By Sean MacInnes
The 20th century is already clearly visible in Earth’s geologic record. Archaeologists of the distant future won’t simply find cemeteries and buried cities; they’ll also find a massive and disgusting permanent layer of artifacts we call “garbage.”
The world has a consumption problem and by extension a waste management problem. Our waste is an environmental disaster of global proportions caused from a gross negligence by the citizens of this planet. Not only do we create an uncanny amount, but our haphazard treatment of it (litter as opposed to landfill) is rampant in an uncountable number of environments.
One of those places just happens to be about five miles south of downtown Memphis. McKellar Lake is not an unknow problem, a quick Google search brings up articles by The Commercial Appeal, The Memphis Flyer, Memphis Magazine, a 2002 TDEC study concerning the Nonconnah Creek watershed, and this You Tube video with Chad Pregracke (preh-grack-e), founder of Living Lands and Waters, whose annual report from 2011 states they collected 160,000 lbs (72 tons!) from McKellar Lake that year.
McKellar Lake, while a large-scale problem for our local environment, is but a fraction of the global garbage epidemic. Any die-hard eco-activist knows about the giant garbage gyres in each of the five oceans; the most well-known in the states being the “Pacific Garbage Patch” in the North-East Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the west coast. But I’ve brought this up in several conversations lately and have found that most people really don’t know what's happening.
A 2005 study by the United Nations Environmental Programme cited a report in 1997 by the US Academy of Sciences that “estimated the total input of marine litter into the oceans, worldwide, at approximately 6.4 million tonnes per year.” The UN report also states “it has been estimated that over 13,000 pieces of plastic are floating on every square kilometer of ocean surface.” And “a 1998 survey found that 89 percent of the litter observed floating on [the] ocean surface in the North Pacific was plastic.”  That was twenty years ago - do you think the problem has gotten better?
Plastic, unfortunately, does not decay. Instead, it merely breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, at which point it usually enters the food chain when it is consumed by birds and fish who mistake it for food. In turn they are then often consumed by larger predators, which sometimes end up on our plates. The plastic that isn't consumed by wildlife remains as a toxic dust that sinks to the ocean floor where it disrupts that eco-system, which we typically think of as being untouched by humans.
The truth is often a hard pill to swallow. Reading about the state of the environment is depressing. Every day there’s a new report with data showing things are much worse than we thought only yesterday. Or an editorial columnist (wink wink) argues that we’re not doing enough or that whatever it is we are doing isn’t actually the right way to go.
But I have faith. I have faith in the healing power of Mother Nature - not that Mother Nature can take care of herself, but that if we develop a closer relationship with her she has a tendancy to sooth our souls. I care for Mother Nature because she cares for me. She warms me with her light and cools me with her shade. She inspires me with her sunsets, open fields and skies, babbling brooks, and fresh air. She feeds my spirit and my stomach. Unfortunately, for her, Mother Nature gives more than she receives. She sacrifices without asking for anything in return. And I, for one, don’t want to suffer her wrath when her patience and resources run out. It’s time we start giving a little back by taking a little less. We can live more simply and still live comfortably.
If there is one thing I took away from my education in theater and creative writing, which in essence was an immersion in storytelling, it’s that, as Ezra Pound proclaimed, “Only emotion endures.” It’s the highs and lows, the accomplishments and failures, the joys and agonies that really stick with us, which remain in our memory and give us direction and build our character. That sounds just about as corny as it gets, but there’s truth to it.
Think carefully about the story you want to leave for future generations. Then go live your story, through its ups and downs you’ll grow better and better at living it and telling it. If you do that, then I think, I hope, you won’t just find more people listening, but you’ll have inspired them into action.
 There is also a 2011 UNEP report that focuses more specifically on a dozen marine environments.
Sean MacInnes holds a BFA in Theater from The University of Memphis and an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in Boulder, CO. He is currently the Administrative Assistant for the Rosa Deal School of Arts at Christian Brothers University, where he serves as the Chair of CBU’s Sustainability Committee. He is a member of the Memphis MPO’s Active Transportation Advisory Committee, a former writer in residence at The Kerouac Project in Orlando, FL, and previously served as the chair of the Alternate Transportation and Fuels Working Group for the Mid-South Regional Greenprint Consortium.