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Want to help the planet this Earth Day? Here's how

Earth Day is a good time to stop and think about everything the world gives to us – and how we can give a little back. Working for the good of the environment may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t need to be. There are plenty of little ways to help the planet. Here are six easy steps you can try today, plus a bonus challenge:

1. Buy a water bottle.

Instead of buying water by the bottle, buy a metal or BPA-free plastic water bottle intended to be used over and over again.

People go through about 480 billion disposable plastic water bottles each year; Americans alone throw out a staggering 35 billion bottles each year. Many of these bottles end up among the plastic waste that forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but it does break down in the sun, looking enough like food that fish eat it. Then, seabirds and even young whales eat the plastic-clogged fish, causing health problems.

Less than half of disposable bottles are recycled, scientists found. Even worse, a high number of those single-use plastic bottles are contaminated with microplastics.

Buying a reusable water bottle is as simple as going to a supermarket or big-box store. Most have them on the shelves – along with water filtering pitchers and systems, for those who live in an area where tap water needs some extra cleaning.

2. Volunteer.

Whether trash clean-up days, community gardening groups, water monitoring teams or other eco-minded groups, most places have plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help the planet.

VolunteerMatch is a great place to find environmental volunteering jobs that need doing, along with dozens of other categories. So is the International Coastal Cleanup – don’t be fooled by the name. There are plenty of inland cleanups along lakes and rivers.

Can’t find an opportunity near you? Look around and see what needs doing, whether it’s picking up trash or beautifying empty lots with new plants. Then, get to work. Be sure to contact any affected property owners before planting anything, though!

3. Drive less.

A study by Lund University last summer found that going without a car can be a more effective way for individuals to fight climate change than recycling or using more efficient lightbulbs.

If you have a daily commute that public transportation can’t cover or you live in a rural area, going car-free might not be possible.

However, you can still work to reduce your time on the road as much as possible. Run as many errands as possible in one trip. Consider carpooling if you live near co-workers, or discuss working from home one day a week with your employer. Every little bit helps.

4. Eat less meat.

The same Lund University study showed that a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways an individual can fight climate change. Want to give it a try? There are dozens of good resources out there. Forks Over Knives offers a great primer for beginners.

If you’re not ready to take the plunge and switch to a completely meat-free diet, though, if everyone adopted Meatless Mondays, it could help the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as 1.3 gigatons by 2050.

And that’s not even taking into account the growing body of literature suggesting plant-based diets are healthier.

5. Tell businesses what they’re doing right, and how they can improve.

As nice as it would be to believe we can save the world by picking up some trash and changing a lightbulb, there’s a much bigger picture out there. What businesses choose to do – or choose to ignore – can have a much bigger impact than even a committed group of people choosing to change their lifestyles.

That’s no reason to give up! It just means it’s time to reach out to businesses and ask them to help the planet when they can, too.

For example, do you buy from a grocery store that carries only paper bags, or an online retailer that uses as little packaging as possible? Let them know you appreciate it. Make an effort to buy eco-friendly office supplies or shampoo in bottles made from recycled plastic.

And when businesses can do better, let them know. Ask your favorite restaurant to switch to paper straws, and encourage your local sports venues to aim for zero waste.

6. Write to your elected officials.

Like with No. 5, you can get more done by reaching out to people with power than trying to make a few small changes yourself. Ask your elected officials to offer incentives to businesses that switch to greener products, or to remove regulations that keep them from doing so. Encourage tax breaks for homeowners who add solar panels or rain collection systems to their homes.

You can also encourage your city and county officials to adopt greener practices on government-owned properties, such as switching offices to solar energy systems, installing car charging stations and adopting landscaping practices that use less water or prevent pesticide runoff.

Bonus: Want to take on a bigger task to help the planet?

Here’s a challenge that can be done a little at a time or all at once, depending on how much work you’re up for: Replace your landscaping with native plants.

Native plants tend to need less work and save water, since they’re already adapted for the location where they’re being planted. Better yet, local pollinators tend to do better with native plants as food sources than with those imported from other areas. Some even rely on specific plants for breeding or laying eggs.

You don’t have to switch all at once, and there’s no need to get rid of your favorite flowers. However, replacing a few water-hungry, poorly adapted shrubs or a lawn for natives can add a small but meaningful boost to the local ecosystem.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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