News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

April 13, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: One man’s trash is, well, another man’s trash

Many people are growing weary of ecological doomsdayers, and if so, they are the folks most likely to tell us that Planet Earth isn’t in that bad of a shape, that it can repair itself, that new technologies just around the corner will solve our carbon emissions and greenhouse gases and oil consumption and the ever-growing pile of plastic in which we are drowning.

But after just one afternoon of picking up roadside trash along my property a few weeks ago, you’d have a hard time convincing me of that …

On what turned out to be the only decent weather day of our spring break a few weeks back, Joanie and I, tired of looking at the litter that had accumulated along the decrepit old woven-wire fence that runs north along our property line, decided to make part of our daily walk a cleanup detail.

Armed with three plastic garbage bags that were big enough to hold junked Pontiacs, and clad in gloves and sweatshirts, and sadly, when considering the date, long johns, we headed off to police the roughly two- to three-tenths of a mile that our woods run along the blacktop. Needless to say, we underestimated just how much time we were to invest, and how much trash we’d discover.

Since we are experienced trash pickers from way back — I take great pride in picking up even gum wrappers and cigarette butts from my yard — we didn’t start out that late morning already disgusted with the task at hand at all. We have gotten into the habit over the years of recycling about everything we have in the way of trash, some of it, such as aluminum cans and newspapers, going to the Vigo County Humane Society; cash from the cans they recycle buys dog food, and the newspapers are used as cage liners. I have often wondered if passers-by see us walking along the roads in the early evenings, a half-dozen crushed beer cans in our hands, wondering if we’ve both developed serious drinking problems, but that hasn’t deterred us from doing what we think we should. We are, after all, notorious neatniks.

Both of us possessed a sort of optimism as we walked to the end of our yard and headed up the road that day, but it didn’t take long for us to realize two things: First, we either were going to need more bags, or my wheelbarrow, or perhaps a neighbor’s grain truck. And second, we both were going to be too tired and too short of time to actually take our regularly scheduled walk that day; there was that much trash.

I think our haul was impressive, and insulting, and, in the long run, a bit depressing. On just our side of the road, and in no more than about 1,500 feet (we did venture about 6 to 10 feet into the woods to retrieve well-thrown and blown refuse), we picked up 241 plastic, clear, brown and green glass bottles, 217 aluminum soda and beer cans, and at least one overstuffed 55-gallon plastic bag of fast-food wrappers, Styrofoam, prescription pill bottles, cigarette packages, car parts, smokeless tobacco cans, a calculator, two T-shirts, a shoe, two sheets of tin roofing and three concrete blocks. Our little crusade took us more than three hours, and as the minutes ticked by, I grew more ticked off. How could the people who drive by just these few feet of woods, I wondered, many of them people I know, be so lazy that they couldn’t have at least taken their own trash home with them?

Our friend, fellow walker Carol Groves, asks that question every time she wanders from her house in town out into the country, often with another friend, Shirley Chaney. They bag trash as they march along, Carol telling me one day last week, “I just can’t stand to look at it.” It is not uncommon now that she knows the shelter can use the cans, for us to come home to find a bag of aluminum that she’s left for us by our garage door. Her effort, by the way, provides a candlelight of hope in the face of all the trash we see.

It is staggering what we Americans throw away, most often without thinking about it. Americans represent about 5 percent of the planet’s population, yet we generate about 30 percent of its trash. Of all that garbage, only about 2 percent of it is recycled. For all inhabitants of the world to live like Americans, we would need two more Earths; in a lifetime, we each will throw away about 600 times our own body weight.

Take those soda and beer cans, for instance. Americans toss enough of those into trash cans — or out their car windows — to rebuild the entire commercial air fleet every three months. One ton of recycled aluminum saves us well more than 1,600 gallons of oil; there is no limit how many times it can be recycled. As for all that glass we picked up, well, Americans throw enough of it away every week to fill a 1,350 foot-tall building. Plastic is even more disposable for us; we toss enough of it each year to circle the Earth four times. Only 25 percent of all the plastic we could recycle is recycled. If we recycled the other 75 percent, it’s estimated that we could save a billion gallons of oil.

No one is asking us to read “Silent Spring” this week or to spike trees or harass Japanese whalers or join the Al Gore Fan Club. Picking up our own trash, and trying to create a little less of it, would be a nice start to cleaning up the planet, maybe our own back yards, maybe even my fence row. It isn’t a radical idea or environmentalist extremism, and it shouldn’t pit us against one another, either; it’s common sense.  

My calendar reminds me that Earth Day is coming on April 22, the 44th such celebration since it was founded by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson. He tried to remind us four decades ago that we have only one Earth and that we need to take better care of it. He said: “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

As a way of promoting that first Earth Day celebration, cartoonist Walt Kelly, already well-known for his work, drew his philosophical Everyman possum, Pogo, as he looked out across his home, a trash-strewn Okefenokee Swamp. With head in hand, he mutters, “We have met the enemy and He is us.”

Pogo was right, and his simple words sure beat what I was muttering along the road the other day.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mike to learn more about his books.

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    March 12, 2010