• Kitty Pityer

Earth Day - Then and Now



In sharp contrast to the conservative consumption practices of most Americans dictated by the Great Depression and World War II, the 1950’s were boom times. Babies boomed, the economy boomed and consumerism boomed. Commercials on newly popular television sets advertised everything from cigarettes to laundry detergents to shiny new cars. Manufacturers encouraged people to buy-buy-buy!


As Americans were enjoying increasing prosperity, the environment was deteriorating. Factories belched out smoke, noxious chemicals were used without regard to their long-term effect, companies dumped toxic waste into nearby waterways…and it was all perfectly legal.


Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson spearheaded the first national Earth Day on April 22, 1970 to focus the public’s attention on the planet’s grim future. In the words of Walter Cronkite as he reported on this historic event, Earth Day highlighted our “fouled skies, filthy water, and littered earth.” In the months that followed, the environmental protections that we take for granted today were set into motion including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.


It was also during the 1970’s that the three “R’s” of sustainable waste gained popularity – reduce, reuse, recycle. The world’s addiction to plastic had just begun in the 1950’s, but by the 1970’s it was a significant contributor to the waste stream. However, as recycling became a more available option regarding plastic waste, “reduce and reuse” were often overlooked.


Here we are fifty-two years later and not only has the plastic waste problem not been resolved; it has grown. But so have the number of “R’s.” As our plastic waste threatens to take over the planet, environmental groups urge consumers to take a much more proactive role in handling the massive amounts of waste we generate and to “refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, rot, and recycle.” Here’s how:


Boldly refuse plastic shopping bags, plastic beverage bottles and straws. Get in the habit of traveling with your cloth shopping bag, containers for leftovers, a set of cutlery, a reusable cup and even a reusable straw, if desired.


Reduce your use of plastic by carefully considering your purchases and how they are packaged. Reducing your consumption automatically means a reduction in waste.


Reuse whatever containers you can to extend their usefulness beyond the few minutes it takes to bring them home from the store. Consider a secondhand purchase when you are in the market to add to your possessions.


Repurpose things by getting creative and breathing new life into something old to fashion a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. The Internet is filled with unique ideas.


Rot refers to composting your food waste. Twenty percent of the waste deposited into landfills is food. Instead of contributing to that staggering figure, turn your food scraps into black gold by composting them into a nutrient-rich additive for your garden.


Recycling is a great idea for tin cans, aluminum cans, paper, cardboard and glass because these items can be recycled effectively, but it is the least helpful behavior when it comes to plastic. The “chasing arrows” symbol on many plastic items gives us the impression that it will be recycled into another bottle, container or bag indefinitely. But that is not the case. Less than 9% of the plastic produced is recycled and most of that is downcycled into a product that is no longer recyclable.


Great strides were made following that first Earth Day in changing our perception of how the planet should be cared for in order to ensure its environmental well-being. Sadly, the world’s greed for more-bigger-better continues to place the health of the planet in jeopardy. It is more important than ever to become educated about the issue, change personal habits, contact manufacturers to protest their overuse of plastic, and insist state and federal representatives pass laws that protect the planet.


Happy Earth Day! There is work to be done to ensure a healthy planet for our children’s future. Won’t you join us?