How America Has Gone Green

Around this time every year, our feature articles are usually filled with tips on greening your Fourth of July party or cool ways to get involved with your community.

But in celebration of 2010’s Independence Day, we went back in history decided to reflect on five events that helped shape the way Americans think about the environment today.

President Nixon and Warren Burger at William Ruckelshaus's swear-in on Dec. 4, 1970. Photo NARA, via U.S. EPA

1. Establishment of the U.S. EPA

While there was environmental legislation before the 1970s (most notably 1948’s Federal Water Pollution Control Act  and the Clean Air Act of 1963), the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency was monumental during a time when industrial expansion was explosive and environmental decline was mercurial, yet unrecognized.

Throughout the 1960s, there were whispers of “ecology” and by late 1969, those whispers became loud complaints of the erosion of conservation, demanding something more.

Under a black veil of a war and a flailing economy, President Nixon established a Cabinet-level Environmental Quality Council as well as a Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality in May 1969.

Around the same time, Congress sent the President the groundbreaking National Environmental Policy Act, which has been called “the most important piece of environmental legislation in our history.” President Nixon signed NEPA on New Year’s Day 1970.

In his 1970 State of the Union Address, President Nixon proposed making “the 1970s a historic period when, by conscious choice, [we] transform our land into what we want it to become.”

Two months later on April 22, the first Earth Day drew millions of American demonstrators in support of environmental reform. Its success gave greater priority than ever to environmental issues, hastening the establishment of an independent agency.

After months of pushing bills and inking signatures, the EPA opened for business in a tiny suite of offices at 20th and L Streets in northwest Washington, D.C. on Dec. 2, 1970.

2. The Earth Day of 20 million

The first Earth Day in 1970 drew more than 20 million Americans who took the streets, parks and auditorium nationwide in demonstration for environmental legislation.

Students from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay march on the first Earth Day in 1970. Photo: UWGB.edu

It was the largest organized citizen action in U.S. history and, as we previously noted, was one of the sole reasons for the EPA’s official establishment.

Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, proposed the first nationwide environmental protest “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”

At the heart of Earth Day is the idea that the more people know about our national environmental policies, the more likely they will be to play a role in shaping them.

Today, more than 1 billion people across 190 countries celebrate Earth Day on April 22.

3. Creating curbside recycling

Twenty years ago, there was only one curbside recycling program in the U.S. Today, curbside programs serve half of the population.

Curbside programs are run by local municipalities and are usually in the form of single-stream, dual-stream or pay-as-you-throw. While all curbside programs differ, the “Big Five” commonly recycled materials include Aluminum, Paper, Plastic, Glass and Steel.

But while recycling has become more “trendy” in the past decade, it is still a growing and evolving industry, and we’ve got a long way to go. The national recycling rate hovers around 32 percent.

In a recent article, we set out on a mission to find out why people don’t recycle. “Accessibility” was one of the most commonly cited reasons for not recycling. While curbside programs are widespread in urban areas, there are still holes in rural communities across the U.S.

4. Wanted: clean water

In 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act put in place the basic guidelines to restore and protect water resources by preventing the discharge of pollutants into the waterways.

“In the U.S., over half of our households get water from lakes and rivers, and the fascinating thing is the reality that we really don’t know that,” says Nicole Silk, managing director of the Global Freshwater Team for The Nature Conservancy.

“It flows; we depend upon it; we trust it’s safe and clean, but really need to do a better job of taking care of our freshwater sources.”

Now, 170 members of Congress have signed on for a Clean Water Restoration Act, stating that treatment plants continue to violate the law.

The Clean Water Act has undergone several revisions since its signing nearly 38 years ago, but it was no doubt the first step in regulating pollution.

5. The pesticide debate

EPA’s creation coincided with the public debate over DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane), a highly effective, but extremely persistent organic pesticide. Since the 1940s, farmers, foresters, and public health officials sprayed it across the country to control pests.

Widespread public opposition to DDT began with the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring. Reporting the effects of DDT on wildlife, Carson demonstrated that DDT not only infiltrated all areas of the ecological system, but was exponentially concentrated as it moved to higher levels in the food web. By 1968 several states had banned DDT use. It was officially banned nationwide in 1972.

The removal of DDT didn’t lead to the end of pesticide use. In fact, the U.S. EPA reported that in 1998 alone, the U.S. used 724 million pounds of pesticide for agricultural use.

In terms of recycling, the implications of disposing of pesticides by pouring the residue on the ground, into bodies of water or sewers were often not taken into consideration. Thankfully, we’ve seen a switch over the past years that has begun to change the way agriculture takes care of business.

While science is still working to make safer chemicals to treat our crops, they are making leaps from where things were just 30 years ago.

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