Digression: Pollution Red Herrings

Litter “Pollution”: A misleading idea, started when environmental awareness really took off world-wide in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is that “pollution” means “litter” and that preventing litter means doing all that’s necessary to prevent pollution and protect the environment. Many people still believe this.

This false idea was begun by the packaging industry in the U.S.A., which started a front organisation called the Keep America Beautiful Council. This had a faithful copy in Australia, founded by the same industry for the same reasons, called the Keep Australia Beautiful Council. The purpose of KABC was ostensibly to make everyone put litter in bins whence it could be carted off so as to keep the environment looking pretty. The real purpose was to keep sales of excess and disposable packaging high and rising. It was thought that if the amount of litter being chucked around went on increasing, public anger would force packaging reductions, recycling, and other measures that were seen by the packaging industry as a threat to their business.

In fact, the environmental pollution resulting from litter is not reduced by putting it all in bins whence it can be carted off to a concentrated area. Rather, pollution is increased because

  1. concentrating the stuff in thick deposits makes it more difficult to degrade by natural processes,
  2. and

  3. the areas selected for dumping are of low value in real estate terms, but of relatively high ecological value compared to the urban areas whence the litter was collected.

These dumping areas are of low real estate value not because they are unpleasant, but because they are relatively far from urban facilities. They are of high ecological value because they are often swamps or wetlands, regarded as smelly or “unsightly” but essential seasonal or permanent habitats for myriad species of birds, amphibians, and insects. Other dumping areas are important reservoirs of diverse plant and mammal species.

For the best treatment of our natural environment, the answer is not to consume as much throwaway goods and packaging as we can and throw it all in the rubbish bins provided. Rather, the answer is first, to consume as little as possible and thus to throw away as little as possible. Second, what we do throw away should be spread around dead or near-dead areas, preferably roads and verges, car parks, paved areas and vacant lots rather than green parkland. Wet rubbish such as garden cuttings and vegetable leavings should be used on suburban gardens as compost. Sewage and toxic chemicals cannot, of course, be disposed of in this way, but we should minimise the need to dispose of them at all.

Disposed of as suggested, the litter is easier to degrade by oxidation and sunlight and the areas on which it is preferably to be spread are not habitats for life that it can harm or restrict. Such spreading is ecologically neutral and does not deplete environmental resources, unlike the method of concentrated dumping in natural areas. In addition, the unpleasant appearance of the litter scattered about will create public pressure for reduced packaging generally and for more returnable containers.

This is another case where what is best ecologically goes directly against what is commonly thought of as good sense and correct behaviour. We must come to think of good sense and correct behaviour to be whatever best serves the purpose of conserving and enhancing the earth’s life and life-supporting capacity, and let this goal override all the rest, ideas of tidiness and propping up particular industries.

Why do the packaging industries go to the length of creating bogus “environmental” organisations to try to maintain and increase their sales? Not because they are evil or want to bring down the economy; they are just people who believe what most people currently believe; that the goals of economic well-being and progress are best served by ever-increasing consumption of everything, and a few birds, bushes, and odd furry creatures are of no consequence by comparison.

In fact, of course, the ever-increasing consumption of resources and the elimination of species and habitats go against the goal of economic well-being, which is best served by environmental conservation and enhancement.

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