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Issues Of The Environment: Ripples From The First Earth Day, 51 Years Ago In Ann Arbor

Glen Daigger
University of Michigan

Thursday, April 22nd is Earth Day, and, due to the pandemic, most celebrations will be virtual this year.  Still, the idea of Earth Day has endured since it all started with a series of teach-ins at the University of Michigan in 1970.  U-M Civil and Enviromental Engineering Professor Glen Daigger was there and joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss those heady days and what the future may bring. 


  • Fifty-one years ago, the very first Earth Day celebrations were held on the University of Michigan campus.  The Teach-In on the Environment was an event that helped crystallize the public consensus that something had to be done.  On March 11, 1970, a 50,000-strong cadre packed the newly-christened Crisler Arena to kick off what has been called, “the most famous little-known event in American history.”

  • The four-day teach-in was successful.  Doug Scott, who, in 1970, was a graduate student in the forest recreation program of the School of Natural Resources and co-chair of ENACT, the group that organized the teach-in said it was something that everybody could get behind.  He noted it appealed not only in terms of wanting to keep the place we live clean, but to the American style of wanting to be involved and present.

  • Glen Daigger is a professor of civil and environmental engineering.  He was a young adult at the teach-ins in Ann Arbor.  He remembers already being outraged at a poisoned country and decided that enough was enough.  “Rivers were burning, air pollution was horrible,” he said.  “There was a gut-level feeling that humankind, through the things we were doing and the way we were living our lives, was destroying the planet.  We were destroying it for other living things, but also for ourselves.”

  • Prof. Daigger has carried on the legacy of the first Earth Day throughout his career.  For decades, he has led research in water treatment that promotes cleaning or the water in conjunction with recycling the nitrogen and phosphorus that is removed back into useful fertilizer. 

  • Today, in the Ann Arbor treatment plant, Daigger and his colleagues are  tweaking the chemical and biological variables of a lab-scale system that purifies water using activated biofilms – thick skins of pollutant-eating bacteria that are cultivated on specially designed membranes.  The team plans to have the technology up and running in a prototype treatment plant that’s slated to be built on an island in the Yangtze River near Nanjing, China.  Called Eco Hi-Tech Island, the development is being built to showcase new environmental ideas, of which the activated biofilm system is one.  “China is essentially in the process of doing what the U.S. did in the 1970s through about the mid-1980s in terms of putting their basic wastewater treatment infrastructure in place,” Daigger said.  “They’re implementing more new systems than any place in the world.  So, working with them could mean that the world begins to see the benefits of this technology in five years instead of 20 years.”

About Glen Daigger

Glen Daigger is currently Professor of Engineering Practice at the University of Michigan and also President and Founder of One Water Solutions, an engineering and innovation firm.  Widely recognized for his contributions, he has received a number of national and international awards and is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering.

Over his career, Glen Daigger has become an internationally recognized expert in wastewater treatment and water quality management for municipal and industrial systems, with particular expertise in biological processes.  He is widely published and is author or co-author of more than 200 technical papers, four books, and several technical manuals.  He is a former Professor and Chair of Environmental Systems Engineering at Clemson University.

Glen Daigger has served in senior roles for the Water Environment Federation, the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, and the Water Environment Research Foundation.  He was also a Senior Vice President and Chief Technology officer for the international consulting engineering firm, CH2M HILL.  Glen Daigger was employed at CH2M Hill for over 35 years and produced 11 patents on wastewater treatment processes that helped establish US wastewater treatment standards.

Glen Daigger has been a member of IWA (and IWSA) for over 45 years and served as a Senior Vice President and member of the Finance and Investment Committee before becoming President-Elect in 2009.  At the IWA World Water Congress in Montreal in 2010, he began his first term as President of the Association.  At the end of his second term in 2014, Glen Daigger was appointed Distinguished Fellow of IWA. (Source: *directly quoted* https://iwa-network.org/people/glen-daigger/)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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