THE GREAT AMERICAN GARBAGE PATCH
By Frosty Wooldridge
April 30, 2009
In my 40 years traveling around this planet, I discovered human beings respect nothing anywhere in the world. No matter how beautiful, no matter how pristine the location and no matter what country—human beings toss their trash everywhere. They inject their chemicals into the land, air and water. They throw their rubbish into rivers, lakes and streams.
In my forty years of Scuba diving around the world, I’ve seen our pristine lakes and oceans turn into trash cans for humans. Millions of tires, nets, plastic, glass and metal containers roll around the ocean floor like ‘creatures’ out of place.
As recently exposed on Oprah, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” twice the size of Texas, features three million tons of plastic debris floating around the Pacific. In some places, it reaches 60 feet thick. It kills millions of marine creatures annually. It’s not just the Pacific, 46,000 pieces of plastic float on every square mile of all our oceans and seas! That figure is correct!
While riding my bicycle around the world or climbing mountains, I have seen humans toss soiled baby diapers into pristine pools, fjords and rivers. On Mt. Everest, known as the “Earth Mother,” climbers have left tons of trash and garbage on her flanks in their efforts to reach the top. At the base, climbers have turned the area into a sewage pit.
Most large rivers running out of industrial nations feature raw sewage that creates ‘dead zones’ like the 10,000 square mile one at the mouth of the Mississippi River to 27,000 square mile dead zones in the North Sea. How big is that? That’s the size of North Carolina.
Instead of changing their ways, humans continue adding more trash upon the trash with no end in sight.
In a sobering expose’ Mother Jones featured a brilliant piece by world famous author Bill McKibben. He also wrote a ground-breaking book: The End of Nature. I highly recommend reading his books.
“Waste not, want not” by Bill McKibben, Mother Jones/May-June 2009
“Once a year or so, it's my turn to run recycling day for our tiny town,” McKibben said. “But it's also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town of 550 sure generates a lot—a trailer loads every couple of weeks.
“More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another—80 million of them get tossed every day. The ones I'm stomping down are being "recycled," but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean drinking water, they define waste to begin with. In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of "waste" begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of our economy. Let's do some intellectual sorting:
“There's old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You're making something useful, but you're not using the latest technology, and so you're spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it's cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that's easy to attack; it's obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There's actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be—that's why we can swim in most of our rivers again.” Or to correct McKibben, at least 53 percent of them!
“There's waste that comes from doing something that manifestly doesn't need doing,” said McKibben. “A hundred million trees are cut every year just to satisfy the junk-mail industry. Or think about what we've done with cars. From 1975 to 1985, fuel efficiency for the average new car improved from 14 to 28 miles per gallon. Then we stopped worrying about oil and put all that engineering talent to work on torque.”
While we Americans run through our busy days, mountains of trash accumulate worldwide by our singular activities.
McKibben said, “Chris Jordan is the photographer laureate of waste—his most recent project, "Running the Numbers," uses exquisite images to show the 106,000 aluminum cans Americans toss every 30 seconds, or the 1 million plastic cups distributed on US airline flights every 6 hours, or the 2 million plastic beverage bottles we run through every 5 minutes, or the 426,000 cell phones we discard every day, or the 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags we use each hour, or the 60,000 plastic bags we use every 5 seconds, or the 15 million sheets of office paper we use every 5 minutes, or the 170,000 Energizer batteries produced every 15 minutes. The simple amount of stuff it takes—energy especially—to manage this kind of throughput makes it daunting to even think about our waste problem. (Meanwhile, the next time someone tells you that population is at the root of our troubles, remind them that the average American uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and dinner on January 2 than the average, say, Tanzanian consumes in a year. Population matters, but it really matters when you multiply it by proximity to Costco.”
I have read where Americans use 90 billion plastic and paper bags annually. (Source: Sierra Club) But I’ve also read that the total number of plastic bags for humanity exceeds 386 billion annually. All go to the landfill, or, as you can verify daily—all over the landscape.
“Americans discard enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet every three months—and aluminum represents less than 1 percent of our solid waste stream,” We toss 14 percent of the food we buy at the store. More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean. And—oh, forget it.”
McKibben covers waste from many corners, but then, he covers the waste of our two wars and military waste.
“Want to talk about government waste?” said McKibben. “We're going to end up spending north of a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, which will go down as one of the larger wastes of money—and lives—in our history. But we spend more than half a trillion a year on the military anyway, more than the next 10 nations combined. That almost defines profligacy.
“We landed on a continent with topsoil more than a foot thick across its vast interior, so the fact that we immediately started to waste it with inefficient plowing hardly mattered. We inherited an atmosphere that could buffer our emissions for the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution.
“But our margin is gone. We're out of cash, we're out of atmosphere, we're out of luck. The current economic carnage is what happens when you waste—when the CEO of Merrill Lynch thinks he needs a $35,000 commode, when the CEO of Tyco thinks it would be fun to spend a million dollars on his wife's birthday party, complete with an ice sculpture of Michelangelo's David peeing vodka. The melted Arctic ice cap is what you get when everyone in America thinks he requires the kind of vehicle that might make sense for a forest ranger.”
McKibben makes sense! He’s brilliant! So why am I pulling my hair out by the roots? Why do I ride my bicycle along highways with an endless stream of trash? Why do I see fast food, beer and pop bottles littering America’s rivers and lakes? Why do humans create and inject ever more deadly chemicals into the environment annually? How can Americans remain mind-numbingly apathetic to mountains of debris covering North America?
How about the ones of us that care? Let’s create incentive laws to encourage the ones that don’t care—to pick up after themselves. How about a 10 cent national deposit/return law like Michigan’s. I have bicycled the entire ‘mitt’ of Michigan and never picked up one plastic, can or bottle container. Why? Because no matter who tosses their container litter, an armada of kids picks up everything for the financial reward. It’s time for America to take responsibility for cleaning up America. Let’s stop the waste stream by engaging a “National Recycling Policy.”
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The original people of this continent, living here thousands of years, maintained a pristine environment. New arrivals from Europe trashed North America inside of 150 years. That’s unreasonable and immoral. It’s unconscionable! Let’s change ourselves toward a more responsible society.
Listen to Frosty Wooldridge on Wednesdays as he interviews top national leaders on his radio show "Connecting the Dots" at www.themicroeffect.com at 6:00 PM Mountain Time. Adjust tuning in to your time zone.
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