Dear EarthTalk: I would like to know what good the EPA has done for the environment? — Mary W., via e-mail
Without the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans would breathe dirtier air, drink more polluted water and live and grow food on contaminated soils. Polluters wouldn’t be held accountable for their irresponsible behavior, wildlife would have a more difficult time finding suitable habitat to raise their young, and greater and greater concentrations of greenhouse gases would jeopardize the ability of our own atmosphere to protect us from the heat of the sun. In short, the United States and the rest of the world would be a nasty place to live, resulting in shorter life expectancy for humans and a decrease in biodiversity overall.
The EPA was created via Executive Order by Republican President Richard Nixon in December 1970 in response to rising concerns about pollution in an increasingly industrialized United States. Its purpose, then and still now, is to ensure that all Americans are protected from significant risks to their health and the environment where they live, learn and work. To accomplish this, the EPA develops and enforces environmental regulations based on laws passed by Congress; monitors environmental quality across the country; funds states, non-profits and educational institutions to address local and regional problems; and educates the public about how to avoid and mitigate environmental risks. Laws implemented and enforced by the EPA to protect our land, air and water save hundreds of thousands of Americans from premature death every year and keep our ecosystems healthy in the face of innumerable threats.
The EPA’s very first major accomplishment back in the early 1970s was setting standards on common air pollutants plaguing urbanized and industrial areas across the U.S. Other highlights from the EPA’s first decade include: banning the pesticide DDT and requiring extensive environmental reviews of all pesticides; establishing the first fuel economy standards for cars and trucks on American roads; overseeing the phase-out of PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons and leaded gasoline; and setting nationwide benchmarks for drinking water quality.
Some of the EPA’s notable achievements since then include: implementing “Superfund” (Congress’ billion dollar plan to remediate the most hazardous of industrial waste sites across the country); establishing protections of endangered wetlands as a top agency priority; cleaning up Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River and other major waterways; launching the Toxic Release Inventory program to inform the public about the discharge of specific pollutants from industrial facilities in their communities; creating the Energy Star program to force appliance makers to tow the line regarding energy efficiency; forging a market-based system to reduce acid rain pollution; prioritizing environmental justice to protect low-income and minority communities from disproportionate exposure to pollutants; and setting new standards to clean up emissions from diesel fuel. More recently, the EPA has started the process of regulating the emissions of greenhouse gases contributing to global warming.
Beyond the agency’s direct actions on behalf of the environment here at home, its very existence serves as an important model for other countries to follow, and indeed most nations of the world now have their own environmental oversight authorities to keep tabs on pollution and set standards for the safe use, handling and disposal of pollutants. As more and more of our lands are paved over, our natural resources extracted and our air and atmosphere compromised, we can all be thankful for the foresight of Richard Nixon in establishing the world’s first government agency devoted to environmental protection.
Dear EarthTalk: I’d like to get into turning my food waste into compost for my garden, but I don’t want a stinky pile of table scraps lingering in a pail in my kitchen or backyard. Are there any new high-tech ways to expedite the process? — Billy A., San Francisco, CA
Composting is a natural process of recycling food and organic matter and exposing it to oxygen so it can decompose into a nourishing soil amendment. Whether you let your municipality process your food and yard waste into compost, or do it yourself at home, you’re doing right by the environment.
The problem with dumping food and plant waste into the regular garbage bin is that it won’t decompose in a landfill where it’s buried under layers of inorganic matter, unexposed to oxygen. When organic waste is trapped in a landfill it can generate large amounts of groundwater-polluting leachate and potentially flammable methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as bacteria try to break it down in the absence of oxygen.
Given how easy it is to compost these days, it’s hard to believe that food and yard waste make up as much as 30 percent of the waste we send to landfills. Luckily if you want to make your own compost at home or don’t have curbside food/yard waste pickup, there are plenty of easy, low-cost ways to get started.
The Epica Stainless Steel Compost Bin is a great way to start recycling food waste right from your countertop. The Epica’s airtight lid and replaceable charcoal filter work together to confine any harsh smells. Another plus is the attractive stainless steel exterior, designed to last a lifetime and warrantied against scratches, cracks or chips. And all you need to clean the Epica is water, soap and a sponge.
Other products can speed up the process of making garden-ready compost right in your kitchen. For instance, the Food Cycler CS-10 ($299) employs motorized agitators to break down cooked and uncooked food waste into small particles which are then heated and sterilized. The dishwasher-safe, countertop-sized unit makes ready-to-use compost within three hours.
If you want to go even bigger, Zera’s new appliance-sized Food Recycler ($1,199) reduces food waste by over two-thirds its original volume and can handle a week’s worth of kitchen scraps. It makes usable compost in 24 hours, and is also connects to your home’s wifi network so you can monitor and control it remotely via an app. Yes, there’s even an app for that!
Old-school (outdoor) composters might want to check out Yimby’s low-cost, worry-free Tumbler Composter ($81). Just insert your food scraps and/or yard waste, close the door and turn it manually 5-6 times every 2-3 days. The exterior is a recycled plastic bin with a steel frame, and can stay outside all year in any weather. The Tumbler Composter has a 37 gallon capacity, but takes two weeks or longer to turn your scraps into compost.
Composting is great for fertilizing your home garden, and it’s satisfying to make something useful for free out of waste that you would otherwise just discard. However, if you just want to make a difference but don’t need the compost itself, municipal food waste curbside pick-up is probably a better way to go. Whether you outsource the compost-making to your town or do it yourself at home, you can feel good that you’re doing the right thing by the environment.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m concerned about the impact the new administration will have on the environment, especially the calls to bypass renewables and ramp up fossil fuel production. What can I do as an average citizen to combat harmful environmental policies? — C. Bedrosian, via e-mail
Lots. The sad fact is that while more than two-thirds of Americans want the federal government to do more to protect against global warming and other environmental ills, the Trump administration is pushing forward with plans to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and wriggle out of our Paris climate accord emissions reduction commitments. But the reign of Trump could end up being the greatest thing that ever happened to the environmental movement, by activating millions of otherwise unengaged citizens to make their voices heard in demanding a faster transition away from fossil fuels and a stepped up effort to protect Americans’ air and water quality.
One easy way to get involved is through 5Calls. This free online service provides phone numbers for members of your local Congresspersons and scripts you can use to call them and let them know how you feel on specific timely issues. According to 5Calls, calling members of Congress — even if you just leave a message — is more effective than e-mailing or letter-writing because calls are easier for staffers to tally and the resulting counts inform representatives how strongly their constituents feel about a given issue.
Currently one of the scripts available on 5Calls asks representatives to take action on climate change by opposing HR 637, a bill aimed at preventing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “from exceeding its statutory authority in ways that were not contemplated by the Congress.” If passed, this so-called “Stopping EPA Overreach Act of 2017” would take away the agency’s license to regulate a wide range of harmful pollutants including carbon dioxide, and would otherwise undermine decades worth of progress on the environment, conservation, and climate mitigation.
If you want to do more and start influencing others, consider aligning with grassroots Citizens’ Climate Lobby. The group has chapters across North America and works to educate everyday people about how to contact elected officials to get the message across that we need them to stand up for environmental protections and reducing carbon emissions. The group is pushing for a non-partisan nationwide “carbon fee and dividend” system that would get emissions in line with our Paris climate accord commitments while growing the economy and saving lives.
Another way to get involved is to participate in the upcoming People’s Climate Mobilization in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017. Organizers from the non-profit 350.org hope to bring together hundreds of thousands of Americans to show solidarity in efforts to push forward with plans to green the economy and prevent cataclysmic climate change.
“The People’s Climate Mobilization is part of a larger strategy to push back on Trump’s agenda of climate denial and fossil fuel expansion, and then double-down at the local level fighting fossil fuels and lifting up real climate solutions,” reports 350.org. “We see April 29th as the culmination of our work to fight Trump during the first 100 days of his administration and the launch pad for a larger, nationwide movement to fight fossil fuels at the local level.”
Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t the increasing urbanization of our world good for reducing our carbon footprint given the efficiency benefits of greater density? — Simon Vorhees, Oak Park, IL
No doubt, the increased density of big cities leads to less energy use and fewer greenhouse gas emissions per capita. “The biggest factor is transportation, first, simply because trips get shorter, and second, because trips are more likely taken by transit, biking and walking, which are more energy efficient than cars,” says Dan Bertolet of Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think-tank. “Density also leads to less energy use in buildings for two reasons: The housing tends to be smaller, and the shared walls/floors/ceilings in multifamily buildings help conserve heating and cooling.”
To Bertolet’s point, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examining projected emissions from buildings in a variety of urban areas confirms that denser development is more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than weather-proofing or other efficiency-oriented infrastructure upgrades. But researchers warn that increased density alone isn’t enough to drive emissions lower overall given a host of other factors.
“Urbanization is often accompanied by higher incomes, higher economic activity and more consumption,” says Burak Güneralp, geosciences researcher at Texas A&M and the study’s lead author. “So any gains in per capita consumption due to greater density in urban areas may be exceeded by the increase in per capita consumption due to higher incomes.” Also, says Güneralp, efficiency benefits of increased density can backfire if not directed by thoughtful policy. “For example, too high a density coupled with poor planning can lead to traffic congestions, which can increase fuel consumption, hence carbon emissions.”
Another downside of density is the so-called “heat island effect,” where development-crammed, pavement-capped city centers can be hotter than surrounding areas, leading to increased energy consumption as more people crank the air conditioning, elevated emissions of potentially hazardous air pollutants from tailpipes and outflow stacks, and impaired water quality as streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas get flushed with overheated toxin-laden run-off.
Poorly managed development outside the urban core, AKA urban sprawl, can also counteract the carbon footprint gains of increased density downtown. Sprawling suburban development uses more land per capita and forces people to drive long distances in private cars to get to work, school and shopping.
“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” says Chris Jones, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Renewable & Appropriate Energy Lab. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”
For his part, Güneralp says careful planning is key. “The important point is that when we think about urbanization and its environmental impacts, we need to consider trade-offs and co-benefits of different approaches as well as the local context,” he concludes. “Particularly in growing cities in the developing world, such efforts can improve the well-being of billions of urban residents and contribute to mitigating climate change by reducing energy use in urban areas.”