WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- The United States is covered, swamped, buried in garbage, 85 percent of it readily recyclable.
The largest man-made object on Earth, dwarfing anything you can name -- the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Great Wall of China, the World Trade Center -- is New York City's aptly named Fresh Kills Landfill. It is visible to the naked eye from orbiting spacecraft.
At this date, with global deforestation, fouled air, manufacturing's dioxins and PCBs in our water, and 6 billion people, each unrecycled aluminum and tin can, glass and plastic bottle, Styrofoam peanut, cardboard box and piece of paper (office, fax, computer, magazine, newsprint) is a coffin nail in our shared home.
One in seven
Here in the allegedly aware, allegedly progressive San Francisco Bay Area, hardly one community in seven comes close to recycling goals set in 1989.
Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world population, yet consume half the global resources. Most of these resources, despite the "eco" and "green" hype, wind up in landfills. Not recycled.
The chief product of the United States is trash. Not wheat, corn, soybeans, machinery. Trash. Unrecycled recyclable trash.
Three hundred years of endless frontier, bottomless cornucopia mentality intermingles with our "I got mine" concept of "freedom." Freedom to waste. Freedom to throw away food. Freedom to coo at the lovable critters on the Nature Channel whose habitats our profligacy is destroying.
Small and medium-sized local businesses and corporations are even worse offenders than households. Store after silly store, doors propped wide open, air conditioners full blast, beckons shoppers too uncommitted or too addle-brained to take that wee bit of effort to push open the door.
The alleys behind these stores and theme restaurants are lined with bins overflowing with recyclables and untouched food.
This may not be as exciting as the most recent campaign sex scandal allegation, or gross weekend receipts of the latest movie. But this is the great, quiet tragedy of our time.
There are solutions. The best: In New Jersey, garbage "meter maids" in Newark poke curbside trash bags and cans. If they hear glass or cans or find paper, the resident or business is fined.
More money for schools, libraries, street repair.
We need such enforcement nationally. A diseased, dying planet should qualify at least as a federal emergency. We're zealots about issuing parking tickets. Anyone too self-absorbed to fathom Reduce/Reuse/Recycle deserves a whopping ticket.
It's hard to believe this is the same nation that during World War II made real sacrifices, had scrap metal drives, observed Meatless Mondays and rationed gas, tires, butter, eggs and sugar.
Weren't that generation's children and grandchildren taught to pick up after themselves? We need legal inducement to do so responsibly. A half-century of postwar heedless consumption is over.
Tossing trash from your car window is already a $500 to $1,000 fine. Punishment for "failure to recycle" should be at least as severe.
If we enforce such new laws, we can finally pay teachers as much as junior execs at tobacco companies, expand our libraries, even pay off our national debt.
This time the enemy isn't Hitler, Tojo, Khrushchev, Hussein or Milosevic.
It's our own sloth.
Mike Scott wrote this commentary for the San Francisco Examiner.
Pub Date: 9/06/99