Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

Plastic

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

More than 30 million tons of plastic products and packaging are manufactured each year in the United States. Even though about half of it is single-use packaging, we recycle less than eight percent. Instead, we use it once and throw it away.

Though we can easily recycle more than 98 percent of the plastic bottles manufactured and sold in the United States, we throw away or litter seven out of eight bottles we buy. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation alone spends more than $10 million on cleaning up litter and the most voluminous portion of that litter stream is plastic.
Even in our local curbside recycling communities, we likely only recover about a quarter of our plastic bottles. That’s because less than half our households recycle regularly as required by law and a large portion of our businesses and public spaces do not recycle plastic bottles at all.

Add to this that twenty Blair municipalities don’t even require recycling and it seems likely that we average a couple bottles per person being thrown in the trash every day. With a population of 125,000 people, Blair County alone probably throws away close to a quarter million bottles a day.

Making plastic from virgin materials (instead of recycled plastic) uses much more energy. Recycling a ton of PET plastic bottles saves the equivalent of nearly seventeen barrels of oil, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources. Since there are about 70,000 bottles in a ton, that means recycling those 250,000 bottles in Blair County would save the equivalent of fifteen barrels of oil every day.

That means that if everyone in the United States recycled two more plastic bottles or bags each day, we could cut our importation of Mideast oil by nearly 40,000 barrels. Just by recycling a couple plastic bottles or bags a day, we could cut imports from the world’s most unstable region by several per cent. Imagine what we could do if we recycled everything included in our recycling?

And we’d have the added bonus of eliminating the most common source of roadside litter in America while employing tens of thousands to recycle and remanufacture the plastic into new products right here in Pennsylvania.

Amidst the disappointment of our subpar recycling performance, there is good news. More plastic recycling opportunities are now available in Blair and surrounding counties than there ever have been and future expansion seems likely.

All your plastic bottles can be recycled at the curbside in the county’s recycling municipalities. It’s part of your monthly waste and recycling service bill at both home and work. The county and three waste firms provide more than a dozen recycling drop-off depots, serving every part of the county. A special holiday recycling event at the Logan Valley Mall will also accept all kinds of Christmas packaging (including foam packaging) the week after Christmas.

Additionally, the county offers a number of plastic recycling options for less traditional materials among the many special recyclables they accept at their compost facility in the village of Buckhorn. These include polypropylene (#5) cups and pots, vinyl siding and fencing, and CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes.

For the complete list of special recyclable items accepted at the Blair County facility visit http://blair.pacounties.org/solidwaste/Pages/Plastic%20Recycling.aspx. For an explanation of the materials collected in the curbside communities and during their special holiday recycling event, visit www.ircenvironment.org or e-mail John Frederick at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Astounding Contradictions

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Life is often sprinkled with astounding experiences. Ironically, those events and images can be amazingly pleasant or distressingly painful. Sometimes unpleasant or ugly things can be experienced the very same day as joyful or beautiful ones.

It happens in many parts of our lives, including those in the natural environment. I have experienced several of those strange contradictions within the last few weeks. It prompts me to reflect upon some of the environmental struggles that persist and some of the reasons we should find hope despite the apparent bad news.

An unusually warm day this past week gave me the chance to enjoy the incredible scenery along the road to the Tipton Reservoir. Two days later, I was frustrated by the blight of a stretch of road just a few miles south of Altoona where a string of business owners have allowed their properties to become ugly, run down messes.

This all-too-common blight can be a depressing, negative thing, making this a much less attractive place to live or travel through. Yet I find encouragement when I see the efforts of folks like the local Boy Scout troop that recently helped finish the new park between the Seventh and Eighth Street bridges. Those hardworking young men and the City of Altoona staff that helped make it happen turned an eyesore into a community asset.

The smells of the season give me great pleasure at this time of the year, too. It can be the aroma of the falling leaves, the cool, damp air along Spruce Creek, the hemlocks growing on the banks of Tipton Run, or the crisp autumn air as the afternoon fades into dusk.

In the midst of these incredible smells, the harsh smoke of a trash or leaf fire fills the air, spoiling the pleasure of a perfect autumn afternoon. In another strangely contradictory sight, one of those leaf fires blazed fifty feet from one of the county’s yard waste facilities that composts the leaves for free.

Yet despite the frustration and disbelief that overcame me at that moment, I am consoled that so many others have embraced our composting programs with such enthusiasm. Our compost facilities are taking in more material than ever. A majority of our municipalities now offer leaf collections and many also offer brush collection, eliminating the need to burn or landfill those materials.

No greater environmental contradiction may exist anywhere in Central Pennsylvania than the one we see at Wopsy Lookout. One of the highest points in Blair County, the view of the Logan Valley and Brush Mountain is nothing short of spectacular. But when you look down the steep hillside below the lookout, you are reminded of the total disregard with which our natural treasures can be treated. As the low-growing vegetation dies off in late autumn, a sea of litter and trash of all sorts is unveiled.

Even there, though, we can look forward with hope. Serious discussions have begun to explore how we might tackle the first comprehensive cleanup of this community gem in a number of years.

Despite the frustrations that can confront us, the positive developments confirm that together we can build a more beautiful and sustainable community.

Experiencing Nature

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

The most legendary athletic competitions – the Boston Marathon, the Tour de France, the Ironman Triathalon, the Arctic Circle cross country ski race, Death Valley’s Badwater Ultramarathon, Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – are legendary not just because of the distances involved. These events, and others like them, are set in majestic arenas built by Mother Nature.

The recent passing of distance runner Angie Gioiosa and the upcoming anniversary of the tragic death of bicyclist Ken Steel prompted me to reflect upon the accomplishments of those two incredible athletes and the sorts of endeavors upon which they frequently embarked.

Though I did not know Angie well, we talked when we ran into each other. More often, we acknowledged each other when we passed on the road, me on my bike, him on foot.

During nearly a decade of bike riding and racing from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, Angie and I crossed paths hundreds of times. Even after my racing days ended, I still saw Angie running down East Sixth Avenue Road on my drive home from work. Angie lived to run.

Though their personalities and backgrounds were different, my old friend Ken Steel was similarly addicted to his own endurance sport. Just like Angie ran, Ken would ride his bike. They ran and rode for incomprehensible distances. But like so many ultra-long distance athletes, they just didn’t do it to improve their physical conditioning in the hopes of being among the best. They ran and rode because they enjoyed the experience, enjoying the natural arena as much as they enjoyed the athletic pursuit.

Their feats and commitment went beyond what even hard-core runners and cyclists typically accomplish, for the prefix “ultra” often preceded what they did. Most notably, Angie won the 50 mile Appalachian Trail Race in 1976. A couple summers before, Ken captured a high placing in the Saratoga 24, cycling more than 250 miles in the 24 hour cycling race in Upstate New York. (Ken was annoyed he didn’t ride further because his sleep break lasted longer than he intended.)

Not all of us have the time or the talent to go to the extremes that Angie and Ken might have, but we should all strive to enjoy those amazing landscapes that only nature can provide. Many enjoy the self-satisfaction and healthy benefits of running, hiking, bicycling, cross country skiing, canoeing and horseback riding. The added benefit of experiencing the beauty and tranquility of the natural world under your own power is a bonus of immeasurable value.

I have often said that Ken Steel taught me that life was an adventure to be experienced rather than a drudgery to be tolerated. On the occasion of Angie’s passing and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Ken’s death, we should all reflect upon their incredible commitments. The greatest tribute we could pay them is a pledge to follow in their footsteps, even if in just a fraction of the miles that they might have endured.

Angie and Ken passed on their love of running and cycling to a new generation of endurance athletes. Just as importantly, they also taught us to appreciate the beautiful places we passed through.

Paying the Price

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Times like these force us to make difficult decisions, both personally and as a society. Too often we forget, especially in America, that you can’t afford everything you’d like to have.

The Rolling Stones made that point in their famous song four decades ago. “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

From an environmental standpoint, “what you need” are the sorts of things we talked about in our last column. Civilized societies expect and demand environmental protection and services that make sure they are safe, healthy and live in a place that is naturally beautiful.

Safe drinking water, sewage disposal and treatment, waste and recycling service, food safety oversight and enforcement of pollution laws are all things we have come to expect and are willing to pay for. But like so many other things in America, the economic woes have put us in a tough spot. The political divisiveness makes solving those problems and addressing those issues even more challenging.

We want to reduce congestion, energy use and air pollution with better mass transit, pedestrian access and bicycle routes. How do we pay for that when we can’t even figure out how to pay for crumbling bridges and highways?

We want to reduce the pollution from sewer plants that contribute to the degradation of Chesapeake Bay so that those important fisheries are brought back to life. Who pays for that if the state cuts sewer plant funding for such improvements?

We want to help farmers reduce their impact on the state’s rivers and the Chesapeake watershed as well. Who helps them do that if we cut funding for the Cooperative Extension and the Conservation District?

We want safe food, free of disease germs and pesticide residues. How can we do that if we cut $200 million from the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety program? Even before the cuts were made, only two percent of the food we imported was actually inspected.

We want to make sure gas drilling in Marcellus Shale is done safely. Can the Department of Environmental Protection afford to do that and everything else for which they are responsible without a severance tax on the natural gas producers?

We want to provide recycling, hazardous waste collections and composting opportunities to reduce what we burn and throw away. How do counties pay for those programs without the dedicated funding that they had in the past?

This isn’t just about paying for today’s needs and programs. It’s also about protecting investments we have made over the last several decades and trying to solve problems that have real costs.

Our disparate political parties will never agree on every detail of how we spend our money. But the facts remain that most people want a safe and attractive Pennsylvania. We owe it to ourselves, then, to better understand the issues, learn the facts (not the spin), make a decision on what to do and let our law makers know what we think. We might not get everything we want, but we should do our best to get everything we need. Doing nothing doesn’t seem like a good option.

John Frederick writes about environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Civilized Societies

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

We Americans don’t fully appreciate some of the things that make us a civilized society.

Beyond a respect for the rule of law, our hope for social justice and equal opportunity, our protection of the environment also separates us from less fortunate, less civilized societies.

If you read about, see news from, or talk to someone who has witnessed life in those places first hand, especially in war-torn nations, the deplorable state of their environments can be as unsettling as the state of their social unrest.

Most readers will agree that running water, flush toilets, safe and abundant food, breathable air and clean rivers are an important part of civilized societies. We expect them from our communities and we are willing to pay for them. We even pass laws to make sure that disregard by others does not take these things away from us.
Yet, just like other elements of civilized societies, we still think that some things will take care of themselves. Ignoring these issues can bring flooding (from poor storm water management), traffic gridlock (from poor land use and transportation planning) neighborhood blight (that so often occurs when community pride has faded) and illegal dumping and burning of trash and recyclables (when communities ignore waste management).

The last item on this list is especially troublesome. Even though the largest 500 municipalities in Pennsylvania are required to have curbside collection of recyclables, none of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities are required by state law to have trash collection. Many have recognized how important it is and require everyone to take care of their trash. At least 500 (and perhaps twice that number of municipalities) do little or nothing on the solid waste and recycling front.

The lack of attention to this very important quality of life issue happens for two fundamental reasons. The municipalities simply don’t think this is important or they don’t have the resources or personnel to address them.

Misinformation has become a way of life in our political discourse and this is another shining example. Recycling and waste professionals have recognized that curbside collection is not practical in every nook and cranny of the state and have made suggestions as to how to establish trash drop-offs in remote places. Similarly, this proposal would not mean the end of small hauling businesses. Adding that 15-20 percent of households that do not have service now could actually be a boon to service providers of all sizes.
Counties have already played an important role in coordinating better waste services, coming to the aid of their municipalities with technical guidance and encouraging cooperation with each other and private sector partners. Counties have provided for programs that take care of recycling in rural communities, hazardous waste recycling, composting, enforcement and educational outreach. Their assistance in establishing universal service would be an invaluable key to success.

Unfortunately, more than half the counties in the Commonwealth have lost the funding that provided the resources for those programs and assistance. Legislative inaction on these related topics has left the problems unresolved.

We could continue to ignore this issue, personally, locally and across the state. Or we can decide that it’s finally time to stop trashing Pennsylvania.

John Frederick writes about environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . For more on the connections between improper disposal and local waste service, visit http://www.proprecycles.org/PDFs/flbreport.pdf.

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