Local band PronToh takes the stage in front of the Scioto River at Green Columbus’s annual Earth Day celebration. Credit: Nicholas Youngblood

Last Saturday, local sustainability nonprofit Green Columbus celebrated Earth Day in style with a festival of music and food to cap off a week of hard work for the Central Ohio ecosystem.

Green Columbus is a small, volunteer-led nonprofit focused on promoting sustainable living, environmental education and community involvement, according to its website.

The organization’s major event is an annual volunteer effort to plant trees and clean up public land on the week leading up to Earth Day. After all the dirty work is done, Green Columbus invites local food trucks, musicians and green organizations to participate in an eco-friendly festival paying tribute to their volunteers.

The festivities are just the cherry on top of a massive effort to benefit the community, according to Erich Hiner, secretary and communications chair for Green Columbus.

“The rubber really hits the road when trees go in the ground, when litter is picked up and when green spaces are beautified,” Hiner said. ”It’s all well and good to come together and have a big party … but what we’re really all about is harnessing the power of the community in central Ohio to make a concrete, measurable difference.”

Since 2011, Green Columbus has planted 130,000 trees with help from volunteers and donors, Hiner said. Most of the trees find homes in metroparks or on other public land. This year, 1,500 trees were planted near campus alone.

Hiner stressed the importance of volunteers to the process, and implored more Ohio State students to come out and participate.

“The kind of action that we encourage with Earth Day Columbus is amazing if done once. It is incredible if done twice, three times, or for years and years in a row,” Hiner said. “That’s what we strive for – not just volunteerism once, but to make volunteerism a habit, to make green citizenship a habit. And when people do that in large numbers, things get better.”

According to Hiner, the impact of planting the trees goes far beyond beautiful scenery. Trees can improve air quality, act as carbon offsets, prevent erosion near waterways and provide habitats for native species.

Claus Eckert, executive director of Green Columbus, said that more trees can even have an affect on the local temperature. According to Climate Central, Columbus is the eighth most intense urban heat island, meaning there is a measurably higher temperature within the city as compared to surrounding rural areas.

An average summer in Columbus will be 4.4 degrees hotter than nearby farmland. Some days this difference can reach as much as 24 degrees. One major factor is that large areas of asphalt can soak up heat. Planting trees helps keep the streets shady and cool.

Hiner said Green Columbus also coordinates litter clean ups, invasive species removal and habitat restoration.

“Its mind boggling how much plastic and other waste ends up along our riverbanks and in our parklands,” Hiner said. “[Litter clean up] is prolonging the life of something precious, something that’s very beautiful.”

Green Columbus is currently advocating for urban prairies and meadows as a replacement for large swathes of public lawn as well, according to Eckert.

Ultimately, the festival has the biggest draw for Columbus residents. Eckert said last year saw nearly 10,000 attendees. While large public celebrations may look like a fun time to most, they can also look like an ecological disaster to environmental groups.

Green Columbus partnered with nonprofit Rural Action to ensure the event produces almost no waste. Food vendors must abide by strict serving standards – no plastic utensils or Styrofoam containers allowed. Eckert said that last year the event produced only 10 bags of trash, despite the scores of attendees. The rest was sorted by Green Columbus volunteers and either recycled or composted.

In addition, the event continued to support Green Columbus’s goals of education and involvement with booths set up by nonprofits, corporate sponsors and even OSU students, all detailing how regular people can become green citizens.

“Learn from as many people as you can to find those little, easy behavioral changes that can become proof positive that we can get better at this,” Hiner advised. “It can be very intimidating to look at the scale of some of the challenges we face, and it can be easy to say ‘Why even try?’ But part of what we want to do is encourage people to see all the ways that they can change today, tomorrow, this week, this month.”

You can learn more about Green Columbus at greencbus.org/