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Talking Trash

I hope Week-Ender readers will bear with me, because I’d like to talk some trash; no, really, trash, as in garbage, as in the things we throw away each day.

The average person, i.e. you and me, produces about 4.3 pounds of waste per day according to Duke University’s Center for Sustainability and Commerce. Their researchers say that’s about 1.6 pounds more than most people produced in 1960. By this count we modern people have become trashier.

So one of the questions that I ponder is: where does all that trash go?

Well, the Duke study notes that about 55 percent of the 220-million tons of waste we generate each year in the U.S. finds its way into one of more than 3,500 municipal landfills that collectively account for about 22 percent of the human-related methane emissions in the U.S.

These statistics stagger me and I wouldn’t believe them if not for the fact that I see it happening right in front of me every day--in my own home!

I am a tenacious recycler and it kills me to see something thrown into the trash that can be recycled or composted. However, we just moved into a new house in a new city and I haven’t yet had time to discover the local recycling process. Until I do--and I will very soon--I am seeing an unacceptable volume of recoverable material going into my trash.

It amazes me how quickly the kitchen trash receptacle fills up when we aren’t recycling. I can insert a new trash bag in the morning and often by noon it is filled, ready for binding up and adding to the pile that is destined for a landfill. If somebody puts a plastic orange juice bottle in or a cardboard box, the bag fills much more quickly. If we have company it is much, much more quickly.

What’s in the bag is largely compostable or recyclable. A large volume of what’s in the bag is paper, plastic, cardboard, tin cans, glass and even no-no’s such as batteries.

If I, who is very aware of this volume and content, can let circumstances allow me to lapse into anti-recycling habits, I have to wonder how much people with no recycling conscience allow to slip into the landfills.

In my case, rest assured, I will remedy the situation very soon. But people without recycling conscience won’t ever think twice about it, nor will they teach their children or grandchildren about recycling. 

I have to wonder how many people in this country worry about what goes into their trash. I’d like to be optimistic about it and hope that a vast majority do. However, in the disposable, hurry-scurry, what’s-in-it-for-me world in which we live, I am afraid that isn’t the case.

Am I being pessimistic? 

Maybe. Or maybe I am just being realistic. Human nature being what it is, unless laws were to be established to penalize people for not trashing their world, there are those who will do it.  Have you ever witnessed someone callously pitching trash out of their car window? Or throwing trash on the ground when there’s a trash can within easy distance? If they demonstrate that level of disregard in public, imagine what they must do at home.

It may be that some people think they have “rights” to do as they please in their own home, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. However, it seems to me that when we impose our trash on the rest of our countrymen, when we have the option to lessen that burden by recycling, we are harming others.

I certainly don’t mean to negate millions of people who do recycle and compost or minimize the good work that many Americans are doing each day in the recycling business--and in the landfill business. Many landfills now feature gas-to-energy systems whereby methane gas from decomposing trash is collected and burned to produce useable energy.

It’s just that I worry that the amount of trash we produce will bury us someday.

For example, the Santa Barbara, CA Resource Recovery and Waste Management Division website reports that, “We recycle over 70% of the waste we generate in the unincorporated area, meaning only 30% gets buried in landfills ... Unfortunately, this is still a lot of trash. In fact, the amount of trash disposed of today is roughly the same as it was ten years ago, despite the fact that recycling has increased. This means that even though our community is recycling more, each person on average throws away more trash and recycling than they did before.”

So why this missive, you ask? What am I trying to say? Am I trying to convince Week-Ender readers of something? Yes and no. I have to believe that if you are reading this blog you are probably one of those people who are prone to care about your community and be concerned about your neighbors; thus, you probably recycle to the fullest extent possible.

It probably kills you as much as it does me to see reclaimable items being pitched into the trash. You probably try to teach your children to be recycle-conscious too.

So what can people like us do?

I suppose I would like to see more people preaching “recycle, reduce and reuse” at every possible opportunity. I hope that reading this might awaken the desire to be more proactive in urging friends and neighbors to practice the three “R’s.”

In fact, just writing this has given me the impetus to step up my schedule to get tied into the local recycling program and start separating cardboard from plastic from glass, etc. I am also going to find out if my new neighbors are recycle-conscious and if not, hopefully I can find ways to help them.

There will always be people in the world who will not care about this sort of thing no matter how hard you try to convince them. All I can do is feel sorry for them. The best I can do, and I hope you will too, is try to have a positive impact on the people we come in contact with.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, AL; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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