Environmental magazines -- New periodicals like ''Garbage'' are spreading the word to protect our planet

These days, environmental magazines are sprouting like amphetamine-fertilized crocuses. Such publications were once the domain of nonprofit groups such as the Sierra Club, but in the last two years, three mass-market environmental titles (all bimonthlies) have made their debuts: Buzzworm, launched in 1988 and based in Boulder, Colo.; Garbage, published for the first time last September by the Brooklyn company that produces The Old-House Journal; and E, a Norwich, Conn.-based magazine that premiered in January. With its March-April issue, Mother Earth News, an Owen Lipstein publication (his others are Smart and Psychology Today), completes its well-publicized shift to environmental coverage. Russ Hoyle, a former Time senior editor, is drawing up plans for The Environmentalist. Hoyle hopes to launch the magazine sometime in 1991. Earth Day 1990, on April 22, gets special attention this month from, among others, New Age Journal, Outside, and Mother Jones. Outside lampoons Earth Day hype with a spread of charts and factoids, Spy-like in layout and tone, called ”This Green Thing.” And in its 20th anniversary issue, Smithsonian has essays on the history of United States environmentalism and the ups and downs of the ecology movement since Earth Day 1970.

Why so much hubbub? Because many people believe there’s gold to be mined from the Green Decade that allegedly begins this month. As Mother Earth News editor Alfred Meyer put it in an ”Open Letter” to Madison Avenue that ran in Adweek last November, ”The environmental movement (is) surging across the demographic landscape. Not since the early eighties, when the nation went on a health and fitness kick, has a social movement reached so deep.”

Not surprisingly, there’s some overlap in the new, full-time environmental magazines. After reading one bimonth’s worth, you may know all you’ll ever want to about the towering fallacy of biodegradable plastics and the evils of disposable diapers. But each of the four has staked out a recognizable niche. Garbage is aimed at you Sons of Bob Vila who, in the name of eco-awareness, are eager to make your homes environmentally sound. Editor Patricia Poore has called her magazine the one for greenies ”with dishpan hands,” and she means it. In its January-February issue, Garbage ran a head- turner called ”After the Flush,” which included a Fantastic Voyage through a sewage system, and a consumer’s guide to water-saving toilets. The ”Garbage Index,” a fun-facts file, reported that We the People use 22,627 square miles of toilet paper a year (nearly enough, Garbage forgot to say, to cover Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island). The March-April issue tells you how to slay garden pests with natural, environment-friendly potions.

Buzzworm is slicker. Unlike E and Garbage — which are printed on politically correct recycled paper stock — Buzzworm unashamedly uses unrecycled glossy throughout (although it says it will soon change over to recycled paper). Buzzworm has less how-to and more of what editor Joseph E. Daniel calls ”information to help people get physically involved in environmentalism.” Its ”Connections” section lists dozens of volunteer and paying jobs in environmental fields, and at the end of most articles there’s an address for those seeking more info. (Garbage and E provide this service, too; Mother Earth News, so far, does not.) Buzzworm also clearly wants to appeal to the action-people types who read Outside. The March-April issue has its share of green material — for example, a feature on the Soviet Union’s eco-movement — but it’s dominated by lush nature photography and pieces on spelunking, white-water rafting, and a list of wilderness outfitters.

E fits somewhere in between. Printed on humble, dull-finish paper, its service and feature reporting resembles elements in both Buzzworm and Garbage. The current issue, for example, contains reports on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and paper recycling. The main how-to feature is a beginner’s guide to computer networks for environmental activists.

Finally, in an orbit all its own is the new Mother Earth News, which looks like an econut’s Rolling Stone (probably because both publications were formatted by Roger Black). The first new-style issue contains messages and postcards from the planet Earth that will be beamed into outer space on Earth Day. (Many are, of course, from celebrities, including Ann Landers, who laments, ”Our planet is dying.”) The signal also will go, via satellite, to members of a Soviet-Chinese-American ”Peace and Environment” team scheduled to reach the top of Mt. Everest on — yes, you guessed it — Earth Day. Why? ”(T)his special issue,” Alfred Meyer writes in an open letter to outer-space browsers, ”however parochial and imperfect it may ultimately prove to be, is an attempt to speak on behalf of the entire planet, which, as a magazine, we are named for, after all.”

A note to aliens: Please send editorial replies — especially death rays — only to the return address on the masthead.