West Orange celebrates Earth Hour, vows to be sustainable

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Environmental Commission hosted its annual gathering to commemorate Earth Hour on March 23 at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park Visitor Center. Earth Hour is an initiative by the World Wide Fund for Nature that encourages people to turn off their lights for climate-change awareness.

Days before a record-setting 187 countries and millions of individuals went dark the night of March 25, attendees at the WOEC event received enlightenment from several guest speakers discussing a range of topics related to global warming. And WOEC Chairman Mike Brick hopes that the lessons they learned at the event will inspire them to pursue energy conservation in their own lives. After all, Brick said, saving the Earth is a cause that affects everyone.

“It supports all of us to be good stewards of our only environment — this is it,” Brick told the West Orange Chronicle prior to the event.

Climate change is indeed a worldwide issue that has been years in the making. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees in the past century, with projections showing another 0.5 degree increase during the next 100 years. The emission of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, is a main reason for this; the gases blanket the globe and trap energy inside the atmosphere, causing it to heat. Per the EPA, greenhouse gas emissions derived from human activities increased by 7 percent in the United States between 1990 and 2014 as well as 35 percent on a global scale from 1990 to 2010.

Global warming in turn impacts a number of environmental factors, including temperature. EPA statistics show that average temperatures have risen in the United States at a rate of 0.29 to 0.46 degrees per decade since 1979, with 2015 recorded as the warmest year on record worldwide. This effect on the weather also increases the likelihood of more extreme conditions such as hurricanes and droughts, which can in turn affect crop production.

The global average sea level is also rising due to melting glaciers and the expansion of heated water, with the EPA stating that the rising has particularly accelerated since 1993 at a rate of 0.11 to 0.14 inches per year. That is not good for the environment, since rising sea levels can overtake low-lying wetlands and dry land in addition to eroding shorelines and contributing to coastal flooding. Climate change even impacts humans directly, with the EPA reporting more than 9,000 American deaths due to heat-related illnesses since 1979.

But for all the harm climate change causes, Brick pointed out that there is much that can be done to prevent it from continuing. For one, he said recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions by preventing the need to use natural resources. Of course, he said, using electricity sparingly will lessen the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate it, which will stop greenhouse gases from being released.

“Everything that civilization does has to be rethought,” Brick said.

Many in West Orange are doing their part to combat climate change and help the environment in general. During the Earth Hour event, West Orange High School engineering and technology supervisor Ryan DelGuercio and Katie Gardner, who teaches engineering and design solutions, discussed the expansion of the Liter of Light curriculum, which was introduced last year to teach students to assemble street lamps using a plastic bottle, a solar panel, a circuit board and LED lights. While that project was more formulaic in nature, they said this year students were encouraged to design their own solar-powered lanterns that could ideally be used in town. The results were successful, with students Jax Apollon, Nelson Bonitacio and Luke Brill presenting their working lanterns.

Township Councilwoman and WOEC member Susan McCartney said she would like to organize a community event in which the students can teach residents how to construct the solar lanterns. But that is not all the township has planned. McCartney said the WOEC will plant trees at Gregory Elementary School for Arbor Day and also hopes to continue its initiative of giving out milkweed seeds to residents to encourage the monarch butterfly population to grow.

Additionally, McCartney said the WOEC recently received a $1,500 grant it used to hire landscape architects who created a plan for gardens at the vacant six acres at 577 Mount Pleasant Ave. — otherwise known as The Rock. Her husband, Joe McCartney, the chairman of the West Orange Open Space Committee, said the goal is to put in pollinator gardens, meadows, water gardens, fruit trees and beehives on the land. But before all that happens, Joe McCartney said the committee will plant 400 tree seedlings on April 22 — an event it hopes will attract numerous volunteers.

And while much has been made of the development that has occurred in West Orange over the past year, the McCartneys told the Chronicle that preserving open space also does a lot of good for the community. For one, Joe McCartney said the fruit and honey generated from the planned fruit trees and beehives will go to food pantries, while every aspect of The Rock would have an educational component to it. In general though, he said, open space offers a number of positives to the township.

“It’s less stress on utilities; it lowers your carbon footprint,” Joe McCartney said. “Mentally it’s good, it’s relaxing. And I believe it does increase your property values, especially if you’re living right next to it. Everybody would love to have a lot of open space around their house.”

The WOEC and Open Space Committee are not the only local groups helping the environment. Councilman Jerry Guarino pointed out during the event that his Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board is also making a difference by working toward Complete Streets initiatives. If the roads are safer for walkers and bicyclists, he said people will be more inclined not to use their vehicles, which would prevent that emission of greenhouse gases.

Before speaking to the audience at the event, Guarino told the Chronicle he was happy to be part of an event that teaches people about the necessity of helping the environment. Many people do not realize that everything they do affects the world around them, he said. Yet to ensure a brighter future, he said people must learn to become more environmentally conscious today.

“(If you) take the efforts now, at the end of the day it’s going to benefit everybody,” Guarino said, stressing the residents should forgo complaining to instead “get involved. Help address the issue and be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Students of the Unity Charter School in Morristown are off to an early start on that front. The school, founded by Brick’s sister, Lisa, in 1998, offers a curriculum with the mission of teaching environmental values. Jillianne Steelman, the school’s director of curriculum and instruction, said instilling the importance of sustainability in children at an early age will enable them to make environmentally-friendly decisions down the road.

“If we do not have a healthy environment in the future, they will not have a life to make decisions about and they will not have choices that they have today,” Steelman told the Chronicle after the event. “They’re really the ones who move forward into the future, and we are trying to teach them now so that they have a chance.”

Abigail, a student at Unity, certainly has learned a lot during her time at the school. The eighth-grader presented her project on the impact of cell phones on the environment, informing the audience that many components within a phone are recyclable, something many people do not realize. But beyond that, she told the Chronicle that the lessons she has picked up from the school have changed her entire worldview. Even her family is now more environmentally conscious, she said, right down to their use of cloth napkins instead of paper.

Any young person can make a difference, Abigail said, if they have the right mindset.

“Just be open-minded and just realize that life isn’t just about ease,” Abigail said. “We have to sometimes take the long road to go the extra mile for the environment.”

Photos by Sean Quinn