Three ideas to boost your eco awareness
Teresa Guerrein understands that there are big threats to the environment, including climate change and microplastics pollution. But when it comes to protecting our planet — smaller, hands-on actions matter, too. Guerrein's commitment to cleaning up litter along Erie's bayfront is one of several pragmatic ideas to safeguard Erie's environment. You can find other hands-on ideas at the Erie County Public Library, with its programs and resources, and at Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier, which aims to plant 275,000 trees — one for every county resident — through its ReLeaf initiative.
As often as three times a day, Guerrein takes a grabber and bucket stored at Lakeshore Marine Services, the business she owns with her husband Eric, and picks up litter on lower State Street, at Dobbins Landing, and along access points to the east and west. On a recent sunny spring day, it took less than an hour to fill her bucket to the brim with cigarette butts, lighters, coffee cups, plastic straws, chicken bones, asphalt chips, napkins, wipes, twine, empty bread bags from those who feed the waterfowl, and a patch of carpet. Pointing to a map on the wall at the towing business, she explained how the prevailing westerly winds deposit debris along the bayfront. Careless humans also discard garbage there, and seagulls that scavenge in unsecured trash bins dump scraps of food.
There are other sources of pollution, too. "We know a lot comes from the storm sewer system. But where is it coming from? How does it get there?" she asked.
Sherri Mason, associate research professor and director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend, has been studying those questions, using information from booms installed on Mill Creek and Cascade Creek. Preliminary data can be found on a website she built with colleagues at Pennsylvania Sea Grant and the Erie County Conservation District at ErieLitterCritters.com; click on the data tab.
But the litter problem is also a question of supply and demand. There just aren't enough trash cans for the thousands of locals and tourists who flock to Erie's bayfront, Guerrein said, and when trash cans aren't emptied on weekends, they overflow. "Sometimes, it looks like a frat house after a Saturday night party," she said. She wonders what kind of impression hotel guests, boaters and other tourists get about Erie. "If we don't keep this area clean, it sullies our image," she said. "Presque Isle is a ring and Dobbins Landing is the precious stone, the diamond. We're called the Gem City for a reason."
Guerrein launched her efforts to pick up litter and to encourage others to beautify the bayfront about six years ago when she spotted "an orange, a used condom, and a hypodermic needle" in the water one day. That led her to partner with others, including staff from the Erie County Public Library and Keep Erie County Beautiful, to start Keep Our Bayfront Beautiful. The group is ready to become active again after three years of COVID.
Getting a handle on litter doesn't just help the environment, she said. It's also important for the local economy, because of the amount of investment that has gone into developing the bayfront. In addition to Lakeshore Marine Services, the Guerreins operate Gem City Marina and a boat-storage facility with leases through the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority. Guerrein looks forward to welcoming new neighbors when Gannon University's Great Lakes Research and Education Center moves into the space adjacent to the marina. She's making plans to grow pollinator plants and start raised-bed gardens nearby, "something for the birds and the butterflies," she said.
Jenny Tompkins, PennFuture's campaign manager for clean water advocacy for the Lake Erie Watershed, said that it's important "to clean up litter anywhere in the city when you see it before it goes into our separate storm sewer system or streams, and directly into the bay or lake." She also reminds city of Erie residents to pay their new stormwater fees, which will be used to upgrade the city's aging infrastructure and make sure that state and federal regulations can be met.
In the meantime, you are welcome to join Guerrein in picking up trash along the bayfront. You can stop by Lakeshore Marine Services, 34 State St., to borrow a bucket and a grabber, even if you can only spare 10 minutes during a walk. Guerrein will also supply volunteers with vests and gloves; the trash can be disposed of in garbage cans in an outdoor corridor at Lakeshore.
Seeing Guerrein in action inspired Joshua Love, who was parked near Dobbins Landing, to want to pitch in, too. "I've lived here all my life," Love said. "I would like to be part of cleaning it up. I'll bring my kids down here," he said.
Millcreek Branch Library staffers Sarah Trohoske (left) and Bethany Lenda show off some of the plants available from the library's plant exchange. Notice the pineapple plants on the lower shelf and the garden art on Lenda's dress. Credit: Liz Allen
That's how to nurture environmentalists — leading by example and getting people to share ideas, something that happens regularly throughout the Erie County Public Library system. Blasco and the Millcreek, Edinboro, and Iroquois branches all offer seed libraries, and there are several programs coming up soon on such topics as square-foot gardening and planting trees. To cut down on your carbon footprint, you could even ride your bike to a library to attend programs about bicycle safety and repairs.
Sheryl Thomas, assistant library director, offered some additional ideas. "You can also check out and request tons of books on gardening, square-foot gardening, mulching, recycling, upcycling, and everything in between. Ebooks are available, too, for those preferring a digital format. You can use the Idea Lab to sew or mend clothes rather than tossing them. Or use one of the 3D printers to create a replacement part for something at home that's broken instead of buying a new one," she said.
"We offer a variety of databases that can be used for research on any number of issues. Specifically, GreenFILE draws on the connections between the environment and a variety of disciplines such as agriculture, education, law, health, and technology," Thomas said. The Millcreek Branch library has been a leader in connecting patrons to Earth-friendly ideas by offering resources on gardening and houseplants. Activities include plant and seed exchanges, and coming up April 13, a new garden club that will meet twice a month.
"It's another avenue to bring patrons in," said John Euliano, Millcreek manager. "They can leave with something to work on and even start a garden to feed themselves. It seems like a win-win," he said. Since Sept. 22, 2021, the Millcreek library has exchanged at least 2,000 plants. The current selection includes green onions, outdoor succulents, willows, and even pineapples ready to be swapped for a donated plant.
Millcreek staffers Sarah Trohoske and Bethany Lenda hit upon the idea for a plant library after they did a gardening program several years ago. "When people start to garden, an interest in improving the environment is likely to follow," Lenda said. Gardeners discover that they need healthy soil, water, and bees to be successful. Trohoske also pointed out that houseplants can improve health and indoor air quality. "They can help you sleep and help you relax," she said, noting that she has seen the benefits from raising snake plants.
The two co-workers also put together tips for gardeners, such as using eggshells, coffee grounds, and banana peels in the garden, even if you can't start a full-fledged compost pile. "You can really use all this stuff you're giving to the landfill for free," Lenda said.
Jessica Stefano, manager of the Iroquois Branch Library, 4212 Iroquois Ave. in Lawrence Park, is a former environmental educator. "It can sometimes be overwhelming when you look at the huge planet on which we live and think about all of the things we should be doing to care for it," she said. "I love that my position with the Erie County Public Library gives me the opportunity to help people narrow down the overwhelming list of environmentally conscious actions to simple and accessible things that they can actually accomplish."
For example, on April 24 from 6 to 7:15 p.m., Stefano will lead a program to explain the 100-Mile Diet Challenge. "Participants choose a week, month or season to commit to consuming only those products which are grown, produced, or manufactured within 100 miles of their home," Stefano said. "Embarking on a challenge like this, even just for a single week, can connect us with previously unknown local businesses, new ways of living a healthier life, and a new or renewed awareness of our impact on the world around us."
You can also impact the world and address climate change by planting a tree. "ReLeaf is the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park's direct response to climate change and a chance for us to beautify our community spaces outside of Frontier Park," the ReLeaf Project explains at releaferie.org. "Planting trees is one thing that virtually everyone in the United States can participate in that will address the problem of excess carbon in the atmosphere."
John Vanco, ReLeaf project manager, elaborated on how to get involved. "We most definitely welcome everyone's participation in ReLeaf. That participation can be in the form of volunteering for our activities, especially helping with tree giveaways, education programs, etc.," he said. Trees provide "quantifiable economic value," Vanco said, thanks to their role in "mitigating the impact of stormwater, shading our streets and homes, filtering pollutants from the air and water, functioning as windbreaks, and enhancing the beauty of our neighborhoods."
Sometimes you have to be patient to see the fruits of your labor. Lenda, the Millcreek Library staffer, had a number of failed gardening projects before she realized she had to educate herself about gardening basics. She succeeded when she started with onions and garlic. It also takes a long time to watch a tree grow from seedling to maturity.
But appreciation for the environment can begin at a young age. That's what Sister Pat Lupo, Order of St. Benedict, does with youngsters at the Inner City Neighborhood Art House. Lupo also serves on the ReLeaf Education Committee. "The garden group is setting up a hydroponic garden tower to plant vegetables and flowers. The vegetables will be harvested throughout the year and the flowers will add beauty to the indoor environment. We are also planning a small pollinator garden on East Ninth Street," she said. She continued: "The Aquatic Species group is learning about Pennsylvania's Least Wanted Species and they will teach the other youth at the Art House about them. The Green Team has a tree nursery behind Neighborhood Art House, and each spring and fall we remove the cages, weed around the trees, and add compost. In another couple of years, they will be ready to move to their permanent home."
Thanks to all of these efforts, Planet Earth, our permanent home, will be a better place to live, too.
Liz Allen credits the staffers at the Millcreek branch library with teaching her how to successfully grow garlic. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To volunteer to pick up litter along the bayfront, call Teresa Guerrein of Lakeshore Marine Services, 34 State St., at 814-453-6387. Hours are limited now but as the boating season approaches, Lakeshore will be open seven days a week.
For more information about environmentally friendly programs at the Erie County Public Library, visit erielibrary.org and click on "events" to search the calendar for dates, library locations, and times for programs. Some programs require advance registration.
To find local expertise about gardening, join the "Backyard Gardeners of Erie Pa" Facebook page, started by Millcreek Branch Library staffers Sarah Trohoske and Bethany Lenda.
To learn how to plant trees, volunteer or donate to the ReLeaf project at the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier, visit releaferie.org.
On Thursday, April 13, the Millcreek Branch Library, 2088 Interchange Road, will kick off its new Garden Club, which will meet on Thursdays twice a month from 11 a.m. to noon during planting season. The club welcomes all gardeners, beginners to experts.
On Monday, April 17, in anticipation of Earth Day on April 22, the Millcreek Branch Library will give away pollinator-friendly seed mix while supplies last. One jar per family.
On Tuesday, April 18, at 6 p.m., Jenny Tompkins, PennFuture's campaign manager for clean water advocacy in the Lake Erie Watershed, will speak on strategies to protect Erie's bayfront at Blasco Library's community classroom. Her talk is free and suitable for all ages.