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Athens Experts Answer Environmental FAQs

With our carbon emissions creating a climate catastrophe and our plastics piling up in landfills and in the oceans, life on Earth is in trouble. The problems can seem overwhelming, but they’re not—yet. So, from biking to recycling, Flagpole asked local experts to weigh in on how we can all live more sustainably, and what the local government and the University of Georgia are doing to help, too. [Blake Aued]

How will climate change specifically affect Athens?

Pam Knox, UGA agricultural climatologist: Climate change is already affecting Athens’ weather and climate—it’s not something that will just happen in the future. Since about 1970, temperatures in Georgia have increased by more than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures are rising faster than temperatures during the day. Scientists think that is due to a combination of increased urbanization (more concrete and pavement) and higher humidity, which make it hard to cool off once the sun goes down. Hot nights are a big problem for us in Athens, because humans (and our pets and livestock) need cooler temperatures at night to recover from the daytime heat stress in summer. If we don’t get that relief, health suffers, and death rates of vulnerable populations go up.

Annual precipitation in Athens has really not changed over the last 100 years, although there is a lot of year-to-year variability due to El Niño and La Niña, as well as tropical activity. What has changed is how the rain is falling. The heaviest rain events, which we define as at least 2 inches in a 24-hour period, have increased nearly 30%. More frequent heavy rains mean that floods become more likely. We are also experiencing longer dry spells between rain events. That means more water stress on plants and crops and more demand for water during those dry spells. As temperatures get warmer, droughts are also becoming more frequent due to increases in evaporation from lakes and streams and evapotranspiration from plants.

With the projected continued increases in temperature and more variable precipitation, the future Athens is likely to see more heat waves and warmer winters, and more variable weather in general, including more floods and more droughts. How high the temperatures rise in the future depends on how we change our emissions of greenhouse gases, something that is much harder to predict than weather or climate.

I know climate change is real, but some of my friends and relatives don’t believe it. How can I convince them?

Marshall Shepherd, director of the UGA Atmospheric Sciences program: The climate crisis is the challenge of our generation, yet the narrative has been polluted with special interests and political maneuvering. It is not about “left” or “right.” It is about our food, water, health, national security, energy and infrastructure. We are living through the results of climate change now, and the impacts will accelerate. 



Photo Credit: Dot Paul

Three things must happen to move people forward on climate change understanding: First, they have to move beyond confirmation bias (consuming information consistent with what they believe). Second, we have to increase climate literacy. Too many people think a cold day refutes global warming or utter the cliché statement, “The climate changes naturally.” Well, duh. Grass grows naturally, too, but fertilize the soil, and it grows differently. Third, the connections must be made between kitchen table issues and climate change, not abstract concepts. It is not about some polar bear or the year 2080.

Recycling can be confusing. What are some things I can recycle that I might not know about, and what are some things people try to recycle that end up contaminating the stream?

Joe Dunlop, ACC waste reduction administrator: Athens-Clarke County has the best waste diversion programming in Georgia. Residents and businesses can divert more than 90% of their “waste” if they take full advantage of local landfill diversion programs. After you send your stuff to the mixed recycling collection (curbside, dumpster or drop-off), CHaRM (Center for Hard to Recycle Materials), composting and Teacher Reuse Store or area thrift stores, there’s just not much left. And if greening your footprint isn’t a good enough reason, try greening Georgia’s economic impact—most of your recyclables stay in Georgia. Of course, remember that recycling comes after reduce and reuse. So rethink your stuff.

Easy to recycle, but often landfilled:

• Cardboard. It’s not exciting, but about 750,000 tons of plain old cardboard boxes still get landfilled in Georgia every year (last we knew—the state of Georgia stopped funding this sort of research).

• Aluminum cans. Duh. Ours go two counties away to Novelis Aluminum in Greensboro and find their way into products like Ford F-150s. That’s just ’Murican.

• Paper for packaging and reading—not eating or wiping. Most of Georgia’s paper mills use at least some recycled content. 

• Clean, rigid, plastic containers that are not Styrofoam or other brands of foam plastic. Caps can stay on.

• Glass bottles. Still recyclable in Athens’ mixed recycling collection. 

Top Five “Joe’s No’s”:

• Plastic bags. Keep recyclables loose. 

• Styrofoam. It’s got that No. 6, but cannot survive the sorting process, and is too light to efficiently ship to market. 

• Food. Leftovers smear the clean paper. 

• Scrap metal. Like a lot of items, your dead lawnmower, worn drill bits and bent frying pan are absolutely recyclable. Just not in the mixed recycling collection. 

If in doubt, throw it out. Better yet, ask the experts by emailing 

How can I make my home more energy efficient?

Michael Songster, homebuilder and environmental activist: If you think your house uses too much energy, you’re probably right. Don’t worry, you can fix it. I’m not going to give you the top 10 things you can do—go ahead and search the web for that—but here are two easy ones.

Change your light bulbs to LEDs. Yes, most folks have done this. If you haven’t, don’t wait for an old incandescent bulb to burn out. Just change it. Start with the fixtures that you use the most.

Air seal and insulate, starting with the attic. There’s lots of information online about how to go about this, and when it comes to the insulation part, get a quote from an insulation company. They may be able to do the job for less than you can.

Now, for three that don’t get talked about much but can have a big impact: Replace your water heater with a hybrid electric heat pump water heater. They’re not cheap, but they save so much energy, they pay for themselves pretty quickly. Tired of cold floors in the winter? Encapsulate your crawl space. This means sealing the walls and dirt with plastic sheeting, then insulating the walls. Again, there’s good info on the web about how to do this, and companies that specialize in the work.

The real truth is, your house doesn’t really matter. Everyone’s houses together do matter, though, so either individually or by joining a group, get involved in advocating for policies to reduce energy use broadly, like programs that support low-income weatherization. Georgia is not great on this front, and a widespread “pay as you save” program would help a lot. Or policies that encourage greater housing density, because more people living in smaller spaces use less energy. Policies that improve energy codes for new construction would save energy and lower the cost of home ownership.

Does Athens-Clarke County have any plans to improve its bike lane and sidewalk network?

Hillary Essig, ACC bicycle, pedestrian and safety coordinator: There are so many projects and opportunities to look forward to in 2020 for Athens in Motion, the plan that guides our pedestrian and bicycle projects. One of the most exciting developments is our citizen-led Athens in Motion Commission. It is the first of its kind in Georgia and provides a standing citizen committee focused on bike and pedestrian transportation in Athens-Clarke County. 

As far as specific projects go, we already have four projects approved for conceptual design from the Athens in Motion Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan that the Mayor and Commission approved in 2018. Riverbend Road (College Station Road to South Milledge Avenue), Cherokee Road (Lexington Highway to Beaverdam Road), and Jefferson River Road (Old Jefferson Road to Vincent Drive) are all approved for sidewalk concepts. Additionally, the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department is analyzing these roadways for improved bike facilities through our Complete Streets Policy. One other project, Barber Street (Boulevard to Chase Street), has already been approved for both bike and pedestrian concepts. Each of these projects are serving as pilot projects to test TPW’s new public outreach process. We completed community walk audits along these roadways to get more community perspective for TPW’s conceptual designs that will be presented to the Mayor and Commission this spring. 

Though not specific to Athens in Motion, the Firefly Trail section near the Lexington Road Loop 10 interchange is definitely something to be excited about. The Firefly Bridge over Trail Creek will also provide even more convenience to those who bike and walk. I’m excited for this year and hope to see readers at the monthly Athens in Motion Commission meetings on the fourth Tuesday each month at 4 p.m. at 120 Dougherty St. To learn more about Athens in Motion, visit

I’d like to ride my bike more, but I don’t feel comfortable. What resources are available to help people learn to ride safely?

Jason Perry, president of BikeAthens: I talk to people who would like to ride their bikes more, but they just don’t feel safe out on the roads. Whether it’s distracted drivers, cars that pass too closely or the outright aggression by drivers toward people on bikes, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. 

The first bit of advice we would give people is to be visible and predictable. Wear bright clothing and get some bright lights so you can be seen, especially after dark.

Second, learn the rules of the road so you can ride right. We partner with Georgia Bikes to offer pocket guides that have all the state laws about bikes. You can pick these up for free at our shop. We offer free classes that focus on teaching not just the rules of the road and how to handle your bike, but also tips on how to navigate complex intersections. Join us on one of our monthly rides to build confidence with a group—and no one gets left behind.

Ride where the cars aren’t. You could explore mountain biking by checking out Trail Creek Park. The North Oconee River Greenway provides 7.25 miles of multi-use path that is designated for non-motorized use. It’s a great place to get out and ride. If you are looking to commute, you could ride more side streets. We have a map on our website,, that color codes the streets so you can plan a low-stress route.

Bring your bike to one of our Fix Your Own Bike sessions on Thursday nights, and we can help you make adjustments to give a clearer view of the road. Our FYOB sessions are also a great way to learn about your bike, get help tuning up the brakes and mingle with local bike riders of all skill levels. Or stop by and ask us for advice.

How can Athens-Clarke County achieve its goal of 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035?

Kelly Girtz, ACC mayor: From Sweden to Spring Valley Road, people are talking about the significant responsibility we have to take tangible steps to address the climate crisis. Right now, a huge opportunity exists as we examine our energy use in your local government—both the sources of energy we use and the efficiency of our use. I fully believe that we will transition away from a carbon-based energy system in the next two decades, but it will not happen without outlining the essential steps along that path. It will also not happen if we do not commit the necessary human and economic resources to this work. 



Fortunately, we have the ideal population and the ideal staff in Athens-Clarke County to make this happen. The public overwhelmingly supported the SPLOST 2020 referendum in November, which will allocate $15.8 million to renewable energy projects to move the Unified Government to 100% sustainable and renewable energy. This could include solar and geothermal systems, electrification of our vehicle fleet and continued efficiency gains, especially with systems such as HVAC that draw large portions of our energy use. We will seek grant funds and partnership opportunities to extend the reach of your local tax dollars. 

All of this is helmed by our fantastic Sustainability Office, staffed by Andrew Saunders and Mike Wharton, professionals who live at the important intersection of passion for their work and expertise to put the programs and systems into place that will make the difference for us, our children and future generations. I will be the first to say that I wish we were further down this road, but I also live with great pride in the clean energy advocacy among the public at large, and internal to our government, who are together building a solid, sustainable, renewable foundation.

What is UGA doing to become more sustainable?

Kevin Kirsche, director of sustainability: UGA is committed to solving grand challenges and advancing research and scholarship that creates healthier people, stronger communities and a secure future for all.

Our students gain valuable experiential learning and the core skills required to create positive, sustainable change. UGA offers more than 2,100 sustainability-related courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels in nearly every academic discipline. Students in the Sustainability Certificate and the Partnership for a Sustainable Athens provide meaningful support for local business, nonprofits and government agencies committed to advancing sustainability and resilience in our community. UGA’s Campus Sustainability Grants Program funds student-led projects that make a tangible difference on and off campus, including efforts this spring to reduce the transport of plastic waste into aquatic environments and a pilot project to provide trash services and water access to people experiencing homelessness in Athens.

Operationally, UGA strives to lead by example as we support instruction and research to fuel innovation. Today, UGA is using 29% less water per square foot and 21% less energy per square foot than in 2007. Recent increases in efficiency include LED lighting retrofits and upgrades to the campus chilled water system. UGA has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from a 2010 baseline, and beginning this spring, we will further reduce emissions by introducing 20 new electric buses partially powered by the UGA Solar Tracking Demonstration Project on South Milledge Avenue. UGA Dining Services incorporates local ingredients in wholesome meals while eliminating plastics from the waste stream. UGA composts animal bedding and landscape debris, as well as all organic materials from campus dining halls, to restore soils and grow wholesome produce that is delivered to community members in need.

A more sustainable future: That’s our commitment.