This Earth Day, Consider What You Can Do for Your Community
EcoAction Arlington's director shares insights on key environmental issues.
As we return to post-spring break reality, we thankfully have a distraction from a potential case of the Mondays: Earth Day. This annual observance is a natural time to take stock of what we are doing—or not doing—to preserve our planet’s future.
For insights, we turned to Arlington resident Elenor Hodges, executive director of EcoAction Arlington, a local nonprofit (formerly Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment) that focuses on environmental sustainability. Hodges has led the organization since 2000 and offered us some tips and need-to-know info.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the top environmental concerns in Northern Virginia?
We are an urban environment, so we’ve built up more and more buildings and pavement and cut down more trees. And all of that is doing two things: Our tree canopy coverage and our natural places [are impacted] because we’re putting more people and more stuff into a small county. Invasive species are [getting] into our parks, and there’s more pollution in our parks and streams. Certainly everybody now has to be attuned to the fact that emissions are contributing to global climate change. And even though we’re at the community level, that’s still an issue because of the things that will happen [locally].
Let’s talk straws. Remind us why plastic straws are a no-no.
The issue is single-use plastic—not just straws but anything that’s made out of plastic that you use once. There are three with easy alternatives: plastic straws, plastic water bottles and plastic bags. Since 1978, our organization has picking trash out of Four Mile Run and the Potomac River and our other streams. We’ve kept track of all the types of trash we encounter, and plastic is a huge part of that. We’re on the ground with our boots, literally getting that pollution out of the streams.
We’ve seen the images of straws in waterways and their impact on marine wildlife, so now suddenly there’s a conversation. It has to be a three-way solution; people can do their part by refusing to use things [like single-use straws], but we need businesses and government to comply. Across the river in D.C. and Maryland, they’ve got [plastic straw] bans in place. But here, we would need to work with the entire state because of the way Virginia’s laws are structured. Any locality needs express permission from the Richmond legislature to enact a local ban. Coming soon will be an effort we’re leading to recognize volunteer efforts [regarding straws].
I recently learned you can’t recycle used napkins—something I’ve definitely been guilty of. What are some principles of recycling we should know?
There are three Rs in the hierarchy and recycling is the last one. First you want to start with reducing and reusing. There’s a pretty extensive list of [what] we can recycle in Arlington: paper, plastic and metal. The new change is that we can’t put glass in our single-stream recycling anymore; we have to take that to a collection facility now. There’s a facility in Fairfax that is [taking glass], so the county is going to be offering a special container just for glass. Any [paper material] that’s kind of sturdy that can be ripped can be recyclable, but things that disintegrate, like tissue paper or napkins, don’t work.
In addition to toting your own stainless steel straw, what are some simple things Arlingtonians can do to help the environment?
It might be starting with, Do you need to purchase something at all? We’ve got so much stuff, and we can all pass things along instead of buying new things. Packaging is tricky because there’s so much plastic involved, and you can’t control that. But maybe it’s just being more thoughtful about buying in bulk. A lot of people I know are really starting to get into it and even bring their own containers to [the grocery store]. I don’t think people can get completely plastic-free, but you can certainly make a big difference if you plan ahead and be more conscious about what you buy.
Are there local volunteer opportunities for folks who want to help?
We have our opportunities, and we publish a newsletter on the first Tuesday of every month [with] regional volunteer news. In Arlington, we rely on volunteers to help Remove Invasive Plants from local parks. They have set it up so that almost every weekend there’s a different park that needs help.