The second in a completely coincidental mini series on waste, this article suggests that a simple commitment in 2014 could make a world of a difference.
January – the month of new beginnings. The start of the calendar year also brings new resolutions to change old habits. February, by contrast, can be the graveyard of such good intentions, especially if they involve too many drastic changes to the status quo. Whether or not you bother with New Year’s resolutions, here’s one for this year and beyond that involves minimal effort but brings significant benefits: picking up one piece of litter per person per day.
The world is full of rubbish. We only have to walk out our front doors to be confronted with litter on the pavement, on the road or over the hedge. Not only is it a visual blight but it can also damage our health and hurt our wildlife. The problem continues at sea. Our oceans full of plastic, a substance that does not naturally or easily degrade. In the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans the problem is so bad that several areas of waste materials – bottles, bags, bin-liners, as well as smaller particles – exist that are bigger than many countries. One, the Great Pacific garbage patch, is estimated to be between the size of Ireland and twice the size of the continental USA. Either way, whether washed into the sea or dumped in it, this litter wreaks havoc with sealife, who often consume, or get tangled in, it. In one case, 97.5% of albatross chicks were found to have been fed pieces of plastic by their parents, who mistook it for food.
What a cheerful start to 2014! But it’s not all bad news. This blog believes in good news – indeed the Good News – for life in every part. Such individual transformation through relation with Jesus defines the Christian message. Filtering upwards through communities, societies and even nations, this should also involve transformative change to structural problems in the world that can seem beyond the ability of one person to influence.
So it is with issue of litter. The scale of the problem outlined above can be daunting. After all, what can one person do when confronted with so much junk? Many of the solutions certainly need to be structural. Provision of waste disposal and recycling facilities are a must. There ought to be less litter thrown if there are bins to put it in. Secondly, packaging needs to be reduced. Plastic bag taxes should be the norm globally and not the exception; and veg box schemes, for instance, reduce the need for individually wrapped vegetables.
Third is the issue of planned obsolesce. Purposefully designing products to become defunct quickly so that more have to be bought is a cynical ploy to make money that only increases the amounts of waste in circulation. And according to the Story of Stuff, for every bin of rubbish filled up by us, 70 bins full of rubbish were generated in producing the things that went into that one bin of ours. Chief Executive Litter Louts who promote such a system need to factor in the true social and environmental costs of these practices, and change them.
But the fourth, and most important, factor in responding to the rubbish pandemic occurs at the individual level: a change of principles. That means not chucking rubbish. It does nothing, however, about all the litter that other people throw. The real change of principle needed is for us to see other people’s rubbish not only as our responsibility, but also as an opportunity to serve God and His creation. This is, in part, what we were created for. The Hebrew root words in Genesis 2 describe Adam and Eve’s role as serving the garden God placed them in, a far cry from the utilitarian perspective that sees nature only as a means to a human end.
Nor does it mean we all throw down everything else that we’re doing to spend our days wombling through the streets and hedgerows to pick up refuse. A simple resolution to pick up one piece of litter per person per day could make a real difference – that’s 365 each in 2014. Multiply this by the global life expectancy of 70 and you get 25,550 in an average lifetime. And just as God scales-up individual transformations into structural ones, the potential impact of the world’s two billion Christians doing this small act of loving service is incredible. In the course of our lives that would mean over 51 trillion pieces of litter picked up.
The biggest transformation of all, however, is in our hearts and minds. Soren Kierkegaard wrote that ‘prayer does not change God but changes he who prays’. It’s like that with picking up litter – it’s humbling, and that’s good for us. People give me odd looks when I come back from walking our two wee children in their pushchair with a pile of empty beer cans underneath. ‘Not all of us can do great things.’ said Mother Teresa. ‘But we can all do small things with great love.’ It’s also like that with picking up litter – it’s loving, and that’s especially good for us. Love – for God, for people, for places – transforms the picking up of a single piece of litter into a beautiful act of service.
‘Whatever you do, do it with all your heart as something done to the Lord, and not to men’, Colossians 3:23 reminds us. One piece of litter per person per day – be encouraged to give it a go in January 2014, through February 2014 and beyond. It’s yet another New Year’s resolution that is just a load of rubbish.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.