March 24, 2018
It’s been a while since the last blog post, and what better way to get going again than with a rant about garbage! I’ll go on about this for a bit, but then there are some nice photos from our recent trip to southeastern Sicily…
Oddly enough, the rant was fed, but not inspired by the latest updates on the Pacific Ocean’s “Garbage Gyre” – which just yesterday was revealed to now cover a larger area than Germany, France and Spain combined, and which includes an estimated 79,000 tons of trash.
The initial inspiration was much more local, as you can see from the photo below.
Beginning with the Ferragosto holiday last year (August 15) trash collection in Licata and the surrounding area has ceased to function. Oh, things get picked up once in a while, but basically, trash is out of control, piling up in heaps in the city and the countryside, blowing into the fields, streets and the sea, feeding flies and rats, only occasionally providing a tidbit for the stray dogs. The crisis is actually broader than just Licata. It affects a significant part of Sicily.
Most Italians see this – as they are used to seeing the functioning and non-functioning of public institutions – as just more evidence that politicians, officials and bureaucrats really have only one skill: ensuring themselves a comfortable, untroubled life, lived in sumptuous offices, parliaments and courts, and sweetened with a pleasant dose of special privileges.
But the crisis here has provoked a public response different from the usual (fully justified) cynicism. A few weeks ago, for example, over 120 Licatans and boaters from the marina filled, in a few hours, 217 large black garbage bags with trash picked up along the eastern breakwater of the port. And this Thursday some 400 people showed up for a protest outside the city hall. Almost miraculously, trash pickup began in earnest the next day.
Unfortunately, though, the problem is not just administrative incompetence. Fundamentally, it’s the amount of trash produced by this, and virtually every city. Think about it: The 79,000 tons of trash floating in the Pacific is a lot – but Licata is able to produce over 400 (metric) tons of trash in just a few weeks. Now think about 40,000 Licatans, then 55 million Italians, then 320 million Americans, and on and on. The big issue in Sicily is that the landfills are filling up.
Now let’s talk about why that is. There is only one reason, and it is PLASTIC! It’s not “trash” or “garbage” that’s the problem. It is purely and simply plastic, yet another fine product from petroleum. Food waste, paper and wood all just rot. Metal and glass are inert, and they don’t float. The crisis being faced by Licata, Sicily and humanity is a massive, long-lasting and rapidly growing accumulation of plastic. Plastic bags, plastic packaging, plastic water and soft-drink bottles, tarps, Styrofoam coolers, plastic clothing, and yes, even plastic boats and sails.
A big and particularly unconscionable part of this waste stream is plastic water bottles, generated by the fact that governments around the world have either utterly abandoned, or at least stepped back from, the notion that one basic function of civilization is to provide clean palatable water for free, or at very low cost, from a pipe, for every human being. The upside of this, for some, is that it generates huge profits for the companies that sell water in plastic bottles. The downside is the trash, the degradation of the social compact, the siphoning of funds from the masses of people into the hands of mostly unregulated and often unscrupulous profiteers – and that doesn’t even get to the question of the risks of leaving water sit in plastic, which leaches carcinogens and mutagens and hormone mimicking chemicals from the plastic bottle into the supposedly “pure” water inside.
But plastics save money, some say. Maybe, and only maybe, but how is that money distributed? Is it worth covering the Earth with plastic trash to generate a few more billionaires? And do plastics, when all the costs are genuinely taken into account, really save money? That’s not so clear. What is clear is that plastics are an enormous boon to the petroleum industry, which has been very adept at offloading its costs onto humanity. An early genius move by big oil was to take their most obnoxious waste product, tar, a stinking, carcinogenic, toxic mess left over from refining crude oil, and convince governments to buy it, mix it with gravel, and spread it all over the ground (as asphalt roads and parking lots), whose runoff is now polluting streams, rivers and groundwater all over the world.
What about recycling? Will that solve the problem? Plastics advocates sell this idea, but it’s not really a solution. Plastics have unique qualities depending on their type. Unless the types are kept separate, they can’t be re-used in the same form. Even then, they have to be melted to be re-molded or extruded, and that in itself degrades the material (and releases toxic gasses). Burning them as a source of energy is a problem too. Most plastics release horribly poisonous smoke when they are burned. Yes, the smoke can be scrubbed, but then something has to be done with the poisons. And, really, is it such a good idea to add to the CO2 burden in the earth’s atmosphere by burning hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic, when there are alternative energy sources, like solar, wind, and increasing the energy efficiency of electrical devices and distribution systems?
These are all big questions. But I think they all point to one simple fact: It is not possible to sensibly or humanely manage human society based on a system whose only clear goal is private profit. “Supply and Demand,” “Self-Correcting Market Forces,” “Competition,” and all the other feel-good shibboleths of late capitalism simply do not work. All you have to do is look around to see that if we can’t come up with a better model for human organization, the planet is doomed, at least for humans, and for many of the other species we have come to know and love.
Now on a happier note!
There are still beautiful places in the world! Birgit recently came back (suffering badly from influenza, but she’s slowly recovering) from a trip to New Zealand to visit her sister and her family. The landscapes there, especially on the south island, are stunning. Thankfully, none are being used for landfill. Yet.
This week we took a trip to two of the baroque towns of southeastern Sicily. The largely agricultural land is striking, especially in the spring, and the towns are clean, in good repair, and you can drink the water from the tap!
Below, five photos from beautiful Noto, which was the last Muslim city in Sicily to be conquered by the Spanish Inquisitors. It’s still quite a small town, but full of baroque-era buildings, well maintained.
The mural project is continuing in Licata, and here a two from walls in the neighborhood of our apartment. One depicts a student at one of the typical votive boxes in the area (watched by a collie in the upper right), and the other a young woman who has had to migrate north in search of work, who can no longer hear the sea:
The Sicilian countryside is especially beautiful in the spring – both its landscape and its products. Below are Mount Etna above an orange grove, a special “fanged” (and especially delicious) local artichoke from Licata, and a scene from a vegetable stand:
We’ll be setting sail in early May, but only after the Festival of Sant’Angelo, one of the high points of the year in Licata. Included on our summer itinerary will be Sardinia, Elba, Corsica, and at the end of summer, Tunisia. Stay tuned!