Lessons From Earth Day

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Today offered good pointers on relics, refuse, and recycling.

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Ironically, our success on Earth Day was measured in trash bags.

As a dad who picks up after his toddler, I was physically and mentally prepared for Earth Day. The Wife signed us up to clear the trash from a part of our neighborhood, and despite intermittent rain, we donned foul-weather gear and went to work. This wasn’t a chance to meet folks in the community, or, to quote the Boy Scouts, “Do a good turn daily.” This was necessary labor. It was rather humbling to stoop over the soggy earth, plucking pieces of waste from the grass, getting smeared with mud, and feeling rain in your boots. Earth Day is supposed to make you sweat it out, and when all is said and done, teach you some basics about where we are today.

I left something on the ground. I cannot exist in the modern world without generating a certain level of garbage. What we rip up, flush, discard, chuck, burn, run over, or forget is amalgamated into a trashy after-image of ourselves. The Environmental Protection Agency is not so philosophical, but has tracked the buildup of municipal solid waste (MSW) for three decades. MSW has increased over the years, yet our levels of recycling are also advanced:

Recycling and composting prevented 87.2 million tons of material away from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. This prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year.

We may be assured of recycling more of ourselves in the future, but waste is still part of us. Have you ever spotted a circa-1980s styrofoam package in the bushes? Did it remind you of another container found in a gutter, alley, field, and embankment? Surely I left something in one of those places, something that should have gone into the trash or a recycling bin. The molecular constitution of a styrofoam cup, once in my own hand, could outlive my generation. The cup has no obligations but to be drained and left beside a maple tree. I left that cup on the ground, and in a fleeting moment, both I and the cup were part of the problem.

We measure success in trash bags. Earth Day clean-ups around the country will be qualified and quantified by the number of trash bags contributed by volunteers. That is a strange way of doing things, but at least the garbage moves through proper channels. From bag to dumpster to truck to compactor to incinerator, our MSW has to be appropriately organized and disposed of without scattering to the winds. With collective discipline, our imprint could be reduced. The EPA is also keen on reducing, reusing, or donating certain waste items for this effort.

One person’s trash is another’s treasure. In the old days, a homeowner could dump their refuse in the woods instead of the local landfill. There is an archaeological footprint left behind in the bushes of my town, the remnants of people long since departed. The thicket behind my house hid plastic planters, bags, shredded paper, tires, bricks, wooden fences, and half a ceramic bird feeder. I often wonder if archaeologists owe their career to sorting through the trash of lost civilizations. Surely a few aisles in the British Museum or Smithsonian are home to junk that easily tossed by their ancient owners.

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One person’s trash is another’s treasure.

One find in those bushes was a carved granite object (pictured right) that might have existed in a garden or atop a stone wall. It was somebody’s trash. Today, on Earth Day, it will be my treasure. I intend to clean it up for use as a doorstop.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Dear Mr. & Mrs. Proctor……thanks for helping to clean up litter in your town !!
    ” Blades “.

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