Earth in the balance

By Alyson Ward

McClatchy Newspapers

The first Earth Day, held April 22, 1970, started an effort that is still moving forward. The United States created the Environmental Protection Agency later that year, which led to legislation requiring cleaner air and water. Almost four decades later, here’s a glimpse at how far we’ve come _ and how far we still have to go.


By 1970, Lake Erie was so polluted it was declared “dead.” Rivers were dumping grounds for chemical waste and sewage. The Rhine River became known as “Europe’s sewer,” and in 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River _ polluted with oil and industrial waste _ burst into flames. Today, water treatment plants keep sewage from flowing directly into rivers. Still, water pollution worldwide has increased since the 1970s as more people and industries have strained the system. And the problem goes beyond quality: Water scarcity affects one-third of the total world population.

By the numbers

The average American’s daily water use (for all purposes, including energy and industry): 1,500 gallons (about three times the world average)

Number of people without access to safe drinking water: 1.1 billion

Amount of carbon dioxide (caused by human activity) absorbed by the ocean: 50 percent

Ocean conditions

Of the 100 million tons of plastic produced each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean. A United Nations study estimates about 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating in every square mile of ocean water. That includes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of trash _ mostly plastic _ that is estimated to be twice the size of Texas. For the past 50 years, it’s been collecting in two Pacific gyres, vast areas of swirling water. There’s no plan for getting rid of the plastic, and scientists say cleanup would be a task that’s already too large. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is studying the dimensions and makeup of the floating mess.


On the first Earth Day, concern about land use wasn’t a priority. Throughout the 1960s, a desire to preserve green spaces was classified as “conservation,” with concerned citizens focused on preserving parks and recreational areas. But in the past few decades, we’ve recognized that it’s crucial to pay attention to land use, from agriculture to urban landscapes. We’ve begun to see land use as an environmental issue _ and to consider the impact of agriculture, population density and development on wetlands, grasslands, forests and other ecosystems.

By the numbers

The world’s predicted population by 2050: 9.2 billion

Portion of the world’s population that lives in the United States: 5 percent

Portion of land area in the United States used for agriculture: About 40 percent


As U.S. population grows and household population decreases, more and more houses are covering the land. Land is converted for development at twice the rate of population growth. Most of that is for “sprawl” development _ roads, shops and houses in suburban and rural areas.


A swath of forest the size of Panama is lost every year, and the loss of forests produces about 20 percent of all manmade carbon dioxide emissions. Though deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is declining, one-fifth of that forest has been already lost. Scientists predict that it’ll keep disappearing, thanks to illegal logging and the practice of clearing the land to make room for cattle farms.


As scientists investigate ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the importance of biofuels continues to grow. While biofuels burn cleaner and emit fewer toxins, they demand a lot of crops. In Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United States, forests and grasslands are being rapidly converted to farms to grow soybeans and sugarcane, crops for making biofuels. But getting rid of the carbon-absorbing grass and trees, some scientists say, actually increases greenhouse gases _ canceling out the benefit of using biofuels.


Air quality was a visible problem by 1970. Smog had been obscuring the skylines of cities such as Detroit and Los Angeles for decades. But dirty air wasn’t just an American problem. In August 1970, smog sent more than 8,000 Tokyo residents to the hospital in five days. In Venice, dirty air caused damage to the ancient Greek bronze horses in St. Mark’s Square. A strengthened Clean Air Act was one of the changes the first Earth Day brought about. Air quality has improved nationwide, but a number of cities still don’t meet government standards.

By the numbers

Energy-related carbon emissions worldwide: 29 billion metric tons

Trees needed to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from one U.S. car each year:?240

Asians who die each year from the effects of air pollution: 1.5 million

People worldwide who live in countries with pollution levels above the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards: 103 million

Approximate number of coal plants built every week in China: 2


The Clean Air Act, first enacted in 1963 but amended and strengthened in 1970, set standards for national air quality and auto emissions standards. But those standards proved too high for the auto industry to meet, so deadlines were extended. In 1990 the Clean Air Act was updated again, with tougher emissions standards. In 2008, the EPA announced it would tighten smog standards, predicting that 345 counties in the United States wouldn’t pass the test.


China has overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Beijing, the site of the 2008 Summer Games, is so polluted that athletes were concerned for their health.


By 1970, America’s consumer culture was expanding, and Americans were discarding things at alarming levels: 7 million cars, 100 million tires, 20 million tons of paper and 48 billion cans every year. Philadelphia and San Francisco expected to run out of landfill space before 1972. Today, Americans recycle about five times more than in 1970. Landfills are fewer and better-managed, though also much larger. Still, we manage to keep only one-third of our waste out of the trash heap. And in an age full of electronic gadgets, “e-waste” is a growing problem.

By the numbers

Average waste produced by Americans each day:

1970: 3.3 pounds per person

2006: 4.6 pounds per person

Average waste recycled in the United States:

1970: 6.6 percent

2006: 32.5 percent

Average amount of paper products recycled in the U.S. today: 56 percent

Average amount of “e-waste” discarded in the U.S.: 1.9 million to 2.2 million tons

Average amount not recycled, landing permanently in landfills:

About 82 percent

Hazardous-waste sites in the United States: 1,301

In Texas: 45

In New Jersey, which tops the list: 117

In North Dakota: 0


The first recycling center was opened in New York City at the end of the 19th century. Recycling re-emerged in the 1960s, but despite greater awareness, most local governments didn’t start recycling programs until the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Now there are more than 8,000 curbside recycling programs in the United States _ even so, only about 32 percent of solid waste is diverted from landfills.

Hazardous waste

In 1980, Congress approved the Superfund, a temporary program designed to clean up hazardous waste. It was amended in 1986 and continues today. Thanks to the program, today about 70 percent of the cost of hazardous-site cleanup is paid by the responsible parties.


That first Earth Day, pollution was a bigger concern than energy. U.S. oil production peaked that year, and efficiency — in building and in transportation — wasn’t a priority.

Today, Americans use more energy than ever before. But we’re also learning new, cleaner ways to generate it. Renewable energy is the smallest portion of energy sources _ only 6 percent _ but it’s also the fastest-growing sector. We’re finding more responsible ways to consume energy, too. We have more fuel-efficient cars, homes and appliances.

By the numbers

Number of vehicles worldwide:

1970: 246 million

2008: 600 million

Number of vehicles in the United States:

1970: 111.2 million

2005: 247.4 million

Transportation’s share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions:

27 percent

Average American household electricity use:

1970: 6,367 kilowatt hours per year

2004: 10,660 kilowatt hours per year


In 1975, new cars were made with catalytic converters, which cut hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions by 96 percent and nitrogen oxides by 75 percent, helping vehicles meet tougher U.S. emissions standards. Today’s new cars pollute about 90 percent less than their 1970s counterparts.

Renewable energy

Texas leads the nation in wind power development, with an installed production capacity of 4,446 megawatts. The state has four of the five biggest wind farms in the country. By the end of 2007, Texas had 60 percent more production capacity than at the end of 2006.