More trash talk

2 03 2015
The waste-to-energy plant (incinerator) in Haverhill, MA. I was apparently up in arms about as soon as it opened in 1989. I was nine.

The waste-to-energy plant (incinerator) in Haverhill, MA. I was apparently up in arms about as soon as it opened in 1989. I was nine.

I am always on the lookout for topics to write about here, and when I get a request from a reader for a specific post, I am both happy to oblige and relieved not to have to cast about for a theme. Seanetter Warren Mumford is a Cape Cod resident but was unable to attend the film screening of Trashed and subsequent panel discussion last week, and he asked me to provide a bit more of a synopsis on what occurred. If you’d like to view the film itself, you can stream it, or find it on iTunes. In general, it covers the end result of our global overconsumption of goods, and our tendency toward blindness as to where those goods end up. Landfills, incinerators, recycling plants all feature in the film, as do the places where our trash ends up inadvertently, including, I hardly need tell you, dear readers, the oceans. I was on the panel after the film primarily to speak to the impacts of trash (especially plastics) on marine wildlife. Jessica Donohue is a Research Assistant at SEA Education Association, and brought her expertise on sampling plastics directly from the oceans, and Dave Quinn, Regional Waste Reduction Coordinator for Barnstable County (Cape Cod), spoke to issues of recycling, composting, reusing, and attempting to reduce our overall waste stream wherever possible. The questions from the audience ranged widely from topics of contaminant induced infertility, to cancer clusters, to styrofoam recycling (very challenging, as it turns out), to composting and plastic bag bans.

Highly recommended.

Highly recommended.

I am currently reading the book Toms River by Dan Fagin, about the fate of a small town in New Jersey ravaged by the blithe dumping of chemical wastes from a dye manufacturing plant over multiple decades, so I have been, for the past week, more consumed than usual by matters of waste and waste disposal. Some of the discussion after the film screening centered around what we might do to combat this issue of our mountainous waste problem, and it seems to me fairly consistently the problem that we do not pay the appropriate price for what we use. The statistics in Toms River on the volume of waste water generated per gallon of dye produced is appalling, and as I read, I considered what a poor job we do reflecting those true costs in the sticker prices on consumer goods. The environmental costs of cheap plastic bottles, bags, food containers, and so on, are not captured in the amount we pay, nor in the what the companies must pay to produce and distribute those goods. Dave Quinn brought up the idea of extending the responsibility of these manufacturers to encompass the entire lifespan of these products (or at least more of it since plastics stay with us for thousands of years). If the producers had to consider, and pay for, the ultimate disposal of their products or their products’ packaging, might things not turn out differently? Certainly we would expect the cost of that non-recyclable, non-reusable juice container to go up, and perhaps that would drive down demand for the most egregiously packaged items.

We discussed what consumers might do as well, and in the film, a small urban shop is featured where shoppers buy all items directly out of bulk bins and take them home in their own reusable containers. This shop was a lovely idyll, but I couldn’t help but bring up the issues of environmental justice and uneven access to high quality food, let alone to high quality food responsibly distributed. I tried not to be flip as I described my teaching work in the small, but rather depressed city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the underclasses may have access to no food at all save what they can get at the corner convenience store. This was by no means meant to discourage the opening of more environmentally minded retail shops, but simply to raise the issue that we have a very long way to go before they will be routine in places outside the liberal bastions of the posher cities or their suburbs. For my student population, it’s hard for me to get them to simply throw paper in the recycling bin rather than the trash can right beside it. This flabbergasts me, but it’s a good lesson in how little many of my students think about issues that keep me up at night. Trying to break down that barrier is part of why I teach.

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