Recycling for the air

July 13, 1993

As businesses and their workers in this region prepare to comply with the federal Clean Air Act, they should think of the new restrictions as recycling for the atmosphere.

Energized by the 20th anniversary of Earth Day three summers ago, the nation began thinking about how it disposes of its garbage to an extent previously unimaginable. There was a time when bagging cans, containers and newspapers separately from other refuse would have seemed nonsensical. Yet, most folks recycle routinely now.

Someday, perhaps, that's how companies and workers will regard the changes needed to clean the air. The Baltimore region has the sixth worst ground-level ozone in the country. Unless substantive action is taken, the federal government vows to cut highway money and impose even tougher standards on industry for a region that's already lost too many industrial jobs. But Washington has good reasons for the restrictions. Maryland's cancer death rate is among the highest in the nation. Reducing airborne carcinogens should help remedy that over the long haul.

The state Department of the Environment appears to be trying to work with the business community as much as possible. Still, state officials want to impress upon us that Washington isn't going to approve of a little light dusting; it wants heavy cleaning. Unlike the technical approach the government has taken to pollution in the past, the thrust here is for major societal changes.

For Joe and Jane Commuter, it may mean their bosses being less apt to subsidize company parking. Their employers may also provide incentives for mass transit and car-pool users. Like recycling, once people try it, they may find the options aren't as onerous as they imagined.

For business, this initiative will require a shift in philosophy. Companies must explore such options as 10-hour workdays, telecommuting and flex time to soften the morning crush that adds so much to the problem. On Friday, June 18, for example, the rush-hour air that heated up throughout the day resulted in the region measuring excessive ozone that afternoon. The following day was just as oppressive -- near 100 degrees -- but because it was a Saturday, pollution levels were low.

For state government, the challenge will be to fill the deficiencies in suburb-to-suburb transit, not to mention expansion of the light rail and commuter-rail network. Recycling has grown because the public knows it is the right thing to do and, in many cases, people were ahead of the government. We hope the air-pollution issue becomes one of general acceptance, too, rather than a bureaucracy enforcing unwanted changing on angry citizens.

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