My uneasy relationship with the warm winter (see Backyard Naturalist, March 10) turns out to be a shared concern. Several correspondents encouraged me to expand on the topic of lakes warming worldwide by talking about how thin the ice has been, and how quickly out, in recent years.

But my ruminations on the problem of “global climate change” (a euphemism crafted for those who, to invoke a Jack Nicholson character, can’t handle the truth) led me to this impasse: The problem about environmental degradation is not to keep repeating that the ice is going out earlier and earlier — the real problem is what to do.

What can you actually do instead of talk about it?

Thinking you might as well learn the most radical courses of action first, I checked to see what advice Greenpeace gives. It turns out, at least going by its website, that the most radical actions you can take are: 1) sign their petitions to express opposition to offshore drilling, fracking, fossil fuels, etc., or to support protecting forests, the Arctic, sharks, vaquitas and sustainable agriculture, etc.; and 2) send them money.

This is not what I had in mind. So after more fishing around on the Internet, I discovered that state and federal governments actually have a lot of recommendation sheets on ways of reducing fossil fuel use, operating a less poisonous backyard, reducing the environmental impact of your car, and recycling. Advice for things you can actually do that might help, rather than talk about.

Now, I personally cannot curb the warming of North America’s lakes, and neither can you. But the more crap we recycle, the less poison our household excretes into some landfill that’s leaking crap generated by the crap into the air and the ground.


And the fact is, I trundle off to the Unity Regional Recycling Center in Thorndike more often than I used to. Ten years ago, maybe, I bundled up newspapers, unscrewed detergent container tops, separated plastics and several dispositions of cardboard, etc., and shoved it all into the car every two or three months. In lazy stretches I let it accumulate four or five months, then punished myself with two trips. (Discussion of auto pollution to come later.) In the past few years, though, the recycling mission seems to take place about once a month.

A couple of weeks ago I was wondering out loud what could be different. Were we using this much more recyclable junk, or what?

Maybe, but I think it started one day when I was looking at the plastic top on a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup. How many of those tops have I tossed into the trash and sent to landfills in the last 50 years? Use it for 60 seconds or so, then chuck it.

This triggered memories of the years we lived in Bulgaria. We used to buy torbichkas — plastic grocery bags — from the produce vendors for a penny or two each, lug them home, unload them, and then throw them into the trash. Out on the streets of Blagoevgrad, torbichkas blew around like tumbleweeds — and the fact of the matter was that most Bulgarian families could not afford to buy them, so these were castoff luxury items. Don’t get me started on the stupendous scale of discarded plastic we saw — and contributed to — a few years later, when we lived in Shanghai.

Only in the past few years did I learn from the friendly dudes at the recycling center that torbichkas and other similar plastics can be dropped off there. It was too late to curb the massive excess of plastic bags that had already spewed from our own backyard. But we were already cutting down our torbichka use, and now we toss any we do end up with into the recycling bin. I also discovered that the recycling center accepts not only torbichkas, cans, glass, spent light bulbs and foil, but also batteries, needlessly defunct toasters, and a lot of other miscellaneous crap. So my recyclables inventory builds up more quickly than it used to.

Maybe the coffee-cup tops seem obsessive. But I do know that if everybody in Maine, Bulgaria and China who ever used one — or even half of us — had recycled them instead, then tons of those flimsy little one-use wastes would not be plugging up landfills and poisoning lakes. Each one is a tiny bit of a large bit.


One of the reasons the U.S. space program of the 1960s and ’70s was so successful was summed up in something a mission control technician recounted decades later. Going into Earth orbit was a massive group effort. No one person, or two, or five, could possibly get astronauts up into space and then back down safely. Thousands of people were responsible for millions of minute details. An error in any one of them could create a crisis. Every technician, though, approached his or her work with this determination: If the mission wrecks, it’s not going to be my error that caused it.

The recycling center dudes told me that their best estimate of the household recycling rate for the eight towns (Dixmont, Freedom, Jackson, Knox, Montville, Thorndike, Troy and Unity) is about 30 percent. In the vicinity of Unity Pond — which, by the way, has been completely clear of ice for more than a week — that leaves a 70 percent collective margin for environmental error. I’m not making one of those errors if I can help it.

We’re on thin ice here. We all need to quit talking about it, and recycle the small stuff.

By the way, if you live in Brooks or some other town within striking distance of Thorndike, you can join the recycling center for $25 a year. That’s about 50 cents a week. Figure it out.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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