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Speak Up For Nature: Your Guide to Environmental Issues in 2022

Follow this guide on conservation issues and act for your planet.

October 04, 2020

How to Use This Guide

The past couple of years have been a difficult and humbling reminder that no matter where you live, your life is connected to the health of the natural world. When we degrade our planet, we make it more difficult for nature to provide the food, water and air we all rely on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are better, smarter paths rooted in science and in nature’s resilience. The more we speak up about these paths to our leaders, the more positive change we can make.

The first step is to start building your understanding of top environmental and conservation issues. No, you don’t need to be able to recite the Clean Water Act by heart.

Dig into the topics in this guide until you’re comfortable with them. Then, take one (or more) of these actions...

5 Things You Can Do

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  • Talk About These Issues

Let your friends and family know what's important to you and why...maybe they'll join you in speaking up next time! Here's how to talk about climate change.

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  • Contact Your Local Leaders

Local, state and federal, ask your elected leaders to support the things you care about. They are there to represent you, and they can't do it if you don't talk to them. Learn who's representing you in your state.

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  • Contact Congress

Weigh in on critical, timely issues. You can call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or send messages on a range of issues through our Action Center.

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  • Take Our Pledge

Your voice can make a difference. Every single action you take in your community can have a real impact on how we meet the needs of our Earth and everyone on it. Add your voice.

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Share Your Thoughts

Use this guide to inform your social network and encourage them to speak up with us. There's power in numbers! You can start by sharing this message!

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Climate Change

The science is clear: the more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer it gets. The warmer it gets, the higher our seas, the more intense our storms, the less ice in our Arctic and the more stresses on wildlife. Worse, we're running out of time.

The good news? We know what we need to do and how to do it.

It comes down to switching to cleaner energy like solar, protecting and restoring natural places that can store more carbon, updating our electric grid (which is older than the TV) , and inventing the next great technology.

We put people on the moon. We made supercomputers that fit in your pocket. We are fully capable of doing all of these things, and doing them in time.

5 Ways to Speak Up

  • Share this Guide on Twitter

We can do these things if we make it known that we believe in the promise of clean energy, not only to lessen the impacts of climate change but to support jobs and economic growth.

Take action and speak up for climate solutions today. Start with these 5 actions.

Want to Dig Deeper?

Smart climate policy : Reinventing how we generate, transport and use energy resources.

Choosing Clean Energy : New technologies, better choices and lower costs.

Natural Climate Solutions : Conservation, restoration and management of natural lands to reduce emissions.

Grid modernization : Improve reliability and efficiency of our power and reduce costs.

Climate Change FAQs : The best information at hand about climate change's challenges and solutions, from scientists at The Nature Conservancy.

Black and white photo of three bison walking through steam at the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Protecting Our Nation's Land & Water

Back in 1977, conservation and recreation made up 2.5% of the federal government's total budget. Today, it's less than 1%. This doesn't make any sense given that our need for healthy land, clean water and open spaces has dramatically increased as our population has grown. 

We’ve had some policy wins (thank you, Great American Outdoors Act) , but our usage demands of lands far outpace the resources coming into them. National and state parks alone host around 1 billion visits each year.

That's hikers, hunters and anglers, but also people going to weddings, reunions and summer camp. Throw in city parks with the baseball games and soccer tournaments and visitor numbers go through the roof. 

Outside of being awe-inspiring, public lands clean our water and our air, and they protect us from coastal storms and heavy rains. They also have a massive positive impact on our economy . Outdoor recreation (often on public lands) generates $887 billion in annual consumer spending, directly supporting 7.6 million jobs.

It’s time to better care for the lands that care for us…but how?

There are plenty of ways to put money back into our lands and waters, if we make the right choices today. There's infrastructure investments that include wetlands and trees, not just levees and seawalls .  There's tax reforms that incentivize private investment in restoring wetlands and forests or donating land for conservation. But, we need to let our elected officials know this is where we want our money to go. 

Take action and speak up for our protecting our lands and waters today. Start with these 5 actions.

Want to dig deeper?

Land and Water Conservation Fund : Standing up for America’s premier conservation program.

Tropical Forest Conservation Act : Protecting tropical forests and biodiversity.

Water management systems : Ensuring sustainable water supplies during drought.

Modernizing fishing data : Using technology to build sustainable fisheries.

Investments in nature : Supporting strong conservation funding and policies.

International conservation funding : Protecting natural resources abroad through U.S. programs.

Tax incentives : Reforming tax policy to incentivize investments in conservation.

Black and white photo of a doorway with multiple hurricane flood levels marked: Matthew 2016, Arthur 2014, Dorian 2019.

Reduce Risks to Communities from Natural Disasters

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For the past several years, we've seen more frequent, more intense natural disasters ravage communities across the globe. How many “once-in-a-lifetime” disasters must we encounter…in our lifetimes? And what can we do about it?

Because climate change has made these disasters more intense, we have to prevent the worst warming from happening. And, we have to better protect our communities. To do both of those things, we can turn to nature as a part of the solution. Yes, nature!

Healthy forests filter water and can reduce the risk of megafires. Sand dunes, marshes and reefs naturally protect our coasts from the storm surge that arrives with a hurricane. You might be thinking, I see forests and sand dunes all the time, don't we have enough? 

One key word with forests is "healthy." We’ve suppressed natural fires in some forests, making them unhealthy tinderboxes. And while we may have some sandy coastlines, we’ve bulldozed our natural sand dunes and oyster reefs that were our first line of defense for our coasts. 

Nature can bounce back if we give it the chance. Just like we must invest in bridges and roads, we must invest in restoring forests and sand dunes. Nature IS infrastructure. Nature IS investment. Nature IS a solution.

And the best part is while nature reduces risk for us, it also cleans our water and air, gives wildlife a home and gives us great parks to visit. We need to ensure consideration of nature and nature-based solutions in community infrastructure projects. 

Take action and speak up for our natural infrastructure today. To get started, follow our 5 Ways to Speak Up. 

Transportation bill : Advancing nature-based solutions to infrastructure challenges

Natural infrastructure : Protecting communities from storms

Disaster relief funding : Increasing resilience when rebuilding after disasters

National Flood Insurance Program : Planning for floods to reduce risk

Water Resources Development Act : Managing waterways to benefit people and nature

Black and white photo of the Escalante River winding through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Safeguarding Core Environmental Laws

Before Congress passed environmental laws in the 1960s and 1970s, our air was more polluted than ever and rivers had so many pollutants that they actually caught fire.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle decided that our health and the health of our natural places were basic values. They worked together to create laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and others.

Air and water in this country dramatically improved. Species came back from the brink. And generations of Americans have benefited.

Our country’s successful, bipartisan environmental laws are increasingly under attack. Many proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Clean Water Act have no basis in science and would erode the laws’ fundamental protections. 

Take action and speak up for core environmental protections today. To get started, follow our 5 Ways to Speak Up. 

Foundational environmental laws : Protecting critical conservation policies that keep our water clean and our lands healthy.

Greater sage grouse :   Actions to save an iconic Western bird would also reduce threats for people

Sign Our Pledge :  Contact your elected officials and speak up for nature.  

Black and white aerial photo of a mountaintop coal mine in West Virginia, showing degraded land surrounded by forest.

Advancing Clean Energy

Humanity has been burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) at an accelerated rate for around 140 years. Scientists have known for many decades that these forms of energy emit greenhouse gases that are unnaturally warming the planet. In 2018, fossil fuels were responsible for 93% of human-caused carbon emissions in the U.S.

Transitioning to clean energies like wind and solar would make an enormous difference in helping the planet avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as extreme droughts, stronger storms and crippling coastal flooding. And yet, renewables make up less than 10% of the nation's energy mix. 

Over the last decade, the cost of solar has dropped 92% and wind turbines by nearly 50%.  In most parts of the U.S., new renewable energy costs less than coal. The time is right to make the switch.

To quicken and ease this transition, we need to make our power system more reliable by modernizing our century-old electric grid and advancing energy storage. And we need to put those turbines and panels in smart places. We don't need to knock down more forest and prairie; there's enough land already developed to meet our clean energy needs 17 times over.

The benefits of a clean energy shift go way beyond stopping climate change. The shift gives us cleaner air, more consumer choices and more jobs.

Take action and speak up for clean energy today. Start with these 5 actions.

Smart Climate Change Policy : Creating a low-carbon future that benefits everyone.

Black and white photo looking up at a power line tower from the bottom center.

Modernizing Our Electrical Grid

Our electric grid is the physical network that sends power to our homes and businesses by connecting them in real time to energy plants scattered around the country. This network, much of which is over 75 years old, wasn't built for the technologies our climate-threatened future depends on, like scattered wind turbines and rooftop solar panels. 

It's also not efficient or reliable enough for our needs. It doesn’t take a natural disaster to shut the power off. Currently, something as small as a squirrel can cause an outage that ripples into a larger blackout. 

Technological advances like the internet allow utilities and consumers to relay real time info about energy supply, demand and cost. This is a trove of useful information but its value is held back by infrastructure older than the television. We can build a modernized electrical grid that turns that information into smarter, more efficient choices that let cleaner energy sources shine.

Small changes to how and when we use energy can save us money and make a huge dent in the carbon emissions that cause climate change. 

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates they need an additional $100 billion to fully modernize the grid. That's a lot of money, but those upgrades would save consumers $2 trillion over the next 20 years.

With the current grid causing economic losses of roughly $150 billion a year, there’s never been a better time to start. Let’s bring cutting-edge technology to the grid so it pollutes less, lowers costs for customers and creates jobs.

Take action and speak up for smarter energy today. To get started, follow our 5 Ways to Speak Up. 

We no longer need to choose between abundant energy and a cleaner environment. A renewable energy revolution is happening across the United States. Learn what this means.

Your Voice is Critical

If you have a voice, you have a choice. And together, our voices are powerful. Speak up for nature, and for us all.

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Earth Day image - Earth in water drop on a leaf.

Earth Day image - Earth in water drop on a leaf. (Image credit: NOAA/iStock)

America’s water challenges: Science helps get the most out of every drop

What is the water cycle, what is drought, floods: a rising problem for the u.s., monitoring water quality, building a sustainable water future in the u.s..

The water cycle can be a complicated process, and changes to it can affect economies and businesses such as energy production, transportation, and agriculture. It can also affect a community’s health, drinking water, and recreation.

In school, you probably learned that the water cycle is how water continuously moves from the ground to the atmosphere and back again. While this is true, it can be a bit more complex than that.

Water is the only substance on Earth that naturally exists as a solid — ice or snow — a liquid, and a gas — steam or vapor. Ninety-seven percent of the total water that exists on the planet is in the ocean. Energy from the sun causes water on the surface to evaporate into water vapor — a gas. This invisible vapor rises into the atmosphere, where the air is colder, and becomes a cloud. Air currents then move these clouds all around the world.

Water drops form in the clouds and return to Earth as rain or snow. Snow will eventually melt into the ground and run off into a lake or river, which will then flow back to the ocean, starting the process again. But, snow can also become part of a glacier. Or rain can seep into the ground and become groundwater.

Water is essential to life on Earth, and freshwater is a limited resource for the world’s growing population. NOAA studies all aspects of the water cycle: ocean, weather, precipitation, climate, and ecosystems. We then convert this scientific research into products and services that communities use every day.

Drought can have a devastating effect on communities, businesses, and economies. NOAA  and its partners monitor and predict drought conditions around the country, providing decision-makers with data and information they need to develop solutions.

When you hear the word “drought,” you probably think of hot, dry weather with little to no rain or snow. And while that’s true, drought isn’t just a weather phenomenon. Droughts can also happen when supplies can’t keep up with demand.

The California drought resulted in low water levels in many major reservoirs, including Folsom Lake. The above photo shows the lake levels in 2011 in comparison with low conditions in 2014.

Droughts can happen when there’s not enough snow or rain, but they can also happen when more water is needed to irrigate crops or when water levels in aquifers, lakes, and reservoirs fall.

Annually, economic losses from drought in the United States can be in the billions of dollars. In 2015 alone, historic drought conditions in the west cost $4.5 billion in economic losses.

Communities, businesses and governments need timely and reliable drought information — based on sound science — to make smart decisions. Farmers want to know when and what to plant, and how to manage water use. Water managers need a complete picture of supply and demand. Hydroelectric power companies need to know if drought will erase too much of the water they use to generate electricity. The maritime sector needs navigation information for rivers and canals. Health officials need to communicate the effects of drought and associated heat waves to keep people safe. In order to build drought resilience, NOAA provides data and information to help communities and businesses cope with its effects. From drought monitoring to impact assessments to planning strategies, the tools, products, and services NOAA provides support the nation as it addresses current droughts and plans for the future.

Floods are the most common, and costliest, natural disaster in the United States, affecting every state and territory. NOAA provides tools, information, and services communities need to identify risks and vulnerabilities and take action.

A flood occurs somewhere in the U.S. or its territories nearly every day of the year and pose a threat to our coastal and inland communities and businesses.  On average, U.S. floods kill more people each year than any other weather event, including hurricanes and tornadoes.

The massive amount of rain that fell on the Colorado Front Range in September 2016 was devastating, with nine lives lost and property damage estimated at more than $2 billion. Please don't let this happen to you: If you receive a Wireless Emergency Alert on your mobile device, please take action immediately.

Flooding typically occurs when prolonged rain falls over several days, when intense rain falls over a short period of time, or when an ice or debris jam causes a river or stream to overflow onto the surrounding area. Flooding can also happen when levees or dams fail. The most common cause of flooding is rain or snowmelt that accumulates faster than soils can absorb it or rivers can carry it away. Approximately 75 percent of all presidential disaster declarations are associated with flooding.

NOAA’s National Weather Service has many products and services to warn against potential hazards and current conditions. And, the Coastal Flood Exposure Mapper assesses coastal hazard risks and vulnerabilities from coastal flooding events.

But floods don’t just have to occur when a severe storm rolls through your community.

NOAA research found that “nuisance flooding” events – those that cause frequent road closures, overwhelmed storm drains, and compromised infrastructure – have increased on all U.S. coasts between 300 percent and 925 percent since the 1960s. By 2050, a majority of U.S. coastal areas are likely to be threatened by 30 or more days of flooding each year due to sea level rise.

Water quality goes beyond what’s safe to drink or swim in. As demand for more and more water grows, so too will the societal, economic, and ecological consequences.  

Sustained ocean monitoring helps people in ocean and lake-dependent industries such as shipping by providing them with information to make informed decisions. Long-term, consistent monitoring improves our understanding of the ocean’s role in many of Earth’s systems. 

Satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom in Western Lake Erie. The effects of algal outbreaks include a higher cost for cities and local governments to treat their drinking water, as well as risk to swimmers in high concentration areas, and a nuisance to boaters when blooms form.

Nearly 500,000

—Toledo, Ohio residents with no safe drinking water for 3 days from a 2014 harmful algal bloom

NOAA maintains a network of  buoys ,  tidal stations , and  satellite measurements  that provide a continuous picture of the state of the ocean and Great Lakes. NOAA tracks water quality, including contaminant and nutrient data, at our National Estuarine Research Reserves, which serve as “nurseries” to many commercially valuable fisheries. NOAA scientists are combining this information with other weather and climate data to begin addressing many important questions such as the dynamics behind climate change, the effects of human activities on ecosystems and the impact of pollutants on the marine environment.

Harmful algal blooms, also known as red tides, occur when too much algae grows in the water. If they’re severe enough, these blooms can create hypoxic “dead zones” in water — where oxygen gets depleted hurting marine ecosystems. They can also produce toxins that can harm people and animals, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and affect industries that depend upon clean water such as coastal travel and tourism. Economic impacts from harmful algal bloom events are estimated to be at least $82 million per year in the United States.

The NOAA Water Initiative is driven by the urgency to meet fast-rising user needs across local, regional and national scales.

The world is facing a serious and growing water crisis that threatens our nation’s health, safety, economy, and environment.

NOAA is working to address these challenges head on with its new Water Initiative. As the only agency in the federal government charged with water prediction and warning responsibilities, NOAA is uniquely positioned to provide the tools, data, and information people need to strengthen America’s water security, reduce vulnerability to water risks, and catalyze more effective management and use of our valuable water resources.

Alpine landscape, Elk Range, Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

The initiative offers a framework for moving data to decisions, and research leading to science-based policies and solutions to meet pressing water needs.

Meeting such demands requires capturing the complete dynamic picture of water. It requires a full understanding of Earth’s hydrologic cycle and how it interacts with all of the natural and human sectors it touches. Whether the demand is for food, energy, or ecosystem services, or to mitigate dangerous weather, it’s all linked to a single hydrologic cycle. Rather than a siloed approach with just snapshot assessments, the NOAA Water Initiative will provide the comprehensive, integrated understanding of water central to protecting lives and livelihoods and safeguarding our environment and economy.

Capturing the full picture of water will yield better data, deeper insight and sharper foresight, all essential to developing the solutions needed to reduce risk, quantify uncertainty, and keep America’s communities ready, responsive, and resilient.

Environment & Natural Resources

How Americans interact with the environment and natural resources impacts everything from the economy to health.

Table of Contents

What is the state of the environment and natural resources in the us.

How is the trend of reducing emissions in the US?

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions by state, energy-related emissions worldwide.

What are the current climate change trends in the US?

Annual average temperature difference by state

How much US land is protected?

Protected lands by state

How many threatened and endangered species are in the US?

Threatened and endangered species

How much water do Americans use?

More on the environment from USAFacts

The government keeps track of information about the environment and how people impact it. This includes data about the weather, which helps us understand climate patterns , and the gases that people release into the air, called greenhouse gases. It also includes information about protecting land and species that are in danger. This page shares some of this information about the environment and natural resources to help answer basic questions about the world around us.

In 2020 , a net total of 5.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalent) was emitted in the US.

That's 15.8 metric tons per person., emissions in the us peaked in 2007..

Greenhouse gases include a group of gases — primarily carbon dioxide — that are present in the earth's atmosphere that traps heat. Greenhouse gas emissions refer to the amount of gas added by human activity. Fossil fuel burning is the primary cause of emissions, but other activities such as deforestation and industrial processes also create greenhouse gases. After rejoining the Paris Agreement — an international treaty addressing climate change — the US pledged to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions in the US by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 .

The EPA compiles and calculates emissions data from several sources, including other agencies. It also runs the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program , requiring large emission sources, fuel and industrial gas supplies, and carbon dioxide injection sites to provide the agency with data.

Since 1990, emissions in the United States have decreased. Every year since 2017, transportation has been the leading emissions sector. This includes 2020 when emissions dropped 10.6% over the previous year due to the pandemic.

In 2020 , Texas had the most greenhouse gas emissions of any state, with a net total of 786.6 million metric tons . Wyoming had the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita at 145.5 metric tons.

Population size, population density, types of economic activity, and energy sources are all factors in the amount of emissions produced. States produce different amounts of emissions per person due to these factors.

In 2021 , there were 35.3 billion metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

The Energy Information Administration tracks energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. While energy is the primary source of emissions, the data is not comprehensive of all greenhouse gas emissions. As of 2021, five countries — China, United States, India, Russia, and Japan — accounted for more than 60% of worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2022 , the average temperature in the contiguous US was 1.44°F higher than the 20th-century average of 52.02°F.

Between 1901 to 2000, the average annual temperature of the contiguous us was 52.02°f. so far, every year in the 21st century has been warmer than the 20th-century average..

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks temperature, precipitation and other weather data dating back to 1895. Compiled together, this data illustrates climate trends at various geographic levels, including cities, counties, states, the contiguous US, and the world. Average annual temperatures are calculated by compiling reading from weather stations throughout the year. This data is then compared to a benchmark from a previous average.

While there is weather variation in various times and places, most areas have been warmer in recent decades. Explore Climate in the United States to see how unusual county-level temperatures and precipitation have been in recent years.

In 2022 , 727.7 million acres of land in the US were under protection to maintain wildlife.

The total land protected accounts for 29.8% of all land in the us. that is nearly the same as the three largest states — alaska, texas, and california — combined..

The US Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database categorizing the 2.4 billion acres of land comprising the United States based on whether it is a protected area. Protected areas are defined by the agency as “dedicated to the preservation of biological diversity and to other natural (including extraction), recreation and cultural uses, managed for these purposes through legal or other effective means.”

Most of that land is owned by the federal government. Four agencies oversee most of the land: Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. The degree of protection varies. Some land protections only apply to endangered and threatened species and can allow for intensive recreation or extraction of natural resources like mining or logging. Others offer complete protection to keep nature undisturbed.

Western states have more land protected than those in the east, both in terms of area and share. Alaska has the most land under protection at over 238 million acres. Nearly 80% of land in Nevada is protected, the highest percentage of any state.

As of December 2023 , there were 939 US-based plant species and 729 US-based animal species listed as either threatened or endangered.

The Fish & Wildlife Service is the federal agency that determines which animal and plant species are considered endangered or threatened in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. Designation grants species federal protections. The agency maintains a current list of all species listed.

In 2015 , Americans were using 990.8 gallons of water per person every day.

Every five years, the US Geological Survey (USGS) releases estimates on how much water is used in the US and how. In 2015, water use was estimated to be 322 billion gallons per day, mostly used for power and irrigation. USGS plans to release 2020 estimates in 2023.

Environment articles

What are the main sources of us greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2021, 7,660 individual facilities were responsible for over 40% of total US emissions.

How many dams does America have?

The average age of a dam in the United States is 61 years, leaving them susceptible to structural failure risks.

What is the most common vehicle fuel type in each state?

Thirty-three million vehicles across the US rely on alternative fuels — which includes more than just electricity.

How dangerous is extreme heat for America’s workers?

Nearly 40 US workers die annually due to environmental heat exposure. Thousands more are injured.

Environment data

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Harvard students share thoughts, fears, plans to meet environmental challenges

For many, thinking about the world’s environmental future brings concern, even outright alarm.

There have been, after all, decades of increasingly strident warnings by experts and growing, ever-more-obvious signs of the Earth’s shifting climate. Couple this with a perception that past actions to address the problem have been tantamount to baby steps made by a generation of leaders who are still arguing about what to do, and even whether there really is a problem.

It’s no surprise, then, that the next generation of global environmental leaders are preparing for their chance to begin work on the problem in government, business, public health, engineering, and other fields with a real sense of mission and urgency.

The Gazette spoke to students engaged in environmental action in a variety of ways on campus to get their views of the problem today and thoughts on how their activities and work may help us meet the challenge.

Eric Fell and Eliza Spear

Fell is president and Spear is vice president of Harvard Energy Journal Club. Fell is a graduate student at the Harvard John H. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Spear is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

FELL:   For the past three centuries, fossil fuels have enabled massive growth of our civilization to where we are today. But it is now time for a new generation of cleaner-energy technologies to fuel the next chapter of humanity’s story. We’re not too late to solve this environmental challenge, but we definitely shouldn’t procrastinate as much as we have been. I don’t worry about if we’ll get it done, it’s the when. Our survival depends on it. At Harvard, I’ve been interested in the energy-storage problem and have been focusing on developing a grid-scale solution utilizing flow batteries based on organic molecules in the lab of Mike Aziz . We’ll need significant deployment of batteries to enable massive penetration of renewables into the electrical grid.

SPEAR: Processes leading to greenhouse-gas emissions are so deeply entrenched in our way of life that change continues to be incredibly slow. We need to be making dramatic structural changes, and we should all be very worried about that. In the Harvard Energy Journal Club, our focus is energy, so we strive to learn as much as we can about the diverse options for clean-energy generation in various sectors. A really important aspect of that is understanding how much of an impact those technologies, like solar, hydro, and wind, can really have on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s not always as much as you’d like to believe, and there are still a lot of technical and policy challenges to overcome.

I can’t imagine working on anything else, but the question of what I’ll be working on specifically is on my mind a lot. The photovoltaics field is at a really exciting point where a new technology is just starting to break out onto the market, so there are a lot of opportunities for optimization in terms of performance, safety, and environmental impact. That’s what I’m working on now [in Roy Gordon’s lab ] and I’m really enjoying it. I’ll definitely be in the renewable-energy technology realm. The specifics will depend on where I see the greatest opportunity to make an impact.

Photo (left) courtesy of Kritika Kharbanda; photo by Tiera Satchebell.

Kritika Kharbanda ’23 and Laier-Rayshon Smith ’21

Kharbanda is with the Harvard Student Climate Change Conference, Harvard Circular Economy Symposium. Smith is a member of Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard. Both are students at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

KHARBANDA: I come from a country where the most pressing issues are, and will be for a long time, poverty, food shortage, and unemployment born out of corruption, illiteracy, and rapid gentrification. India was the seventh-most-affected country by climate change in 2019. With two-thirds of the population living in rural areas with no access to electricity, even the notion of climate change is unimaginable.

I strongly believe that the answer lies in the conjugality of research and industry. In my field, achieving circularity in the building material processes is the burning concern. The building industry currently contributes to 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, of which 38 percent is contributed by the embedded or embodied energy used for the manufacturing of materials. A part of the Harvard i-lab, I am a co-founder of Cardinal LCA, an early stage life-cycle assessment tool that helps architects and designers visualize this embedded energy in building materials, saving up to 46 percent of the energy from the current workflow. This venture has a strong foundation as a research project for a seminar class I took at the GSD in fall 2020, instructed by Jonathan Grinham. I am currently working as a sustainability engineer at Henning Larsen architects in Copenhagen while on a leave of absence from GSD. In the decades to come, I aspire to continue working on the embodied carbon aspect of the building industry. Devising an avant garde strategy to record the embedded carbon is the key. In the end, whose carbon is it, anyway?

SMITH: The biggest challenges are areas where the threat of climate change intersects with environmental justice. It is important that we ensure that climate-change mitigation and adaptation strategies are equitable, whether it is sea-level rise or the increase in urban heat islands. We should seek to address the threats faced by the most vulnerable communities — the communities least able to resolve the threat themselves. These often tend to be low-income communities and communities of color that for decades have been burdened with bearing the brunt of environmental health hazards.

During my time at Harvard, I have come to understand how urban planning and design can seek to address this challenge. Planners and designers can develop strategies to prioritize communities that are facing a significant climate-change risk, but because of other structural injustices may not be able to access the resources to mitigate the risk. I also learned about climate gentrification: a phenomenon in which people in wealthier communities move to areas with lower risks of climate-change threats that are/were previously lower-income communities. I expect to work on many of these issues, as many are connected and are threats to communities across the country. From disinvestment and economic extraction to the struggle to find quality affordable housing, these injustices allow for significant disparities in life outcomes and dealing with risk.

Lucy Shaw ’21

Shaw is co-president of the HBS Energy and Environment Club. She is a joint-degree student at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.

SHAW: I want to see a world where climate change is averted and the environment preserved, without it being at the expense of the development and prosperity of lower-income countries. We have, or are on the cusp of having, many of the financial and technological tools we need to reduce emissions and environmental damage from a wide array of industries, such as agriculture, energy, and transport. The challenge I am most worried about is how we balance economic growth and opportunity with reducing humanity’s environmental impact and share this burden equitably across countries.

I came to Harvard as a joint degree student at the Kennedy School and Business School to be able to see this challenge from two different angles. In my policy-oriented classes, we learned about the opportunities and challenges of global coordination among national governments — the difficulty in enforcing climate agreements, and in allocating and agreeing on who bears the responsibility and the costs of change, but also the huge potential that an international framework with nationally binding laws on environmental protection and carbon-emission reduction could have on changing the behavior of people and businesses. In my business-oriented classes, we learned about the power of business to create change, if there is a driven leadership. We also learned that people and businesses respond to incentives, and the importance of reducing cost of technologies or increasing the cost of not switching to more sustainable technologies — for example, through a tax. After graduate school, I plan to join a leading private equity investor in their growing infrastructure team, which will equip me with tools to understand what makes a good investment in infrastructure and what are the opportunities for reducing the environmental impact of infrastructure while enhancing its value. I hope to one day be involved in shaping environmental and development policy, whether it is on a national or international level.

Photo (left) by Tabitha Soren.

Quinn Lewis ’23 and Suhaas Bhat ’24

Both are with the Student Climate Change Conference, Harvard College.

LEWIS:   When I was a kid, I imagined being an adult as a future with a stable house, a fun job, and happy kids. That future didn’t include wildfires that obscured the sun for months, global water shortages, or billionaires escaping to terrariums on Mars. The threats are so great and so assured by inaction that it’s very hard for me to justify doing anything else with my time and attention because very little will matter if there’s 1 billion climate refugees and significant portions of the continental United States become uninhabitable for human life.

For whatever reason, I still feel a great deal of hope around giving it a shot. I can’t imagine not working to mitigate the climate crisis. Media and journalism will play a huge role in raising awareness, as they generate public pressure that can sway those in power. Another route for change is to cut directly to those in power and try to convince them of the urgency of the situation. Given that I am 22 years old, it is much easier to raise public awareness or work in media and journalism than it is to sit down with some of the most powerful people on the planet, who tend to be rather busy. At school, I’m on a team that runs the University-wide Student Climate Change Conference at Harvard, which is a platform for speakers from diverse backgrounds to discuss the climate crisis and ways students and educators can take immediate and effective action. Also, I write about and research challenges and solutions to the climate crisis through the lenses of geopolitics and the global economy, both as a student at the College and as a case writer at the Harvard Business School. Outside of Harvard, I have worked in investigative journalism and at Crooked Media, as well as on political campaigns to indirectly and directly drive urgency around the climate crisis.

BHAT:   The failure to act on climate change in the last few decades, despite mountains of scientific evidence, is a consequence of political and institutional cowardice. Fossil fuel companies have obfuscated, misinformed, and lobbied for decades, and governments have failed to act in the best interests of their citizens. Of course, the fight against climate change is complex and multidimensional, requiring scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial expertise, but it will ultimately require systemic change to allow these talents to shine.

At Harvard, my work on climate has been focused on running the Harvard Student Climate Conference, as well as organizing for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. My hope for the Climate Conference is to provide students access to speakers who have dedicated their careers to all aspects of the fight against climate change, so that students interested in working on climate have more direction and inspiration for what to do with their careers. We’ve featured Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, members of the Sunrise Movement, and the CEO of Impossible Foods as some examples of inspiring and impactful people who are working against climate change today.

I organize for FFDH because I believe that serious institutional change is necessary for solving the climate crisis and also because of a sort of patriotism I have for Harvard. I deeply respect and care for this institution, and genuinely believe it is an incredible force for good in the world. At the same time, I believe Harvard has a moral duty to stand against the corporations whose misdeeds and falsification of science have enabled the climate crisis.

Libby Dimenstein ’22

Dimenstein is co-president of Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society.

DIMENSTEIN:   Climate change is the one truly existential threat that my generation has had to face. What’s most scary is that we know it’s happening. We know how bad it will be; we know people are already dying from it; and we still have done so little relative to the magnitude of the problem. I also worry that people don’t see climate change as an “everyone problem,” and more as a problem for people who have the time and money to worry about it, when in reality it will harm people who are already disadvantaged the most.

I want to recognize Professor Wendy Jacobs, who recently passed away. Wendy founded HLS’s fantastic Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and she also created an interdisciplinary class called the Climate Solutions Living Lab. In the lab, groups of students drawn from throughout the University would conduct real-world projects to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The class was hard, because actually reducing greenhouse gases is hard, but it taught us about the work that needs to be done. This summer I’m interning with the Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Clean Air Team, and I anticipate a lot of my work will revolve around the climate. After graduating, I’m hoping to do environmental litigation, either with a governmental division or a nonprofit, but I also have an interest in policy work: Impact litigation is fascinating and important, but what we need most is sweeping policy change.

Candice Chen ’22 and Noah Secondo ’22

Chen and Secondo are co-directors of the Harvard Environmental Action Committee. Both attend Harvard College.

SECONDO: The environment is fundamental to rural Americans’ identity, but they do not believe — as much as urban Americans — that the government can solve environmental problems. Without the whole country mobilized and enthusiastic, from New Hampshire to Nebraska, we will fail to confront the climate crisis. I have no doubt that we can solve this problem. To rebuild trust between the U.S. government and rural communities, federal departments and agencies need to speak with rural stakeholders, partner with state and local leaders, and foreground rural voices. Through the Harvard College Democrats and the Environmental Action Committee, I have contributed to local advocacy efforts and creative projects, including an environmental art publication.

I hope to work in government to keep the policy development and implementation processes receptive to rural perspectives, including in the environmental arena. At every level of government, if we work with each other in good faith, we will tackle the climate crisis and be better for it.

CHEN: I’m passionate about promoting more sustainable, plant-based diets. As individual consumers, we have very little control over the actions of the largest emitters, massive corporations, but we can all collectively make dietary decisions that can avoid a lot of environmental degradation. Our food system is currently very wasteful, and our overreliance on animal agriculture devastates natural ecosystems, produces lots of potent greenhouse gases, and creates many human health hazards from poor animal-waste disposal. I feel like the climate conversation is often focused around the clean energy transition, and while it is certainly the largest component of how we can avoid the worst effects of global warming, the dietary conversation is too often overlooked. A more sustainable future also requires us to rethink agriculture, and especially what types of agriculture our government subsidizes. In the coming years, I hope that more will consider the outsized environmental impact of animal agriculture and will consider making more plant-based food swaps.

To raise awareness of the environmental benefits of adopting a more plant-based diet, I’ve been involved with running a campaign through the Environmental Action Committee called Veguary. Veguary encourages participants to try going vegetarian or vegan for the month of February, and participants receive estimates for how much their carbon/water/land use footprints have changed based on their pledged dietary changes for the month.

Photo (left) courtesy of Cristina Su Liu.

Cristina Su Liu ’22 and James Healy ’21

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Liu is with Harvard Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students. Healy is with the Harvard Student Climate Change Conference. Both are students at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

HEALY:   As a public health student I see so many environmental challenges, be it the 90 percent of the world who breathe unhealthy air, or the disproportionate effects of extreme heat on communities of color, or the environmental disruptions to the natural world and the zoonotic disease that humans are increasingly being exposed to. But the central commonality at the heart of all these crises is the climate crisis. Climate change, from the greenhouse-gas emissions to the physical heating of the Earth, is worsening all of these environmental crises. That’s why I call the climate crisis the great exacerbator. While we will all feel the effects of climate change, it will not be felt equally. Whether it’s racial inequity or wealth inequality, the climate crisis is widening these already gaping divides.

Solutions may have to be outside of our current road maps for confronting crises. I have seen the success of individual efforts and private innovation in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, from individuals wearing masks and social distancing to the huge advances in vaccine development. But for climate change, individual efforts and innovation won’t be enough. I would be in favor of policy reform and coalition-building between new actors. As an overseer of the Harvard Student Climate Change Conference and the Harvard Climate Leaders Program, I’ve aimed to help mobilize Harvard’s diverse community to tackle climate change. I am also researching how climate change makes U.S. temperatures more variable, and how that’s reducing the life expectancies of Medicare recipients. The goal of this research, with Professor Joel Schwartz, will be to understand the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities. I certainly hope to expand on these themes in my future work.

SU LIU:  A climate solution will need to be a joint effort from the whole society, not just people inside the environmental or climate circles. In addition to cross-sectoral cooperation, solving climate change will require much stronger international cooperation so that technologies, projects, and resources can be developed and shared globally. As a Chinese-Brazilian student currently studying in the United States, I find it very valuable to learn about the climate challenges and solutions of each of these countries, and how these can or cannot be applied in other settings. China-U.S. relations are tense right now, but I hope that climate talks can still go ahead since we have much to learn from each other.

Personally, as a student in environmental health at [the Harvard Chan School], I feel that my contribution to addressing this challenge until now has been in doing research, learning more about the health impacts of climate change, and most importantly, learning how to communicate climate issues to people outside climate circles. Every week there are several climate-change events at Harvard, where a different perspective on climate change is addressed. It has been very inspiring for me, and I feel that I could learn about climate change in a more holistic way.

Recently, I started an internship at FXB Village, where I am working on developing and integrating climate resilience indicators into their poverty-alleviation program in rural communities in Puebla, Mexico. It has been very rewarding to introduce climate-change and climate-resilience topics to people working on poverty alleviation and see how everything is interconnected. When we address climate resilience, we are also addressing access to basic services, livelihoods, health, equity, and quality of life in general. This is where climate justice is addressed, and that is a very powerful idea.

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Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?

recycling center

Recycling in the U.S. is broken. In 1960, Americans generated 2.68 pounds of garbage per day; by 2017, it had grown to an average of 4.51 pounds . And while many Americans dutifully put items into their recycling bins, much of it does not actually end up being recycled. This post will explain why, and talk about potential solutions.

Why recycling isn’t working in the U.S.

Many recyclables become contaminated when items are placed in the wrong bin, or when a dirty food container gets into the recycling bin. Contamination can prevent large batches of material from being recycled. Other materials can’t be processed in certain facilities.

Moreover, many items that are collected, such as plastic straws and bags, eating utensils, yogurt and takeout containers often cannot be recycled. They usually end up being incinerated, deposited in landfills or washed into the ocean. While incineration is sometimes used to produce energy, waste-to-energy plants have been associated with toxic emissions in the past.

tractor in landfill

Landfills emit carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants into the air. And our oceans are drowning in plastic waste.

China’s ban

For decades, China handled the recycling of almost half of the world’s discarded materials, because its manufacturing sector was booming and needed these materials to feed it. In 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of plastic, paper and metals to China. In actuality, 30 percent of these mixed recyclables were ultimately contaminated by non-recyclable material, were never recycled, and ended up polluting China’s countryside and oceans. An estimated 1.3 to 1.5 million metric tons of plastic found its way into the ocean off China’s coast each year.

recycling in china

In 2018, China’s National Sword policy banned the import of most plastics and other materials that were not up to new, more stringent purity standards. The U.S. then sent its plastic waste to other countries, shipping 68,000 containers to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand in 2018. When these countries later instituted bans on imported plastic waste, the U.S. diverted its waste to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal — countries with cheap labor and lax environmental rules. The U.S. still ships over 1 million metric tons a year of plastic waste abroad, often to countries already overwhelmed by it. Experts estimate that 20 to 70 percent of plastic intended for recycling overseas is unusable and is ultimately discarded. One study found that the plastic waste exported to Southeast Asia resulted in contaminated water, crop death, respiratory illnesses due to toxic fumes from incineration, and organized crime.

When the market disappeared

Without the Chinese market for plastic — as well as for some types of cardboard, paper, and glass — the U.S. recycling industry was upended.

“The economics are challenging,” said Nilda Mesa, director of the Urban Sustainability and Equity Planning Program at the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development. “If there is not a market for the recycled material, then the numbers do not work for these facilities as well as cities, as they need to sell the materials to recoup their costs of collection and transportation, and even then it’s typically only a portion of the costs.”

waste overflowing from trash can

As a result, U.S. processing facilities and municipalities have either had to pay more to recycle or simply discard the waste. In 2017, Stamford, CT made $95,000 by selling recyclables; in 2018, it had to pay $700,000 to have them removed. Bakersfield, CA used to earn $65 a ton from its recyclables; after 2018, it had to pay $25 a ton to get rid of them. Franklin, NH had been able to sell its recyclables for $6 a ton; now the transfer station charges $125 a ton to recycle the material or $68 a ton to incinerate it.

Municipalities that couldn’t afford to pay more have cut back on their recycling programs. Over 70 ended curbside recycling (though several have been reinstituted after public protests), and many drop-off sites closed; some programs increased costs to residents while others limited what materials they would accept.

The state of U.S. recycling today

Because U.S. recycling was dependent on China for so many years, our domestic recycling infrastructure was never developed, so there was no economical or efficient way to handle recycling when the market disappeared.

“The way the system is configured right now, recycling is a service that competes — and unsurprisingly often loses — for local funding that is also needed for schools, policing, et cetera,” said Stephanie Kersten-Johnston, an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Master’s Program and director of circular ventures at The Recycling Partnership . “Without dedicated investment, recycling infrastructure won’t be sufficient. In addition, we need to resolve the simple math equation that currently exists — when it’s cheap to landfill, recycling will not be ‘worthwhile’ so we need to start to recognize what landfill really is: a waste of waste!”

recycling center in baltimore

Making the situation more complicated—the U.S. does not have a federal recycling program. “Recycling decision-making is currently in the hands of 20,000 communities in the U.S., all of which make their own choices about whether and what to recycle,” said Kersten-Johnston. “Many stakeholders with many different interests converge around this topic and we need to find common ground and goals to avoid working against one another. That means companies coming together with communities, recyclers, haulers, manufacturers and consumers to try to make progress together.”

What actually gets recycled?

According to the EPA , of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste generated by Americans in 2017, only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted.

cubes of shredded paper

Sixty-six percent of discarded paper and cardboard was recycled, 27 percent of glass, and 8 percent of plastics were recycled. Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely; paper can be recycled five to seven times before it’s too degraded to be made into “new” paper; plastic can only be recycled once or twice—and usually not into a food container—since the polymers break down in the recycling process.

Single-stream recycling, where all recyclables are placed into the same bin, has made recycling easier for consumers, but results in about one-quarter of the material being contaminated.

Plastic recycling presents the biggest challenge because the plastic is often contaminated by other materials and consumer goods companies are reluctant to buy recycled plastic unless it is as pure as virgin plastic.

plastic bottles

Although companies that make and sell plastic push the idea that recycling is the answer to the plastic pollution problem, six times more plastic waste is incinerated than is recycled. The CEO of Recology, a company that collects and processes municipal solid waste, wrote in a 2018 op-ed , “The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic—and too many different types of plastics being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material.” Moreover, because of the glut of natural gas and the resulting boom in U.S. petrochemical production , virgin plastic is now cheaper than recycled plastic.

A recent Greenpeace report found that some PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic bottles are the only types of plastic that are truly recyclable in the U.S. today; and yet only 29 percent  of PET bottles are collected for recycling, and of this, only 21 percent of the bottles are actually made into recycled materials due to contamination. China used to accept plastics #3 through #7, which were mostly burned for fuel. Today #3 – #7 plastics may be collected in the U.S., but they are not typically recycled; they usually end up incinerated, buried in landfills or exported. In fact Greenpeace is asking companies such as Nestle, Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever that label their products made with #3 -#7 plastics as “recyclable” to stop or it will file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for mislabeling.

Textiles are another large source of waste. Only 15.2 percent of textiles were recycled in the U.S. in 2017. And while the fashion industry is trying to refashion old clothing and vintage items are now chic, this movement is not big enough to solve the problem.

dumpster full of bagels

Food waste is by tonnage the most significant source of waste, according to Mesa. “Some cities and countries in northern Europe have had success with using organic waste as a source of energy. And while waste to energy facilities exist in the U.S., there is a history of some of these facilities in the past being sited near vulnerable populations,” she said. “While the technology (including air pollution measures) has advanced, it still raises questions. As technology advances and as the search for green energy ramps up in U.S. cities, however, this may become a more appealing option for cities and regions in the future.”

What are the solutions?

The global market for high quality recycled materials is actually growing. Global demand for paper and cardboard is expected to grow by 1.2 percent a year, mainly due to the growth in e-commerce and the need for packaging; recycled paper will be essential to meeting this demand.

paper and cardboard recycling

And the global plastic recycling market is projected to grow by $14.74 billion between now and 2024. As a result, companies are trying to enhance the quality of recycled plastic as well as incorporate it into the plastic products they produce. Plastic waste, especially PET and HDPE, is being recycled into packaging, building and constructions, electronics, automotive, furniture, textiles and more.

The key to fixing recycling in the U.S. is developing the domestic market. This means improving the technology for sorting and recovering materials, incorporating more recycled material into products, getting these products into the marketplace and creating demand for them.

“What has worked,” said Mesa, “is where institutions and cities require a percentage of recycled content for their purchasing, for example, requiring 100 percent recycled paper, or recycled materials in building materials…A growth in demand for recycled content, or reused content can be driven by changes in regulations and purchasing commitments, and their enforcement.” Another effective measure, she added, is for institutions or governments to limit the disposal of construction and demolition debris, to encourage recycling instead. “These both set up a stable system that then allows for the growth of markets for reused and recycled materials, as well as the facilities that can process them,” said Mesa.

If recycling processors have a market where they can sell their material, they will be motivated to invest in better equipment that can sort materials to minimize contamination, and it will make economic sense to expand recycling programs.

Best practices

Here are some places where recycling is working relatively well.

San Francisco , which has set a zero waste goal for 2020, keeps 80 percent of its waste out of landfills. The city requires residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams, employing blue bins for recyclables, green for compostables (the city diverts 80 percent of its food waste) and black for material intended for the landfill. Food vendors have to use compostable or recyclable containers, and every event in San Francisco must offer recycling and composting. Starting July 1, stores will charge 25 cents for checkout bags, including bags for takeout and delivery.

Los Angeles recycles almost 80 percent of its waste, with a goal to recycle 90 percent by 2025. Restaurants are required to compost their food waste, and companies get a break on their taxes based on how much they recycle. In addition, an initiative called “Rethink LA” helps residents understand the importance of recycling and composting.

In Austin, TX , which is aiming to divert 75 percent of its waste by this year, all properties must provide recycling and composting to their tenants and employees. Large construction projects must reuse or recycle at least half of their debris.

Germany recycles 56 percent of its trash by providing different colored bins for different colored glass and other items. The country uses the Green Dot recycling system: When a green dot is placed on packaging material, it indicates that the manufacturer contributes to the cost of collection and recycling. These manufacturers pay a license fee to a waste collection company that is calculated on weight in order to get their packaging picked up, sorted and recycled.

South Korea recycles about 54 percent of its trash, including 95 percent of its food waste. The country dramatically cut food waste by providing bins for organic waste that are weighed — the more they weigh, the more residents are charged. Recyclables are picked up for free, but there is a charge for disposal of other trash, determined by its weight.

colorful recycling bins

Other countries with good recycling rates are Wales, Switzerland, Austria, Japan and Taiwan. Japan requires residents to wash items, remove labels, and fold cartons, and waste must be labeled so that individuals are held accountable. Residents of the tiny village of Kamikatsu  sort their trash into 34 categories, with the goal to achieve zero waste this year.

Taiwan recycles 55 percent of its residential and commercial trash, and 77 percent of its industrial waste. Yellow trucks go through neighborhoods playing music to let residents know it’s time to dump their trash; white trucks follow behind carrying 13 different bins into which residents sort their recyclables. Recyclables are then sent to companies like Miniwiz that transform them into building materials. In addition, smart recycling booths accept bottles and cans in exchange for added value to transit cards.

Strategies that work

Minimizing contamination of recyclables and the flow of recyclable items to landfills requires consumer awareness. Community events, campaigns, and brochures are necessary to educate residents about the importance of reusing, recycling and composting, as well as how to properly recycle in their particular community. They need to understand which items are actually recyclable and which are not.

Incentives and penalties

These can be used to promote recycling and waste reduction. For example, residents and companies can be incentivized to reduce waste if they have to pay more for discarding more. Additional payments or a contract extension can encourage waste contractors to divert more waste.

Legislation

In 2020, more than 37  states are considering over 250 bills to deal with plastic pollution and recycling, according to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. These include bans on single-use plastic and food ware, single-use bag and polystyrene bans; bottle bills; holding producers responsible for product disposal; and other recycling laws.

Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) recently introduced the Break Free From Plastic Act into Congress. The bill includes bans on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene; requirements for companies that make packaging or food ware to be responsible for their waste collection; a national container deposit system that would charge a refundable deposit on all single-use beverage bottles; standardized labeling on recycling bins; and a suspension on permits for the building of new plastic-producing plants .

Eight states have bans on single-use plastic bags. Jennie Romer, founder of  PlasticBagLaws.org , says that hybrid bans that ban thin plastic carryout bags and also impose a charge for paper or any other bags are the most effective. Chicago’s hybrid ban cut plastic bag use in half; and in San Jose, the hybrid ban with a 10-cent charge for paper bags led to an increase in reusable bag use from 4 percent to 62 percent. On March 1, NYC instituted a plastic bag ban that charges 5 cents for taking a paper carry out bag.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) requires companies that make products to be responsible—financially or physically—for their management and disposal at the end of their lives. Companies can do this through recycling or reusing products, buying them back, or they may hire a third party to deal with their waste management. EPR shifts the financial burden from local governments to manufacturers, which also motivates companies to design and produce more sustainable products. The EU has had an EPR program on packaging since 1994.

recycling return station

Container deposit laws or “bottle bills” which charge a refundable deposit on all single-use beverage bottles, whether plastic, metal or glass, “are the single most effective means of boosting recycling,” according to the Sierra Club. Ten states already have bottle bills, and six more are considering them.

Many companies are trying to come up with better ways of dealing with waste, from chemical recycling, which uses chemicals or high heat to turn plastic into its original components for reuse, to new ways to make recycling simpler.

Oregon-based Agilyx breaks down hard-to-recycle and contaminated plastics to their molecular level; it can then be made into high-grade synthetic oils, chemicals and other plastics. The company says all the recycled plastic can be reused an infinite number of times.

A Seattle recycling service called Ridwell  collects hard-to-discard items such as plastic wrap and bags, light bulbs and electronics, which Seattle no longer collects. For a fee of $10 to $14 a month, customers get a bi-weekly pickup of these items. Ridwell then distributes the items to other places for recycling, reuse or destruction. In 2019, the company diverted 170,000 pounds of waste from the landfill.

PureCycle Technologies  has patented a process to remove the color, odor and contaminants from polypropylene plastic (used for bottle caps) and turn it into a “virgin-like resin.”

solving environmental problems in the us

Until now, only one percent of polypropylene has been recycled, even though it is the second most common plastic in the world. It has mostly been recycled into black or gray products, such as benches or car parts, but once purified, it has the potential for many more applications.

Loop  creates reusable and returnable packaging for consumer products. Items in the Loop store are shipped to buyers in containers for which they pay a deposit; when the containers are returned to Loop in the reusable shipping box, buyers receive a full refund. Carrefour grocery stores are using Loop in France, and Kroger’s and Walgreen’s in the U.S. will soon sign on.

What you can do

“It will only ever make economic sense to recycle a small subset of materials, which means we will have to look beyond recycling alone to solve for our broader waste,” said Kersten-Johnson. “We need to tap into new business models that allow us to reduce our consumption in the first place, and re-use materials where we can. This can include things like rental or service models. But while we work to scale these types of solutions, we can’t take our eyes off recycling.”

  • Learn which recycling symbols correspond to which types of plastic so you know what is recyclable
  • Understand what items and materials your community recycles
  • Keep a recycling bin handy
  • Rinse out bottles, cans and food containers before recycling
  • Buy recycled products or items incorporating recycled material
  • Buy and store products in jars, not plastic containers
  • Buy the biggest size possible and apportion it out at home
  • Shop farmers’ markets and bulk food aisles
  • Store produce in reusable produce bags
  • Don’t buy single-use items
  • Urge your representatives to introduce waste-reducing legislation

Here are more tips from the Natural Resources Defense Council .

China’s decision to stop accepting the world’s contaminated materials may ultimately prove to be a boon to the U.S. recycling industry. In a CNBC report , Ron Gonen, CEO of Closed Loop Partners, said, “Long term, it’s going to be a major benefit because it’s going to force the industry to be much much more efficient, and produce a much higher quality product that will actually be able to be used in domestic manufacturing supply chains.” According to the report, the U.S. has invested over $4.4 billion in new and retooled facilities that recover materials; these improvements include advanced technologies such as robotics and optical sorting to deal with the material from mixed streams. Gonen said, “It’s forcing everybody to focus on efficiency, product design, and reuse of material.”

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guest

I am so glad to read this article. It’s very informative, and answers questions I’ve had re: recycling for months. I have a hard time understanding why more states will not initiate a ban on single use plastic bags … this is unconscionable! Please do what you can to put the pressure on stores and states and people to reduce the use of toxic plastics! as well as reduce the use of our world’s resources as a whole.

Victor Villegas

Apply pressure locally and have your own community push hard with local officials on franchise owners to stop ordering and supplying bags. We did it in Carpinteria California and you cannot get one use plastic bags at any of our stores… if we have a solution, bring your own reusable bags, why would it not be immediately implemented. Its a simple solution in front of our eyes to make a big step and we don’t use it? Not logical at all; especially if our rationalizing for keeping them is because if the convenience of customers. Bullshit

Don Gordon

Judith, I am with you completely. I don’t understand why we are still doing this. Somebody needs to make a stink about it. Maybe I will!

Emily B

Unfortunately, the plastics industry has limited many cities and municipalities from enacting single-use plastic bans or bag taxes by lobbying for pre-emption laws at the state level. https://www.plasticbaglaws.org/preemption .

See also this National Geographic article: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/map-shows-the-complicated-landscape-of-plastic-bans

clyde

i concur the federals are incompetent, plastic bags swirling in the south pacific is the obligation of the oil and gas company’s that make the bags.

Jennifer kuemin

Hi my name is jenny since the cronovirus has started lots of recycled cans have piled up . i was hoping to find a solution since all reclying bins are closed down .. Could it be possosible to make one big location spread out through the nation were it would be safe enough for people to come and recycle there cans and maybe even juice bottle and laundry bottles ect . thank you

Anonymous

Great article! I wish more people knew about it for bigger impacts, and i’m going to do just that! I don’t know the details yet but I’ve created an interesting poster that’s sure to catch attention, and it’s referring this site! It’s not much but this is just a first for me! Good luck! -Fifth grader, 11

Peter L

The solution is partly a mandated return to (biodegradable) paper and cardboard packaging. Also, quite a few years ago I read that a biodegradable plastic (made from living plants, I believe) had been developed in Japan. I’m not certain, but I think biodegradable plastic is currently being put to limited use. There could be more research in developing a biodegradable plastic equivalent to some of the petrochemical plastic that is overwhelmingly put to use today. Good luck in getting the plastics industry to do this rather than doing what is probably most profitable for them.

John Doe

I very much agree. U S U

Barry

Plastic #8 is plant based and compostable at industrial composting facilities. Some ketchup bottles are #8 for example.

Laura U

Biodegradable plastic is justified as a bad solution by, among other things, the energy required to produce it, the unfavorable environmental effects of production and the large carbon footprint.

Experts reject the use of biodegradable plastic – “It could be reasonable to even ban consumer use”.

Jon Thaler

This article is not entirely accurate. I live in Urbana, IL, where we have a comprehensive recycling program. After I read this blog post, I reached out to them about resin codes #3-7. They tell me that *everything* is recycled (not dumped or burned): Here’s the email I received:

———–

Good afternoon. Thanks for your questions! Yes, Urbana’s U-Cycle programs accept all food and beverage 1-7 plastics containers, and they are being recycled. There was problems with plastic recycling due to the China ban for municipalities on the East and West coasts, but fortunately in the Midwest we have domestic markets for these plastics! Once our contractor sorts and bales the plastics they are sold to specific regional brokers. The brokers sell the #1 plastics (PET like soda bottles) to Shaw Industries in Georgia to make eco-friendly carpet! The manufacturers shred or pelletize the plastic containers and use that as a feedstock to make new products! Milk jugs, (#2 HDPE) are sent to the Chicago area to be made into park benches.

The question you are referring to – The #3-7 plastics Urbana accepts in our program are sent as a mixed load to a manufacturer in Haviland Ohio to make drainage pipes. Those pipes are used for farm fields, highways and commercial applications. We are fortunate in the U-Cycle program/Midwest to have a market for 3-7 plastics.

Please continue to place your #3-7 plastic food and beverage containers in your U-Cart! We do recycle them! And it makes a difference!

We do not ship our plastics to other countries because it would not be economically feasible. We are fortunate to have the domestic markets in Georgia, Ohio and Chicago area for our plastics. We do not landfill any plastics other than plastics that are not accepted in the U-Cycle program such as plastics toys, plastic clothes hangers, etc. that I find in carts on occasion. Those plastics we do not have a market for so we encourage residents to read our recycling guide to ensure what they are placing in their U-Cart is acceptable.

If anything were to change regarding the plastics markets I would notify Urbana residents. I appreciate you taking the time to ask these questions.

Sarah Fecht

Thanks for pointing that out, Jon. We have updated the story accordingly. However, many places do not recycle those types of plastics, and adding them to the bin would counterproductive to recycling. It’s best to check in with your local recycling facility to see what they recommend.

David S

The beginning of the end of recycling was the switch to single stream collection. The mixing and compaction of multiple types of recyclables along with the unavoidable mix of non recyclables made, and makes, the separation into quality materials mills need to make the end products both difficult and expensive. When I was in the industry a single plastic sleeve found in an entire 20 ton load of reclyclable newspaper was cause for rejection if the entire load. Today the contamination rate can we well into double digit %’s. What was good for the collectors and municipalities is/was terrible for the end users. Fix that and the industry will recover quite nicely.

Darryl Forest

Great article and informative. I want help reduce waste and also help clean up the environment. I am hoping that the new administration will really push for change.

Bill

They should put a deposit on all bottles etc. like when I was a kid, we would pick the bottles up for the deposit on them , that was our movie money , I think that people would be more apt to return bottles etc. and if not someone would , you drive down some roads and streets , they are just littered with bottles and containers !

Alia Rain Smith

Thank you so much for writing this intelligent and well researched article!

Lawrence M

i could be wrong but the article seems to be saying that Robots are the answer to the recycling problem? people are the problem. #1 Thy do not clean or separate the materials correctly. # 2 people charge more than they are worth. I am sure a the engineers can set up a fully automated recycling plant sensors can sort, double check then sort. This would solve the short and the long term problem. Robots do not need vacations, breaks, show up for work 24 hours. People do not use the recycling bens correctly and are part of the problem and not part of the solution. A large number of people do not have clue what should even go into the recycling bens. just using numbers but if it cost $700,000.00 for the recycling and the materials after being cleaned, sorted and packaged are sold for $90,000.00?? Society is paying a high price and not getting any benefit. Robots to the rescue.

Nope. The problem is the tiny resale market for the properly sorted items, not the issue of sortation. Businesses aren’t buying that much recycled materials, especially recycled plastics.

Jenna

I’m sorry but I think you’re both wrong. The problem is the companies that are making and then pumping out these single use containers. They are the issue and they need to be stopped!

Mike Pavilon

Most information I’ve seen in long time and really hope we can get that Plastic Monkey off our backs

Brian Coyle

It pains me to say this, but my son worked in SF restaurant kitchens prior to the pandemic, and watched the “3-bin” system implementation. The haulers came, took each bin, and dumped them in the same truck container. This happened every time he followed to watch. So everyone upstream thinks they’re doing the right thing, but this sample of 1 suggests it’s a charade. The problem is partly that perfection is enemy of good. Where is the research, and data, about how to make landfills clean, and which ones are. Ditto about incineration. We can strip lots of stuff from effluent, but where’s the incentive, if burning is deemed bad.

Carly

I am so glad to read this article. It’s very informative, and answers questions I’ve had re: recycling for months. I have a hard time understanding why more states will not initiate a ban on single use plastic bags … this is unconscionable! Please do what you can to put the pressure on stores and states and people to reduce the use of toxic plastics! as well as reduce the use of our world’s resources as a whole.

Catherine

I’m an old poop that has been recycling for years. I even wash and reuse my plastics storage bags. I think we should go back to a bottle deposit on pop,beer,and wine bottles. No more convenient plastic water or drink bottles.My dad would buy a case of bottle beer in a cardboard box and return all the bottles for deposit.We should be way past plastic bags at the stores,I think that is just common sense. And what about all those darn disposable diapers that people throw out in the environment with the poo in them.WOW!!I have a home in Arizona and the plastic bags are blowing all over the cactus. Trash all over the place on 19 and 10. What kind of people just dump anything from mattresses to full trash bags of garbage on the roads? Why isn’t anyone bothering to clean it up?Just think if everyone just picked up one piece of trash a day what it would mean for the environment. I remember the milk coming by the milkman, in return bottles with little cardboard tops. Some of the old ways weren’t so bad. My parents wouldn’t allow even a used tissue to go out a car window.I remember the good old days. No locked doors,no worries about the kids playing after dark. I was taught to respect others,property, the land the wildlife,and laws of the land.I guess I’m just an old fart that recycles. Thanks to anyone who read my rantings. Have a environmentally positive life and enjoy the beauty that nature offers.

Wendy Baxter

Every single thing that was said in Catherine’s letter was totally agreed by me. I think we are both from the ‘baby-boomer’ generation………growing up when our parents would bring back the soda or milk bottles for reuse. I sit at a stop-light today, looking at all the beer bottles, soda cans soda bottles out there. And have said the same as you……………if I could get 2 cents for every one of those cans or bottles for a deposit brought back, I’d be RICH! ………….but hang-on there. If kids or other adults would get the coins in returned containers from their own drinks, WE, taking our enjoyed rides would not even see those bottles and cans along the roadside! Our moms washed our baby diapers. NONE were just thrown out to litter. I have picked up some, in woods, along our roadway, just littered that way! Another fact of the litter. Right now, in winter, ever wrapper, plastic bag caught in the tree branches and more litter is showing. We need clean-up crews out there doing their duty NOW, before all the green leaves and poison ivy covers that litter up so that nothing is done in the summer months. Then next winter, suddenly, there it is again, maybe even doubled in amount. Some of these piles of litter along the roadways even need a bulldozer to do the duty! Catherine, you’re saying the very thing………….no locked doors, no worries about kids out there after dark. Respect other’s property. Now one added thing from me…………..kids of ‘our’ days were NOT out there shooting other kids with guns. That kind of act back in ‘those’ days would have caused US a real whippin’ !!! Right?

Scott

Awesome article! It answers a lot of the questions I had about recycling and why it is so vitally important! Keep up the good work

Freddy Fazbear

is your last name Cawthon

Jay Meyre

We should develop a government initiative to provide incentives to companies who utilize biodegradable and hemp packaging. Let’s utilize this legalization progress of marijuana and utilize the plant for all of its beneficial properties, including replacing plastic, cotton, wood, etc. it is much more sustainable.

David Aspinall

We need to do a lot more, everyone needs to get involved,

Bob

I think our governments love to push the consumers to recycle as long as the consumers pay for it. Every small bottle I buy I have to pay a nickel for a deposit fee but when I go to recycle it I only get 2 cent. And when I take a lot of them it never fails they always rip you off at these recycling centers. The government always comes up with these programs to get rid of your recyclables as long as the consumer pays for it. All these programs are just more tax money for the governments, you go to the market and have to pay a dime for every bag you get unless you have your own but then, guess what, you have to bag your own groceries. I think they could care less if you recycle or not they just want the tax money they get out of it.

Amanda

Great article! Very grateful for the helpful tips on how to make recycling a daily practice.

Jim Kupczyk

Recycle is really crucial for environment.

Louie Durra

Recycling=good Not Recycling=bad me no like trash water

breeana lee

i honestly think we need to fix the polution in the U.S.A. are earth is dying and we act like its no big deal evrey day as i ride the bus to school i see trash evreywere or i see pepole throwing trash in lakes, on the street, on lawns and on state property in the city and i live in a small town and evreyday it feels like its getting smaller

Michael Lepere

To whom it may concern,

I’m a freshman college student researching the concept of recycling and all the positives and negatives that come with it. In my research, I came across one of your articles, titled “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by your writer/journalist Ms. Renee Cho, and I’ve been wondering about the future of recycling from your perspective. I’d greatly appreciate a brief statement from her or someone in the Colombia Climate School department on the following question: There’s no question recycling is corrupt in not only America but the world. Put yourself in the shoes of someone like the President of the United States. As a person who cares about the environment, if you were in a position of high power, what rules,  laws, or changes would you enforce to benefit not only our country’s environment but the world? And how would you implement recycling into the mix? I look forward to hearing back, and I would be eager to include whatever her viewpoint or answer is in my upcoming research paper. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely, Michael Lepere  

Christy

Sadly, I had to dig for this article. So much emphasis is place on climate change and basically none on the dangers and disgust of what plastics produce in our environment. If the media would concentrate on this topic for just a segment here and there, we would all benefit. People aren’t recycling for many reasons, but as this eloquent article points out, the main reason is because the basic expectations are not made readily available to consumers. A majority of the population is ignorant of what, where, and how to recycle properly; and when a household separates trash from “recyclables,” there exists a blind trust that the rest is being handled. Where I live, we pay a mandatory recycle fee with our water bill, and it would be really nice to know that our efforts to recycle…and our paying for adequate services…are being met with due diligence. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the case.

Michael Rapoza

The federal government needs to invest in realistic recycling programs and ban most plastics that are not recycleable. I have done research and the problem is that oil companies realize that fossil fuels being used for energy will soon be a thing of the past.. They have heavily invested in the plastics business as a way to diversify and keep the demand for fossil fuel real . It takes fossil fuel (energy) to make each plastic bottle or container made or recycled. The federal government needs to implement sustainable and profitable business plans for the plastics recycling industry . Other countries have done it and is proven to work. Cities, towns and states also need to step up their efforts at recycling.

Mick

The US should be recycling its own trash. It’s time to force the greediocy within American business off the Chinese crutch before it completely destroys our nation. The entirety of this whole big billfold/ big government/ big business bull$h!t was never anything more than a unsustainable delusion from the get go. A delusion which has progressively The two party political sucks clogged up within the powers of American government are the ones responsible for the rot and ruin corporatism has brought upon us. God forbid another world war breaks out because the US no longer has the manufacturing muscle or guts to go toe to toe with China and Russia anymore. We can thank the big business greedsters selling out their own country in the name of profit maximization. The US is sowing the seeds of its own destruction and the country lacks the wherewithal too see the bigger picture. Both government and society alike have thoroughly abandoned all reality, hindsight, and common sense in the name of feeding their own addictions to dollars, denials, and delusions. If society doesn’t wake up and instill common sense back into their government the rich will destroy America, just like they have wholesale ruin and misery upon every other civilization throughout the course of human history. Those too stupid to learn from history are forever doomed to repeat it. How many more times must the great wheel of retardation go around? The country cannot keep sustaining this diseased style of business and governance.

Big Mike

So informative and its sad to see that china ended up not using much recyclable and ultimately lost its profitability. Rip China 2022

Berkley Beard

Is there anything I can do besides just recycle? I wanna help any and every way possible

Matthew Allen Kamstra

Many of the items whether contaminated or not could be flushed or jet washed pior to heating even some of the incineratary items could be made into other materials proposed to being fully incinerated, moreover in my observations when demands for new facilities are generated much of the still useful leftover/outdated materials are thrown out, my choice would be to free up resources for the school age children or community to make use of recovery resource hub. Many stigmatized members all around us have talent to create but their label Has crushed many of their hopes for dreams…

Matthew Allen Kamstra 58072

Holly Shaw

Whenever I walk through my neighborhood on recycling day, I can see that 100% of my neighbors have included items that will “contaminate” the entire load. I’ve noticed everything from box fans to glass bottles to paper plates with food all over them, and a million other things.

I have no choice but to assume all of this goes straight to the landfill so I honestly don’t know why I should waste my time trying to do the right thing anymore.

Merilyn Dunn

This is the best, most comprehensive article I’ve ever read on recycling. It presents the problem, then methods and solutions implemented by other countries. It should be must-read for everyone charged with waste disposal systems.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

My Science Mrs. Gold told me alllll about recycling this article was truly insightful I really learned what it means to recycle and it is just completely absurd that this is happening in the United States. WE MUST MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND FIND ALTERNATIVES. Do we want future generations to live on trash piles? NO, so let’s do what it takes to make a DIFFERENCE in OUR communities, and BOOOOOMMMMM. As we say here at my school MAKE AN IMPACT.

B. Roberts

The big problem here is touting collection of materials as “recycling.” We institute these programs in our cities and feel good about them. Then it’s not actually recycled. We’re fooling ourselves. Aluminum and paper being a fairly good exception. If there’s no profit to be made, into the landfill or shipped off to a poor nation to be incinerated or dumped in the ocean. Germany supposedly a nation to be emulated. It has been revealed to be a fraud, instead of following the money, follow the trash. The best thing one can do is try to avoid the plastic menace.

Mimi

This is not from the article this is from something else According to idauas.com it states that “One of the biggest threats to animals and our planet as a whole is plastic consumption. Every year, we create nearly 300 million tons of plastic worldwide (a staggering 185 pounds of plastic per person), and 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans.”

Eric Costa

less oil to make products in glass and its 100 percent recyclable,makes me upset this country does not promote glass industry

Helen

Would it be possible for larger countries to recycle their own garbage instead of shipping it abroad. Maybe people would be more mindful and statistics concerning recycling would improve.

Lee Ann Celania

Education is badly needed in the US. We should be using more bamboo products for fast food; silverware, containers, etc… When and who will make corporations be environmentally responsible?

Poetina

I am not sure it would work or not but I’ve often thought about repurposing the plastic and cans for a different reason. Since the US has so many small towns and villages during a sports event(they have them year round) they can institute prizes and events.

For instance, the cans/plastics can be reshaped into smaller statues for the losing team and larger statues for the winning team. Chains with medals or earrings, crowns, scepters for the school homecoming court. I figure you can also make cups, bags even coolers with the with shape of the school mascot both old and new. Or they can recreate shoes specifically for the school event that as you walk instead of a random light showing nothing but that you’re there you can put the school mascot.

I also the state flag can be repurposed with one side of the school mascot and the other with the flag. it can go into cups that were created with a recycled opening in the cup so it has both the mascot and the flag. I do understand that most things can not be recovered because they are contaminated. Until scientist can create something that purifies them why not hire people to separate the items that comes in… I have an idea for sinks and entire bathrooms made out of recycling items. But this may help even if it is a little small towns are often dismissed maybe if they are not ignored it could create jobs and help the country even if it is a little.

Just an Idea…

Matison

Why can’t the US start processing our own recyclables, rather than sending them halfway across the world? We are already too dependent on China and other countries for our raw materials. Recycling will allow us to cut down that dependence drastically.

Anita

This is a wonderful article and really puts things in perspective. We have to up our game as far as recycling goes. Some communities have community composting and wood chips for mulch. There are some good ideas if people will start being accountable for the things they use. I use compost worms and they are wonderful for gardening and recycling vegetable waste. Maybe a water pitcher instead of a plastic bottle of water, and soda isn’t healthy for me anyway. It’s a better mindset that we need in this country to be good stewards of the land and that we are all responsible for making recycling work.

Karen VanRavenswaay

One thing I have heard from several usually reliable resources is that glass is not recyclable,, it is only reusable. Do you know about anything about that?

Balwinder Singh

Hello My name is Balwinder Singh. I am doing plastic recycling in India. Is there any opportunity to start a new plastic recycling plant in US. If yes then i would like to start a factory to recycle plastic bags, hdpe scrap, pp scrap etc.

Angie Starkey

I believe that people should be able to scrap out of landfills because that reduces waste and that helps recycle

Damien Sharp

we need to try to stop the recycling materials getting into the trash.

it is clear that we need to try to stop recyclable materials going into the trash. 

Joe Maira

stop sending are trash over seas and making us pay for not doing the the right thing and care of it home.

randi

The biggest problem is disciplene. Many people for lack of sensitivity and lack of care for others or community take the easy way out and at the end it cost evryone more. The industry that created the single use items should be held responsible to recycle it.

Rev Stephen Hislop sr

I agree. Allegedly Hawaii (my state of residence) is supposed to be one of the leading states in recycling. Actually, only one company recycles anything that we bring it, namely, Reynolds Aluminum. While they do recycle soft drink and beer cans and plastic bottles under 2 quarts, they recycle glass only from beer bottles and no paper or cardboard that I am aware of. Politicians think they are solving the recycling matter by levying a tax (labeled with a different name) on plastic, aluminum, etc containers, but I see a lot more of these put into general trash containers even by teachers who should know better than putting them in recyclable containers set aside for the purpose

Gale T

This would have to be done at the federal level. Instead of a tax, require that in 2025, plastic, aluminum, glass, and other non-biodegradable materials manufacturers & importers, both raw & finished goods, need to use 10% recycled material in 2025, 11% in 2026, … Then, watch as the cost of hard-to-recycle materials rises, allowing better materials to replace them.

No new taxes are needed.

Matt

This is really interesting. I wasn’t aware of a lot of this so I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read this.

Jay Horton

I agree with Judith Piazza, also, nice last name

ahhum, you are crazy for professing oil industry sees the end coming ,that is akin to saying tobacco company’s realize their product is killing humans. the texas oil and gas guys ofgeorge bush and dick cheney will die with trillions in their bank account and their family will continue to sell methan oil and gas for 200 years once you are in the dirt. just because china does not want the US CANS BOTTLES AND CARDBOARD and yes PLASTIC. MY PROFOUND STSTEMENT the US congress and senate are 100% incompetent. they are focused on grand wealth from insider trading which is a felony , so the us attorney general merrick garland is as well incompetent. so now that truth be told is it my fault warming, or oil or gas is my obligation to fix. again i say you are stupid me i am a realist capitalism and greed rule the world. go out side and take a deep breath and if you cough it’s not my obligation to rescue you. stop sending teachers to congress they have no clue how to do anything except smile nod yes and vote the way they are told to vote. PSEA members are not good politicians

Idk

This helped me so so much thank you

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Are the Great Lakes the key to solving America’s emissions conundrum?

A single cargo ship can carry enough goods to replace nearly 3,000 semi-trucks—that's why some are calling for a shipping boom in America's famous lakes.

The Mark W Barker coming into Sturgeon Bay through the shipping canal.

Nearly four decades had passed since the Great Lakes witnessed that unique ritual: the smashing of a bottle of champagne off the bow of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship.

When it finally happened in October 2021 with the launching of the MV Mark W. Barker, a 639-foot-long freighter, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, it marked a new dawn.

The first bulk carrier to enter service on the Great Lakes for 37 years, the ship can transport goods ranging from salt to wind turbine blades to shipping containers. Its hull design means it can hold 20 percent more cargo than vessels of a similar size. It’s also the first ship sailing the Great Lakes to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s tier 4 emissions standards .

“It’s the most capable, most environmentally friendly asset we have,” says Brendan O’Connor, chief operations officer for the Interlake Steamship Company, which operates the MV Mark W. Barker.  

The ship, and others like it, are a critical piece of the climate change puzzle. As the deadlines for meeting the Paris Climate Agreement’s emissions targets   draw ever closer—with the goal for emissions to peak before 2025 and decline 43 percent by 2030—one industry is inducing panic: the transportation world.  

America’s transportation industry is the country’s   leading source of carbon emissions, responsible for a whopping 29 percent . And while privately-owned vehicles make up 58 percent of that, medium- and heavy-duty trucks carrying bulk materials account for 23 percent.

For Hungry Minds

Yet one weapon in the battle against emissions may be sitting in plain sight: the Great Lakes.

Linking Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Buffalo, and other cities that are home to about 32 million people, Great Lakes shipping could play a significant role in helping the U.S. and Canada dramatically reduce their emissions footprints.

Transporting more goods with fewer vehicles

Today, several ports have projects that could help facilitate that change.

The Port of Cleveland on Lake Erie is set for a $32-million infrastructure upgrade . Farther west on Lake Superior, the Port of Duluth-Superior was recently expanded to handle international container freight . One survey of public and private investments found more than $8.4 billion has been committed to developing Great Lakes maritime infrastructure.

Road freight emits up to 100 times the amount of emissions of ships —a single Great Lakes vessel can carry as much bulk material as 2,800 semi-trucks or 700 rail cars . With gas prices raising trucking costs on average and rail strike threats growing in recent years, Great Lakes shipping could serve as a cleaner, more efficient way to transport many of the critical items America’s economy relies on.  

Still, challenges abound. The two largest Great Lakes cities—Toronto and Chicago— currently both have comparatively small port infrastructure systems.  

( Interested in an electric car? Here's what you should know. )

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The Port of Toronto’s economic impact is dwarfed by ports in Montreal and Vancouver, while Chicago’s port has been falling into disrepair for decades. Despite this poor infrastructure, experts say the Port of Chicago has significant potential as a major hub because it is also connected to the Mississippi River by the Illinois Waterway, a network of canals, lakes, and rivers.  

Not a perfect solution

Shipping hasn’t always been a cleaner alternative. In 2021, ships traversing the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, the body of water that connects the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, consumed 500,000 tons of fuel that emitted 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, according to one study . That’s the equivalent of around 380,000 cars.

Still, experts say that opportunities for change are growing.

“It’s technically feasible to decarbonize every ship in the fleet,” says Bryan Comer, marine program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute. “The question is: What are the regulatory and economic drivers or incentives to do that?”

( How green can we make air travel? And how soon? )

Comer says that while there’s potential for electrifying smaller ships such as tugboats, to meet U.S. emissions targets, some larger ships will need new propulsion technologies that replace internal combustion engines with fuel cells that run on ‘green hydrogen,’ an energy resource made from renewable electricity.

“That is going to be the ingredient in all of the fuels that are used,” he says.  

To help meet this transition, the U.S. Department of Energy has made $7 billion available to build up to 10 so-called ‘hydrogen hubs’ across the country .  

“A lot of our efforts are in the scale-up of large-scale production of the clean hydrogen molecules—building out the infrastructure, the storage (and) the delivery,” says Neil Banwart of the Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen , one of seven awardees of the federal funding.

“We certainly do hope that Great Lakes shipping is [a buyer], a use case for this clean hydrogen that we intend to produce.”

Small steps toward big change

In the meantime, Great Lakes ports and shipping companies are working on short-term ways to push the industry closer to net zero.

The Port of Cleveland’s infrastructure update includes an electrification plan and charging stations it hopes will help it fulfill its goal of becoming the first net-zero emissions port on the Great Lakes by 2050.  

The Interlake Steamship Company hopes to cut its emissions footprint by 50 percent in the next decade.

“The engines are going to be the best way for us to move the needle,” says Brendan O’Connor.  

“We’re not quite there yet but in the next two or three years I think we’ll see changes.”

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Brainstorming Ways to Solve Environmental Problems? 5 Simple Ways You Can Help

June 1, 2019

Home  /  News  /  Brainstorming Ways to Solve Environmental Problems? 5 Simple Ways You Can Help

We are currently facing the most critical environmental issues in human history. Our climate, planet, lives, and future as a civilization are all at risk. While the magnitude of that thought can be extremely overwhelming, don’t allow yourself to feel helpless, not knowing where to begin. Making small steps and adjustments in your daily routine will give you a sense of success and a yearning to attempt more.

Here are 5 simple ways you can help the environment and spark others to become more environmentally aware.

1. Replace disposable items with reusable

Anything you use and throw away can potentially spend centuries in a landfill. See below for simple adjustments you can make to decrease the amount of disposable items in your daily life.

  • Carry your own reusable cup or water bottle
  • Use airtight, reusable food containers instead of sandwich bags and plastic wrap
  • Pack a waste-free lunch: carry your utensils, cloth napkin, and containers in a reusable lunch bag
  • Bring your own bags to the grocery store
  • Consider buying bulk containers of your preferred beverages and refilling a reusable bottle, instead of buying individually packaged drinks
  • Use rechargeable batteries

2. Pass on paper

We are living in the Digital Era, but think about all the paper products you use in your daily life. These actions still align with reusing and repurposing, though may take a little more time for transition.

  • Join a library instead of buying books or buy a Kindle
  • Print as little as possible; and if you must, print on both sides
  • Wrap gifts in fabric and tie with ribbon; both are reusable and prettier than paper and sticky-tape
  • Stop using paper towels and incorporate washable cloths
  • Look at labels to make sure you only use FSC-certified wood and paper products
  • Cut out products made by palm oil companies that contribute to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia

3. Conserve water & electricity

The tips you see below will seem like no-brainers; however, it may take to become more aware of your unconscious habits.

  • Turn the sink water off when brushing your teeth
  • Water the lawn in the morning or evening; cooler air causes less evaporation
  • Switch off anything that uses electricity when not in use (lights, televisions, computers, printers, etc.)
  • Unplug devices when possible; even when an appliance is turned off, it may still use power
  • Remove chemicals inside of the house; research companies that use plant-derived ingredients for their household cleaning products
  • Remove chemicals outside of the house; use eco-friendly pesticides and herbicides that won’t contaminate groundwater
  • Consider signing up for a renewable energy producer that uses 100% renewable energy to power homes

4. Support local & environmentally friendly

Here are a few reasons to start buying local:

  • Reduces plastic and paper waste
  • Boosts cost-efficiency
  • Enables bulk purchasing
  • Helps support your neighbors
  • Retains farmland within the community
  • Builds up the local economy
  • Uses fewer chemicals for both for growing and transporting

5. Recycle (& then recycle properly)

Implementing recycling habits into your daily life is one of the most effective ways to help lessen landfill waste, conserve natural resources, save habitats, reduce pollution, cut down on energy consumption, and slow down global warming.

  • Confirm you are using the proper separation containers for your household per the local recycling services
  • Remember to make sure your trash bags are recycled or biodegradable, and always cut up the plastic rings from packs of beer or soda to prevent wildlife from getting caught
  • Educate yourself about what can and cannot be recycled, as not all plastic and cardboard is acceptable (like pizza boxes for example, due to the grease) ( click here for a simple 101 )
  • Learn how to identify and dispose of hazardous waste properly ( click here to learn more )

Taking the time to simply read this article for ways to solve environmental problems is a step forward to becoming more aware of the needs of your environment. You are now taking action, and every change–big or small–will create an impact.

If you’re already taking action on the suggestions above, see below for additional tips and ideas:

  • Add these simple lists to your digital checklist and pick one at a time to tackle. After a week or so, check it off the list and move on to the next. Remember to pat yourself on the back! You just created a change in your lifestyle!
  • Find a comfortable compromise for your life. Purchase a pack of affordable, reusable rags and give them a specific purpose. For example, perhaps you always clean your countertops with paper towels; try wiping them down with cloth towels instead.
  • Remember to highlight your successes and share them with others! #savetheplanet
  • Calculate your environmental footprint to see how much impact just one person has on the world’s resources and adjust accordingly.
  • Consider an environmentally-focused career like one of the top four environmental jobs of the future.

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How Can Science Help Solve Environmental Problems

Table of Contents:

Can science solve climate change? . The planet needs a backup plan. Investing in geoengineering research may offer some answers.

In this Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, file photo a plume of smoke billows from the coal-fired Merrimack Station in Bow, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP) WHAT HAPPENS if humans fail to cut carbon dioxide emissions enough to prevent worsening climate change? A new report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences contemplates some very unattractive — but potentially necessary — backup plans. Ending deforestation seems like an obvious answer. But, the report found, planting more trees won’t do enough to suck CO2 out of the air. Instead, humans might have to use decidedly less natural methods to counteract global warming. The report discusses two options. Scientists could try to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Or they could reflect more sunlight back into space. This is called climate intervention or geoengineering, and it’s very controversial in scientific and environmental circles. Geoengineering poses all kinds of problems. Directly removing carbon dioxide from the air is a very slow process, and the removed gas would need to be stored somewhere.

Video advice: How can I get help with an environmental problem? – BBC Learning English

Humans have been polluting the world for a long time. So, how can you take action about something like climate change? Who would you blame? It’s not any one person, company, country, or government’s fault… or is it? Watch the video to find out.

How Can Science Help Solve Environmental Problems

The Clean Air Act: Solving Air Pollution Problems with Science and Technology

The Act calls for states and EPA to solve multiple air pollution problems through programs based on the latest science and technology information.

Under the Act, EPA and states (depending on the program) set emissions limits for motor vehicles and industrial facilities. In most programs, these limits are set using data on the emissions performance and costs of available technologies.

  • Setting air quality standards for common air pollutants based on protection of public health and welfare
  • Technical tools for policy analysis
  • Emissions and air quality data

National Air Emissions Standards Are Based on Technology Performance

EPA maintains AirData, which provides access to outdoor air quality data collected from state, local and tribal monitoring agencies across the United States. EPA publishes air emissions factors and compiles emissions inventories submitted by states every three years. This shows which sources emit how much pollution and support air quality modeling efforts. EPA publishes electronic reporting tool that sources can use to report stationary source emissions sampling test data to regulatory agencies. States and EPA conduct air pollution deposition monitoring to assess progress under the Clean Air Act. EPA’s periodic air trends reports on air quality and emissions in the United States represent one of the best and longest-running environmental trends assessments in the world. For greenhouse gases, EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program will help us better understand where greenhouse gas emissions come from and will improve our ability to make informed policy, business, and regulatory decisions.

Save the Environment with technology

How can technology helpt to save the environment? Find out more about the innovations that may be useful to create a sustainable human existance.

Agriculture, biofuels and energy – Additionally to increasing the efficiency of straight line production processes, the circular economy aims to reuse factors that are typically considered waste. The aim of this sustainable development technique is to create products or services while reducing recycleables, water and consumption and waste. Taking care of may be the bioeconomy, by which either living microorganisms or their parts are utilized to assist the atmosphere – which could lead to the growth. Based on Eu calculations, every euro committed to R&D&I within the bioeconomy, funded at community level, will generate ten euros of added value in 2025. This data supports scientific and technical strategies that won’t only improve employment figures, but tend to also aid save the atmosphere.

Environmental science

“Environmental research” redirects here. For the Elsevier journal, see Environmental Research.

Ecological chemistry is study regarding chemical modifications in the atmosphere. Principal regions of study include soil contamination and water quality. The themes of research include chemical degradation within the atmosphere, multi-phase transport of chemicals (for instance, evaporation of the solvent that contains lake to yield solvent being an air pollutant), and chemical effects upon biota.

Environmental science is an interdisciplinary academic field that integrates physical, biological, and geography (including ecology, biology, physics, chemistry, plant science, zoology, mineralogy, oceanography, limnology, soil science, geology and physical geography, and atmospheric science) to the study of the environment, and the solution of environmental problems. Environmental science emerged from the fields of natural history and medicine during the Enlightenment. Today it provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.

Cutting Through Environmental Issues: Technology as a double-edged sword

Brookings Review article by David Austin and Molly K. Macauley (Winter 2022)

Video advice: Studying vs Solving Environmental Problems Science Environmental Management

How Can Science Help Solve Environmental Problems

Adopting such technologies may not be a perfect solution, however, particularly in power generation. Some fuel cell technologies release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. In addition, small-scale plants serving only residential areas or small businesses may be less able to balance the peaks in demand than are larger plants serving both types of customers.

Slack covers everything. It sifts in everywhere. Slack is what doesn’t melt in the mountains of red ore-a metal particle, powdered ore, powdered metal. It silts down all growing things. You can see the tiny bits of ore gleaming in your hands. The shining ore dusts your coat. It gets in your hair. On certain days they blow the slack out. Mighty currents of air blow the choking slack out of the costly mill chimneys onto the cheap human life outside. Those days the sun is darkened, and the steel workers returning home hide their faces as from a sand storm. They duck along, jackets over heads, under the fury of the falling slack. You find it everywhere. . . . Nothing, between soot and slack, can be clean long in the steel towns.

How chemistry is helping to improve the environment around us

As we strive towards a better world, we work to ensure chemistry’s contributions are realised. Chemistry can help us to understand, monitor, protect and improve the environment around us.

In 2013 we introduced together atmospheric chemists to go over the function of aerosols within the atmosphere at our Faraday Discussion: Tropospheric Aerosol – Formation, Transformation, Fate and Impacts. Read the papers printed plus the discussion within the Faraday Discussions journal.

  • How chemistry helps
  • Chemistry of air pollution
  • Monitoring air pollution
  • Tackling air pollution
  • UK science communiqué on climate change
  • Our statement on climate change

Our environment is a hugely complex system that includes the air we breathe, the land we live on, the water we drink and the climate around us. We must work to ensure that our developments in some areas do not adversely affect our environment whilst also ensuring that we mitigate any damage that has occurred. Work by some researchers has shown that we are already at a tipping point that might lead to “non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems”.

The Use of Science in Environmental Decision Making

We need to do a better job of integrating scientific knowledge into management decision making. The world is too complicated, interconnected and dangerous to act without real scientific observations and analysis.

The amount of scientific literacy within the U . s . States is low by a lot of measures there isn’t grounds to rollout the information on science education within the U . s . States to help make the point. Having a determined effort, we’re able to overcome our science literacy problem, however i see no manifestation of deep worry about the condition of science education. The outcome in our insufficient science literacy are visible in making decisions within the White-colored House as well as in regulatory agencies like Environmental protection agency which are strongly fighting off science. Ecological science is viewed as biased as well as anti-capitalist. I’m certain this is actually the consequence of climate along with other ecological scientists expressing their alarm concerning the impact of pollution in the world as well as their effort to speak that threat. Rather of debating the validity of scientific findings on scientific grounds, many people reject ecological science entirely. This exacerbates our science literacy problem and it is profoundly troubling.

8 ways sensors helped solve environmental problems

Sophisticated, inexpensive sensors – combined with powerful data analytics have the potential to solve some of our greatest environmental challenges.

Mom’s Climate Pressure is really a network of 500,000 parents which are fighting for polluting of the environment limits. Let’s suppose these parents had data within their hands that directly connected bronchial asthma attacks to polluting of the environment in metropolitan areas over the U.S. once they met with Environmental protection agency managers and lobbied on Capitol Hill. The requirement for clearing up our air could be difficult to refute.

2022: Mapping air pollution with mobile sensors

When the Texas Advanced Computing Center analyzed this data, the center discovered a simple change to the direction of solar panel installation would increase efficiency. In the summer, electricity demand peaks in the late afternoon as people return home and turn up the air conditioning. Even though south-facing solar panels produce more total energy, their energy output drops in the afternoon. West-facing panels better match supply with peak demand.

How can science solve all of our problems?

Science can not solve all of our problems. While scientific understanding can help battle things like disease, hunger, and poverty when applied properly, it does not do so completely and automatically. Furthermore, there are many areas of life where science can have little impact. Let us look at some of the reasons why this is so.

To begin with, there’s a significant difference between knowing something and functioning on it. Science is worried with accumulating and understanding observations from the physical world. That understanding alone solves no problems. Individual individuals have to do something with that understanding for this to assist solve problems. For example, science finds that physical exercise can decrease your chance of cardiovascular disease. Knowing this truth is interesting, but it’ll do nothing at all for use on your heath unless of course you act upon it and really exercise. And that is hard part. Studying articles about being active is easy. Stepping into a real routine of standard being active is harder. Within this sense, science really solves no problems whatsoever. Troubles are only solved when individuals go ahead and take understanding (or tool, or pill, or whatever) supplied by science and employ it. Actually, a lot of humanity’s greatest problems come from insufficient action, and never insufficient understanding.

Video advice: Beyond the Science: Environmental Problems…Cultural Solutions

Science is the endeavor that allows us to describe our natural world and how it works. Science gives us the power and knowledge to understand our environment, recognize problems, and quantify threats. But science doesn’t tell us how to use that knowledge. Our planet’s most pressing environmental problems won’t be solved by science. Preserving water resources, facing the immediate and measurable threats from global climate change, reducing waste generation, and solving the myriad environmental challenges facing humans can only be achieved by cultural change. A society represents a collection of individual behaviors…every one of us is responsible for behavioral change. But do we have the personal and political wherewithal to make those changes before we must manage crises? Paul K. Doss is Professor of Geology at the University of Southern Indiana, where he teaches courses on environmental geology, environmental science, geology of national parks, and water resources. Doss directs student research on environmental problems, such as impacts of humans on water resources, natural resources management and geological hazards. He has previously held positions with Yellowstone National Park, Indiana Dunes and Everglades National Park. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx

How Can Science Help Solve Environmental Problems

How is science helping the environment?

Research, as well as scientific and technical innovation, will be critical to saving the environment , reducing the impact of global warming, helping in adapting to climate change, cleaning up polluted areas and taking care of our own health.

How can science help us understand environmental problems?

The scientific method begins with observations of a natural occurrence and then leads to the generation of questions based on the initial observations. ... In the case of the yellow grass, the scientific method was a valuable tool in solving the environmental problem and bringing awareness to the cause of the issue.

How can environmental problems be solved?

Recycle (& then recycle properly) Implementing recycling habits into your daily life is one of the most effective ways to help lessen landfill waste, conserve natural resources, save habitats, reduce pollution, cut down on energy consumption, and slow down global warming.

How does science affect the environment?

Environmental Science affects Earth by fostering an understanding of interconnectivity between nature and human activity , which can help us find ways of reducing our impact on the planet.

How is science helping improve the sustainability of the world?

Science is critical to tackle complex challenges for humanity such as climate change , biodiversity loss, pollution and poverty reduction, as it lays the foundation for new approaches and solutions. ... These concerns have led to a new approach: sustainability science.

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10 Environmental Problems and Solutions

If you’re searching for answers to the 10 biggest environmental problems and solutions, you might be concerned with the state of the planet today. If you’re worried, I want you to know that although the world faces major environmental problems, there are solutions. The solutions aren’t simple, and there are no magic bullets, but they exist.

There are also a lot of voices and opinions about environmental issues. So along with basic information about environmental problems and solutions, I also offer different perspectives and further reading so you can form your own opinions. Because there are many possible environmental solutions, and not even the “experts” have all the answers. So I encourage you to keep an open mind to every option. Let’s look for progress, not perfection.

I’ll write more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals below but wanted to mention these goals up-front. If you’re reading this article because you’re concerned about the environment (or maybe you’re feeling stressed or anxious about climate change) learn about the Global Goals first. The Global Goals offer a solid framework for solving environmental problems. Now, on to the 10 biggest environmental problems we face today.

10 environmental problems

These are the 10 biggest environmental problems in no particular order. Climate change is a hot topic right now so I include it first. It’s also first on the list simply because so many of the problems related to climate change are also connected to other environmental problems. Environmental problems like oil spills, deforestation, and poverty need to be solved in and of themselves. But solving these problems indirectly helps solve the problem of climate change.

There are also environmental problems like fluorinated gases that have a large impact on the climate, but not directly on our health or wealth. These problems are extra tricky because they’re expensive to solve and they get little media coverage. That’s why international laws and cooperation are especially important for solving the hardest problems.

Climate change

Climate change is a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.” – NASA

Climate change happens when greenhouse gases are released and trapped in the atmosphere, causing the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect creates a layer around the earth’s atmosphere that traps heat from the sun, making our atmosphere warmer, similar to a greenhouse.

The following greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) – Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere when fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are burned. Carbon dioxide is also released when trees and other plants are burned or cut down and through manufacturing cement. Carbon dioxide made up 81% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions from the United States in 2018 according to the Environmental Protection Agency .
  • Methane (CH4) – Methane is released from fossil fuels (natural gas in particular), agriculture (cow farts and manure), and landfills. Methane made up 10% of greenhouse gases in the US in 2018.
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O) – Nitrous oxide is emitted from agriculture, fossil fuels, industry, and waste-water treatment. Nitrous oxide made up 7% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.
  • Fluorinated gases – Fluorinated gases are hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrogen trifluoride. They are man-made gases commonly used in refrigerants used for cooling air conditioners and refrigerators. These gases have a high Global Warming Potential and makeup 3% of greenhouse gases emitted in the United States according to the EPA.

Resource: Drilled Podcast: The origins of climate denial

Poverty is indirectly linked to environmental problems. When you solve issues related to poverty you also solve environmental problems such as deforestation[cm_simple_footnote id=1], population growth, gender inequality, and climate change.

The world has been making steady progress toward ending extreme poverty for years according to the UN. The COVID-19 crisis has reversed some of the progress. But before the virus, life was better for many people around the world than ever before in history. Now, we need to deal with the crisis and get back to making progress.

Related: Population growth explained with IKEA boxes

Gender inequality

Although gender inequality is also not a direct environmental problem, solving problems like inadequate access to birth control, health services, and education has a positive impact on the economy and environment.

Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health. Gender inequality is indirectly linked to environmental problems.” – Drawdown.org

Related: Melinda Gates: Why equality can’t wait

Fluorinated gases used in refrigerants

Fluorinated gases, like the hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in refrigerators and air conditioners, are considered major contributors to climate change according to Drawdown.org. The most commonly used refrigerants have a high Global Warming Potential. The Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol offers a timeline for phasing out refrigerants with high Global Warming Potential, but it’s essential for companies and governments to maintain their commitments.

To minimize your personal impact, make sure to properly recycle refrigerators and air conditioning units. If you’re not sure how to recycle an appliance contact your local waste management company.

Fluorinated gases have a potent greenhouse effect and are widely used as refrigerants. Managing leaks and disposal of these chemicals can avoid emissions in buildings and landfills.” – Drawdown

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the most environmentally damaging oil spills in history. The spill covered over 43,300 square miles. It killed and harmed dolphins, sea turtles, fish, and a variety of organisms ( source ).

The environmental problems associated with oil have many layers. Not only does an oil spill kill wildlife and fishing industries, but oil is also a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. Although oil is a necessary source of energy in every developed and developing country today, it comes with dire environmental problems.

Wasted natural resources

267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste went to landfills instead of being recycled, upcycled, composted, or used for something else in 2017, according to the EPA . That’s a lot of wasted natural resources that originally came from nature, in one form or another. In a circular economy , these natural resources would not be wasted. Instead, they could be upcycled, recycled, or used to regenerate other materials.

Total Municipal Solid Waste Generated by Material, 2017 image from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Plastic pollution

You’ve probably seen images of marine life drowning in plastic pollution. Maybe you’re aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is about twice the size of Texas. The people and countries with the highest income generate the most plastic waste. That’s because we can afford to buy more stuff wrapped in plastic.

Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem. Plastic comes from fossil fuels, which we need to phase out, so using less plastic is important. But ultimately solving the problem of plastic pollution may come down to improving waste management technology and creating a more circular economy for plastics.

Related: The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained

The pathway by which plastic enters the world's oceans from Our World in Data.

Food waste[cm_simple_footnote id=2] is a big environmental problem. Up to 40% of food is wasted from farm to fork to landfill according to the National Resources Defense Council . There’s a lot of media coverage about how diet is related to the environment. But the majority of that coverage has to do with how individuals should eat, not how agriculture and waste management services should improve.

Instead of focusing on how individuals should change their eating habits (which is so darned hard) the answers just might lie in improving technology and holding companies to higher environmental standards. This leads me to deforestation, which is closely related to agriculture.

Deforestation

Deforestation is linked to many environmental problems, and the biggest problem is agriculture according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States .

Agri-businesses should meet their commitments to deforestation-free commodity chains and companies that have not made zero deforestation commitments should do so. Commodity investors should adopt business models that are environmentally and socially responsible. These actions will, in many cases, require a revision of current policies and financial incentives. – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Related: Can planting billions of trees save the planet?

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is one of the main problems associated with climate change. It doesn’t get as much attention as other environmental problems, but it can have a major impact on ocean ecosystems.

The ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) that is released in the atmosphere. As levels of atmospheric CO 2  increase from human activity such as burning fossil fuels (e.g., car emissions) and changing land use (e.g., deforestation), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean also increases.  When CO 2  is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions. This process has far reaching implications for the ocean and the creatures that live there. – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Man on boat and coral below on the ocean floor.

10 environmental solutions

Now that you understand the environmental problems we face today, it’s time to understand the potential environmental solutions. I say potential solutions because the cause and effect from environmental problem to environmental solution is complex. There’s a word for this, it’s called dynamic complexity.

The below environmental solutions have the potential to solve different problems within a complex, dynamic, and interconnected system. But there is no magic bullet for environmental problems. So I encourage anyone interested in environmental solutions to think big-picture. Each solution is simply one piece of a giant puzzle. Again, look for progress rather than perfection.

Related: Climate solutions 101 by Project Drawdown

  • UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals offer the best possible framework for dealing with most of the problems listed above. These are the 17 goals that almost all countries have agreed to.

  • Zero hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Quality education
  • Gender equality
  • Clean water and sanitation

Affordable and clean energy

  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  • Reduced inequality
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on Land
  • Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  • Partnerships and Goals

Green innovation

Green innovation may be the most important environmental solution. People around the world are working on new technologies and solutions that could revolutionize the way we look at energy and waste. We haven’t scratched the surface yet on how humanity will solve these problems. But there’s no time to waste, and we need governments and companies to invest in research and development.

One step is to lay the foundation for innovation by drastically increasing government funding for research on clean energy solutions. Right now, the world spends only a few billion dollars a year on researching early-stage ideas for zero-carbon energy. It should be investing two or three times that much.” – Bill Gates

Read: We need clean-energy innovation and lots of it

There are several different forms of clean and renewable energy. Solar, wind, and hydro energy are considered renewable energy sources. Nuclear energy, a non-renewable source of energy that contributes little to climate change, is an example of clean energy.

U.S. primary energy consumption by energy source, 2019 image from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Electrify everything

How to make energy clean and affordable for everyone is not an easy solution to implement. However, the phrase “electrify everything” is a concept that’s fairly easy to understand. Here’s a paragraph that helped me understand how we can truly get clean and affordable energy for everyone on the planet.

“We know, or at least have a pretty good idea, how to get electricity down to zero carbon. There are options: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). There are plenty of disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed to get us to a carbon-free grid, and what mix of centralized versus distributed resources, and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions — but there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist.” – The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything by David Roberts for Vox

Related: The Rewiring America Handbook : A Guide to Winning the Climate Fight.

Carbon taxes

You may have read statements from economists like former Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, Janet Yellen, and Paul Volcker in support of a carbon tax. That’s because pollution and emissions are considered negative externalities.

By correcting a well-known market failure, a carbon tax will send a powerful price signal that harnesses the invisible hand of the marketplace to steer economic actors towards a low-carbon future.” – Statement by economists posted in the Wall Street Journal

Related: Why Put a Price on Carbon? by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby

Conservation of natural resources

Conserving the natural resources we already have is one important environmental solution. The strategies below help individuals and companies conserve resources:

  • Zero waste – Zero-waste is a way for individuals to reduce their own environmental impact by contributing less to landfills by using reusable containers and less plastic.
  • Circular economy – “A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems,” according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • Sustainable living – Sustainable living is a general term used to describe lifestyle choices that contribute less to environmental problems.
  • Upcycling – Creating a product of higher value from a product or material that would otherwise be thrown away. The clothes and accessories made by ZeroWasteDaniel.com is an excellent example of upcycling.
  • Dematerialization – Designing products to use less materials while still creating the same value for the customer. This reduces shipping, natural resources, waste and pollution. A good example of dematerialization is TruEarth’s eco-strips laundry detergent.

Carbon capture and sequestration

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil, trees, plants, or underground. CCS is considered one way to mitigate climate change.

The simplest way to capture carbon is through photosynthesis. Trees and plants take atmospheric carbon dioxide and store that carbon in healthy soil and plants using photosynthesis. But there are more high-tech ways to capture and sequester carbon as well. One way is through geoengineering.

Geoengineering is the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. – Oxford Geoengineering Program

There are also companies that will sequester carbon for you.

Sustainable business and investing

Some businesses, like Patagonia, Interface, and IKEA, have built sustainability and resilience into the core of their companies. Others have fought against sustainability by lawyering up, using loopholes, and lying about the damage their businesses create. If we want environmental solutions, we need to support companies with sustainable business models that support progress. If you’re interested in learning more about what businesses and consumers can do, here are a few places to start:

  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
  • Genuine progress indicator
  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing
  • Dow Jones Sustainability Index
  • Green bonds

Improved food production

The environmental problems associated with food production get a lot of attention in the media. Some environmentalists and journalists advocate for plant-based diets and veganism as a solution to the problems associated with food. Changing our eating habits may have a small impact on the environment, but there’s a much larger movement underfoot lead by farmers and entrepreneurs. Below is a shortlist of potential environmental solutions to problems associated with food production and water shortages:

  • Regenerative agriculture
  • Lab-grown meat
  • Plant-based meat
  • Verticle farms
  • Precision agriculture
  • Anaerobic digestion
  • Water desalination

Sustainable homes

Our homes use a lot of energy to run our dishwashers, washer and dryers, and HVAC systems. And let’s not forget about all the energy we use charging our computers and watching TV. It adds up. But instead of turning off our devices, it’s possible to build more efficient homes that waste less energy and use cleaner energy sources. Although we have a long way toward making most homes sustainable, here are a few environmental solutions related to homes.

  • Net Zero homes
  • Home electrification
  • Living Buildings
  • LEED-certified buildings
  • Energy star appliances

Read: The ultimate guide to solar homes

Home with solar panels on the roof.

Environmental frameworks and certifications

As mentioned earlier, the UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework for solving most environmental problems. If you’re interested in learning more about the environmental movement, here are a few places to start.

  • Future Fit Business – Free tools to help businesses and investors make better decisions.
  • The Natural Step (TNS)

If you’re interested in buying better products, consider looking for products with these certifications.

  • B Corporation
  • Cradle to Cradle certified
  • Design for the environment
  • EWG verified

1 thought on “10 Environmental Problems and Solutions”

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Wow this a great work. I have learned a lot. At least I can solve some environmental problems and encourage sustainable environmental conservation.

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Environmental Problem Solving

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Sometimes, the best solution for an environmental problem is obvious. Other times there may be no immediately apparent solution. More often, there are many possible solutions. In all cases, identifying, comparing, and assessing all possible options is necessary to determine where critical resources should be invested to solve environmental problems. Environmental professionals approach problems with an open mind, clearly identifying the challenge at hand and purposefully evaluating possible solutions. This chapter provides a framework for identifying, evaluating, and implementing potential solutions that can be used to guide any problem solving activity.

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10 Environmental Problems and Solutions in 2023

September 6, 2022

Graham Sawrey

There are so many environmental problems we face today, and they all have to be addressed. But which environmental issues demand our attention now?

We’ll discuss 10 environmental problems and solutions that we can work on now to change our collective future for the better!

10 Environmental Problems and Solutions

Want to know even more? Check out our List of Environmental Issues Examples where we discuss the 30 biggest threats earth faces today for a more in-depth understanding of environmental problems.

Here are the top 10 environmental issues that require immediate attention for the health of our planet and our own survival.

  • Climate Change
  • Water Pollution
  • Air Pollution
  • Natural Resource Depletion
  • Waste Management
  • Urban Sprawl
  • Energy Consumption
  • Environmental Degradation
  • Deforestation
  • Recycling Inefficiencies

We’ll discuss these top 10 environmental problems in detail and offer some real-world solutions to each one.

There is no magic bullet solution for the environmental issues we face. The real solution will come when individuals choose to make decisions in favor of the earth’s welfare .

When billions of us combine a lot of small actions they add up to a big impact on the earth.

1. Climate Change

A sign from a protestor saying there is no Planet B trying to fight Climate change

Climate change is a massive topic. Inside this topic are all the subtopics and environmental problems that add up to climate change.

Climate change is the term we use to refer to the changing atmospheric conditions that affect life on earth.

  • Global warming
  • The greenhouse effect
  • Increased saturation of atmospheric carbon dioxide
  • Polar ice melt
  • Rising seawater levels
  • Ozone layer depletion

These things are intertwined and many of them have the same root cause – the main one is the burning of fossil fuels.

However, along with increased carbon dioxide output from fossil fuels, there are mainly CFCs and halons though other substances also destroy ozone molecules.

These substances are found in aerosols, refrigerants (like air conditioners) and other machinery. CFCs are banned, but other ozone-destroying chemicals are still in use.

Depletion of the ozone layer allows more UVB rays to get through the atmosphere which has a warming effect in the atmosphere of the globe. This changes weather patterns and climate expectations everywhere.

Climate Change Solutions

The solutions to climate change involve viewing the world differently than we currently do as a global culture.

We view the world as something to use. We want to get as much as we can while it’s available. This is causing us to use things we don’t need, create waste, and deplete our resources too fast.

Here are a few things we can do to help combat climate change.

  • Drive less often and less far. If there is an option to walk, ride a bike, carpool, or use public transportation then use those options first to help decrease your carbon footprint.
  • Reuse things instead of throwing them away. Americans seem to view recyclables as the way forward but they have limitations. They help us to reuse existing resources, but an even better choice is to choose reusable items every chance we get.
  • Aim for zero waste. Think about it before you buy. Choose to invest your money in things that will last a long time and can be reused or upcycled instead of thrown away. The world is awash in used cheap clothing, single-use plastics, and cheap appliances that are recyclable yet sit in filthy heaps.
  • Get involved. Too many people like to talk about climate change and even yell about climate change but don’t do anything to solve it. Work to increase recycling facilities in your area, educate your community about reusables, and plant native species in your town.
  • Get Renewable Energy. Renewable energy is a must. Buying an EV car isn’t enough because plugging into a fossil fuel electric grid just perpetuates the problem. Investigate your own chain of energy and opt for the cleanest energy you can afford.

Climate change is a real environmental issue and it’s full of uncertainties. One thing we know is that the decisions we make today can have a major impact on the quality of life on planet earth in the future.

2. Water Pollution

A stream with garbage in it showing Water pollution

Water pollution includes marine pollution and freshwater pollution. Let’s take a look at both.

Marine pollution is largely caused by nitrogen that washes away from inland soils and drains into the ocean water.

The excess nitrogen creates algae blooms that prevent sunlight and oxygen from penetrating into the ocean water.

This creates a hypoxic environment called a “dead zone” where fish, crustaceans, and sea mammals can’t live. Mobile marine animals leave the area. Immobile marine life dies.

This is the primary cause of our loss of coral reefs around the globe.

Marine pollution also takes the form of trash and recyclables that wash into the ocean and form massive flotillas of rubbish .

Freshwater pollution refers to the pollution of inland water like rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. We rely on these bodies of water for our drinking water, but they are quickly becoming too polluted to drink.

Freshwater pollution also happens due to nitrogen in the water , but it can also be the result of things people do.

  • Trash that ends up in the water
  • Sewer treatment plant releases (treated and untreated)
  • Dirty stormwater runoff
  • Pharmaceuticals, detergents, and other things people put in the water system
  • Heavy metals like lead and mercury

Some of these things we can’t avoid, but a lot of it is preventable.

Water Pollution Solutions

The effects of pollution could be minimized and possibly healed if we began to consciously make decisions that will protect our watershed instead of polluting it.

  • Farmers can use cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil . It’s an investment, not an overnight fix, but it will make the biggest impact on the health of the oceans and will eventually eliminate dead zones.
  • Homeowners can use as little culinary water as possible for watering outdoor plants. Try xeriscaping to save water. Install rain barrels to collect free water to use on outdoor plants and trees.
  • Dispose of medicines, motor oil, household chemicals, and paint in the proper facilities so they stay out of the watershed.
  • Eat organic as much as you can. This isn’t fail-proof, but most organic farms rely on natural sources of nitrogen rather than synthetic nitrogen to increase crop yields.
  • Be happy with imperfect produce. There is a massive global cost to get those perfect fruits and vegetables. They’re treated with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers to make them lovely. Go natural to encourage farmers who want to save the planet.
  • Enjoy water sports without a motor. You can greatly reduce your own impact on inland water supplies by enjoying muscle-powered water sports that don’t introduce oils, gasoline, and exhaust particulates into the water supply.

Think about how you’re using our precious water resources. Clean water is so easy to get in developed countries that we tend to forget the watershed it comes from.

That watershed needs our protection to continue to provide us with the clean water we need to survive.

3. Air Pollution

Industrial area with smoke and air pollution

Air pollution is what we call the suspended particulates that become part of the atmospheric gases that we breathe.

We’re not running out of oxygen. The earth has plenty of oxygen. The problem is that the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing disproportionately and it’s pretty much all our fault.

There is a natural carbon dioxide cycle that we have with all of the plants on the planet. We naturally produce carbon dioxide, and they breathe it in and convert it to oxygen.

In a natural state, this would be in perfect balance.

However, when we burn fossil fuels we pump massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that can’t be offset by the plants in the world.

Furthermore, the carbon dioxide is mixed with a slurry of carcinogens and toxins like methane, formaldehyde, phosphorus, styrene, and more.

Curious to see the full list? The EPA has a list of 188 air pollutants . Nobody benefits from breathing in these compounds.

Air pollution affects everything – us, plants, animals, all water on the planet, and marine fish and mammals.

Air pollution causes and effects have to be clearly understood to really grasp the solutions that we have to implement to clear the air.

Air Pollution Solutions

The biggest solution we can implement is the switch to clean alternative energy sources because fossil fuels are the biggest polluters on the planet.

However, we have to be clear that there isn’t a totally clean energy solution .

  • Solar panels are made with coal and require toxic waste disposal when they’re decommissioned.
  • Wind turbines have some recyclable parts but the huge fiberglass parts end up in landfills. One of the pros of wind energy is that wind turbines produce zero-cost electricity for about 10 years.
  • Nuclear energy pros and cons are hotly debated. It’s a dependable and safe energy source that produces zero carbon emissions . However, uranium mining and disposal cause major environmental hazards.
  • One of the advantages of biomass electricity that it creates fewer carbons than fossil fuels. However, biomass production is resulting in deforestation .

Having said all that, we still have to choose these alternative energy sources over straight-up fossil fuel consumption.

Fossil fuels are the dirtiest sources of energy that we have and they contribute the most to the dirty air that we suffer from around the world.

  • Limit your time on the road. Vehicle emissions are responsible for most of the dirty air that’s found in cities and communities around the world.
  • Turn off the lights and turn down the heat. Electricity usage is directly tied to fossil fuel consumption for powering the electrical grid in many areas.
  • Help plant trees. You can plant native tree species in your own town to help clean the air.
  • Contribute to rainforest reforestation projects that aim to help strengthen the world’s clean air and biodiversity.
  • Choose reusable items and avoid using plastics as much as possible. Manufacturing single-use items contribute a lot to air pollution.

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels will go the farthest in clearing the air around the world.

4. Natural Resource Depletion

A closed dam showing how we can use natural resources effectively.

The world is full of natural resources. A natural resource is anything that we can use to live or make something from.

Some natural resources examples include:

  • Fossil fuels

The world is full of natural resources that we use to enable life as we know it. Natural resources feed us, give us electricity, wire our laptops, and keep us hydrated.

The problem is not all natural resources are renewable . Coal, natural gas, uranium, gold, and even salt are natural resources we depend on but once they’re used up we have no more.

This is why we have to focus on stewarding our renewable natural resources.

  • Keeping our water clean
  • Collecting sunlight for energy
  • Ensuring that fisheries are not over-harvested
  • Keeping soil as clean as possible – avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers
  • Managing timber stands wisely so that we aren’t using more trees than we can replenish in several decades.

When we overuse our natural resources we get a short-term payoff but a long-term loss.

For example, establishing reservoirs in the southwest was a good idea 90 years ago. It allowed the development of desert areas.

However, as communities expand across arid areas under the assumption that established water sources will be reliable, the water sources are being used faster than they can naturally replenish.

Natural Resource Depletion Solutions

One of the main natural resources that we’re depleting is fossil fuel. It is not only going away, but it’s also ruining our planet as we use it for fuel and energy.

Switching to cleaner energy sources is a non-negotiable for solving our climate crisis, but we also have to focus on decreasing our need for energy .

Here are some good ways to decrease your own energy demand so we use fewer natural resources to produce electricity.

  • Use less air conditioning in the summer. Willingness to be a little warm will go a long way toward decreasing your contribution to air pollution.
  • Use less heat in the winter. Wear a sweater and some slippers instead of cranking up the heat.
  • Get up and go to bed with the sun. This is harder in the winter, but by adjusting your waking and sleeping schedule to be more in tune with the sun you’ll feel better and use less electricity in the morning and at night.
  • Help to plant trees. Again, replenishing the world’s forests help ensure that our air is healthy and that we have timber stands ready to harvest in the future.
  • Waste less food. This doesn’t mean cleaning your plate. This means putting less on it in the first place. Food waste begins at the store and it can end there too.
  • Eat whole foods. Whole, natural foods don’t require processing. This means that there isn’t a ton of electricity and fossil fuels going into the production of what you eat. Whole foods are better for the environment and better for your body.
  • Refill your water bottle. The majority of single-use plastics that are wandering around in the environment are plastic water bottles. Get a sturdy reusable bottle and refill it. You can keep thousands of water bottles out of the waste stream in your lifetime.

By focusing on sustainability we can help to reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources and help to conserve the resources that we have so they last longer.

5. Waste Management

A woman sorting her recyclables and garbage so she can help avoid causing environmental problems

Waste management has come a long way in the last decade, but it has a long way to go in certain areas of the United States.

According to the EPA, the total waste production in the United States averages out to 4.9 pounds per person per day . This includes all sorts of trash that is binned and collected.

  • Recyclables (plastic, paper, glass)
  • Landfill items that can’t be recycled
  • Grass clippings
  • Electronics
  • Appliances, etc.

50% of the waste stream goes into landfills .

About 32% of the waste collected in the United States gets recycled or composted .

Nearly 12% gets burned as “biomass” to generate electricity.

Around 6% of the waste is food waste that gets treated in other ways. It might be used in animal feed, turned into fertilizer, used in the creation of biochemicals, or other methods of disposal or reuse.

It’s clear that the US has made a concerted effort to deal with waste streams. The problem is that the amount of waste generated per person is growing drastically.

In 1980 each person generated about 3.66 pounds per day. In 2018 that figure had risen to 4.9 pounds per day. This is the trend that we must change.

Worldwide waste production equals about 1.63 pounds per person with the bulk of that waste being generated in highly developed countries.

Though developing countries don’t tend to generate nearly as much waste per person, they don’t have any safe waste disposal infrastructure which leads to the creation of massive open dumps .

All landfills emit tons of greenhouse gases – mostly methane and carbon dioxide. This is another major contributor to global warming.

While recycling efforts in the United States and elsewhere have produced great results, the recycling waste stream produces much more material than can be currently recycled – ending in waste.

Waste Management Solutions

Waste management must be solved worldwide, but the only thing we can affect is our own consumption and waste patterns.

If each of us becomes wiser consumers we can have a dramatic impact on the waste streams and the carbon emissions from them.

  • Waste stops at the store. We can’t impact how much production waste there is unless we stop supporting it with our money. Less demand equals less production.
  • Choose reusables. The best purchases are things that can be used hundreds of times before they’re broken or used up.
  • Choose recyclables. The recycling stream is quickly outpacing available recycling facilities, so this still isn’t the best choice, though it’s better than throwing things in the landfill.
  • Don’t buy more food than you can eat. Some areas have food composting programs, but when food is thrown away it also releases greenhouse gases. Don’t fill your garbage can with food. Reduce your waste and compost food waste if you can. That will also help increase soil health.
  • Lobby for recycling. There are billions of dollars being spent on United States “infrastructure.” Citizens need to raise awareness of the need for more and bigger recycling centers so the United States can process its own rubbish.
  • Lobby for action. Certain landfills are known as “super emitters.” If local authorities and national politicians will focus on cleaning up the emissions from these sites it will make a huge difference.

In the case of waste streams, part of the responsibility lies with municipal governments to handle waste more cleanly.

The other part of the responsibility lies with the citizens. We are the ones generating the waste. We can all do our part to cut down on our own waste as much as possible.

6. Urban Sprawl

Los Angeles is a prime example of environmental problems caused by urban sprawl

Urban sprawl is the term used to describe the way that cities spread from an urban center into widening suburban neighborhoods. Dwellings go from high-density to low-density, taking up more land.

Urban sprawl is characterized by land use and natural resource consumption .

Undeveloped land that was farmland, ranchland, native plants and soil, or forest is paved over for low-density housing and new strip malls, grocery stores, and restaurant chains.

Here are key takeaways you should know about Urban Sprawl.

  • These sprawling areas greatly tax the water supply in the area because the new parks, city strips, lawns, and gardens have to be watered continuously to keep their nice appearance.
  • Urban sprawl is a major contributor to the carbon emissions from vehicles . People must commute from sprawling areas into the downtown area for work and school. This increases time on the road. In the worst cases, these vehicles idle while they’re stuck in traffic.
  • Urban sprawl creates a need for additional garbage processing resources, greenspace planning, freshwater wells, water treatment plants, waste treatment plants, power plants, substations, and more.

Many of these things aren’t bad, and urban sprawl is often the natural outflow of living in a prosperous area .

It can also be a sign that the municipal government is not keeping the urban areas clean and safe.

Regardless, it is a style of living that uses many more resources than a high-density urban lifestyle.

Some cities including the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and Los Angeles are experiencing increasing urban density as more residents refurbish downtown areas to make them desirable neighborhoods.

Urban Sprawl Solutions

There aren’t any surefire solutions to urban sprawl. The fact is that people move away from urban areas for many reasons – not all of which can be solved.

Here are a few things that local governments can do to encourage people to adopt a high-density housing lifestyle in urban areas.

  • Keep residents safe. When people and businesses don’t feel safe in an area they move. Most of the time they choose to move into a suburban or rural area that feels safer. When cities put the safety of residents first they enjoy the prosperity that a thriving urban core brings.
  • Focus on key infrastructure. Garbage services, stormwater runoff, sewage treatment, and traffic controls make a big difference in the quality of life in urban areas. When the urban areas feel dirty and congested people move out of the city.
  • Encourage community spirit. Cities that find ways to involve citizens in city life enjoy a much higher sense of community pride. This benefits everyone because people who take pride in their community work harder to keep it clean and safe.
  • Keep taxes fair. Many people choose to live outside of municipal boundaries because property taxes are much lower in unincorporated areas. Cities that cut fiscal waste can also keep property taxes lower while providing excellent city services.

Over time cities can turn urban life into a desirable living situation for many, diminishing the exodus to outlying areas and helping to curb the rapidity of urban sprawl.

7. Energy Consumption

High voltage transmission lines bring electricity to homes and businesses.

Our overall high energy consumption is the main contributor to climate change because 61% of the electricity generated in the United States is from burning fossil fuels.

So, on top of burning fossil fuels to commute from sprawling communities, we are also burning fossil fuels to charge our EV cars , keep the air conditioners running, and keep the lights on.

There is no denying the negative impact that our high energy consumption has on the planet, but we also rely on it for our highly technological way of life.

For example, let’s take a look at data centers . The world relies on data centers.

They serve all of your cloud storage, social media content, online shopping, virtual worlds, game streaming, on-demand entertainment, and remote workflows.

Right now, data centers alone consume about 2% of all the energy generated in the United States, and that number is growing as data centers pop up everywhere to handle cloud storage needs.

We can’t just stop feeding data centers because we rely on them for work, data storage, and socialization. Younger generations are more dependent on data center capacity and speed than ever before .

That’s just one example of an energy consumer that we can’t just shut down to save the planet. So we have to look at home to decrease energy consumption .

Energy Consumption Solutions

As with most solutions to our global environmental crisis, the answer begins at home.

  • Shut off the lights and opt for sunshine. Even small amounts of wattage saved add up to big savings for the planet.
  • Keep appliances clean. Did you know that vacuuming your refrigerator condenser will help it to run less often and cool more efficiently? Keep the dryer clean too so it can dry clothing faster and use less energy.
  • Accept a little discomfort. Instead of running the heat and air conditioning to keep yourself at the ideal temperature, let it fluctuate up and down to save energy.
  • Reduce energy use during peak hours. 7am to 10pm are peak energy hours for most of the country during most of the year. It’s hard to cut down on energy usage during waking hours, but if you can you’ll save a lot of energy and cut down on your bill too.
  • Invest in solar panels. Even a couple of solar panels can really help offset your energy usage. Many utility companies around the United States are taking advantage of government incentives and may be able to install your solar system for free!
  • Buy into renewable energy. Many energy companies offer programs where subscribers can buy into renewable energy projects. The electricity from renewables costs a bit more, but by buying in you allow your energy provider to buy into renewable and burn fewer fossil fuels.

There are dozens of ways we can all think of to save a little energy here and there. From riding a bike to eating fresh foods we can help decrease the amount of energy it takes to power our lives.

8. Environmental Degradation

Garbage floating in a waterway in India - a land suffering from the effects of air, soil, and water pollution.

Environmental degradation occurs when human activities change the environment for the worse.

Environmental Degradation Definition

Environmental degradation is the destruction or deterioration of the quality of natural resources and habitats including soil, water, air, and wildlife .

Degradation primarily happens through pollution, over-harvesting, and erosion.

Here are some examples of environmental degradation .

  • Strip mining
  • Urban sprawl
  • Overfishing
  • Marine pollution
  • Air pollution

Environmental degradation is inevitable because we have to use the land for food production, energy production, and dwellings, but we can do a lot to help preserve the quality of the land.

Environmental Degradation Solutions

There are a number of thing we can do to help reduce the amount of environmental degradation that happens as a result of our own needs and wants.

  • Replant native trees and plants . Much environmental degradation occurs because native plants are stripped away for development. Replanting exposed soil helps to replenish minerals, nitrogen, habitats, and stop erosion.
  • Curb energy consumption. Again we come back to energy use. The majority of the air pollution in the United States is caused by energy consumption and transportation.
  • Plan travel wisely. Instead of making lots of small trips, try to consolidate trips in the car to cut down on air pollution.
  • Invest in alternative energy. Alternative energy sources also cause soil degradation because of the raw materials that have to be mined to make them and soil disruption from placement. However, it is much less pollutive to the air than fossil fuels.
  • Eat whole foods. Responsible farming and ranching helps to replenish soils through crop rotation and the use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops. However, America’s insatiable appetite for snack foods creates a high demand for irresponsibly grown crops. Eating whole foods is much better for the earth.
  • Invest in urban revitalization. If you’re a renter it can be hard to find an urban dwelling. However, if you’re an invester, consider revitalizing downtown industrial areas for housing instead of developing low-density suburban housing.

Humans aren’t responsible for all types of environmental degradation, but we contribute a lot to it. We can also help clean up our habits and use fewer resources that result in habitat destruction.

9. Deforestation

A biomass power plant that burns chipped trees to generate electricity - causing deforestation.

Deforestation happens when trees are stripped away or burned away. It can be human-caused or the result of a natural disaster.

Sometimes humans and nature work together to create deforestation. Examples include when a hydroelectric dam bursts due to catastrophic rainfall, or a volcano like Mt. Saint Helens flattens a forest.

Human-caused deforestation is two-fold. Sometimes managed forests owned by timber companies are stripped and then replanted. This happens for lumber and to create biomass for power plants.

While habitat loss and environmental degradation are heartbreaking, the trees will regrow within a few decades. However, the animals and birds must shift from place to place to survive.

On the other hand, forest fires caused by human activity will deforest an area that may not ever recover. Habitat loss is sometimes permanent .

Deforestation Solutions

The most obvious solution to deforestation is to replant trees in areas that are logged or burned for any reason. Replanting with native species is a must.

The second solution to deforestation is to decrease the demand for paper products and lumber. Choose things that are reusable as much as possible.

The alternative to lumber is steel which creates a different problem because it requires mining and uses non-renewable resources .

However, steel can be recycled forever. One of the benefits of recycling steel is that the recycled steel is just as strong and pure as virgin steel.

So while the recycled steel industry can’t keep up with the need for new steel, as more steel is recycled for construction purposes we should see it gradually relieve some of the need for lumber.

10. Recycling Inefficiencies

Bales of recyclable paper waiting to be processed into new paper products.

The final huge environmental problem that we must solve domestically is our recycling inefficiencies.

Most Americans don’t realize that our recycling system is strained and largely broken because we don’t recycle our trash at home.

The story of US recycling is a long one that’s full of problems, even from the beginning. China used to handle the bulk of our recycling, but it is so polluted that they banned it in 2018.

Now America’s recycling waste is shipped to developing countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia where it is piled waiting to be sorted and recycled into usable materials.

The problem is that anywhere from 20 to 70% of our recyclables end up in a landfill overseas or are burned. This is an outrage that has sparked a lot of discussions but it needs to be addressed at home.

Here are the reasons our recycling is not being recycled.

  • People are putting contaminated items into recycling bins. Dirty recyclables can cause an entire load of recyclables – several tons – to be dumped in a landfill.
  • People include non-recyclables in recycling bins. This wishful recycling is a major cause for discarding entire loads of recyclables. It’s too expensive to go through and sort it all back out, so it all gets put in the dump.
  • The United States isn’t processing recyclables. The United States doesn’t have a federal recycling program and has been dependent on other countries to handle our waste. Now they don’t want it, so we’re stuck with it. We have to implement a recycling program and do it ourselves to succeed.
  • Recycling is expensive. Cities used to sell their recycling as a type of raw material and make money from it. Now that global market has dried up and cities are having to pay to get rid of recyclables. That means tons of it are going into the landfill instead of being recycled.
  • There are too many types of plastic. Plastic is a particular problem because there are so many types and not all are recyclable. Even though there is a number and a recycling symbol on the bottom doesn’t mean it’s accepted for recycling.

All of this is discouraging because those of us who recycle carefully realize that in spite of us our clean, sorted recyclables might still be ending in a landfill.

Recycling Solutions

The keys to our recycling disaster are expensive, and we have to play the long game to win.

  • Education. Educate the public about what’s happening to recyclables and why. When people understand why they can’t throw grocery bags or plastic wrap in with clean water bottles they’ll stop doing it.
  • Federal Investment. The federal government needs to invest in recycling centers that can turn US recyclable waste into clean, usable materials. It’s an expensive solution but the only one that can turn the situation around long-term.
  • Business Investment. One of the major recycling benefits is that businesses can create packaging and goods with recycled materials. This will help to create a circular market for recyclables in the US economy.
  • Reduction. The US must turn away from consumerism and focus on sustainability. As long as we buy into the consumerist culture of getting as much as possible, the waste problem will continue to grow.

We can help at home by ensuring that our recyclables are clean and generating less of a need for recycling by decreasing our dependence on single-use items.

It would also be helpful to limit plastic production to only types that are safe to use and can be recycled.

The benefits of recycling clothes and textiles can’t be overstated. Engaging in this circular economy saves money, eliminates fabric waste, and turns fabric into a renewable resource!

Causes of Environmental Problems

The causes of environmental problems usually come back to excess consumption . As the human population expands we are also collectively demanding more resources per person.

Humans want to use more energy, more precious metals, more water, more food, and more luxurious items like fashionable clothing and multiple vehicles.

All of these demands can be met, but only by expending more of the earth’s natural resources. Metals and fossil fuels are non-renewable so as demand increases the price goes up and the supply goes down.

The key to so many of our major environmental problems is to decrease personal consumption.

Why are environmental problems common in developing countries?

Good question and the answer comes back to excess consumption . Many developing countries receive our excess clothing, recyclables, and used goods.

They develop a market around these used goods, but there is simply too much. It ends up in massive waste piles because many of the goods we discard are low-quality and non-recyclable.

Developing countries lack the infrastructure to deal with polluted water, overflowing landfills, and piles of unused recyclables so they stay in the environment creating health and environmental hazards.

One example is electronics recycling. While we all want to reap the benefits of recycling electronics , when they’re sent overseas for recycling the results are dangerous.

“Informal” recyclers are exposed to extremely high levels of neurotoxins and carcinogens as they break down e-waste by hand to recover gold, silver, copper, and other precious metals.

Instead of exposing the poor to these hazardous materials we should be doing the recycling at home and helping to develop a clean recycling industry abroad.

Final Thoughts

We’ve discussed 10 global environmental problems, and most of them center around the demands of the economically developed world.

The problems we face on planet earth can seem overwhelming, but they aren’t. We can solve them beginning with our own buying and consumption habits .

We can become involved in clean-up efforts in our own communities. We can lobby for domestic recycling plants.

We can help educate our own community members about why recycling is important and why it’s vital to do it right.

What do you think about these environmental problems and solutions? Do you have more ideas for how we can help to solve these environmental problems? Let us know in the comments below!

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What Will Be the 6 Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024?

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For decades, new government policies and activism have helped us make big strides in environmental protection. However, the world continues to see higher temperatures, leading to severe weather events, flooding, drought, wildfires , and more. But what environmental challenges should we focus on moving forward to ensure we’re heading in the right direction to slow, stop, or even reverse climate change ?  

Below, we review the biggest environmental problems of 2024 and beyond to help you understand what areas we must focus on to reach our climate goals.  

What Will Be the Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024?

The U.S. and the entire world face many immediate environmental issues , but some are more pressing and time-sensitive than others. Let’s review the six biggest environmental issues the U.S. faces as we near 2024.  

1. Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels , whether oil, natural gas, or coal, remain a critical environmental issue as we near 2024. Burning these fuels for energy — powering a vehicle or generating electricity — is the leading cause of climate change , as it makes up over 75% of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG emissions ) worldwide and 90% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions . If we’re looking to slow global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, we must halve our fossil fuel emissions by 2033.  

The need to cut our fossil fuel emissions within a decade makes limiting our reliance on fossil fuels the most pressing environmental issue the U.S. faces in 2024. Doing this requires help from several industries and consumers, as a large portion of fossil fuel emissions come from both transportation and power generation.  

Automakers must continue pushing for green vehicle development, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and other alternative fuels, and consumers must be willing to adopt this technology.   

But also, the power-generation industry must continue moving away from gas-, coal-, and oil-fired power plants and switch to green and renewable energy generation, such as hydropower, wind, and solar. Consumers can also do their part by switching to providers offering green options, if available, and even take matters into their own hands by installing solar panels on their homes.  

2. Deforestation

The U.S. population continues to grow annually , and the more it grows, the land use to build houses, roads, and other structures increases. Building these structures often results in deforestation . This urbanization of forested land has several serious consequences.  

First, trees are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb carbon from the air. Once we cut them down, we eliminate that absorption. And with CO2 emissions being a huge contributor to global warming , we can’t risk eliminating these carbon-absorbing natural resources.   

Second, urbanizing forested land impacts wildlife and their habitats and ecosystems , resulting in biodiversity loss and displacement, which can eventually threaten the very existence of certain species.  

3. Air Quality

The air quality in the U.S. has improved over the years. From 2021 to 2022, air pollution was lower in eight of every 10 cities, according to NBC News research . What’s more, these clean air improvements span back to 1980 , so we’ve been on the right track for over 40 years. However, now’s not the time to take the foot off the accelerator, as it’s easy to go backward.  

Various industries need to continue finding ways to limit their emissions . Automakers must continue finding ways to limit the pollutants their vehicles emit. And most of all, consumers must continue pushing industries to make changes by supporting those who’ve made the efforts. Consumers must also be willing to adopt new, reduced- emission transportation and other emission -reducing technology as it becomes available in 2024 and beyond.  

4. Drinking Water

Drinking water is often taken for granted in the U.S., but recent water-contamination crises in Mississippi, Michigan, Maryland, and Hawaii show that this issue can affect us too. Some of this is the result of old pipes and aging infrastructure, but it also has a lot to do with climate change .  

Climate change has resulted in extreme weather conditions that can result in severe flooding that puts added strain on aging drinking water infrastructures. And should this rainwater infiltrate the drinking water supply , it could bring pollutants and toxins along with it, making the freshwater undrinkable.  

Landfill Waste Quarry Environmental Problems Air Quality

When this waste is in landfills, it doesn’t just decompose and disappear. Instead, as it decomposes, it releases methane, which is 80 times worse than CO2 when contributing to climate change because it traps significantly more heat.  

Making matters worse, not all this trash ends up in landfills. Much of it, including plastic waste , ends up in the oceans. This plastic pollution can severely impact marine ecosystems and animals.  

To help with this, companies must rethink their packaging, using recyclables or reusable packaging where possible. Consumers should try to support those companies making an effort to reduce wasteful packaging as well as reuse and recycle packaging when possible.  

6. Natural Resources

As our population grows, so does our demand for natural resources . If our demand exceeds the supply, we risk natural resource depletion , which is when we consume them faster than they are replaced. An example of natural resource depletion would be removing fish from the ocean for food at a rate that exceeds their breeding rate. And this can apply to any natural resource, whether it’s renewable or not, including water, fossil fuels , trees, and more.  

Natural resource depletion can lead to many issues, including water shortages, oil shortages, loss of forested lands, mineral depletion, and even species extinction.  

Through policies limiting resource use, we can help ensure plenty of natural resources are available for future generations. Also, we can use technology to find new and renewable resources to replace more limited natural resources.  

What Will Be the Biggest Environmental Problem in the Future?

While future generations will likely have plenty of environmental problems to tackle, one stands head and shoulders above all others. That’s climate change . A whopping 97% of science papers agree that human activities have led to the climate crisis known as global warming .  

Global warming and climate change are about more than just warmer temperatures. They can cause other serious issues, including rising ocean levels impacting coastal cities and states; dramatic climate events, such as long droughts or massive flooding; and the extinction of certain species. This is why it’s so critical to get the problem under control.  

All that said, slowing and reversing climate change isn’t something that’ll happen quickly. It will take many years of incremental improvement before we reach our goals.  

We have pieces of the puzzle in place, such as the Paris Agreement , a United Nations pact to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius annually through emissions reductions and to eventually attain net-zero emissions , among other climate-focused initiatives . Thus far, the Paris Agreement has been a mixture of successes and failures, but it is just one piece of a large puzzle to slow and stop climate change .  

What Are the Facts About Climate Change in 2023?

Burning fossil fuels , deforestation , and unsustainable power generation are some of the biggest environmental issues facing us in the future. But these all point back to one critical result, the need to slow and ideally reverse climate change through aggressive climate action , such as clean energy .  

As mentioned earlier, climate change is the biggest environmental problem of 2024 and beyond, so let’s review some of the facts about climate change as of 2023.  

2 023 Is Likely to Be One of the Warmest Years Ever

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information outlook, 2023 has a 99% chance of being one of the 10 warmest years on record. There’s also an 89% chance it’ll be one of the five-warmest years on record.   

And through May 2023, this prediction has proven true, as it’s been the fourth-warmest year ever. May was particularly warm, ringing in as the third-warmest May on record.  

The Water Cycle Is Intensifying

Climate Change Floods Result Men in Raft

A rising global climate is also bringing about more intense water cycles. This increases the risk and severity of sudden flooding and long droughts. Experts anticipate increased rainfall in higher latitudes and decreased rainfall in the subtropics.  

Sea Ice Is Hitting Record Lows

Sea ice — a key indicator in global warming — has hit extreme lows in 2023. This year, the Arctic sea ice extent reached its third-lowest level recorded in January 2023 at 5.15 million square miles . That is roughly 243,000 square miles less than the average between 1991 and 2000.   

The Antarctic ice extent was even worse, checking in at 1.25 million square miles in January, 700,000 square miles less than the 1991 to 2000 average and a new record low.  

This melting sea ice contributes to rising sea levels, which can lead to even more severe coastal flooding .  

Oceans Are Warming and Becoming More Acidic

As global temperatures rise, so does the temperature of our oceans . Ocean water expands as it warms, compounding the coastal flooding mentioned earlier. Also, the ocean can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, but this results in the ocean becoming more acidic, threatening sensitive marine species and damaging key ecological settings, such as coral reefs.  

You Can Do Your Part to Impact the Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024

Woman Open Arms Fresh Clean Air

One step you can take is to offset some of your carbon footprint by purchasing voluntary carbon credits. These carbon credits help fund green projects that reduce emissions . Not sure where to start? Check out Terrapass’s wide selection of voluntary carbon credits. You can then choose the one that suits you and know you’re helping push us in the right direction.  

Brought to you by terrapass.com

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EPA Releases Bold National Strategy to Transform Recycling in America

2021 Strategy to tackle major recycling challenges, and address climate change and legacy waste issues in overburdened communities for first time in Agency history

November 15, 2021

WASHINGTON (Nov. 15, 2021) – Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the 2021 National Recycling Strategy to tackle major recycling challenges facing the nation and to create a stronger, more resilient, and cost-effective municipal solid waste recycling system. The 2021 strategy is also the first time EPA’s recycling strategy will address the climate impacts of producing, using, and disposing of materials and focus on the human health and environmental impacts of waste and waste-related facilities in overburdened communities, reflecting the Agency’s commitment to delivering environmental justice.

“Our nation’s recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people. EPA’s National Recycling Strategy provides a roadmap to address system challenges and pave the way for the future of recycling,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan . “As we move forward with this strategy, EPA is committed to ensuring that historically underserved and overburdened communities share in the benefits that our work will deliver. Together with the historic investments in recycling from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the strategy will help transform recycling and solid waste management across the country while creating jobs and strengthening our economy.”

“The full impact of waste materials is connected to a broad range of issues, and having a strategy that promotes better materials management can help lead us to solutions for these larger issues,”  said Dr. Sacoby Wilson, EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member and University of Maryland Associate Professor/Director, Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Initiative, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics . “We have to work with industries that are significant sources of single use products. And, when we address recycling, we must address where these waste products come from, where they go, and how they’re impacting the health, sustainability, and quality of life in communities of color.” 

The U.S. recycling system faces many challenges, including reduced markets for recycled materials, recycling infrastructure that has not kept pace with today’s diverse and changing waste stream, confusion about what materials can be recycled, and varying methodologies to measure recycling system performance. The 2021 National Recycling Strategy identifies actions to address these challenges that build on the collaborative efforts by stakeholders from across the recycling system that began under the 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System .

The National Recycling Strategy includes five strategic objectives with specific actions to strengthen the U.S. recycling system:

  • Improve markets for recycled commodities through market development, analysis, manufacturing, and research.
  • Increase collection of recyclable materials and improve recycling infrastructure through analysis, funding, product design, and processing efficiencies.
  • Reduce contamination in the recycled materials stream through outreach and education to the public on the value of proper recycling.
  • Enhance policies and programs to support recyclability and recycling through strengthened federal and international coordination, analysis, research on product pricing, and sharing of best practices.
  • Standardize measurement and increase data collection through coordinated recycling definitions, measures, targets, and performance indicators.

In addition, the Strategy focuses on how the Agency will move forward in the following areas:

  • Increasing Equitable Access for Overburdened Communities : EPA recognizes the burden that living near waste and waste-related facilities has on communities when waste is not properly managed, which can lead to higher levels of chronic health issues. The 2021 Strategy will increase equitable access to recycling services, reduce environmental impacts in communities, stimulate economic development, and ensure overburdened communities meaningfully participate during the strategy’s implementation.
  • Reducing Climate Impacts of Materials Management : The 2021 Strategy includes a commitment by EPA to create a new national goal to reduce the climate impacts from the production, consumption, use, and disposal of materials, which make up approximately 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’ s International Resource Panel. This new climate goal will help achieve President Biden’s commitment to achieve a 50-52-percent reduction from 2005 levels in economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
  • Managing Materials for a Circular Economy : While this initial 2021 Strategy focuses on the recycling of municipal solid waste, additional work is necessary to create a “circular economy” where materials (e.g., plastics, food waste, electronics, and industrial materials) are sustainably managed throughout their lifecycle. EPA, in coordination with other federal agencies and interested stakeholders, intends to release subsequent strategies that will encompass other activities beyond the recycling of MSW, reflecting the need for sustainable product design, reducing waste generation, and materials reuse activities critical to realizing circularity. Subsequent strategies will address other key materials, such as plastics, food, cement and concrete, as well as electronics.

During the next few months, EPA will work collaboratively with stakeholders to develop a plan to implement the 2021 Strategy. EPA will collaborate with communities, local, state, federal and Tribal partners, and with public and private stakeholders to achieve the strategy’s ambitious goals.

Additional Background:

Over the next few years, EPA will move forward to support a circular economy approach to materials management, which represents an important change in how the nation currently mines resources, makes them into products, and then disposes of them. A circular economy approach reduces material use, redesigns materials and products to be less resource intensive, and recaptures “waste” as a resource to manufacture new materials and products. It is defined by the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act as “a systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative to the environment by design, enable resources used in such processes and activities to maintain their highest values for as long as possible, and aim for the elimination of waste through superior design of materials, products and systems (including business models).”

Learn more about the National Recycling Strategy: Part One of a Series on Building a Circular Economy for All : https://www.epa.gov/recyclingstrategy

Learn how to improve the nation’s recycling rate: https://www.epa.gov/recyclingstrategy/national-recycling-strategy-part-one-series-building-circular-economy-join-effort

Learn more about recycling in the United States:  https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling

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15 Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024

15 Biggest Environmental Problems of 2024

While the climate crisis has many factors that play a role in the exacerbation of the environment, some warrant more attention than others. Here are some of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, from deforestation and biodiversity loss to food waste and fast fashion.

1. Global Warming From Fossil Fuels

2023 was the hottest year on record , with global average temperatures at 1.46C above pre-industrial levels and 0.13C higher than the eleven-month average for 2016, currently the warmest calendar year on record. The year was marked by six record-breaking months and two record-breaking seasons.

What’s more, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have never been so high . After being consistently around 280 parts per million (ppm) for almost 6,000 years of human civilisation, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now well above 420 ppm, more than double what they were before the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Rick Spinrad, the steady annual increase is a “direct result of human activity,” mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation but also from cement manufacturing, deforestation , and  agriculture .

This is undoubtedly one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime: as greenhouse gas emissions blanket the Earth, they trap the sun’s heat, leading to global warming.

Monthly mean carbon dioxide CO2 measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. Image: Global Monitoring Laboratory

Increased emissions of greenhouse gases have led to a rapid and steady increase in global temperatures, which in turn is  causing catastrophic events all over the world – from Australia and the US experiencing some of the most devastating bushfire seasons ever recorded, locusts swarming across parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, decimating crops, and a heatwave in Antarctica that saw temperatures rise above 20C for the first time. S cientists are constantly warning that the planet has crossed a series of tipping points that could have catastrophic consequences, such as  advancing permafrost melt in Arctic regions, the Greenland ice sheet melting at an unprecedented rate, accelerating sixth mass extinction , and increasing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest , just to name a few.

The climate crisis is causing tropical storms and other weather events such as hurricanes, heatwaves and flooding to be more intense and frequent than seen before. However, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immediately, global temperatures would continue to rise in the coming years. That is why it is absolutely imperative that we start now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy sources, and phase our fossil fuels as fast as possible.

You might also like: The Tipping Points of Climate Change: How Will Our World Change?

2. Poor Governance

According to economists like Nicholas Stern, the climate crisis is a result of multiple market failures .

Economists and environmentalists have urged policymakers for years to increase the price of activities that emit greenhouse gases (one of our biggest environmental problems), the lack of which constitutes the largest market failure, for example through carbon taxes, which will stimulate innovations in low-carbon technologies.

To cut emissions quickly and effectively enough, governments must not only massively increase funding for green innovation to bring down the costs of low-carbon energy sources, but they also need to adopt a range of other policies that address each of the other market failures. 

A national carbon tax is currently implemented in 27 countries around the world , including various countries in the EU, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Ukraine and Argentina. However, according to the 2019 OECD Tax Energy Use report, current tax structures are not adequately aligned with the pollution profile of energy sources. For example, the OECD suggests that carbon taxes are not harsh enough on coal production, although it has proved to be effective for the electricity industry. A carbon tax has been effectively implemented in Sweden ; the carbon tax is U$127 per tonne and has reduced emissions by 25% since 1995, while its economy has expanded 75% in the same time period. 

Further, organisations such as the United Nations are not fit to deal with the climate crisis: it was assembled to prevent another world war and is not fit for purpose. Anyway, members of the UN are not mandated to comply with any suggestions or recommendations made by the organisation. For example, the Paris Agreement , a historic deal within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), says that countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly so that global temperature rise is below 2C by 2100, and ideally under 1.5C. But signing on to it is voluntary, and there are no real repercussions for non-compliance. Further, the issue of equity remains a contentious issue whereby developing countries are allowed to emit more in order to develop to the point where they can develop technologies to emit less, and it allows some countries, such as China, to exploit this. 

3. Food Waste

A third of the food intended for human consumption – around 1.3 billion tons – is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people. Food waste and loss account for approximately one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions annually ; if it was a country, food waste would be the third-largest emitter  of greenhouse gases, behind China and the US. 

Food production accounts for around one-quarter – 26% – of global greenhouse gas emissions. Our World in Data

Food waste and loss occurs at different stages in developing and developed countries; in developing countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, while in developed countries, 40% of food waste occurs at the retail and consumer levels. 

At the retail level, a shocking amount of food is wasted because of aesthetic reasons; in fact, in the US, more than 50% of all produce thrown away in the US is done so because it is deemed to be “too ugly” to be sold to consumers- this amounts to about 60 million tons of fruits and vegetables. This leads to food insecurity , another one of the biggest environmental problems on the list. 

You might also like: How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?

4. Biodiversity Loss

The past 50 years have seen a rapid growth of human consumption, population, global trade and urbanisation, resulting in humanity using more of the Earth’s resources than it can replenish naturally. 

A 2020 WWF report found that the population sizes of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have experienced a decline of an average of 68% between 1970 and 2016. The report attributes this biodiversity loss to a variety of factors, but mainly land-use change, particularly the conversion of habitats, like forests, grasslands and mangroves, into agricultural systems. Animals such as pangolins, sharks and seahorses are significantly affected by the illegal wildlife trade, and pangolins are critically endangered because of it. 

More broadly, a recent analysis has found that the sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating. More than 500 species of land animals are on the brink of extinction and are likely to be lost within 20 years; the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. The scientists say that without the human destruction of nature, this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years. 

In Antarctica, climate change-triggered melting of sea ice is taking a heavy toll on emperor penguins and could wipe out entire populations by as early as 2100 , according to 2023 research.

You might also like: The Remarkable Benefits of Biodiversity

5. Plastic Pollution

In 1950, the world produced more than 2 million tons of plastic per year . By 2015, this annual production swelled to 419 million tons and exacerbating plastic waste in the environment. 

plastic packaging waste; plastic pollution; beverage single-use plastic bottles in landfill. Photo: PxHere

A report by science journal, Nature, determined that currently, roughly 14 million tons of plastic make their way into the oceans every year, harming wildlife habitats and the animals that live in them. The research found that if no action is taken, the plastic crisis will grow to 29 million metric tons per year by 2040. If we include microplastics into this, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean could reach 600 million tons by 2040.

Shockingly, National Geographic found that 91% of all plastic that has ever been made is not recycled, representing not only one of the biggest environmental problems of our lifetime, but another massive market failure. Considering that plastic takes 400 years to decompose, it will be many generations until it ceases to exist. There’s no telling what the irreversible effects of plastic pollution will have on the environment in the long run. 

You might also like: 8 Shocking Plastic Pollution Statistics to Know About

6. Deforestation

Every hour, forests the size of 300 football fields are cut down. By the year 2030, the planet might have only 10% of its forests; if deforestation isn’t stopped, they could all be gone in less than 100 years. 

The three countries experiencing the highest levels of deforestation are Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest – spanning 6.9 million square kilometres (2.72 million square miles) and covering around 40% of the South American continent – is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems and is home to about three million species of plants and animals . Despite efforts to protect forest land, legal deforestation is still rampant, and about one-third of global tropical deforestation occurs in Brazil’s Amazon forest, amounting to 1.5 million hectares each year . 

deforestation

Agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, another one of the biggest environmental problems appearing on this list. Land is cleared to raise livestock or to plant other crops that are sold, such as sugar cane and palm oil . Besides for carbon sequestration, forests help to prevent soil erosion, because the tree roots bind the soil and prevent it from washing away, which also prevents landslides. 

You might also like: 10 Deforestation Facts You Should Know About

7. Air Pollution 

One of the biggest environmental problems today is outdoor air pollution .

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that an estimated 4.2 to 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. In Africa, 258,000 people died as a result of outdoor air pollution in 2017, up from 164,000 in 1990, according to UNICEF . Causes of air pollution mostly comes from industrial sources and motor vehicles, as well as emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms. 

According to a 2023 study, air pollution in South Asia – one of the most polluted areas in the world – cuts life expectancy by about 5 years . The study blames a series of factors, including a lack of adequate infrastructure and funding for the high levels of pollution in some countries. Most countries in Asia and Africa, which together contribute about 92.7% of life years lost globally due to air pollution, lack key air quality standards needed to develop adequate policies. Moreover, just 6.8% and 3.7% of governments in the two continents, respectively, provide their citizens with fully open-air quality data.

In Europe, a recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA) showed that more than half a million people living in the European Union died from health issues directly linked to toxic pollutants exposure in 2021.

More on the topic: Less Than 1% of Global Land Area Has Safe Air Pollution Levels: Study

8. Melting Ice Caps and Sea Level Rise

The climate crisis is warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. Today, sea levels are rising more than twice as quickly as they did for most of the 20th century as a result of increasing temperatures on Earth. Seas are now rising an average of 3.2 mm per year globally and they will continue to grow up to about 0.7 metres by the end of this century. In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet poses the greatest risk for sea levels because melting land ice is the main cause of rising sea levels.

Representing arguably the biggest of the environmental problems, this is made all the more concerning considering that last year’s summer triggered the loss of 60 billion tons of ice from Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months . According to satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of ice in 2019: an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year, one of the biggest environmental problems that has cascading effects. If the entire Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise by six metres .

Meanwhile, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimetre per year to sea level rise, which is one-third of the annual global increase. According to 2023 data, the continent has lost approximately 7.5 trillion tons of ice since 1997 . Additionally, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic recently collapsed, having lost about 80 square kilometres – or 40% – of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service .  

Over 100,000 images taken from space allowed scientists to create a comprehensive record of the state of Antarctica’s ice shelves. Credit: 66 North/Unsplash

Sea level rise will have a devastating impact on those living in coastal regions: according to research and advocacy group Climate Central, sea level rise this century could flood coastal areas that are now home to 340 million to 480 million people , forcing them to migrate to safer areas and contributing to overpopulation and strain of resources in the areas they migrate to. Bangkok (Thailand), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Manila (Philippines), and Dubai (United Arab Emirates) are among the cities most at risk of sea level rise and flooding.

You might also like: Two-Thirds of World’s Glaciers Set to Disappear by 2100 Under Current Global Warming Scenario

9. Ocean Acidification

Global temperature rise has not only affected the surface, but it is the main cause of ocean acidification . Our oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide that is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. As higher concentrations of carbon emissions are released thanks to human activities such as burning fossil fuels as well as effects of global climate change such as increased rates of wildfires, so do the amount of carbon dioxide that is absorbed back into the sea. 

The smallest change in the pH scale can have a significant impact on the acidity of the ocean. Ocean acidification has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and species, its food webs, and provoke irreversible changes in habitat quality . Once pH levels reach too low, marine organisms such as oysters, their shells and skeleton could even start to dissolve. 

However, one of the biggest environmental problems from ocean acidification is coral bleaching and subsequent coral reef loss . This is a phenomenon that occurs when rising ocean temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between the reefs and algae that lives within it, driving away the algae and causing coral reefs to lose their natural vibrant colours. Some scientists have estimated coral reefs are at risk of being completely wiped by 2050. Higher acidity in the ocean would obstruct coral reef systems’ ability to rebuild their exoskeletons and recover from these coral bleaching events. 

Some studies have also found that ocean acidification can be linked as one of the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. The accumulating bacteria and microorganisms derived from plastic garbage dumped in the ocean to damage marine ecosystems and contribute towards coral bleaching.

10. Agriculture 

Studies have shown that the global food system is responsible for up to one-third of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, of which 30% comes from livestock and fisheries. Crop production releases greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide through the use of fertilisers . 

60% of the world’s agricultural area is dedicated to cattle ranching , although it only makes up 24% of global meat consumption. 

Agriculture not only covers a vast amount of land, but it also consumes a vast amount of freshwater, another one of the biggest environmental problems on this list. While arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces , they consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources.

Scientists and environmentalists have continuously warned that we need to rethink our current food system; switching to a more plant-based diet would dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of the conventional agriculture industry. 

You might also like: The Future of Farming: Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?

11. Food and Water Insecurity

Rising temperatures and unsustainable farming practices have resulted in increasing water and food insecurity.

Globally, more than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream. 

Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion people by mid-century, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) projects that global food demand may increase by 70% by 2050 . Around the world, more than 820 million people do not get enough to eat. 

The UN secretary-general António Guterres says, “Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food security emergency that could have long term impacts on hundreds of millions of adults and children.” He urged for countries to rethink their food systems and encouraged more sustainable farming practices. 

In terms of water security, only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater , and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. As a result, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion find water scarce for at least one month of the year. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. 

You might also like: Global Food Security: Why It Matters in 2023

12. Fast Fashion and Textile Waste

The global demand for fashion and clothing has risen at an unprecedented rate that the fashion industry now accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, becoming one of the biggest environmental problems of our time. Fashion alone produces more greenhouse gas emissions than both the aviation and shipping sectors combined , and nearly 20% of global wastewater, or around 93 billion cubic metres from textile dyeing, according to the UN Environment Programme.

What’s more, the world at least generated an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste every year and that number is expected to soar up to 134 million tonnes a year by 2030. Discarded clothing and textile waste, most of which is non-biodegradable, ends up in landfills, while microplastics from clothing materials such as polyester, nylon, polyamide, acrylic and other synthetic materials, is leeched into soil and nearby water sources. Monumental amounts of clothing textile are also dumped in less developed countries as seen with Chile’s Atacama , the driest desert in the world, where at least 39,000 tonnes of textile waste from other nations are left there to rot.

fast fashion waste

This rapidly growing issue is only exacerbated by the ever-expanding fast fashion business model, in which companies relies on cheap and speedy production of low quality clothing to meet the latest and newest trends. While the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action sees signatory fashion and textile companies to commit to achieving net zero emission by 2050, a majority of businesses around the world have yet to address their roles in climate change.

While these are some of the biggest environmental problems plaguing our planet, there are many more that have not been mentioned, including overfishing, urban sprawl, toxic superfund sites and land use changes. While there are many facets that need to be considered in formulating a response to the crisis, they must be coordinated, practical and far-reaching enough to make enough of a difference. 

You might also like: Fast Fashion and Its Environmental Impact

13. Overfishing

Over three billion people around the world rely on fish as their primary source of protein. About 12% of the world relies upon fisheries in some form or another, with 90% of these being small-scale fishermen – think a small crew in a boat, not a ship, using small nets or even rods and reels and lures not too different from the kind you probably use . Of the 18.9 million fishermen in the world, 90% of them fall under the latter category.

Most people consume approximately twice as much food as they did 50 years ago and there are four times as many people on earth as there were at the close of the 1960s. This is one driver of the 30% of commercially fished waters being classified as being ‘overfished’. This means that the stock of available fishing waters is being depleted faster than it can be replaced.

Overfishing comes with detrimental effects on the environment, including increased algae in the water, destruction of fishing communities, ocean littering as well as extremely high rates of biodiversity loss.

As part of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) , the UN and FAO are working towards maintaining the proportion of fish stocks within biologically sustainable levels. This, however, requires much stricter regulations of the world’s oceans than the ones already in place. In July 2022, the WTO banned fishing subsidies to reduce global overfishing in a historic deal. Indeed, subsidies for fuel, fishing gear, and building new vessels, only incentivise overfishing and represent thus a huge problem. 

You might also like: 7 Solutions to Overfishing We Need Right Now

14. Cobalt Mining

Cobalt is quickly becoming the defining example of the mineral conundrum at the heart of the renewable energy transition . As a key component of battery materials that power electric vehicles (EVs), cobalt is facing a sustained surge in demand as decarbonisation efforts progress. The  world’s largest cobalt supplier is the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC), where it is estimated that up to a fifth of the production is produced through artisanal miners.

Cobalt mining , however, is associated with  dangerous workers’ exploitation and other serious environmental and social issues. The environmental costs of cobalt mining activities are also substantial. Southern regions of the DRC are not only home to cobalt and copper, but also large amounts of uranium. In mining regions, scientists have made note of high radioactivity levels. In addition, mineral mining, similar to other industrial mining efforts, often produces pollution that leaches into neighbouring rivers and water sources. Dust from pulverised rock is known to cause breathing problems for local communities as well.

15. Soil Degradation

Organic matter is a crucial component of soil as it allows it to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Plants absorb CO2 from the air naturally and effectively through photosynthesis and part of this carbon is stored in the soil as  soil organic carbon (SOC). Healthy soil has a minimum of 3-6% organic matter. However, almost everywhere in the world, the content is much lower than that.

According to the United Nations, about 40% of the planet’s soil is degraded . Soil degradation refers to the loss of organic matter, changes in its structural condition and/or decline in soil fertility and it is often the result of human activities, such as traditional farming practices including the use of toxic chemicals and pollutants. If business as usual continued through 2050, experts project additional degradation of an area almost the size of South America. But there is more to it. If we do not change our reckless practices and step up to preserve soil health, food security for billions of people around the world will be irreversibly compromised, with an estimated 40% less food  expected to be produced in 20 years’ time despite the world’s population projected to reach 9.3 billion people.

Featured image by Earth.Org Photographer Roy Mangersnes

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Environmental Changes Are Fueling Human, Animal and Plant Diseases, Study Finds

Biodiversity loss, global warming, pollution and the spread of invasive species are making infectious diseases more dangerous to organisms around the world.

A white-footed mouse perched in a hole in a tree.

By Emily Anthes

Several large-scale, human-driven changes to the planet — including climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the spread of invasive species — are making infectious diseases more dangerous to people, animals and plants, according to a new study.

Scientists have documented these effects before in more targeted studies that have focused on specific diseases and ecosystems. For instance, they have found that a warming climate may be helping malaria expand in Africa and that a decline in wildlife diversity may be boosting Lyme disease cases in North America.

But the new research, a meta-analysis of nearly 1,000 previous studies, suggests that these patterns are relatively consistent around the globe and across the tree of life.

“It’s a big step forward in the science,” said Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University, who was not an author of the new analysis. “This paper is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that I think has been published that shows how important it is health systems start getting ready to exist in a world with climate change, with biodiversity loss.”

In what is likely to come as a more surprising finding, the researchers also found that urbanization decreased the risk of infectious disease.

The new analysis, which was published in Nature on Wednesday, focused on five “global change drivers” that are altering ecosystems across the planet: biodiversity change, climate change, chemical pollution, the introduction of nonnative species and habitat loss or change.

The researchers compiled data from scientific papers that examined how at least one of these factors affected various infectious-disease outcomes, such as severity or prevalence. The final data set included nearly 3,000 observations on disease risks for humans, animals and plants on every continent except for Antarctica.

The researchers found that, across the board, four of the five trends they studied — biodiversity change, the introduction of new species, climate change and chemical pollution — tended to increase disease risk.

“It means that we’re likely picking up general biological patterns,” said Jason Rohr, an infectious disease ecologist at the University of Notre Dame and senior author of the study. “It suggests that there are similar sorts of mechanisms and processes that are likely occurring in plants, animals and humans.”

The loss of biodiversity played an especially large role in driving up disease risk, the researchers found. Many scientists have posited that biodiversity can protect against disease through a phenomenon known as the dilution effect.

The theory holds that parasites and pathogens, which rely on having abundant hosts in order to survive, will evolve to favor species that are common, rather than those that are rare, Dr. Rohr said. And as biodiversity declines, rare species tend to disappear first. “That means that the species that remain are the competent ones, the ones that are really good at transmitting disease,” he said.

Lyme disease is one oft-cited example. White-footed mice, which are the primary reservoir for the disease, have become more dominant on the landscape, as other rarer mammals have disappeared, Dr. Rohr said. That shift may partly explain why Lyme disease rates have risen in the United States. (The extent to which the dilution effect contributes to Lyme disease risk has been the subject of debate, and other factors, including climate change, are likely to be at play as well.)

Other environmental changes could amplify disease risks in a wide variety of ways. For instance, introduced species can bring new pathogens with them, and chemical pollution can stress organisms’ immune systems. Climate change can alter animal movements and habitats, bringing new species into contact and allowing them to swap pathogens .

Notably, the fifth global environmental change that the researchers studied — habitat loss or change — appeared to reduce disease risk. At first glance, the findings might appear to be at odds with previous studies, which have shown that deforestation can increase the risk of diseases ranging from malaria to Ebola. But the overall trend toward reduced risk was driven by one specific type of habitat change: increasing urbanization.

The reason may be that urban areas often have better sanitation and public health infrastructure than rural ones — or simply because there are fewer plants and animals to serve as disease hosts in urban areas. The lack of plant and animal life is “not a good thing,” Dr. Carlson said. “And it also doesn’t mean that the animals that are in the cities are healthier.”

And the new study does not negate the idea that forest loss can fuel disease; instead, deforestation increases risk in some circumstances and reduces it in others, Dr. Rohr said.

Indeed, although this kind of meta-analysis is valuable for revealing broad patterns, it can obscure some of the nuances and exceptions that are important for managing specific diseases and ecosystems, Dr. Carlson noted.

Moreover, most of the studies included in the analysis examined just a single global change drive. But, in the real world, organisms are contending with many of these stressors simultaneously. “The next step is to better understand the connections among them,” Dr. Rohr said.

Emily Anthes is a science reporter, writing primarily about animal health and science. She also covered the coronavirus pandemic. More about Emily Anthes

Explore the Animal Kingdom

A selection of quirky, intriguing and surprising discoveries about animal life..

Indigenous rangers in Australia’s Western Desert got a rare close-up with the northern marsupial mole , which is tiny, light-colored and blind, and almost never comes to the surface.

For the first time, scientists observed an orangutan, a primate, in the wild treating a wound  with a plant that has medicinal properties.

A new study resets the timing for the emergence of bioluminescence back to millions  of years earlier than previously thought.

Scientists are making computer models to better understand how cicadas  emerge collectively after more than a decade underground .

New research questions the long-held theory that reintroduction of Yellowstone’s wolves caused a trophic cascade , spawning renewal of vegetation and spurring biodiversity.

To protect Australia’s iconic animals, scientists are experimenting with vaccine implants , probiotics, tree-planting drones and solar-powered tracking tags.

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Wind turbines in a field with a dark sky behind

Fixation on UK nuclear power may not help to solve climate crisis

Waste and cost among drawbacks, as researchers say renewables could power UK entirely

I n the battle to prevent the climate overheating, wind and solar are making impressive inroads into the once dominant market share of coal. Even investors in gas plants are increasingly seen as taking a gamble.

With researchers at Oxford and elsewhere agreeing that the UK could easily become entirely powered by wind and solar – with no fossil fuels required – it seems an anomaly that nuclear power is still getting the lion’s share of taxpayer subsidies to keep the ailing industry alive.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are backing as yet unproven small modular reactors (SMRs) as an indispensable part of the answer to the climate crisis and are running competitions to get this industry started. These reactors, from tiny ones of the type that power nuclear submarines, to scaled-up versions that can, in theory, be factory produced and built in relays to provide steady power, are all still in the design stage.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States points out , whichever model is chosen they have all the drawbacks of existing nuclear power stations; expensive, even without cost overruns, and the still unsolved waste problem. The biggest disadvantage, the group says, is that even if the technology worked it would be too little, too late, to keep the climate safe.

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