Archive for August 2015 | Monthly archive page
By Sarah Peters
Water is essential to life, as Congress understood in 1972 when amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, now known as the Clean Water Act, was passed with bipartisan support. We have made significant progress in the following decades, but serious issues remain such as summertime toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and the chronic poor health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Until now, the Clean Water Act has not kept pace with the times – it was last amended in 1987. One major issue is determining which waterways the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has jurisdiction to protect. Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 generated further confusion on the limits of the EPA’s regulatory authority.
For the last two years, the Obama Administration and the EPA have worked to write a Clean Water Rule that would clarify this issue. Since the rule was released on May 27th, it has generated opposition from 27 states, the coal industry and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Conversely, environmental groups and the Army Corps of Engineers argue that the new rule does not go far enough.
What does the Clean Water Rule do?
The EPA has outlined the rule’s major provisions on the clean water rule website. The Clean Water Rule will:
- Define and protect tributaries – any headwaters showing physical signs of flowing water that could affect the health of downstream waterways will be protected.
- Set measurable enforcement boundaries on waterways near rivers and lakes.
- Protect specific water features of importance: the Carolina and Delmarva bays, prairie potholes, pocosins, California western vernal pools and Texas coastal prairie wetlands.
- Emphasize enforcement on streams but not ditches: ditches that are not part of streams and flow only during rainfall will not be protected.
- Preserve the status quo for waters within Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems.
- Limit the use of case-specific analyses to waters subject to Clean Water Act enforcement.
The Clean Water Rule will not:
- Protect any additional waters not historically covered under the Clean Water Act.
- Place additional regulations on agriculture.
- Affect private property rights.
- Change policies on irrigation or water transfers.
- Take into account land use.
- Cover features created by erosion, groundwater, or tile drains.
As with many federal agencies, the EPA will have to contend with a future of reduced resources and budgets. The Agency anticipates that from 2014 to 2018 it will conduct 79,000 inspections, compared to the 105,000 inspections between 2005 and 2009.
The Clean Water Rule goes into effect on August 28th and should help the EPA make the most of its’ limited resources. Recent events like the accidental release of toxic mine waste into Colorado’s Animas River highlight the importance of clear and consistent enforcement of clean water protections.
Sarah Peters is a Gettysburg College alum with a B.A. in Environmental Studies. She is currently doing volunteer Geographic Information Systems (GIS) work at the Wilderness Society and frequently volunteers for the Sierra Club.
By Cara Blumenthal
You just finished lunch at your favorite salad hotspot. You get up from the table, gather the plastic bowl and lid, plastic fork and knife, and flexible plastic packaging (that previously packaged the fork and knife) and head over to the trash and recycling bins. Quick! What do you do? Do you stand there, for longer than you are proud of, contemplating into which bin to sort your waste? Perhaps you use some haphazard decision-making process that draws on hearsay and a recent conversation among your coworkers about what is and is not recyclable? If so, welcome to the club.
As an avid recycler, I am often the person to whom my family and friends turn to ask the question, “Can this be recycled?” I am the first to admit, however, that I don’t always know the answers. Recycling rules can be outright confusing. What constitutes narrow-neck versus wide-mouth? What do the plastic identification numbers 1 through 7 mean? To complicate the matter, recycling dos and don’ts vary widely from place to place depending on regulations and the capabilities of the local recycling facility, among other factors.
But following recycling rules may be more important now than ever. Recently, the news has been littered (pun intended) with articles about the financial struggles of the recycling industry. A medley of recent trends have contributed to the recycling industry’s crisis—including declining oil prices, low commodity prices of recycled materials, a changing waste stream (most notably “lightweighting” of materials), a quickening trend toward single-stream recycling, and increasing processing costs.
At the same time, there has been a noticeable increase in interest around waste over the past few years. Some trending waste and recycling news stories include Adidas’ sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic and a spike in interest around outrageous food waste statistics. Moreover, an increasing number of cities (including Washington, D.C.) and corporations (such as Procter & Gamble and Sears) are committing to zero waste goals. These zero waste goals should be pursued through waste reduction and reuse first, but they will be achieved largely based on the success of recycling initiatives.
So what can the average citizen do? According to the June 20, 2015 Washington Post article on recycling, one of the biggest challenges with recycling in DC is the problem of “contamination.” Contamination is a somewhat jargony term used in the waste industry when non-recyclable material is sorted incorrectly with recyclable material. When this happens, it can degrade the value of the entire recycling stream, or worse, it can render the entire batch of recycling non-recyclable. In other words, contamination can cause your recycling to end up in a landfill or, for the majority of DC’s waste, to be sent to an incinerator.
To echo the letter to the editor response to The Washington Post’s June 2015 article, consistent messaging and education are needed to solve this problem. Explaining “the why” of correct recycling sorting is a crucial component of this much-needed educational process. People should not just be told what to do and what not to do when sorting their waste. People should be told the reason behind these actions.
Take for example the recycling of plastic bags. According to the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW), plastic bags can be included in your residential recycling—with a very important caveat. The DPW website states, “Please put your plastic bags into one plastic bag then place it in your recycling container.” However, there is no mention of the reason why this request is made. (Pssst! The reason is that single plastic bags clog and tangle around the recycling equipment!)
A quick Google search revealed good examples of simple educational tools that municipalities and waste companies have used to educate the public of “the why” in order to influence recycling behavior. Clark County, Washington, for instance, has this simple one-pager with pictures and arrows to show why plastic bags are not allowed in the county’s recycling carts. Similarly, the city of St. Louis, Missouri has an entire webpage dedicated to the details about why plastic bags are not accepted in its recycling stream and tips to reduce plastic bag use.
Simple fliers, websites, videos and other educational tools will be vital to decreasing contamination and supporting the success of recycling in D.C. The recycling industry has the potential to contribute to the D.C. economy through revenue from material sales and job creation in addition to contributing to a cleaner environment and saving natural resources. Let’s give the recycling industry a fighting chance once more. Let’s both educate ourselves and call on our local government to educate us about “the why” so that we have the tools and knowledge to recycle right.
Cara Blumenthal is a graduate from the Masters in Sustainability Management program at American University. She recently started working for the D.C. Department of General Services on recycling and waste management implementation.
By Sonia Abdulbaki
Science is often regarded in mainstream culture as cold and calculating, a subject unappealing to the majority because it is challenging and incomprehensible to the average Joe. On the contrary, science is far from being cold (and quite literally too, demonstrated from subjects like global warming.) Science holds meaningful equations to the many wonders of the world that are overlooked because of their complexities. It is also an essential tool to our everyday lives and effects our progression, health and safety.
Communicating science to the public is a difficult but imperative task. Every discipline has its jargon, but science is immersed in a technically complicated one that the general public cannot understand without further simplification. The key to communicating and improving the rapport between science and the public lies with journalists, scientists, education and entertainment.
Media Matters. One of the key players in helping the public understand science is the media. They are the most immediate and general source of information given on a largely public scale, be it local, national and global. Journalists’ job is to speak to the scientists for us and then break it down in simplified, every day English.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, journalists expressed four barriers in interviewing agency scientists:
- Journalists need a required preapproval
- Interviews are often denied
- If interviews are allowed, they are closely monitored
- Difficult questions are avoided, preventing journalists from obtaining a better understanding of the subject matter.
Another obstacle includes the oversimplification of certain topics, losing the details or bigger picture of the study in the process.
Let the Scientists Talk to Us. A difficulty of communication between scientists and the media can be tackled by the direct communication of scientists to the public. This can produce a doorway to important studies and give the masses and journalists a sense of inclusion that will help overcome the barrier. A facilitation of talks through forums, conferences, festivals and podcasts are always an effective way to reach out to the public, such as with The World Science Festival and The Green Festival. These types of events produce interactive and first hand experiences through simplified language.
Being a part of something means understanding it more and at these sessions, scientists are able to create a relationship with their audience, putting a face to important subject matters. This can also increase awareness, level of importance in the minds of the public and therefore increase the chances for funding projects.
Educate Me. Everything starts with education and there is a need for a stronger approach to science education. According to the Pew Research Center, “an overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem for science”. And although the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the public share views about the positive effects of science in America, there are conflicting differences in the views on scientific concepts.
Education means scientists can learn the basics of humanities and communication, and vice versa. Science is an important factor in making informed decisions, such as with fossil fuel emission or alternative energy sources yet the level of public attention and acceptance of science depends on communication. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, some techniques to help improve the process is to teach communication in basic science, apply coursework through real-world practice and train in oral communication.
The Enchantment of Entertainment. Psychological thrillers and natural disaster movies are always a public fascination, proving their worth with box office numbers. Other movie genres that take the stage include science fiction – classics like Star Wars and Star Trek among them, and the more recent epic, Interstellar. Notably popular science-related entertainment includes The Big Bang Theory and childhood favorites like Bill Nye the Science Guy, The Magic School Bus and the Osmosis Jones movie. The Newsroom did well on one episode by presenting environmental facts and giving it an entertainment value with the Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson’s glum disposition.
Although science fiction doesn’t prove to be scientifically accurate, further discussion of a film or show’s scientific value can pave the way for a greater distribution of information through the media. Additionally, celebrities are impactful and can be used for advocacy. A wonderful example of this is with the Nature is Speaking initiative organized by Conservation International with a series of short films voiced by A-list celebrities like Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford.
There is no easier way to learn the alphabet than through a tune and the same holds true for science and the public. If communicating certain concepts, even through fiction, can be understood in an enjoyable and personal way, audiences will be hooked.
Sonia Abdulbaki is a Freelance Writer and Communications Specialist with experience in the environmental and hospitality industries. She is currently a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine, National Wetlands Newsletter and contributing editor for MovieswithMae.com.