Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Garbage a Mounting Environmental Issue

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 29 / 24

Zack Gross

Last week, the world celebrated Earth Day, April 22nd, for the 54th time.  There were high profile events as well as many individual acts to make our planet more habitable.  Our provincial government announced renewed funding for three major environmental organizations dealing with climate change and other urgent issues.  My wife and I walked up our rural road and picked up a full, large garbage bag of drink containers, cardboard, rags, shingles, cigarette butts and other refuse that had been thrown in the ditches and on the shoulders or had blown out of vehicles as they passed by.

In prehistoric times, our ancestors were largely nomadic so they would just drop what they couldn’t use on the ground as they went along.  Of course, there was little “garbage” anyway, in those days, maybe some stone tools or animal bones.  When people began to set down roots, and what we call “civilization” began, garbage also increased and disposal was needed.

Around 3000 BC, the ancient city of Knossos on the Greek Island of Crete began to bury their garbage by digging a hole and covering it with dirt.  By 500 BC, Athens established sanitation regulations, including that inhabitants needed to take their garbage at least a mile from the city in order to maintain aesthetics and prevent disease.

Europe, throughout Medieval and mid-Millennium times, was a dirty, disease-ridden place.  People threw their garbage, including human waste out their windows.  Gentlemen carried umbrellas and wore capes not just because of rain!  Life expectancy was as low as late teens due to war, disease and dangerous work, and when Europeans sailed to unconquered lands to wreak havoc in Africa, Asia and the Americas, the indigenous people they encountered were shocked at how poor their health was.  The Europeans often defeated local populations because they had superior weapons and spread their diseases to people who’d never encountered these illnesses before.

Paris in the 15th century instituted a brigade of hundreds of street cleaners to make their city more palatable.  It was in the 1800s that cities in the Western world established sanitation departments to deal with mounting garbage issues as population numbers grew.  However, even as late as the 1950s, large cities like New York would dump all their waste into the ocean right beside them.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the first landfills were created but it was decades later that regulations were brought in to keep them from being environmental hazards themselves.

For instance, many of us can remember going to the dump and throwing everything in there together whereas now it is separated and disposed of, or recycled or composted, separately.  As well, some folks started their own fires to burn garbage, causing both a stink and a breathing hazard in the local area.  And then there were the people who went to the dump not to leave stuff but to see what they could take to use or sell.  Canada, the US and other countries have also until recently exported some of their garbage, paying poor nations to dispose of our chemicals, human waste and other products.

Many poorer communities around the world and here at home don’t have the means or the funds to deploy effective garbage disposal or recycling and composting programs.  Roads, ditches, fields and yards may be covered in refuse for lack of systems, but also because so much of our consumer society creates waste.  A story on CBC-TV’s The National on Earth Day highlighted the issue of shopping bags available from large grocery chains that pile up in people’s homes and ultimately are thrown away.  Communities I’ve visited in Africa and Latin America are often looking for funds to create clean-up programs, as their own governments don’t offer this.

Statistics show us that the amount of solid waste municipalities are dealing with in the United States has increased by 30% between 1990 and 2018 to over 292 million tons per year.  Global predictions are that by 2050, the world will be dealing with 3.4 billions tons per year.  Currently, landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions on the planet.  Thus, our solution to waste has become a problem in itself.

Those who advocate for new technologies to deal with waste are confident that scientists and engineers can invent effective ways to alleviate this global challenge.  Another pathway is to reduce our output of waste which means taking a hard look at our consumer society.  Wealthy parts of our world do create more waste than poorer ones do.  If everyone lived like Canadians or Americans, we’d need four planets, it is said, to handle all our resulting waste.

At whatever level one is comfortable – from research to individual action to advocacy
one can celebrate the Earth by taking good care of it.

Gross is Board Chair of The Marquis Project, a Brandon-based international development organization, and co-author of the new book The Fair Trade Handbook: Building a Better World, Together.

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