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On war and recycling

April 26, 2010

Featured Article, Video


To view video and story, click image or this link.

If you recycle (and if you recycle at the Slack Street center in Charleston, W.Va.) here’s a video and story I did for the Sunday Gazette-Mail that portrays the guys behind the scenes who sort all the stuff we spit out from our consumerist lives. And since only a tiny fraction of Americans recycle, you can only imagine the flood of recoverable material that splashes and spills like a rampaging river into the nation’s landfills, waterways and purple mountain majesties.

American needs a Manhattan Project of re-use and recycling. Instead, we get these piece-meal, catch-as-catch can, heroic efforts by cash-strapped quasi-governmental agencies and sincere individuals. Remarkably, the Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority, whose facility is shown in this story and video, actually operates in the black. Thanks be to the markets for mixed office paper and cardboard, a significant chunk of the center’s income. Director Norm Streenstra, an activist turned administrator, and his staff, seem to be pretty creative in patching together recycling solutions and finding new markets, like the new program for the reuse and recycling of computers and appliances just begun last week at the Slack Street center in honor of Earth Day.

Think of what this mighty country might accomplish were we to focus the same attention to reusing and recycling our torrent of waste as we do to the art of making war.  I know — such idle speculation! Bumblers-in-chief like George Bush and Dick Cheney decide to invade a country like Iraq instead. And how much effort and blood and sacrifice and resources does that divert? Tom Englehardt at TomDispatch.com recently posted an article with eye-popping numbers for what it took to invade Iraq. And what that now means since we now must haul all that stuff home we took to Iraq. From his April 6, 2010 post, titled  “Believe It or Not (2010 Imperial Edition):  U.S. War-Fighting Numbers to Knock Your Socks Off”:

In my 1950s childhood, Ripley’s Believe It or Not was part of everyday life, a syndicated comics page feature where you could stumble upon such mind-boggling facts as: “If all the Chinese in the world were to march four abreast past a given point, they would never finish passing though they marched forever and forever.”  Or if you were young and iconoclastic, you could chuckle over Mad magazine’s parody, “Ripup’s Believe It or Don’t!”

With our Afghan and Iraq wars on my mind, I’ve been wondering whether Ripley’s moment hasn’t returned.  Here, for instance, are some figures offered in a Washington Post piece by Lieutenant General James H. Pillsbury, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, who is deeply involved in the “drawdown of the logistics operation in Iraq”:  “There are… more than 341 facilities; 263,000 soldiers, Defense Department civilians and contractor employees; 83,000 containers; 42,000 vehicles; 3 million equipment items; and roughly $54 billion in assets that will ultimately be removed from Iraq.”

Admittedly, that list lacks the “believe it or not” tagline, but otherwise Ripley’s couldn’t have put it more staggeringly.  And here’s Pillsbury’s Ripley-esque kicker: the American drawdown will be the “equivalent, in personnel terms alone, of relocating the entire population of Buffalo, New York.”

The whole post is worth a read, just for a snapshot of the cost of being an imperial empire and a goad to wondering yet again about this country’s deepest priorities. You can only wonder what might be accomplished if instead of relocating the entire population of Buffalo (and much of its infrastructure) to the Middle East — then moving it back again over the ocean — what that same kind of brute force effort, superhuman logistics and billions and billions of dollars might accomplish if directed instead at dialing back the fouling of the land and the poisoning of the nests where we live our lives. It’s the only place where we have to roost, after all.


“It isn’t pretty,” says Norm Steenstra, eyeing bales of mixed office papers and other recyclables piling up in the Slack Street warehouse of the Kanawha County Solid Waste Authority that he heads. | Photo by Douglas Imbrogno

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