Today is Earth Day, which was first observed 44 years ago on the same date in 1970. There's no question we've become better stewards of our planet over the last four decades. Earth Day founder Senator Gaylord Nelson passed away in July of 2005 at the age of 89. He believed strongly that education is the key to changing people’s attitudes about the environment, and he devoted much of his time and energy to that challenge.
“The idea of Earth Day evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962,” he wrote before his death. “For several years it had been troubling me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country. Finally, in November of 1962, an idea occurred to me that was, I thought, a virtual cinch to put the environment into the political ‘limelight’ once and for all. The idea was to persuade President Kennedy to give visibility to this issue. It was the germ of the idea that ultimately flowered into Earth Day.”
According to Senator Nelson, the first Earth Day “worked” because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. Though he felt he and his committee had neither the time nor resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated, “it organized itself.”
So, how have things changed in the last 44 years? Certainly, we’ve become more aware of the need to take better care of our planet. Many imporant laws were passed in the wake of the first Earth Day, including the Clean Air Act, and laws to protect water, wild lands, and the ocean. The Environmental Protection Agency was created within three years of the first Earth Day.
Personally, I’ve seen a dramatic change over the last 44 years. What I clearly remember as a child is taking a weekly pilgrimage with my Dad every Saturday afternoon to the town dump. Dad loaded the family car with all kinds of debris and junk from the basement, and we followed the dirt path, greeted the seagulls, and dumped everything at the landfill. The garbage was simply buried. Today, our garbage is turned into electricity or, in some cases, steam.
Garbage isn’t something most of us want to think about, but managing nearly 230 tons we generate each year has consequences. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of garbage Americans generate has increased from 88 million tons to over 229 million tons since 1960. Forty-seven years ago, Americans produced about 2.7 pounds of garbage each day. By 2001, though, that amount jumped to 4.4 pounds a person each day.
I’m impressed at what has been done locally to address the issue of waste reduction. The Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority’s Bridgeport Project consists of a 2,250 ton-per-day mass-burn trash-to-energy facility, eight transfer stations, two landfills, a regional recycling center, and the Children’s Garbage Museum. The Bridgeport Project provides solid waste disposal and recycling services to 20 Connecticut communities in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
The Bridgeport Project trash-to-energy plant, which is located at 6 Howard Avenue in Bridgeport is truly an impressive facility. Take your family there, and I’m sure all of you will be amazed at what you see. It’s the perfect example of how “one man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure.” I’ve visited the plant several times, and each time I come away with a better understanding of how we manage our trash.
The solid waste is burned in a controlled environment to create electricity. Through this process, the volume of solid waste is reduced by about 90%. Waste-to-energy plants nationwide generate enough electricity to power nearly 2.3 million homes. Energy created in the Bridgeport facility has about the same environmental impact as energy produced from natural gas, and less impact than from oil or coal plants.
Recycling? We never bothered to recycle anything over a generation ago. Everything was considered “trash” back then. Now, we carefully sort our recyclables each week and place them in the blue bins. Recycled items include paper, aluminum, steel, plastics, glass, scrap tips, cell phones, and electronics. Americans recycled and composted nearly 30% of municipal solid waste in 2001, diverting 68 million tons to recovery.
Did you know, for example, that 71% of all newspapers are recovered for recycling? Over a third goes back into making more newsprint. The remainder is used to make paperboard, tissue, and insulation. Seventy-four percent of boxes are recycled, and nearly 46% of office papers are recovered for recycling. These become raw material for printing and writing paper.
So, yes, we’ve come a long way since the first Earth Day was “celebrated” on April 22, 1970. Much has been done since then, but there’s still a long way to go. Gaylord Nelson said education was the key to changing people’s attitudes about the environment, and the more aware we become about our planet, the better we'll be able to take care of it.