It took the story of a burning river in Ohio to really make the American public sit up and take notice.

On June 22, 1969, oil and debris that had collected on the surface of the Cuyahoga River caught fire as it wound its way through Cleveland. The jaw-dropping news item was featured in the Aug. 1 issue of Time magazine in a report on just how bad the country’s pollution problems had become.

Back then, Americans nonchalantly fed leaded gasoline into their powerful V-8s, and factories spewed out smoke and sludge with little fear of consequences — or even bad press. To many, it was just the price of prosperity.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had awakened the world to the dangers of pollution and its impact on public health. One year later, Gaylord Nelson, the former governor of Wisconsin, became a U.S. senator.

Inspired by Carson’s warnings, Nelson became a fervid conservationist. On April 22, 1970, he established the first Earth Day, and 20 million Americans packed streets, parks, and auditoriums that day to learn about the dangers of oil spills, polluting factories, raw-sewage dumping, toxic pesticides and chemicals, and concerns about wildlife.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Nelson’s brainchild, which is observed each year around the globe by over 1 billion environmentally conscious people.

Here are 10 ways to make your life better this Earth Day.


Get into a whole new bag. Plastic bags are being banned around the world, and good old canvas totes are seeing a resurgence. Such bags are reusable, washable, and easy to carry, fold, and store.

Canvas totes — now available in myriad designs and a rainbow of colors — can also serve as gym or beach bags, overnight totes, day-trip bags, and picnic baskets. In comparison to supermarket plastic bags, they don’t break, tear, or pollute the world’s water systems.


Cool it with the cooling (and the heating). The average monthly American electricity bill runs $111 a month. (Ouch!)

The costliest appliances to run are the ones that allow your home to be comfortable. Air conditioners, furnaces, and heat pumps account for a whopping 46% of the average American electric bill.

One good adjustment to make: Switching to a digital thermostat; it can mean a potential yearly savings of over $140.


Give yourself a screen test. City officials in Key West, Florida, have approved a ban on sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and/or octinoxate, both of which can harm or kill developing coral, as well as wreak genetic havoc on other marine organisms.

“There are thousands of sunscreens out there, and we have one reef,” says Key West Mayor Teri Johnston.

Old Sol worshippers also need to avoid sunscreen containing vitamin A, which can allow tumors and lesions to develop. Read labels carefully.


Clean green. Eco-friendly cleaning products work naturally and without unpleasant (and potentially dangerous) chemical residue. They are natural, safe, nontoxic, and biodegradable and don’t harm the environment.

Often, simple, everyday ingredients — such as baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, water, or borax — can take care of many of those cleaning chores and can save cash, as well.


Food for thought. About half of all food produced and consumed in America is discarded; a typical U.S. household tosses an estimated 474 pounds of food waste annually.

Home composting can enrich soil, eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, help to reduce landfill methane emissions, and lower one’s carbon footprint.

By separating it from trash, you can compost all organic matter, including fruit and vegetable wastes, coffee grounds, teabags, eggshells, and most refrigerator spoilage.

Support good taste. There’s no doubt about it: fresh, local, organic food tastes better than just about anything from your supermarket’s produce section. But the benefits of going organic extend far beyond the palette. Local food doesn’t require long-distance trucking, organic foods often have more nutrients, and organic farms shun harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Farmers markets are the best places to find such produce, but it doesn’t hurt to ask whether vendors you buy from are actually certified organic, as not all are.

Become electric-trained. Energy takes a massive chomp out of today’s household budgets, as utility bills average about $2,200 per year.

Save up to $90 annually with LED-model light bulbs rather than incandescents. Unplug unused electronics and pocket up to $50 a year.

If two people in a household shorten their showers by just one minute each, they could save up to $30 over 12 months. Spend $27 less annually by switching off your dishwasher’s heat-dry setting. Wash clothes in cold water rather than hot for a $22 yearly savings.


Water, water everywhere. Cutting back on water usage at home means a lower monthly bill and conserving a precious resource.

Low- or dual-flush toilets can cut indoor water use by about 30%. Low-flow showerheads use much less water, as a four-minute “regular” shower can mean up to 40 gallons of water going down the drain.

For extra savings, turn off your shower water while soaping up and then turn it back on when you’re ready to rinse.


Driving the economy. Automobiles account for about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in America. By leaving your car at home, you can help to reduce air pollution, improve your health, and save money.

This Earth Day, consider walking for short trips or use public transportation for longer ones. A 4-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of our air.

Finally, consider a hybrid auto for your next vehicle purchase.


Be a good sort. Each year nearly 100 tons of recyclables are put into bins that promise life anew to items once destined for the local landfill.

Good recyclers flatten cardboard boxes (to make room for more of the same) and contribute not only newspapers but also envelopes, greeting cards, wrapping paper, and phone books. Check with your waste-disposal company to verify what types of recyclables they accept.

Metallic containers — empty spray cans, tinfoil, and soda, fruit, and vegetable cans — can earn a second life, too, and glass can be recycled endlessly. Reminder: Wash food waste off containers headed to the recycle bin.


For more information on Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, visit Earth Day Network at or call (202) 518-0044.

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