Thursday, April 9, 2009

No MO Trash

Yesterday was highway trash pick-up day. Taking full advantage of a sunny dry day, Sandhill folks got together with several neighbors from nearby Dancing Rabbit to form a 14-person posse that swept along a 3.1-mile stretch of County Road M, gathering 26 large trash bags worth of stuff (plus some assorted automotive bumper fragments that were too large to fit into bags).

Like a lots states, Missouri has an Adopt-A-Highway program, mainly to help pick up the litter that accumulates along state-maintained roadways. This year celebrates the 20th anniversary of the program, and Sandhill was one of the first groups to jump in and police a stretch of nearby blacktop. So we've been doing this for a while, and I thought I'd share some observations about the Northern Missouri trash scene (No MO Trash).

While the official line is that adopters are expected to pick up four times a year, we live in a quiet corner of the state, and our sleepy county roads just don't have that much traffic (or trash). So once a year is as often as we get out there, usually in spring: after the snow and before the grass starts obscuring the litter.

Looking back over the 15+ years we've been an adopter, perhaps the most potent reflection is that the volume of trash we collect has hardly changed at all. It might be down a smidge, but that's all. Given the marked rise in society's ecological consciousness over that time, it's really startling that there's hardly been a dent in the habits of the toss-it-o
ut-the-window-when-you're-done crowd. (Of course, I can't tell if the general population is just as unmindful as ever, or whether the percentage of more careful folks has increased and this is compensated for by some dedicated litter bugs who are taking it upon themsleves to make up for others). In any event, this year, like most, we filled the back of a pick-up with the junk that's accumulated in a year's time along three miles of a little-used country road. Sobering.

I guess one way to look at it is that people around here have really embraced the idea that Small Is Beautiful—as in, my world is no larger than my vehicle (I mean really small)… and everything else is my trash can. Where do these people think that stuff goes that they're pitching out the window?!?

About half of what we collected yesterday was recyclables—mainly plastic and aluminum, with some glass, paper, and steel rounding it off. The good side of this observation is that half of what we collected is not only no longer lying beside the road as a land spill, it's also not heading for a landfill. The bad side is that the other half is heading for a landfill—almost all of which is packaging. Why do people have so much trouble learning to recycle, or using canvas tote sacks?

Over the years there's been a definite shift away from glass and toward plastic. Mainly this reflects the economics of packaging. Plastic is cheaper to manufacture and ship, and is less likely to break. When we started collecting highway trash, glass comprised about half of what we'd find, and we'd always get a certain number of returnable bottles—maybe 15-20 at a time. Yesterday, all of the glass fit easily into just two bags (out of 26 total), and we didn't find a single returnable bottle. Eighty percent of the glass was one-way beer bottles (in Missouri, Budweiser is not just the king of beers; it's also the king of glass trash).

There's a Pepsi bottling plant located in Memphis, our county seat, 13 miles away. It's a town of just 2000 and the Pepsi plant is a significant employer. It's hard not to notice that a high fraction of the plastic and aluminum trash that we collect is Pepsi and Mountain Dew products. How smart is it to have your local economy based on sugar-based liquids, packaged in petroleum-based plastic bottles or in energy-intensive aluminum cans?

The inconvenient truth is that for all the hoopla surrounding the much-ballyhooed Greening of America, we've hardly changed our trash habits at all. Unfortunately, where the rubber hits the road, we're still finding
aluminum, plastic, and glass also hitting the road, dotting the landscape alongside it. What we really need in northern Missouri is No Mo' Trash.

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