Earth Day Founder Calls for End to Plastic Pollution
By Erik Hoffner
Denis Hayes was the principal national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, and he took the event to the international stage in 1990. He is board chair of the international Earth Day Network, and president of the Bullitt Foundation.
Earth Day 2018 is slated for April 22 and focuses on plastic pollution, so Mongabay took the opportunity to ask him about this year's event and find out what else is on the mind of this key leader of the international environmental movement.
Interview With Denis Hayes
Erik Hoffner for Mongabay: What was the impetus for the first Earth Day, nearly 50 years ago now?
Denis Hayes: There were hundreds of important "environmental" issues before the first Earth Day: DDT & bird deaths. Air & water pollution. Oil spills. Herbicide use in Southeast Asia. Wilderness areas.
But they were commonly viewed as unrelated. One prominent leader actually asked me, "What the hell does air pollution have to do with birds?" Earth Day took all these myriad strands and wove them into the fabric of modern environmentalism—linked by a coherent set of values and grounded in an ecological framework. When added together, they formed the basis for a formidable new political force.
New York Times front page, April 1970
Mongabay: What's the theme of this year's Earth Day, and how can people get involved?
Denis Hayes: The 2018 theme is "End Plastic Pollution." There is not much that the average person can do about the Pacific Garbage Patch or to ban endocrine disrupting plasticizers except scream at politicians to take the issues seriously. So inviting political leaders to rallies and teach-ins and confronting them can be useful. An aroused public can overcome a powerful economic interest, but only when the issue is felt intensely. Until ending "one-way" plastics becomes a political priority around the world, [their manufacture] will continue unabated. Meanwhile, we nevertheless each should "be the change we want to see." The world produces at least a trillion plastic bags each year. Don't be part of this gigantic waste stream that makes a one-way trip from the oil well to the dump. Earth Day Network has produced an excellent, free, downloadable primer on plastic pollution and what people can do about it as well as a "plastic footprint" calculator. And if you want to organize an event in your neighborhood, see www.earthday.org/yourjourney2018
Mongabay: We regularly cover the news of plastic and microplastic pollution, like the recent revelation that the Pacific Garbage Patch is much heftier than thought, and growing—the scope of the issue is just mind boggling. What do you hope the 2018 Earth Day efforts will accomplish, in the face of news like that?
Denis Hayes: It ranges in size from the North Pacific Gyre to nanoplastic fibers small enough to penetrate individual cells. We are finding microplastics in treated drinking water, in soft drinks, in beer ... (maybe the discovery in beer will unleash a whole new constituency?) Environmental regulation has been most successful inside nation states. Transboundary issues (like migratory species that may need habitat on three continents) or global commons issues (like marine pollution and greenhouse gases) pose much tougher issues. 2018 will focus mostly on local, state and national policies, and also individual behavior. It's my hope that by 2020—the 50th anniversary—we will be able to build a global constituency for action on the planetary scale.
Mongabay: You live in a major population center in America's Pacific Northwest. How are cities there and in British Columbia models of sustainability?
Denis Hayes: It would be shockingly arrogant for any city to characterize itself as a "global model of sustainability." Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are all making progress on super-efficient buildings, bicycling and electric vehicles, public transport, local and organic food, etc. But if "sustainable" means capable of being continued for thousands of years into the future—coupled with strong elements of social justice—there is no city on the planet that is close to sustainable. Our cities, along with Copenhagen, Freiburg, Malmo and others are at least making a serious effort.
Mongabay: Your office, the Bullitt Center, is made of wood and is said to be the world's greenest office building. The Northwest has a long history of wooden buildings, so what's your take on the trend of building large urban wooden structures, including skyscrapers?
Denis Hayes: We built the Bullitt Center before Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) made its debut in the United States. We were the first 6-story, heavy timber building constructed in Seattle since 1927. But with CLT, it is theoretically possible to build structures that are 40 or 50 stories tall. If the wood comes from forests that mimic ecosystems—forests that will remain healthy for thousands of years into the future—then wood can be a very attractive building material. We are still gaining a greater understanding of what that means, but for the present, being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council is a pretty good proxy for sustainable forestry. Every piece of wood in the Bullitt Center is FSC certified.
Of course, there is no free lunch. Even ecological forestry can be damaging. Beavers are damaging. But properly-sourced wood can be vastly less harmful than concrete and steel, as well as more beautiful and longer-lasting.
Interior of the Bullitt CenterDan Farmer
Mongabay: What would you say are the biggest challenges for Northwest forests in 2018?
Denis Hayes: Tens of millions of acres of West Coast forest have been killed by insects, mostly various bark beetles that global warming is allowing to spread into new regions. Hopefully, predators will follow them, and the ecosystems will get back into equilibrium soon. There have been hundreds of small- and medium-sized fires, but so far we have not had the vast inferno that was everyone's worst fear.
Beyond that, there is a threat hidden in the opportunity provided by CLT. Understandably, politicians are falling all over themselves with enthusiasm for this new building material. Done well, it could be a boon. But if the now-dormant timber beasts are unleashed by the Trump administration to wantonly rape and pillage the region's forests, we could see the re-ignition of the timber wars of the 1990s.
As for other environmental issues, I do my best to stay on top of most of the things that appear to be urgent and important. Currently on my desk are things having to do with autonomous vehicles, passivhaus buildings, tariffs on Chinese solar modules, ocean acidification, and antibiotic resistance. I love my job!
Old growth forest, Olympic National Park, Washington StateWikimedia Commons
Mongabay: It was big news last week when the kids' case "Juliana v. United States," suing the federal government over its climate change inaction, was approved to go to trial in Eugene, OR, after much stalling and avoidance tactics from the Trump administration. Are you proud it's been led by many young people and their adult advocates in the Northwest (and elsewhere)?
Denis Hayes: As it turns out, I had lunch just today with one of the plaintiffs in that case, Aji Piper, and one of the attorneys is an old friend. More precisely—as is so often the case these days—that attorney is the daughter of a dear old friend. I love that young people are waking up again, whether around gun violence, skyrocketing tuition, or environmental issues. Big dramatic change, when it happens, is usually led by the young. America's civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement that toppled a president, and the environmental movement that fundamentally changed the rules of the game for industry were all led by kids in the 1960s and 70s. I'm hoping that some of the aged veterans of the 1960s will be able to find common cause with the angry young activists today — a gray-green alliance.
Mongabay: I've read that Earth Day is now the most widely observed secular holiday in the world. What does that look like?
Denis Hayes: If "observed" means a day on which people actually engage in some activity in support of a cause, I think it probably is. Most secular holidays tend to be national, like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. Earth Day is observed in very different ways in different countries, and in different cities within the same nation. It will vary depending on which issues are resonating, what sorts of activities are acceptable in different polities and different cultures. Earth Day Network India is a year-round organization addressing issues ranging from protecting Asian elephants to empowering women (which brings innumerable indirect benefits, from smaller family sizes to smarter public policies). On Earth Day itself, most Indian activities focus on schools. The group has produced digital texts that are widely distributed, and it engages students in all manner of environmental restoration projects.
Climate change trial plaintiffs celebrate a recent court victory, Aji Piper in centerOur Children's Trust
Actually, grade schools and high schools remain a crucial element of Earth Days around the world. When a billion little green guerrillas head home with messages relating to sustainability, it has a real world impact. Every parent wants to be a hero to his or her kids.
Mongabay: It perhaps points out the failures of the environmental movement, that a day to raise awareness of the ecological crises the world faces is still needed almost 50 years later. But it helped galvanize a movement for change that achieved many accomplishments, right?
Denis Hayes: The first Earth Day was purely a national effort, and it was successful beyond our wildest dreams. In the five years following that first Earth Day, America established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and passed:
- Clean Air Act (1970)
- Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970)
- Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act (1971)
- Clean Water Act (1972)
- Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972)
- Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
- Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
- Endangered Species Act (1973)
- Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
- Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards (1975)
- Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (1975)
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
- Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
- National Forest Management Act (1976)
Tens of trillions of dollars have been spent differently, and better, because of that legislation. Human health has improved dramatically, and the environment has improved immeasurably. But (1) we've never managed to enjoy similar success on trans-national and global issues, and (2) in the United States, the environment has been caught up in the dim-witted, whacko politics of the Trump administration. The current EPA head is by far the most irresponsible director that agency has had in a half century. It's my hope that the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 will produce an unprecedented global outpouring of outrage over climate change and other global threats, and demands that all governments do whatever is necessary to preserve a habitable planet. Is there any more fundamental obligation of political leaders than making sure that humanity has a future?
Mongabay: What else is on your mind?
Denis Hayes: There are two important ideas that I'd like to close with. First, in the 1960s and 1970s, the news media were not omnipresent and were more relaxed. A "day" could have an enduring impact. In America, people of a given age still remember the March on Selma and the March on the Pentagon, one-day events that marked major milestones. Earth Day (which stretched over a couple of weeks but was 90 percent focused on April 22) left an indelible legacy.
Today, a "day" is simply a news cycle, forgotten the next morning. With that in mind, Earth Day 2020 will be more like a meme than a day. Hopefully, it will last for many months, with innumerable developments tied together with a common branding. For example "Indonesian forest destruction halted #EarthDay2020," or "Saudi Arabia commits to 20 GW solar plant #EarthDay2020," or, more tragically, "Five more environmental activists murdered #EarthDay2020." We need to build in the experiences of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo and #EndGunViolence to create a global community—on myriad different platforms—of billions of people committed to a peaceful, healthy, equitable future.
Second, Earth Day is not a top-down enterprise. Earth Day Network has no global command-and-control structure. Modestly resourced, it functions through inspiration, encouragement and shared values. So the success of Earth Day 2020 will be entirely dependent on the voluntary efforts of people like the readers of Mongabay deciding what's really important to them and contributing their efforts to this global campaign.
Earth Day 2020 provides a framework and a value system, but humanity-writ-large will need to fill #EarthDay2020 with content and policies. Earth Day has always been premised on the belief that humankind, like other species, has hard-wired within it the will to survive, and that it will do what is necessary toward that end.
Learn how to get involved with Earth Day 2018 here.
Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis https://t.co/GSzv0Z9g3X @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1524129607.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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