Earth Day calls attention to the trash we generate

Published 1:11 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2024

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Every day, we toss things into the trash – styrofoam cups and plates, plastic bottles and drinking straws, paper cups and bags, plastic grocery bags, etc. The number of items we toss each day keeps getting larger.

Earth Day is an annual event on April 22 to demonstrate support for environmental protection. The theme for 2024 is “Planet vs. Plastics.”

In the early 1970s when Earth Day was being launched as a day marked on our calendar, we were concerned with oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, etc. There weren’t as many plastic water bottles as most beverages came in glass bottles, as did juice, cooking oil, and most other liquids except for milk.

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As people around the world commemorate Earth Day 2024, environmental degradation is, tragically, a vastly more serious threat than it was in 1970. Whether it’s the climate emergency and increasingly severe weather patterns, it’s spurring, sea-level rise and desertification, global species extinction, water and air pollution, the spread of toxic “forever chemicals” like PFAS, the present generation has its work cut out for it.

One especially urgent issue to which the Earth Day website devotes special attention in 2024 is the plague of plastics. Here are some of the key facts identified:

– 9.1 billion – amount in tons of plastic produced since plastic was first introduced in 1950

– 79 – percentage of all plastic ever produced that still sits in landfills or the natural environment

– 50 billion – number of plastic water bottles (about 156 bottles per person) purchased by Americans each year

– 5 trillion – estimated number of plastic bags used globally every year

– 25 billion – number of Styrofoam coffee cups thrown away by Americans each year

– 14 million – amount of plastic in tons that ends up in the world’s oceans each year, much of it in the form of dangerous microplastics

– 75 to 199 million – estimated amount of plastic in tons currently in the world’s oceans

– 2050 – the year at which it is estimated the combined weight of all plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the combined weight of all fish in the oceans

Most Americans solidly agree: Human-caused climate change is a threat to future generations, and we need to step up to the plate.

Wise policies will attempt to balance all the competing interests – including preserving the livelihoods of people and communities who still depend on fossil fuel extraction and consumption. That means ensuring there’s space for everyone in the post-transition economy.

Most of all, however, Earth Day is a reminder of what endures beyond any human lifetime: the Earth itself. That means that the health and well-being of future generations must factor into today’s policy decisions. We are only stewards, not full owners, of a planet we must pass down, so it can sustain generation upon generation to come. This is the great chain of environmental inheritance, in which every generation plays a role at once small and absolutely essential.

And as more and more people come to understand that, the better the choices we will make, as individuals and as a society.