NEWFANE — Those of us who are lucky to grow up in the country learn a lot just from looking at what goes on around us in the garden and on the farm.
If you grew up in the '60s, you probably burned your trash out in a bin, but at some point you figured out that was not such a great solution, so you stopped doing it.
You probably learned where your ancestors or the previous owner of the property once threw all their glass and tin waste, so you kept away from it when barefoot. Or maybe you dug through the pile looking for interesting old bottles (definitely with good footwear).
As the years went by and plastic started to appear, you might have accompanied your parent to the local dump. Soon enough, even the local dump closed, and getting rid of your garbage became more problematic.
Your farmyard wisdom, gleaned from years of observing your family, garden, and ancestors, made you think about what would become of debris that you or previous generations threw in your yard.
And once plastics came into the picture, it became clear that a big problem was looming on the horizon.
When plastic waste went out in your yard, it never broke down; rather, it had to be hauled away. But hauled to where? Well ... away. To someone else's backyard.
The farmer in you knew that it was out of sight, out of mind, but not gone. Not really gone.
Where is that plastic going? you'd wonder. Thrown out the window? Buried in a hole? Shipped to China?
And those are the questions we all need to ask every time we buy anything. Where does it all go once I am done with it? we should ask. Trucked to northern Vermont near someone else's school? Put on a boat and tossed overboard, into the sea?
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I recently listened to a report about the young Dutch man who has invented a boom of sorts to drag through the great garbage dump in the Pacific Ocean. While it is commendable that he is working to find a solution, I think we need to tackle this problem at the source. It would be better if we could all cut back on our plastic consumption and production.
I could go on with many stories about trash and recycling, because I have spent a lot of time feeling powerless and worrying over the future of our state, our country, our beautiful, once-pristine land, and our dying oceans.
But as consumers, we do have a huge amount of power.
All those clothing companies, food producers, and soft-drink manufacturers are drooling over our dollar bills. And our most powerful vote, in my opinion - even more forceful than the one we cast once every four years - is the one we spend every day: our dollar bills.
Every time we go into a store and decide to buy something, we are saying, loud and clear, “Yes, this is what I want!”
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I will always remember a profound moment when I worked with Kroka Expeditions, an environmental camp for children and teens. We were returning from a camping trip with a van full of kids, and we stopped for coffee.
Feeling really excited, as we had had no coffee all week, the camp's cofounder, Misha Golfman, and I were craving a good, hot cup of joe.
But when we went to order our drink, Misha declined the coffee he so wanted.
I looked at him in surprise.
“You are not going to get a coffee?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “I am going to choose not to have coffee, because I will have to take a paper cup and plastic lid, and I do not want to create more trash.”
Wow. It sounds so simple and so obvious.
So simple to make a decision not to consume a food item that will be gone in two minutes, but will leave behind it a piece of plastic that will last 100 years. It's a terrible trade-off for our environment!
Can you imagine if every American bought only products that came with no trash, or at least the bare minimum?
Since that startling moment when Misha made and shared that decision with me, I always ask myself “How can I vote with my dollar?”
Or, “Can I choose not to buy an item because it is wrapped in an insane amount of unnecessary packaging?”
Or, “Do I have to buy the chips in individually wrapped packages, or can I get a big bag and reuse Ziploc bags to pack my child's lunch?”
The self-questioning goes on and on:
“Do I really have to have that plastic lid? Can I take a paper cup and leave the lid behind? Better yet, can I be prepared enough to travel with a mug in my car, so that I don't do the same thing every day - producing a ridiculous pile of trash just for my morning coffee?”
“Do I have to have that bag the clerk is offering me? Is it so terrible to bring a bag to the store with me? Or decline one and just carry my purchase?”
Well, you get the point.
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As consumers, we rule, and companies know that. It is time for a mind shift, and it is time to take responsibility for our trash production.
We have the power to choose what we buy, but we can also boycott and legislate plastic production. The free market is a great idea, but it is quite clear that the free market takes care of the rich while the environment and less-fortunate people are left out of the party.
It is time to start asking for a more sane way of moving goods to customers.
And if it means no coffee today - oh, well! I will get one tomorrow in my lovely, reusable mug.
The coffee tastes much better in a tall glass mug anyway.