June 6, 2008

Steve Padilla

Small Steps and Big Strides

One foot in front of the other my mother used to say. Sometimes focusing on a giant task at hand can be just too overwhelming. Take it one piece at a time, and before you know it, you’ve traveled farther than you think. The problems and challenges we face today when it comes to our environment, the impacts of global climate change, especially those on human health can seem overwhelming. While there is much more to do, and many more eyes to be opened, there is some reason to hope when considering some recently proven successes, each the result of individuals taking small steps.

There are few today who would still debate whether climate change is real and whether we humans have something to do with it. Nor are there many credible arguments that question what we know of the effects of carbon emissions upon our planet and its inhabitants, or the obvious benefits of reducing them. Ultimately good practices begin to demonstrate whether the proof is really in the pudding. Nothing speaks louder than success some say, and notable recent strides that started as small steps are beginning to speak for themselves.

Reducing the amount of waste in our landfills by reusing and recycling is a primary way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and starts in our homes, and at our doorsteps and curbsides. Various states have mandated that local communities divert a certain amount of waste through recycling and reuse and those cities and communities have worked to find ways to make it easy on us to do our part. Not every state and region has embraced good diversion policies but their potential for great success is undisputable.

In New York City, studies show that in addition to providing a great environmental benefit, they are getting closer to realizing real economic incentives to divert and recycle more and more away from landfills. Better late than never. This past week a study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council indicated that while it still costs slightly more per ton to recycle than to simply throw it in the trash (and ultimately into landfills) the gap in that city is closing. The difference in cost of about 6% per ton is down from nearly three times that just a few years ago and the city’s rate of diversion peaked at nearly 20% of the total waste stream. Not bad for a city that never sleeps. The benefit of their city’s diversion is currently the equivalent of removing over 338 thousand passenger vehicles from the road annually.

Aggressive local and state policies aimed at alternative energy, reducing energy use as well as making recycling common and convenient is having effect in areas where they exist and are embraced. The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program released a study this week indicating that urban centers on the West Coast have some of the lowest levels of per capita carbon emissions. The study focused on residential electricity and fuel use of cars and trucks. While a milder average climate and the prevalence of hydroelectric power generation (compared to other regions) were cited as factors, great weight was given to sound aggressive energy reduction policies by local and state government.

A perfect example of such policies brings to mind a third example, the recent report by the California Department of Conservation indicating our state achieved record recycling levels of materials with California Refund Value (CRV) including aluminum, glass and plastic. In 2007, Californians recycled a record 14.7 billion CRV beverage containers, a rate of 67%, the highest volume ever. In addition to the fact diversion programs are funded largely from unclaimed CRV monies, the impact of this success is equivalent to the removal of over 563 thousand vehicles annually from our roads.

Sure, this doesn’t even scratch the surface. Our thinking about energy has to change along with our habits and it should go without saying our national policies on energy need to change, or let’s at least start by having some that aren’t the laughing stock of the modern world. But big strides start with small steps. One foot in front of the other.

Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: spadilla@aquariusgroup.org.

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