The environments we live and work in affect everything around us. As we’ve learned more about how humans affect the environment, we’ve established laws, policies, and environmental practices to reduce our environmental impact and avoid causing environmental damage. Good environmental practices also save companies money long-term by maintaining natural resources and avoiding expensive cleanup operations. It’s important for your employees to understand how human actions can impact the environment at work and at home, and what they can do to keep their community clean and safe.
Environmental History and Laws
Our society hasn’t always kept the environment in mind. Land, water and air pollution have had negative impacts on the environment over the years, and we’re still dealing with some of those consequences today. Improper disposal of chemical waste in the 1950s made the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls unlivable. Zinc and lead mining in northeast Oklahoma in the early and mid- 20th century left behind over 500 million tons of chat and toxic mining wastes. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted that it caught on fire 13 times from 1868 to 1969. Toxic smog was trapped in Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River valley in 1948, and killed 20 people and made more than 5,000 people sick.
These pollution events and others around the U.S. galvanized citizens to demand change and prompted federal, state and local lawmakers across the country to action. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide guidance and regulatory oversight for preventing pollution and environmental catastrophes. Additional federal laws and policies designed to protect the environment include:
- Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA/Superfund)
- Clean Water Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Clean Air Act
- Pollution Prevention Act
Many states, counties and cities have also enacted their own environmental protection laws, such as more stringent emissions requirements, dumping regulations, storm runoff regulations, anti-littering ordinances, and recycling programs.
Types and Effects of Land Waste
There are many different types of waste, but most types fall under two main categories: hazardous waste and non-hazardous waste. The EPA lists specific types of waste as hazardous, but solid wastes that are ignitable, corrosive, reactive, toxic, or a combination of these are also considered hazardous waste. Only trained personnel should remove or remediate large quantities of hazardous waste.
Wastes that aren’t specifically considered hazardous waste may still have a negative impact on the environment. Municipal waste is what most of us think of as “trash,” and includes general waste from homes and workplaces. Industrial waste is any non-hazardous waste from factories or other industrial facilities. Universal waste includes certain types of household hazardous wastes, such as batteries, pesticides, and mercury-containing equipment such as thermostats, but aren’t as severe as EPA-listed hazardous waste. Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to discarded electronics such as computers, cell phones, TVs, and printers, among others. E-wastes may be hazardous if they have components made of lead, cadmium, or other toxic materials.
All types of waste must be disposed of properly. Universal wastes, electronic wastes and used oil have special disposal procedures designed to prevent chemicals from leaking and exposing sanitation workers down the line. Even normal trash can clog drainage systems, injure animals and impact the surrounding environment if it’s not properly disposed of.
Effects of Water Pollution
All life on Earth relies on having safe and clean water, but it doesn’t take much to contaminate large supplies of water. For example, just one gallon of spilled oil can make one million gallons of water unsafe to drink. Water sources can be exposed to a wide variety of biological, chemical, and general waste contaminants. Biological contaminants such as E. coli, Salmonella, and bacteria that cause cholera and norovirus can cause humans and animals to get sick or even die. Chemical contaminants such as pesticides, dissolved metals such as lead, and other toxic chemicals such as mercury or chlorine can cause illness and mutations and can destroy ecosystems. Even normal trash, plastics and some metals can leech harmful chemicals into the water, trap fish and other aquatic life, and detract from an area’s natural beauty.
Effects of Air Pollution
Air contaminants we breathe in are carried into our lungs, which can contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma, emphysema, and lung cancer. The National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization also link air pollution to cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack, and reproductive problems. On top of its health effects, air pollution also impacts plants and the surrounding environment. Chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, chlorine and fluorine can affect how plants take in nutrients, damaging and even killing them. High concentrations of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides can react with water and oxygen in rain clouds, coming back down as acid rain. Acid rain can kill plants and water sources, damage structures, and reduce crop yields.
Even with laws and policies designed to prevent pollution and waste contamination, we all have a role to play in keeping our communities clean. There are plenty of ways we can help minimize the pollution, including:
- Wash and reuse dishes and silverware instead of using disposable dishes
- Repair broken appliances instead of buying new ones
- Don’t dump anything except for water down storm drains
- Don’t flush medications or other chemicals down a drain
- Keep vehicles maintained and fix fluid leaks
- Clean up pet wastes so they can’t flow into storm drains
- Use non-toxic household products when possible
- Walk, bike or take public transportation to commute to work or run errands when possible
- When buying a vehicle, choose one that gets good gas mileage, or consider purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle
- Ask your utility provider if you can get electricity from wind, solar or hydroelectric plants
- Keep equipment turned off at home and at work when you’re not using it
- Take part in community or neighborhood cleanup projects
- As a general rule: reduce the waste you produce, reuse what you can, recycle the rest
By working together and doing our part at work and at home, we can help protect our communities from environmental harm and keep them beautiful for generations to come.