April 22 is Earth Day and next year marks its 50th anniversary.  It seems a good time to pause and think about what we have accomplished and where we go from here.  How has Earth Day changed since it’s conception and have we reached any of its original goals?

History

The end of WWII brought rapid economic and population growth to the US along with urbanization.   The war had advanced industrialization, ushered in the green revolution, and manufacturing jobs brought a higher standard of living for most Americans.  But with heavy industry came resource extraction, emissions, and waste production.  Cheap, plentiful US oil and rapid transportation of goods across the US increased the flow of raw materials, finished goods and labor.  Our economy boomed along with the number of new babies!  A higher standard of living created a strong middle class that desired more goods and greater freedom of movement; the personal automobile became the epitome of such freedom.  President Eisenhower supported the development of the interstate highway system.  The US automotive industry lobbied to close many types of public transit and urban development sprawled outward into suburbia.

Advertising and marketing in the 1960’s fueled our expanding consumption and Americans readily bought into the idea that a modern life meant buying ready made goods, driving a personal vehicle, and living in a small house in the suburbs.   But the rapid increase in highways and motor vehicles also increased air pollution (especially in congested cities) that had serious impacts on public health and the environment.  We saw a rise in air pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, lead (from gasoline), and volatile organic compounds.

Many mainstream Americans remained oblivious to environmental concerns, but antiwar and civil rights activism in the 1960’s taught people to express their opposition with marches and demonstrations.  In 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” brought to light the dangerous use of a pesticide called DDT that was polluting rivers and destroying the eggs of birds of prey like bald eagles.  “The book represented a watershed moment, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries, and beginning to raise public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and links between pesticide pollution and public health.”  Then in 1969 a large oil spill struck the coast of Santa Barbara, California and Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin founded Earth Day to draw attention to the damage of human made pollution to the environment.

The first Earth Day was celebrated April 22, 1970, when 20 million Americans across the country took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums demanding that our government do something to protect our environment.  There wasn’t one large gathering but rather tens of thousands of small ones coast-to-coast.  “It was a rare political alignment that brought together groups normally in opposition; Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, urbanites and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders that led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.”  The Clean Air Act gave the newly-formed EPA the legal authority to regulate pollution from cars and other forms of transportation.  “EPA and the State of California led the national effort to reduce vehicle pollution by adopting increasingly stringent standards.”

In 1990 Earth Day went global, mobilizing 200 million people in 141 countries and lifting environmental issues onto the world stage.  Earth Day 1990 helped to increase recycling efforts worldwide and paved the way for the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  “The focus of this conference was the state of the global environment and the relationship between economics, science and the environment in a political context. The conference concluded with the Earth Summit, at which leaders of 105 nations gathered to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable development.”

In 1995 President Bill Clinton awarded Senator Gaylord Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States, for his role as Earth Day founder.  Today Earth Day is celebrated around the world by more than a billion people.  The focus has shifted over time focusing on environmental issues and cleaning up pollution, sustainable development, greening the environment by planting trees, recycling, and efforts to reduce climate change and species extinction.

Arguably the most pressing environmental issue today is global warming induced climate change.  Industrialization, driven by the consumption of fossil fuels, has led to a rapid increase in CO2emissions, disrupting the global carbon cycle and leading to planetary warming.  Industrialization, in particular agriculture, is causing the sixth great mass extinction.  Global warming is altering our climate and causing extreme weather events (such as floods, droughts, wildfires, storms, and heatwaves); sea-level rise; altered crop growth; and disrupted water systems.   The rapid economic development of Asian countries has increased fossil fuel consumption.  China is the world’s largest source of carbon emissions, and the air quality of many of its major cities fails to meet international health standards.

“The two most pressing issues we face today are habitat loss and climate change, and these issues are interrelated,” says Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist of the National Geographic Society.  “One of our biggest obstacles is our mindset: we need people to emotionally connect to the natural world, understand how it works and our dependence on it,” Baillie says. “Fundamentally, if we care about the natural world, we will value and protect it and make decisions that ensure the future of species and ecosystems.”

Our Report Card

How have we done over the past 50 years?  The population of humans has doubled since the first Earth Day in 1970 (3.7 billion vs. 7.4 billion) and urbanization has risen from 36% to 55%.  The US population increased from 210 million in 1970 to 328 million today with 80% living in urban environments.  Multi-national corporations now control much of the manufacturing and distribution of goods around the world.

Regulations have reduced pollution from transportation sources leading to healthier air in American cities but air, soil, and water pollution has increased dramatically in developing countries.  Studies have shown that a significant number of U.S. firms have reduced their pollution at home by offshoring production to poor and less regulated countries.  The unforeseen consequence has been that many developing countries now have serious pollution problems due to rapid industrialization.  We may have seen our environment become cleaner but it has come at the expense of environmental degradation elsewhere.

China’s environmental crisis is one of the most pressing challenges to emerge from that country’s rapid industrialization.  Its economic rise, in which GDP grew on average 10 percent each year for more than a decade, has come at the expense of its environment and public health.  One recent study calculates that “17 to 36 percent of four major air pollutants emitted in China come from production for export.  Among these export-related emissions, about 21 percent come from the production of goods for the United States.”

On Earth Day 2017 President Trump tweeted that he was “committed to keeping our air and water clean but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!”  Trump has denied that human induced climate change is occurring.   He and other political leaders believe that economic growth must be maintained.  Trump has tried to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US by reducing corporate taxes, imposing tariffs on imports, and relaxing labor and environmental regulations.  His administration’s policies of propping up aging coal fired power plants and relaxing gas mileage standards are increasing US carbon emissions.  Trump is a developer with the mindset that paying lower wages and spending less to clean emissions or dispose of waste means more profit and a higher return on investment.  The environmental protection made in the US over the last 50 years is in danger as our government rolls back regulations and allows industry to police itself.

Many people support the Republican efforts to reduce government oversight and the taxes we once imposed on the highest incomes to pay for social services like police and fire departments, school teachers,  medicare and social security.  Perhaps we’ve  forgotten the pollution of the 1960’s when industry governed its own behavior.  Or maybe the concern about pollution has diminished along with middle class affluence.  America is losing the economic strength of its middle class and now income inequality is similar to that of the early 20th century; a minority upper class that holds most of the wealth, ownership of resources, and political power contrasted with a majority lower class of working poor.  The biggest difference is that at the turn of the 20th century more than half of Americans lived and worked in small rural communities and owned small local businesses and farms.   People in rural communities were better able to provide food and homes for their families.

Today people are fortunate to have employment with health insurance and other benefits.  Many people don’t receive employer benefits, they live pay check-to-pay check trying to provide food and shelter, unable to pay for their children’s education, unable to retire.  Far too many families have been bankrupt by health care costs, yet we are sicker than ever.  This seems to be the path of socioeconomic development occurring across the world as power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a few.  Human civilization has yet to demonstrate that we can create a long term socio-economic system that is sustainable, egalitarian, and non-polluting.

Plastic pollution

The theme of 2018’s Earth Day celebration was plastic pollution.  Plastic pollution is ubiquitous in the environment, the amount is growing, and scientists are just beginning to examine the consequences.  Plastic has become a major commodity on a global scale and has infiltrated almost every aspect of human life. “The historic growth in production has outpaced almost all other manufactured materials from 2 million metric tons (MT) produced in 1950 to 322 million MT produced in 2015.”  The increased use of plastics in everything from durable goods to single use items has been a result of cheap plentiful oil (from which plastics are created), the expansion of the global economy, and the shipment of processed, packaged consumable goods worldwide.  Unfortunately less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled back into new products.  Over the last decade we have seen a rise in the production of throwaway commodities, plastic food packaging, and poor mechanisms for recycling.  This has led to the prediction that “by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

The United States, Japan, Europe, Australia, and Canada generate the largest volume of plastic waste and until recently exported a large amount of it to China.  But much of the plastic waste shipped to Asian countries for “recycling” has ended up in their rivers along with the plastic waste they generate themselves because few Asian countries have developed municipal waste management systems.  We may faithfully sort glass, metal, paper, and plastic out of our rubbish and into the recycling bin but if these materials have no place to go they will end up at best in a landfill and at worst in the ocean.  Our efforts to feel good about recycling as a form of taking care of the earth may not be actually be reducing pollution.

“China had been taking half of the world’s paper and plastic when it called a halt to the imports, tightening the contamination limit to 0.5 percent for most imports.  The repercussions from the new policy have been quick and nowhere close to sorted out in communities across the U.S.”  “Our seas are filling with plastic pollution, as much as eight million metric tons enter the oceans every year… a recent study estimates that more than a quarter of all that waste could be pouring in from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia.” There are images of a massive plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean larger in scale than Texas. Plastic pollution not only accumulates in the environment it is increasingly found in our food, water, homes, and bodies.  We don’t yet know the extent to which it threatens our health.

The following review provides a background on microplastics, ocean dispersal, physical and chemical properties, and degradation.  It also provides information about nanoplastics and explores the life cycle of microplastics including their toxicity and epidemiology in humans and animals, strategies for mitigation and adaptation, and research needs.

The problem isn’t just the plastic we see, it’s also the plastic we can’t see.   Microplastics are generally defined as plastics less than 5 mm diameter (1/5th of an inch).  They are formed through the breakdown of macroplastics (the garbage we can easily see).   These tiny plastic particles (some smaller than the width of a human hair) are either produced intentionally for use in other consumer products or are created when larger plastic debris is broken down by erosion and sunlight into increasingly smaller pieces.  They result from the abrasives used in cosmetics and blasting media.  They are derived from laundry water that contains tiny fibers released from our clothing.   “One of the most pervasive forms of microplastic is known as microfiber: small strands of plastic used to produce synthetic fabrics such as polyester and nylon.  When clothing made from these fabrics is washed, some of the microscopic fibers are shed.  A recent inquiry into the phenomenon revealed that as many as 250 thousand fibers can be released within a single wash.”  Microfibers are also generated from the carpet that covers most floors.

Just how small can microplastics become? They can fall into the micron and nanometer size.  Micro is short for micrometer (μm) and a nanometer is 1/1000th of a micrometer.  A human hair is 50 to 70 μm wide.  Microplastics can be as small as dust and similar to dust can be carried for hundreds of miles by wind.  The more scientists have searched for their presence in the environment the more they find them even in pristine lakes where they are likely the result of wind transport.  Nanometer sized particles are small enough to pass through cell membranes and penetrate organs affecting every system in a living body.

Microplastics carry toxins on their surface because plastic molecules are good at absorbing pollutants.  “Microplastics act like magnets, attracting pollutants out of the environment to attach to the plastic.”   Plastic can be contaminated by water-borne organic pollutants and by the leaching of potentially toxic plastic additives.  “Plastics contain additives than harm humans and other species: fire retardants, stabilizers, antibiotics, plasticizers, pigments, bisphenol A, phthalates, etc.   Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems.”  When consumed, microplastics can introduce toxins into the food chain, which can biomagnify to higher trophic levels.

Plastic pollution is spreading across our landscapes, rivers, and oceans.  It comingles with the dust in our homes, with the air we breathe, and the food we eat.   It contaminates the water we drink.   Recent studies have found microplastics in 83% of tap water samples from major cities around the world and in 93% of samples from the world’s top 11 bottled water brands.    Microplastics are entering our food chain.  It is found in our feces.  It is getting into our bodies and likely our organs, and we don’t know the impact on our health.  “Few countries consider microplastic as hazardous,” Browne said. “Yet our work shows that large accumulations of microplastic have the potential to impact the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems.”

Plastic pollution doesn’t simply come from straws, drink bottles and shopping bags, it is in personal health care products, it falls off our clothing, it clings to dust particles, it is everywhere in almost everything we consume or contact.  It isn’t going to be as simple as increasing the content of recycled plastic in the goods we manufacture, which would only remove part of the waste stream.  If we want to reduce plastic pollution we need to change the types of fabrics we manufacture and eliminate products that contain plastic abrasives.  If we want to keep microplastics out of our body we will need to improve air and water filtration and learn more about how it contaminates our food and water.  Similar to other forms of pollution changing our habits won’t eliminate the persistent plastic pollution that has already accumulated in our homes, bodies, and the environment.  It is likely already impacting our health.

Reduce/Reuse/Recycle

I came of age in the 1970’s during the oil embargo and the rise of the recycling and conservation movement.  Conservation still shapes how I think about resources today, how I manage our household waste, and how I consume energy and resources.  Long before I understood peak oil or began to understand the full threat of pollution and climate change I was convinced of the necessity to conserve resources.  Perhaps it was the influence of stories my grandmother told about living through the Great Depression.  Her experiences shaped my life’s philosophy and influenced the course of my education in environmental science.  My belief in conservation led me to start a composting business where I recycle organic wastes and turn them into valuable topsoil.  It’s the reason why my husband and I live in an earth bermed home powered by solar energy.

I adopted and practice the 3R’s (reduce-reuse-recycle) as a way to reduce consumption of resources and generate less garbage for disposal.  It begins with conservation, reducing consumption by simply using less and reusing more, reducing waste by buying less processed/packaged products.  Websites such as Craig’s list make it easy to buy used goods.  Goodwill is a great place to buy used clothing.  I recycle and re-purpose worn out items.  We reduce energy use with more efficient windows, better insulation, and LED’s.  We always try to buy the best quality of durable goods and tools so that they will last us a lifetime and be passed on to our children.

I have started to search out companies that manufacture products containing larger percentages of recycled materials.  The one benefit of Amazon!  I believe that our purchasing power can be used to encourage business to provide more of such products.  I also think we need to pass legislation that requires companies to take back used products for recycling.  If we insist that every company bear responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products (cradle to grave) they will work harder to design products that are cheaper and easier to recycle.  Some companies do this already and we should support them.

Conclusion

How will you celebrate Earth Day?  Some celebrate it as a day of action spent picking up trash along roads, clearing away debris from empty lots, or beautifying a space by planting gardens or trees.  It feels good to make our environment clean and beautiful.  Others take time to reflect on the beauty of our natural world and its vulnerability.  Mindfulness is always a good thing!  A few might spend the day in prayer, renewing their commitment to honor all forms of life with which we share a common home.  Earth Day should be a reminder to us all that we need to change our behavior, whether or not it’s too late.

Americans were the first to celebrate Earth Day and we managed to unite politically in order to reduce pollution in our country, not a small achievement.  But the task isn’t completed and if anything our problems have become even more urgent.   Americans consume more resources per person than any other country in the world.  We continue to consume resources at a rate that is damaging natural ecosystem’s ability to renew.  We are fighting against the political and economic will of a minority who stand to profit from rolling back regulations and continuing business as usual.

As I wrote this article I couldn’t help but feel that we’ve failed to protect the environment.  I thought about the reality of what we face…climate change, plastic and chemical pollution, the loss of the Monarch butterflies, bees, and all the others tens of millions of species that have or will go extinct.  I couldn’t help but be saddened to think of the tens of millions of people whose world has already unraveled, devastated by political and economic collapse, left homeless by weather disasters and struggling to recover with no place to turn.

Thinking about the challenges can feel overwhelming!  I’m going to leave off with a few things Bill McKibben recently said in an interview because I think he expressed it so well…”It’s the fact that we just keep doing, going on doing what we’re doing, not changing in any dramatic way, at a moment when the world demands transformation.”  “We’re going to find out, in the next 10, 20, 30 years, whether we have some hope of preserving the planet and, with it, the civilizations that we’re accustomed to, and whether we’re capable of preserving the idea of human beings as something not just useful, but kind of beautiful.  ”

Perhaps it isn’t enough to celebrate Earth Day once a year.  Maybe we need to be thinking every day about what we need to do, where we go from here, and how we to face our future.