The 20th century is already clearly visible in the earth’s geologic record. Archaeologists of the distant future won’t simply find cemeteries and buried cities; they’ll also find a massive and disgusting permanent layer of artifacts that we call “garbage.”
The world has a consumption problem and by extension a waste management problem. Our waste is an environmental disaster of global proportions caused from a gross negligence by the citizens of this planet. Not only do we create an uncanny amount, but our haphazard treatment of it (litter as opposed to landfill) is rampant in an uncountable number of environments.
One of those places just happens to be about five miles south of downtown Memphis. I had seen pictures of McKellar Lake, but a few weekends ago, along with college students from the city and across the nation, I spent a Saturday morning volunteering with Living Lands and Waters (LLW) as part of their Alternative Spring Break cleanup effort – to witness the damage firsthand was, in no small terms, crushing.
McKellar Lake is not an unknown problem. A quick Google search brings up articles by The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Flyer, Memphis Magazine, a 2002 TDEC study concerning the Nonconnah Creek watershed, and this You Tube video with Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands and Waters.
But it’s a problem that is seemingly ignored by city and county officials, so we’ve been mostly dependent on a few local do-gooders and an outside organization to help us, an organization that, for all the awareness they generate and good they do, is mainly battling the symptoms.
But here’s the thing about having a cause – there will always be people who have never heard of the problem you’re trying to tackle. So you really have to get used to telling the same story, making the same argument time and again, and you have to be able to do it with verve.
So I’m sure every question I asked Chad he had heard thousands of times during the thirteen years he’s been cleaning the Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers. “Where does the trash come from?” “How much is there?” “What do you do with it?”
“Ninety percent of it,” he said, “gets pushed through the Memphis storm water system and flushed into the Nonconnah Creek which empties into McKellar Lake.” LLW’s annual report from 2011 states that they collected 160,000 lbs (72 tons!) from McKellar Lake. Just a few days into this year’s cleanup and they were well on their way to that number again. Even with dozens of people working, there was always a piece of trash within reach. But LLW and volunteers don’t just pick up the trash; once their barge is at capacity they organize a sorting/recycling event in whatever town they happen to be docked.
The attention to detail in the annual report is uncomfortably laughable: 130 sinks; 63,271 tires; 938 refrigerators; 51 lawnmowers, 1 school bus top; 12 bags of police riot gear; 63 messages in a bottle; 12 hot tubs; 14,733 balls; 18 porta-potties …and on and on.
I asked Chad how he keeps from crying at night. His quick answer was, “Watch movies. Takes your mind off of it.” I’d like to write something cliché like he doesn’t have time to cry because he’s a man of action, which he clearly is, but you don’t devote your life’s work to a cause like this without some introspection either.
“Yes, it’s sickening,” he said. “It should not be like this. The fact is, it is. But it’s not about crying. It’s the exact opposite. We’ve made a tremendous difference here. The difference has been getting together with other people who are keeping the ball rolling. There have been other cleanups without us. What’s encouraging is that you and all these students are out here today. People in Memphis care.”
I like Chad and the LLW crew; but considering this context, I’d prefer not to see them in Memphis again unless it’s to celebrate successful policies and actions that fix this problem upstream before it gets to the lake. We can and should put up nets along the Nonconnah Creek like they’ve done on the Los Angeles River, but the fact is we don’t just have an environmental disaster on our hands; we have a cultural shortcoming – it could be argued the two often go hand in hand.
It would be naïve of me to think that a recycling program in the public school system would be a cure-all for the city’s blight issue, but it would be a start. An issue we frequently face at CBU is simply that when students (the majority of which are from the Mid-South and across Tennessee) first arrive, they don’t know what can and can’t be recycled, so we spend a good deal of time communicating that information. It’s not because they don’t care, they absolutely care; but they haven’t had a good example to follow and therefore been able to form good habits, and all habits, good or bad, are more easily broken or established when friends are involved.
Besides, there’s absolutely no reason a recycling program shouldn’t or can’t happen. The city is currently expanding its capabilities and International Paper (the recycling vendor for CBU and other universities and businesses) already has the infrastructure to reach where the city cannot. Recycling not only makes sense environmentally, but economically as well. The city and county save millions of dollars a year from simply avoiding landfill fees.
Recycling however, while important, is in certain terms just a compromise between our desires of self-interest and our sense of responsibility. The slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is, after all, listed in order of importance. McKellar Lake, while a large-scale problem for our local environment, is but a fraction of the global garbage epidemic. Any die-hard eco-activist knows about the giant garbage gyres in each of the five oceans, which are caused by currents that sweep along continental coastlines to form what are essentially giant whirlpools hundreds of miles wide in the center of the oceans. The most popular one, known as the “Pacific Garbage Patch”, lies in the North-East Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the west coast. But I’ve brought this up in several conversations lately and have found that most people really don’t know that this is happening.
A 2005 study by the United Nations Environmental Programme cited a report in 1997 by the US Academy of Sciences that “estimated the total input of marine litter into the oceans, worldwide, at approximately 6.4 million tonnes per year.” The UN report also states “it has been estimated that over 13,000 pieces of plastic are floating on every square kilometer of ocean surface.” And “a 1998 survey found that 89 percent of the litter observed floating on [the] ocean surface in the North Pacific was plastic.” 
Plastic, unfortunately, does not decay. Instead, it merely breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, at which point it usually enters the food chain when it is consumed by birds and fish who mistake it for food (they are then often consumed by larger predators, which sometimes end up on our plates); or the plastic simply remains as a toxic dust that sinks to the ocean floor where it disrupts that eco-system, which we typically think of as being untouched by humans.
The truth is often a hard pill to swallow. For me, too frequently it’s an anti-anti-depressant. Reading about the state of the environment is depressing. Every day there’s a new report with data showing things are much worse than we thought only yesterday. Or an editorial columnist (wink wink) argues that we’re not doing enough or that whatever it is we are doing isn’t actually the right way to go.
But I have faith. I have faith in the healing power of Mother Nature. I care for Mother Nature because she cares for me. She warms me with her light and cools me with her shade. She soothes me with her sunsets, open fields and skies, babbling brooks, and fresh air. She feeds my spirit and my stomach. Unfortunately for her, Mother Nature gives more than she receives. She sacrifices without asking for anything in return. And I, for one, don’t want to suffer her wrath when her patience runs out. It’s time we start giving a little back by taking a little less. You can’t make garbage if you don’t buy it in the first place. We can still live comfortably when living more simply.
If there is one thing I took away from my education in theater and creative writing, which in essence was an immersion in storytelling, it’s that, as the great poet and otherwise person of questionable judgment Ezra Pound proclaimed, “Only emotion endures.” It’s the highs and lows, the accomplishments and failures, the joys and agonies that really stick with us, which remain in our memory and give us direction. That sounds just about as corny as it gets, but there’s truth to it.
I recently attended the Vanderhaar Symposium at CBU; during the question and answer session a young man who said he was nineteen years old asked a question that I hear often from our youth: “How do I get involved?” Everyone’s answer for him boiled down to this – help the person next to you first. If you want to do more, start a petition, organize with some friends and pick up the phone or walk into an office and say these four words, “I want to help.”
Think carefully about the story you want to leave for future generations. Then go live your story, through its ups and downs you’ll grow better and better at telling it. If you do that, then I think (I hope) you won’t just find more people listening, but you’ll inspire them into action.
Sean MacInnes holds a BFA in Theater from The University of Memphis and an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in Boulder, CO. He’s published in several small presses across the country and is a former writer in residence at The Kerouac Project in Orlando, FL. He is currently the Administrative Assistant for the School of Arts at Christian Brothers University, and serves as the Chair of CBU’s Sustainability Committee.