April 22 is Earth Day. Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 and has been observed to some degree every year since. Its goal is to promote ecologically sound lifestyles, beginning at the grassroots with cleanups, recycling and conservation.
In some ways, Iowa was in the forefront of the environmental movement. Iowa is one of only 11 states that have a beverage container recycling law (often referred to as a “bottle bill”). The 1979 Iowa law requires that we pay a 5-cent deposit on all soft drink and alcoholic beverage containers. A few states have stricter bottle bills than Iowa’s. Some cover other drink containers, such as water or juice bottles, and some require a larger deposit. One of my more fanciful money-making schemes was to save all our soft drink, beer and wine bottles and cans that we purchase here in Iowa, take them along whenever we go to visit my sister in Michigan, and turn them in there at 10 cents each for a 100 percent profit!
The beverage industry, grocery stores and convenience stores generally are opposed to bottle bills, considering them at best a necessary evil. This is ironic in that, as those of you who are in my age group may remember, at one time nearly all soft drinks were sold in returnable deposit bottles, and the recycling process was handled by the beverage industry, not by state government programs. Furthermore, this was true recycling. The bottles were not crushed and the glass or plastic put to some lower value use as they are today. The bottles were of a more durable, thicker glass construction so they could withstand numerous cycles of return, washing, refilling and resale.
Deposit was 2 cents, which may seem a pittance today, but in the early to mid-1950s, a candy bar was 5 cents and a soft drink was 10 cents. A kid with 10 cents in hand was sure to find something desirable in the toy section of the local Ben Franklin or Woolworth store. Kids were elated to find a pop bottle or two that someone had tossed. On Sunday afternoons, Dad often took the family for drives in the country, during which my sister Ursula and I scanned the ditches for pop bottles. Dad stopped whenever we found one. We lugged our finds to the neighborhood “Mom & Pop” store for candy, or for cash if we were hoarding the lode for a bigger prize. Considering what the 2-cent deposit on a pop bottle bought in the 1950s, deposit on beverage containers today should be 30 to 40 cents.
Recycling bottles may seem trivial in view of larger environmental issues such as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, groundwater depletion in the Ogallala Aquifer, air and stream pollution from mountaintop removal strip mining, and of course, global climate change. A report just issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change leaves little doubt about the sweeping changes now occurring and yet in store, the grave risks to people everywhere owing to the changes and the contributions of human activity to the changes. Can and bottle recycling may seem a puny effort in the larger array of actions needed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but it represents an initial step of agreement by consumers, businesses, industry and government. Collecting and melting down used aluminum cans to create new ones requires less energy and thus results in less carbon dioxide emissions than digging up and processing the raw materials. I wonder if anyone has examined the energy use and carbon dioxide emissions of producing the heavier glass bottles of old that can withstand numerous cycles of reuse, versus the endless creation of throwaway glass and plastic bottles?
Environmental concerns have shifted from resource depletion of natural resources (such as oil) to waste control (pollution) generated from resources use. After all, what is carbon dioxide but the waste product of driving our cars and trucks; heating and air conditioning our homes and offices; growing, processing and preparing our food; and all other personal, business, industrial and governmental activities (from making pizzas to making jet airliners) that in some manner require burning carbon-based fuels (wood, coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, alcohol, too).
It is appropriate that Earth Day, Easter and spring all occur at about the same time. Each of the three, in its own unique way, deals with resurrection. Earth Day holds out the promise of resurrection for the Earth — a promise only to be fulfilled by being proactive in reversing human contributions to climate change. Otherwise, Rachel Carson’s concerns in “Silent Spring” may yet come to pass even more severely than she envisioned. Her silent spring was devoid of the chirping and singing of birds owing to indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. But even Rachel Carson did not foresee the possibility of continued and perhaps catastrophic global climate change, and somewhere down the road a spring devoid of human voices.
Most scientists believe it is not too late to act. Let’s hope they are right. And let’s dedicate ourselves this Earth Day to leaving a comfortably inhabitable planet for future generations.
(Pete Korsching is a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.)