Mike Tighe: Quit kicking the (waste) can down road

Mike Tighe: Quit kicking the (waste) can down road

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It could be too late to reverse all the damage that cast-off cans, bottles and other indestructible waste items have done to the ocean and wildlife, one flotsam flotilla that is damn near big enough to become the eighth continent of the world.

But we might be able to stem future tides if we quit kicking the can down the road and recycle more.

Oh, sure, recycling efforts have whittled away the trash volume from the peak years of the 1950s and ’60s when tossing fast-food bags out of car windows was a national pastime. But there’s still enough litter to expand these islands in the streams.

While we have been meticulously, religiously and fanatically separating recyclables from garbage and kicking them to the curb every other week, other ne’er-do-wells obviously have been doing some serious dumping.

A study released in March not only quantifies the problem but also labels one stretch of the Pacific Ocean as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which it describes as “a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii.”

“Global annual plastic consumption has now reached over 320 million tonnes with more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before,” according to the study, published in the Scientific Reports section of “Nature.”

(FYI, the figure is even more yuge than it seems, because a British tonne [aka a “long ton,” taken from the metric] is heavier, at 2,240 pounds, than a U.S. ton [aka a “short ton,” from the less hoity-toity], a mere 2,000 pounds. So 320 million tonnes actually weigh 352,739,619.496 tons — and that’s the long and short of it.)

“A significant amount … is rapidly converted into waste. A small portion may be recycled or incinerated while the majority will either be discarded into landfill or littered into natural environments, including the world’s oceans,” the report notes.

Adding to the amount of waste landlubbers send to the ocean are synthetic fibers that have modernized fishing gear but wreak havoc with ocean creatures and environs when it breaks loose or is discarded, the report says.

We need a new approach. As is the case with many endeavors, we have to tap the past to move into the future. This new idea pivots on the past.

Soooooo, at the risk of renewing pitched battles like those that erupted in Iowa more than four decades ago when I lived in Dubuque, I recommend nickeling and diming the pollution problem to death.

Grocery and convenience stores raised a ruckus over the proposal to charge people a nickel deposit for every bottle or can sold in the state to persuade folks to return the receptacles for refunds instead of pitching them into a ditches.

Opponents cited the hassles, the added work — even insisting that castoff bottles and cans would invite vermin into their back rooms — but the so-called bottle bill passed and still has a hefty share of support in the Hawkeye State.

Of course, Iowa wasn’t the first state to have such a law. That honor goes to Oregon, which enacted a law in 1971. Now, 10 states and Guam have deposit-refund programs for beverage containers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

They aren’t all the same, which is why you may have seen bottles stipulating that they are worth a nickel in Iowa but a dime in Michigan.

That’s not to say it’s worth a drive to Detroit to redeem a trunkful of cans or bottles — just that one state’s nickel is another state’s dime. In actuality, the bounty on every bottle, can and other receptacle covered ranges from 2 cents (cheapskate states) to 15 cents.

Regardless of the reward price, let’s credit these laws with helping keep contraband out of the waste stream.

As tempted as I am to say there oughtta be a law in every state, I wonder how to attack the biggest menace, which is more destructive to animals — painfully so — than any other.

Oh, it’s not the plastic straws, although it’s super that national and local restaurants are eschewing them in their own initiatives to control waste.

But actions have consequences. (If you don’t buy that, you also don’t believe that 45’s trade war against some of our [former] best friends is hurting farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other Midwest states; Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee or the Poplar Bluff, Mo., nail factory facing the possibility of closing because of canceled orders resulting from steel tariffs.)

Eliminating plastic straws could throw a lot of workers out of jobs (“The Graduate” scene in which Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock character was advised that a successful future hinged on one word, plastics). That process of elimination also could have ramifications for my job.

I often end up with the short straw, so the bosses will have to decide whether they want to use paper or plastic to load my plate.

Worst of all are the plastic ringy-dingy thingamabobs that hold six packs of bottles and cans together. When they end up in streams, rivers and oceans, they’re like Chinese handcuffs on fish and fowl — strangling them or getting them so balled up they can’t walk, fly or swim.

For the rest of us, it’s time we put up with nickel-and-dime fines to ensure that even more recyclables are, indeed, recycled instead of being tossed into the oceans.

Mike Tighe can be reached at mtighe@lacrossetribune, or follow him on Twitter at @necktye.


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