What Country Is the Best at Protecting the Environment?

After dropping more than 20 spots this year in one ranking that measures how well countries are working to protect the environment, the United States is taking steps to improve its environmental impact.

The 2010 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 163 countries based on 10 indicators of environmental protection, such as levels of air pollution, marine protection laws, water quality, and their rate of planting new trees. The EPI is composed biannually by a team of environmental experts at Yale University and Columbia University.

The U.S. came in 61st place with a score of 63.5 out of 100, a significant drop from landing in 39th place with an EPI score of 81.0 in 2009.

"We're the only country that has a significant amount of people that don't believe in climate change," said Marc Levy, deputy director of Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). "The central challenge of our time is to help people understand what's happening around them."

Iceland led in the ranking with an EPI score of 93.5. Switzerland came in second on the list with a score of 89.1, followed by Costa Rica with 86.4 and Sweden with 86.0.

Levy, who is one of the EPI project leaders, said that although the year to year results are not strictly comparable due to varying data collection methods, some categories can be compared. For example, data collected by CIESIN show that the U.S. has been lagging behind European countries in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and climate change for the past 20 years.

"Judging how well a country recycles is extremely complicated, it's not just about recycling but also about managing waste and limiting how much is produced to begin with," Levy said.

"The countries that are really trying to reduce waste are working to change people's behavior so that they use fewer materials," Levy said.

One way that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently working on decreasing the release of hazardous waste during the industrial production is by setting the National Waste Minimization Goal. This measure aims to work with industries and the public in reducing the use and release of four million pounds of toxic chemicals found in America’s manufacturing processes by 2011.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.