Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Disposable Nation: A Cautionary Essay on Waste

"Can you blame nature if she's had enough of us?" - Tori Amos, Father's Son

For the past few years, I've volunteered with a local group in New Jersey, Hackensack Riverkeeper, picking up trash in parks and directly from the river itself. As they boldly and rightly declare, "Not in my river. Not on my watch."

More than the hours I've given to these cleanups, they've given me an invaluable perspective on how truly reckless we are with protecting our rivers and the life (not only us) that depends on them.

I participated in a cleanup of local woods by the riverside in Paramus, New Jersey. After about two hours, the trash bin runneth over.

The woods behind a Route 4 McDonald's. I thought not only of the waste constantly produced by our eating on-the-go society, but that in a time of high gas prices, people were running their fuel-inefficient cars in a drive through instead of walking into the restaurant.

The woods after the cleanup.

On Earth Day, there was an offensive full page ad in The New York Times that somehow this is a green bottle since it's partly plant-based instead of petroleum. I see nothing "green" about taking filtered tap water (or other companies who rob local communities of their water supply), bottling it, covering it in more plastic casing (which won't be recycled), shipping it long distances, drinking it, shipping it out to a landfill. The vast majority of bottles don't get recycled.

Bottled water to me should be an emergency product for disasters, yet it seems the majority of society (including my loved ones) drinks it. As Ted from On Loving Animals pointed out to me once, George Carlin said, "What ever happened to taking a drink of water before you left the house?"

At a restaurant, I say "no straw please" for water, lemonade and soda. I'm not on Facebook, but if you are, check out No Plastic Straws (Plastic Straws are For Suckers). They remind us:

"That straw, that was unwrapped from a paper wrapper
and unboxed from a box,
unloaded from a truck that drove from the docks
where a ship had carried it from faraway lands
or a railcar had chugged through the once pristine sands
of the Gulf Coast-
Home of the US Petrochemical Industry
and the petrochemical-contaminated fisheries
and the cancers that carry misery..." and so on.

Remember the scene in The Graduate when someone is talking about his future to Dustin Hoffman and had one word: plastics! Was he right. They are everywhere. Think of how much waste we produce with disposable coffee lids.

Remember that how we all gripe about greedy oil companies (I'm no fan of them either), but we refuse to change our consumption of petroleum based-plastics...
Bags that no one remembers or bothers to use.
Reusable coffee mugs that are too much trouble.
Water bottles that are supposedly better than reusable ones (but who knows what is seeping into your water from those single-serve ones).
Plastic utensils that are allegedly more sanitary than real silverware (but the factory farmed and pesticide laden food it's putting into our mouths: well, we choose not to think about that)!
Plastic to-go containers for our carryout food. When I dine out, I've been bringing reusable containers for leftovers to eliminate waste.

Not long after the BP Oil spill, singer Jimmy Buffet, who has a hotel property along Florida's coastline, was assessing the damage of the man-made disaster and said what I completely agreed with: "We're all guilty. We're all using this oil." It's not just in our cars. We are all contributing to the demand for oil and petroleum products that lead to: drill faster, get more, give it to us cheap.

Think of how quick we are to eliminate any species we think is a nuisance. Despite budget shortfalls, New Jersey and New York taxpayer money was used this year to eliminate geese in the dark of night from local parks. While they supposedly cause a risk to airline flights, their droppings were cited. Good thing for us no species can execute us in the cover of darkness for our destruction of the environment.

Consider how much waste you produce. Would the planet be better off if people acted as you did, or worse? How do you go lightly on the Earth?

Please respect the planet for yourselves, your fellow citizen, the other species on the planet, and future generations. Please share this post if you can and keep this message going.


  1. AnonymousMay 11, 2011

    Excellent post, Catherine! I think you've done a great job in demonstrating the state of our rivers. This reminded me of my local river. It disgusts me when I see all the trash as I ride the train home along the river. We all need to be more conscious of how our actions affect the ecosystem. I'm a big fan of Contigo travel mugs. They're great for cold and hot beverages.

    I learned to be more conscious of straws. I admit that I've used them if they're handed to me.

  2. Hi Kristin. Thanks so much. For better or worse, I now notice trash everywhere since doing these cleanups: bottles littering the local high school track I walk on, trying to get into sewers, on the roads into New York City transformed into mini-landfills, etc.

    I think of the namesake Hackensack (a tribe of Native Americans) and how we pollute everything that was sacred to them.

    Thanks for the tip about those travel mugs! Every small step people can do – it all adds up!

  3. THANK YOU Catherine
    I walk around and feel like the trash police.
    It makes me so angry. But you're doing something pragmatic with your anger.
    An interesting post on BPA free baby bottles here.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experience with the clean up team and for being kind to our mother earth. As an independent thinker, your writing reminds me of the many reasons to act mindfully. I have to remember what the results will be, how it will affect the earth and those creatures living here. I always think about origins of things, not so much about where they go later, but here you are a great teacher. Thanks!

  5. You've hit a huge pet peeve nerve of mine, and I'll add a little note to it as well. Are you aware that the majority of "recycling" efforts and initiatives are underwritten by corporate interests that sell food/merchandise packaged in such disposable stuff. Much like the original "Keep America Beautiful" campaign that was financed by beverage and cigarette manufacturers. Pretty much, it's okay if you buy our disposable rubbish as long as you either put it in a trash can or recycle it. However, recycling plastic bottles for example does NOT make recycled plastic bottles. Instead it turns into polar fleece or plastic lumber. Therefore the need for virgin material for plastic bottles still exists. The only way to REALLY deal with it is to STOP using it.

  6. Hi. Thanks for the comment. Sadly, the company where I work hands out unlimited bottled water for free. I wouldn't take them if you paid me. I drink from the tap out of glass. How they've sold the public on buying what comes out of their tap, even in the Great Recession and after it, is unbelievable. I don't fear tap water. I fear the pollution in our air created by transporting bottled water to us and next to landfills (or even recycling facilities). People worry about the safety of reusable bottles? What about water that's been sitting around for who knows how long in plastic? I'll stick with my tap water.