mountains in salt lake city

Salt Lake City Sustainability

Your guide to living sustainably in SLC

Environmental Overview of the Beehive State

Salt Lake City sustainability efforts are a bright spot in a state that is not exactly a frontrunner in green policies and practices. Utah faces significant challenges in moving towards sustainability.

  • WalletHub has our state ranked 27th in their 2023’s Greenest States; Consumer Affairs placed us at 37th in their rankings.
  • U.S. News & World Report ranks Utah at #46 in the ‘natural environment’ category; #38 for air and water quality, and #44 for pollution.

We know global climate change and other environmental issues are a major problem, but what does this look like locally? Why should we care?

Utah land issues

  • Higher temperatures brought on by climate change leads to problems like increased drought, frequency and severity of wildfires, and the decreased ability of trees to withstand pests, such as the bark beetles that infested 50,000 acres of Utah forests in 2012 and continue to do damage.

Salt Lake City air quality

air pollution over salt lake city

It’s old news that Utah air quality is terrible. The inversion is awful, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. The American Lung Association’s 2023 State of the Air report ranked Utah 10th worst ozone pollution in the U.S. and 19th for worst short term particle pollution. The days of the Salt Lake City inversion being a short period of poor air quality seems like a distant memory.

One of the biggest sources of these particulates is US Magnesium, the largest magnesium producer in the country. They are responsible for an estimated 25% of air pollution in northern Utah. In addition, they along with Compass Minerals, deplete the most water in the state.

The largest source of emissions in SLC is produced from on-road vehicles. While already responsible for about 40% of man-made pollution, the likelihood of this improving remains slim with projects on the horizon like the proposed I-15 expansion. More focus and funds should be placed on improving public transit and transitioning to renewable energy.

With the growing exposure of lakebed from the shrinking Great Salt Lake, we face the added threat of toxic lake dust storms, laced with arsenic, copper, and mercury.

Landfill gas is another significant contributor to emissions. In the United States, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions, accounting for approximately 14.5 percent in 2020.

Utah’s water shortage

Utah water usage remains a top issue throughout the state, along with drought and decreasing snowpacks. Increased temperatures from climate change result in a higher evaporation rate. All of these contribute to the Great Salt Lake drying up, which hit a historic low level in 2022. The potential loss of the lake has dire implications for air quality, animal habitat, snow quality, and local economy.

great salt lake

Water issues in Utah also include pollution. Globally, eight to ten million metric tons of trash make it to the ocean every year. By 2050, it is estimated that the amount of trash in the ocean will outweigh the sea life. Utah’s waterways aren’t exempt from pollution: 32 tons of trash removed from the Jordan River in one year’s time, and on a single morning in 2022, volunteers removed one ton of trash from the Great Salt Lake.

Utah water quality issues extend even further. In 2022, the nonprofit group Environmental Integrity Project found that Utah ranked 3rd in the country for the length of rivers and streams that are potentially harmful to aquatic life. They also placed Utah at 7th for the amount of rivers and streams deemed too polluted for swimming and recreation. Local regulators have also found about half the state’s waters are impaired in some way.

How sustainable is Salt Lake City?

In 2022, 37% of SLC residential waste stream was diverted from the landfill through recycling and composting. SLC actually has a pretty robust recycling program, but it needs more participation. The city has a goal to be zero waste by 2040, and we all need to jump on board in order to achieve that. If you’re interested, you can read Salt Lake City’s Climate Positive 2040 action plan.

Salt Lake City itself has an awesome, albeit small, sustainability department. This enthusiastic group cares a lot about our local environment and they make the most of the resources they have. They work hard to educate the public on how to do better, including their very informational slcGreen blog. They teach a free Master Recycling program every spring, which I completed summer 2023. We had guest speakers and toured different facilities. I highly recommend it—it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot.

I know we can all do better—we have to—and I sincerely hope that this resource will make it easier to connect with the people and information you need to do your part. C’mon SLC, Let’s Go Green!

Please, by all means, let me know if I missed anything. I am always adding more information.

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