxious fumes. Composting not only reduces the amount of garbage in the system, it creates a product we can use to improve our local land.

“It’s an amenity to feed our soil, which is really polluted and dry. If the trees have enough nutrition and water they can do a better job of cooling and cleaning our air,” says Zidar.

Many people have started their own apartment-based compost systems, or joined with neighbors to create shared outdoor compost piles. Classes on best practices are taught regularly at Brooklyn Kitchen and 3rd Ward. For some, the easiest way to compost is through a community-based site like Zidar’s in McCarren Park.

Members drop off frozen, approved organic matter and sign up for occasional volunteer shifts. The resulting product is distributed to members for their home gardens and neighborhood projects like the Greenpoint Reformed Church’s kitchen garden and the veggie garden at Automotive High School. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm also accepts compostable raw material on Sundays during open hours.

2. Kick Your Plastic Bag Addiction
By now most people realize that plastic bags are the pits. Discarded, they blow like toxic tumbleweeds through our streets and green space, and ultimately wind up in oceans and landfills, and even in the stomachs of animals, sometimes killing them. They are made from nonrenewable petroleum and natural gas derivatives. Most do not biodegrade.

We New Yorkers are hooked on plastic bags: 7.5 percent of all the City’s residential waste is plastic film, most of it in bag form.

The good news? You can opt out of this crack-like habit quickly. The Garden sells biodegradable garbage bags, and District Dog has doggie-sized versions for picking up after your pet.

And for those everyday runs to the bodega or the pharmacy? Making the switch to reusable bags is a breeze. “I hide reusable totes in all my bags, everywhere, so I always have one with me,” says Leslie Henkel of the environmental advocacy group Bags for the People [see Box below].

And if you do get stuck with a toxic plastic pest? Make sure to re-use it, or even better, return it to large retailers who are required to accept and submit bags for recycling en masse where they are less likely to be defiled by organic materials sometimes found in residential recycling bins.

3. What’s In Your Fridge?
Brooklynites love their food. Whether at our restaurants, farmers markets, or grocery stores, most of us spend a good amount of time and money on things to eat. So supporting environmentally-friendly food has a major impact.
“One third of all greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to the food system,” Anna Lappé says.

“Organic farmers use natural methods to create soil fertility since chemical fertilizers and pesticides are extremely energy intensive to make and often run off into waterways,” she says. And organic agricultural soil is able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere in the same way as trees, sometimes more efficiently.

Lappé also says that slowing demand for meat means slowing global warming. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock feeding, transporting, digesting, and other factors contribute up to to one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. Other harmful side effects include deforestation, decreased biodiversity, and land degradation. Antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and other chemicals used in traditional farming are a leading cause of water pollution.

You can take a stand by reducing your personal intake of meat, and also by seeking out organic and sustainably produced sources. Luckily, we have many butchers in our neighborhood that are committed to the cause. Local chops shops like the Meat Hook and Marlow & Daughters specialize in eco-friendly eats.

4. Ride a Bike (or Walk)
Plenty of people in our neighborhood own cars, but choosing to walk, bike, skateboard, or take public transit a little more often can have a very real effect. Why?

When you first start a car after it has been sitting for more than an hour, it pollutes up to five times more than when the engine’s warm. So short trips really add up.

And, according to the Department of Transportation, 10 percent of auto trips in New York City are under one-half mile, 22 percent under one mile, and 56 percent under 3 miles.

These distances are ideal for two-wheeling it. Still scared to ride a bike on the City streets? Biking doesn’t have to be risky or expensive. In fact, it’s easier than ever in our neighborhood.

“The more people who bike in New York, the safer it becomes,” says Bill DiPaola, founder of New York-based environmental group Times Up. “We knew that once there were enough people biking that the City would have to provide infrastructure.”

There are over 400 miles of bike lanes in the city, and you can find inexpensive bikes at places like Recycle-a-Bicycle and Craigslist. Times Up runs free weekly bike repair workshops in their Williamsburg head. “If people understand how their bike works, they’ll feel better about riding it and more likely to spread this information,” says DiPaola. “Our instructors tell them how to do it, but they have to do it themselves. It’s empowerment. And it saves them a lot of money.” (Biking in winter in WG December issue.)

Building a Better Bag
Glenn Robinson was inspired to craft his own totes after noting the incongruous use of plastic bags at the environmentally minded Union Square Greenmarket. He and some friends teamed up and began sewing sacks out of old t-shirts and fabric scraps and giving them away for free. Now known as Bags for the People, Robinson and partner Leslie Henkel conduct sewing workshops at schools and festivals all over the City, and host a free “Sweatshop Social” at 3rd Ward arts center every month.

Robinson and Henkel hope learning the basics of sewing inspires people to be more self-reliant and environmentally conscious in other ways, too.

“People can build on the sewing techniques they learn from us to mend their clothes, or make other things they need,” says Robinson. “Maybe they will start cooking more. It could lead to a healthier and more creative lifestyle. For us it starts with sewing a simple bag.”