The Last Straw?

straws-top-downThe last light went out, plunging the neighborhood into darkness. First, a quiet rustling, then silence. Somewhere a dog barks. The rustling resumes. The garbage can lid shifts slightly with a tinny sound. Suddenly, the lid flips off the can and an explosion of plastic straws, disposable water bottles and fast food wrappers cascades onto the ground, where they slowly creep into the gutter to be washed away into the nearby stream, then on to the ocean. An infant cries in the darkness, the dog barks once, then is silenced. The nearby residents are oblivious. The trash creeps on.

That’s one credible theory about how various kinds of trash end up in our waterways and the oceans. It’s a supernatural phenomenon, that causes trash, thought to be safely and appropriately disposed of to escape into the wild. Of course, no person is to blame; it’s the innate character of trash to want to be free.

Apparently, the newest environmental hot button is plastic straws. They need to be banned because they contaminate the oceans and destroy marine life. Their ability to escape into the wild is beyond all understanding.

Plastic straws now join the list of environmentally “bad” actors that we need to get rid of: plastic grocery bags, styrofoam take-out containers, disposable diapers, cigarette packages, disposable water bottles, fast food wrappers and others. Each of these items has been a ‘major problem’ in the environment because either they are driven to escape or, well, people put them there. Also, they are easily identifiable among the unrecognizable litter.

People are basically lazy and we like our convenience. We short-cut across lawns instead of staying on the sidewalk. We run the air conditioners and heaters when we don’t really need to. We’ll eat fast food, take-out or pre-packaged food rather than cook a real meal. We buy bottled water rather than just going to the tap. We drive when we could bike or just walk.

In short, we’re human.

And, being human, we’re pretty messy. We might keep our kitchen clean, but don’t look too closely into the bathroom. We try not to litter, but we advertently and inadvertently spill and drop things that we no longer care for or need. We put cigarettes out by stepping on them, but seldom stoop to pick up the butts. The burger wrappers tend to fly off in the breeze, and we don’t chase them down. Pop and beer cans have a way of slipping out the window, never to be seen again, except by the next passing car. Some people won’t even stoop to pick up a penny that they drop.

On the other hand, as a society, we use quite a few resources to recapture all the litter that escapes us. Entire organizations have been created to deal with trash and litter, and volunteers spend years of time combating it, not to mention the everyday actions of people to clean up after themselves. Governments enforce rules about littering and their workers, volunteers and the incarcerated are pressed into service to clean up public areas, including roadways. It’s uncannily familiar now, the orange-vested work crews along the edge of the road and the nearby telltale piles of full garbage bags awaiting pickup. I suppose pickup trucks contribute more than their fair share of trash blowing out of the back. It’s amazing what you see in or on the side of the road – mattresses, lamp shades, clothing and other goods among the paper cups, McDonald’s bags and such.

And, there are places where no one bothers to clean it up. Many poorer countries or communities just ignore it, their priorities are elsewhere (food before trash?). Others intentionally dump their trash in surface waters or the oceans, as we used to do in the U.S. (out of sight, out of mind.) And there are certainly spills, accidents and other incidents that contribute to the mess, like tidal wave or flood outwash, lost fishing gear, or lost cargo containers off a container ship. Construction sites lose all kinds of packing and other materials to the elements. Some landfills don’t protect against wind dispersion or outwash of their trash, but others routinely send crews out to scour nearby areas for debris.

Despite the innate drive of plastic straws and other trash to seek freedom, the biggest problem is people, not trash. Most of the time, most of the trash in the environment was improperly disposed of. If we need to act (which we do), we don’t need to ban straws or grocery bags, we need to be more vehement about proper disposal.

As Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” However, Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Catholic Archbishop of Manila, more succinctly reflected my opinion, “To err is human. To forgive is divine, but to repeat is stupid.”

So, to litter is human, but to clean up is divine. And remember, don’t be stupid.



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