Earth savings

To honor Earth Day, here are 10 free (or really cheap) ideas to help the planet

No. 1: Minimize lawn impacts

Lawns in Northern Nevada are an incredibly wasteful luxury—one that many people have realized they can no longer afford. It seems there are as many possibilities for helping the environment as there are ways to put some money back into homeowners’ pockets. First—and this is the most expensive idea but with the biggest immediate payback—if you must have a lawn, buy a computerized irrigation scheduler, one that can be planned down to the minute. Set the timer to the time increment at which you already water, and then cut back a minute at a time until the grass does not spring back when walked on immediately before scheduled watering. Then add a minute back on.

Second, do not pick up grass clippings; if you simply let them fall when cut, you can cut back one seasonal fertilizer application.

While we’re on the topic of chemical fertilizers, use according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Putting more fertilizer on grass than needed virtually guarantees runoff into the Truckee River—and besides, it costs money.

Third, get rid of that old gasoline- or electric-powered lawnmower. Reel, human-powered mowers have vastly improved in ease of use over the years.

Fourth, aerate but don’t thatch unless necessary. Aeration allows water to get into the soil more easily, saving water and encouraging deeper roots. Thatching damages root systems, which take at least a season to recover.

Finally, consider losing the lawn altogether; there are many local resources for xeriscaping, both businesses and workshops, that will use and teach the use of native and drought-tolerant plants.

No. 2: Compost

More than 60 percent of solid household waste is suitable for the compost pile, heap or bin. Here’s the bottom line: The Truckee Meadows’ recycling system sucks. Basically, nothing plastic gets recycled except bottle-shaped objects. Now, what if you could recycle more than half your garbage? Here’s how to build a low-budget compost bin. Take four wooden pallets and eight T-posts. Locate it as far away from the house as is convenient (garbage composting attracts rodents). Pound two T-posts for the back wall, and slip a pallet over. Square up the corners and pound the T-posts to make the side walls. Leave a bit of space between the pallets on the front panel for easy removal (for access when turning your compost), and pound two posts for the front. Cover with anything that keeps sun out but allows moisture in—shade netting works well.

The single best material to use in your compost is leftover kitchen materials, everything from orange peels to avocado rinds to coffee grounds. And in spite of the conventional wisdom, lawn clippings are not good compost material—particularly if you use chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Other things to avoid include colored paper, diseased plants, inorganic materials, meat, bones, fish, fats, and pet droppings. There are essentially two reasons for the exclusions, these materials either slow or even stop the aerobic composting process, or they will add chemicals wherever you use the compost—like to fertilize your “organic” spinach. Keep the pile moist, turn frequently, and soon you’ll have black gold for your garden.

No. 3: Bike

Gas in Reno is currently more than $4 a gallon. That right there is reason enough to ride a bicycle as often as possible. But bicycling is also better for the environment—no nasty emissions, and a significantly reduced risk of roadkill—and it’s better for health. The only place that driving a car will make you thinner is in the wallet.

“To ride your bike over driving your car, you’re going to save a lot of gas from being used, and you’re actually going to help yourself out—help your body get more in shape,” says Johnny Daggett, a mechanic at the Reno Bike Project, a local nonprofit organization that promotes bicycles, bike culture and bicycle safety.

May’s a great month to start commuting by bicycle for two reasons. First, the weather’s finally getting nice, so it’s time to flex out all the stiffness of winter hibernation. Second, it’s the most popular time to start bicycling, so, even if it’s been 10 years since you last sat on a bicycle seat, you can blend in with the crowd.

In fact, some folks call May the National Bike-to-Work Month. Other sources pick out a random week in the middle of the month—like May 14 through May 20, or May 15 to May 21—and proclaim that National Bike-to-Work Week. Some organizations narrow it done to a single day—this year it’s May 20—and call that National Bike-to-Work Day. It’s a loose grassroots movement of people taking their bikes to work. Ambitions vary, but if you need an excuse to start biking, the month of May offers plenty.

The RBP is hosting a pancake feed on May 20 at their shop, 541 E. Fourth Street.

“We’ll start early, around 6, and we’ll have free pancakes for anyone biking to work and juice and other food,” says Daggett.

So if you’re motivated more by saving money than by saving the planet, there you go—a free meal. The RBP is also currently giving away free bicycle helmets, and they have bikes for sale.

“The cheapest way to get a bike is to buy a used bike, and we have used bikes,” says Daggett. “You can also get them off of Craigslist or something. The cheap bikes that we have, that start around 60 bucks, we’ve gone through to make sure they’re all right and ready to go.”

No. 4: Reduce chemical use

There’s really no escape from chemicals. Researchers have found them in the places we consider the most pristine—from the northernmost stretches of Alaska to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the fish swimming among redwood groves. There are chemicals in our clothes, our furniture, our new cars, our old cars, our mattresses, our air “fresheners,” our paint. Bisphenol A even runs through the piping that brings us our water. It’s been found in more than 90 percent of adults, and it’s in breast milk, and newborn babies. That’s just one chemical—they’re everywhere.

However, while there may not be a completely pure break away from toxins—we have to breathe, after all—it’s easier than it’s been in a long time to actively seek alternatives to chemical-laden products. This often involves buying stuff, but really it’s about buying stuff in place of the other stuff you were already buying. That means finding food, cosmetics, shampoo, cleaning products, natural air fresheners that are either chemical-free or that have reduced chemicals. These products are increasingly common to find, even at big box stores. It also includes doing things like making your own natural cleaning products, which has the added benefit of being cheaper than any cleaning product—natural or not—you’ll find at the store. The certified organic label is the only way to tell for sure if something is mostly free from chemicals—“mostly free” because BPA is in the linings of cans, even if the product in the can is, say, certified organic black beans.

While it may feel like we can’t do much about ridding mercury from the bodies of fish or dioxin from waterways, the fewer chemicals we use in our own life, the fewer that make their way into our bodies, our homes and our environment. And the less we buy of the toxic stuff, the more manufacturers will realize that we don’t want it.

No. 5: Use canvas bags

Reusable bags. Oh, yeah, those things everyone was saying we should use instead of plastics before the economy hit the skids, and we moved on to other things? Yep, the very same. While plastic bag bans may not be the priority on local government rosters that they once were, reusable bags are still a great, easy way to cut down on consumer waste. If you need some inspiration as to why, Google “Great Pacific Gyre Patch” for just one astounding example.

You can buy them, of course—really pretty ones for any amount of money you want. They’re also often given away as actually usable schwag by do-gooder organizations at events like Earth Day. If you get one, opt for those made from a renewable material, like cotton, rather than petroleum-based plastics, as so many of them are.

While the totes are fashionable, you don’t really need one at all if you really reuse your bags—as in the ones they gave you at the store in the first place. You can take some plastic or paper bags with you to the store and have them reuse them at the cash register. It’s about the same level of convenience/inconvenience as bringing a canvas bag. You just don’t look as cool.

But here’s the trick to the canvas bag: Remember to bring it not just to the store, but also inside the store. Many of us have brought some along, only to leave them in the car. Whole Foods has handy signs in the parking lot reminding customers to bring their bags in—for which they’ll donate 5 cents to a local charity. You might consider a post-it note on your dash with a similar reminder. And while you’re at it, try not to bag too many bags—bananas or two garlic bulbs don’t really need to be bagged before even reaching the check-out line.

No. 6: Use reusable containers

Use high-quality reusable containers, like Tupperware or Pyrex, to store leftovers or when packing lunches. “If just 25 percent of American homes used 10 fewer plastic bags a month, we’d save more than 2.5 billion bags a year,” according to the California Environmental Resources Evaluation System. While it seems a simple solution, there are, of course, unintended consequences that must be analyzed. Using reusable containers requires washing them, which adds to the use of water. Dishwashing also uses detergent, which increases chemicals in our water system and also often contains antifungal and antimicrobial additives. It’s been claimed that those types of chemicals damage beneficial life. The other issue is that reusable containers are generally made of plastic.

But in the balance, the reusable containers win out—if nothing else, for the much smaller impact on our landfill.

So to minimize the effects of dishwashing, only run the dishwasher when it’s full, don’t rinse the dishes, and don’t use the power dry option. These options will save water and electricity, which will save you money. In fact, plastic dishes should be hand-washed to avoid chemicals leaching from them. Use environmentally friendly dishwashing liquids and powders that are biodegradable and free of petroleum and phosphates. There are many available.

Finally, there are reusable containers that aren’t made of plastic. For example, there are stainless steel reusable containers—just search Amazon for “stainless steel food storage.” Then buy them locally if available. In the home, and for adults who pack a lunch, there are the ubiquitous reusable glass containers with screw-on lids that are probably cluttering up shelf space. These items are called “jars,” and they come in many shapes and sizes.

No. 7: Volunteer

So, times are tough. There’s a good chance if you’re reading this that you, or someone you know, are among Nevada’s legions of unemployed. You’re out there hustling, scouring employment websites, sweating through job interviews, dropping off copies of your résumé—and, man, do you wish your résumé looked a little better.

One way to improve your résumé—and to stave off depression while helping others—is to volunteer. It fills in the gaps of unemployment, gets you out of the house, gives you the satisfaction of a job well-done and might provide networking opportunities that could even lead to gainful employment. This way you save money and the environment at the same time. In order to save money, you need to make money, and in order to make money you need a J-O-B.

But volunteering can be fulfilling even if you’re not trying to pad a résumé. Just follow your interests. Love animals? Maybe try the SPCA of Northern Nevada. One great online resource for volunteering is sporting goods store REI’s website, which lists various outdoor and environmental volunteering opportunities by region and activity (

Jason Geddes, Reno’s environmental services administrator and a university regent, says there are many great opportunities for volunteering in Northern Nevada. He suggests Nevada Econet, Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful, and the various river and desert cleanups: “Show respect for your community. If you want it to be better, you’ve got to get out and help. Plus, a lot of these organizations these days don’t have a budget, so they need all the help they can get.”

No. 8: Recycle and reuse electronics

Many local recyclers won’t touch a CRT monitor or television set these days. Some things aren’t even worn out. For example, when’s the last time you waited for your cell phone to die before you upgraded? Some electronics stores or even churches have programs in which old but still working cell phones are erased and reset to factory defaults and then donated to needy groups, like seniors, soldiers or homeless. For internet options, check out or

Recycling electronics also takes a bit more effort than simply picking the yellow or green bin on recycling day. Often, there are community electronics recycling events—not to toot our own horn, but they’re often listed as Eco-Events in our Green section and our Green with NV blog. There is generally a charge. At the recycling event held last week by Disability Resources/New2U Computers and Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful, the cost was $10 donation per car. But you don’t need to wait for an e-waste event; New2U Computers accepts used electronics year-round. It refurbishes computers to sell back to the community or provides them for free to the disabled. And as far as those pesky CRT monitors go, at New2U Computers’ website, under the donations tab, there’s a coupon for a free CRT donation, But usually it’s only $5 at the store, which is at 50 E. Greg St, Suite 103, Sparks. Call 329-1126 for more information. The University of Phoenix is also hosting a free e-waste drive now through May 6 at its South Meadows Campus on 10345 Professional Circle.

No. 9: Write a letter

This is arguably the cheapest, most powerful eco-friendly thing you can do to actually create change: Write your senator, congressperson and/or local representative. You can talk all you want in your living room, shout at the television, rant with your friends, sigh at the news—but no one who can actually do something about it will hear you unless you tell them.

Currently before the Nevada legislature are bills that could pay consumers to install renewable energy in their homes, or make changes to the state’s clean energy rebate program. There are bills about protecting wilderness areas and defunding the Environmental Protection Agency. Go to to find links to current bills—click “session info” and then the 76th session—as well as information about your representatives and how to contact them.

If you want to send a message but aren’t much of a writer or don’t feel like you have the time, several groups lobbying for a particular bill often have a prepared letter written to which you just need to add your name and email.

And why stop with politicians? If you don’t like someone’s particularly harmful-to-the-environment business practices, tell them in a letter. The stamp will cost you 44 cents, but most people prefer email, so it’s free. If you do nothing else to help the environment this year, write a letter.

No. 10: Take a hike to appreciate the Earth

Most of us have a general care for humanity. But it’s the affection we have for certain people we get to know well—our family, our friends, our children, our significant others—that compels us to come to them when they need help. It’s why we visit them when they are sick, miss them when they’re gone, try to keep them happy and enjoy them while we have them.

The same goes for the environment. The more time we spend in nature, admiring the oceans and deserts, learning about wildlife, walking through forests, and acknowledging the natural world’s inspirational, healing and just plain fun qualities, the more we want to protect such places. We want them to be around for others to benefit from similar experiences.

So something as simple as taking a hike can have a great environmental impact. Bringing along a friend, especially a child, enhances that impact. It doesn’t have to be every day, or even every week, but creating lasting memories within a beautiful place—even something as close as the Truckee River or the birds and butterflies in your backyard—helps us gain a better understanding of what’s at stake.