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Part of the problem?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. Part of the problem? Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, January:8–10.

Sitting at my desk the other day, sipping coffee and pondering what to write for the staff newsletter, I was struck by a curious little bit of hypocrisy that I was committing. I've always considered myself to be an ardent conservationist, albeit of the armchair variety, but this complacent belief was shaken a bit by something as simple as the styrofoam cup in my hand. It's the little things that get overlooked, I suppose.

What is so important about a cup of coffee? Well, mostly the disposable nature of the offending item. After all, I had more than a few favorite coffee mugs of the ceramic variety at home, and despite this, I obstinately continued, day in and day out, to buy my coffee in a disposable styrofoam cup. Surely, an innocent enough habit—until one adds up the number of coffee cups I would go through in a year. A quick calculation: 2 cups per day, multiplied by 5 days in a week, times (about) 50 working weeks in a year—call it 500 cups. Do half of the people at GLFC [the Great Lakes Forestry Centre] do exactly the same thing? Let's say that 100 others have similar habits—and we're now up to 50,000 cups in a year. To this total we can add stir sticks, plastic tops to the cups, and so on. Then there are paper bags for lunch, styrofoam soup bowls and entree dishes...

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow!" I hadn't really realized just how much waste this adds up to, and all from that seemingly innocuous "two cups a day". One wonders at the amount of unnecessary waste produced daily if we add in our home usage, figure out a total for the city, for the province, for the country, and so on. Of course, this excludes all the non-conservationists, who seem to get a perverse joy from the act of consumption.

What bothers me about this is how unnecessary it all is. For my own part, I spent the thirty-odd seconds necessary to grab a mug out of the cupboard and bring it to work: no more styrofoam cups (and the coffee tastes better too). I use Tupperware to bring my sandwiches to work: no more plastic wrap. I bring a metal fork and spoon, if needed: no more throw-away plastic. And I use the same lunch bag (a plastic supermarket bag) all week, hygiene permitting: no more throw-away paper bags. This probably makes a very small difference in the grand scheme of things, but one wonders about the effects if those 100 people from GLFC followed my example... if the whole population of the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie] did... if Ontario... if Canada...

Another pet peeve is the topic of those who pitch litter onto the sidewalk or street. Nobody I've ever met enjoys the spectacle of a parking lot (let alone a park) strewn with cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and (ominously enough, considering my little mathematical example) spent coffee cups. Yet somehow, the largest piles of this garbage seem to lie within ten to twenty feet of the nearest garbage bin. In Toronto, I was struck by the continual rush that people seemed to live in, and in the Soo, the more relaxed pace of life was a wonderful contrast. But I wonder just how real this contrast is when I see people who aren't willing to lose a single minute from their day to such a simple activity as placing their garbage in a garbage can. Admittedly, there is a noticeable lack of such receptacles in the Soo, but is this an excuse for littering?

I thought about this too, for a time. Perhaps I was nagged by that old phrase "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." The decision I made in the end was a simple one, as was the first step. Now when I'm out for a walk or on my way to work, I pick up some of the garbage in my path and take it to the nearest garbage can (which is why I can say with confidence that said receptacles are scarce in the Soo). The next step is a little more difficult, but I've actually begun to go a bit out of my way to pick up after someone else. At first, I resented the idea of being an unpaid sanitation engineer, but after all, no one is forcing me to do this. If a few more people did the same, the magic of mathematics would give us a large cumulative effect. The Soo would be a nicer place to live. Yet I get the strangest looks from those who have seen me bending to nab an offending piece of garbage.

In my opinion, it really does come down to being part of the problem or part of the solution. Cleaning up your own act is a good first step. But I wonder what the effect would be if a few more of us were to adopt a similar attitude. Dare I suggest that we try it and see?


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