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Trash Talk?

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The other day, while going through boxes and boxes of pre-computer era files, I came across a cache of essays, sermons and stories written back in the 1970s and 80s. One particular piece -- a Rosh Hashanah sermon I delivered nearly 25 years ago -- brought back a lot of memories. Entitled "C.A.N.D.O.," the sermon dealt in general terms with what is called tikkun olam -- the Jewish imperative to "repair the world" -- and specifically, with a campaign to replace non-recyclable Styrofoam coffee cups with ceramic mugs.

In rereading the sermon, my mind wandered back to research and legwork that went into it. About a month before the High Holidays that year, it came to my attention that our 1500-member congregation used upwards of 50,000 non-recyclable Styrofoam cups per year.

After finding this out, I did a little math, and was shocked to discover that if you stacked 50,000 cups one inside the other, the resulting tube would be slightly more than 2 1/2 miles long. And we were but one organization in a small town! I couldn't begin to imagine how many millions of non-biodegradable cups were being put into our local landfill -- colorfully called "Mt. Trashmore" -- to sit and fester for the next 10,000 years. And what about the hundreds of thousands of other towns, cities, organizations, businesses and households across the country that were similarly using and then quickly burying Styrofoam cups in landfills from Bangor to Burbank? My mind reeled at the thought.

And so, flashing on an idea, I started making calls and quickly fleshed out a campaign to be called C.A.N.D.O -- "Citizens Against Non-biodegradable Disposable Objects." The idea behind it was three-fold:

  1. To raise consciousness about how much mindless damage we were doing to the environment;
  2. To empower people to do something simple -- yet hopefully effective -- about it;
  3. To raise enough money to start a pilot project whereby C.A.N.D.O. would offer to replace a group's or business's Styrofoam cups with ceramic mugs free-of-charge.

Within a few days, I had raised enough money to purchase about a thousand ceramic mugs, spoke to students at several elementary- and middle-schools and got our mayor to agree to replace all city hall Styrofoam cups with our mugs. He agreed that using washable mugs was not only environmentally responsible; in the long-run it would be more cost-effective than purchasing all those non-biodegradable cups.

Out of these early efforts came a sermon -- then disaster. A handful of the congregation's most visible elders pronounced themselves "aghast" that I, a young rabbi, would "speak about trash on the holiest day of the year." (In truth, I was not sermonizing on 'trash,' and Rosh Hashanah is not the holiest day of the year. As noted above, I was really speaking on the imperative to repair and heal the world.) And so, I was muzzled. As an employee, I had two choices: to defy the elders and risk losing my job, or to obey. I was young. I was cowed. C.A.N.D.O. was packed away for another day . . .

Fast forward a quarter century. We have a far, far bigger problem -- one that barely existed in 1987: bottled water. It is a far, far bigger problem for two reasons: first, the water is an unbelievable rip-off; second, the bottles are a lethal menace to both environment and economy.

First, a few facts:

  • Last year, Americans spent more than $15 billion on some 50 billion bottles of water, which works out to 167 single-use bottles for every person in the country.
  • One billion dollars worth of plastic water bottles goes into landfills and litter each year.
  • 30 billion plastic water bottles are thrown away every year. Plastic can take up to a thousand years to disintegrate and make up a big deposit of plastic toxic waste in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Making bottles of water out of plastic takes more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, every year. That much oil could fuel 100,000 American cars for a year.
  • 66 million water bottles will go into the garbage or litter today.
  • Aquafina (Pepsi) and Dasani (Coke) sell 24% of all US bottled water. Yet, both are merely treated municipal tap water, resold to the public at a premium mark-up.
  • San Francisco's tap water comes from Yosemite National Park and is so pure the EPA does not require it to be filtered. A bottled of Evian water at $1.35 could be refilled with San Francisco tap water once a day for over ten years before the cost would total $1.35.
  • If tap water cost the same as the cheapest bottled, monthly water bills would come to $9,000.
  • At nearly $4.00 a gallon, gasoline costs 3.1 cents an ounce; at an average of 10 cents an ounce, bottled water goes for nearly $13.00 a gallon.

So what is to be done? Is there a new C.A.N.D.O. project on the horizon? You had better believe it. There are a number of rather simple cost-effective, environmentally responsible things we all can do:

  • Sign the pledge to "Take Back the Tap."
  • Buy a stainless steel or glass thermos and use it.
  • If you don't like the taste -- or worry about the quality -- of your local tap water, purchase an inexpensive carbon filter; it will greatly improve the taste at a fraction of the cost.
  • Encourage your school, place of employment, house of worship, gym -- wherever people gather -- install simple "hydration stations" -- drinking fountains with an extra spigot to make filling a reusable bottle quicker and easier.
  • Purchase a water bottle with its own reusable filtration system -- about $10.00.
  • Familiarize yourself with the facts.

One of the frustrating -- indeed dangerous -- aspects of modern life is how easily immediacy and acquiescence can trump both individual responsibility and collective conscience. Frequently, it seems that all society demands of us is that we be consumers, rather than creators; that we entrust power to the titans, whether or not they have our best interests in mind. We have not been placed on this earth to be its egocentric, despoiling masters but rather its sensitive nurturing stewards. Together -- as a community and as individuals -- there is much we C.A.N.D.O. to re-empower ourselves. Starting with something as wholly basic as the water we drink is a good first step.

And that, is not trash talk . . .

-2012 Kurt F. Stone



Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)

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