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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


EarthTalk®, From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

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.”

CONTACTS: 5Calls, www.5calls.org; Citizens’ Climate Lobby, citizensclimatelobby.org; 350.org, www.350.org


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 starting 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.

CONTACTS: EPA’s Composting at Home, www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home; Zera, www.zera.com.


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.

CONTACTS: EPA History, www.epa.gov/history; Energy Star, www.energystar.gov.


Dear EarthTalk: The environmental movement was built on the philosophies of people like Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. But who are the great environmental visionaries of our own day and age? -- Betsy Englund, Boston, MA

Thoreau, best known for his book “Walden,” taught us how to live a simple life and take pleasure in nature’s splendor all around us. Leopold’s 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” encouraged us to respect the land and its inhabitants and manage it with future generations in mind. And Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” is credited with advancing the global environmental movement, taught us that the world would be sick, let alone way too quiet, without the soundtrack of wildlife. While these voices from the past still guide our conservation ethic, a new generation of visionaries is reimagining what it means to be an environmentalist in response to the new existential challenges facing our species and our planet.

One of them is Winona LaDuke, who cut her activist teeth in the 1980s when she helped launch the Indigenous Women’s Network and campaigned for tribal land claims in Minnesota. In 1993 she partnered with the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls to launch Honor the Earth, which raises awareness and support for Native environmental issues and develops resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor the Earth uses music, the arts and the media to spread awareness about our dependency on a clean, healthy planet. Most recently, LaDuke set up her tipi at one of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camps; she has been outspoken about the need to reject such projects and the oil slated to run through them.

Many Americans first learned about the potential perils of climate change from Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature. McKibben has subsequently penned more than a dozen books on related topics, and in 2006 crossed over into activism, helping lead a five-day walk across Vermont calling for action on global warming. He went on to launch 350.org, a global climate organizing effort named after climate scientist James Hansen’s contention that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide above 350 parts per million would be unsafe for humanity and the planet. Pioneering the use of social media to grow its ranks, the group coordinated 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries as part of its “International Day of Climate Action” in October 2009 and rallied hundreds of thousands more people at subsequent events. 350.org is currently gearing up for the People’s Climate Mobilization on April 29, 2017 and is hoping for a record turnout in Washington DC and at other simultaneous rallies around the world. McKibben remains an outspoken critic of both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline projects.

While McKibben worked his way into our hearts through his writing, Josh Fox did it with video. The filmmaker’s 2010 documentary Gasland focused on the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations to recover natural gas deposits. The Oscar-nominated film became a key lever in the anti-fracking movement and Fox went onto become a vocal opponent of fracking. In 2016, Fox traveled the country on behalf of Bernie Sanders’s campaign for President and helped pen a historic climate amendment to the Democratic Platform calling for the institution of a national carbon pricing system, the phase out of gas-fired power plants and higher efficiency standards for federal energy projects. Fox currently works as Creative Director for Our Revolution, a non-profit Sanders launched following the 2016 Democratic primaries to get more Americans involved in the political process and organize and elect progressive candidates.

CONTACTS: Honor the Earth, www.honorearth.org; 350.org, www.350.org; Our Revolution, www.ourrevolution.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit  www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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