volunteer

Celebrating an EPA Ethic of Public Service

In October of last year, EPA employees, along with hundreds of thousands of other federal employees, were furloughed due to a lapse in appropriations.  During the government shutdown, 94% of EPA staff was unable to do the important work that Americans depend on for a clean and healthy environment.

Our scientists and inspectors were prevented from keeping our air and water safe to breathe and drink. Vehicle certifications couldn’t be completed, industrial chemicals and pesticides couldn’t be evaluated, and hazardous waste sites couldn’t be cleaned. Small business couldn’t receive our assistance in learning about grants and loans to continue building our clean energy economy. And on a personal level, our employees and their families made tremendous sacrifices just to get by.

But through it all, I heard stories from furloughed EPA employees who volunteered in their communities, in food banks and shelters – still finding a way to give back. The stories were nothing short of amazing, which is why I’d like to share some of them. I’m so proud to work alongside the EPA community every day, including the tough ones. The creative, innovative work both inside and outside the Agency by EPA staff speaks for itself, and we’re going to continue to find ways to celebrate that work. Here’s a sample of those stories of compassion, perseverance, and volunteerism during the shutdown: More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Volunteering in Costa Rica Provides Lessons For Environmentalism at Home

By Betsy Melenbrink

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

In the midst of a metropolis like New York City or the suburban sprawl of northern New Jersey, it may be difficult to imagine that pristine wilderness exists anywhere. But step under the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest and you step into a land untouched by the ravages of time. When Spanish conquistadors disembarked on the coast of this land, which they optimistically named “rich”, they found little by way of mineral wealth. This, in addition to the sparse native population (traditionally used by the Spaniards for forced labor) and the dense tropical rainforest, discouraged the conquistadors from making inroads. Consequently, the tiny region attracted few settlers and little interest from the Spanish crown. Costa Rica slipped quietly into a peaceful democracy, marred only by two brief periods of violence in the last century, the second of which ended with the abolishment of the Costa Rican military in 1948. Now Costa Rica regularly comes out at the top of the Happy Planet Index (a rating of the world’s “happiest people”) and typically ranks in the top five “greenest countries” in the world.

Costa Rica is stable, peaceful, and has a good portion of its natural resources intact. It is blessed with beautiful beaches, thunderous rivers, lush tropical rainforests, active and inactive volcanoes alike, diverse flora and fauna, and climate zones that vary with altitude. The picturesque landscape of the country has led to a booming tourism industry, the top contributor to GDP. Most popular are adventure tourism and eco-tourism, which include such activities as whitewater rafting, zip-lining through the rainforest canopy, hiking to the tops of volcanoes, guided tours through the rainforest understory, and at the end of the day relaxing in a local bar with an Imperial (Costa Rica’s national beer) in hand.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

Costa Rica decided relatively early on to invest in its natural splendor by creating preserves and national parks. It has developed an extensive education and awareness program, much like existing programs here in the United States. The Ticos (as Costa Ricans are called) are taught to participate in the “4Rs”: recycle, reuse, reduce, and reject. There are recycling campaigns, reforestation movements, and protests against actions that are potentially damaging to the environment, such as open pit mining. Nearly all of the energy used comes from renewable sources and the country aims to be carbon neutral by 2021. However, nearly all of the recycling initiatives, waste management, and environmental education are centered about urban areas. Far removed from this emphasis on environmental protection are the people who live in small rural villages.

I was able to see the limitations of government-sponsored environmental education when I spent several months working in a rural Costa Rican mountain village. Families in this village have limited transportation and waste management options but ample access to rivers. As a result, most of the waste in these areas is either burned (an illegal practice) or placed in the river and then washed downstream where others are forced to cope with polluted water. Since no one lives upstream of them, the families in the village where I stayed were not able to witness the consequences of throwing trash into the rivers and streams. The trash and recycling collection programs in place in more urban areas of Costa Rica do not exist in villages miles away from the nearest paved road. Rivers are simply the most expeditious way of removing waste.

Water bodies are also polluted as a result of erosion from deforestation and the burning of sugarcane fields during the harvest season. Much of the agricultural runoff is also loaded with pesticides and herbicides, further polluting streams. This chemical form of contamination can often go unnoticed and can present a health hazard for those who rely on the streams for potable water, bathing, and washing.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica

While it is easy to think that these sorts of problems are restricted to “third world”, or developing, countries like Costa Rica, many of them are mirrored in our own country. There are places where environmental education is not far-reaching, where waste disposal services are not convenient or available, where environmental protection is not a knee-jerk reaction. It is important to note that both in Costa Rica and in the United States, those who pollute the environment are not evil people. Chances are, none of them are out to get Mother Nature. If we truly want to globalize environmental protection, we have to make environmental education universal, give easy access to proper disposal facilities, and provide incentives for behavioral change. And we can start right here at home by setting a good example.

Betsy Melenbrink is an ORISE fellow with the Hazardous Waste Support Section within the Division of Environmental Science and Assessment in Edison. She took a gap year before beginning her undergraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and spent that time hiking the Appalachian Trail and volunteering in Costa Rica.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate for Action: Participate in Earth Day Activities

About the author: Michelle Gugger graduated from Rutgers University in 2008. She is currently spending a year of service at EPA’s Region 3 Office in Philadelphia, PA as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

Earth Day is a day for citizens to give back to their environment. It is a day that Americans have celebrated since 1970 in efforts to create a healthier and more sustainable planet. This year, it will be celebrated on April 22, 2009. Millions of people will come together to participate in volunteer opportunities throughout the country. Whether they will be cleaning up parks, clearing streams, planting trees or participating in hundreds of other types of environmental activities, the importance of their volunteerism is that they will be reducing the impact on the environment that we have all been creating. A great outcome in return from their work is that they will be able to really see the results of their efforts and know that they are making a difference. I encourage all of you to become involved in Earth Day activities too. There are many advertisements on the internet looking for Earth Day volunteers that you can register for. You can also go to EPA’s Earth Day website that will show you volunteer opportunities in your area. If you can’t find anything close to your neighborhood, I encourage you to start your own event. There are many things you can do, some examples of Earth Day activities that you can plan include:

  • Storm water marking. In groups you can label the storm drains in your community to educate your neighbors about water pollution. Contact your community’s water department for the storm drain marking toolkits.
  • Organize an Earth Day fair at your school or community center and invite your neighborhood. Educate them by creating environmental skits or by handing out information. Most organizations give out free publications as a part of their outreach efforts. EPA’s publication website can be found at http://www.epa.gov/epahome/publications.htm
  • Plant native trees and plants around your community. Native plants are better for the environment because they provide wildlife, filter pollutants and absorb CO2 – a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change. Go to http://www.plantnative.org/reg_pl_main.htm for more information.
  • Start a recycling collection at your school. Examples of things to recycle include: ink cartridges, batteries, paper, books, newspapers, plastic bags, cell phones and magazines. A recycling center locator that will show you where you can recycle your collection materials can be found at http://earth911.com/.
  • Vistit www.epa.gov/climateforaction/ for more ideas.

Can you think of any other Earth Day activities to be involved with on April 22nd? Be sure to let us know. Earth Day is a great opportunity to reduce our impact on important environmental issues like climate change, water pollution, air pollution and toxic land contamination. Last year an Earth Day activity in Philadelphia brought 15,000 residents together which created the largest one-day, citywide cleanup in America. Together, they were able to remove over 2.5 million pounds of trash and 48,000 pounds of recyclable materials. Their efforts cleared 3,500 blocks of litter and hazardous materials making the area a cleaner and safer place to live. Get involved too!!!! Become a climate ambassador in your community. Your efforts will support a good cause and make a great impact.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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