As Jeff and the PUA team approach the end of their three year journey, Jeff took a little time to reflect on what he's been through, the problems he's encountered, and the solutions he sees as necessary for our planet's survival.
Litter ain’t the biggest environmental catastrophe of my generation... I know, but hear me out. Since March 2010, my team and I have been picking up roadside trash – one single, continuous, crazy-ass, route of litter – so far, 3,471 miles – from the Atlantic coast to Yosemite National Park. And it’s taken us the better half of three years to do this. Six out of seven days a week, for eight months of the year, my team of trash gypsies has slogged through the waste of consumer culture to make a statement about America.
182,757 pounds of broken plastic, failed devices, jagged tires, flying Styrofoam, sex toys, beer cans, and excessive packaging later, I can assure you that litter is still NOT the biggest environmental catastrophe of our time.
But it sure is a damn good indicator of an economy built solely on the unhindered consumption of virgin resources in the form of useless, packaged goods.
Litter pick-up is a repetitive motion. Each day, I don my neon reflective vest, and I carry a 3-foot long mechanical trash grabber in my right hand. With each squeeze of the handle, the rubber suction cups at the other end grasp a piece of rubbish that I stuff into a giant bag. Meanwhile, my left hand is clenched tight all day to hold the bounty.
The bounty is my new bag of stories – each piece of trash with it’s very own exposition, climax, and ending. The story always begins inside the Earth, because all materials – litter or not – begin as ore from the Earth. And the story usually ends in a moist, co-mingled, massive burial. What happens in between? Who cares. Aside from the envelope full of cash, the duct-taped chicken in a box, and the semen-filled condoms, there’s no juicy story behind trash. Who really cares about the story of a candy wrapper, cigarette butt, bubble wrap, or roof shingle?
A piece of trash in my 30 gallon bag is pretty much the same as a piece of trash in a 30 acre landfill. It just sits there – surrounded by a plastic liner. Booooorrring. It’s the same story everywhere, every day. Perhaps the build-up to the climax is so dark and so void of respect for humanity that even we – the zombie shoppers of America – choose to pack it away in the deepest canal of our brains. I mean, who really wants to face the reality of displaced people, dammed ecosystems, subsidized resource extraction, chemical solutions, water-intensive refineries, packaged goods, petroleum-addicted transportation, big box stores, one-time use, into the trash, and straight to the landfill? The recycle symbol is a joke. Most places don’t take most “recyclable” materials.
Face it: we’re addicted to consumption – a linear model of consumption where natural resources are raped and then dumped into a burial. I have a trail of trash to prove it.
Each day I walk the roads of this country, I obsess over our addictions. In each aluminum can I pick-up, I envision drunk driving if it’s a beer can, dependency on corn if it’s soda. I envision the damming of the Amazon and the damning of its people for bauxite-ore production. With each passing car, I smell oil addiction. And each economically depressed town I pass, I sense corporate greed and fat CEOs that form mono-economies like monoculture crops. If the crop fails, the entire town goes down. I could go on and on about each kind of trash I pick up, and what it reveals about our culture, our people, and what we’ve become.
Out here in the arid, western United States, UV-degraded plastic is so brittle, it shatters when I touch it. Wonderful – more plastic polymers and persistent organic pollutants to bio-accumulate into our ecosystems.
I’m not exempt from these addictions; and that’s how I justify my request for reform. I don’t believe that our economy takes into account our finite resources, our human health, and our ecosystem health. In the west, water is the big issue, right? So, why do I keep hearing about farmers pitted against oil companies in a fight for water? Where are our priorities?
Waste is a man-made concept, and so is our economy. Disposable consumer products have no value in our economy beyond their single use, because there’s no market incentive to reclaim consumer materials.
It takes a whole lot of mining and industrial might to create useless products in the first place. Those operations – aided through tax breaks and cheap overseas manufacturing – don’t take any binding responsibility for the waste they create.
Instead, the burden is on us – the individual citizen and our cash-strapped municipalities – to haul the waste they create. If we’re going to spend taxpayer money on highway litter pick-up (which in Maryland costs $29 per bag for a state employee to pick-up), it’s time for us to have Extended Producer Responsibility laws in this country, so that companies are responsible not only for injecting but also removing their crappy products from our communities, and so our resources don’t continue to rot in anaerobic holes.