Garbage, Dog Turds and Polyethylene Owls

When I’m out walking and I see a plastic bag stuck in a tree, I always point it out to anyone who might be around and say, “Hey look, a West Duluth owl.” It’s a stupid joke that doesn’t get much of a reaction, but hey, so am I.

Making cheesy remarks might be the best action in that situation. There’s a clump of ugly garbage stuck in a beautiful tree, and my options for how to deal with it are to climb the tree or use a long device of some kind to somehow remove the bag, ignore the situation altogether, or pretend like I wanted that bag to be there all along to support the comedy of life.

I have similar statements I repeat all the time. If my childhood friend is telling me about her cancer diagnosis, for example, I’ll say, “I told you not to go swimming downstream of the steel plant.”

The tragedy behind the comedy boils down to something pretty simple: I want a clean environment, but I know that’s unrealistic. It’s also confusing, because a clean environment contains a lot of dirt. And seriously, a clean planet and a polluted planet are made up of the same things; the difference is how those things are arranged.

Even with all the rusty junk and toxic particles accumulated in the recent history of industrialized humanity, the Earth is still a pretty beautiful place, depending on where you are looking. One need not visit a national park to know that. There is a vast waterway outside my window that is so visually stunning it might as well be part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s the St. Louis River, the largest freshwater estuary in North America. It took decades of remediation work costing many millions of dollars to clean up that river after a century of pollution from previous generations.

Nature bounces back, and it bounces back faster with human help, but there is a growing concern that we’re crossing a critical point in our relationship with the planet. “Global warming” is the phrase first associated with this notion. The term quickly proved problematic when certain idiots decided every time it got a little warm out was solid evidence of global warming and certain other idiots decided every time it got cold out it was evidence global warming was a hoax.

“Climate change” became an even more confusing term for it. The climate is always changing — from millennium to millennium, season to season, and hour to hour — so warning people about climate change can feel like telling them there will be some commercials during their favorite show.

“I actually like watching commercials,” certain braindead imbeciles might respond. There’s no point in arguing with them. Just roll your eyes and use mean words to describe them.

I get it. I totally understand. I really do. State Farm’s slogan is ‘like a good neighbor,’ but Arnold Schwarzenegger is saying ‘like a good neighbaaa.’ It’s very clever. And why would anyone fear a warming planet when it’s kind of chilly out right now?

Maybe it’s all junk science and fear mongering on both sides of the climate change debate. The logic trap is thinking there should be sides and that you need to be on one. Because once you pick a side, well, then it really is all junk science and fear mongering.

Most people who spill coffee on the kitchen floor will wipe it up and try to be more careful about spilling again. But not everyone. And if it’s someone else’s kitchen and no one is watching, there might soon be rotting boards under that floor.

So, like everything else, it’s complicated, right? Because wiping up your own coffee mess is simple compared to persuading people in 195 countries to reduce carbon emissions.

But is the climate really changing? Well, that river out my window was pristine a couple hundred years ago. It was disgusting 50 years ago. It’s sort of an untrustworthy clean now, with the hope of being better in the future rather than being recontaminated. All of those changes are man-made climate change if you want to say so. And if you want to deny it you can just say it’s only one example and keep insisting the climate as a whole is only changing the way nature wants it to.

But we also know that the ability of humans to control what we put in the water is slipping away. We stopped dumping hazardous materials into the river on purpose, but now there are microscopic bits of plastic showing up in the water. That Mountain Dew bottle you responsibly put in a recycle bin later got caught in a gust of wind and rolled into a creek and floated into the river, where it broke down and eventually came back to you in the form of tap water. Now you’ve got microplastic in your guts.

You can switch to bottled water, but that water is even worse and contributes to more plastic in every future batch. Good luck with that plan. Maybe scientists will develop a new kind of plastic that is nutritious.

If you want to “do the right thing” as an “environmentalist” you also need to be prepared to find out the right thing you are doing could turn out to be the wrong thing later.

Doing “the right thing” can be confusing enough, but even the notion of what constitutes being an “environmentalist” is impossible to define. Does it mean you put the environment before people? I don’t think anyone really does that. Someone might talk in those terms, but if you tell him he’ll have to cut down a hundred trees to save his infant daughter’s life he won’t stop to think about the environment. He’ll cut trees as long as it takes.

Some people think their particular employment is critical to sustaining their life and their family – that if the local smokestack ceases to operate they might starve to death while breathing all the clean air. The example is extreme but the fear is legitimate. We’ll kill ourselves tomorrow if we can survive better today. Measure the filth against the dollars and mark your line.

There are also people so consumed by denial that they insist they are not environmentalists, which seems utterly asinine. They actually use the word with a derogatory tone and some kind of demeaning adjective. “Those nutty environmentalists.” Well, pardon me, but everyone is an environmentalist to some extent. Watch me defecate on your dining-room table and tell me as you arrange the napkins and forks that it doesn’t bother you because you are “not an environmentalist.”

Sure, my little kitchen examples aren’t exact comparisons to oil spills and radioactive contamination, but why would anyone be concerned about the former and lax about the latter?

We all have a level of deniability that allows us to deal with the chaos around us. I make jokes about the West Duluth owl. Someone else denies the actions of human beings can alter the climate. Another pretends all the batteries in electric cars won’t have consequences.

Generally, we’re all trying to do the best we can. That jerk who dumped his mattress and television in the woods by the park probably needed to get rid of his stuff fast and didn’t want to make a haul to the edge of town to properly dispose of it at the expense of cash and time. The figurative garbage of life might be piling up all around him and there’s no energy left to deal with the literal garbage. Illegal dumping seems insignificant from his perspective, while my comparatively privileged eyes can’t believe he had the nerve to create such an eyesore.

The use of plastic bags is an example of how confusing these things can get. There’s a big garbage container in my kitchen that is lined with a plastic bag. I could dump trash straight into the container without that plastic bag, carry the whole thing to the larger container in the alley, dump it, and then the garbage hauler could dump the unbagged trash fairly simply, without any plastic bags, but the process would be quite a bit messier. So the bag has an important function. It actually keeps things cleaner in the short term though it takes thousands of years to break down and decompose, releasing toxic chemicals that contaminate groundwater and also enter the food chain when animals eat them because they are slathered in tasty sauces.

A few years ago, I came up with a new plan. I’d keep using the big plastic bags, but to reduce the number of them going into the wastestream – and also save money on bags – I’d line the plastic bag with two paper grocery bags obtained for free. Then the paper-bagged garbage could be removed while the same plastic bag could be used for several weeks instead of maybe one week at best. The smaller grocery bags could actually be taken out more often than the larger plastic ones, reducing instances of the garbage getting stinky and attracting bugs.

It had to be two paper bags, of course, because one would fall apart from moisture at the bottom. Paper bags are better for the environment than plastic, right? Well, not necessarily. “Manufacturing paper bags takes about four times as much energy as it takes to produce a plastic bag, plus the chemicals and fertilizers used in producing paper bags create additional harm to the environment,” according to an article in National Geographic and probably a bunch of other sources.

So maybe my effort to do better made things worse. Or maybe it didn’t. I’ll probably never know. But now I’m back using the same big plastic garbage bag without the paper ones.

The Duluth City Council passed an ordinance in 2019 requiring retailers to collect a nickel from customers for every plastic bag they carry out of the store. The goal was to convert people to start hauling around a clump of reusable cloth bags for toting their groceries. I didn’t necessarily support the idea as a law, but I didn’t object. I already had some cloth bags in the trunk of my car and was moving in the direction of using them anyway, although I still used some paper bags at times to supply my practice of lining my garbage.

It took me quite a while to get into the habit of remembering to bring cloth bags into the store. I forgot them in the trunk of my car more than half the time at first. Slowly, I got better at it. When I forgot, however, I’d just take a paper bag and not worry about it much. Then one day I realized something that should have been totally obvious: If I forgot to bring a bag in the store with me, it didn’t matter. I still had the bag in the trunk of my car. All I needed to do was cart the groceries out and bag them in the parking lot.

Once I figured that out, I thought I was about as perfect as an environmentalist could be without growing all my own food. And this was before the bag ordinance became law.

Of course, you see the next hilarious stage of confusion coming. The law was to take effect in April 2020, and a little pandemic preceded it. Suddenly, just as I had gotten into the perfect habit of using cloth bags, I would now be a total heel to bring my germ sacks into a store.

Sure, it was still possible to cart groceries out and bag them in the parking lot, but nonetheless the city put the brakes on the plastic bag rule until Oct. 15, 2021.

In addition to the potential germiness of the cloth bags, concerns have been raised about how they are made in sweatshops, imported from overseas, and decompose at an even slower rate than plastic bags. But obviously if I use my cloth bags hundreds of times they are better for the environment, though it’s of no help to exploited laborers.

The other minor operation associated with household waste is separating the recyclable materials from the garbage. This is both easy and complex, because not all plastic is recyclable and some items are made with a variety of materials. And then once a year or so the media likes to remind us that most things we put into recycle bins just end up in a landfill.

Those demon plastic bags can supposedly be recycled, but residential recycling services won’t take them. You have to find a place in your home and/or workplace to store those bags, creating beachball-like bags stuffed with other bags, and then you must transfer them to your vehicle and deliver them to the grocery store. I doubt many people take that chore on. I do it, even though I’m confident hardly any of it is actually being recycled.

In early 2022, the local chicken farm announced that, due to labor shortages and supply chain issues, it was unable to secure a steady stream of egg cartons. That meant I needed to drive around town with empty egg cartons in my trunk next to the wad of plastic bags. At least I knew the egg cartons were being reused. I felt good about that. I have to kind of trick myself into feeling good about recycling the bags, because deep down I believe I’m being conned on that one.

There’s a new compost pickup business in town. For $180 per year someone is willing to come to my house and pick up my food scraps. I’m not quite ready to add that to my sorting list yet. If I did — and my food scraps, plastic bags, yard debris, egg cartons, and general paper and plastic products (when applicable) were all separated from my regular garbage – there wouldn’t be much left for my trash hauler. I’d have this rancid little bin full of snotty facial tissue, fish bones and random food-soaked cardboard, styrofoam or plastic wrap.

Of course, there’s also the newfangled televisions that fritz out every three years. And the rotten old carpets and mattresses and so on. That stuff has to be loaded onto a truck bed or trailer and hauled to the outskirts of town. When I sometimes pay to use the privately owned solid waste transfer station near my home, I always feel like I’m doing something underhanded like disposing of a human carcass instead of dumping a pile of rotted-out plywood and a broken dehumidifier.

I don’t mind too much when new little waste-separating responsibilities pop up, but if the effectiveness is questionable or the totality of it all starts to feel silly, I do miss the old days when everything was just irresponsibly chucked into an old can for the garbage man.

It’s not a garbage “can” anymore, by the way. It hasn’t been for a long time. It’s a bin. And whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s not really a “garbage” man or woman. It’s a driver. Obviously I appreciate that the process has been mechanized so a hydraulic arm clasps my bin instead of a person. But I also kind of prefer the person. Sometimes my garbage sticks to the bin, either because snow got in there and melted then froze, or a bag got wedged into the bottom when the next bag got stuffed on top of it. The garbage man of yore knew if the can actually emptied. The modern-day driver is clueless and therefore I occasionally pay good money to have my bin get pointlessly dumped upside down while the garbage remains inside. Then I get to try to jam more garbage into an already full bin that will be even less likely to properly empty on the next pickup day.

I also miss having my garbage and recycling containers resting securely against the garage or a fence instead of needing to be dragged to the curb where they can easily be blown over, scattering debris across the neighborhood. The old galvanized steel trash cans didn’t blow over as easily because they weren’t top-heavy like the plastic bins, but they did topple when they were empty and made a lot of noise when the wind sent them rolling down the alley.

The main thing I hate about needing to drag my containers to the curb is that if I leave on a vacation I must choose between not getting my garbage hauled away or letting my empty container lay sideways in the middle of the street for a week while my neighbors drive around it.

A lot of people either don’t know or don’t care what items are acceptable to leave for a garbage hauler. I’m not referring to the more confusing things mentioned above, but to the more commonly known and very basic separation procedures. If you live near, or in, a housing project or any kind of transient rental property like those inhabited by college students, you’ll see evidence of this constantly. The average homeowner will make the same mistakes, but then generally will recognize errors pretty quickly. Unfortunately, at certain rental properties the inhabitants consider their part done as soon as the junk hits the alley. Their perception is that the rest is someone else’s job to deal with. Someone else, however, disagrees.

So tenants will haul out an old wire mattress support or a computer monitor, set it next to the garbage can, and then never take the hint when the hauler leaves it there. They also like to pile garbage into the recycle bin as if recyclables are just secondary trash. Maybe they’ve read the news about how it’s all going to a landfill anyway, but in this case it isn’t going anywhere because the hauler won’t take materials from a recycle bin if a big plastic bag can be seen bulging out of the top of it. That’s no problem for the tenant, however, who will then just put loose bags of garbage next to the filled bins so the crows and raccoons can pick it all apart, leaving stray dirty diapers strewn all around.

Don’t worry, if it’s a low-income housing project and you are a neighbor you can complain about it and your local housing agency will step in to help by having a cleanup event on one day in the spring. Just wait a few months and the whole problem will be very temporarily taken care of.

The main reason there is so much garbage, of course, is that there are so many people. Still, you might hear politicians and economists talking about the importance of growth, because someone once said “if you’re not growing, you’re dying!” and it sounded clever enough that people had to start repeating it like it’s some universal truth.

Of course, I stopped growing years ago, and I guess you could say I’m in the decades-long process of dying, but if I kept growing I’d be 100 feet tall right now and that wouldn’t work out very well, would it?

The population in Duluth is growing, but not at a fast-enough pace for people who think every city should be jealous of New York. They think my city is “stagnant.” Some of them move away to less stagnant places. Then they experience growth and decide to go back to somewhere “charming.” And when they get back they immediately start planning for growth.

Duluth has also been called a “climate-proof” city that people are already flocking to as the rest of the planet heats up and burns or floods. And there is a housing shortage. So Duluth is either stagnant or overpopulated, depending on whether you prefer high-density apartment complexes or urban forests.

If having eight billion people on the planet isn’t enough to choke its resources, consider that about two-thirds of those people feel compelled to have pets. And pets, of course, are humanized animals that need all kinds of toys and soft beds and expert healthcare.

The most widely accepted thing I’ll never understand is that people overwhelmingly believe it is environmentally beneficial to pick up dog turds and put them in plastic bags so they can be preserved in a landfill for future generations. For those walking little Fifi on a neighborhood trail or residential area, that means each little dookie pile needs its own individual bag. We can’t let it decompose naturally, because that’s disgusting.

The degree to which some of these processes are better or worse than others can get pretty murky. Still, we all should do our best to wipe up our spilled coffee and keep a tidy planet. I’m sure some people plan to colonize the moon, but the first thing they’ll do when they get there is start producing garbage and planning for growth, so there’s no escape. The best thing you can do for the environment and the future of mankind might be to put a plastic bag around your genitals and reduce the population.

1 Comment

Matthew James

about 2 weeks ago

In terms of shopping bags, Duluth has the distinct advantage of having not just one but two local manufacturers of incredibly durable, high quality canvas bags -- Duluth Pack and Frost River. My large backpack has been in a canoe in the Boundary Waters exactly once but it makes the trip to my local grocery store every week. The envelope bag design works great for when I suddenly remember I need a large pack of toilet paper.

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This undated postcard, published by Cartwheel Company of St. Paul, shows five images of Duluth circa perhaps the early 1980s.

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