CATCH OF THE DAY — Earth Day Is April 22, Reducing Plastic Pollution Is Every Day

April 2, 2018

By Marla Schmidt


The national theme for Earth Day 2018 is End Plastic Pollution, which is fitting for this column. But first, a little bit about Wisconsin’s distinguished link to the founding of Earth Day nearly five decades ago.

Gaylord Nelson, the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, founded Earth Day. He was born in Clear Lake, Wis., in 1916. He earned a law degree in 1942 from UW-Madison and then served as a lieutenant in the United States Army during the Second World War including the Okinawa campaign. He served in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1948-1958, as Wisconsin governor from 1959-1963, and as the U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1963-1981.

As governor, he instituted reforms in Wisconsin to “clean up waterways, protect natural resources, create green jobs, and bolster the state’s recreation infrastructure,” according to NelsonEarthDay.net, the UW-Wisconsin website dedicated to Nelson and Earth Day.

In the U.S. Senate, he had little success convincing his colleagues that there was mounting evidence in the U.S. that the level of pollution to land, water, and air was reaching a state of crisis.

As U.S. Senator, he toured an immense oil spill on the California Coast near Santa Barbara in 1969, and shortly after, he learned of the fire on the severely polluted Cuyahoga River. During this same time period, he had observed the success of teach-ins on college campuses in the U.S., where an entire class day was devoted to studying the Vietnam War, and protesting it. Nelson realized how effective they might be to draw the public’s attention to the environmental crises.

NelsonEarthDay.net further notes that, “Separate teach-ins were already planned at San Jose State, Dickinson College (Pennsylvania), and the University of Michigan—all organized campus-wide events drawing attention to ecological crises. Nelson aimed to unite these efforts and then extend them beyond the college campus. He announced his intentions at a speech in Seattle on September 20, 1969 and several major media outlets immediately broadcast the idea to national audiences.”

In that prescient speech, Nelson launched what would become an annual celebration that still flourishes today. His goal was to empower civilians—students, activists, and all concerned about environmental degradation. He declared, “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures, will require a long, sustained, political, moral and ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes. Are we willing? That’s the unanswered question…If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue into the national political agenda…This is the time for old-fashioned political action.”

His vision led to the establishment of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. The movement has grown steadily in the past 48 years and is celebrated in 193 countries.

Last summer I made the decision to start picking up the plastic that I saw at South Shore Beach instead of just walking past it. That decision shifted my awareness—the volume of plastic litter I found shocked me. I started posting photos on my Facebook page of the litter I picked up. And I started a new Facebook page CatchOfTheDayMKE. At the time, I was not aware that there was a global movement that was already taking place to end plastic pollution, nor I did know the theme for Earth Day 2018 would be End Plastic Pollution.

So now, just a little more than nine months later, that decision has given birth to a column. It has also inspired my involvement with the Last Straw Plastic Campaign, the movement to reduce consumption of single-use plastic straws. (Depending on the plastic in the straw, it can take 200-500 years for that straw to break down.)

So far I have convinced six Milwaukee restaurants to take the pledge to serve straws only upon request and to switch from plastic to paper straws. I have been invited by local business owners to set up a table at their Earth Day events this month. Some local residents have contacted me because they want to get involved.

But here’s the thing; this was never about me. I am just one person who made a decision to start picking up litter on the beach. Now I tell my server that I don’t want a straw. I believe that where I spend my money is how I vote for the type of world I agree to live in. The awareness I’ve gained is about sharing and empowering other individuals to shift their awareness, in order to change habits that will create lasting healing and restoration of the environment.

My passion and dedication have certainly built some momentum. But my goal was not to start an organization, rather it was to inspire and empower the individual to take action. Sure, you can help at a beach cleanup, but why not go a step farther. Learn to track the source of litter by downloading the app called Litterati. Say no to plastic straws, bottled water, Styrofoam take-out containers, and plastic bags. Become aware of how much plastic waste you contribute to the environment, and remember that recycling is the not best or most sustainable solution to the problem.

I am thankful there is a national day declared to focus on the environment. I am even more thankful to have gained the awareness of how my daily choices align with my understanding that every day is Earth Day.

I invite you to join the movement to reduce consumption of single-use plastic and to start looking at—and picking up—some of the litter you encounter.

Recommended Reading/Viewing

Earth Day 2018, A World Without Plastic Pollution: earthday.org/campaigns/plastics-campaign

To listen to an excerpt of GaylordNelson’s 1970 Speech that was included CBS News Special Report with
Walter Cronkite about the first Earth Day, 1970: https://youtu.be/y3RCPAtmpv8.

History of Nelson, Earth Day, and archived documents: nelsonearthday.net

Download the app to learn about the source of litter: Litterati.org

TheLastPlasticStraw.org

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