Life in the Box: Pollution Solutions


Thanks go out to one of my high school friends, Mark Forbes, for pointing out some successes in the fight against pollution in the U.S. since 1975. According to Mark:
     –Air pollution is down 98% in LA in 50 years.
     –Lake Erie was devoid of life when we entered High School (1970).  Now teeming.
     –The Cuyahoga River (Ohio) caught fire (!) when we were in Junior High (1969). OK now.
     –Car engines have changed…they emit 3% of what they did in 1970!

For the record, I never said there weren’t successes. And, my overview was just that, a summary. (This proves my point that it’s hard to write short summaries without prevarication.)  I’d like to have the pleasure of continuing the conversation, in a bit more detail, as part of my intrepid search for the answers to this question: Has the Class of 1975 lived up to the challenge of ending pollution in our lifetime?

Smog in Los Angeles
Air pollution in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s was so thick you could practically eat it with a spoon. They absolutely had to do something about it. I hadn’t heard the 98% reduction; that’s fabulous! Also great is that their struggle has created changes nationally.

Mandatory use of catalytic converters in cars was a major factor in LA’s smog cleanup–but they started using these inventions in 1975, so our parents get credit for all the work building up to that change, not us.  Our generation is driving the SUV market, not known for great gas mileage, either. Yes, I have heard of hybrids. I own one. Love it, but I’m still buying gas.  

Unleaded gas regulations grew alongside the converter improvements, and also began before we graduated, so I don’t count those changes for our class. The world-wide elimination of lead in gasoline has, however, been a significant step in the reduction of air pollution.

Ethanol and Renewable Alternatives to Gasoline
Okay, as far as I can tell, gasoline and oil are still non-renewable. That means we will run out of them someday.  What can we use, instead? I found a good article in Fortune Magazine summarizing this and other alternatives—check below. Basically, don’t forget how to ride a bicycle.

Lake Erie
For Lake Erie the good news is that there are now fish in the lake. The bad news is that you shouldn’t necessarily eat those fish. Many fish are polluted by chemical compounds dumped decades ago, including that famous carcinogen, DDT. Yes, these chemicals are still being passed up the food chain, increasing in concentration in each successive animal.

The other good news about Lake Erie is that it was called “the cleanest of the Great Lakes” in 2009. The bad news is that means all the other Great Lakes are suffering worse than Lake Erie. 

Human Waste Water Treatment
According to the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), improvements in human waste water and sewage treatment have been a big factor in the restoration of Lake Erie. Another interesting point in a 2014 EPA report was the agency’s hopes to implement the U.S.—Canada Water Quality Agreement, an agreement signed in 1978. What? We haven’t been able to implement it yet??

Cuyahoga River
The Cuyahoga runs 100 miles, and, darn if it doesn’t drain into Lake Erie! (I see a pollution connection, here.) The river has burned many times, with big burns in the 1930s and 1950s. But, with the 1969 burn, finally public outcry pushed politicians into action. The national Clean Water Act and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) were born.

Against all odds, the once-burning Cuyahoga River has become an American Heritage River (parkland) in our lifetime. The river clean-up coalition holds a vision of preventing the river from ever burning again. That’s great! There’s still a long way to go in returning the river to health, but preventing further damage is a great accomplishment. And it helps Lake Erie, too.

A few more of my favorite pollution-related stories:
Home Energy Use
The national Energy Star program has been a great success in reducing the amount of energy home-owners use for major appliances, but the flip side is that our homes are filled with so many more electrical gadgets that our overall energy use is the same. It’s a wash. But, just think if we didn’t take all those grudging steps how bad things would be. It’s time to hug your LED light bulbs, your high-efficiency furnaces, and your well-insulated roof-tops.

And speaking of electricity, the US still generates 70 percent of our electricity from non-renewables that pollute the air. Another 20 percent is nuclear power, which still hasn’t solved the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. The advances in wind power (miles and miles of new wind turbines in Iowa, Minnesota, and now central Illinois) are great, but haven’t tipped us over into energy nirvana.

Electricity, part two
In researching this article, I found out that the transmission of electricity—transporting it from the power plant to our homes and offices—wastes 50% of the amount produced. Can you imagine what would happen if we could just improve transmission?!  We’d double our power instantly! We would also cut pollution from electricity in half! Go team, go!

LEED Certification
You’ve probably heard of LEED Certification, started by the U.S. Green Building Council in the year 2000 to give status to buildings and designers that help save the environment through sustainable construction practices. It does include a home building category, but I’ve heard much more about the larger commercial projects for businesses and college campuses. LEED is a great program that keeps architects, builders and their suppliers in touch with ways to improve their work on many levels.  Applaud here.

Home Construction
Home construction hasn’t evolved as much as it could. I still see wood frame houses being built everywhere. There are so many other more earth-friendly materials available right now. Ten years ago, I walked through a home that looked like any nice home, built with hundreds of energy saving materials, and the builder couldn’t get anyone to buy it because “it was different.” How about, “it saves me hundreds of dollars a month?” Or, “It saves the planet.” Why aren’t we all insisting on this?

The Class of 75 doesn’t have the luxury of saying we didn’t know that saving the environment was important; our class grew up hearing all about pollution and recycling, the greenhouse effect and acid rain. In the 1980s we lived through an “energy crisis.” We know how to set our thermostat down in the winter and wear sweaters. We don’t do it anymore, but we know how!

Have we won some battles? Yes. Can we claim to be the generation that ended pollution? Hmm. Time will tell.

author-picture2smallerNancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box. 

2014 report about smog improvement in Los Angeles (“Marketplace” Public Radio)  

2013 summary of alternatives to gasoline car engines (Fortune Magazine)

2009 projections of CO2 car emissions and how to reduce (Scientific American)

2010 report about the “Top ten threats to the Great Lakes” (Michigan Public Radio)

2014 report on the Great Lakes (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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