The Lethality of Complacency and Convenience: Air Pollution, Sustainability, and Waste Management

Dr. Atkinson with colleagues and students in Costa Rica.

Dr. Atkinson with colleagues and students in Costa Rica


Published August 20, 2020

It is not every day that you meet someone who studies the one thing that surrounds us all. Dr. John D. Atkinson, Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering, spends his day thinking about how to control air pollution – one of the most complex, important problems facing our world today.

The U.S. is wealthy and has lots of space, but this has made us complacent. We landfill because it is easy, and cheap. Not because it is best for the environment. That doesn’t make sense. We should be minimizing waste, but we don’t because it is inconvenient.

Chances are your daily newspaper read will reference air pollution in articles about climate change and global health, yet the study of air pollution tends to be quite underrepresented in environmental engineering departments. In fact, John suggests that nearly 90% of an environmental engineering curriculum is focused on water pollution. Environmental engineering at UB offers only one, elective, air pollution course (John’s CIE 461/563).

John explains the reasoning. The impact of water pollution is quick and dire – if you drink dirty water, you could get sick and die. There is a simple cause and effect relationship. Air pollution is more lethal – according to the WHO, air pollution is the largest, single environmental health risk – estimated to kill 1 in 8 people globally – but we don’t see its effects immediately. Losing 5-10 years of your life, fifty years from now, is not as urgent as sudden death. Case in point, the Air Pollution Control Act (1955) came a decade after the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1948).

But also, historically, our priorities align with money. Very few municipalities provide free drinking water to their residents (mais, Allons-y to Paris to enjoy tap and sparkling water, both flow freely from public fountains); most water has been commoditized. It’s a bit harder to commoditize air (in writing this post I had no idea that air is currently commoditized. Although evidence of an entrepreneurial spirit, I am mostly saddened by the examples highlighted in The Guardian and the Washington Post). Unlike dirty soil or a contaminated lake, the air also can’t be cleaned up.

Studies point to air pollution’s impact on both short-term and long-term morbidity and mortality, and yet, government and industries are still not doing enough to reduce the pollutants being released into the atmosphere. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic could be an impetus for change; striking data of pollution pre-COVID and during quarantine show sharp decreases in tropospheric Nitrogen Dioxide over China during this year’s lunar new year holiday and drastic reductions in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels by about 60% and 31%, respectively, in 34 countries. Air pollution exposures have also been linked to higher COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Dr. Atkinson graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign with his MS and PhD in Civil Engineering. John began air pollution control research largely because he was inspired by the team he worked with. His dissertation focused on the development of carbon-based adsorbents and catalysts for air pollution control. His PhD work led to NSF projects in Taiwan (National Central University; National Taipei University of Technology), China (China University of Petroleum), and an eventual postdoctoral position in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada before coming to UB. In Canada, John worked on the recovery and reuse of organic air pollutants for a major auto manufacturer interested in converting painting fumes into fuel.

Today, John’s work has evolved beyond air pollution control research, in part, because of his students. A few years ago, he began teaching a sustainability course.  He was quickly impressed by how excited and passionate the students were about the material. Their enthusiasm for the topic was contagious.

And that energy associated with his teaching began infiltrating into his personal life. From bigger things (an electrical car) to smaller things (reusable bags) to new-to-him things (composting). And, as what was professional became personal, the class grew and improved. In 2018, he gave a TEDxBuffalo talk about his sustainability course and the impact that a simple class project can have on personal sustainability.

John’s interests in air pollution and sustainability have now merged and landed him in the field of waste management. The U.S. waste management system is highly reactive and benefits from academic research and predictive modeling. For example, he and his team look at air pollution and sustainability by measuring greenhouse gas emissions from waste management sites. They are also investigating contamination in plastics recycling streams and its impact on the environment.

The materials we use to make plastic are cheap – oil and gas. Recycling that material is much more difficult and, unfortunately, expensive. Of the plastic that you place in your recycling bin, less than 10% gets recycled – most winds up at a landfill. Until sorting technologies improve, businesses make it a priority to use recycled content, or customers say that they will only use a product if it is recycled, progress will be slow. He wants to make it easier for anyone to recycle.

John believes that waste management is one of the biggest issues we face in this country and the world. The U.S. is wealthy and has lots of space, but this has made us complacent. We landfill because it is easy, and cheap. Not because it is best for the environment. That doesn’t make sense. We should be minimizing waste, but we don’t because it is inconvenient.

Sadly, it has taken a global pandemic to illuminate this truth. Our complacency and quest for convenience are threatening our communities, future generations, and our planet. However, mass COVID-19 quarantines and restrictions have shown that people are capable of making life-altering changes in short periods of time. If we can practice handwashing, wearing masks and social distancing for the good of all, we should also consider how sustainable practices (for example, driving less and reducing waste) can improve our communities and the world.