Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Defining two of the most challenging problems

During the summer and fall of 2007, we hit the water with nothing more than a kayak, a digital camera, and an open mind… to make some observations about the visible pollution that tarnishes a few well-known rivers. Our survey work taught us that there are two types of pollution which are unlikely to be well-solved by casual pedestrian pick-up efforts. (Additional pollution sources remain problematic, of course, such as chemical run-off, industrial waste, and the effects of greenhouse gasses. But for now, I’ll focus on pollution types which can be easily seen, understood and solved by regular folks like me, using only basic tools.)

Oversized Debris Fields
Near bridges, piers, docks, log-jams and other obstructions, these accumulations exist where the rivers’ current has collected massive amounts of debris from upstream. These debris fields usually include beer and soft drink bottles, cans and cups; bait cans, coolers and other Styrofoam objects; water toys, plastic bags and other trash.

For the most part, Oversized Debris Fields are composed of seemingly innocent, incidental pollution. Someone tosses a Styrofoam coffee cup into the street; the cup finds its’ way to a storm sewer, and eventually to the river. Someone else knocks a soda bottle off a fishing dock, and by the time they notice, it has drifted out of reach. The wind throws a cooler cover out of a fast-moving boat. A plastic bag blows out of the back of a pickup truck as it crosses a bridge. And in cases I’d rather not think about, someone deliberately tosses trash into a river, believing the current will make it someone else’s problem. (Out of sight, out of mind, right?)

Large Scale Objects
I will define these objects as either big enough that one person could not lift them alone, submerged deeply enough in muck that one person could not dig it out, or heavy enough that the item could not safely be retrieved using a canoe or kayak, and terrain might inhibit one person’s ability to carry the item out on foot. These items include, but are not limited to, tires, car batteries and other auto parts; water heaters and other appliances; lawn mowers, furniture, safes & vaults, scrap iron, building materials and other discarded objects.

When you review the list of Large Scale Objects, perhaps you notice a pattern: These are often items which have been thrown down a riverbank or into the river because they might be thought of as too difficult or expensive to discard through conventional means. What a shame that the same household hazardous waste regulations that were intended to protect our environment… might be causing some people to destroy it.

SIDEBAR: If you happen to know anything about the cost of fines for dumping hazardous waste (or who the legislators are that might have influence over those fees), please share that information with me. My personal opinion is that we have not made it expensive enough to discourage some people from being slobs. The pain of doing things wrong should always be substantially greater than the cost of doing things right.

© 2008 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.

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