Columns, Opinion

Legacy of the potato chip bag: Lack of resources, lack of options, lack of willingness to change exacerbates our growing trash problem

(WARRENSBURG, Mo.) – Back in July, the volume of litter and trash I had been walking through for years, possibly decades, horrified me. I don’t know what made me notice it, but I did.

From there, I set out to learn about it: what was out there, why it was out there, and what we could do to stop it from being out there.

I learned more than I imagined I would.

Strictly from a standpoint of acquiring information, learning more than I ever imagined is a good thing.

However, what I learned doesn’t offer much in the way of hope.

Part of this journey included collecting litter and trash that is in our town. Working a couple of hours a week, a few volunteers and I collected over 500 gallons of trash. Most of what was collected was what could be seen from the streets or the sidewalks.

I learned many of the city’s departments are understaffed and must therefore concentrate on higher priorities. As much as I’d like to live in a community completely devoid of litter and associated issues, I understand that’s not the biggest dream to dream, not while there are other issues that must routinely be corrected, and trying to implement proactive solutions means introducing more work to be done without necessarily introducing more money to pay for that work. I get that.

I learned littering in Warrensburg doesn’t exclusively cause issues for the city of Warrensburg. Through the city’s storm water drainage system that connects to creeks, which connect to rivers, which connect to the ocean, Warrensburg’s trash has the ability to travel great distances and contribute to issues in other cities, other states, and other countries, or to the general global issues affecting everyone.

Most recently, I learned recycling is not as much of an option as I once believed it could be. Something that I’d been taught is a good thing has become an idea that is misunderstood and is therefore largely ineffective in many ways, not the least of which is that it is only sporadically done. That was eye-opening.

I had hoped to find a solution, or at least a road to a solution, for the citizens of Warrensburg. Instead, I found that we are simply part of a bigger, systematic issue and we cannot reasonably solve this issue here.

Let’s face it: People are hard to change. If we could convince the human race to change, we wouldn’t still have murder, assault, theft, tax evasion or speeding in school zones. We’ve been around for a while, and we experience those things, and more, every day, several times a day the world over.

Since we can’t expect people to stop littering, no matter what provisions and accommodations we provide them, the solution is to limit what is available to litter. Either we have to collectively decide to use less (we still haven’t collectively decided to stop killing each other, so that’s not really a thing), or we have to stop producing things that can be littered, or things that will last for several lifetimes and pollute the landscape.

We won’t stop producing things as long as there is money to be made producing those things.

So, how do we convince companies to stop using certain things that are inexpensive to use and that enhance profit margins?

We have to prohibit the use of those items.

What do we do when jobs are lost to compensate for shrinking margins because of that prohibition? What do we do when fewer tax dollars are collected because of those shrinking margins? How many police officers and firefighters do you want to try to do without? How many schools do we want to close?

On the other hand, do we really want to continue down the path we’re on simply because we’re used to it and don’t want to do anything different?

While this isn’t specific to Warrensburg, Edward Humes sums it up perfectly in his book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”:

“Americans make more trash than anyone else on the planet, throwing away about 7.1 pounds per person per day, 365 days a year. Across a lifetime that rate means, on average, we are each on track to generate 102 tons of trash. Each of our bodies may occupy only one cemetery plot when we’re done with this world, but a single person’s 102-ton trash legacy will require the equivalent of 1,100 graves. Much of that refuse will outlast any grave marker, pharaoh’s pyramid or modern skyscraper: One of the few relics of our civilization guaranteed to be recognizable twenty thousand years from now is the potato chip bag.”

I don’t know anyone who wants to have their life and their generation associated with what’s left over after a $5 purchase at a highway truck stop.

That’s where we’re headed, though.

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