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

Waste Plan for 2013

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

If you flush and it goes away, most people don’t care about the rest of the story. A professional colleague shared this wisdom with me nearly two decades ago, making the point that most folks just want the water to go down the drain or toilet. The details are someone else’s concern and they trust that it will be done in the best interests of the environment and our health.

This same principle holds true with our water, our waste and our recycling. Turn on the spigot and clean water comes splashing out. Set out your trash, recycling and yard waste, and it gets collected and taken to the proper place. But all this just doesn’t happen by some divine intervention. It happens because people plan, they make investments in equipment and they work hard to make it happen every day of the week.

Recognizing that some counties and local governments didn’t always pay as much attention to their trash as they should, Pennsylvania passed Act 101 a quarter century ago. Besides requiring recycling in the Commonwealth’s 500 largest municipalities, it also required counties to write a solid waste plan and update it every ten years.

Blair County’s update was recently finished and is now open to public review and comment. Particularly in light of the recent closure of the county office of waste and recycling, we hope that a significant number of people will take time to show support for or comment on the plan.
Among the many programs discussed in the plan are things like the annual hazardous waste collection, which is scheduled for later this month on Saturday, June 22, and the electronics recycling drop-off event held last month.

The Intermunicpal Relations Committee (IRC), the council of governments that has stepped into to fill the void left by the county will continue operation of the existing composting and recycling drop-off facilities in Buckhorn and Duncansville. They will also oversee the curbside recycling and assist municipalities that implement drop-off recycling programs like those in Martinsburg, Claysburg, Williamsburg and Frankstown.

Though the plan recognizes these worthwhile programs and hopes they can continue, it also acknowledges that Blair County still has much to do. Besides the obvious need for the support of the residents, businesses and institutions from throughout the county, a commitment from all the municipalities is essential.
Even if curbside recycling and composting are not practical in every nook and cranny of the county, waste collection for everyone and convenient, affordable waste services are important. Things like the permanent electronics recycling drop-off at the Buckhorn and the annual hazardous waste collection in two weeks must continue to be available.

Yet right now, a number of municipalities are not supporting these programs. I suspect that many of their residents would be upset if they were not able to participate in them. Everyone makes trash, even the very best recyclers among us. Burning it, burying on the back forty, dumping it illegally or throwing it in someone else’s dumpster is not acceptable. Burning that which can be recycled doesn’t make sense. A plan that addresses these issues will be a sensible step into the 21st century.

Don’t forget about the Household Hazardous Waste collection on Saturday, June 22 at the Curve’s PNG Field parking lot. Visit www.ircenvironment.org, the IRC Office at Altoona City Hall or join us for the public hearing on Tuesday, June 11 at Altoona City Council Chambers on Washington Avenue to comment on the update to the Blair County Waste Plan.

Bins and Barrels 2013

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

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could replace all of Blair County’s burn barrels with compost bins? Composting greatly reduces what we burn or send to the landfill.

Or wouldn’t it be great if we could decrease flood damage when it rains hard? If each of us added a rain barrel or rain garden to handle our storm water more sensibly, we could slow the unpleasant effects of flood waters downstream.

In an effort to supply the resources and knowledge to make these last two things even easier, a rain barrel and compost bin sale and a series of workshops are being held here in Blair County.

The rain barrels and compost bins are being sold today in the parking lot of PNG Field/Blair County Ballpark from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Those who ordered and pre-paid for barrels and bins can pick them up today, but even those that did not preorder can buy bins and barrels today while supplies last. These attractive, high quality containers are even made out of recycled plastic. Rain barrels are $65 and compost bins are $55.

Blair County residents are also invited to participate in one of the Rain Barrel and Backyard Composting Workshops provided by the Conservation District and the IRC. If you’d like to go the economy route, you can make your own rain barrel or learn how to build your own compost bin. You’ll get the added bonus of learning about the impacts of storm water or how to make fertile compost for your garden.

Workshop attendees can build their own rain barrel with the help of the Conservation District staff as part of the workshop. The workshop, barrel and the related plumbing for the barrel are $35.00. The next workshop is at Canoe Creek State Park on Saturday, June 29th at 10:00 a.m. Contact the park through their website or call 695-6807 to make reservations.

The last workshop will be at the Roaring Spring Community Library on Tuesday, July 23rd at 6:00 p.m. Call the library at 224-2994 to reserve a spot for that workshop.

If not all bins and barrels are sold at today’s event, they can be purchased through the summer until supplies are exhausted. Contact the IRC (942-7472) to make arrangements or visit the IRC Buckhorn Composting and Recycling Facility beginning next week.

One person doing one little thing (whether a good deed or a bad one) seems insignificant. But the cumulative actions of a large group of people can make a difference.

What would happen if each of the quarter million people that live in and near Blair County changed just a few of their environmental habits?

If 100,000 people composted just 100 pounds of yard waste in the spring and again in the fall, we’d keep 10,000 tons of stuff out of the landfill or the burn pile. If 50,000 property owners prevented 100 gallons of water from running quickly off their property during the 25 biggest rain events of the year, we’d keep 125 million gallons of water out of our flood-prone rivers.

With that in mind, the investment in a rain barrel or compost bin, seems like a very worthwhile one.
Learn more about the bins, barrels and workshops by visiting the websites of the Blair County Conservation District (www.blairconservationdistrict.org) and the Intermunicipal Relations Committee (IRC) Council of Governments (www.ircenvironment.org).

Recycling 50%

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

If you recycle and try to make less waste, you can now easily end up with more in the recycling bin and yard waste bags than what finds its way into your trash can.

Considering that curbside recycling didn’t even exist in most communities a quarter century ago, this is an amazing development. With the inclusion of corrugated cardboard and paperboard in our curbside collections, we can now recycle all our paper-based packaging, every scrap of printed paper and all our bottles and cans. Since it is illegal to burn recyclables in mandated recycling communities (and sort of silly to do so anywhere), it also means that there’s not much left in the trash to legally set ablaze.

Like recycling of all kinds, it’s important to do it properly. Flatten your boxes, stuff them in a larger box and place them next to your other recyclable paper. Save a large cereal box, stick it under your sink and place your flattened paperboard in the box. Set the “box of boxes” out for collection with your paper.
The greasy bottom to your pizza box still goes in the trash. But just about every other piece of cardboard, both at home and work, now gets recycled. In fact, for the first time, what you recycle at home is identical to what you recycle at work.

It’s easy, too. In fact, in many ways some recycling is easier than putting it in the trash bag. Simply replace some of your trash cans with recycling containers. Many folks keep a small paper recycling receptacle near the computer or the place where homework or bill paying is done.

Place a recycling container for your bottles and cans in or near the kitchen. Remember that none of your bottles and cans need to be separated from each other either. Just rinse them out and toss them into the bin together.

Despite the apparent convenience and ease of recycling, we are still struggling to get everyone on board. This is true at both in the home and in the workplace. Sometimes we complain about our trash and recycling haulers. While there have been some problems on that front in the past, our hauler compliance is now much higher than our residential and business recycling compliance.

Though it’s true that those recycle do it enthusiastically, less than half our households recycle in many neighborhoods. On any given week it seems likely that more than one in ten don’t even have waste and recycling service. While many businesses are recycling cardboard, the majority are not recycling anything else at all.

At least 85% of the waste and recycling haulers are recycling, yet only about 50% of the residential dwellings are recycling. Probably less than a third of businesses and institutions are recycling everything they should.

Yet there are many success stories in places where they don’t even have to recycle. The Martinsburg Area Recycling Center has already sold 250 memberships, even though they have to pay a small fee to help pay for collection costs. Likewise, many businesses are going above and beyond the call of duty.
Now if we could just find a way to make that enthusiasm contagious…

Besides the addition of cardboard, more information on the May 4 special recycling event at PNG Field at the Blair County Ballpark is available at www.ircenvironment.org

Disconnections

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

How We Contribute to Problems Elsewhere

Without realizing it, many Americans and Western Europeans played a part in the disaster that killed nearly 600 people in the horrid clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh in late Spring 2013.

The impacts we have on the environment, the way we use our natural resources and the unsafe working conditions that plague many parts of the world are usually far off abstractions to most of us. Since we frequently get our food, clothing and other consumer goods from faraway places, we have become disconnected from the environmental damage or worker hazards to which we unknowingly contribute.

In hunting and gathering cultures and subsistence agricultural societies, people were always closely connected to their environment. When harm was inflicted upon the local environment, the damage was obvious and usually impacted the people directly.

Overgraze your rangeland and you damage the productivity of the place your animals feed. If poor farming practices allow your soil to wash away, you’ll lose soil fertility. Chop down trees faster than they can regenerate and you’ll use wood faster than it grows back.

But in today’s interconnected, worldwide economy, it’s easy to lose track of such problems. When damage is done, we can be thousands of miles from where the environmental problems or workplace conditions are the worst.

  • When Chinese factories produce air pollution, we get inexpensive products but never see the health problems it creates for the Chinese people. 
  • When we eat a hamburger (from the 200 million tons of beef we import) from former tropical rainforest in Central America , we never see the damage to the rainforest.
  • When we buy grapes or bananas from thousands of miles away that have been treated with toxic pesticides, we seldom think about the victims of pesticide poisoning that pick them.
  • When we ignore recycling opportunities, we conveniently ignore the landfill where the trash ends up.
  • When we buy a diamond that was mined in or around Sierra Leone in Africa, we don’t think much about the importance of diamonds in funding the brutal wars in the region that have killed four million over the last two decades.

Even before the catastrophes of the last few months, the stories of manufacturing sweatshops have given a black eye to many well known companies. But when more than 500 people die in a building collapse, people pay particular attention.

The nightmare in Bangladesh is especially heinous when one reads of the almost incomprehensible disregard for human life that was shown by both the owners and some of the government officials that discounted the severity of the disaster.

Despite substandard construction and a warning that the building was in danger of collapse, owners and managers sent workers into the building just hours before the collapse. Afterwards, Bangladesh’s finance director said that, “I don’t really think it’s serious…” and that the accident would not harm Bangladesh’s thriving garment industry.

Though the nature of the clothing industry makes it difficult to nail down the buyers and stores that would sell products manufactured in such factories, the labels have been sold by several American retail chains and US-based web retailers.

Yes, ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it’s even criminal.

Readers are encouraged to read more via internet searches on the Bangladesh garment industry and its connections to US retailers as well as several other topics mentioned in this week’s column. John Frederick can be contacted at jfrederick @ircenvironment.org.

Message of Hope

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

In these days of dreadfully bad television and cinema, it is encouraging when you find something insightful and educational on the tube or screen. I had this unexpected pleasure twice this past week and came away with a feeling of hope amidst great anguish over the state of the environment.

The 11th Hour, the Leonardo DiCaprio documentary on our environmental crisis was last weekend’s feature in Penn State Altoona’s Downtown Movie series. Majestic scenes of some of the planet’s most amazing landscapes were contrasted by images of some of our most vexing environmental challenges. But it was the all-star cast of scientists, environmental researchers, authors and social leaders that hammered home the message of the film.

The message was this. While there are things to be concerned about, there is hope. That hope is built upon a foundation of individual action and advocacy for broader social action. Kenny Ausubel, author of Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, made perhaps the most profound comment of the film. “When we all talk about ‘saving the environment’ in a way it’s misstated because the environment is going to survive. We are the ones who may not survive. Or we may survive in a world we don’t particularly wanna live in.”

Paul Hawken, who has advocated for, and written about, sustainable and “Green” business practices, gave the greatest message of hope. "What a great time to be born! What a great time to be alive! Because this generation gets to completely change this world." It is not about living in the cold and dark, as some environmental cynics sometimes contend. Nor is sensible resource use and preservation anti-business." Architect and designer William McDonough reinforces Hawken’s point. We must “change from mass production of things that are essentially destructive to mass utilization of things that are inherently assets instead of liabilities.”

Instead of using non-renewable energy to make things we consume and throw away, we would more renewable energy (but less energy overall) while making things from recovered materials. Environmental Studies Professor David Orr, from one of the nation’s most sustainable educational institutions, Oberlin College, believes that it is more about our will to change. “These are not technical issues, nearly as much as they are leadership issues.” Orr laments our inability to find common ground to bring about change.

A couple nights after the film, former President Jimmy Carter appeared on the Daily Show to talk about the Carter Center’s effort to eradicate the Guinea Worm disease, dracunculiasis. A horrible parasitic infection caused by a water-borne nematode, the worm painfully bores its way out of the body after a year-long incubation period.

Inflicting 3.5 million people in 21 countries in Asia and Africa in 1986, a rigorous educational effort and distribution of a simple and inexpensive filter has drastically reduced the number of cases of the disease. Last year, only 542 cases were reported in four countries - Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, and Chad.
Change is not always something that is expensive or technically challenging. Sometimes it’s about informing people that there is a challenge, letting them know that there is a solution and that we can collectively bring change.

You can read more about the Guinea Worm initiative at www.cartercenter.org.

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