By Bernd Debusmann, Jr.
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A "virtual" forest sprouting on Times Square's renowned billboards, 1,000 free rain barrels for gritty city backyards and a parade of clean energy vehicles including hybrid garbage trucks are all helping New Yorkers go green for Earth Day on Friday.
Earth Day New York's managing director Joanne Black said accompanying giant forest images of dense vegetation and nature in the quintessential lit-up, crowded and chaotic urban landscape of Times Square will be "a visual call to action."
On Saturday, supporters of the environment can text message "tree" to the number 85944, pledging $5 for the United Nations' Year of Forest. The running tally will play out on large screens supplied by corporate sponsors including CNN, MTV, Reuters and Toshiba.
The onetime $5 dollar donation will be debited from cell phone bills to fund the planting of trees in degraded lands as far afield as Mexico, Kenya, India and the Philippines.
"It's rare for so many companies to give up their screens," Black said of the colossal, often dazzling billboards that hover above the so-called crossroads of the world and are seen by tens of thousands of people daily. "For this, they have."
"We hope to engage a broad segment of the public and show that even a small contribution can really make a difference," Earth Day New York Executive Director Pamela Lippe said.
Although the Times Square Alliance does not keep a figure on the total amount of electricity used by the billboards - which are run independently of one another - a spokesman said the billboards used today run on considerably less energy than those used in previous years.
On Friday, a convoy of more than 30 electric and alternative fuel cars, including an Inizio, the world's fastest electric sports car, will tour Manhattan, their GPS-tracked progress followed on the Times Square screens.
The route will form the letter "E" -- for environment, a take on Earth Day New York's slogan, "Be the E".
Hybrid vehicles from the city Departments of Transportation, Parks, and Sanitation will escort the Inizio, along with a privately owned, completely electric DeLorean similar to the one featured in the "Back to the Future" films.
New York's myriad Earth Day celebrations come as Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration moves to make the city, often seen as grimy and polluted, more environmentally friendly and sustainable.
On Thursday, Bloomberg announced several additions to his long-term "PlaNYC" campaign to make the city greener, including a "clean heat" campaign to encourage conversion to cleaner fuels in favor of heavy heating oils which pollute the air with fine particular matter known as PM 2.5.
Officials say a 10 percent reduction in PM 2.5 could prevent 300 deaths, 200 hospital admissions and 600 emergency department visits from airborne pollution each year.
The free rain barrel program for residents of the four boroughs outside Manhattan began last week and is meant to help fight water contamination by minimizing flow to city sewers.
Officials hope homeowners will use them to water their lawns and gardens.
(Reporting by Bernd Debusmann Jr., editing by Chris Michaud and Peter Bohan)