Ochenski: Postcard from the edge

An American in Canada: compare and contrast



Week two on the road in the old VW camper, cruising west across British Columbia’s fantastic array of vast landscapes. But now, we’ve literally run out of land and find ourselves camped near the pounding Pacific surf on the very edge of Vancouver Island. Not surprisingly, news and thoughts of the U.S. seem very far away. Meanwhile the struggles of Montana’s politicians simply do not command the attention of our neighbors to the north, who wrestle with their own set of problems, which are not dissimilar to our own. What’s interesting, however, is how they are dealing with them.

Take recycling, for instance. Montana’s recycling programs are, at best, feeble. Some communities have aggressive programs, while others make virtually no effort whatsoever. We have been told that the distances over which the materials have to be shipped make recycling a marginal deal at best. But here in B.C., every supermarket has a full set of recycling bins for virtually everything they sell: steel and aluminum cans, plastic bottles and glass. What goes out full comes back empty, not just tossed into the trash to end up in bulging landfills.

The same goes for Canada’s provincial parks, which are the equivalent of our state parks. Every park has both trash and recycling bins. Plus, there are roadside trash bins liberally scattered along the highways, with special pullouts to help people dispose of their waste correctly instead of tossing it in the bushes. In Montana, few of our parks have garbage cans and none have recycling bins. Roadside garbage cans are likewise virtually non-existent—hell, it’s tough to even find a rest area that’s open in Montana these days.

So what’s the deal? British Columbia, and especially the interior, are at least as far from anywhere as Montana. The towns are equally tiny, the population equally scattered across vast geographical distances, the “transportation radius” used as an excuse to blow off recycling in Montana at least as great up here. Moreover, the Trans-Canada highway isn’t even a four-lane freeway like I-90; for much of its length, it’s two-lane blacktop with a maximum speed of 55 mph. Yet somehow the idea of recycling natural resources, rather than wasting them, is a priority here.

Take beer bottles, for instance. While B.C. has yet to adopt the great idea of using refillable growlers, all their breweries, micro and giant corporate alike, get their bottles from the provincial bottle pool. While we are told the lack of demand for recycled materials makes our recycling efforts uneconomical, the Canadians have found a way to make it work. The recycled bottles are collected and sent to washing facilities that sanitize, wrap and ship them back out to the breweries for reuse. Rather than requiring every brewery to maintain a bottle-cleaning facility, even the tiniest venture can purchase pallets of clean bottles ready for a quick rinse and a refill. Plus, the bottles from the pool are all the same size, making filling, relabeling, and capping far easier and cheaper.

Some would say such a practice would go against the grain of “American individualism,” where everybody is “free” to make or buy their own bottles in any size or shape they choose. But of course that, like the malarkey about our “transportation radius,” is simply an excuse manufactured by the mega-corporate entities that find it more profitable to produce, market and toss their containers rather than recycle them. And as we all know, the U.S. has no vision, no long-term plan, no concern for the generations to follow. In every facet of our lives, from our inexcusable consumption to our equally inexcusable pollution, we are the quintessential burn-it-up-and-throw-it-away society.

This is not to say the Canadians don’t have serious problems. Anyone who has driven through the scalped hills, where loggers or miners have scraped the earth to the bone, can see the grim proof that major damage has been and continues to be done here. Or ask any Canadian conservationist about the battles to save their inland rainforests from the chainsaw, or the damage coastal fish farming is wreaking on native salmon, and it will quickly become evident that much work remains.

Likewise, the same impacts from global warming that are ravaging the U.S. are wreaking havoc here. No one can remember a summer so dry, no one can recall forest fires so severe, no one has ever seen the rivers so low. As temperatures rise, insect infestations spread, killing trees and preparing the kindling for the next fire cycle.

Try as they may, the impact of Canadian efforts to reduce their contribution to global pollution through recycling and reuse is dwarfed by the runaway pollution profile of the U.S. They’re doing many things right, but they cannot escape the fallout to which the U.S. is the world’s prime contributor.

It makes one wonder when the U.S. is going to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge what we’re doing. Obviously, with Bush and Cheney in charge, that is simply not going to happen. Even now, rather than move our policies forward to reduce our unwarranted impact on the rest of the earth, the Bushies are exempting dirty power plants from pollution controls, editing unfavorable scientific reports and trashing our most pristine areas to drill and mine ever more fossil fuels for our endless and ceaseless consumption and pollution cycle.

It’s embarrassing that our vast, immensely rich country isn’t focused on our responsibilities to the rest of the globe. Instead, we fill the skies with warplanes, the oceans with warships, and trash our own country and the rest of the planet to keep them running. Our president, who is seen as a dangerous and violent village idiot by the rest of the world, continues to mislead Americans about freedom and security. But the truth is, we will never have either again until we significantly change our priorities.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.


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