It’s planting time here in NE Iowa, and lots of us are busy readying our garden beds. Many of us pick plants that would grow well in a particular sun or shade site; some of us pick flowering plants that will be beautiful in our annual and perennial beds. The environmental problem is the use of chemicals to treat farm crops. Many garden plants for sale, particularly at big-box stores, have been pre-treated with insecticides and pesticides that harm and even kill pollinator species, which include some birds and bats, but the greatest number are insects: bees, butterflies, flies, wasps, and beetles. To fight this problem is a big job, but each of us can do our part by being careful that we purchase, preferably at greenhouses, native and pollinator-friendly flowers. It’s also helpful to make nest sites available, avoid using pesticides yourself, and spread the word to others about these steps. What plants are both native and pollinator-friendly in our area? There is a long list that includes various types of milkweed, clover, thistle, blazing star, coneflower, ironweed, dropseed, sumac, aster, goldenrod, and phlox. Various websites have much more specific lists: one pdf. list for the Midwest is at the following site: https://xerces.org/sites/default/files/publications/22-025_01_NPPBI%E2%80%94Midwest_web.pdf.
What about pesticides? The most common problematic insecticides to know about are neonicotinoids and glyphosates. Farmers use neonicotinoids to control sucking insects. Because neonics are systemically absorbed, they can affect all plant parts, including the blossom and pollen. They then attack the nervous system of the pollinator; this is considered by many to be the cause of the current epidemic of honeybee hive collapse across the country. Glyphosate is another synthetic chemical used in many herbicides, including Roundup, which is applied to agricultural crops but also used in lawns and gardens to control broadleaf weeds and grasses. The EPA considers this chemical unlikely to be carcinogenic to humans, but many lawsuits have claimed that the chemical caused non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For that reason, some companies have taken these products off the market. There is a strong argument that the use of glyphosates caused a drastic drop in the population of an important pollinator, the monarch butterfly, by eliminating its primary food source, milkweed. As the use of glyphosates increased and milkweed died out, the count of monarchs dropped drastically.
It’s crucial that each of us develops the habit of stopping to think each time we dispose of something. If the item is single-use plastic, let’s ask ourselves how we might have avoided getting it in the first place. If it’s something else, let’s ask ourselves if it would be recyclable. If yes, transfer it to a recycling receptacle. Is this something that can be repaired and reused? Is this something that could be used by someone else? If yes, sell it (for example, to the Get-Up), donate it (Depot, Goodwill) or give it away (join the Facebook group Buy Nothing Winneshiek County, IA) or gift it to someone you know who can use it. Let’s try to remember that whatever we place in our home garbage is destined for the landfill.
Sanitary landfills are a necessary but not ideal solution to the problem of waste. They are scientifically engineered facilities constructed in the ground and designed to hold and isolate waste from the environment. Federal and state regulations govern the location, design, and operation of landfills in order to protect human health and the environment. We put our garbage into the ground. Each landfill takes space away from other uses—it cannot be used for agriculture, housing, or recreation in nature. Its size is finite: think of the landfill as an underground permanent garbage bin that is never opened or dumped. When it is full, the county needs to develop a new site. Although regulation landfills are designed to prevent any leaking, some landfills can still leach toxic chemicals into ground or surface water. As any biodegradable organic waste decomposes (wherever it is), it naturally releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that absorbs heat and is a major contributor to climate change.
Invest in a reusable water bottle, preferably one that is not plastic; many models are silicone, aluminum, or stainless steel (sometimes double-walled for insulation). Most individual thin-plastic bottles of water are not recyclable and are simply put in the trash, ending up in landfills. Americans purchase around 50 billion of these bottles every year, which amounts to about 151 per person! Estimates are that over a million plastic water bottles are sold worldwide every minute. In 2021, a total of 583 billion plastic water bottles were used and discarded.
The reasons many people purchase water in plastic bottles include taste preference for spring water or alkaline water, concern about public water safety, hygienic concerns, and convenience. But there are alternatives for getting purified tap water to drink, including installing purifiers under the sink or purchasing whole house water purification systems. Some grocery stores have dispensers for putting purified water into a reusable container. One of the most economical solutions is to purchase an inexpensive portable water purifier—either a pitcher or a larger dispenser, both of which use replaceable filters—available at most department and discount stores.
Decorah water is regularly tested for contaminants, and the most recent report for 2021 is clear that any contaminants in our water are all within safe limits. So, if you are not averse to tap water, all the better! You can refill your reusable bottle whenever you are near a faucet or a water fountain.
Related tip: Buy any soft-drinks in recyclable cans rather than plastic bottles. When you purchase something with a plastic lid, be sure to recycle that lid.
First Lutheran’s Creation Care Team suggests that congregation members and their families work to avoid single-use plastic for the 40 days of Lent. In the AfterWord each week during Lent, we will include specific tips toward achieving this goal.
First, a Request: Do you have a surplus of reusable shopping bags? The Creation Care team is collecting extra bags to be available to those who need them. Please bring extra newly-laundered bags to the church Fellowship Hall and deposit them in the bin provided.
Second, the Background: Prompted by synod resolutions and by the group Lutherans Restoring Creation, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly last year committed to seriously work for restoration of God’s earth, encouraging and equipping individual congregations to reduce harmful consumption habits. In response, the church’s young adults proposed a Lenten relinquishing, the #NoplasticsforLent initiative, calling us to pray for creation, to lament how we are all complicit
in the earth’s degradation, and, in caring for our neighbor, to “fast” from the things that are significantly harming our planet.
Third, the Plastic Problem: Many of us are really disciplined about collecting recyclables and taking them to recycling receptacles. But in fact 91 percent of all plastic isn’t recycled at all. Single-use plastics in particular—thin plastic bags and small items like plastic straws, bags, and cutlery—are hard to recycle and often are not accepted by recycling centers. We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items: plastic packaging, beverage bottles, produce bags, shipping envelopes, and customer shopping bags.
Although plastic was invented in the nineteenth century, production and use of plastics—as a cheap and adaptable substance which can be either soft and pliable or hard and durable—has exploded and revolutionized modern life since the 1970s. Plastic is produced from the earth’s organic materials (mostly crude oil). The problem is that plastic is a nearly permanent substance. Bacteria normally cause decomposition or biodegradation, but plastic contains chemicals that bacteria cannot eat. Theoretically, plastic could decompose, but it would take up to 450 years and only if it’s exposed to the sun. Landfills typically cover each day’s deposited waste with a layer of soil, so landfill plastics are exposed to the sun so briefly that they cannot break down.
Plastics that do break down simply become smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics or nanoplastics, which end up in rivers and streams and eventually in the ocean, causing serious damage to marine animals and seabirds; when animals eat plastic, thinking it is food, it gets tangled up in their digestive system and often causes death. Every 45 seconds, a garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste is deposited in our oceans — killing over 1 million marine animals every year. Much of this plastic from the past and into the present ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean, made up of large plastic items (such plastic things as lighters, toothbrushes and pens, water bottles, baby bottles, and cell phones) and microplastics. This large patch of trash spans 620 square miles. And research suggests that it has increased ten-fold each decade since 1945.
Such a huge problem needs political action by governments on a large scale—and a couple of bills have been introduced in the US Congress—Break Free from Single-Use Plastics Act (2020 and 2021) and the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act (2022)—but neither has yet passed. But we as consumers are a crucial part of the problem, and we as individuals can do a lot to highlight and reduce the problem. As Christians, we believe it is our divine charge to steward—protect and preserve—God’s Creation for the future of living things.
Let’s think back on this year’s developments in caring for God’s Creation. 2022 brought some good news about climate restoration—three highlights: 1) recent scientific studies suggest that climate action—countries’ reducing use of chlorofluorocarbons in manufacturing has resulted in beginning to heal the ozone layer–a layer in the earth’s stratosphere that absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation on earth—after years of concern about the layer’s hole enlarging; 2) increased renewable energy construction has significantly reduced coal and fossil fuel burning and has cost less (almost two-thirds of newly installed renewable power in 2021 had lower costs than the world’s cheapest coal-fired option); and 3) production of sustainable energy products, such as electric vehicles, have increased dramatically (some vehicle manufacturers have announced goals for fully electrified lineups within five years). Read more here.
We also had some significant bad news about the climate in 2022: In April, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its annual climate report, which paints a dire picture: harmful carbon emissions from 2010-2019 have never been higher in human history, and that “it’s now or never for global nations to limit earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees” Celsius, or many cities will be underwater; heatwaves, polar vortices, dangerous storms, and extensive fires will increase; there will be widespread droughts and floods, and extensive animal and plant extinctions. To make the climate situation worse, four-fifths of the electric vehicles produced and heavily marketed in the US are actually trucks and SUV’s, many of them much larger and heavier than the earlier non-electric varieties, resulting in higher energy use and greater threat to smaller, energy-saving vehicles on the road, and much greater danger to pedestrians and bikers.
What can we as Christians do to help repair God’s creation? The Creation Care Team invites you to use January as a time for all of us to take stock of our last year’s climate work and look ahead to ways to increase our creation care in the coming year. In the next Green Tip installments, we will revisit some of our earlier tips as well as present new ones.
Worldwide, about a third of the food we produce goes uneaten, which generates up to 10 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if food waste were its own country, it would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, behind only China and the US. Households come in first, at 37 percent of the Food Wasted. On September 16, 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the United States’ first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50-percent reduction by 2030 (USDA News Release No. 0257.15). As Christians who care for God’s creation, let’s help our country reach that goal!
Green Tip: One way to remind ourselves not to waste food is to say a family grace together before each meal—the common meal prayer “Come, Lord Jesus” refers to the coming foods as “these gifts,” reminding us that our nourishment is a precious gift. Talk as a family about food scarcity in the world. Do a food waste audit of your household. Figure out what goes uneaten. Keep close tabs on your fridge so you know what nourishing food needs to be used before it spoils. Think about how you package and store leftover food: is it well sealed and prominent in the fridge for you to reuse? Consider making two meals in two days, making enough that you can serve it twice, alternating serving them so that you use up both meals in four days. If you have young children who often do not finish their meals, consider whether some of it is safely salvageable to serve them later, as a snack or another meal. A useful guide to doing a family-learning-project for evaluating how much of your food is wasted is at endsandstems.com/conduct-a-food-waste-audit/.