Earth Notes: Earth matters

Earth Matters

By Joyce White

"The Earth is what we have in common." — Wendell Berry

We humans, with our big fore-brains, have been responsible for creating a stupendous variety of marvelous and useful material objects and systems. But we also appear to be the most stupid of all living beings in that we are far along in the process of destroying our environment. As far as I know, we are the only species to heedlessly wreak destruction on the very foundations of our existence.

Stephen Hawking said, “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inward at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted planet.”

From the point of view of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, “Sooner or later, we will have to recognize that Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.”

In 1970 when President Nixon created the EPA, he is quoted (The Week, Jan. 18, 2019) as saying: “Through our years of past carelessness, we incurred a debt to nature, and now that is being called.”

Pollution is a huge part of an enormous environmental problem; this discussion will further narrow the focus to the part that plastics play in the pollution of the planet.

I’m embarrassed to remember that in the 1950s, the creation of plastic drinking cups and plates seemed like such an excellent solution to the unfortunate habit of young children to drop glasses into sinks and onto floors. I bought a set of nested drinking cups in lovely pastel shades. I still have them and use them for visiting toddlers. Another cringe-worthy, 1950s memory: I sent a variety of plastic kitchen goods to a pen pal in Hungary as an example of the wonders of American ingenuity! And he sent me two dolls dressed in traditional Hungarian costumes.

In just 60 years, the use of plastics has exploded. Quality and variety have improved and plastic has become a useful and convenient part of our lives. But there is a disastrous downside to all this convenience. Because it does not break down — actually, it gradually breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces which persist forever and leach toxins into our groundwater — we are becoming inundated with plastic waste. A 2018 National Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) article estimated that 79 percent of all the plastic ever created still exists in landfills or as pollution in our environment, including huge islands of it in our oceans. By 2050, it is estimated that plastic waste will outweigh fish in the ocean.

Constituents of a variety of plastics leach from landfills contaminating aquifers, rivers, and oceans with the result that 83 percent of tap water samples from around the world contained micro shreds of plastic. And countless sea creatures have died miserable deaths from ingesting plastic.

So, what can we do about it? Individuals can help by using reusable cloth bags for shopping. We can avoid buying big plastic toys that we know won’t last much past Christmas. We can return to using bar soap for handwashing rather than all those little plastic containers of liquid hand soap that have appeared at every sink in the past few years.

But the problem is too big to solve by individual efforts. We thought that recycling would help — and it has, but not enough, and now that China will no longer accept our recyclables, it appears that recycling, as it stands now, is not much of a solution.

However, assistance from a functioning Environmental Protection Agency and Congress could help. In the U.K. and some small Asian nations, a new strategy has been proposed that would tax the producers of single-use plastics with less than 30 percent recyclable content, thereby placing the legal onus on those responsible for producing “damaging waste” to foot the bill. The U.K.’s environmental secretary said the new strategy aims to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics so that “together we can move away from a throw-away society to one that looks at waste as a valuable resource.”

Instead of shipping our recyclable waste out of the country, we could be using our famous ingenuity to create government-subsidized plants to process recyclables into new containers and other usable items. With our technical ability to send people into space, surely we could harness some of that technology and ambition to create valuable businesses processing recyclables. That could be one step in helping clean up our polluted environment.

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