Old Lessons for a New Normal

dew, grass, morning

by David Johnston

You’re vaccinated. You’re healthy. You’re full of energy and buzzing to return to the world at large. But is it ready for you?

I feel it too. The energy in the air. At work, at home, out in the streets. It’s nearly palpable.

I’m now three weeks into this rebirth, three weeks since my second COVID-19 vaccine shot. I’m ready. To travel. To see my friends in real life. To feel like I’m not breaking the rules by shaking someone’s hand or (gasp!) hugging someone. And I doubt I’m alone in this waxing elation and renewed spirit.

With everyone seeking a return to the way things were, and the “end” of this pandemic seemingly oh so near, I implore your caution in simply returning to normal. Normal, you see, was not something to be entirely celebrated.

In many ways, our months spent in quarantine during this pandemic marked a great exhale for Mother Earth. As we hid ourselves away at home around the world, smog cleared, waterways ran cleaner, and animals took to the streets. Seemingly, we weren’t particularly missed.

Of course, not everything was all blossoms and opossums in 2020. As noted in Time Magazine’s recent piece, litter during the pandemic months saw a massive spike. Even when and where properly binned, waste and recyclables saw significant shifts in their make-up and generation (something I profiled in Catalyst Magazine in October). The surge in medical waste – masks, alcohol wipes, etc. – and single-use disposables like plastic bags, carryout containers, and water bottles, was astounding. 

Earth Week 2021 is now upon us, and there’s never been a better time to build new habits, better habits. I’ve worked out a few ideas below, and nothing here requires a great leap. In fact, you’re probably already doing some of these to at least a minor extent. Here lies the beauty. Sharpening up your practice of even one these doesn’t take a lot of effort, and can create a powerful impact, especially if we all take up this task. Let’s dive in:

Recycle right, per your community

Recycling can be surprisingly simple. If you have recycling services available at your home, at your workplace, or anywhere else you frequent, take a few minutes – literally, that’s all it takes – to make sure you’re using those bins the right way. 

If you’re looking for the right rules, always go straight to the source. Learn who your hauler is, and check out their website. For Salt Lake City single-family homeowners, for instance, SLC’s own Waste & Recycling Division handles this service, and provides recycling rules right on their website. The Utah Recycling Alliance website might also help you out in ensuring you’re recycling correctly in your community.

If you’re living in an apartment, it’s more likely that your recycling is handled by a private hauler. Go to their website directly and follow whatever rules they have. Recycling rules vary because markets change, and recycling is very much a market-bound industry. So if you don’t want what you are putting in your recycling bin to just wind up at the landfill anyways, and risk other recycling being contaminated along the way, this is the way to do it. 

If you’re looking to go one step further, there are all kinds of materials that do not belong in a curbside recycling bin, but may still have options for recycling. For instance, the URA’s CHaRM (Collection of Hard to Recycle Materials) collection events will be returning in June; for materials accepted at these events, you can also check out our website. Some programs like SLC’s Call 2 Haul program have been revised to include options for recycling mattresses, tires, and more. Other options may exist in your community, so once again, be sure you check out your city’s website for additional resources on recycling opportunities. 

Plan your meals to reduce your food waste

Composting is great, but not everyone has a yard or space to send their scraps or has curbside compost service available to them. Sending food waste to a digester is great too, but is not a widely-available option here in Utah. The one thing everyone can do, though, is cut back on the food waste they are generating in the first place. The easiest way to do this is in meal planning.

Before you go to the grocery store, take the time to make a list, figure out portions for you and your family, and stick to the list. Don’t let those pink sugar cookies sway you (no, I’m not talking from experience – what are you talking about?…).

And if you get home and realize you bought too much food, the freezer might just be your best friend! That, and your local food pantries of course. 

Be sure you are actually using your reusables

Be honest: do you have a stack of reusable bags shoved in a closet? Do you only remember to stop by the closet half the time before leaving for the store?

Creating reusable ‘kits’ and stashing reusables in the right places can make all the difference in ensuring you’re actually using the reusable bottles, bags, bowls, silverware, etc. that you bought with such good intentions. Put a couple bags in the back of your car. Slip in a few plastic containers for bulk buying. Leave a reusable bottle and coffee cup at your desk at the office. You’ll be surprised just how much more you use these things when they’re readily available. 

Don’t forget your LNT lessons, in the great outdoors and in your day to day

LNT – Leave No Trace. This widely-known practice is typically used to guide people in their time spent in wilderness spaces, to disturb these places as minimally as possible so that future visitors might enjoy them for generations to come. With Utah’s national parks and state parks primed for a record-breaking year, we should all be self-aware of our impact in the great outdoors.

Simultaneously, living LNT practices at home can make a huge difference too for our city parks, suburban streets, and other, closer, public spaces. You might think you’re as sure a shot as Steph Curry as you toss that tin foil ball toward the bin, but as all good basketball players do, follow your shot! If it rimmed out, pick it up and put it where it belongs.

To be honest, I don’t recall last Earth Day in much detail. I know from old emails and social media posts that I halfway-marked the occasion, but, like much of 2020, it’s a bit foggy. With the pandemic still very much new last April, we all had much distracting us. I don’t intend to let this Earth Day pass so quietly, and I hope you don’t either. None of the action steps above are new or novel, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important. By taking time to tune your life towards even one of these, you and your family will make a difference. Forge that new normal. Now is the time.