In September 1969, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, proposed Earth Day as a nationwide teach-in day on the environment during a speech to a conservation group in Seattle.
The idea took hold, and the first Earth Day was observed by more than 20 million people only six months hence. Years later, Senator Nelson wrote, "My primary objective in proposing Earth Day was to show the political leadership of the nation that there was broad and deep support for the environmental movement. While I was confident that a nationwide demonstration of concern would be impressive, I was not quite prepared for the overwhelming response that occurred on that day, [when] more than 20 million Americans participated."
The same momentum that launched Earth Day also helped pass some of the most fundamental pieces of U.S. environmental legislation, including creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and amendment of the Clean Air Act to set national air quality, auto emission and anti-pollution standards in 1970; passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972; passage of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974; and (of particular import to solid waste professionals) passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976.
April 22, 2010, will mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The Earth Day Network (also founded in 1970) expects at least 1.5 billion people around the world to participate in Earth Day activities this year. As support for Earth Day has increased dramatically in the last four decades, so has public backing for environmental policy. But while the United States has made tremendous measurable environmental progress since 1970, concerns remain about the quality of our air and water, and the cleanliness and healthfulness of our communities. Meanwhile, new concerns related to global climate change have emerged.
One explanation for this continued environmental enthusiasm is that many of the men and women now in leadership roles in business, government and advocacy organizations came of age during the last 40 years. They have observed these successes and don't remember the world before environmentalism was considered important.
Of course, the solid waste industry should be proud of its legacy of supporting and advancing environmental progress. The men and women who work for the solid waste industry earn the public's trust and good opinion each day. Protecting the environment and public health is the very reason for our existence. We are "Environmentalists. Every Day." We have helped the United States reach a national recycling rate of almost 33 percent. Our efforts have helped make commercial composting more readily available. We are generating clean renewable energy from solid waste. The annual benefits to the environment and energy savings from our industry's greenhouse gas reductions are equal to removing nearly 19 million vehicles from the road.
EIA encourages solid waste workers to observe Earth Day. It's a great opportunity to demonstrate to the communities you serve that you are "Environmentalists. Every Day." This could mean giving a formal talk to a student or other community group about the work that your company does. It could mean planning an event to clean up a park or roadway. It could mean reaching out to the media to talk about the importance of recycling. Or it simply could mean talking to your friends, family and neighbors and helping them understand the vital importance of your work and the industry.
Want to learn more about how the solid waste industry is advancing environmental progress? Visit www.environmentalistseveryday.org/environmentalists.
Thomas Metzger is director of communications and public affairs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Reach him at (202) 364-3751.