Ruminations on Roadside Trash

Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends,
have become global garbage cans. Jacques Yves Cousteau

This time of year is garbage season. The snow has finally melted along our road revealing a winter’s accumulation of trash. In the time between snow melt and new spring growth it is easily visible (and easy to pick up). We usually get several five gallon buckets just along the mile or so of county road that we pick up.

It is amazing what you can find along the road side. The variety is astonishing. You expect the usual food and beverage containers. But there seems to be no limit on what gets pitched out of a car window or blows out of a truck. We have found car parts, tires, building materials, plastic buckets, metal scrap, toys, tools, bungee cords, and a chain saw bar. You expect cigarette butts and packaging but why would someone throw a used condom or vinyl gloves out a moving car window?

Cigarette butts are especially worrisome because fire danger is high at this time of year. Don’t people think about what they are doing and the possible consequences? Every year fires are started because some idiot tosses a live butt.

All this trash says something about the people who litter. There is a sociological story in the garbage. We see a lot of cheap beer cans. We don’t find discarded micro brew bottles. There are plastic liquor pints but no Chevas Regal bottles. There are lots of fast food containers, cigarette butts, and snuff packaging. I guess people who don’t care about their bodies also don’t care about the environment. Soda cans are common but on our road 16 oz plastic Mountain Dew bottle are very frequent. We often find these about the same place along the road. It is like someone completes their “breakfast of champions” at the same place every morning.

It would be interesting to do a proper census of the roadside trash. Which mega-corp product accounts for the most litter? Whose customers are the biggest pigs? Maybe companies could be shamed into a public service advertising campaign to help solve the problem. I can see the half time ad, “Drink responsibly and don’t throw your damn beer cans in the ditch!” Or maybe the sexy babe draped on the muscle car, “All my men recycle.” Advertisers could harness patriotism as they do to sell soap and wars. Cue old glory and the saluting soldier, “Keep America beautiful. Pick up your trash.”

Plastic bags are ubiquitous. These have to be the most unnecessary creation ever invented. Is it really so hard to bring a reusable bag to the store? I often “people watch” in the grocery store parking lot. The vast majority of people have a cart full of half empty plastic bags. Not a reusable bag to be seen. Driving though farm country, especially crossing the plains states, you see fences coated with them. We see farmers plowing under plastic bags. That has to be wonderful for the soil!

Scientists tell us plastic is having an impact on the planet’s geology and biology. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. Most plastic never goes away. It may break down into smaller particles but it is still there in the soil or water. Future sedentary rock will be speckled with plastic trash. Plastics can travel thousands of miles and are a big component of the ocean garbage patches. Plastic in the oceans is being consumed by, and killing, plankton, fish, and seabirds. It is not hard to image a plastic bottle, thoughtlessly tossed out the window, being washed into a stream that runs into a river that empties into Lake Superior where it eventually gets to the Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists say the cumulative total amount of plastic on our planet is 8.3 billion tons. This is the equivalent of 25,000 Empire State Buildings. Only 9 percent has been recycled,12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Of the 300 million tons of plastics produced annually, about a third is chucked away soon after use.

According to the EPA, Americans toss about 4.4 pounds per person per day of all types of solid waste. This is roughly 728,000 tons of daily garbage or enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks. Annually this adds up to about 254 million tons of trash. Recycling and composting handle 87 million tons or 34.3 percent of this garbage. A study done by Save On Energy rated each state for municipal solid waste amounts. Minnesota was on the lower side with 12.4 tons per person per year. Wisconsin was much higher at 26.0 tons. Can this difference be because in Wisconsin Walker killed funding for recycling programs?

In the past trash was burned in the back yard or just thrown in the woods or gully. Then we adopted the out-of-sight-out-of-mind philosophy. Dump it in a hole and bury it! Since the 1950s we have increasingly used “sanitary” landfills. These made efforts to control toxic runoff, contamination of ground water, and other environmental problems. But many of them leaked. Now many communities can’t find enough “waste” land for the expanding need for landfills. Nobody wants it in their neighborhood.

Like many social issues, garbage is a problem created by humans. So humans can solve it if we care enough to do it. As the cartoon character Pogo said many years ago, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” We all are guilty and we all must be part of the solution.

We need to clean up after ourselves. We also need to change our hugely consumptive, unsustainable lifestyles. We cannot continue endless economic growth as the goal of our society. We need to reduce our population and we have to get serious about conservation. REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE has to become common practice and not just an empty slogan. Let’s stop using our air, water, and road sides as garbage cans.