Earth Day at 50: A Volunteer Call to Action

Kate Reilly, WI Green Fire, April 27, 2020

Household Hazardous Waste Materials
Photo credit: city of Milwaukee
Household Hazardous Waste Materials Photo credit: city of Milwaukee

In the early 1970’s, a small group of mostly retired individuals in Schenectady County, NY were moved by the nation’s call to action on behalf of conservation, the first Earth Day. Over the next decade, they created an organization that served as a clearinghouse of natural resources science for the county and state. Keep in mind this was before Al Gore created the Internet, so this was a huge undertaking. They championed the creation of natural areas, wrote several trail guides that served to educate and encourage use of natural areas in Schenectady and surrounding counties, offered field trips, and provided natural history talks.

A decade later, in concert with city and county agencies, and GE Research and Development scientists and hazmat experts, they offered a household hazardous waste drop-off event. This was the first time homeowners were offered an alternative in the county to dumping hazardous products, including prescription drugs, down drains or in the corner of the backyard.

It was an all-volunteer effort that had a huge impact on me as young person just fresh from finishing my masters degree. I remember standing in the parking lot of GE Research and Development, watching while cars lined up as far as you could see in both directions. Over the day, semi-trailers filled with hazardous waste bound for disposal in designated landfills.

Those volunteers’ efforts resulted in the collection of a staggering quantity of waste over the course of a few years, which compelled the county to create a permanent household hazardous waste disposal system. It was a great example of how government, industry and the public can work together to have a huge collective impact – pun intended.

Fast forward 50 years and I’m still a huge believer in the power of volunteers taking action to champion the importance of natural resources science and conserve the quality of our environment.


Kate Reilly is a retired UW-Extension, Environmental Education Specialist and Program Manager, the first Executive Director of the WI Master Naturalist Program, and a Wisconsin’s Green Fire Board Member.

Kate Reilly

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