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An Environmentalist's Angst

By Joshua W. Shenk

MY FATHER is a vulture of good housekeeping. When I was young, he would swoop into my room with a garbage can and a laundry basket. "If it moves I'll shoot it," he would tell me. "If it doesn't move I'll wash it."

He followed through. By the time I left home, I had few possessions that had not, at some time, passed through his washing machine--shoes, wallets, even an occasional book. My dad was relentless and his task was clear. He wanted his house to be clean and, by god, he made it happen.

Like my dad, I am obsessed with being clean. And yet it occurs to me that as I walk the paths of campus and the streets of Cambridge, I leave trails of trash everywhere I go. I might as well be chopping trees to bits and scattering them in a concrete wasteland. I might as well be holding a cigarette lighter to the ozone layer--burn baby burn.

LAST WEEK, for example, I craved a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup. In the depths of a moonless night, I made my way to the convenience store.

Nibbling the chocolate edges, I saved the blast of pure peanut butter for last. It was a chocolate orgasm. It satisfied my desires. But what about the consequences? I mean, two Reeses Peanut Butter Cups were well on their way through my digestive system, and, in my hand, I held what was left. I felt awfully guilty. Guilty for my greed, guilty for my poor diet, but, mainly, guilty for producing what was, with respect to the foodstuff it had contained, a lot of garbage.

After all, the bright orange wrapper designed to catch our eyes in the candy isle is just the beginning of the creature that is a Reeses wrapper. Inside lies an additional piece of waxed paper. Also, each peanut butter cup sits in its own brown paper wrapper. As if that wasn't enough, the Reeses folks add an additional piece of white cardboard, presumably to give the whole package that special mmphh.

I stuffed the mess in a garbage can, but that didn't make me feel any better: The the next morning I breakfasted on Frosted Flakes, each ounce of which was individually packaged in small cardboard boxes with wax paper liners. Later I ripped through the plastic wrapper of my Bic pens with a vengeance. In the garbage can, it nestled just underneath the cardboard monstrosity that once held a newly purchased Neil Young compact disc. Several Columbo raspberry yogurt containers rested at the bottom of the can. Have fun, guys, I told them. The garbage man will take you away tomorrow.

Or will he? I mean, I've taken the service of garbage collection for granted. I set a package of garbage on my doorstep, and when I wake in the morning, it's gone. I've always been obsessive about emptying the trash. My roommates stuff the can full, mash it down with their feet and balance extra waste on top of the heap. Garbage, though, is my sensitive spot, and I'm usually the one who makes sure that the room is devoid of it. It's always gone in the morning.

But I've never before given much thought to where that garbage goes. Lately, I've heard some disturbing numbers. Of the four pounds of rubbish that I produce per day--about 1500 pounds per year--86 percent is dumped in landfills. States in the east have just about run out of room, so they ship their trash away--about 15 million tons per year of the stuff.

I'VE GROWN DEPENDENT on these garbage collectors and drivers. When the garbage monster runs out of land to swallow, what's next?

I'm not sure. But the mere thought is scary enough to send me running to my recycling bins. I comb through my roommates' trash for white paper, aluminum cans and newspaper scraps. I retrieve whatever I can from the clutches of the garbage collector, which I now realize is feeding the monster.

But I am guilty, too. My Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are jamming our landfills. The exhaust from my Nissan is polluting our air and contaminating our seas. My large popcorn and medium Coke coat the floors of movie theaters across the country. I am a relentless consumer. I have created this world of plastic products and disposable containers. I shower under water warmed by fossil fuels and I keep my hands warm with the wool of a sheep and the smooth skin of a once-lovely deer. I write for a newspaper that reels of 4000 copies a day. My trash can bulges with old light bulbs and paper cups, cardboard boxes, potato chip bags and out-of-date magazines.

Like my dad, I try as best I can to create my own little microcosm of cleanliness. Sweep, wash, throw away--whatever it takes to keep the fiend at bay. But, after all these years of washing machines, garbage cans and recycling bins, I feel truly trapped. Am I the only one? Does anyone else see the monster at the Union, where first-years use about 9000 "Veritas" cups each day? How about in the Sunday New York Times, which comes at the cost of acres of forest land?

I was always scared silly of being pinned down by my brothers. Their warm breath on my face was agonizing. It meant defeat and it meant facing the consequences for my name-calling or egg-throwing. Lately I've had the same fear. Cleaning my room and recycling paper is like trying to squirm from out of my brothers' grip. Because I feel their breath and it's steamy and uncomfortable.

I'm running at full sprint from the monster of garbage.

But my neck is bristling at its rotten breath.

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