A World to Waste, Part 1

August 21, 1998

By Michael Jessen

(Over the next four columns I will explore our attitudes toward waste in general and recycling in particular. I will discuss initiatives to reduce waste in Europe and highlight the lack of action in some North American locales. Some recent changes to waste management costs in the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary will be detailed. As well, I'll review the attacks on recycling by certain organizations and magazines like Readers' Digest. Finally, I'll consider why humans -- compared to other species on earth -- seem hung up on wasting.)

After spending almost 30 years promoting recycling and waste reduction, I am continually amazed at the necessity to defend these apparently common-sense practices.

Thoughts about waste were not uppermost on my mind during my two-week vacation at the Riondel campground, a place with one of the most beautiful views in the world. As I watch the morning sunrise or the evening sunset reflect on the still waters of Kootenay Lake mirroring mountains all the way to the Duncan River Valley, it is easy for me to believe in the need to preserve the splendour of our Earth.

It was therefore disconcerting to inspect a neighbouring campsite one morning to find the departing guest had left empty food cans scattered around the site and a large mound of organic and paper waste along with three plastic milk jugs in the firepit. A man driving a grey Astrovan with Alberta license plates had occupied this site with his four children for the past two nights. What kind of values is he teaching his children? Can he really be so oblivious as to the basic requirement to look after his own mess?

On another day, I was appalled after hiking for two hours over a mountain ridge to find a plastic bag floating on the surface of Plaid Lake, a sparkling paradise at 6,000 feet, nestled at the base of Mount Crawford.

That night as the stars shone down on me from the coal-black sky, I wondered how anyone could be so thoughtless and uncaring with their waste. Why, I asked myself, do some people just not get it?

It has been almost six years since more than sixteen hundred senior scientists from seventy-one countries, including over half of all Nobel Prize winners, signed a document titled "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity". The document begins: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources." Later in the declaration the scientists write: "We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively. We must give high priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling."

In his encyclical entitled "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility", Pope John Paul II wrote: "In the past, it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country. Now it is the whole planet that has come under threat. This fact should compel everyone to face a basic moral consideration: from now on, it is only through a conscious choice and then deliberate policy that humanity will survive."

Was no one paying attention when the scientists and the Pope issued their warnings, I wondered? Are we really so cut off from the sources of our food and water and the consequences of our way of life that we will risk or sacrifice almost anything to make sure our way of life continues?

I found myself thinking of a quote from Rachel Carson which I copied in a notebook years ago: "It is a great problem to know how to penetrate the barrier of public indifference and unwillingness to look at unpleasant facts. I have no idea whether I shall be able to do so or not, but knowing what I do, I have no choice but to set it down to be read by those who will. I guess my own principle reliance is in marshalling all the facts and letting them largely speak for themselves."

TRASH TIP - The U.S., German, Japanese and Dutch economies require 45 to 85 metric tons of natural resources per person per year -- the weekly per person equivalent of up to 300 shopping bags of natural resources, over 40 percent of which is the result of energy derived from fossil fuels. How long can the Earth keep giving?

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