Woman building a diy insect hotel outdoor. Guido Mieth / DigitalVision / Getty Images
By Courtney Lindwall
If you’re one of those people cooped up safely at home, with creative energy and free time to spare—count yourself lucky. Here, we’ve rounded up a list of two dozen environmental projects that can make your time indoors, or right outside, a little brighter. Whether you’re ready to start rescuing more of your kitchen scraps, sewing your own cloth napkins, or documenting those backyard butterflies, we hope these simple green ideas will provide a calming means of coping during these unprecedented times. Have fun and stay safe.
Experiment in the Kitchen
Spice up mealtime with recipes from Save the Food that will also help prevent your food from going to waste. Make a fromage fort to spread on your crackers, or “scraps falafel” to use up wrinkly onions and wilted herbs. And for dessert, how about some leftover mashed potato apple cider donuts?
Rescue wilting herbs. Make herb oil ice cubes by packing diced herbs into an ice cube tray, covering with olive oil, and freezing. Thaw for ready-made flavor in your next dish. You can also transform less-than-fresh herbs into sauces, like chimichurri or pesto, or roast them and mix with salt to create longer-lasting seasonings.
Start a windowsill herb garden. You’ll need some seeds or a small plant, an upcycled container like a coffee canister that leaves room for growth and drainage, and a sunny ledge. (The Herb Society of America can help you determine the right dose of light and water for each species.) In a few weeks’ time, you’ll be ready to add a sprig of fresh basil to your bowl of pasta or diced cilantro to your batch of guac.
Arrange a plant-based recipe swap with friends and family, which will reduce your diet’s climate impacts while creating some virtual community. (Remember: If every American cut just one hamburger or about a quarter pound of beef out of their diet each week, we could reduce emissions by as much as taking about 10 million cars off the road each year.)
Simmer your veggie scraps into a flavorful stock, the foundation of your next meal. To get started, keep a clean, half-gallon carton in the freezer, and add trimmings as you prep meals. When you have enough, put the veggies in a pot, cover with water, and crank up the heat.
Plan a dough swap by freezing half of the dough from your latest baked good and suggesting friends, family, and coworkers do the same. When you’re reunited, you can organize a trade and enjoy someone else’s baking for a change.
Start an indoor compost bin. It shouldn’t smell when you follow this list of what is and isn’t compost-friendly. To build your worm bin, find two plastic tubs and drill holes in one of them to provide proper aeration. Layer in moist bedding—made of things like shredded newspaper, leaves, or coconut husk—and then add some red wigglers, which you can order online. Kept well fed with scraps, your worms will soon be producing “black gold” compost to use in your garden and helping you curb greenhouse gases.
Enjoy a Dose of Nature
Make your own basic bird feeder using pine cones, twine, nut butter, and birdseed. This video from the Feminist Bird Club shows you one way to do it. Hang it on a nearby tree you can spot through your window, then grab a pair of binoculars and do some armchair birding!
Create an herbarium—a scrapbook of pressed, dried flowers or other plants. To prepare your samples, press the plant matter in a large book or between sheets of newspaper and place a weight on top. When the leaves are dry, mount them on acid-free paper to preserve them, and label each specimen on the page. You can also include illustrations, photographs, seed packets, and notes.
Sharpen your naturalist ID skills. Try to identify every species of plant in your backyard or on a neighborhood walk. You can do the same for wildlife—and share your findings through Project Noah, a citizen science platform to discover, share, and identify wildlife.
Grow new indoor plants with the use of stems and leaves, rather than seeds. Though it depends on your individual plant species, propagating houseplants is often as easy as cutting off a stem or leaf from an existing plant and sticking it in soil or fresh water. If it takes, a new root system should form within a few weeks—leaving you with a hearty second plant within a few more months. (Pro tip: This works for green onions too! Nearly submerge their sliced-off roots, end down, into a glass of water that you change every few days. Voilà: a nearly endless supply of scallions.)
Observe monarch butterflies in your backyard and share your findings with Monarch Watch, an organization devoted to their conservation. Each year, monarchs make a remarkable 3,000-mile trek from as far north as the southern parts of Canada to the mountains of Mexico and back—but these pollinators are in danger. Register as one of Monarch Watch’s citizen scientists to help track the population’s health.
Boost your backyard biodiversity. Plant some milkweed—the main food source for monarch caterpillars and egg-laying habitat for the butterflies. Hang a bee nesting box somewhere it can get sunlight and warmth. Add a barn owl box or attach a simple roosting perch to a pole. For reptile enthusiasts, set up a small wood pile, using brush or old logs as shelter for lizards and snakes (plus fungi).
Do Some Handiwork and Art Projects
Make face masks for your friends, family, and workers on the frontlines. This Center for Disease Control guide breaks down different techniques. If you’re comfortable sewing, you’ll just need two 10-by-6-inch rectangles of fabric, two pieces of elastic, and a needle and thread for each mask. The no-sew option only requires a T-shirt and scissors. Remember: Cloth masks should be cleaned regularly (the CDC says a washing machine is sufficient) in order to remain effective.
Get your crayons out and do some therapeutic coloring. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and as part of a collaboration with NRDC, Studio Number One and its creative director, artist Shepard Fairey, have converted some of its archival activist artwork into black-and-white printouts for at-home coloring.
Tackle your plastic bag stash, especially if your city or town is among those that recently banned the bag. Since current conditions may eliminate collection and recycling programs for plastic bags in your area, consider upcycling them instead. There are plenty of online tutorials for how to make outdoor pillow cushions stuffed with plastic bags, weave bags into sturdy baskets, or wind them into jump ropes.
Cut down on textile waste, which exacts a heavy toll on the environment and public health, by giving old clothes a second life. Alter out-of-style garments by embroidering, reshaping, or using nontoxic dye to give them a new look. Take inspiration from fashion designers like Daniel Silverstein, who makes colorful, collaged clothing out of fabric scraps, or turn old fabric into a work of art, like weaver Consuelo Jimenez Underwood.
Turn old beach towels or T-shirts into a set of cloth napkins, a perfect beginner-level sewing project. By ditching single-use paper towels and napkins, you’ll be helping to protect our forests, like the boreal of Canada that is the source of the virgin wood pulp used for much of the tissue paper products sold in the United States. Instead, switch to more sustainable, washable rags or cloths for cleaning up around the house and at the dining table.
Get crafty with your recycling efforts to encourage kids to be more aware of our disposable culture. For example, you could transform empty jars into vases, penholders, and votive candle holders. Or make a fresh notebook from scrap paper with the help of a hole punch and scissors, some ribbon, and an old cereal box (for making sturdy covers).
Build Your Community
Start an environmental movie club. Various apps let you host movie nights with friends online, so you can chat while you watch. You can find our recs for standout environmental films on Instagram—including Poisoning Paradise, Virunga, and The Biggest Little Farm—with short summaries and tips on where you can find them online.
Document the environmental changes in your community, as they relate to climate change, through the Earth Challenge 2020’s online portal. The project will collect billions of observations in air quality, plastic pollution, and insect populations, and your insights will help promote policy change to address our warming world.
Tune in to a new podcast. We recommend Hot Take, featuring NRDC’s own Mary Heglar and her cohost Amy Westervelt, which takes a critical but constructive, intersectional look at how climates issues are being covered in the media. And despite the weighty content of the podcast, laughter is one of its defining sounds.
Connect with climate justice activists by following along with Zero Hour’s Getting to the Roots digital series. Each week, it focuses on a different theme that is a root cause of the climate crisis as well as ways to solve it—through digital leadership training, webinars, virtual open mics on Instagram and Twitter, art competitions, and podcast releases.
Write a letter to the editor that tackles one of the environmental issues facing your community that’s close to your heart. The letter can be written in response to a piece that’s already been published by a given media outlet, or it can be a proactive statement of support for or opposition against a particular issue that affects fellow readers. It’s the perfect way to reach thousands of individuals and still remain publicly engaged without having to leave the comfort of your home.