Dropping the A

Make America Great Again (MAGA) is a catchy phrase and one that if simply looking at the words seems like something everyone would want to support.  Like most things, the issue comes when you start looking at the specifics.  The word “Again” gives the impression of reverting to a previous time and opens itself up for numerous arguments about what timeline we are hoping to move back to and creates a natural issue of negating progress we as a country have made.  No matter the time in history that anyone would say is when America was best, there were large fundamental problems then which are improved now.  Was America great when women could not vote, when we had leaded gasoline and leaded paint, when no water and air protections existed, or when slavery existed?  No, it is better now in those and many other regards because of progress and innovation.  MAGA has its nostalgic merits, but when the conversation deepens most sane people would concede that the slogan should lose the A.  If our POTUS and his administration were to focus on just ‘Make America Great’, things would be a lot simpler and we could be moving forward to make more progress as opposed to moving backwards.

There are several ways that the “Again” is being implemented and reverting us, as opposed to moving us forward and helping us transform and modernize.  The Brooking Institute, Columbia, Harvard, and many others all track new, repealed, and modified rules and policies and I have leveraged some of their data to create a list of environmental changes and updates you might not even be aware of because we are too busy worrying about the countless scandals or offensive tweets of the day.

  • The social cost of carbon is an estimate of the monetized damages caused by a one-ton increase in greenhouse gas emissions in a given year. On March 28, 2017, POTUS issued an executive order which states that, when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations, agencies should instead follow earlier guidance from September 2003.
  • In July 2015, the Department of the Interior (DoI) proposed the Stream Protection Rule, which required that land within 100 feet of a stream could not be disturbed by surface mining activities, including the dumping of mining waste.  Two days before that law was to take effect (1/19/2017), several coal producing states filed a lawsuit and shortly after resolution went through the house, senate, and was signed by POTUS nullifying the rule.
  • Among all industries regulated under the Clean Water Act, steam electric power plants contribute the greatest amount of toxic pollutants discharged to surface waters. The power plant water pollution rule establishes limits on the amount of toxic metals and other harmful pollutants that steam electric power plants are allowed to discharge into surface water. The rule was finalized in 2015 but new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the EPA would reconsider the rule and has delayed its implementation so they can revisit the impacts to industry.  Compliance dates for some of the more stringent portions of the rule dealing with flue-gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash transport waste, which both come from the burning of coal have been postponed.  The EPA is now being sued by several organizations regarding its lack of environmental protections.
  • A rule to improve the competency of certified pesticide applicators of restricted use pesticides was halted from going in to effect via executive order and the implementation delayed by Scott Pruitt as it did not promote agriculture and rural prosperity.
  • Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards require vehicle manufacturers to achieve an average fuel efficiency over their fleet, or else pay a penalty. The rule was delayed indefinitely, pending reconsideration.
  • In February 2017, POTUS issued an executive order directing the Interior Secretary to review the oil and gas fracking rule, which requires disclosure of certain information by fracking companies to ensure adequate environmental protection. The Department of the Interior then proposed to rescind the rule, noting that it imposes burdensome reporting requirements and other unjustified costs on the oil and gas industry.
  • In March 2017, POTUS issued an executive order to reduce regulatory burdens related to energy production. In response to the order the DoI rescinded the oil, gas, and coal lease valuation rule, which sought to increase royalties paid to the federal government by companies extracting resources on public lands.
  • In June 2017 the EPA published a notice of its intent to extend their deadline for ensuring a portion of the Clean Air Act was being followed.  The specific rule is in regards to national ambient air quality standards for ozone and the EPA is supposed to identify areas of the country not meeting those standards in order to protect of public health.  In August of 2017, sixteen states filed lawsuits contesting the delay. In response, the EPA withdrew the extension.
  • The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act established a set of performance measures for state departments of transportation (DoTs) to use in assessing the performance of interstate highways in regard to, among other things, environmental sustainability. The greenhouse gas emissions measure requires state DoTs to establish targets and report on progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions using this measure. In July 2017, several environmental groups sued the DoT for illegally suspending the greenhouse gas emissions measure, and in response, the DoT reinstated them.  A few days later, the DoT officially proposed to repeal the greenhouse gas measures.
  • Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature that has a strong odor and is found in certain resins used in the manufacture of composite wood products, including plywood, fiberboard, and particleboard. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen that can cause cancer if inhaled. In September 2017, the EPA extended the compliance date for the formaldehyde emissions standards to December 2018.  The rule reduces exposure to formaldehyde during manufacture of certain wood products.
  • A rule requiring resource extraction issuers to disclose information about payments made to governments for the purposes of commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals was nullified in February 2017 by POTUS.  Advocates of the rule claimed that it prevented companies from bribing foreign governments and engaging in other forms of corruption. Detractors argued that the rule placed an excessive burden on companies.
  • A rule addressing mercury waste discharged from dental offices into publicly owned wastewater treatment plants was rescinded by the EPA in January 2017.  In February 2017, the National Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit, claiming the EPA could not rescind the rule absent a notice and comment period. In response to the suit, the EPA reinstated the rule in June 2017.
  • A rule to improve safety at facilities that use and distribute hazardous chemicals was put in place in response to an April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer facility in Texas.  In March 2017, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced he would delay the rule.  In July 2017, eleven states sued the EPA for delaying the rule.
  • The “Methane Rule” regulated the gas released into the atmosphere during oil and natural gas production through venting (the controlled release of gases into the atmosphere), flaring (the controlled burning of natural gas), and equipment leaks. In January 2017 House of Representatives passed a resolution to nullify the rule but it was then defeated in the Senate.  In March of 2017, POTUS signed an executive order and the department of Interior indefinitely suspending the requirements.
  • In August 2015, the EPA proposed new source performance standards (NSPS) for methane and volatile organic compounds to include several emission sources not covered by the current NSPS. These included fracking wells, which were required to use a process called “green completion” to recover natural gas during flowback. Oil and gas industry firms petitioned EPA and Scott Pruitt proposed extending the implementation of the standards for two more years.  Several environmental groups immediately sued and won and the updated NSPS standards are in place.
  • The goal of the Clean Power Plan (which was finalized in October of 2015) was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, which is responsible for approximately 30 percent of America’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. In March 2017, POTUS issued an executive order directing the EPA to review the Clean Power Plan and the EPA has since proposed rescinding the plan.

The summary of the above detail is that if you want the EPA to enforce and protect your air, water, and land; you are likely going to have to sue them to get them to do so.  The second takeaway is that moving forward and progressing to a cleaner standard of living is up to us.  We cannot rely on our (U.S.) elected and appointed officials to do the right thing for humanity, they have prioritized profits over people and believe any environmental ‘ burdens’ on the most profitable industry in the world should be removed.    There has been a long existing myth that the only way to improve the environment is to negatively impact the economy and that is simply not true.  There are countless solutions, studies, and historic examples that say otherwise.  Having to decide if you want a sustainable planet or a strong economy is a false dilemma.

It is incredibly frustrating to see every other nation in the world moving forward while in the U.S. our leadership continues to promote, protect, and subsidize a dying industry with a finite amount of product that we know is doing us harm.  It is embarrassing to be represented by leaders who are so foolish and short sighted.  So, let’s remove the A.  Let’s Make America Great by transforming while economically flourishing.  The alternative is to fall behind and watch every other nation kick our asses on clean energy as their disdain for the U.S. grows.

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MRC Field Trip

As a part of a Master Recycler / Composter class that I am taking we recently went on a field trip. The two most interesting stops for me were to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) and a sanitary landfill. Getting a first-hand look in to exactly what happens to single sort recycling and trash was very educational.

The MRF was part impressive technological marvel and part old factory line worker. On the one hand there were sophisticated conveyor belts, gears, magnets, optical lasers, and air pressure to help sort the materials. On the other hand, there was a visible shortage of employees on the line who were tasked with helping to manually sort items that do not belong or were missed by the automated systems. These jobs of watching and pulling various materials flying past on a conveyor belt are challenging to staff but very necessary to ensure a quality product is produced so that there is a market for the materials. For a good visual of how a typical MRF works, check out the last three and half minutes of this video.

The landfill had its technical aspects as well; like collecting methane gas from the breakdown of trash, liners and pumps to protect from ground water penetration, and more. But in the end it is not all that sophisticated, as it is a giant piece of land being filled with trash and covered. In the picture above I happened to take it as the hydraulic line on one of the trucks ruptured. If I had a better camera with me, I would have zoomed in to show the sad sight of a bunch of bald eagles (our national emblem) sifting through and snacking on our garbage.

My trip left me with several takeaways:

  1. As citizens of the planet, we should continue to work towards reducing consumption and voting with our dollar to buy sustainably sourced items. Not bringing something in to the system in the first place is even better than recycling it. As one of my old favorites says, you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.
  2. Plastic bags are a huge problem. At the MRF they are undesirable as they wrap around the equipment and cause machinery breakdowns. Do not put them in your single sort bin and do not put your recyclables in bags, put recyclables directly in your cart. At the landfill, there were three fence lines surrounding the facility filled with bags that blow around on windy days. We should all be moving beyond plastic bags for our shopping and kudos to Minneapolis for passing a law for 2017 that does just that. So, if you find yourself with a pile of plastic bags they should be brought to a local grocery store who likely has a bin for recycling them. That way they get to a facility who specializes in them and they can use them to create engineered lumber, yard furniture, etc.
  3. MRF’s do not want your shredded paper. It falls through the system and ends up contaminating the glass and other recyclables making them less marketable. Ironically and sadly, I had just shredded a pile of financial statements the week prior and had thrown them in my single sort. Fears of identity theft are warranted but we have several options to improve and keep recycled material at a high quality:
    1. Go paperless – most bills and financial information can be sent electronically which simplifies filing and saves some trees.
    2. Only shred what you need to – There is typically only a part of a page or two that really needs shredding and the rest of the information is marketing or does not have personal information that would be beneficial to a hoodlum; minimize what you shred.
    3. Take advantage of shred events – There is one near me coming up and a quick search should find options. Shredded paper is recyclable but a MRF is not equipped for it so finding a shred event is a great way to protect your identity and ensure the lifecycle of the paper is not wasted.
    4. Compost – as a last resort you can compost your shredded paper, use it as a weed barrier, etc. The caveat is you would want to avoid certain items on a vegetable garden, etc.
  4. Put the caps on your recyclables. MRF’s do not like loose caps as they fall through the system and end up in the landfill, can cause equipment problems, etc. They prefer caps be left on even when it is a plastic cap on a glass item, etc.
  5. Use common sense with recycling and if you are in doubt, check your local haulers website or call and ask them. Garden hoses, extension cords, coat hangers and items like that clog machinery and do not belong in single sort. Our MRF tour guide also mentioned that they routinely see dirty diapers coming down the conveyor belt and that the strangest item was a live turtle. Let’s try to be less lazy with our choices and if you are not certain whether a turtle is recyclable, ask someone :).
  6. Aerosols require special care to recycle. Items like spray on sun screen, hairspray, and shaving cream containers often have a mix of metals and plastic and are pressurized which can create a hazard when going to a MRF and yet they are recyclable. The best way to handle these items is to collect them a take them to your local specialty recycling center like The Recycling Zone which most counties have. One idea is to keep a bin that you put these items, alkaline batteries, fluorescent bulbs, electronics, and similar in and then take it there as needed. The great news is it is free and the workers will even come grab the stuff from your car.

There are 8 MRF’s in the MN metro area and they all offer tours as they want the public to be educated and to improve their recycling efforts so that they produce a high quality product. I encourage you to read up on your haulers website about what exactly they recycle and organize a MRF tour if so inclined.

Hope or despair

When originally considering names for my blog, I had briefly considered ‘green man in a red circle’, a take on my tree hugger self being flanked by some conservative republican neighbors. I quickly dismissed the name as I wanted to stay away from politics as much as possible and not make it the backdrop for my blog. I continue to want to avoid making climate change a political issue, knowing that in order to take meaningful action on protecting the environment, we need action independent of political affiliations. However, after the recent U.S. midterm election results and the somber feeling I awoke with today, it seems worthy of some reflection.

As I have said previously, I do not consider myself to be a member of any political party but knowing that many of the politicians who were just elected continue to deny the science of climate change is disheartening. A few of the pre-election debate quotes are listed below for reference:

  • “I don’t necessarily think the climate is changing” Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)
  • “97% of some of the liberal scientists polled believe that humans are doing this, this is not settled science.  Just like perhaps, many of those same scientists, 97% perhaps, believe there is no God.  But they don’t know, there is no science on that, so scientists like the rest of us humans can have beliefs but that doesn’t make it science.” Congressman Todd Rokita (R-IN)
  • “Global temperatures have not risen in 15 years, so there might be climate change but we are not seeing that reflected in temperatures.” Bill Cassidy (R-LA)
  • “I, uh, googled this issue a couple of days ago and see that there are 31,000 scientists who say that human action is not causing the global warming at all.  And in fact the last 17 years there has not been global warming.  The temperature has been very stable for the last 17 years.” Steve Pearce (R-NM)

This list could go on but the point here is that the big loser in this recent election might very well be the environment. Even if the democrats had taken majority in this election, the same statement might still hold true. There has been very little meaningful action taken in the U.S. on climate change regardless of who has been in office.

This election fell on the heels of the most recent IPCC synthesis report which highlighted how the atmosphere is getting warmer as are the oceans, which are also getting more acidic. It outlined the causes (CO2 and methane) and added how natural forces have not contributed to temperature rise and how human activity is the primary culprit. It discussed in detail the impacts of sea level rise, thawing permafrost, global changes in weather patterns, plant and animal adaptation issues, human health issues, and food supply challenges. It concludes with data on what specific mitigation steps and what different levels of CO2 parts per million will mean in terms of warming and sea level rise.

So given what we know to be true about the current earth and political climates, how can we proceed with making any progress on climate change policy? The answer is the same regardless of who is in political power; stand up and speak up. No important issue in human history has ever been overcome with the shrug of the shoulders or by giving in to despair. As a people we must demand more from our leaders and this needs to be done by contacting them and ensuring your voice is heard.

The late Gaylord Nelson (Senator and Governor from Wisconsin and founder of Earth Day) once said “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around” and we need to keep that perspective and understand that the economy will mean very little should we continue to move our planet towards un-inhabitability. He also said “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” This is also very true and we need to speak up now so future generations do not loathe us.