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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Has recycling lived up to its promise to reduce waste and pollution, save energy and provide jobs in our ailing economy?
—Ian Atkinson, New York, NY

Recycling today is considered by many to be a huge success, though Americans could be recycling more than they do. Well managed recycling systems that focus on profitable resources like glass, paper and metals have had the most success.

Photo © Digital Vision

Americans still don’t recycle as much as they could. Nonetheless, the practice is already considered a huge success given that it keeps about a third of the solid waste we generate out of our quickly filling landfills and saves natural resources while generating much-needed revenue for struggling municipal governments. Recycling also helps us keep our carbon footprints down: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recycling one ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 1,665 gallons of gasoline.

Of course that doesn’t mean the progression from virtually no recycling just 40 years ago to today’s U.S. average of 33.8 percent has always been smooth. Some types of materials, especially mixed plastics, have proven difficult and/or expensive to recycle, causing skeptics to question the overall value proposition. But well managed recycling systems that focus on profitable resources like glass, paper and metals have been a big success. And why wouldn’t they be, when recycling uses as little as five percent of the energy required for virgin production of materials such as aluminum?

Sara Brown of Presidio Graduate School reports that, while recycling has gained significant momentum during the last two decades, it has still not yet realized its potential. “Unfortunately, recycling pick-up services are not cheap and it is viewed as a redundant service; extra trucks mean extra cost. On top of that, single stream recycling requires investment in technology to sort the loads efficiently,” she says. “Trash, on the other hand, is far more indiscriminate because everything just goes to one place, the landfill.”

Brown says that the availability of curbside recycling programs varies throughout the country, as does their success. For example, New York City was a pioneer in recycling, but when the city became strapped for cash, recycling rates fell precipitously to just 15 percent and have not recovered. “New York City officials claim it is more expensive to recycle than to send trash to landfills and incinerators for disposal, and that they have to weigh those costs against environmental goals.”

On the other end of the spectrum is San Francisco, which has been steadily increasing its recycling and composting and is now up to over 77 percent. Even more incredibly, the city is aiming for zero waste by 2020. Brown lauds San Francisco for structuring its recycling program to promote the desired behavior. “Curbside fees are charged on a ‘pay as you throw’ basis for trash, while recycling and compost are free, creating a financial incentive for following the law and sorting your waste.” Brown adds that programs like San Francisco’s prove that recycling can be economically viable besides being good for the planet.

Brown acknowledges we’ve come a long way with recycling but that there is still great potential to do more. A November 2011 report entitled “More Jobs, Less Pollution” by a coalition of groups including the BlueGreen Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Recycling Works! advocates that the U.S. government mandate diverting 75 percent of our waste coast-to-coast by 2030. The result would be 1.5 million new jobs as well as significant pollution reduction and savings in water and other resources.

CONTACTS: More Jobs, Less Pollution Report; Presidio Graduate School.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: What is “perchlorate” in our drinking water supply and why is it controversial?
—David Sparrow, Chico, CA

Eleven million Americans live in areas where concentrations of perchlorate -- a chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares and explosives -- are significantly higher in public drinking water supplies than what is considered safe.

Photo © Comstock/Thinkstock

Perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and man-made chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares and explosives. It is also sometimes present in bleach and in some fertilizers. Its widespread release into the environment is primarily associated with defense contracting, military operations and aerospace programs.

Perchlorate can be widespread in ground water, soils and plants, and makes its way up the food chain accordingly—even into organically grown foods. To wit, A 2005 Journal of Environmental Science and Technology study using ion chromatography to find contaminants in agricultural products found quantifiable levels of perchlorate in 16 percent of conventionally produced lettuces and other leafy greens and in 32 percent of otherwise similar but organically produced samples. Today, traces of perchlorate are found in the bloodstreams of just about every human on the planet.

Perchlorate in the environment is a health concern because it can disrupt the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development. Besides its potential to cause endocrine system and reproductive problems, perchlorate is considered a “likely human carcinogen” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some 11 million Americans live in areas where concentrations of perchlorate in public drinking water supplies are significantly higher than what is considered safe.

Per the mandate of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is currently working on setting national standards for how much perchlorate can be allowed in drinking water without putting people at risk. As part of the process, the agency is studying the available science on the health effects of perchlorate exposure and evaluating laboratory methods for measuring, treating and removing perchlorate in drinking water. The EPA will publish a proposed rule on the matter for public review at some point in 2013.

“We are happy that the EPA is moving ahead with a drinking water standard…but we are concerned that it won’t be strict enough,” reports Renee Sharp of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group would like to see the U.S. adopt “a truly health-protective drinking water standard lower than 1 ppb [parts per billion]” for perchlorate. Insiders don’t believe federal policymakers will go that low, however, since the EPA says it cannot detect perchlorate below 2 ppb. But EWG point out that Massachusetts is already testing for it with a 1 ppb cut-off, per the mandate of its statewide standard set back in 2006.

The only other state to have a drinking water standard for perchlorate is California, which set 6 ppb or less as an allowable concentration back in 2004. But that state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recently proposed lowering the standard to 1 ppb based on new data regarding environmental exposure, possible effects of perchlorate and consideration of infants as a susceptible population.

If the EPA develops a tough new standard, almost every state will need to readjust its water monitoring systems to take into account how much perchlorate is making its way to our taps and into the foods we eat—a no doubt costly process but one that will greatly benefit both current and future generations.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group; EPA Perchlorate Info.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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