Hello from Lieutenant Planet! Although my journey across the country hasn’t started yet (it kicks off in January), my collection of environmental issues and initiatives in America can start in my own hometown of Saint Petersburg, Florida. My hometown is fairly environmentally progressive, with many green initiatives in place.
A lot of the local environmental initiatives can by found in The Compendium of the Pinellas County Comprehensive Plan. The Compendium outlines a general “ethic of sustainability” in all projects, stressing the cooperation of different levels and elements of government in order to form a greener future. Specifically it outlines future endeavors in housing and transportation, resource conservation, water management, and solid waste recovery. Since the Compendium was released a decade ago, there have been major steps taken to increase recycling levels with a broad residential recycling program. There have also been major efforts to recover beaches from decades of erosion, protect wildlife like sea turtles and manatees, and educate the public about the importance of sustainable practices in everyday living.
Local required actions related to energy conservation are also outlined in Florida’s HB 7135, and include a requirement for all county buildings to be constructed according to green rating systems, include a compost plan, and use the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.
As part of Pinellas County’s solid waste program, there is an initiative to use clean, discarded building materials for coral installations around the county. The initiative was started in the seventies, but is now underfunded and utilizes older, slower methods of coral growth. It could be updated with more funding and the adoption of the microfragmentation method of coral growth, discovered in 2014, which is dozens of times faster than previous methods.
On the darker side of things, there are some things that Saint Petersburg famously fails at when it comes to the environment. The downtown area has historically been a smaller town, with smaller roads and alleyways, and a limited infrastructure. Over the past twenty years, however, the population of the downtown area has exploded. A view of the skyline reveals high-rises being built everywhere still, ready for a new wave of people to move in. The number of local businesses has also boomed concurrently with the population, and the rapid growth has led to some things being overlooked.
The sewage treatment system in Saint Petersburg, for one example, is completely overwhelmed. The downtown area floods with every major storm, forcing the cities hand and making them dump untreated or partially treated sewage directly into the bay, with major ecological impacts. In a time where Florida has no room for further contamination of its waterways, this is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Red tide and algae blooms devastated Florida this year, spreading at an unnatural rate and causing massive die-offs of fish and other sea creatures, as well as human health and respiratory issues. That issue stems from the state’s mishandling of the Big Sugar companies that operate around Lake Okeechobee, as well as other factors of runoff pollution and elevated water temperatures. The Everglades Foundation has launched a $10 million competition to find an answer for that problem, which has grown in the swamp for decades.
“Grown in the swamp for decades” sounds spookier than I intended it to. But it fits.
Another of Saint Petersburg’s shortcomings involves commercial recycling. In 2014, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on commercial glass recycling in downtown Saint Petersburg. I took data from a sample of bars and restaurants from the main strips downtown and extrapolated to find a huge amount of glass that was thrown away every year. Although most bar owners were open to the concept of glass recycling, there were very few (if any) viable options to do so. Alleyways are too tight for separate dumpsters in many cases, and the day-to-day amount of one-time-use glass containers used is too great for single trash cans, even if they were emptied daily, which no local waste management company offers.
Potential fixes are available, however. In the years since, I have found crowd-sourced methods for increasing recycling rates, such as reverse vending machines that pay you to bring and sort recyclables. Employees at these bars downtown could potentially pay off their parking tickets in the overcrowded downtown area with a recycling initiative like this. The homeless would also have a financial incentive to keep the city green. Of course, funding the initiative would have an initial and future maintenance cost. Even though glass has close to a 100% recycling rate, there still has to be a closed-loop economy involved to sell the recycled glass in order to mitigate the costs of collection and re-purposing.
Saint Petersburg has an eye to the future, and has for decades. Climate change and sustainability is at the forefront of a lot of Florida policy- the tourism industry depends on people being able to go to the beaches without getting sick. Florida would also, in the coming decades, have to remain in it’s current state of not being underwater. Maybe that sounds alarmist, but that’s what I’m here for- and the evidence overwhelmingly supports such a wet future for coastal areas everywhere if major steps aren’t taken globally, right now.