Earth Day events lower key, but issues remain high priority

By Thomas Wilson

   Twenty million people celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, the same year the federal Clean Air Act was signed into law by President Nixon.
   While the annual Earth Day celebration held April 22 once garnered heavy exposure through national media outlets seeking to highlight environmental issues, events have become less publicized in recent years. However, clean air and water remain vital political and cultural issues to environmental lobbyists wanting regulation, businesses wanting economic freedom and elected officials wanting votes.
   In a report released April 15, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated all or part of 140 metropolitan areas in the United States - including six areas in Tennessee - as non-attainment zones that did not meet the newest air-quality standards. The six areas in Tennessee were Chattanooga, Clarksville-Hopkinsville, Ky.; Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol, Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville.
   The EPA report listed 474 counties nationwide - including the Tri-Cities metropolitan area - under the non-attainment designation. A total of 18 East Tennessee counties are affected including Cocke, Hawkins, Jefferson, and Sullivan counties.
   Local governments in the Nashville and Johnson City-Kingsport-Bristol areas have reached agreements with the EPA to defer their non-attainment status by entering into early-action compacts (EACs). The EACs are expected to reduce air-pollution levels sooner than required by the federal Clean Air Act.
   The environment also continues to rank as a hot-button political issue in some areas of the country. The Sierra Club issued a stinging criticism Thursday of President Bush's environmental policy involving the Clean Air Act. With the presidential election less than six months away, Sierra is mounting a campaign critical of the Bush administration's environmental policy regarding clean air standards for soot emissions and clean-up costs for toxic waste sites.
   The roots of Earth Day extend back to 1969 when the mayor of San Francisco proclaimed March 21, 1970 as Earth Day to coincide with the spring equinox. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin initiated the federal legislative process that influenced Earth Day. Nelson announced "Earth Week" would be celebrated the third week of April each year.
   With the influence of Nelson and others in the environmental arena, Congress ultimately passed federal legislation including the Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1977) and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.
   Federal regulations have limited environmental pollution during the past 30 years. However, consumption and production of waste has also risen in past decades.
   According to the EPA, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 229 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2000, which is approximately 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960.
   Recycling programs remain a prevalent, popular means of limiting the amount of solid waste dumped into landfills. According to the EPA recycling, including composting diverted 68 million tons of material away from landfills and incinerators in 2001, up from 34 million tons in 1990.
   Municipal solid waste - commonly known as trash or garbage - consists of everyday items such as product packaging, grass clippings, furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint, and batteries.
   Several solid waste management practices, such as source reduction, recycling, and composting, prevent or divert materials from the waste stream. Source reduction involves altering the design, manufacture, or use of products and materials to reduce the amount and toxicity of what gets thrown away.
   Recycling diverts items, such as paper, glass, plastic, and metals, from the waste stream. These materials are sorted, collected, and processed and then manufactured, sold, and bought as new products. Composting decomposes organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, with microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi), producing a humus-like substance.
   Typical materials that are recycled include batteries, recycled at a rate of 94 percent, paper and paperboard at 45 percent, and yard trimmings at 57 percent according to the EPA. These materials and others may be recycled through curbside programs, drop-off centers, buy-back programs, and deposit systems.
   Scientific research reports also indicate that recycling also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affect global climate. In 1996, recycling of solid waste in the United States prevented the release of 33 million tons of carbon into the air--roughly the amount emitted annually by 25 million cars.
   Earth Day events were held in Johnson City at the Wal-Mart Supercenter store on Browns Mill Road and at East Tennessee State University. Wal-Mart offered shoppers an opportunity to learn how to preserve natural resources and protect our environment. Sponsored by ETSU's campus Greens and Democrats, the school's Earth Day Celebration featured arts, crafts, music and speakers.