Sunday, January 25, 2009

Letters of the law

Harsh winter weather can keep me off the rivers, but it need not slow our effort to protect them. Last summer, I decided to spend the off-season learning what I can about light pollution and those items we refer to as “floatables.” At face value, it may seem like there is not much to know about floating junk… but I’m devoted to understanding everything I can about where this trash originates, how it travels through the network of ditches and storm sewers, and the damage it does to wildlife, habitat and water quality. Common sense dictates that pollution prevention will be more effective where pollution problems are better understood.

Part of this learning process has involved the study of existing and proposed public policy. In that effort, I discovered legislation that was intended to help clean various waterways, or in some cases, bills that would help prevent lands and waters from becoming tarnished in the first place. The bills and regulations which have been considered are as varied as the places they are intended to protect.

Among these: The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act, approved as a constitutional amendment by Minnesota voters last fall. (See this explanation offered by the DNR.) As you might imagine, I supported this amendment. At the same time, I fear an unintended consequence: That people may wrongly assume the problem is solved, just because we have thrown some money at it. A checkbook, alone, never removed one piece of debris from a waterway; it takes people who are prepared to get their hands dirty. That might mean attending to the street gutter out in front of their house, picking up some trash that lays on the ground next to a waste container, or even going down to the shoreline to pick up some crud.

Two other works deserved attention last year but did not receive such strong attention in the media, both having to do with important matters of pollution prevention. One of these was a “bottle bill” (as they are commonly called), introduced in the House by Representative Melissa Hortman, and intended to extend the recycling efforts of companies who produce or sell plastic bottles. Another measure, introduced by Senator Ellen Anderson, would have placed a similar mandate on companies who produce or distribute plastic bags (like those used when you carry groceries out of the supermarket).

Neither of these proposals matured into law during the last legislative session. But last week, I wrote to both Representative Hortman and Senator Anderson, encouraging the resurrection of these measures. The final wording or detail of these statutes is beyond my expertise… but the essence of both bills was to make the people who produce (and profit from) these materials more accountable as to their final disposal, and encourage them to engage the public on the methods and benefits of recycling.

Plastic bags and bottles have two things in common, as far as I am concerned. First, they were both garbage on the day they were born; the manufacturer knows these items to be generally of single-use, and that they are headed for a landfill (or worse) after only a momentary stop in the hands of a consumer. Secondly, these items constitute the vast majority of “floatables” that we see on every trip down the river; they degrade, but do not decompose; and they will thus tarnish the landscape or waterway until such time as someone picks them up.

More effective measures to recycle these products would do the river a world of good.

Now, rather than go on any further about these two measures here, I have devoted more space to this conversation at our sister site, At that site, you'll see more discussion on these two proposals, and you can read the actual letters I sent to Senator Anderson and Representative Hortman.

While I want to avoid having become a political pulpit, there are times when public policy and water quality are inextricably linked. And when it becomes both logical and necessary to share that conversation with you here, I will.

Let me close this post by saying it is not my goal to impose a single-sided opinion. If you would like to join the conversation, or challenge any assertion I have made here… I invite your emailed point of view, and will enthusiastically build it into my online conversation. Just drop me a note.

© 2009, Mike D. Anderson. All rights reserved.

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