Earth Day - Americans Take Action to Protect Our Future

Kids holding earth globe in park

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is April 22. As we stay home to save lives, we can use our unified spirit to help save the planet, as well.

In the decades before Earth Day was founded, U.S. industry boomed with progress that included large, leaded fuel-guzzling cars and factories belching pollutants. The first Earth Day brought together everyday Americans, who called for a stop to the damage to water, air, plant life, and wildlife around them.

20 Million Americans Demanded Control over Pollution

After witnessing the aftermath of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin organized the first Earth Day in 1970. It catalyzed the simmering environmental movement, launching it to the forefront of American consciousness.

Smoggy LA skyline

Photo of smoggy Los Angeles courtesy of U.S. EPA

Earth Day harnessed the passion of separate groups fighting against power plants, toxic waste sites, oil spills, car emission pollution, and the loss of forests. It pushed conservation, pollution management, and environmental stewardship to national awareness. The first Earth Day celebration acted as a cultural tipping point as 20 million Americans gathered to demand real change.

Smoke billowing from factory smoke stack

Unregulated factories bellowing toxic smoke were common before the US EPA formed in 1970.

It Didn’t Happen Overnight

  • Eight years earlier, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book that critically examined the impact of industrialization on our planet. Carson observed that the heavy use of pesticides was killing off birds, making the forests silent. Some credit her book with jump-starting the environmental movement.
  • When the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire in 1969, it spurred demand for pollution control and a Federal Clean Water Act.
Picture of earth from moon

In 1968, NASA’s space program photos of the earth from the Apollo 8 mission communicated the smallness and fragility of our planet when seen from the distance and vastness of space.

Congress Responds with the U.S. EPA

Real change came less than eight months after the first Earth Day in December 1970 when Congress created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tackle environmental issues. By the U.S. EPA’s tenth anniversary, Congress had passed significant legislation that laid the foundation for environmental regulation, including:

  • Banning the toxic pesticide DDT
  • Setting new car emissions standards and national air quality standards
  • Improving water treatment facilities
  • Addressing the practice of dumping chemicals into rivers and lakes

As a leader in environmental policy, California established its own laws to care for our state.

Photo of 1987 garbage barge in New York Harbor with Statue of Liberty in the background.

The Garbage Barge Made Us Think Seriously About Trash

In 1987 New York, like much of the country, experienced a shortage of landfill space, and local officials decided to ship 3,168 tons of trash to a North Carolina facility pilot program that would convert the trash into methane. North Carolina officials unexpectedly declined the load and the Garbage Barge, followed closely in national news coverage, continued to sail down and back up the North American coast looking for a place to unload. Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, and Belize also declined to accept it. After eight months at sea the barge returned to New York, which incinerated the trash and buried the ashes.

Finding the Best, Highest Use for Our Trash

This incident highlighted how poorly the country was managing its waste and helped usher into law California’s Integrated Waste Management Act, which established our 50 percent diversion jurisdictional requirement. The state has passed other significant legislation to recycle bottles, cans, tires, paint, motor oil, and mattresses. In 2016 a new recycling law passed to address organics waste, which makes up two-thirds of the trash sent to landfills. Reaching the law’s goals would reduce landfill methane emissions and divert 20 percent of currently disposed edible food to the one in eight Californians who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Saving Lives and Saving the Planet from Home

Earth Day has always centered on everyday Americans taking action to create cleaner air, water, and land. We can speak out to support policy that protects the environment. But we now have awareness of steps we can take in our daily lives that will save energy, reduce pollution, support renewable resources, and allow us to continue our convenient lifestyles without destroying our future.

Kids carrying recyclables

You can even take action to help the environment from the safety of your own home.

Do you:

  • Recycle
  • Use LED light bulbs
  • Have energy and water efficient appliances
  • Have a drought tolerant yard
  • Reuse water bottles
  • Compost
  • Take other action to help the Earth in your own way?

Woman using water filter and reusable bottle. Earth Days 50th birthday. hash tag how I save the planet. hash tag Cal Earth Day 50

Post a photo, story, or video with #HowISaveThePlanet on our social media showing how you make every day Earth Day in your home.

Follow CalRecycle and CalEPA on social media for fun virtual Earth Day activities and see Californians come together to save the planet as we stay home to save lives.

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— CalRecycle Public Affairs - Chris McSwain, Christina FIles, and Maria West
Posted on Apr 13, 2020

Summary: The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is April 22. As we stay home to save lives, we can use our unified spirit to help save the planet, as well.