In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wants to make us aware of the issue of pollution. He is concerned because it is harming our health and causing many premature deaths, particularly among the poor, who are forced to use smoky fuels to cook and heat their homes. Chemical emissions from industry, transportation and agriculture can affect us all. The pope refers to us as a “throw-away society,” and it is hard to dispute this when we look at all the dumps and landfills throughout the world. He describes our home as becoming a “pile of filth.”
Pope Francis points to natural systems as an example to assist us, since they recycle 100 percent of the waste materials they produce. Nothing is wasted or thrown away. We, on the other hand, are producing waste at rates much faster than we have learned to re-assimilate them, so they pile up.
So what is nature’s secret? It basically comes down to only taking what you need, using what you take, and leaving what is left over in a state that can be used again by others. In photosynthesis, plants capture energy from the sun, use water rich in nutrients from the soil, and take carbon dioxide from the air, to produce energy-rich sugars that are used as food for the plant or other substances, like cellulose that gives the plant its structure. Photosynthesis also produces our oxygen as a by-product.
These plants are, in turn, eaten by herbivores, such as rabbits, deer, horses, cattle, elephants, etc., whose digestive systems have the bacteria that allow them to digest the cellulose. This process, the reverse of photosynthesis, is called cellular respiration. The sugar in cellulose, glucose, is combined with the oxygen they breathe and broken down to release the stored energy. Carbon dioxide and water are produced and put back into the system. The herbivores are eaten by the meat eaters, or carnivores, such as foxes, wolves, lions, sharks, killer whales, or omnivores, like bears and humans, who eat plants and animals. Their digestive systems break down the bodies of the herbivores to extract the energy and minerals also by cellular respiration.
When plants and animals not eaten by other organisms die, their remains are eaten by scavengers, such as vultures, insects and worms. Their waste, along with the waste of all other animals, are fed on by bacteria and fungi, called decomposers who also use cellular respiration to extract the energy and release carbon dioxide back into the air, and water and nutrients back into the soil to be picked up again by the plants for new growth. So this amazing recycling system ultimately leaves no unused waste.
We actually can fit pretty well into this system. What if we only took the food we needed and ate all of it? This would eliminate a huge volume of our current waste. If we are eating at a restaurant, we should take home what isn’t finished in a cooler and eat it later. Also our own bodily wastes should be sent to a wastewater treatment plant, or a properly functioning on-site septic system. This is one area where richer societies need to assist the poor.
Our solid wastes, such as used containers, wrappers, metal cans, etc., should always be recycled or placed in proper trash bins. We as consumers should demand that all packaging be made readily reusable and recyclable. If we use products made with 100 percent recycled materials, such as paper, other packaging, and aluminum cans, companies will start to take notice and produce more of these recycled products to stay competitive.
Vegetable food scraps, grass, and leaves can be recycled in compost bins in our yards. Put those worms, insects and decomposers to work for us. They make excellent soil for use as natural fertilizer for our gardens. We won’t have to buy a lot of synthetic fertilizers. You don’t have a garden? Start one. It’s healthier in many ways.
We can also use reusable shopping bags rather than disposable paper or plastic bags. We can use tap water in reusable containers rather than using bottled water whenever possible. Only 20-30 percent of those millions of recyclable bottles ever make their way into recycle bins. Most end up in landfills. If you no longer want something that is still usable, donate it rather than just throwing it out. Companies can design products that are readily recyclable when they are no longer useful.
We should also try to eliminate, or reduce, the need for the use of toxic chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides. When it comes to our yards, we shouldn’t try to eliminate all the bugs out there. They are beneficial and part of the recycling process. If we need to kill some pests, there are natural products that can do the job, and are safer for use around children and animals. The same is true for weed killers. There are also some ice-melting products that are better for the environment than others. We should also look for more environmentally-friendly cleaning products. These non-toxic materials can be recycled by nature.
If we remember that our goal is to create a recycling society, not a throw-away society, we will all benefit. Next month’s topic will be climate change, an issue of prime concern to Pope Francis.
Anchor columnist Professor Rak is a Fall River native and a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Fall River. He has been a professor of Environmental Technology and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Technology Program at Bristol Community College in Fall River for 18 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Holy Cross College in Worcester, and a master’s degree in marine biology from UMass Dartmouth. firstname.lastname@example.org