May 28, 2021

Peeking at a sustainable future

Let's talk about trash.

I propose 2021 is the year we approach challenges head on instead of constantly trying to catch up while chasing down problems. In particular, I want to talk about litter. Personally, 2020 was a good year for me. I captured over 10,000 wildlife images, earned a substantial promotion at work, and succeeded in the major accomplishment of experiencing every inch of the 97 mile Wild and Scenic Red River, the Life Blood of this community. I didn’t paddle the river just to say I did it. I moved with the flow of the current in awe of my surroundings at all times in my lifelong attempt to "be one with nature". Can you guess what was the most common form of evidence depicting human’s presence I saw along my journey? That’s right, tires in the Wild and Scenic Red River were my constant reminder of human’s disregard for our environment.

I think the reason tires are the most abundant type of trash in the river is simple: it costs money to properly dispose of tires. (That and they roll downhill easily.) If you go to a professional garage to get new tires installed on your vehicle they will charge you around five dollars per tire to take your old rubber. If you are able to change your tires yourself it will cost between three to five dollars per tire to dispose of them at the local landfill.

The average annual population increase is 1.1%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when the 2020 census declared the current population is 7.8 Billion people, 1.1% equates to 83 Million more people each year! (We’re going to need a lot more tires!) The current population in Kentucky alone is over 4.3 Million people, of which over 700,000 are below the poverty line, ranking Kentucky number 2 for the highest overall poverty rate in the country. That’s a lot of impoverished people who cannot afford to pay a $12 - $20 disposal fee for their old tires, especially when there is a convenient hill in their back yard that disappears into the abyss.

For those of you unaware of the geography in the Cumberland Plateau, much like most of Appalachia, there are big hills everywhere! In the Cumberland Plateau region, the hilltops, actually the plateau, is an average of 1,200 feet above sea level, and the creeks and river bottoms are around 600 feet above sea level.

My own back yard has such a rise of around 500 feet of elevation with a network of water drainages perforating the earth while looking for the path of least resistance. My home is virtually surrounded by a moat. From the steep drainage adjacent to my back door, there is a handmade ditch framing the hillside to divert water down grade, away from the foundation of my domicile, making a curve into my side yard where it meets the creek that bisects my front yard. From here, the creek flows for just over a mile before it dumps into the Wild and Scenic Red River.

From where I live, the Red River stretches another 50 miles before it meets the great Kentucky River, which in turn pours into the Ohio River and onto the raging Mississippi River, and that is all within Kentucky! With a discharge rate of 590,000 cubic feet per second into the gulf of Mexico, a lot of water is moving from the big hill behind my home into the ocean.

But what does that have to do with tires? Every year a committed crew of passionate nature lovers gather multiple times throughout the season to clean the river of all its trash. Can you guess what is the most common type of refuse they remove? You guessed it! It is hundreds of tires, to be modest.

How many of those tires never got lodged in the river and made it into the ocean? I don’t know but I do know that with the annual floods we experience, for the hundreds if not thousands of tires the dedicated workers have removed, there’s a constant increase in more tires rolling down hills along drainages into creeks then the rivers and so on.

With erosion being the catalyst for the particular geography surrounding this steep hill country, the hillsides are a mobile tomb for tires abandoned ever since tires were first invented. I fear that if no tires were ever again disregarded in such a way, it would take a century’s worth of landslides and deluges to unearth, discover and eventually volunteers to remove this rubber and eyesore we’ve accepted as an integral cohesion of people and nature.

So am I just ranting, or am I actually going to do something about it? I am working on that. As stated in the beginning of this essay, I want to approach this problem from the headwaters instead of constantly mucking through the swamp in the wake of its destruction. Your input is certainly appreciated. To me, the issue is the pesky twenty dollar disposal fee no one wants to pay. We need to implement an incentive program. Sadly, rural Kentucky is not known for our momentum in infrastructure development. “Things move a lot slower around here” is one of the local mottos.

Are you familiar with Earthship homes? If not you should look them up. Earthship homes are domestic structures built from recycled materials such as old tires. While I am no authority on them, they seem like a great idea. It would be incentive for people in need of a home to contribute towards the removal of abandoned tires as well as a possible elimination of the disposal fee that would void the standard practice of abandoning old tires in the woods and rediscovering them in the waters that are home to my friends, the otters, beavers, fishes, eagles, herons, kingfishers and so many more.

I don’t know if Earthship homes will be the solution. I truly believe eliminating the disposal fee is the key, or at least the catalyst to change. In order to do so we must implement some sort of affiliation with a recycling program. What do you think? Please reach out to me for support, as I cannot do this alone. Thank you so much for taking this time to read this wordy commentary. I imagine great things coming if we all roll up our sleeves and work together. To quote my lifelong anthropomorphic spirit animal, my muse, my Seussian mentor, The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing will get better, it’s not.”