There is a moment in Penn & Teller’s TV show with the unprintable title in which the camera zooms in on a small bird on land owned by a wheelchair-bound woman who wants to build a handicapped-accessible home and cannot get permission to build on the land even though Wal-Mart got permission to build on nearby land, when Penn urges her, “Shoot it, shoot it!”
The idea is that if there are no more endangered animals on the land she will be able to build a home and start showering indoors. While Penn’s dialogue is obviously intended as irony, it is well within the realm of possibility that environmental regulations applied without fairness and common sense can result in exactly what they are trying to prevent—in that case, dead birds.
So I asked some experts whether environmental regulations have helped or hurt, and whether any of them have backfired.
Bob Carlson of Green Knight Environmental said, “I think ALL environmental
regulations have helped, across the board. I was 14 when the first Earth Day occurred, and I well remember the smog in San Jose, and the horizon in the sky when going to LA, beneath which it was brown, and above which it was blue. I remember taking our trash to the “dump” on the mudflats of south SF Bay, just a huge expanse of mounds of any sort of trash you can think of. Hazardous waste wasn’t separately regulated, and regular solid waste wasn’t regulated anyway. Seagulls flying over the mess, picking out scraps, and likely spreading disease, and all that stuff polluting the bay.
The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catching fire and burning for 3 days in 1969 (the 4th incident since the ’40s), and the giant offshore oil blowout off Santa Barbara the same year, nearly as bad as Deepwater Horizon.
“We got EPA and OSHA in late 1970. Scary to think that before then, we had pretty much NO worker-protection or safety rules in place at all. I worked in the electronics industry in Silicon Valley in the mid-’70s. When I was a kid, the Santa Clara Valley was all orchards and wineries, then the transistor and later the computer-chip boom happened, and all these companies sprung up. They all poured their chemical waste in a pit out back behind the parking/delivery area, and I was usually the grunt who had to do it. As an ex-Boy Scout, and a conservation-minded guy, I was thinking that there was probably a better way to handle that stuff. Years later, most of the companies I worked for ended up on the Superfund cleanup list.
“From 1988-92, I was a state hazardous & solid waste inspector in St. Louis, trying to make companies and individuals comply with the regulations that we now had in place. Sometimes it was like pulling teeth, and other times it was just people being completely ignorant of the fact that there were regulations to follow. Since that time, I’ve done 20 years of property inspections, cleanups, and safety training for cleanup workers (asbestos, lead paint, mold, radioactives, chemicals, and basic general and construction safety). A lot of contractors are trying to get away with not training their workers so they can underbid competitors, and most of the time the clients don’t know
that the work is being conducted illegally.
One reason most people don’t realize how beneficial the environmental and safety programs are is that they don’t have the information with which to properly assess the benefits.
“That’s why public education is so important, and why I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, with Greenpeace off & on, with the state, and on my own, giving public talks for schools (K-college), industry groups, church groups, and environmental groups. One reason we are regulating new things is because certain hazards are only now being recognized, and one reason we are getting tougher with existing programs is that evidence is showing that some hazards are far worse than we used to think. The acceptable blood lead level for a child used to be higher than what would now have a worker taken off the job under a medical removal program. We got asbestos out of schools, and later added public & commercial buildings to the program. We had guidelines and now regulations on residential lead exposure to kids, and now we have guidelines on lead and mold exposure in schools.
“Believe me, we don’t want to go back to the bad old days before EPA and OSHA
just to save a few bucks, but some politicians will scream bloody murder that those agencies are bad for business. Well, having to pay to clean up stuff you illegally buried is way more expensive than paying to dispose of it properly, not even counting the fines, and your insurance going up. Same with an injured or contaminated worker: downtime, worker’s comp, insurance claims, a jump in insurance premiums, having to put all that safety equipment in that you should have years ago, and the fines, of course. All to save a few bucks NOW, and maybe go out of business before they finally catch you and try to skate on it. Not the best long term business plan, but that’s why so much outsourcing is being done, which is about as un-American as a business can get, in my opinion.”
I interviewed Mike Bellamente project director of Climate Counts, which has a scorecard which compares companies on their commitment to tackling global
Erin: How do you measure a company’s environmental scorecard?
Mike: We call it their commitment to climate leadership… we strictly relate it to climate and energy. We have a 22 criteria scorecard with 4 areas: measure greenhouse gas, reducing emissions, reporting to the public, do they take a policy stance in favor of a carbon tax or cap and trade that would level the playing field for everybody.
Erin: Are there government depts. that wouldn’t pass your test?
Mike: The Dept. of Defense is probably the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas but they also have the best regulations. They are an outlier, obviously they have a lot of tanks and a lot of travel. On the policy section of the scorecard, government agencies can’t speak in favor of policies.
Erin: Have any environmental regulations backfired?
Mike: The one that comes to mind is having the minerals and management service oversee oil and gas exploration, where they didn’t have the expertise and they had to use the exp of the oil and gas industry it was a conflict of interest and it resulted in the BP oil spill.
Erin: What’s the most successful environmental law?
Mike: The Clean Air Act, signed by Richard Nixon in 1970, it’s done the most for ozone protection, air quality, emissions, and overall public health.
Erin: What’s the number one way a business can help the environment?
Mike: It depends on what type of company it is, in the food production industry then how your farmers are growing the food, if you’re in energy then it’s how the energy is produced with renewable energy, natural gas, coal, or oil, in general it’s how the company operates in identifying hot spots or choke points if you’re having a big impact in a certain area to reduce that area, to reduce your environmental impact through reducing your greenhouse gas emissions.
For a perspective from a different industry with different issues, I interviewed Kyle Marks, founder of Retire-IT, a company that manages electronics recycling and associated compliance issues for businesses.
Erin: Do companies hire Retire-IT to comply with regulations or just because they want to?
Kyle: Both, my clients might have an initiative to be more green, they are usually more concerned with negative press if something is found in a landfill or is illegally exported than with compliance, although 24 states have landfill bans, they are mainly concerned with the PR aspects and being a good environmental steward.
Erin: Are there any regulations that most businesses are not aware of that they should be following?
Kyle: Yes, RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, requires a company maintain an inventory system to keep track of what they are getting rid of, and one of those types of equipment is computer monitors, because CRT glass has 8 lbs. of lead in it, if a company is replacing CRT monitors with flat panels. AT & T was fined $195k for not having these records. It exempts households and small businesses.
Erin: What are some of the recyclable components that you can resell at a profit?
Kyle: The best use is to resell whole working units. A two year old laptop can
be resold once it’s been sanitized and have any missing or damaged components replaced. We are a management company and have recycling companies on contract. There’s money in plastics, metals, but it takes an awful lot of effort to get the gold through urban mining. We look at it as re-use is the best option from a cost perspective. After that, whole working components can be resold as replacement parts. The third level is the pennies on the pound for the plastics. The better a recycler is at separating the components, the more money they can make at it.
Erin: Are there any regulations that make it harder to protect the environment with electronics recycling?
Kyle: No, the states are doing a good job. I don’t think turning this over to the EPA at the federal level would do much good except raising awareness. Pushing this to the federal level would probably result in more fraud. Although I do wish there were higher penalties for illegal exporters. They export containers of equipment of used electronics. About 40% of shipping containers are empty leaving the US because the US is a bigger importer so it’s cheap to export it. I do think US companies should be required to use certified recyclers, but the majority of electronics recyclers are fake and are companies that illegally export.
Erin: Anything else you’d like the public to know?
Kyle: The biggest risk with electronics recycling relates to data security and
employees stealing equipment, and that happens before the recyclers are involved.
The experts’ consensus is that environmental regulations in the US have had a lot of successes and few failures, although some aspects could still be improved.