It’s mighty easy to throw away a plastic bag or plastic cup-lid, and then think nothing of it. Into the wastebasket it goes — out of sight, out of mind — and then into the trash bin, and then into the waste truck, then to the landfill. Plastic indefinitely clogging our terrestrial landfills constitutes its own problem, but an alarming amount of this detritus ends up in our drainage systems. It may take years, but these scraps may eventually find themselves adrift in the ocean — ultimate receiver of the continents’ freshwater output — thousands of miles from their factory origin, let alone the site of their discarding.
In recent years, firsthand observation has borne out the predictions of oceanographers: Much of this marine litter, as it’s called, ultimately turns up contained in and by the loops of rotating currents called gyres that mark each ocean basin. The spin of the earth and the heat-driven coasting of winds help create these prevailing current configurations. Ocean-borne debris is drawn into the encircling “highways” of the gyre, then edged into the calm waters of its center — where they remain.
First to be empirically documented was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, associated with the North Pacific Gyre between the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia. We now know that several other major gyres, including the North Atlantic and Indian Ocean examples, support their own massive garbage accumulations. Estimates of the size of these gyre trash reservoirs vary, and information is still scanty, but some may cover thousands of square miles of the water column.
The high-pressure systems affiliated with the subtropical gyres make for calm waters between the rotating currents, and the lack of large-scale mixing translates to a general paucity of nutrients. Larger consumers, like sharks, tuna, and marine mammals, are usually scarce in these so-called “oceanic deserts.” So are human seafarers, partly because of the scant fishing opportunities and partly because of the often-dead winds. The gyres tend to be in exceedingly remote parts of the ocean, which explains both the recentness of the garbage-patch discoveries and the sobering shock those marine waste reservoirs deliver: It seems nearly unfathomable to some that so much human trash could accumulate in such far-flung, hard-core wilderness.
The main issue is that plastic in its standard form doesn’t biodegrade: Designed for extreme durability, it won’t be broken down by microorganisms over time. Instead, it photodegrades: Sunlight renders it into increasingly smaller particles that nonetheless stubbornly embody the plastic-polymer form of the original product. Indeed, most of the documented tracts of the oceanic garbage patches aren’t crammed with easily identifiable plastic objects — water bottles, jugs, packages, and the like — but with a soupy or stewy miasma of plastic chunks, bits, and minute fragments. (That’s not to suggest, of course, that large, intact plastic creations aren’t rife in the oceans — they are — but that the popular conception of the garbage patch as a continuous raft of solid trash isn’t quite accurate.) Some of the junk is in the special form of nurdles, the little beads from which plastic products are synthesized, accidentally discharged into rivers and oceans through spills and other accidents.
Even while big marine predators are usually hard to find in the garbage patches, phytoplankton — which use solar energy to conduct photosynthesis in the upper layers of the water column — and the zooplankton that consume it form the foundation of the local food web. Filter-feeding zooplankton like small jellyfish may readily suck up plastic bits, introducing them into the food-energy cycle. The plastic — which can actually absorb toxic chemicals in the water — can poison or physically obstruct these creatures. Seabirds and fish can take in the harmful debris by eating the filter-feeders or the plastic itself. This has been documented in wide-ranging albatrosses, which in places like Midway Island in the Hawaiian Archipelago may haul the unsatisfying and dangerous meal home to feed to their chicks.
The problem of plastics entering the marine food web isn’t, of course, restricted to the gyre garbage patches — because plastic refuse isn’t restricted to gyres. Sea turtles are known to chomp on plastic bags, probably mistaking them for jellyfish. And human beings all over are potentially affected, too: We may be eating toxic plastic compounds along with our tuna or mackerel.
Another issue is that the very existence of hard materials like plastic in the middle of the open ocean — where such surfaces are scarce — significantly changes the ecological dynamics of the place. Organisms that cling to hard surfaces, like barnacles, may be migrating into these pelagic wildernesses on plastic debris and fundamentally shifting the food web — the effects of which we can’t yet fully comprehend.
We’re only beginning to understand the dynamics of the giant oceanic garbage patches, but the fact of their existence alone suggests the enormous responsibility we all share: striving for more sustainable, biodegradable, and recyclable products in our lifestyles, using only what we need, and — crucially — disposing of our goods in environmentally friendly manners. No matter where you live in the world — even thousands of miles from the nearest seacoast — you could be unwittingly contributing to a faraway mid-ocean trash island.
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Guest post contributed by Jordan Rogers, on behalf of Fugrogeoconsulting.com. Jordan is an expert in geology and geophysics. He provides geohazard assessment and analysis for companies. In his spare time, he enjoys writing about green technology.
As a former elementary teacher and the parent of three grown kids, I’ve probably spent thousands of pleasant hours reading children’s books. I know the power of a book to persuade as well as to educate young readers.
When I taught first grade (and as a parent), I carefully chose books that provided a good story and, often, a positive lesson. In the 1970s, my students’ exposure to fictional environmental role models was pretty much limited to Woodsy Owl, whose cry, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” inspired us all to care about our planet.
Today, children, parents, and teachers have a wealth of options to choose from for eco-friendly and inspiring books. One environmentally focused book that recently crossed my desk is Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet. The story will appeal to young readers, who will identify with the heroic turtle, Thurman, in this charmingly illustrated paperback.
Children’s author Artie Knapp spins an engaging tale about Thurman, whose sister’s wedding is nearly ruined by litter thrown from a passing car. Disgusted, Thurman sets out on a journey to stop pollution. He sees trash everywhere he goes, and it’s discouraging to the young turtle.
Yet, he eventually regains hope when he encounters a science class whose teacher is giving a lesson about protecting the environment. When Thurman’s life is endangered by the pollution he wishes to stop, resourceful children intervene to save him.
Living Green isn’t preachy, but it does impart an important message: If we want a clean, safe world, we all have to take responsibility for it. It’s a simple message, but an essential one. And childhood is the perfect time to share it.
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On a frigid February afternoon, I walked the path around the Mill Pond in downtown Austin, Minnesota. A recreational area with a bike path, skate park, and swimming pool, the Mill Pond was formed by damming the Cedar River in the early years of the city.
As I crossed a bridge spanning the river, movement out on the ice caught my attention. For a moment, it looked like a sheet of black tar paper, waving in a non-existent breeze, but a closer look revealed an otter! A big guy, he was greedily devouring a fish.
I pulled out my camera and began to shoot video as a second otter appeared from under the ice. This was the first pair I’d seen since those I’d observed in Austin’s Sutton Park back in the mid 1970s. After 35 years, the river otters had returned.
The River Otter
The river otter is a member of the mustelid family, a group that includes mink and weasels, and is partly aquatic. Its streamlined build and semi-webbed paws help it hunt fish. In fact, an otter can match a trout in maneuverability. Northern river otters can reach — and even exceed — 30 pounds and five feet in length, with males being larger than females. Otters were once the most widely distributed mammal in North America and Canada, but pollution, habitat loss, and unregulated trapping resulted in huge population declines.
In southern Minnesota, water pollution and loss of wetlands took a heavy toll on the otters, and they all but disappeared. In spite of spending countless hours fishing, trapping and bow-hunting along the Cedar River, I saw no otters. Yet, healthy populations remained, hiding out in more remote regions, such as the swamps of Louisiana and the lake country of northern Minnesota. These regions would provide the seed animals for restocking efforts.
The loss of wildlife and habitat helped spur action in Minnesota and around the country. Wetland restoration efforts ensued and the Clean Water Act of 1972 began to improve our watersheds.2 Strict laws on farm and industrial pollution took effect, benefitting our water and preparing the way for the reintroduction of otters.
According to Dr. John Erb, wildlife biologist with the Minnesota DNR, about 20 otters from northern regions of Minnesota were released on the far upper reaches of the Minnesota River. Otters did not have to be reintroduced in extreme S.E. Minnesota, as natural re-colonization has occurred along the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries.
Dr. Erb conducted a study of this population from 2001-2003, implanting some otters with radio transmitters. He found most females were going up into the bluffs to have their litters, likely in order to avoid losing their young to drowning during floods. The downside is that some females were killed trying to cross the highway to and from the Mississippi.
In Iowa, a total of 325 otters were brought in from Louisiana, beginning in 1985, and released at 25 sites throughout the state. In spite of straight-pipe pollution and heavy runoff of hog manure, the otter population has been increasing by 7% per year. Statewide, numbers are now estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 animals. With equal or better water quality in Minnesota, it’s likely some of the Iowa releases have made their home here and will be on the increase.
In 1989 and 1990, a total of 23 otters, 12 males and 11 females, were released along the Cedar River by the Iowa DNR. The release occurred about 14 miles south of Austin near Otranto, Iowa. They also released a dozen otters into the Shellrock River, a tributary of the Cedar. I believe the otters I saw at the Mill Pond came from the Otranto releases, as they love to roam and can easily cover 25 miles in a week.
The Eagle and the Otters
Around four years ago, an amateur photographer went to check on an eagle’s nest three miles south of Austin. He left his camera at home, believing he would not see much. It proved costly, as he feels he missed the shot of a lifetime. Walking back to his car, he noticed an eagle perched in a tree near the roadway and staring intently at something along the riverbank. Peering over the side of the bridge, to see what the eagle was eyeing, he spotted a family of five otters eating a carp. The eagle was trying to figure out a way to steal the carp.
This incident showed that otters were here by the middle of this decade, but most of us did not see them. The gentleman returned, many times, and never again saw the otters. In an email, Jaime Edwards, a wildlife specialist with the Minnesota DNR, commented, “Most of the time you see signs, but not the critters!”
A DNR Survey
Donna Kolb lives near the Cedar River in Austin and has observed adult otters for around six years, watching them play in her yard and in a park. When she first saw them, she called police, not knowing what they were and worrying they might attack children. Fortunately, the police, also unsure of what they were, left them alone.
Kolb’s sightings are backed by the findings of Dr. Erb. He mapped otter signs for a survey he conducted along the Cedar River in the winter of 2001. Dr. Erb and his team searched by helicopter for otter slides and tracks in the snow along the riverbanks, starting ten miles north of Austin and continuing to the Iowa border.
Otters love to play and slide down muddy or snowy banks leaving telltale markings behind. No sign of them was found north of Austin, but signs turned up right in town and south on the Cedar, evidence the Iowa otters had moved upstream.
My sighting also corroborates their presence in Austin and that of amateur naturalist Bernie Anderson puts them north of town. In late fall of 2009, Bernie observed a pair of adults three-quarters of a mile north of the Interstate 90 bridge, just north of Austin. One had caught a frog and Bernie also found evidence they had been feeding on freshwater mussels.
Larry Dolphin, Director of Austin’s J.C. Hormel Nature Center, has received several reports of otters in the area. In the spring of 2001, there were otters on Rose Creek just east of Austin. A year ago, otters were spotted on Wolf Creek to the northeast of the city. Dolphin believes the otters in our area most likely came from the Iowa stockings, being well within their normal range of travel.
A Bright Future?
With no trapping season in this part of Minnesota, and with continued improvements in water quality, I believe the future of these curious and playful animals is bright. Otters are still being accidentally trapped and some have been hit by cars, but they have few natural predators in southern Minnesota. Coyotes are the main predatory threat here.
Pollution is still a problem, with farm runoff raising nitrate levels and muddying the rivers. High nitrate and silt levels lower water quality and decrease the likelihood of otter survival. Otters need clean water. So far, they seem able to shrug it off, but pollution must continue to be addressed by farming and other industries. Industry will often pollute if they believe they can get away with it. This has to stop if we want otters to stay around.
All of us who care about our water should keep an eye open and report incidences of abuse. We can make a difference. Cleaning up the river here in Minnesota benefits all communities along the entire 329 miles of the river.
The return of the otters to the Cedar River was an event I was fortunate to observe and record. With continued work and perseverance, otter sightings could well become a more frequent pleasure, here and around the nation. We have to put an end to using our rivers as open sewer systems. We owe it to all who have helped to restore our waterways and wildlife.
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Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) is a volunteer organization dedicated to “clean, safe recreational water, free from sewage effluents, toxic chemicals, nuclear waste and marine litter.” Even landlocked folks like Joe and me, here in the Iowa Heartland, are joining the cause. We all need clean water. And we want beaches that are safe enough to walk on with bare feet. But clean beaches are growing scarce. Stories of medical waste, plastic bottles, cigarette butts, raw sewage, and disposable diapers make walking even remote beaches potentially unsafe and, often, unappealing.
In the next few days, SAS and Barefoot Wine and Bubbly will be hosting a beach cleanup tour on the shores of Britain. Join fellow environmentalists from 3 to 5 P.M. at the sites listed below. According to SAS’s Andy Cummins, as posted on the SAS website, “[V]olunteers can expect the afternoon clean-up sessions will kick off with a full introduction and briefing from the respected eco-campaigners at SAS. Each volunteer will then be given gloves and a rubbish bag and the marine litter-picking will commence. All volunteers need bring is suitable clothing for the weather.”
The event promises to be more than just hard work, however, as volunteers are encouraged to stay for a free BBQ hosted by Barefoot wines, from 5 to 6 P.M.. The BBQ will be followed at 6:30 by “fun surf quizzes” and free wine provided by Barefoot “at a local watering hole.”
Join SAS volunteers at the following tour stops in the UK:
Newquay, Cornwall (Fistral’s South end) 29th July
Croyde, Devon (Baggy Point End) 30th July
Bournemouth, Dorset (By B’mouth Pier) 31st July
Llangennith, South Wales (Hill End Campsite) 1st August
Saltburn-by-Sea, Cleveland (By the pier) 2nd August
Brighton, East Sussex (Yellow Wave, Madeira Dr) 3rd Aug
For more information about SAS’s UK Barefoot Friendly Beach Cleaning Tour, check the SAS UK website.
To find out about Barefoot Wine and Bubbly’s Beach Rescue events in the US, visit the Beach Rescue area of the Barefoot website.
Polluted waterways and beaches are a huge problem, but one we must all address, no matter where we live. As Joe has been adamant in pointing out, we inland dwellers must take responsibility for cleaning up our own waste before it flows to the seas. We may not be able to join our distant neighbors on the coasts for your cleanup activities, but we are working to reduce the mess before it gets to you.
To all those who contribute your time cleaning up beaches or inland waterways, please share your stories and photos with us. We’d love to acknowledge your efforts.
“Like the resource it seeks to protect, wildlife conservation must be dynamic, changing as conditions change, seeking always to become more effective.” — Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
As the recent PBS Frontline story “Poisoned Waters” so vividly brought home, once pure and pristine, our extraordinary natural treasure of beautiful shorelines, waterways, estuaries, lakes, rivers and ponds continues to be polluted by the home and industrial waste that we persistently both knowingly as well as unwittingly contribute to — so much so that it now severely threatens our own health and that of the flora and fauna with which we share our planet. Wreaking havoc on global well being, with animals and individuals becoming ill daily from contact with contaminated water eco-systems, without dramatic and fundamental action, it’s a problem that’ll only continue to grow exponentially. Point blank — our water systems are being altered to the point of no-return by our own selfish human impact.
Often invisible to the naked eye, the most destructive elements to our planet’s life’s blood, our water, are hidden, secret, and malignant — agricultural pollution and excrement in runoff waters, chemicals from home waste treatment systems, everyday cleaning supplies gurgling down our drains and flushing down our toilets, lawn care products leaching into the ground water — plastics, lubricants, petro-fuels, body lotions, bug repellents, deodorants, soaps and even the decomposition of the soles of our shoes as we walk and jog all adding to the problem. With dangers to everyone and everything living and growing now being found in water — we all stand to be negatively impacted.
The particulates from our own medicated bodily fluids are so fine that there are no water processing plants in the world that can trap them, and so, to be perfectly frank, your neighbor’s Viagra, your daughter’s birth control, your uncle’s HIV/AIDS medications, your grandmother’s diabetes drugs, your minister’s pain medications, your teacher’s thyroid supplements, your dog’s flea and tick protection, etc., are all ending up in micro doses in the water we all brush our teeth with every day.
The run-off from some agricultural livestock is so densely polluted that it creates dead zones in water masses that not only cannot sustain life, but also kill any life forms that unfortunately find their way into their morass.
Through our toilets or from our tap, we’re discovering that the most refined water processing doesn’t always remove the new synthetic forms of pollutants, and with more and new kinds of contaminants being found in water, we no longer know what’s lingering in the H2O we drink and bathe in. It’s our failure to monitor and control what gets into our water that haunts this life force all over our planet.
Any investment in environmental science and the actions of well meaning politicians and civic groups may solve some of these problems, but until we begin to seriously tackle what are even today insurmountable issues, this same “bureaucracy” may also indefinitely continue to keep the purity of our water tied up in a giant toxic bow of red tape.
The time is urgent and the stakes are high. The danger signs are everywhere and we have mountains of choices that need to be made. There’s no question in my mind that we all need to make small and simple changes because, unfortunately — we’re all polluters — and it’s our shared responsibility to no longer be such.
I suggest that the answers lie within each and every one of us. Daily mindful actions carried out by each and every person — all of us stepping up and taking responsibility to restore what we’ve already lost or are about to lose forever — one person at a time, one family at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time and so on can and will make a difference. As oft quoted, the late anthropologist Margaret Meade emphatically stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
But here is where paralysis sets in — the point where we all become deer caught in the headlights, unable to move this way or that, doomed to the fatal onslaught of our own making. We’ve been taught to believe that it’s only the powerful, the wealthy, the political, the connected that have any real control over our lives and our actions. But again, the perceptive voice of Rachel Carson can powerfully move us beyond our complacency: “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species — man — acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”
So conversely it should also be true that in our present century, only our species can acquire the significant power to reverse the nature of this world for the positive. As the mindful, free-thinking, creative individuals we were born to be, please consider what Rachel Carson tried to instill in us 60 years ago: “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.” The truth of the matter is however, that somewhere along the way we each self-destroy that power and validate it to “the powers that be.”
Take just a few steps back and fully understand that until only 50 years ago, almost every chemical found under almost every kitchen and bathroom sink in the developed world today existed only in chemistry labs — and now they are part and parcel of products that have been marketed to us as “new and improved,” “germ-fighting,” “antiseptic,” and “essential” to modern life. So when asked to consider what you, as one mere individual, can do to strengthen the environment, consider some of the following and surely you will tap into your own creative nature and develop other mindful adaptations.
For instance, the next time you’re cleaning your kitchen or bathroom, consider sprinkling baking soda onto your nonporous bath and kitchen surfaces instead of chlorine bleach, cutting a fresh lemon in half and using the fruit side as your scrubby pad, wiping down the surfaces and then rinsing them with freshest tap water available (micro-Viagra notwithstanding!) [Note: Also never use anything acidic on marble or similar surfaces. No lemony fresh scent, but no pock-marked counters either.]
You can also do the same thing to your body. (What a bill of goods we’ve been sold by the cosmetics industry!) More than 85% of the active ingredients in personal grooming products have never been tested for safety, and fewer than 5% of ingredients need, by law, to be listed on the package. And that’s cradle to tomb — from baby shampoo to denture cream. And what doesn’t get absorbed by our own bodies gets washed down into the water supply and absorbed by the babies and elderly down the block, the fish and fauna at the beach, etc.
But by thinking mindfully, acting safely, and respecting all manner of life on our planet, you can achieve the same results for less money, less packaging, and less pollution. For instance, by creating a three-to-one paste of baking soda and H2O and massaging it gently all over your face and body, your skin will glow with a new-found polish by eliminating those dead skin cells, leaving your skin soft, tender and smooth. Rinse well with warm water and allow your skin to air dry. Do it every day, and watch your transformation.
Tired of spending $30, $50, or $100 on the newest wonder youth cream at the cosmetics counter? You can revive your skin with [a] spritz of natural olive oil combined with water. Mix one-third olive oil to two- thirds water in a small, clean (recycled) spray bottle to give yourself an exhilarating after-bath all-over body moisturizing treatment. Let it soak in without towel drying.
The above all work well, are super-affordable and harmless to you, to your kids, to the fish and fowl, and to the environment. By simply taking a moment, musing over what has brought us to this toxic abyss, and channeling Ms. Carson, you can start a new eco-movement of your own, do your part for this and future generations, and preserve the precious water systems that would otherwise be altered by your own human impact.
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©2009 Michael DeJong, author of Clean Body:The Humble Art of Zen- Cleansing Yourself Author Bio Michael DeJong, author of Clean Body:The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing Yourself, is an environmentalist and eco-activist.
DeJong and Joost Elffers are generously donating all of the royalties from each of the books in the Clean Series to the OneCleanWorld Foundation. a philanthropic, not-for-profit organization that supports environmental projects worldwide with grants, technical assistance and/or microfinancing.
“When something goes wrong, a company has an accident or a mistake, we immediately blame that company for not doing things right. And then, inside that company, it goes down from the plant manager, whose neck is on the line, and he starts looking for somebody he can blame,” says Molly Long. “There’s a hierarchy of blaming that occurs. It’s the picture of the two-story outhouse. No one wants to be on the bottom floor.”
As president of A.W.E. Consulting, Long audits compliance with ISO 14001, which, she describes as, “an international standard that helps people coalesce their environmental management into something that’s meaningful and trackable.” When a business seeks ISO 14001 certification, it enters into a process that changes that blaming mentality by putting responsibility where it belongs: at the top.
In Part 1, we interviewed Long about the abundance of laws, rules, and regulations surrounding environmental management. In Part 2, we talk with her about about her role as an ISO 14001 auditor. In Part 3, we’ll find out about Long’s role as an environmental consultant. — Publisher
BPGL: What is ISO 14001, and why should businesses care?
LONG: ISO 14001 guarantees the community in which the business operates that they are doing what they can to meet their environmental commitments: pollution prevention, compliance, and continual improvement. It sets up a framework for businesses to interact with their community, to comply with laws, and to make sure that the business is sustainable.
The primary purpose is to protect the environment, but businesses also can use ISO 14001 to help them innovate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets standards so that everybody can be safe and healthy, and no one blows things up and kills fish and so on. But, if a business wants to, they can take it further and do what is environmentally correct and, at the same time, innovate a benchmark for other businesses to follow.
The ISO standards are created by the International Organization for Standardization. It’s a much broader group of people than if you just had legislators who were affected by their local issues. And there are lots of people who submit comments on the standards, too.
BPGL: As an ISO 14001 auditor, what are you looking for in terms of environmental management?
LONG: A lot of companies already do environmental management. They have to, because of all the regulations, but they don’t have a systematic way of doing it, and they’re not very good at collecting data about performance.
The way most companies interact with the environment is, “The EPA tells us we have to do something, so we’re going to do it this way.” They’re not necessarily doing it the best way, the way that’s the most efficient for them. They’re just doing it because they have to do it.
But the best environmental management involves three basic things:
- Defining what needs to get done
- Defining who needs to do it
- Identifying the things that will tell you whether it’s been done properly
A lot of people do the first part, or maybe the second part, but when it comes to measuring whether it was done properly or effectively or in the best way, they don’t do a lot of that. So ISO 14001 sets up a system that is driven by the top management in an organization. Top management uses this data on performance to help them meet three basic commitments:
- To comply with laws and regulations that apply to them.
- To prevent pollution wherever possible. So even if a law or regulation doesn’t tell their business they have to do something, but they know that it will prevent pollution, they pledge to do it.
- To continually improve. They try to make their business better, more efficient, and more effective at preserving the environment, at the same time making it more economically feasible and more sustainable.
Everything each employee does must be in line with those three commitments, which are stated in the organization’s environmental policy. The standard recognizes that the ultimate responsibility lies with top management to meet these commitments and provide the necessary resources to get the job done — it breaks the blaming cycle.
BPGL: How does a company get certified as ISO 14001 compliant?
LONG: The pathway to certification is through an independent body. If somebody wants to register their system to the ISO 14001 standard, they have to go to an authorized registrar. The business’s relationship with the registrar is as auditor and auditee. We differentiate between compliance and conforming, because compliance refers to laws and regulations, but the ISO standard is voluntary. Also, unlike most legal requirements, the requirements of the standard can be implemented in a variety of ways and still be considered conforming.
An audit is similar to an EPA inspection, except that instead of assessing compliance to a few environmental laws and regulations, the auditor is looking at the organization’s approach to environmental management holistically, all the ways their operation can affect the environment, both positively and negatively. The auditor for the registrar visits the facility to determine if they’re meeting the requirements for 14001, or whatever standard it is that they want to become registered for, so they can recommend that the organization receive certification for their efforts.
But certification is just the start. In a systems audit, we’re looking at the management of all media — air, water, and land, as well as effects to the community and natural resources use. We also look to see what positive impacts an organization is having on the environment. When a business has met the baseline for compliance, we want to take it a step further and help them make improvements to their management of environmental issues. We have to see evidence of that improvement in order for them to keep certification.
BPGL: Is ISO 14001 certification voluntary or a requirement for all businesses?
LONG: It depends. ISO 14001 is a requirement for companies that want to do business or sell things overseas. But for companies that just do business in the US, it’s not a requirement, yet. Many automotive companies require their suppliers at various levels to be certified, as they are themselves.
In some states there’s an environmental award issued by the governor or by a state agency, or even by the EPA, which has an environmental performance track. The award is a special type of recognition that has benefits that go along with it. And, often, one of requirements for getting into those programs or awards is that a business is a 14001-certified system. That’s as far as we’ve taken it in this country.
I think we place too high a value on compliance with laws and regulations. Our focus on compliance skews the metrics for performance by equating compliance with doing what is best for the environment. ISO 14001 requires the focus to shift to efficiency and sustainability, but many do not understand this. Also because it is voluntary, ISO is seen as less stringent, so businesses, regulators and the community at large still view compliance as the gold standard for environmental stewardship. We’re really missing the boat here.
Think of driving your car within the posted speed limit — you are complying with a law, but it doesn’t mean you are a good driver, or that you are committed to improving your driving skills. Lets face it: Many drivers focus on avoiding getting caught speeding more than they do driving as well as possible. It’s no different with environmental regulations.
Sure, obeying the laws is important, but our laws aren’t always the best option for environmental protection. Plus, laws don’t require you to improve or be more efficient — the EPA doesn’t care if businesses operate efficiently, their primary concern is for the public welfare. But as we talked about before, using laws to eliminate businesses because of environmental concerns is no more sustainable than allowing businesses to pollute as much as they want.
BPGL: Are many US businesses opting for ISO 14001 certification?
LONG: The US lags far behind the rest of the world in putting ISO 14001 systems in place. Any kind or size of operation you can think of can implement the standard, whether it’s a mom-and-pop grocery store or a not-for-profit organization, an office building, or a major industrial facility. And it’s an international standard, so it doesn’t just mean that the US can do it.
BPGL: Is a lack of efficiency something the environmental manager should be watching for?
LONG: Of course. Businesses want to be as profitable as possible, but you can’t maximize profits when you operate inefficiently. In ISO 14001, we have to look beyond compliance and understand the metrics that indicate good environmental performance as well as the context of the business, in order to make a judgment about whether they’re actually being successful at protecting the environment, being efficient, and becoming a sustainable business.
BPGL: So in some cases you’re an auditor and in other cases, you’re a consultant?
LONG: Exactly. I play two very different roles in my career. And the two really don’t meet. They can’t meet. I could never audit somebody that I consulted and I would not consult somebody that I had audited.
Consultants and auditors aren’t miracle workers — successful environmental management is up to top management. They have to be committed and supportive of environmental management, or it doesn’t work. Something I see everywhere is that companies hire an environmental manager, and he becomes the scapegoat. He’s the person that gets blamed whenever something goes wrong. But that’s just one person overseeing the activities of many other people, sometimes hundreds or even thousands, who all have the ability to impact the environment in some way through their work. I can speak to this, because I was in this position. One environmental manager, or even a small group of them, cannot possibly know what any one person is going to do right or wrong on any one day, and cannot possibly carry out all those activities by themselves just to ensure they happen properly.
Regardless of this impossible scenario, it is the reality in most traditional compliance-based system: all the onus comes back down on one person’s shoulders, the environmental guy/gal. So when mistakes are made, there’s a blaming culture that is very much out there, and it happens at all levels. But blaming doesn’t solve any problems.
BPGL: But how do you get away from that, when it all rolls downhill?
LONG: ISO 14001 tries to change that. The first thing it asks is, “Who is ultimately responsible?” Top management. They’re the ones who need to provide the resources to be able to get these things done. And that means resources throughout the organization. So you can’t just hand it to one person and say, “Here you go, here’s your system.” I try to work with management so they can get the right information to the right people, so they can each do their own work properly. That is so key.
BPGL: How can anyone be expected to be compliant when they can’t possibly know all the laws?
LONG: Being an environmental manager in a traditional compliance-based system is almost an impossible job. There’s no one person who can know everything, every law that is out there. I don’t profess to know even close to a small decimal point of all the laws that are out there.
This is one of the things I really like about 14001. Of course, you have to know what laws apply to you. However, at the end of the day, if you’re in doubt, you have your two other commitments to fall back on: Is what you’re doing preventing pollution? And is what you’re doing helping you to get better? If you meet those other two commitments, you are usually in compliance as well. By the same token, if those two questions aren’t answered, it doesn’t matter whether you’re compliant or not.
Compliance is ultimately arbitrary, because the same laws often apply in different environments, and also because they are influenced by politics and culture. For example, who is protecting the environment better? California doesn’t allow you to dump oil on the ground, but they do exempt some other nasty stuff from environmental regulation because of political lobbying. Whereas Mexico doesn’t care too much about oil on the ground, but you have to plant a lot of trees to offset the land you took up to build a parking lot.
ISO 14001 provides the tools for moving beyond compliance to arbitrary laws and begin following the path to true sustainability. It helps its adherents make sure the right people are doing the right job, and that they have adequate resources. It eliminates the blaming cycle by assigning accountability and responsibility to those with the proper authority. It also demands cooperative effort to find solutions that address the roots of problems rather than their symptoms, and recognizes that you can’t push your problems off on someone else. These are the management concepts I try to help people grasp, not only as an auditor, but as a consultant and trainer.
BPGL: Are you seeing a decrease in voluntary compliance in this economic downturn?
LONG: It’s interesting, because a lot of people are asking, “Is this economic slowdown affecting people’s ability to comply with environmental laws, are they cutting corners, things like that?” Actually, what I’ve found in my travels, has been more that people are taking the time to focus on some things that they don’t have the time to do when they’re running full bore. They’re doing maintenance, they’re taking the time to do some projects. So actually, we’re seeing some environmental improvements.
At least at this stage, we’re seeing that people are taking some time to do the little things that don’t cost a lot of money but the kind of things they couldn’t really justify in the course of day-to-day operations. For example, they’re organizing so that parts and materials are inside or in areas where they are less likely to impact the environment. They’re getting the stuff out of the way so they can continue running their lines. Now they’re saying, The line’s down, let’s organize this area. Let’s make it neat and safe and as environmentally friendly a space as possible.
Part 2: ISO 14001: Comply with Laws, Prevent Pollution, Continually Improve (Top of Page)
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January 26, 2009 by Julia Wasson
Filed under Air Quality, Blog, Consultants, Ecopreneurs, EMS, Engineers, Environment, Environmental Management, EPA, Front Page, Hazardous Waste, Laws, Pollution, Regulations, Sustainability, U.S.
“When I went to Ireland recently,” says environmental auditor and consultant Molly Long, “I sat in a pub with a pint of Guinness while being lectured to by an average citizen of Dublin about what environmental terrorists we Americans are. He didn’t know we were environmental consultants. It was a really interesting perspective. He said we do a terrible job of protecting the environment.”
Long is a former hazardous waste inspector for the state of Indiana. Today she is in high demand as an ISO 14001 auditor and an environmental consultant, two services she provides through A.W.E. [Agriculture. Wildlife. Environmental.] Consulting, Inc. As an enforcer of laws, an environmental auditor, and a consultant, Long has worked extensively with a wide variety of businesses, industries, and government groups. In this interview, she brings broad perspective to the topic of environmental laws and regulations.
We interviewed Long from her office in Michigan City, Indiana. What follows is the first of a three-part interview.
BPGL: What was your response to the criticism that businesses in the U.S. are environmental terrorists?
LONG: I wanted to listen, to hear what that take was. I didn’t want to pollute it with my own opinion. It was an eye opener. They thought our environmental laws were weak and shabby and didn’t do a good job of protecting the environment. And when I think back on it, they’re right. Our environmental laws have not done a good job of protecting the environment. But they’ve done a great job of confusing everybody.
Businesses constantly struggle to consistently comply with the laws and regulations – forget about trying to improve the environment. Our environmental laws are so complicated, we can’t really even tell if they are effective or not at protecting the environment.
BPGL: Are you talking about red tape?
LONG: Yes. Red tape is one of the biggest environmental tragedies we have. Having been an enforcer of laws and regulations, I can tell you that red tape is probably 90 percent of the problem. People can’t dig through it, and they can’t put proper resources toward physically protecting the environment because they are too worried about what kind of records they need to keep. Besides creating a red tape nightmare that kills more trees than it saves, we have actually weakened true environmental protection through our environmental laws because they are designed to manage a lowest common denominator for environmental protection that applies across a broad spectrum of regulated businesses. This results in some industries being under regulated and others being regulated out of business, or choosing to go somewhere else.
If you want to look at the causes of economic collapse, one of them is losing our industrial base. There is no country that can become strong and have a good, sound economy without an industrial base. For example, the steel companies are heavily regulated and cause a lot of pollution, but we need the goods that they make. We should be working closely with them to make sure we are regulating the right things environmentally and still allowing them to operate in a sustainable way. The very environmental laws that govern us are part of our problem.
BPGL: More of a problem than causing endless paperwork and confusion?
LONG: Yes, because often we aren’t regulating the right things, things that can have major environmental impacts. Remember the coal ash incident that happened recently in the Tennessee Valley? Coal ash is not regulated. We’ve taught all industry and business to focus only on those things that they can get in trouble for, not on those things that they should be taking care of for the simple reason that they’re bad for the environment. Just like with any other legislation, lobbyists and influence groups all come into play in the making of environmental laws. When I was a regulator, we had a saying: “Regulate by the part per billion and exempt by the ton.” Coal ash is one of those things that gets exempted by the ton.
We were raking mom and pop organization over the coals for miniscule amounts of pollution, (and sometimes putting them out of business) while the big guys could dump literally tons of polluting substances because the material was exempted from environmental regulation. It was exempted because the big guys had the big bucks to pay for lobbyists to get them the regulations they wanted. Meanwhile, the big guys are allowed to dump tons and tons and tons of this stuff, because it’s not regulated. What that means is, some lobbyist got in there and got what they wanted. The problem with laws and regulations is that they are subject to that very kind of influence. On one hand that sounds evil, but on the other hand, you can’t blame industry, because they are trying to find a way to operate and stay in this country.
Another confusing issue is that laws and regulations covering industry are not as strict in some parts of the country. Let’s say you’re in Alabama and you really want to bring industry down there. It’s the hot spot right now — all the South is the hot spot for industry. They’re giving every incentive they can think of to get industry to come down there. And let me tell you, the laws and regulations in Alabama are not the same as they are in Maine, or California, or Iowa, or Chicago. They’re going to do what they can to get the business down there.
BPGL: Does that mean they’re going to weaken their restrictions in the South? How can they do that?
LONG: The rules are set up to where the EPA is the federal baseline, and you can’t be weaker than the federal baseline. But the federal baselines are trying to cover 50 different states and the U.S. protectorates, as well, so we have lots of different scenarios, and the [federal] rules are going to be very broad and general.
States are authorized to run their own EPA programs, and they’re expected to make more stringent regulations based on the more specific environments in the state. There are lots of different contexts for the type of environment that needs protecting. Think of a business that operates in the middle of the desert versus a business right next to a wetland versus a business in the middle of a forest versus a business in the middle of a neighborhood.
BPGL: What are some examples of those different contexts?
LONG: I’ve seen some steel mills that are in the middle of a major city, and I’ve seen others that are out in the middle of nowhere. They have very different environmental concerns. The one steel mill that’s in the middle of the city is basically in a funnel, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes. They are scrutinized by the community every second of the every day, and people are concerned about their property value in addition to the environment. At this mill, everything it has is under cover. Their scrap yards are covered, so they can minimize noise and dust. And they have certain loading procedures for their ladles so that they don’t make noise.
But something that’s out in the middle of nowhere, and nobody’s around to hear or see, that’s a whole different story. Another steel mill has no human neighbors, but is very committed to protecting thousands of acres of forest nearby. It’s all about context. There’s no regulation or set of regulations that can cover every situation in a way that’s right for everyone. Instead of issuing laws based on theoretical science and the interests of lobbyists, regulators should be working closely with industry to determine solutions for environmental protection that are tailored to the business and the environmental context it operates in.
BPGL: With so many different contexts, how well do the regulations work?
LONG: One of the biggest problems we have in this country is that we’re piling all these regulations on different industries, and the regulations are made by people who don’t necessarily understand how things work on the level that they’re regulating. In other words, somebody is making regulations for a steel company who has never worked in a steel company. They don’t know how it functions, and that’s a problem because they can’t make the regulations match very closely to what needs to be done.
We’ve already got hundreds of thousands, if not millions and more, different regulations, and it varies from state to state, sometimes from city to city, sometimes from one area of a city to another area of the city, depending on the size of the city. We’re regulating all these fine distinctions, especially when it comes to something like air. We have all these complicated air regulations. But at the end of the day, you can’t subdivide air. You can’t say, This portion of air is clean, and this portion right next to it is not clean. It just doesn’t work that way. As my father says, that’s like having a no peeing section in a swimming pool.
BPGL: That brings me to a comment we heard from a family in Iowa. Their pool service company said that the acidity of their swimming pool had changed in the last few years because of the increasing number of coal plants in China.
LONG: Exactly. Weather patterns are worldwide. Air is certainly affected by weather, and weather is affected by air. What we do here is affecting what happens over there, and vice versa. We can’t just say, “You make your air as clean as possible, and everything will be okay.”
We end up pushing a lot of our problems away instead of dealing with them. We say, “Well, we just won’t have this industry here next to us, because it will be bad,” instead of working together to find a solution that is sustainable for everybody. It’s not sustainable if you’re putting all the nasties somewhere else. Then you’ve just made a problem for somebody else, and you’ve greatly increased inefficiency, greatly increased cost, greatly increased all the problems that go with it.
Another big problem with environmental regulation in this country is that it sets a very adversarial tone between industry and government. It sets up a fear among business owners: I could go to jail if I do this wrong! That’s the way our justice system works, but it doesn’t stop the bad guys from doing wrong – it just makes the average law-abiding citizen scared and confused. Then to top it off, the EPA does not offer any assistance or even a consistent interpretation of their laws. This causes many people to accidentally violate laws simply because of ignorance of them or misunderstanding the law’s intent.
That certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t people who don’t willfully violate environmental laws. When I was an inspector, there were people who were sent to jail through my inspections, and they deserved it. There were some really bad actors.
BPGL: Give an example of an environmental crime that got someone sent to jail.
LONG: An electroplater was going out of business and was dumping all his chemicals down the drain to the city. The city traced it back, shut off his sewer access, and called the state to investigate. By the time I got there, he was trying to sell his wastes and extra chemicals and trying to leave the state, possibly the country. In his parking lot, he was burning what he couldn’t sell. We also found out he had made a deal with the city to sell his polluted property (they didn’t know) to use for a children’s activity center. Based on my investigation and those of other state and federal agencies, he went to the federal pen.
Another company was picking up people’s waste and claiming to properly dispose of it. But it turned out they were dumping it in various fields around the county. We went to their residence to investigate and discovered a shed full of bulging drums of unknown material, which led to a big clean-up operation. These people also went to prison.
But that isn’t really the end goal — that only upon threat of death or going to jail that you should do something. You should do things because it makes sense to you and for the community, and because it helps your business. That’s the way a business has to work or it can’t succeed. A country where businesses can’t succeed is not going to have a strong economy, and countries with bad economies can’t do a good job of protecting the environment.
Part 1: Red Tape, Regulations, and Environmental Crimes (Top of Page)
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January 21, 2009 by Julia Wasson
Filed under Air Quality, Blog, Climate Change, Electric Cars, Environment, Events, Front Page, GMOs, Green Living, Health, Pollution, Renewable Energy, Slideshow, U.S.
Dear Mr. President,
I am not a soldier in your army, but I am out here working in your trenches. I am not carrying a gun in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I am carrying your message. I am a retired worker, an active environmentalist and a true-blue American. I am too old to be lied to by my government anymore, but too young to lose the hope that you might be able to change things. I am too realistic to expect miracles from you, but idealistic enough to always dream of a better world.
What else does my generation dream of, Mr. President? What do my fellow Baby Boomers and I picture when we close our eyes? We imagine a world in which we can afford our health insurance, our medications, and next week’s food prices. We wish that one-third of our pensions hadn’t been ripped from our hands. We hope that we can live long enough to earn the Social Security benefits we’ve paid into for so many years. We hope there still is a Social Security fund to sustain us before we die. We hope that 50 years from now our great grandchildren will not be burdened by this year’s Wall Street and Big 3 bailouts, and that the greedy bastards who got us into this mess will still be in prison for their crimes.
And we are angry. Angry that General Motors/GMAC received a $19.4 billion handout and that Chrysler/CF got its $5.5 billion. Mind you, neither corporate giant got so much as a suggestion from our Congress that they should improve gas mileage or produce electric cars. I’m sure they were planning to do both anyway — in 30 years, when our planet runs out of oil. Couldn’t someone in Congress have suggested a few incentives, or limits, or controls, or expectations, or maybe get down on their knees and beg “pretty please?”
Congress is taking money away from the rest of us, and from our next three generations, to give to an industry that has refused to improve emissions for the last 20 years, fought against passenger air bags, killed the electric car production lines, and refused to improve gas mileage standards. I say, let these dinosaurs die. You can bet that, two minutes after the gates of the Big 3 are closed, some hungry, innovative car company from India, or China, or Japan, will build a new plant down the road and begin manufacturing efficient, safe, and reasonably priced, electric vehicles.
We are angry because we were told that the price of food inflated because the price of gas was $4.00 a gallon. But now gas is $1.60, and the price of food is still going up. Damn, we hate being lied to. Worse yet, the food industry is reducing the sizes of the containers, while raising their prices. They not only lie to us, they think we are too stupid to see what they are doing.
And since I‘m on the subject of food, we are not fond of the fact that, through genetic modification, our foods no longer need to be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides —they are pesticides and herbicides. God knows we have to protect our farm yields. Big Ag takes great pride that a genetic engineer has predetermined our cancers, heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. Perhaps our heirs will save money when we die, when our bodies will self-cremate from all the petrochemicals we have digested.
Sir, I wish you the very best. I wouldn’t want your job, but I am elated you won this election. Wouldn’t it be great if Wall Street, the oil industry, the farm lobby, the steel industry, the military weapons industry, the U.S. Auto industry, the medical industry, the pharmaceutical companies, and the food industry, all left Washington, just pulled out and said, “We’re sorry, we screwed up. We promise we won’t put profits before people or the planet ever again. We won’t steal from our investors ever again. We won’t strip mine or clear cut or genetically alter crops or slaughter whales or shoot wolves from airplanes, or kill people, or test chemicals on animals or poison the air, the water, the soil; or deplete the ozone ever again. We promise.” Yeah, right. Dream on.
Mr. President, we know it’s only your second day in office. We know your tasks are mighty. But, you do have a Congress that should be supportive while you try to solve the financial crisis, launch your version of the New Deal, create 3 million new jobs, fight crony capitalism, and keep your country from going bankrupt. Please try to accomplish most of that in your first week in office.
Next week you have to improve the image of our country to the world, and then help bring peace and stability to Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, North and South Korea. And be sure to bring our troops home safely.
As you’re settling in, between phone calls, maybe you’ll get a chance to work on climate change; develop renewable energy; teach your citizens how to live sustainably; improve health care, education, women’s rights, child safety, the electrical grid, and our highway infrastructure; and fight crime, pollution, domestic violence, the spread of AIDS, home foreclosures, and terrorism. Should be no problem. You’re young and energetic.
You gave us a lot of hope during your campaign. Maybe you want a little of it back. But don’t worry, Mr. President, we will be patient, as long as we see a little progress every day. Just don’t tell us any fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction. We regret that you have so much to do, so soon. We regret that you have so many broken things to fix. We realize that dealing with the over-50 crowd isn’t one of your priorities. Just don’t forget we’re here, especially if you need some help. All you have to do is ask. We’re a pretty dependable work force, and we have a lot of wisdom to share. We may be old, but we’re not dead yet, and we won’t be silent.
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