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Earth Month

by Richard Mason | April 18, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Richard Mason

ADELAIDE, Australia— An Australian state on Monday became the first in the country to ban some single-use plastic items including drinking straws, stir sticks and cutlery. The new law bans the sale, supply and distribution of a range of single-use items in South Australia, Environment Minister David Speirs said. More items will be added to the banned list early next year including polystyrene cups, bowls and plates.

Single-use means unless an item can be used again, it is banned. Are we ready for that? Of course not; but it’s coming whether we like it or not.

When we moved back to Arkansas in the mid-1970s, John Gray, a geologist in El Dorado, invited me over. He wanted to show off his internet connection. Yes, I marveled how, with his dial-up connection, he could connect with places all across the country, and exchange correspondence with them through Email.

As I left his house, I was shaking my head considering the technology, but it crossed my mind that maybe a few thousands of academic folks might sign up for the Internet. If someone had said to me that in the future even five year olds would have cell phones and be able to use the internet, I would have had a hard time suppressing a laugh.

But banning one use items? Yes, as surely as the internet swept across the world, banning one use items will come to Arkansas and trickle down all the way to Smackover.

Actually, we don’t have a choice. Just as hundreds of other items which are now commonplace were unheard of when I was a boy, one use items will be a thing of the past when a young child born today reaches maturity. We can see it happening in places such as Starbucks, where straws and one use cups are starting to disappear. In the next twenty years, we will have to change some habits that are so apart of our today’s life that we take them for granted. Yes, it’s easy to write that, but doing it and understanding why is a lot tougher.

The reasons are many, but I’ll start with a part of our life I do know something about, and that is energy. We never think of the energy it takes to produce a plastic throw away cup, and when we see a shopping basket being rolled out of Walmart with a dozen or so plastic bags, we just shrug our shoulders. Plastic bags are so commonplace that we might notice when someone comes out with their own sacks.

What we are doing is acting as if we have abundant energy to produce billions and billions of plastic cups and sacks. Not to mention the untold billions of glass and aluminum cans that we throw away each day. Yes, currently the United States does have or can buy enough energy to accommodate our extravagant lifestyle, but even our country’s ability will see some constraints in the future.

But not only do we completely ignore the problem, we seem to deliberately exasperate it by putting a sack in a sack, or when I buy vitamins at a store, they have them in a box in a plastic bottle, with cotton packed on top of the vitamins. If we multiply the one use items we take for granted, and consider the amount of energy it takes to produce them, it becomes obvious that while a rich country such as ours can afford to waste untold amounts of energy, there is not enough energy on Earth for the undeveloped countries to match our lifestyle. The billions of people living in undeveloped countries are doing their best to emulate our lifestyle, and they are slowly succeeding, but they can never fully succeed. There is not enough worldwide energy to go around.

But it’s not just about wasting energy. A global solution to the warming of our planet cannot be reversed without cutting the worldwide use of fossil fuel energy.

Of course, using less energy means a cleaner environment, and I can give you two reasons to use returnable items.

I walk, as you probably know, and I have written a couple of columns on litter. Well, litter will disappear just as soon as all those one use cups, beer cans and plastic bags become against the law.

The second experience comes from Belize, one of our favorite vacation destinations. The last time we were there our guide, Edwardo Brown, recommended we take his boat and go to a small, remote, uninhabited island about an hour out in the Caribbean Sea. We would snorkel, while he speared lobster, and then we would have a beach cookout.

Yes, it was as great as it sounds, and everything went off without a hitch. However, after Vertis and I finished our snorkeling, and were waiting for Edwardo to prepare the lobster, we hiked across the island to the Caribbean side. The entire island is probably no more than a half mile wide, so it didn’t take long to walk through the palm trees to the other side of the island. It was about as remote as any place I had ever been. Not a hint or sound of civilization until we walked out through the last row of palm trees onto the beach, and I gasped.

The prevailing west winds off the Caribbean had deposited hundreds of tons of plastic, aluminum and glass garbage on a pristine white sandy beach. I can still see the mounds of cans and debris. I don’t believe there’s a person alive who wouldn’t have second thoughts about throwing a beer can overboard after seeing that sight.

Yes, banning one use item worldwide would clean up not just the trash on Calion Road and the beaches in Belize, but it would revolutionize our habits. No more drive-throughs where we would be handed a plastic sack with a Styrofoam box containing a hamburger inside, plastic knives and forks and a one use plastic cup. It would slightly inconvenience us to move away from a throw-a-way society, but we would get used to doing it.

We stopped using plastic bags a couple of years back, and with a self-checkout, it’s a better way to shop. Once you start carrying your own sack it becomes automatic, and once you stop using plastic straws, you wonder why you ever did use them.

Of course, disposing of one use items costs billions of dollars a year, pollutes the atmosphere, contributes to global warming and wastes a huge amount of energy. With that in mind, are we setting an example for the rest of the world? America has always set the example for the rest of the world in terms of promoting democracy, health and education.

If you really believe in those goals, make a difference this Earth Month and commit to take one step forward by rejecting just one single-use item. I believe we should set the example for the rest of the world by embracing the concept of banning one use items. It’s the right thing to do, and we all can make a difference.

Richard Mason is a registered professional geologist, downtown developer, former chairman of the Department of Environmental Quality Board of Commissioners, past president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, and syndicated columnist. Email [email protected]

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