Single-use plastic and air pollution: Two leading experts share their knowledge about climate change

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Bales of recycled and compressed plastic at Waste Management's recycling center on Neville Island. (Photo by Teake Zuidema/PublicSource)

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Read PublicSource's stories here.

Climate change is a crisis that impacts us at both the global and local levels. The decisions of local and state lawmakers determine the type of materials that end up on our shelves and in our environment. The impact of pollution can vary depending on where you are, not just on a regional level but on a neighborhood level — meaning Pittsburghers don’t all experience the same consequences from pollution in the same way.

As part of Covering Climate Now, we’re focusing on telling climate change stories from the Pittsburgh perspective.

To add to the conversation, we’ve asked two notable experts – a veteran policy advocate and an air pollution researcher – to share their perspectives on climate change and policy.

Larry Schweiger, environmental advocate

Larry Schweiger has been a leading figure in environmental advocacy for more than 40 years. In addition to serving as a board member of The Climate Reality Project, he is the former president and CEO of PennFuture, the National Wildlife Federation and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Schweiger emphasized the need for policy to address climate change. He remembers how in the 1970s he was working for the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s environmental committee. At the time, the committee had proposed a bill that would put a deposit on glass bottles – stores would charge customers 10 cents extra for a glass bottle, but when the customer returned the bottle, they would get their money back. The bill’s intent was to encourage the continued use of glass, rather than plastic. It didn’t pass.

Larry Schweiger has been a leading environmental advocate for more than 40 years. (Photo courtesy of Larry Schweiger)

He didn’t realize at the time that if the bill had been enacted, it may have curtailed the beverage industry's current reliance on single-use plastic bottles.

"We lost badly, but we didn't know the full consequences of that," Schweiger said.

Now, plastic dominates over glass. In 2015, roughly 111 billion plastic bottles were purchased in the United States, according to National Geographic.

Schweiger encouraged people, especially students, to petition their public officials to implement policies that tackle climate change.

“My personal view is that students ought to be demanding change. They're going to pay the biggest price for our failure to act,” Schweiger said.

Albert Presto, air quality researcher

Air quality research has typically compared different cities or regions, rather than areas within a city. “But in reality, there's a lot of variability within the city,” Albert Presto, an associate research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said.

“So, we do work to understand what that variability is, and what forces are driving it, and how that impacts people.”

Albert Presto in his lab at Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Presto’s team measures differences in local air quality in two ways: by driving a sensor-equipped van that takes air quality measurements as it moves through different neighborhoods and by placing sensors in as many as 50 locations throughout the city to take round-the-clock measurements.

Because poor air quality is unhealthy, Presto said it’s important to understand what areas are at the highest risk and why. In his view, these are often areas with the most traffic and restaurants. “If you compare an urban park to Downtown or somewhere else where there's a really high restaurant density… you get an extra 10% or 20% of particle mass.”

That extra 10% makes a difference. “If I increase the concentration by 10%, I increase the risk by 10%,” Presto said.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Daniel Walsh.

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