Clean-up needs to be more than Philly-wide

20110419_dn_z1edta19e
Trash at the Cecil B. Moore Rec Center just four days after citywide Spring Cleanup.

A Daily News report yesterday showed that Mayor Nutter's much-vaunted spring cleanup efforts earlier this month had had only the most temporary effect in many of the targeted neighborhoods, with dropped litter and dumped trash blighting the areas again, prompting the question of why Philly is full of trash.

The last word, of course, refers to those people who befoul their own and others' environments by discarding their waste wherever and whenever they please instead of taking responsibility for it and getting it where it needs to go. These people seem to believe that since  it's just a wrapper or a diet coke can it's not a problem and someone else should take care of it for them.

Today's DN editorial, "The City Isn't Your Mother," specifies otherwise: "A block doesn't fall apart with a single candy wrapper, but enough candy wrappers and other garbage signal that it's OK to dump more. That discourages development, the most effective way to reduce vacant and abandoned properties." Litter is a big problem, both environmentally and socially.

Despite the localizing of this grievance I doubt it's in any way Philly-specific (Clean Ocean Action today reported that Jersey Shore litter is at an all-time high). It's just another manifestation of "the toilet assumption," a rather infantile worldview that once we're done with something, it disappears. Our first-world consumerist culture encourages this (un)thinking, though people in poorer cultures often are faced with the contrary evidence.

Two quick points on this: One is that there's a consumer item that is thrown out on the street 99% of the time, and that's cigarette butts. A new study found that these were the number one littered item on beaches and waterways, numbering in the millions. The press release notes:

Tobacco industry research reveals that there might be misconceptions that cigarette filters are readily biodegradable or inconsequential as litter because of their small size. However, in reality they degrade very slowly, and even under ideal conditions can take years to breakdown, merely breaking up into small particles of toxic waste. Other reasons why smokers litter butts include the unavailability of waste disposal facilities and the ubiquitous and unconscious behavior of flicking butts on the ground.

That "unconscious behavior" sounds again like the toilet assumption, which underlies a problem we've mentioned here before: Nuclear waste. We keep generating more and more of it, but to date not one person on the planet seems to have a viable answer for where we're going to put it for the thousands of years before it stops being dangerously radioactive. Yucca Mountain seems to be off the table, so waste is being stored at reactor sites - as at Fukushima, where this turned out to be something of a problem.

What with a new massive dome being found necessary for Chernobyl and authorities now ranking the current nuclear crisis in Japan in that same league of disaster, we need some creative solutions fast. But we're not going to come up with them as long as we're thinking we can make something disappear by just throwing it "away."

Continue Reading