Cricket Wilbur is the Community Outreach Coordinator at Essex County Greenbelt Association. She is serving her second term as an AmeriCorps volunteer.
Three years ago Sudbury Valley Trustees started an annual Earth Day lawn sign campaign to raise awareness about the work of land trusts throughout Massachusetts. It all started for me last fall when I agreed to organize a slew of activities for Greenbelt during April in the spirit of Earth Day one of which was the lawn sign campaign. Yet, it felt disingenuous since by choice I have never put a lawn sign in my yard.
It’s not because I don’t want to share my political affiliation with my neighbors. The problem I have with these signs is they scream plastic waste, which is often not recyclable. Although creative recycle-minded folk turn these signs into bike fenders, bird houses, or park benches, more people simply throw them in the trash. As a result of this throw away mentality, there is an area between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude known as the North Atlantic Garbage Patch (Figure 1). This gyre of debris consists mostly of plastic items and not surprisingly since in recent years global plastic production has increased along with the amount of plastic discarded in the Unites States. Land based activities such as landfills, rivers, floodwaters, industrial outfalls, storm water drains, untreated municipal sewage and beach litter account for about 80 percent of the plastic in the oceans. The more I thought about it the more this lawn sign campaign was becoming a contradiction of the spirit of Earth Day.
In any event, I invited the membership via email to participate in the campaign. I wrote “Be part of Greenbelt's growing Earth Month celebration and display your support for the eco-friendly benefits of land conservation by placing a Greenbelt Earth Day lawn sign on your property for a few days before and after Earth Day, April 22nd. Your action demonstrates support for not only Greenbelt but also land trusts throughout Massachusetts, which conserve farmland, habitat, and scenic landscapes.” It was the overwhelming response with messages like “I want one!” that caused me to pause and reconsider my feelings about lawn signs.
Maybe my problem was personal and I needed to think more about the ideological aspect of this campaign. It wasn’t until I saw the words Earth Day on lawns, along stone walls, and in front of public buildings in Essex County, that I began to rethink my feelings towards the signs. I started to see the signs not just as plastic waste but also and more importantly as an opportunity to raise awareness in our communities about conservation issues and demonstrate our engagement with these issues.
Ironically it is the symbolism of these plastic signs that may actually help keep plastics and other litter out of the oceans. Yes there is an environmental cost to the signs yet they remind us of the spirit of Earth Day every day we see one. And, my 110 signs will be recycled. They will be used again in future Earth Day campaigns. I still have reservations, though I just may put one in my yard.