Here's How to Volunteer in Chicago for Earth Day

Spread the love this spring at park clean-ups, animal shelters, eco-friendly shops, and more.

Now that Chicago is finally, hopefully, pleadingly, entering springtime, it’s a great time to pause and appreciate our dear planet earth. As a way of saying thank you this Earth Day, we’ve rounded up a host of opportunities to support and preserve our local and global environments. From getting dirty at a local community garden and joining a movement that combats climate change to composting your kitchen scraps, spending your hard-earned cash at zero-waste venues, and volunteering to help community members who need it the most, no matter how you choose to be involved, no action is too small. Even a nature-focused trip out of the city can help you reconnect with the earth. Remember, this planet is all we have, so let’s show her some love this Earth Day—and maybe even make it a habit that sticks.

Here are 14 amazing ways to pledge your time and energy this month, for Earth Day and beyond. Pro tip: This list will get your feet wet, but feel free to dive into more opportunities via Chicago Cares, and HandsOn Suburban Chicago alongside national networks like VolunteerMatch.

Tinyshop Grocer
Tinyshop Grocer

Shop ‘til you drop at zero-waste and eco-friendly shops

Filling your home with reusable, recyclable, and ethically sourced products is a great way to make impactful choices in your day-to-day life. Luckily, Chicago has an array of stores that make it easy for you to start living cleaner and healthier for yourself and the planet. Tinyshop, a zero-waste popup, and Eco and the Flamingo, a zero-waste general store, will help you significantly reduce the amount of food packaging waste in your home. Both offer package-free goods alongside refillable bulk products like nuts, dried fruit, teas, herbs, spices, and other household and hygiene items.

If year-round Midwest-grown produce is what you’re after, Local Foods is the place for you, while Neighborly hawks eco-friendly, handmade, and fair trade home goods and gifts. The Waste Shed is a nonprofit creative reuse center that believes that one person’s trash is another person's inspiration, giving donated and recycled items a much-needed second life. Dill Pickle is your neighborhood co-op prioritizing locally grown products sourced within 300 miles. And if you like to drink coffee while making a difference, Hero Coffee donates $1 to charity for every bag sold. Oh—and if you bring your own container, you can buy their beans in bulk at a discount.

For the scoop on more eco-friendly shopping, Litterless and Zero Waste Chicago provide the low-down on products and pointers for living a waste-free life, as well as opportunities to engage with environmental issues.

Restore and maintain vital bird habitats

Birds are such important members of our ecosystem, and many Chicagoins may not realize that supporting birds is a crucial part of bettering the city’s environment. Not only do birds help with pollinating, seed-dispersing, and insect and pest control, they’re also downright beautiful (bird nerd alert).

Chicago is home to around 300 species of birds, and each spring and fall, roughly 8 million birds migrate through the Chicagoland area. Suffice it to say, the health of native habitats in and around the city is key for their continued survival. The Chicago Audubon Society has lots of information about how to help local bird populations, and even offers bird-watching events so you can learn about the flying critters in your neighborhood. They’re also linked to Lights Out Chicago, an initiative that brings awareness to light pollution and its impacts on birds. Just flipping your light switch off after 11 pm during spring and fall migratory season will make a big difference, especially if you’re posted up in a tall building.

If you ever spot a bird in need, turn to Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a group of volunteers who work to help rehabilitate and track injured birds who collide with buildings during the migratory season. Elsewhere, you can become a conservation volunteer with Audubon Great Lakes, revitalizing the natural habitat, removing invasive species, and collecting and planting native seeds, or work as a Bird Care Volunteer inside the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

WasteNot Compost
WasteNot Compost

Compost your leftover food scraps

Composting might seem daunting and complicated, but trust us, it’s truly one of the easiest and most beneficial changes you can make in your everyday life. Believe it or not, organic matter like unused produce and other foods sent to landfills produce methane gas which leaks into our atmosphere and contributes to climate change. The good news is that you don't need a yard, or even much space, time, or money to kickstart your composting career.

There are several composters here in Chicago with varying rates, drop-off, and pick-up options. Companies like WasteNot Compost, The Urban Canopy, and Block Bins Collective Resource Compost all offer seamless bin replacement and collection services for residents, commercial spaces, and offices. Some even offer bigger communal compost bins so you can get your neighbors in on the sustainable action. Now that the farmers markets are back in action, the folks over at The Urban Canopy and Green City Market will both be accepting your scraps for a small fee. And for those who want to compost for free—not to mention have the outdoor space and patience—there's always DIY vermicomposting, which is basically throwing some worms in with your outdoor compost pile. If you have any questions, the folks over at Illinois Food Scrap Coalition have step-by-step instructions.

Crossroads Trading Company
Crossroads Trading Company

Shop, swap, and donate clothing at second-hand shops

We all know what it’s like to be over our current wardrobe, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw away those ‘fits from 2015 and buy all new looks. In the spirit of spring cleaning and decluttering, one of the best ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle is being smart about getting rid of old things and deliberate when acquiring new ones. Stocking up at second-hand stores offers a great way to cut back on the amount of fast fashion clothing circulating on the planet, while donating your used clothing to places like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads Trading might even put a little cash in your pocket. Salvation Army, Unique, and Goodwill are always great places to donate and shop, but there are countless other fab vintage, boutique, and consignment stores that offer more curated looks. Drop by Chicago Vintage Underground, Una Maes, Mercy Beaucoup Resale Boutique, Knee Deep Vintage, Elliott Consignment, and Mr. and Mrs. Digz to see for yourself.

If you’re looking for a lively clothing swap event complete with an onsite fashion show, Depaul University and Fair Trade Chicago’s Fashion Revolution will take place on April 20. And you can always scratch all of the above, pick up a bottle of organic wine, and invite your friends over to your house for a good, old-fashioned clothing swap.

Environment Illinois
Environment Illinois

Commit to planting native pollinators

Many of us aren’t lucky enough to have lawns in the city, but if you do, consider letting it go wild this May in order to let our friendly bees, butterflies, and birds do their thing in lush comfort. A new trend has been sprouting up (get it?) all across the country, giving pollinators a chance to feed on native plants throughout the spring. If you have limited space, consider planting some native seeds for the bees in a pot outside your window. You can find more information via Environment Illinois, and for tips about greening up your lawn, Go Green Illinois has you covered.

Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

Beautify Chicago’s many green spaces

Aside from enjoying the great outdoors and adopting a ‘leave no trace” mentality, Chicagoans can spend time in nature while promoting environmental responsibility by volunteering. Park enthusiasts can make a difference in their local communities by joining Friends of the Parks, Forest Preserves of Cook County, or any one of Chicago Park District's parks, conservatories, and greenhouses, which offer opportunities for every interest and varying levels of time commitment. Enhance the quality of life for your fellow Chicagoans whether just for a day or on a regular basis by planting gardens, mulching trees, and making other important improvements. The Lincoln Park Conservancy and Garfield Park Conservatory are also always looking for energetic, dedicated adults and families to lend a hand.

From snow-shoveling to alley clean-ups to urban gardening and more, My Block, My Hood, My City motivates Chicagoans to aid their neighbors in need. This Earth Day, they’ll be hosting a day of service in Englewood, gathering folks to plant native plants, tend local gardens, oversee street clean-up and more—sign up online to get started.

You can always get involved with a number of projects with Openlands, an organization bringing Chicagoans and those in the surrounding region together to help with land and water protection in northeastern Illinois. Initiatives range from tidying up the Chicago River and planting trees in local neighborhoods to building gardens alongside Chicago Public Schools and introducing children to nature via community-focused workshops.
 

Friends of the Chicago River
Friends of the Chicago River

Pledge to keep our waters clean and healthy

There are many ways to get involved with Friends of the Chicago River, an organization that helps restore and protect the Chicago River. Dedicated Chicago River Eco-Warriors (aka CREW) remove litter, remediate gullies, and improve and monitor wildlife habitat projects in and along the Chicago River. Volunteers can also pitch in at special events like Chicago River Day on May 14, as well as at the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, helping to spread the word by tabling at community functions and other public happenings.

Help keep the Great Lakes in tip-top shape by volunteering with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Through their Adopt-a-Beach program, do-gooders work together to protect the Great Lakes via organized clean-ups and other community projects. Find an event in your area or become an ambassador and preach the lake-friendly gospel.

The Wetlands Initiative designs, restores, and creates wetlands to improve water quality, habitat for plants and wildlife, and our climate. Volunteers are essential to maintain vital wetland restoration projects and their upcoming seasonal events are full of opportunities to do just that.

Urban Growers Collective
Urban Growers Collective

Roll up your sleeves to fight food-insecurity

Deploy your green thumb at one of the city's many community gardens and urban farms like Plant Chicago and Urban Growers Collective, where volunteers can dig their hands in the soil, learn what it takes to grow food, and give back. Depending on the season, you'll prepare beds, shift compost, plant, harvest, or clean up the space—rain or shine. On Earth Day, you can also join Plant Chicago for a special film screening and discussion.

Farmers markets like Green City Market provide ample opportunities for everything from organizing produce to overseeing the market's single-use waste sorting stations and educating the public about GCM programming and upcoming events. Each endeavor advances their greater mission to “support small family farmers, educate consumers and the next generation of eaters, and increase access to local, healthy, sustainable food.”

The Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum

Immerse yourself in environmentalism

Discover a world of wonder and inspire others by sharing your talents at the Garfield Conservatory, and Lincoln Park Conservatory, where volunteers are needed for seasonal events, educational and off-site programs for all ages, garden tours, greenhouse and garden planting and monitoring, restoration projects, and more.

Become a champion of trees at The Morton Arboretum by volunteering at the visitor center or for special seasonal events, working alongside a horticulturist in one of the collections or garden areas, preserving and studying plants from the Chicago area and elsewhere at cutting edge research labs, and keeping track of trails, plant and tree blooming stages, and migratory and native bird species.

Sunrise Movement Chicago
Sunrise Movement Chicago

Combat climate change

Curb climate change locally with the youth movement Sunrise Movement Chicago or Chicago Conservation Corps (C3), a sustainability-focused program through the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum that recruits and trains volunteers to lead and participate in various environmental service projects. The Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter tackles climate change by protecting the wild parts of Illinois and keeping our lakes and rivers clean. Help protect our beautiful state's diverse natural resources by working on conservation campaigns as a digital action, media, or lobbying team volunteer.

Expand access to sustainability solutions by getting involved with the Illinois Green Alliance. Volunteers help schools implement no- to low-cost sustainability efforts while training to become energy efficiency and healthy-living experts, sharing their expertise with local green building initiatives and like-minded community organizations.

Boasting more than 600 local chapters across the United States, including several in Chicagoland, Citizens' Climate Lobby is committed to building Congressional support by working across the political spectrum to find common ground on climate change solutions. Find a local chapter near you to join in and start taking action.

Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity
Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity

Reduce, reuse, and recycle

Team up with organizations like Digs with Dignity and Humble Design Chicago to sort and organize gently-used donations, refurbish older furniture, and package items for individuals and families emerging from unhoused situations. An added bonus? You’re saving these otherwise good items from an eternity spent in overcrowded landfills.

Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity is building a better Chicago—literally. Volunteers construct homes, complete repair projects, assist at job sites, and work with dedicated employees in Habitat ReStores, where used home goods, appliances, and furniture are sold to help give back to the community (you may even find something you can’t live without among the diverse inventory).

FreeGeek Chicago turns old computers and parts into working systems to help give economically disadvantaged Chicagoans access to technology and IT training. Volunteers spend time dismantling and testing donated equipment, which is then either reused in refurbished devices or recycled, while also brushing up on the environmental impact of e-waste.

International Dark-Sky Association
International Dark-Sky Association

Help the night sky enchant generations to come

There are a number of ways people who appreciate dark star-filled skies can get involved in the International Dark-Sky Association, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural nighttime environment. Join a local chapter and meet other night owls via the advocate network, a global community focused on educating their communities about light pollution and advocating for lighting ordinances on a municipal level. Additionally, planning a trip to a nearby International Dark Sky Place like Homer Glen and Middle Fork River Forest Preserve can help sustain and protect areas with exceptionally dark skies as well as the local efforts that keep them that way.

One Tail at a Time
One Tail at a Time

Show our four-legged friends some love

While we're busy bettering the world for humans and wildlife, why not also make it a nicer place for canines and felines in dire need of homes. Plus, let's face it, we could probably all use a little pet therapy right now, and Chicago lays claim to plenty of great organizations offering opportunities for animal lovers of all ages. Check out the volunteer boards at PAWS Chicago, One Tail At A Time Dog Rescue, Chicago Canine Rescue, and Chicago Pet Rescue and get ready to cuddle something cute. While it might not be an option for you to foster a friendly furball, even an hour of your time creating pet profiles, posting on social media, or walking, bathing, and interacting with rescue dogs and cats can help the shelters and adoption centers fulfill their mission of finding these lovable pals a forever home.

Still searching for a worthy cause?
Volunteering Untapped Chicago partners with a different nonprofit each month, so volunteers can help various local organizations throughout the year and get a feel for what causes might be most important to them.

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Nicole Schnitzler is a contributor for Thrillist.
Nicole Bruce is a Chicago-based writer covering travel, food, entertainment, technology, and more. Tell her what you're doing to make a difference in Chicago on Twitter @nicoleabruce.