August 7, 2008

The Hartford Advocate

Litter Bugs Us
WALL•E and children know this, but do you?

Often, the first thing one sees when visiting a Connecticut city is a McDonald's wrapper, a Styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup, a bucket-sized Big Gulp, and mounds of Snapple and "Eco Shape" Poland Springs bottles. These sorts of items dot the roadsides and abandoned lots like the aftermath of ticker tape parades.

In the two blocks that surround the Hartford Advocate offices, for example, the entire spectrum is on view, times 10, with rusted shopping carts, small appliances, torn clothes, and car parts tossed into the mix. There is too much to pick up on a lunchtime stroll. I've stopped even trying to put a dent in the mess. There's always more when I return. It actually blows my mind that humans have such a low regard for their habitat that they wantonly soil their own nest. I've also stopped trying to shame the city (in blogs, letters to editors, officials, etc.) into doing something about it.

You see this in New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford and Waterbury, too, of course. All these cities have made concerted efforts to curb litter and blight, but they are still drowning, suffocating, buried in it. Contrary to what many may think, cities are parts of ecosystems, too, and cities that don't take care of theirs eventually die. Also, contrary to what many may think, litter is not just an aesthetic issue. It is an environmental hazard, a never-ending assault on the city's ecosystem. It does no good to clear the decks of the last barrage, if the next barrage is on its way. Go see WALL•E, the most subversive film of the year, if you want an idea of the future this portends. Even my 7-year-old son gets it.

Litter is everywhere and getting worse. Statistics would be impossible to compile for its sheer quantity, but the Container Recycling Institute, a national nonprofit based in Glastonbury, has tried ( Littering, it seems, is an American birthright, almost a way that we can psychologically bask in how vastly we consume, so much more than any other country. Just ... look ... at ... our ... piles! (Sweden has an 80 percent recycle rate vs. 33 percent in the U.S.)

What to do about litter? Can human behavior be changed in regard to it? We've tried litter patrols, litter awareness campaigns (e.g., "Pitch In!"), litter bags, fines for littering (though I'm not convinced the police enforce litter laws). These things don't get the job done. The only solution that I can see will have to come from the manufacturers of the material that is commonly littered. Either it should be made of biodegradable material or the fast food restaurants that produce it must be made to pay "impact fees," the money going to hire people to pick it up.

The Connecticut legislature had a chance to shine in the last session, to make a dent in this problem, but they punted instead. Momentum was there to pass an expanded bottle bill—to add juice and bottled water containers to those that require 5 cent deposits—but they failed. The bottle-recycling bill was tabled, because House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, would not bring it to the floor for a vote. The lobbyists still have their stranglehold on legislation that would benefit all state residents, apparently.

The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, ConnPIRG and the Container Recycling Institute found a receptive audience for this bill, as well as others like it around the country. (Did you know, for instance, that California is close to banning plastic bags?) Why? Because bottles without deposits to redeem do not get picked up. It's that simple.

Ah-ha, the one aspect of human behavior that can be used for the environment's benefit: a cash incentive. The recycling rate in Michigan, where there's a 10-cent deposit, is near 90 percent. The redemption rate in Connecticut is 66 percent, more than double the rate of curbside collection of recyclables. In Massachusetts, the rate is 70 percent.

We have to start somewhere. If not, we'll be drowning in empty water bottles.

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