A Pittsburgher’s guide to making every day Earth Day

How to “speak up for the trees,” rid yourself of those pesky blue bags, and use electricity sustainably.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

When it comes to recycling and being good to the environment, “people want to do the right thing,” said Mary Whitney, director of university sustainability at Chatham University.

“But they get overwhelmed with ‘what do I do with all these plastic bags?'” she said.

With Earth Day and Arbor Day fast approaching, there’s a slew of upcoming events and often-repeated advice for being environmentally friendly and living sustainably.

But it’s not always easy to know where to start or the best way one person can make a difference.

“Do what you can and take it slow. You don’t have to figure it all out and live off the land on day one,” said Mary Kate Ranii, the program and outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Resources Council. Do one thing, master that and then add something else to make a positive impact.

One easy answer? Some stores, like Giant Eagle, collect those pesky plastic bags.

The Incline spoke with experts about ways to live like it’s Earth Day all year. Here’s their advice:

Learn more

Make the time to go to community meetings and learn what’s happening, said Annie Regan, clean energy Pittsburgh program manager at PennFuture, a nonprofit.

That’s why groups like PennFuture try to make government meeting schedules and other information accessible through their website and email updates, she said.

And organizations like Tree Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that focuses on tree planting, care, advocacy and education, and the Pa. Resources Council offer classes and workshops.

The more you know, the more you can “speak up for the trees” like the Lorax, said Joe Stavish, community education coordinator for Tree Pittsburgh.

Another way is to learn about legislation like the upcoming RIV legislation which would create new zoning rules for Pittsburgh’s riverfront, said Stephan Bontrager, Riverlife’s vice president for communications and outreach. RIV includes incentives for property owners and developers to be environmentally friendly on new builds, and Riverlife has helped create the draft, Bontrager said, adding that a public hearing is in the works.

Contact your representatives

Speak up — it was the one piece of advice that came up repeatedly.

“It’s not the most feel-good like planting a tree,” but knowing what’s going on, being at government meetings and speaking up is key to making a big impact, Regan said.

Whitney agreed. One person can’t change the electrical grid, but they can can work with their representatives to change it. One person can pack their lunch, and they can also work to change what the school district serves. It’s still an individual action.

Speaking up about the environment and sustainability to lawmakers is the way to change how they respond to these issues, Whitney said, adding that if constituents speak up, then lawmakers can’t say that no one has brought up the issue.

“The No. 1 thing that people need to remember is to vote to your values,” she said.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Reduce solo driving

Limiting your gas usage with your car is another way to have an impact, Whitney said. Instead, walk, bike or take public transportation. Here’s a guide to Pittsburgh’s public transit.

When you have to drive, try to carpool and plan trips to have multiple stops instead of going out for one thing, she said.

Change your energy use

“What you are doing with your electricity is crucial. Any time you flip on a light switch, you are burning coal,” Whitney said.

In addition to tips like turning off lights and other appliances when not in use, Whitney added to be aware of “vampire power” a.k.a. appliances that are still running and using energy even when they are turned off. And that’s the case for a lot of modern appliances like TVs, cable boxes and Keurigs, she said.

One way to fight back is to plug all your appliances into a power strip that has a switch on it, so you can turn off the switch on the power strip. That way vampire power is no more.

Another thing you can do is switch to a clean energy provider, added Regan. This website is run by the Pa. Public Utility Commission and offers a list of clean energy providers and how to switch.


The riverfront trail as seen from the 16th Street Bridge

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Report problems through your phone

Instead of piling a piece of trash into an already overflowing public trash can on the riverfront (or anywhere else), report the full bin to the city through 311, Bontrager advised. That way trash doesn’t fly away and end up on the ground or in the river. If the city doesn’t know about it, they can’t clean it up. (You can go to the 311 website, call 311, tweet to @PGH311 or use the myBurgh app on iOS or Google Play.)

311 is also good for reporting any city-owned tree — like trees in the sidewalks — that looks to be stressed, like it’s dying or fell over, Stavish said, adding that tree care is just as important as planting trees.

And the app Smell PGH (iOS or Google Play) is a way for Pittsburghers to report air odors due to pollution to the Allegheny County Health Department, added Regan. She said the more people that use it, the better the data will be about the local air pollution.

Reframe your approach to recycling

When it comes to recycling, if someone is at the point of asking “Does this go here or there?” or “Is this recyclable?” then it’s too late, Whitney said.

And while there are some problems with single stream recycling, Whitney said it’s nice in the sense that there is no excuse not to recycle. But it’s easier to focus on the source and minimizing waste up front.

Some things, like glass are infinitely recyclable, but plastic not so much. And definitely not styrofoam.

Don’t buy the plastic water bottle and there will be no confusion about where to recycle it. At the store, avoid the items that are plastic, wrapped in plastic and will go home in a plastic bag. Try to think about it up front, Whitney said. Instead of “How do I recycle plastic bags?”– just don’t use them.

Try to be as zero waste as possible, Ranii advised, adding that you should avoid single-use items. Another way to cut back is to go through your garbage and look for trends, she said. Are you throwing out a lot of paper cups? Maybe a reusable mug is the answer. See what makes up your trash and look for an alternative, she said.

Know what’s recycling and what’s trash

Always check to see what’s recyclable and what your recycling provider will pick up, Ranii advised. Just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it can be picked up at the curb.

Pittsburgh uses single stream recycling so as long as everything is clean, dry and recyclable, it can be mixed together, she said, adding that Pittsburghers should move away from using blue bags for their recycling and use bins instead.

And no matter how much you want to recycle something, if it’s not on the accepted item list — don’t do it.  It could end up lumped together with other items and contaminating things that are recyclable, Ranii said.

And if there’s one thing you recycle above all else, she said to make that be aluminum cans.

“It’s one of the most recyclable things out there,” Ranii said, adding that it can be used over and over again.

You can learn how to do it yourself — or outsource the work to an expert.

You can learn how to do it yourself — or outsource the work to an expert.

Courtesy of Shadyside Worms

More ideas

  • Compost. Everyone can compost, even if they live in an apartment, Whitney said. Here’s a beginner’s guide to composting in Pittsburgh.
  • Add a rain barrel. This will reduce storm water runoff and in turn, decrease the amount of untreated sewage that ends up in the rivers, Bontrager said. If you rent, ask your landlord to add one for the whole building. He recommended Stormworks from the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association.
  • Donate. Give things you don’t need to local organizations instead of throwing them away. Here’s where to donate things in Pittsburgh from clothes to trophies and potted plants.
  • Rescue food. Volunteer with local organization 412 Food Rescue to reduce food waste by taking food from businesses that can’t use it to nonprofits and organizations that can.
  • Take a pledge. Being sustainable means having the three Es in mind — economy, environment and equity, said Ginette Walker Vinski, communications director for Sustainable Pittsburgh. While the organization works mostly with municipal and business leaders, it has a pledge for people to make a personal commitment to sustainable living.