Littered sidewalks barometer for global condition:

Savanna Hennig

Efforts to ‘go green’ haven’t made large enough dent in problem

A forgotten, empty can of Busch Light hidden in the snow. An empty Starbucks cup nestled in the crevice of a sidewalk. A mass of cigarette butts jammed into a tree stump.

While these images are common and ordinary on NMU’s campus, I grimace every time at what I see. The campus that once promoted “Northern, Naturally” is just a model to show how the general population—you, me, everybody—actually handles environmentalism.

Savanna Hennig
Savanna Hennig

I understand that the world today, no doubt, is based heavily on capitalism and industrialism. Small businesses are regularly left behind in the shadows of bigger, money-hungry corporations. This instantly creates a cycle: The minor businesses get smaller, and then the large businesses get massive.

In turn, we as a population flock to what’s cheap and what’s fast. This shift to an economy based on cheap and instantaneous products is unavoidable. But it’s not what’s right for the environment.

Humans and industry leave a huge footprint on the world, more often than not for the worse. The globe is currently playing host to a seven billion strong population, these people carrying with them an industry to match ever-growing wants and needs. Large companies like Apple and Wal-Mart promote the Go-Green movement, supporting ideas based on zero waste and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

But, I’m not focused on the companies themselves, I feel that it’s the consumer mindset that we need to change. We are the ones that need to focus on zero waste, and get familiar with greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans alone generated about 251 million tons of trash in 2006. I can only imagine that data results have gone up since then. So, where does the trash all go? Over half of the waste goes to landfills, while only about 30 percent gets recycled.

Human trash—a plastic Wal-Mart bag, the box an iPhone 6 plus came in, a Styrofoam coffee cup—is most likely to end up in a landfill. That is, if it makes it to a garbage can: More often than I would like I’ve seen forgotten plastic bags floating around parking lots like ghosts.

As a child, I would have nightmares about landfills. Civilizations living amongst waste and garbage, dying of plague and pollution. Now, years later, I can see that the reality of the nightmare isn’t as far-fetched as the typical monster-based nightmare.

You can argue that the number of landfills has gone down since the  ’80s. And, of course, the EPA plainly reports that the number of landfills in the United States has fallen 79 percent since 1988. While this fact is true, the EPA also reported that the average size of the landfill has increased as much as 44.5 million cubic yards. The numbers may be going down, but the sizes of these trash heaps are expanding.

At most of these landfills across the US, the trash gets buried and sealed in the ground to reduce odor. While the goal is for the trash to decompose into the earth, the waste really can’t do much. When the trash is sealed within the ground, moisture and air can’t reach the garbage to help it decompose, according to National Geographic environmental writer Dan Kulpinski

“Most landfills are more like mummifiers than composters,” science author Elizabeth Royte writes in “Garbage Land.”

The garbage sits, leaking toxins and preservatives into the ground. According to National Geographic, this buried trash can leak harmful liquids into groundwater and release methane in the atmosphere (which is arguably worse for the environment than carbon dioxide).

To add, some trash takes quite a bit of time to decompose. According to www.slate.com, many products that end up in landfills have polyethylene, or PE, in them. PE is the most common plastic, which is found in grocery bags and water bottles. The trouble with this is that the polymer, along with similar others, is man-made and microorganisms don’t recognize it as food. Therefore, it can take decades for plastics and glass to decompose on its own.

On the plus side, there have been steady improvements to landfills. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont are jumping on board to completely ban commercial food waste from landfills this year, hoping to repurpose the organic material into something useful.

Auto industries such as General Motors are moving toward being more efficient and landfill-free. Several companies are harnessing the methane gas produced by landfills and turning it into usable energy.

This doesn’t change the fact that we as a population are generating the trash, essentially stomping on the planet simply because we can. I’ve found that people tend to have an, “out of sight, out of mind,” idea about the environment.

It’s not uncommon for college students to put things they don’t want anymore into a garbage bag and tossing it all into a dumpster. No thoughts about recycling, no thoughts about chemicals into the ground, no thoughts about climate change.

It’s the “it’s not my responsibility, someone else will do it,” state of mind. This is what creates the problem from the beginning. Sets the ball rolling, if you will.

I get it, being an environmentalist isn’t easy. Recycling takes time and effort. Driving is much easier and less time-consuming than walking. Eating organic co-op food is more expensive than buying a dinner at Wal-Mart.

If you don’t always have time to put into the environment, you can join organizations built on going green and changing the world.

I’ve familiarized myself with Greenpeace, The Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. You don’t need a membership to know the current problems going on with the planet, and it’s your choice whether or not to act.

But going green and fixing the issues with the world doesn’t happen overnight. Making the switch to recycling or driving less is not instantaneous. Going green starts with caring for the planet and understanding the issues that face the world. It’s about starting to change the way you think.

And maybe not dropping an empty Busch Light in the snow.