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Earth Day and recycling

Has Earth Day always been focused on our trash problems? The first Earth Day happened when I was in college, but I can no longer remember the main messages of that era – just the name. And frankly, I can’t remember the messaging from recent years.
By Susanne Retka Schill | April 23, 2012

Another Earth Day has passed. Various other groups sent emails pegging their causes to Earth Day. Our local newspaper took the occasion to write about recycling efforts that are continuing to slowly increase in the area. Unfortunately, it’s only increasing enough to slow the rate of growth in trash and not enough to significantly reduce the tonnage hauled to the landfill. National Public Radio had a story on trash, too, which focused mostly upon areas in the world where the poorest survive on what they scavenge at the city dumps.

Has Earth Day always been focused on our trash problems?  The first Earth Day happened when I was in college, I believe, but I can no longer remember the main messages of that era – just the name. And frankly, I can’t remember the messaging from the last few years either.

So when I decided this week’s blog topic could be about Earth Day, I started paying attention to this year’s messaging. It’s a sad state of affairs when a day with such a lofty name and potential gets reduced to talking about trash. Negative messages (don’t be so wasteful) don’t inspire. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a decent slogan, that tries to put a more positive spin on the issue.

I wonder if the waste-to-cellulosic ethanol folks have ever considered building public support for their work around Earth Day. Most of those projects are built around using organic municipal solid waste and turning it into energy. Rather than drilling into the earth for nonrenewable oil resources and releasing that stored carbon into the atmosphere, these folks are taking waste streams and turning it into energy -- cellulosic ethanol being the one we follow.  

When we did the spring plant map, we went through all the cellulosic ethanol projects on the map – proposed, under construction and existing – and totaled the gallons by feedstock. Nearly 78 million gallons of fuel from MSW would be produced, if all those proposed projects were built. That nearly equals the number for corn stover projects at 80 MMgy. Woody biomass projects (some of which are municipal wood waste) by far lead the feedstock choices at 174 MMgy. Of course, this list includes a large number of proposed plants, of which many or most will never get built.

I am willing to bet that once the first-of-their-kind facilities are up and running and the bugs worked out of the process, MSW-to-cellulosic ethanol will take off. And notice, I say when, and not if.

On a more personal note, my Earth Day was spent working in the yard trimming the hedge and cleaning up bushes. And, while it wasn’t the first day for barbequing this spring, it was the first for eating the meal outside on the deck – complete with spinach salad from the cold frame in the herb garden. Now, in most places, that would be unremarkable but, I live on the 49th parallel, less than a half mile from Canada. This is a phenomenally early spring following the warmest winter on record. With a dry fall and little snow, there were concerns about the wet spell turning into a drought year this year – but we’ve had some nice gentle spring showers.  Such gorgeous weather takes the edge off the uneasiness that comes with these unusual weather patterns. If this is what climate change is bringing, I can take it. Unfortunately, it appears climate change is bringing volatile, and violent, weather to many areas. Spring is the season of optimism, though, so I’ll set my uneasiness aside and enjoy the greening in my backyard.