We don’t need to trash the planet to have a healthy economy

A rising tide of public awareness may carry us to a better place.

In a single day last week, Friday, Sept. 13, these three items showed up in my laptop’s mailbox:

— The Albany County executive, Daniel McCoy, announced a ban on single-use plastic straws and stirrers for county departments and operations. Instead, they must use compostable, recyclable, or reusable options.

At the same time, McCoy submitted legislation that would require all businesses and organizations that offer beverages to follow suit.

“We are investing in the market of the future, one that doesn’t rely on petroleum, but instead materials that are biodegradable,” McCoy said in making his announcement, decrying the 8.8 million tons of plastic annually thrown away, which “eventually makes its way into our overburdened landfills or worse — they clog our drainage systems, flow into our waterways and oceans and threaten ecosystems”;

— The publicist for the Guilderland Public Library sent her weekly list of events, and the top one was about using cloth diapers.

“Curious about using cloth diapers?” asked Luanne Nicholson. “They’re a desirable choice for environmentally-conscious parents, but the idea can be overwhelming”; and

— Finally, an announcement arrived about a talk Judith Enck, founder and director of Beyond Plastics, would give at the Bethlehem Middle school on Sept. 26.

“Plastic pollution is everywhere. It’s clogging our landfills; it’s killing sea-life; and we breathe and ingest it into our bodies after it erodes into microplastics,” said the release from Bethlehem Tomorrow, a grassroots group that paired with the school’s Green Team to sponsor the event..

The last time we covered Enck, she was at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland, a farm that she said served as a model for showing that prosperous farms and healthy farmworkers are “not mutually exclusive goals.”

Enck at that time, in 2016, was a regional administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Agency and was announcing new standards to protect farm workers from pesticides that could poison them. Across the United States, Enck said then, 10,000 to 20,000 farmworkers were poisoned every year by pesticides.

Of course, under the current administration, our federal government is doing away with the restrictions and requirements that safeguarded public health. 

Just last Thursday, for example, the Trump administration announced its repeal of the Clean Water Rule, which had provided federal protection for lakes, streams, and wetlands. Corporations that pollute are being given precedence over clean water and clean air.

This means citizens need to push for local governments and state government to fill the gap and put in place policies that will protect citizens now and in generations to come.

Individuals can play a role, too. 

We applaud McCoy for his executive order and hope it spurs legislation.

The day after I read his announcement, I bought a milkshake at a local convenience store. It was handed to me in a plastic cup with a plastic straw. I remembered buying milkshakes there in years’ past that had been served in paper cups.

I asked for a paper cup. None were available. So I paid for the milkshake in the plastic cup. But I felt guilty, even as I washed out the cup for the recycling bin.

Next time, should I bring my own paper cup? Or shop elsewhere?  If we, as individuals, work together, businesses will pay attention or legislation will follow.

As I edited the library column that started with diapers, I remembered my days as a young mother. My husband, raised in Oregon, was a deeply committed environmentalist: We would not be using disposable diapers.

Our first child was born in 1979, the same year Oregon proposed a ban on disposables. We couldn’t afford a washing machine. My mother suggested a diaper service, like the one she used in the 1950s.

There were none. They’d all been put out of business by the disposables, first introduced in 1961. I washed our baby’s diapers grape-stomping style in our bathtub, after first scraping the excrement down the toilet. I hung them out to dry.

Much, much later, after our healthy children were grown, I read about studies that found laboratory mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers suffered eye, nose, and throat irritation, including bronchoconstriction similar to an asthma attack, and about diaper dermatitis caused by allergens in disposable diapers.

All of this, of course, is apart from the now well-documented environmental concerns: a literal ton of waste ends up in landfills for each child that uses disposable diapers; it takes oil — about a cup of crude oil for each diaper — to produce the disposables; they are not biodegradable and in landfills will take hundreds of years to decompose; and, if the baby’s excrement is discarded with them, it has the potential to pollute groundwater.

A British environmental agency, the Landbank Consultancy, in 1991 evaluated the research on disposable diapers’ environmental impact. Compared to cloth diapers, disposables use 20 times more raw materials, three times more energy, twice as much water, and generate 60 times more waste, the consultancy found.

So we hope the Guilderland library’s session on Sept. 21 is packed. We wish our country would go the way of Vanuatu, a Pacific archipelago — population 300,000, spread over scores of small islands, many of them summits of submerged mountain ranges — which has proposed a ban on disposable diapers to be phased in by the end of this year. 

As global warming raises sea levels, the nation is keenly aware of environmental problems. Already, Vanuatu has one of the most stringent bans in the world on single-use plastic.

We hope it doesn’t take the immediacy of annihilation for our own government to act.

That brings us to our third announcement, about the Enck talk. We believe her statement at Indian Ladder Farms about prosperous farms and healthy farm workers not being mutually exclusive goals could apply to larger environmental issues as well.

We do not have to sacrifice the health of our citizenry, or the health of our world, for a prosperous economy.

The mission of Enck’s organization, Beyond Plastics, which was launched in January at Bennington College in Vermont, is “to end plastic pollution by being a catalyst for change at every level of our society.”

The group’s website, at BeyondPlastics.org, outlines steps citizens can take, as individuals or as part of groups.

We believe that individuals can make a difference. One small example: How many of us buy bottled water?

It’s 3,000 percent more expensive than tap water and isn’t any purer or healthier, according to a Harvard study, and more than 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce enough plastic water bottles to meet America’s annual demand. At the same time, United States landfills have more than two million tons of thrown-out water bottles, each of which takes 1,000 years to decompose.

So why not carry a refillable canteen?

When I was a child, no one bought single-use water bottles, and no one used disposable diapers. Why are they now seen as necessities?

We also believe that, as individuals, we can influence our government, especially those close to home. We urge our readers to back county laws that would reduce single-use plastic.

And we praise our towns for efforts that have been made recently on another environmental front. Two of the towns we cover, Guilderland and New Scotland, have taken the first steps in a process that would allow their residents to pay less for electricity by becoming part of Community Choice  Aggregation.

And two other municipalities we cover, Voorheeesville and Knox, have heard presentations from the Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance that could lead to becoming part of CCA.

CCA allows local governments to procure power on behalf of their residents, using residents’ collective buying power to drive down costs while allowing the municipalities to choose the source of the electricity generation. 

There is power in numbers — not just buying electricity for less but the power to change our world for the better if these towns chose green electricity — solar or wind — as a source for their consumers.

Our state has made a bold and laudable move in committing to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and by 2040 — just a scant two decades from now — having 100-percent carbon-free electricity.

By becoming part of CCA, our towns are offering citizens a chance to make a difference in staving off the harm of climate change.

The rising tide of public awareness, if it carries our politicians along with it, could make our world sustainable for future generations.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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