Earth Day 2019: Focusing on Policies that Don’t Intend to Hurt the Environment…But Hurt the Environment Anyway

Sometimes, it’s not easy being green. We are often required to drive to/from work, drive our kids to school, drive to get to other family members’ places, have a job that requires someone to drive…on and on it goes. The bottom line is that even if we don’t want to put more pollution in the air, our living habits are such that we often have no other choice.

And here’s the thing: so many of these things are the result of policies that don’t intend to hurt the environment per se, but do so nevertheless. 

But how? Here’s a list of several policies not intended to hurt the environment, but that hurt the environment anyway:

  1. Approaches to land use have often favored development of car-reliant suburbs over transit-reliant areas. For decades, the focus was (and still is) on building around the highway. One of the most famous examples in the post-World War II era was with parts of Long Island in New York being built around the Long Island Expressway, but there are many other examples of this. Policy that allows for the building of areas that are destined to be mass transit deserts leads to heavy use of the car and heavy pollution.
  2. Poor funding for mass transit means fewer mass transit options, and pushing people towards the car. If there’s no mass transit available to take because of a lack of funding for mass transit, what choice is there other than to drive a pollution-emitting car?
  3. School choice policies mean that kids have to be driven or bused to the schools of their choices. What I say here may be controversial, as school choice sounds great and is popular with many. However, one of the consequences of school choice is that, instead of having to walk to the neighborhood school (especially in urban areas), kids have to be driven to far-away places. No pun intended, but if governmental bureaucrats invested energy into making all schools good, there would be no need for kids to have to be driven for miles, while emitting pollutants into the air.
  4. Speaking of schools, many school districts have school lunches that prominently feature food that emits high levels of greenhouse gases. As things like red meats are a large part of the lunch fare at many schools, school districts are heavily using food that emits high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Lean meats and vegetables are not only healthier for kids than red meats, but they are healthier for the environment.
  5. We’re not doing enough to make housing affordable. In places like New York City and Washington, DC, people often drive long distances to work because nearby areas are simply not affordable. In short, affordability crises are not just bad for people’s pocketbooks, but bad for the environment because people have to drive to work.
  6. Many municipalities recycle but don’t provide easy access for people who want to recycle certain kinds of items. That’s how you end up with copious amounts of e-waste inside a home (including my home)—sometimes a city, even one that purports to be environmental (such as New York City), doesn’t have easy access for people who want to recycle said e-waste (or other waste).

Obviously, this is a rather car-heavy list. Regardless of that, my point is that there are many governmental approaches and policies that are not malicious to the environment per se, but end up doing a great deal of harm to it. And, during this week of Earth Day, we should be aware of such policies.

Earth Day 2018: A Call to Action

Next Sunday is Earth Day. So in advance, I wish everyone a happy Earth Day!

However, I don’t feel that it’s enough to just wish ourselves and others a good Earth Day. We need to take action too.

The action I propose for this year is that all of us think about the ways in which we use too much plastic and don’t put plastic where we should.[1]

Indeed, when we go to fast food restaurants, we’re given plastic tops for our drinks and straws made of plastic. We go to grocery stores and buy plastic water bottles. We throw our plastics away on the street or in the regular trash, often because that is the most convenient and expedient thing to do. We have plastic bags at grocery stores, and then throw them away in the regular trash once we use them for our one purpose (carrying groceries). So much of our food uses plastic wrapping, and we use plastic bags to help seal and protect food.

Granted, some of the onus is on companies and the government. Companies that use plastic in its products can have a hand too in at least making sure that their products are recyclable, so that the plastic we use causes as little harm to the environment as possible. Government can also have refuse-disposal cans not only for trash, but for paper and plastic as well.[2]

But some of the responsibility is in the hands of us as individuals. I don’t pretend to be holier-than-thou, as I have used and continue to use more plastic than I’d like. However, just because I struggle with some or all of these things doesn’t mean that I (and others) shouldn’t try to do better. We should all try to do better, because I highly doubt that many of us are as good as we could be. We can at least cut plastic out of our lives when plastic is not necessary; for example, when we’re at sit-down restaurants, we don’t need straws and can politely ask not to be given straws. We can also use tap water (with maybe a filter) instead of plastic water bottles. And, if you are a decision-maker in a company or in government, you can advocate for measures that could increase the recycling of plastic or cut down on plastic usage.

I, for one, commit to trying to be better about refusing to use plastic straws, as well as recycling my plastic when I am out in public. I hope that others use the upcoming Earth Day to make a commitment to cut down on plastic usage and recycle the plastic we use.


[1] This is in line with the Earth Day Network’s focus on plastic this year.

[2] In every municipality I’ve been in, including New York City, they make the baffling decision not to do this everywhere.