Saturday, July 10, 2010

Scary Stuff and Powerful Percentages

Walking along the boardwalk of Ocean City, Maryland, at the tail end of the night, I was disheartened.  I was very glad I wasn't the person who had to clean up the joint. It was a mess of debris:  napkins, fries containers, wrappers, multiple plastic work gloves (?!), and more.  Clearly a busy day had been had, and the remnants were there to show that people had done a good job of trashing the place. 

A short walk down, and you are beyond the carnival atmosphere, and past all the buildings, restaurants, game places, and rides.  It is here you can see the opening to the beach, across the sand.  As nice as the night was, a swift wind, and anything on that boardwalk would go flying!  With the end of night mix, you wonder how much of "this stuff" empties into the Atlantic Ocean's Garbage Patch in the Sargasso Sea?

Of course if I were in charge of waste management in the vacation hot spot of "Ocean City, Maryland," I'd make some changes.  It would be better set up, with recycle bins galore, and civilian-friendly places to recycle.  But I do realize that's easy to say:  "If I were in charge of   blah blah blah  then I'd make sure to blat blat blat."  It's sad, but true:  once you are in charge, you realize the hidden pitfalls that no one sees. 

But, to have no recycle bins (which is the case on Ocean City's boardwalk)...that is NOT the best approach.  Again, I shake my head at the fact there there are places--more and more than I ever imagined--that don't have recycling bins set up and a system in place.  We still have so far to go.

Along those lines, and what brought me to really pondering all of this, is the idea of "Gross National Trash," from Annie Leonard's book The Story of Stuff  and her chapter on "Disposal."  Joel Makower's graphic on page 186 of Annie's book is eye-opening--and down right depressing. It was what was used to make the pie graph above. Of US trash, only 2.5% of the total waste is municipal waste. That's us--that's what's curbside! The largest percentage, 76%, is industrial waste. The 18% of "special waste" (mining, fuel production, and metal processing) is truly just more, yet specialized industrial waste. Lastly, the 3.5% is construction/demolition waste. 

The reason I find this sooo bothersome is that the smallest percentage is already huge! Like I said, it's us!  It's the 4.5 pounds of trash that we each make daily.  It's the one part of this graph/waste problem we can do the most about...yet you hear that the percentage of people in the world who recycle is 35%.  35% is roughly 1 in 3 people.  One-third of 2.5% is 0.875. Less than 1 percent. That bears repeating--less than 1 percent of the Gross National Trash is what we are actively recycling.  "Upstream" is where we need to be looking to make real changes, with industrial and other waste.  However, what will it take to get everyone on board, when we can't even get rid of styrofoam clam-shell containers as doggie bags at restaurants?  When we can't even get municipalities to put recycle bins out there? 

Annie Leonard goes on to say there is hope, in that many industries are taking steps to reduce their waste.  I'm glad she finds hope out there.  I think it crystallizes for me that there's so much out there, and again...any little thing that anyone can do does help.  My only hope is that it's not too little too late for the future of our planet and all of our someday grandkids and great-grandkids.

Graphic created on the "Create a Graph" website (  -- a GREAT place to do graphing with school-age kids) using the "Gross National Trash" data from page 186 of Annie Leonard's book "The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health--And a Vision For Change."

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