The Sierra Club is working with Monongalia County recycling initiatives and West Virginia University to clean up the county and encourage residents to do the same.
The mission of the wide-reaching nonprofit organization is “to preserve, protect and enjoy the wild places of the earth.”
That’s according to James Kotcon, conservation chair of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
Kotcon said the organization has long been active in environmental education, outings programs and preserving and protecting broad areas of the environment.
One of these areas is the Monongahela National Forest, which the Sierra Club worked to preserve for wildlife and remote recreation. The organization participated in legislative lobbying at the state level to advocate for the preservation of such land.
During the 1990s, the club supported and pushed through several of the solid waste laws that West Virginia has, Kotcon said.
The Sierra Club is focusing on climate change, hazardous materials, endangered species preservation, and mining and gas development.
However, the club still aims to educate residents on environmental protection and their role in that process.
“I think there’s a very broad consensus that the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra is actually a priority listing,” Kotcon said.
Reducing waste generation in the first place prevents subsequent pollution, energy and material consumption that goes into the process of recycling it. Furthermore, reusing materials is superior to recycling them, Kotcon said.
“Recycling certainly is beneficial in terms of conserving the resources, but it also leads to other problems that extend from collecting the waste and the remanufacturing process,” Kotcon said.
Kotcon said the Sierra Club is supportive of any efforts to minimize the use of single-use plastics and the generation of unnecessary packaging or other materials that inevitably ends up becoming waste.
Kotcon also serves on the Morgantown Green Team and said much of its effort has been focused on improving recycling in the Morgantown area.
“Morgantown certainly has made a number of important steps in the right direction, but we think we’ve got a long way to go yet,” Kotcon said.
Kotcon said Morgantown and WVU engage in single-stream recycling, which has increased the volume of materials being recycled.
However, educating residents on how to properly recycle is crucial to the improvement of the process on a local level, Kotcon said.
“We want to make sure that people are not putting into the recycling bin things like Styrofoam or products contaminated with food waste. All of those make extra work for the recycling facilities, and much of that product ends up going to the landfill anyway. Having the residential customers recycle right in the first place will save a lot of effort for recyclers,” Kotcon said.
He said a fee or restriction on the use of single-use plastics in the Morgantown area has been discussed, but the organization does not believe Morgantown is ready for such an enforcement just yet.
A bill making its way through legislature that prohibits municipalities from tackling certain waste issues by regulating, taxing or restricting the use of plastics is particularly concerning to the Sierra Club, Kotcon said.
“That’s probably the wrong direction to be going. We should be improving ways to reduce those [contaminants], not restricting the ability of municipalities to do that,” he said.
According to Kotcon, the Sierra Club is working with the West Virginia Environmental Council to advocate against House Bill 2500, which already passed the House of Delegates. Action was delayed on third reading Friday in the Senate.
Kotcon said the organization hoped to convince the State Senate to oppose or eliminate the bill.
Kotcon said the Sierra Club has a number of members who work with WVU, and Kotcon also serves as the faculty advisor for the Sierra Student Coalition, a subsidiary of the Sierra Club at the university.
This subsidiary aims to educate the WVU student body in the same manner the Sierra Club focuses on the state as a whole.
Ethan Cade, president of the WVU Student Sierra Coalition, said the organization typically holds events or canvassing on campus, but the COVID-19 pandemic made outreach difficult.
Still, the coalition works with student government and university faculty and gauges student interest by sending out polls. The coalition also works with environmental groups in the area to “make Morgantown a greener place,” Cade said.
Cade said the coalition’s engagement with WVU has been positive and the coalition has always enjoyed good relations with the student body.
Cade said he believes one of the most pressing environmental issues affecting not just the Morgantown area, but the whole world, is climate change, as evidenced by increased heat in summers and shorter, colder winters.
“As far as climate change goes on a local level, we fight to make Morgantown and WVU more cognizant of the climate crisis,” Cade said.
Cade said this includes pushing for the university to move away from the use of single-use plastics on campus, which would benefit the greater Morgantown environment.
To do so, WVU could follow Marshall University’s lead and install a composting facility that would enable the university to use biodegradable materials, especially in dining halls, which could be broken down in the on-site facility.
Cade said WVU could also change the packaging of materials, like eliminating the use of plastic sheets over tests and encouraging the use of paper bags rather than plastic ones.
“There’s a whole variety of things that could be replaced with biodegradable materials instead of single-use plastics,” he said.
Cade said there has also been a push to put in a cracker plant in the Ohio River Valley, which would be used in the making of plastic.
Cade said increases in cancer diagnoses have been documented in communities where such facilities are located.
“That would be a big threat to our local environment and to the health of the citizens, and so we oppose that and we’re trying to get the university to move away from such plastics,” he said.
Cade encourages individuals to be conscious of the materials they use and choose to use items like reusable shopping bags reusable water bottles instead of single-use items of a similar nature, and to continue to educate themselves on the best ways to contribute less to the plastics problem.