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Earth Day at 50: What this milestone means to Philly’s Sustainability Leaders
Philly

Earth Day at 50: What this milestone means to Philly’s Sustainability Leaders

City leaders, entrepreneurs & nonprofits all share what makes #5-0 for Mama Earth so special – and what challenges lie ahead.

What does 50 years of Earth Day mean to you?

“It’s remarkable to think that generations of people have sustained this political pressure over 50 years for governments, businesses and people protect our environment. However, it’s also a little frustrating that some of the debates we were having 50 years ago such as the need to reduce plastic pollution or to lower emissions to address climate change are the same debates we are having today. This shows me that we need to keep working hard, but we need to make more progress in the next 50 years.”

– Nic Esposito, Zero Waste Director, City of Philadelphia

To me, the 50th annual Earth Day is an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come – and the massive amount of work still left to be done – in terms of protecting our planet and our natural environments. It’s about the personal responsibility each of us has to work towards addressing environmental issues, in whatever ways we can manage – whether that’s committing to use less energy, or getting involved with advocacy efforts.”

– Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, Philadelphia’s 3rd District

“Earth Day is a special day to reflect on the beauty of nature and humankind’s ongoing responsibility. As we reflect on all that work that has been done in our region in the last 50 years, it is truly impressive how much progress has been made in restoring the health of our waterways. Many factors, including regulations from the Clean Water Act and federal investment in our Water Pollution Control Plants, made it possible for striped bass, shad, sturgeon, and river otters to rebound. Today we are continuing the fight with programs like Green City, Clean Waters.”

– Randy Hayman, Esq, Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner and CEO

What are you most proud of Philadelphia’s sustainability? 

“Beyond our city’s efforts to make Philadelphia a sustainable city, I’m proud to be part of a community that remains steadfast in our local, regional, and global initiatives for a more sustainable world. Our city is getting all of the right players involved to create a more sustainable future but we need more people, businesses, policies, and leadership that are planning with long term sustainability goals in mind. There is always room for more people to roll up their sleeves and get involved – we have more work to get done.”

– Melissa Lee, Founder & CEO, The GREEN Program

“PHS plants approximately 1,500 trees per year in the Philadelphia area, which contributes to a scientifically-proven drop in crime and depression, cleaner air, prettier landscapes, and greener communities.”

– Erin Dunkel, VP Marketing & Communications, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

What are you most excited for? 

“My career in the environment began in Nov 1969 at age 15 in Cherry Hill NJ, when I helped organize activities in my high school. I have been on the frontlines on environmental issues in our region for 50 years. The closing of the Philadelphia refinery, the election of the most progressive City Council we have ever had, COVID-19, and impending defeat of Donald Trump are all factors in a re-boot that is as significant as the events and times that surrounded first Earth Day in 1970. There is as much opportunity as there is the potential for disaster in these events and the work we must do achieve sustainability, and it is as it has always been the work the passion those who do the work with that excites me most.  I have no doubt we will succeed, but I do mourn over how much we have and will be lost in getting there.” 

– Maurice Sampson, Eastern Pennsylvania Director, Clean Water Action/Fund

“Initiatives like the City of Philadelphia’s Zero-Waste Program is really paving the way for Philadelphia to be a leading example of how to rally businesses to make better decisions. We all as individuals have a role to play in the greater health of the planet. Even just seeing how a global pandemic can shut down the economy’s and in less than a month make a massive global impact on air quality is pretty wild to witness. I think we are going to see people starting to align their actions with outcomes more and more, and we’ve been founded on that premise from the beginning with our returnable for reuse packaging.”

– Jared Cannon, Founder & CEO, Simply Good Jars

“I am really excited to see more urban agriculture and more regenerative community-based models. There are several organizations leading the way here and I think that these models are going to become more and more apparently critical for our local food security. Our self-reliance negates our dependence on globalized and industrialized food systems.”

– Alisa Shargorodsky, ECHO Systems, design consulting and education

Who is an environmental leader you admire?

“I have two, the first is Pennsylvania native, Rachel Carson. She helped the American public understand that pesticides, which the chemical industry had dishonestly marketed as safe, in fact, can have a devastating impact on environmental health. She was vilified by the chemical industry but truly launched the environmental health movement and increased public skepticism of self-serving claims made by the industry on the safety of their products. The second is actually the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international organization that objectively, unflinchingly reports the science on how rapidly the planet is warming.”

– Joseph Otis Minott, Executive Director and Chief Counsel, Clean Air Council

“I’ve always admired the passion and dedication of teachers who are committed to scientific and environmental education.  From my kids’ elementary school science teachers to my college environmental engineering professors, we owe a lot of inspiration and thanks to our teachers.”

– Kristen Bowman Kavanagh, P.E., Deputy Executive Director, Delaware River Basin Commission

Who is making a big difference in Philly? 

“Our young people are at the forefront of the climate conversation here in Philly. The Sunrise Movement, in particular, is doing some very impactful work, organizing and activating youth locally and around the world.”

– Councilmember Jamie Gauthier

“I’m going to be cliche here, but I would vote Green Philly!! Great progress only starts when there is a conversation around issues that inspire others. GP blog and events have been doing a fantastic job not only getting people to start talking and thinking but also recognizing + rewarding those who are making differences by choice in the region.” 

– Jared Cannon, Founder & CEO, Simply Good Jars

What is Philadelphia’s biggest environmental achievement? 

“From the Mayor’s climate commitments (80% carbon reduction by 2050) to the Office of Sustainability’s leadership through Greenworks, we’ve been able to execute over $130 million in energy efficiency and solar projects over the last three years, including major overhauls at the Art Museum and School District. Maybe the most exciting is the City’s Adams Solar project (soon to be renamed!), a gigantic 80MW solar array being built to power 22% of the City’s electricity use. And now Penn’s 220MW solar project! Against all odds, solar is booming in Philly!”

Emily Schapira, Executive Director, Philadelphia Energy Authority

What do you think is our biggest environmental challenge? 

“Plans and goals are only worth the investment made to make them happen on the ground. Philadelphia is moving in the right direction, but it needs to accelerate and scale-up. Philadelphia has been laying down the backbone of clean water infrastructure, trail, and protected bike lane networks, green building policies, etc. But, increasingly, other cities are surpassing Philadelphia.  Reaching Philadelphia’s sustainability goals needs to be prioritized by passionate leaders.” 

 – Sarah Clark Stuart, Executive Director, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

Climate change is a reality and has already begun to impact Philly’s most vulnerable residents through higher temperatures, flooding, energy insecurity and unaffordability and in so many other ways. In Philadelphia, our biggest challenge will be to make the connection between poverty and climate change, and recognize these issues must be addressed together with long-term solutions. If low-income populations must bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, we’ve only further entrenched our city’s inequality.”

– Emily Schapira, Executive Director, Philadelphia Energy Authority

What has helped shape your environmental perspective? 

“Earth Day 1970 was formative for me. At age 10, I picked up trash, volunteered at a glass recycling center and made the environment my personal crusade. I concentrated on science in high school and college and was fortunate to get an internship out of college with a national environmental group. The environment has always been the center of my career.”

– Sarah Clark Stuart, Executive Directory, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia

“Since I was a little girl, I have always loved wildlife and nature. I loved seeing fireflies light up the sky at night and listening to the musical sounds of Spring peepers. That love turned into a lifetime of appreciation and commitment to protecting the environment.”

– Kristen Waldron, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Philadelphia Zoo

What inspires you to keep working on sustainability? 

“Urban dwellers need safe, healthy green spaces where they can spend time together and where they can put their hands in the soil to grow food, flowers, and community. I am inspired by the Philadelphians who have taken matters into their own hands by turning neglected and abandoned land into vibrant, bountiful community gardens, sitting parks, and orchards.  The vision, hard work, and tenacity of these individuals is incredible. There are hundreds of community gardens that were created when neighbors literally removed the rubble of demolished houses and factories with their bare hands. They then planted seeds that literally and figuratively have been bearing fruit for decades.”

– Jenny Greenberg, Executive Director, Neighborhood Gardens Trust

Hope is a big one. Meeting cleanup volunteers and young students,  or learning about seasoned activists and thought leaders, all of whom are dedicated to realizing a thriving environment for all — and haven’t lost Hope along a rough, and oftentimes thankless, path — refill my inspiration tank.”

– Kelly Offner, Executive Director, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful

“Not only is there no Planet B, but sustainability is just smart. A green economy is our best chance to move forward and even do so in an equitable way.”

– Michael Schweisheimer, Founder, PWPvideo

What do you think Philadelphia needs to hear right now?

Gaylord Nelson wrote: “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests minerals, rivers, lakes, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. That’s the whole economy.

While we are understandably focused on COVID-19 now, we must not lose focus on the threat of global warming to the planet and our lives.  Maybe next year we can return to the original Earth Day with a nationwide teach-in be inspired with knowledge to take action.”

– Bill Siemering, Senior Fellow, The Wyncote Foundation & member of the founding board of National Public Radio

“As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, let’s celebrate the amazing beauty and nature all around us. Philadelphia is a crucial urban sanctuary for wildlife. Millions of migrating birds fly through every spring and fall, pollinator-friendly gardens and landscapes help revive the health of bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators. Our city is an incredible place where people and wildlife can thrive together.”

– Kristen Waldron, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Philadelphia Zoo

“We need to remember that if we want to see the 100th anniversary, we need to act now, together, and consistently. Just like fighting this pandemic, we have to fight individually together.”

– Michael Schweisheimer, Founder, PWPvideo


Photo: Earth Day 2019 by In Between Rivers

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Julie Hancher
Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake. View all posts by Julie Hancher

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