Opinion: Commentary: 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Opinion: Commentary: 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

On April 22nd, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. We will all have to do so from the safety of our own homes as we continue to follow life-saving social distancing guidelines. I am really pleased to see that we are all taking this pandemic seriously and following the advice of our medical experts, many of whom are battling this virus on the front lines at great risk to their own health. But, rather than dwell too much today on the pandemic, I thought I would recognize what we can do to support Earth Day from our own homes, whether we live in an apartment, condo, or single-family home with or without a garden. While we are home we are realizing that perhaps some of the things we normally purchase are not as necessary as some of the items we could use right now. And, we are fast filling up our trash and recycling receptacles. A full recycle bin is great, especially if it means that you have been reusing items as well as recycling them rather than disposing of them as waste.

The best thing that we can do is to take personal responsibility for our own consumption and recognize the areas in our lives where we are the most wasteful and work to alter those habits that are hurting the Earth. Not only is this healthy for the planet, but it also helps to save a lot of money in the long run. With some small changes to your lifestyle, you can live a more eco-friendly life.

Consider that we throw away 16 billion disposable coffee cups and some 500 billion plastic cups every year! About one trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually across the globe. That’s nearly 2 million every minute! According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2017, Americans generated 267.8 million tons of trash. Unfortunately, only about one-third of that amount made it to recycling. There are many things that we can do to push that number higher. The most essential thing is to understand what can and can’t be recycled, and how to prepare these materials.

Materials that can always be placed in recycling bins include bottles (not glass though anymore), jugs, and cartons, cans, cardboard, and paper. Before these materials are placed in bins, they should be empty and clean. There is no need, nor should you, bag any recyclables; it is easier to process these items if they are placed directly into the bins. Stuff that should never be placed in curbside recycling bins includes plastic bags, cell phones, diapers, food, foam, clothing, cables/lights, wrappers, shredded paper, and glass items.

Many of these materials that cannot be recycled curbside can be recycled in other ways. Though many grocery stores are not taking plastic bags right now, there are still grocery stores with plastic bag receptacles. Cell phones and other electronics can often be donated at electronics retailers like Best Buy, and clothing can be delivered to secondhand shops or other retailers who participate in garment recycling programs. For a variety of reasons, glass placed in curbside recycling bins is processed as waste; however, until the pandemic, clean glass bottles and jars delivered to purple containers at recycling drop-off centers located around the county were being reused for roads and other county projects. Let’s hope that once we do return to normalcy so do these glass recycling efforts. In the meanwhile, please save your glass bottles for that eventuality if you have space.

After celebrating 50 years of Earth Days, one would think that we would all incorporate environmentally friendly actions into our daily lives such as investing in reusable and compostable items. Unfortunately, our society is largely a “throwaway culture” that is based on convenience more so than on sustainability. A lot of the disposable plastic that we throw out makes its way to the ocean, which harms marine life and creates hardship for not just those who rely on the ocean for their food and livelihoods, but for all of us who are ingesting food from the seas and lakes, much of which includes nanoparticles of plastic. Replacing plastic water bottles with reusable bottles and thermos for coffee or tea, disposable utensils for reusable ones, metal or paper straws, paper or cloth towels for dish towels (in my household we cut up old clothes for dish towels and napkins), and replace those plastic grocery bags with reusable canvas bags, to name a few, go a long way to reducing waste and the amount of nonbiodegradable material in our landfills and oceans. Furthermore, composting your grass clippings, leaves, twigs, and food waste like coffee and tea grinds, egg and nut shells, vegetable and fruit skins and seeds, lighten your trash load and make a great natural soil that you can eventually use for your garden. Be sure not to include meats and oily or greasy items.

And, though this spring we were unable to go out together and participate in community creek clean-ups, we can all look forward to doing so next year with renewed vigor and energy knowing that there will be two years worth of accumulated trash to pick up.

This General Assembly session we passed a number of vital bills that secure Virginia’s commitment to providing a healthy environment and create many clean energy jobs. We finally succeeded in lifting the restrictions that prevented Virginia from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions. This initiative is a huge step towards reducing Virginia’s carbon footprint. We passed the monumental Virginia Clean Economy Act, making Virginia the first Southern state with a 100 percent clean energy standard, and will advance wind and solar energy alternatives to help us break our reliance on fossil fuels. As I mentioned last week, my bill HB 502 was passed to increase the penalty on delinquent litter taxes. This bill will work in coordination with Delegate Lopez’s HB 1154, which doubles the annual litter tax - funds that go towards litter mitigation efforts. My effort to phase-in a ban single-use polystyrene (styrofoam) products was unfortunately not successful, as my HB 1046 was incorporated into Delegate Carr’s similar HB 533, which, though signed by the Governor, still requires that it be voted upon and passed again next year. We also took successful steps to reduce single-use plastics with Senator Ebbin’s SB 11 which authorizes localities to adopt a nickel tax on single-use plastic bags. The locality must use the tax revenue for environmental cleanup, pollution and litter mitigation, educational programs designed to reduce waste and to provide reusable bags for SNAP and WIC recipients. A bill that greatly serves our local area along Route 1, Senator Surovell’s SB 631 passed to create a penalty for abandoned shopping carts that end up polluting our waterways.

50 years of Earth Days, and though we have done much for our environment, there is still much more that we need to do. Working together, we will leave this earth a cleaner and more eco-friendly place for our wildlife and for the generations to come.