One of the rituals of my summer is to go to the local dump, more elegantly called the “recycling center.” Mount Desert, my township here in Maine, includes the residences of Martha Stewart, many Rockefellers, Zbigniew Brzezinski (security advisor to former president Jimmy Carter), the family of former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, members of the threatened middle class, and food stamp recipients. Like death, the dump is a social leveler. We all drive up to the recycling center in our gas-gobbling SUVs, Mercedes, newly fashionable Priuses, jalopies or trucks. I arrive in my 15-year old Chevy Malibu. Depending on the day, I feel proud of how conscientious I am about recycling, or annoyed at the bother of schlepping my own trash.
Recycling is not a simple matter. I concentrate on sorting out what I carefully collected over the past weeks: deposit plastic bottles, deposit glass bottles, plain glass, colored glass, office paper, newspaper, plastic (careful here, be sure to read which number plastic is being accepted for recycling this week), milk jugs, cardboard (cut into 3″ pieces), boxboard (but not pizza boxes!). I often examine the non-deposit bottles and retrieve deposit ones and move these into their proper bins, thereby contributing a dollar or two to the charity chosen by my township. I contemplate answering the center’s request for volunteers “with good minds.” I refrain.
Stimulated by my trip to the dump, and also by Susan Rockefeller’s video, Mission of the Mermaids (see next blog about Rockefeller women), I started surfing the net and read that I produce 4-5 pounds of trash per day. Somebody else estimates that as a nation we generate 230 billion pounds of garbage annually, of which 30% is recycled. Ideally this figure could be 70%. The United States also consumes 70 million bottles of water daily, of which 22 billion empties ended up in the trash in 2006. The worldwide consumption of disposable plates, cups, and eating utensils has reached 430,000,000,000 (or 140,000 items/second). These numbers are so gigantic that I cannot wrap my mind around them. Disposable plates cannot easily be recycled because they are contaminated with food, and coated with or made of plastic. The U.S. utilizes 380 billion single-use plastic bags annually, or 1,200 single-use plastic bags per person/per year. These are the worst offenders because they end up in landfills or are shredded by the ocean, where they impact the marine ecology.
In spite of the acute problem, America is increasing the amount of trash it produces by leaps and bounds. More and more eateries rely on disposable cups, plates, and utensils. Supermarkets pack everything in double plastic bags. “Doggie bags” in restaurants have become mammoth plastic boxes. The packaging of whatever you buy is unreal. Much of it is of the clamshell variety, so hard to open that it provokes “wrap rage,” which often translates into injuries that require visits to the hospital emergency room.
I have no illusion that my blog, with its small readership, will impact the world’s mammoth trash problem, but my surfing did magnify my awareness. I will be more conscientious about taking my shopping bags with me, avoiding the use of paper plates and the like, refusing plastic eating utensils when I buy takeout food to eat at home, buying paper goods made from recycled paper even though they cost more, cleaning with old rags instead of paper towels, taking my own mug to coffee shops…and the list goes on.
We humans seem to respond best to demands made on our pocket book. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other major West Coast cities have passed legislation that bans the use of single-use plastic bags by stores, and/or charge customers for bags. The results are very encouraging. Unfortunately, at present the legislation is accompanied by a sharp increase in the use of paper bags, but that may change. The optimists among us can invest in the cloth shopping-bag industry; defeatists can complain about government interference with lifestyle issues. Never mind, fees and bans seem our only hope for not drowning in our own muck.