Our throw-away society is poisoning itself: If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem

— Artwork by Elisabeth Vines

Sometimes a problem seems so big that it appears permanent. It becomes acceptable. We treat it as the norm. Or perhaps we are simply overwhelmed by its enormity.

Such is the case with litter. Our roadsides, our beaches, even our parks are filled with scattered waste. It’s everywhere, even blowing into our carefully tended yards.

Keep America Beautiful, founded by a group of corporations in 1953 — often seen as greenwashing — has nevertheless conducted worthwhile surveys of our nation’s litter habit.

The not-for-profit group’s most recent survey, released in 2021 found that 90 percent of the people surveyed believed litter was a problem in their state.

The survey noted nearly 50 billion pieces of litter along roadways and waterways in our nation — more than 2,000 pieces of litter for each mile — with over half along waterways.

The group calculated that comes to 152 items for each resident of the United States, and has launched the #152PickUpChallenge, urging each person to pick up 152 pieces of litter.

Of course litter is not just a consumer-created problem; manufacturers need to take responsibility for what they produce. A dog bone, for example, doesn’t need to be packaged in plastic. Recycling programs are essential but more can be done to curb consumerism in our throw-away society.

Over the years, we’ve advocated strongly on this page for measures like the ban of single-use plastic bags or plastic straws or Styrofoam food containers that have successfully curbed their use. More needs to be done.

A quick look at a table and graph put out by the federal Environmental Protection Agency shows a stunning rise in the generation of plastics from 390 thousands of tons in 1960 to a whopping 35,680 thousands of tons in 2018.

Sadly, only 3,090 of those 35,680 thousands of tons were recycled. The vast majority fill up our already overflowing landfills.

An uncounted amount enters our waterways, harming not just aquatic life but human life as well.

Micro/nanoplastics, known as MNPs, are ubiquitous in “water, air, soil, and biosphere, exposing humans to MNPs on a daily basis and threatening human health,” according to a paper published this year by the American Chemical Society.

More study is urgently needed, the authors say, on how MNPs may cause intestinal disturbance, cardiovascular toxicity, reproductive toxicity, or acute mortality.

Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published groundbreaking research that followed 257 patients who had surgery to clean plaque from their carotid arteries and discovered those who had MNPs in the plaque — 58 percent had polyethylene and 12 percent had polyvinyl chloride — were about 4.5 times more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or death in the next 34 months.

The problem is worldwide. In the last 20 years, global annual production of plastics and plastic wastes has more than doubled. We are a society poisoning ourselves.

The Environmental Protection Agency last year drafted a strategy with ambitious actions to eliminate the release of plastic and other waste from land-based sources into the environment by 2040. It has three key goals: reducing pollution during plastic production, improving management of materials after use, and preventing trash and MNPs from entering waterways while removing escaped trash from the environment.

And that returns us to the place where we started. What can an individual do when faced with the enormity of this problem as we wait for our government to reign in industry and reduce the threats of pollution?

Enter: Kathy Burbank.

Burbank wrote us a letter earlier this month, urging other Guilderland residents to join her in a town-wide litter clean-up on April 27.

So we talked to Burbank this week about her mission, about how one individual can make a difference. Burbank said she was “brought up right” by a single mother who moved a lot during Burbank’s childhood.

It wasn’t until Burbank married and settled in Guilderland to raise her children that she felt a sense of community, she said. 

“Community is a feeling you get when you have people you care about,” said Burbank, who went on to lead the chamber of commerce in town.

She would take annual beach vacations with her family — to Florida, to Virginia Beach, to the Jersey shore.

“I’d go with my kids and see other kids running around and I noticed how much crap there was in the sand … I got annoyed with it floating around their legs,” said Burbank.

She started picking up the litter from the beaches wherever she went. Then, when she got home and was working at a senior center, she started picking up the litter there, too.

Burbank lives in Westmere and often takes walks from her home. “It is horrible here,” she said of the litter. She started walking with a bag in hand; it often became so heavy with trash, she had trouble carrying it home.

Last fall, her husband posted an account of her efforts on Facebook, “People were commenting: Let me know next time you are out.” Others joined in her efforts.

She discovered another couple, Jill and Jim Denn, that had been doing the same thing, focusing on the trash where the Northway starts in Guilderland. “This says: Welcome to Guilderland,” Jill Denn commented to Burbank.

So Burbank decided to set a date, April 27, starting at 11 a.m., when other Guilderland residents could join in the clean-up. Since her letter to the editor ran on April 3, she has been inundated with offers.

Community groups like the Rotary, the Guilderland Historical Society, and the Westmere Fire Department, along with 75 volunteers have signed on. “I get four or five phone calls or emails a day,” said Burbank.

Volunteers will be given bags, gloves, and bright T-shirts as well as a location to clean. Burbank may be reached at kburbank01@gmail.com.

Many businesses, she said, have volunteered to clean the areas around them. “This is everyone’s problem,” Burbank said.

She is right. The challenge is to get people to realize it. Littering, as we noted, is a worldwide problem.

The National Social Marketing Centre, which bills itself as international experts at behavior change, reference the book, “Nudge,” written by Richard H. Thayer, an economist and Nobel Laureate, and by Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, citing the example of how the state of Texas was able to reduce littering.

“By adopting the slogan ‘Don’t mess with Texas!’ and employing macho Dallas Cowboys football players to appear in television adverts, they were able to reach the difficult audience … men aged between 18 and 24” most responsible for littering, the center writes. “Influential individuals were used to help alter decisions about acceptable behaviour, reducing roadside litter by 72 per cent in the first six years.”

We may not have “macho Dallas Cowboys” to influence local public opinion but we have an earnest woman who cares about her community to lead us in this effort.

We also have the recollection of a caring man, Carl Felix, whom we saw picking up litter on Brandle Road where he lives. A decade ago, as he stooped to pick up trash along his Guilderland road, we asked him why he did so.

He told us this story:

There was a little boy who walked along the beach after thousands of starfish had washed up from the ocean and lay helpless on the shore. The boy stooped, picked up one, and flung it out to the safety of the sea, its home. And then, he stooped, picked up another and did the same thing. He did this again and again.

A man following behind the boy pointed out the foolishness of his mission. There are thousands of stranded starfish here, he told the boy, and you cannot save them all. At first, the boy did not answer. He just kept working at his task. But, as the man persisted in his derision, the boy flung another starfish to the sea and said, “I saved that one.”

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