Cleaning up our act - Shawn Loughlin editorial
When I think of environmental initiatives, my mind always goes to the ordinary people and, of course, the kids. It’s the people who recycle and have compost piles and do trash clean-ups on beaches and in school yards or people cooking at home who use a dish cloth instead of paper towel or a towel instead of plastic wrap.
We’re making a difference - or at least we’d like to think we are. Certainly anything we can do to make the world around us a better place is a good thing - I’m not saying it isn’t - but as the days come and go, there will be stories that make me think I’ll never not use enough paper towel to make the kind of impact others do.
This is a debate that has raged for a while now. Why should I, people complain, root through my garbage, drive less, walk more, pay a carbon tax to help the environment when other countries, corporations, etc. are doing exponentially worse things to the world? It’s a reasonable argument (when it doesn’t get into a lot of borderline racist talk about China, etc.) that can make you wonder why your kids spend an afternoon at school picking up someone else’s garbage or why you can’t enjoy a cocktail without constantly reminding yourself not to bite down on the metal straw.
Two recent news items have really weighed down my enthusiasm for this kind of stuff.
The first comes from Europe, where airlines are saying they’ll have to fly thousands of unneccessary, near-empty flights in order to keep valuable take-off and landing time slots guaranteed for the region’s biggest airlines.
Apparently this isn’t necessarily new, but the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused a severe drop in travel and recent rule changes have meant that the number of flights needed to retain spots at airports has increased. In an article on the subject, Brussels Airlines was found to have run as many as 3,000 empty or near-empty flights to retain its spots, while Lufthansa, the German flight giant, said in order retain its spots, it would have to green-light 18,000 unneccessary flights. We’ll need to use an awful lot of cardboard straws to offset that amount of wasted jet fuel.
Another has been the shipping container debacle on the west coast, which saw some materials sit in containers off the shore for months. As a result, for profit-driven reasons, empty shipping containers were being sent from North America back to China, where they could be filled with profitable Chinese exports. So, to avoid the delay of filling these containers with something, they’re just sent west because it means more money.
So, while we sit here, agonizing over just how clean a peanut butter jar needs to be in order for it to be recycled, companies are sending empty planes and shipping containers halfway around the world in the name of the almighty dollar. Again, we should absolutely be cleaning out those peanut butter jars and tending to those compost piles, but you can’t help but feel like you’re relieving yourself in the wind while you care so much to do so little and others care so little that they do so much.
We’re always told that, no matter how small a gesture or how remote a community, you can make a difference and I do believe that to be true, but it’s easy to get pretty jaded when it comes to this stuff. Protecting the environment should literally be the least controversial topic there is - we all use it and need it to thrive in order to, you know, live. But we all know it hasn’t turned out that way. Doing the right thing can feel hollow when others think it’s beneath them and their selfishness and inaction jeopardizes life for us all.