When Sean McCabe saw dog walkers dropping poop bags along his street in Burien’s Seahurst neighborhood, his first reaction was frustration. “We live alongside the [Puget] Sound, and if that stuff gets into the storm drains it encourages algae, and that blocks sunlight to the eel grass where the sea life feeds,” he says.

His second reaction was problem solving: He placed his own garbage can at the end of his driveway, greeted neighborhood dog walkers and invited them to use the can to dispose of their poop bags. 

“Some weeks I get 50 bags,” he says with a laugh. “And I know that it’s not going into the Sound.”

Picking up pet waste and disposing of it properly is just one small way to be more ecologically minded — and a better neighbor. And while not all of us are ready to open up our garbage bins for all to use, we can look for small ways to care for the environment and our community.

That’s where Kate Kurtz comes in. As a landscape resource conservation planner with Seattle Public Utilities, her job is to connect residents with the dozens of local programs that operate at the neighborhood level.

“Seattle’s established recycling and composting programs are very successful,” Kurtz says. “But there’s a lot more people can get involved with.”


Building community

Kurtz is excited about programs that raise awareness of environmental issues and get neighbors working in groups. A great place to start is Seattle’s Adopt-a-Street program, which provides supplies and tools for litter removal, along with free pickup of the collected trash. 

She also points to the city’s Stencil a Storm Drain kits as a great way to get children on your block thinking about the environment. The stencils, featuring an orca, remind people that the rainwater flowing from our yards and streets ends up in the Sound.  

For adults, neighborhood Buy Nothing groups, group purchases and lending libraries help prevent the accumulation of waste in the first place and build a sense of community.

End your chemical romance

It’s hard to contain the old-school fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides and fungicides you use in your yard to only your yard. This can affect both beneficial insects and household pets, as well as the health of nearby waterways. Consider switching to treatments such as horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps that are safer for the environment. 

King County offers simple, easy-to-understand guidance on its Natural Yard Care webpage. And on its Grow Smart, Grow Safe page, Thurston County provides tips and product recommendations for dealing with pests, plant diseases, insects, moss and weeds.

Dispose of any hazardous materials in your garage or garden shed by taking them to a King County hazardous waste disposal location in North Seattle, South Seattle, Factoria or Auburn. Or drop them with the Traveling Wastemobile, which visits different neighborhoods. There is no fee for either service. 


Go lighter on lighting

There are no government agencies in Seattle that regulate exterior lighting, but if there were, they’d likely be fielding complaints from a lot of people. As urban housing gets increasingly dense, glaring porch and driveway fixtures can beam light into neighbors’ yards and windows. The technical term for this problem is “light trespass,” and it annoys wildlife as well as your neighbors.

“There is a lot of data about the negative effects of bright lighting on insects, birds and mammals,” says Selena Ligrano, project manager for the natural yard care program at Tilth Alliance in Seattle.

The International Dark-Sky Association offers a relatively simple solution: When installing porch, patio or driveway lighting, select a fixture that directs light down onto your property instead of out into the neighborhood or up into the sky. The site also has links to recommended fixtures.

Create a water-wise lawn

You (and your neighbors) can enjoy the look of green grass while maintaining your environmental cred when you opt for a more water-wise lawn. 

Start by opening up some room for roots to grow deeper. “If you aerate and dethatch grass, the roots will be able to get deep down into the soil, which means less watering,” Kurtz says. During summer months, she suggests a deep watering every other week.

When it comes to mowing, try giving the lawn a less stressful trim by leaving the grass a bit higher. Rather than raking, leave the clippings on the lawn to act as a natural fertilizer. Finally, switch from fertilizing the lawn with chemicals to covering it with a layer of nutritious compost in the spring.


“Plants can only take in so much of the high-phosphorus fertilizers,” Ligrano explains. “The rest washes away and gets into lakes, rivers and the Sound. This can increase algae blooms, and that’s bad for fish.”

Plant local

Selecting trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables that thrive in Seattle’s climate will increase your gardening success, minimize costs for garden supplies and water, and support native plants, insects and animals — which can help the success of your neighbors’ gardens, as well.

Seattle’s Trees for Neighborhoods program helps people select the right types of trees for their yards and planting strips, and provides ongoing evaluations to make sure the trees are thriving.

“Planting trees helps with stormwater issues and provides shade, which reduces the heat-island effect we get in urban areas,” Kurtz says. “Sometimes a whole block gets together and does this.”

Sometimes, an individual makes a difference. Three years ago, Nicole DeKay started what she calls a “guerilla garden” in the alley behind her Greenwood condo. “It was a way for me to keep the invasive ivy and the blackberries down,” she says. She mulched the ground with cardboard to suppress weeds, then layered on dirt. Neighbors donated planters and trellises.

“I have a potato patch that grows back, kale that reseeds itself, and broccoli,” DeKay says. “And this summer there was a lot of zucchini.”

The garden’s flowers support birds and insects that serve as pollinators for neighbors’ yards. And much of the food goes into the Little Free Pantry that DeKay maintains in her yard to support the community.