We've been picking up what you throw away

by Jeff Chen

Since March 2010, I’ve become intimately acquainted with many of the things that people in our society no longer want to live with: empty liquor bottles, deflated soccer balls, the guts of deer, aluminum siding.

My team and I have picked up this stuff on roadsides from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast. It’s taken us the better half of three years to get this far. We collect garbage as we go, six out of seven days a week, for eight months of the year. We do this to make a statement about America.

That statement is about the sheer immensity of waste. We’ve hauled away some 188,593 pounds of garbage: ripped plastic, failed kitchen devices, jagged tires, flying Styrofoam, sex toys, beer cans and bottles and outrageously excessive packaging. Although I do not believe that litter is the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time, I do think it is a powerful indicator that our economy is out of whack -- built on the rapid consumption of mostly virgin resources in the form of throwaway packaged goods. We’re highly skilled at buying things we don’t necessarily need, but we’re not very good at disposing of them properly.

Picking up litter from a roadside involves repetitive motion. We all wear neon reflective vests and carry 3-foot-long trash grabbers. With each squeeze of the handle, the rubber suction cups at the other end grasp a piece of rubbish that gets stuffed into the giant bag that we hold fast with our other hand.

Each piece of trash can tell a story, and the story begins inside the Earth, because all materials begin there, and it usually ends in a comingled, massive burial. But aside from the occasional surprising envelope full of cash or the duct-taped live chicken in a box, there is no juicy story behind most of the trash.

Who really cares about the cigarette butt, bubble-wrap or roof shingle? Sent to a 30-acre landfill, most trash just sits there, surrounded by a plastic liner. The waste this signifies is something most of us don’t know about, or don’t want to know about.

The truth is: We’re addicted to consumption, and I’ve seen a cross-country trail of trash to prove it. Each day that my team walks the roads of this country, I find myself obsessing over our addiction to “stuff.”

Each time I pick up an aluminum beer can, I picture a person hurling that can out of a car window; if it’s a can of soda pop, I can’t help thinking about our dependency on corn. I envision the damming of the Amazon River and the upheaval of its people to bring in bauxite-ore production. With each passing car, I smell oil addiction. And in each economically depressed town I pass, I sense corporate greed that promotes mono-economies like monoculture crops.

Here in the arid West, UV-degraded plastic is so brittle it shatters when touched, releasing a few more of those plastic polymers and persistent organic pollutants that bio-accumulate in our ecosystems.

I admit it: I’m not exempt from my own addiction to what’s available in our still-rich culture –– but that’s also how I understand the need for this ongoing campaign for reform. Economists call the impacts of drilling, manufacturing, selling and disposing of used up or unwanted products “externalities,” but a better term for that is “eternalities,” because this stuff is eternal. Nothing ever goes completely “away.” Externalities is a term that cloaks impacts on our finite resources and impacts on the health of people and the land.

It takes a lot of mining and industrial might to create what quickly become useless products. These companies -- aided by tax breaks and cheap overseas manufacturing -- don’t take any binding responsibility for the waste they create. Instead, the burden descends on us, individual citizens and our cash-strapped municipalities, to haul away the waste that’s created, sometimes reducing some of that waste through community-supported recycling.

It’s time to pass a law requiring Extended Producer Responsibility so that companies remain responsible for their products. We have nothing to lose but our growing mountains of trash.

Jeff Chen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He is the co-founder of Pick Up America, the nation’s first coast-to-coast litter pick-up movement. The group of young people will celebrate the completion of their trek on Nov. 11 at Ocean Beach, California.

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