From Earth911's Mary Mazzoni:
An estimated one in 10 Americans took part in the first Earth Day, observed across the country on April 22, 1970. Brainchild of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, the first national Earth Day unified a growing public concern about environmental crises.
Concerned citizens gathered for environmental teach-ins at more than 2,000 colleges. An additional 10,000 elementary and high schools and 1,000 communities took part in the festivities, adding up to a stunning 20 million people. The size of events ranged from small school assemblies to a 100,000-person “human traffic jam” on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The environmental pomp and circumstance of the first Earth Day didn’t just attract attention; it also brought results. In that fall’s midterm election, voters booted out several officials with poor environmental records, and some call the 1970s the “Environmental Decade,” with more than 28 reforms passed – ranging from clean air and water to reducing public exposure to hazardous waste.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to protecting our planet. But American stewardship and sustainability has grown leaps and bounds since Nelson and his grassroots activists gathered in April 1970. Here’s how far sustainability in America has come since the first Earth Day. And if you don’t believe us, we have the photos to prove it!
List and images courtesy of Earth911
In December 1970, President Richard Nixon created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Executive Order as a federal response to growing environmental concerns. The agency was tasked with both "cleaning up the damage already done to the environment and establishing guidelines to help Americans make a cleaner and safer environment a reality," the EPA said. At the time, it was perfectly legal for a company to spew black clouds of contaminants into the air from its factories and dump tons of toxic waste into nearby streams. Likewise, individuals could dispose of unwanted items, ranging from cars and refrigerators to old batteries, in local waterways or open dumps in their community - causing further environmental contamination. In addition to enforcing air and water quality regulations, the EPA has worked for more than 40 years to rid local ecosystems of hazardous waste and pollutants. Tens of thousands of abandoned hazardous waste sites, called Superfund sites, have been identified by the EPA, and cleanup projects are under way in every state in the nation. After 40 years of work, the EPA has cleaned 67 percent of contaminated Superfund sites nationwide. Additionally, responsible disposal of hazardous waste prevented more than 15 million pounds of toxic chemicals from being released into soil and waterways from 2007 to 2010 alone. Flickr image courtesy of Chas Redmond
The issue of water pollution came to the forefront in 1969, when Ohio's Cuyahoga River became so filled with oily waste and industrial pollution that it actually caught fire. In the early 1970s, residents from coast to coast noticed off-colored drinking water and dead fish in local waterways, increasing concerns about water pollution. Two short years after the formation of the EPA, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a modification of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, to regulate quality standards for surface waters and stop the discharges of pollutants into rivers, lakes and other waterways. Today, the banks of the Cuyahoga River are lined with numerous parks and hiking trails, and locals enjoy kayaking, whitewater rafting and other outdoor activities. But the Ohio waterway isn't the only location that's seen improvement since the first Earth Day. In a study of lakes from the 1970s to 2007, half saw less nutrient concentrations and a quarter saw improved trophic status. Today, more than 2,000 water bodies identified as impaired in 2002 now meet water quality standards. As a result of cleanup efforts, Americans are also receiving cleaner and healthier drinking water. The number of Americans receiving water that met health standards went from 79 percent in 1993 to 92 percent in 2008. Additionally, 60 percent more Americans were served by publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities from 1968 to 2008, according to the EPA. Flickr image courtesy of The U.S. National Archives
Concern about air quality was mounting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for good reason. The issue came to national attention in the late 1940s, when uncontrolled emissions from industrial facilities in Donora, Pa. resulted in the deaths of 20 people and illnesses in half of the town's 12,000 residents. By 1970, smog alerts were nearly a daily occurrence in America's cities, causing eye and throat soreness, respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting among residents. A few weeks after the EPA was formed, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. Under the new law, the EPA was authorized to set limits on air pollutants like ozone and carbon monoxide, as well as to regulate emissions from factories, power plants and vehicles. State and regional agencies assumed responsibility for carrying out the Clean Air Act at the local level. With its new responsibilities, the EPA set numerous air quality regulations in motion, including controlling auto emissions and banning the use of DDT. Health benefits increased steadily in the first 20 years of the Clean Air Act. From 1970 to 1990, clean air programs prevented 18 million child respiratory illnesses, 10.4 million lost I.Q. points in children from lead reductions, 843,000 asthma attacks and 205,000 premature deaths, according to the EPA. Since the Clean Air Act went on the books in 1970, the EPA and state governments have reduced 60 percent of the dangerous air pollutants that cause smog, acid rain, lead poisoning and other harmful environmental effects. Flickr image courtesy of The U.S. National Archives
Open, unregulated dumps and landfill operations caused widespread water pollution and serious ecological damage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While pollution problems were at the forefront of Earth Day issues, preventing litter, responsibly disposing of waste and recycling were also main focuses. Shortly after the creation of the EPA, Congress passed the Resource Recovery Act, which shifted responsibility to the new agency to help state and local governments manage waste. In 1976, the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act became law. Among other things, the law mandated that landfills be closely monitored and enacted America's hazardous waste management program. To this day, RCRA is still the most important piece of legislation controlling the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes, as well as establishing a framework for the management of non-hazardous waste. After RCRA passed, a new set of regulations were imposed on existing landfills, and several particularly hazardous sites were closed down. Cleanup projects are already complete at some of the most toxic dumping sites, including the marshlands of Jamaica Bay in New York, and natural ecosystems are gradually being restored. Since 1970, the U.S. recycling rate has grown from a mere 6.6 percent to 34.1 percent in 2010, according to the most recent EPA data available. Due to increased regulations and recycling, the number of landfills in America has also decreased dramatically, from nearly 8,000 in 1988 to 1,767 in 2002. Flickr image courtesy of The U.S. National Archives
Stunning headlines in 1969 drew public attention to the environmental state of emergency in America, including a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara and Ohio's infamous Cuyahoga River fire. Meanwhile, mounting fears about smog, pesticides and water pollution swept the nation. By 1970, the percentage of citizens who cited cleaning up air and water as one of their top three political priorities rose to 53 percent, up from 17 percent five years earlier. As a result of environmentally-related unrest, an estimated 20 million people took part in the first Earth Day, drawing attention from both the media and the federal government. After the big day, litter cleanup programs and environmental seminars sprang up across the nation, particularly at high schools, colleges, youth groups and religious institutions. As environmental issues came closer to the forefront, public discourse about stewardship increased both on and off Capitol Hill. Since 1970, Earth Day has grown into a global celebration. An estimated 1 billion people in 180 countries participated in Earth Day in 2010, with events ranging from park and beach cleanups in the U.S. to tree-plantings in Indonesia. With the eco movement rapidly becoming part of the mainstream, a whopping 77 percent of Americans now say they worry about protecting the environment a great deal or a fair amount, according to a survey conducted by ecoAmerica. Some data shows that Earth Day participation is down the U.S., but in many cases, Americans are simply participating in a different way. Web-based campaigns, such as EPA's Earth Day photo projects and Earth Day Network's A Billion Acts of Green, are steadily growing in popularity. On Earth Day 2010, an estimated 30 million people used social media to encourage green activities. So, whether you attend a local festival, relax in the great outdoors or head online for some Earth Day tips, make sure to mark the occasion this year and keep the tradition alive! Flickr image courtesy of The U.S. National Archives