Editorial: Message of Earth Day is still crucial
At a beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast, morning walkers watch the sandpipers skittering about, keep an eye open for porpoise fins just offshore, follow gliding squadrons of pelicans and pause to examine the sea life that the waves wash up.
The staples on this particular beach are seaweed, driftwood, conchs, pen shells and the occasional dead jellyfish. But imagine the surprise among beach-walkers one morning last month when a large white rectangular shape appeared in the distance at water’s edge.
The closer they came to it, the surer they were of what it was.
Everyone stopped to examine it and commiserate about it. One of them called to inform the city maintenance department of this blight on a remote and otherwise pristine stretch of beach.
As they walked on, the beachcombers invented stories about the refrigerator. A boat had sunk and it had floated to the surface. Someone with a new refrigerator had chucked it overboard. It had been part of a garbage reef created on the gulf floor as a habitat for game fish.
In most of these speculative stories, the refrigerator was a symbol of an environmental problem we all know well: littering.
Last November, one revelation for outsiders during coverage of the typhoon that devastated the Philippines was how polluted the waters around the islands had been even before the disaster.
Modern waste management and sewage disposal are challenges for the Philippines, as they tend to be for poor countries, and rivers and streams carry the results into bays and seas.
Television footage and still photos of floating debris after the typhoon brought the problem into American living rooms. There followed stories – exaggerated as it turned out – about a huge garbage island in the North Pacific.
There was indeed a region of the Pacific where pollutants collected. But most of the pollutants were crumb-size and microscopic pieces of plastic. Environmental scientists are studying the effects of these on ocean life. Some of these effects will certainly be bad.
Today is Earth Day, one of those annual days of remembrance that lose their excitement over time. It is nevertheless a good day to think about litter.
Anyone who participates in a roadside litter pickup in the state’s adopt-a-road program can tell tales of the disgusting behavior of drive-by litter bugs. There’s little excuse for this behavior in a country with sensible waste disposal policies.
The result when the litter is not picked up can be that plastic bags, for example, blow into streams. At some point they wind up as part of the ocean pollution that any responsible person wants to prevent.
Since the first Earth Day 44 years ago, environmental awareness is up, as are public policies that treat the Earth with the respect it deserves. In furthering this cause, the everyday actions of every person can make a difference.