3 things you can do now to help keep Alabama the Beautiful

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Roald Hazelhoff, director of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College. Photo courtesy of Southern Environmental Center

In our first two installments “Protecting Alabama the Beautiful by cleaning up our mess” and “Turning dumps into natural wonders” we examined Alabama’s legacy of pollution problems and remarkable comeback stories, including Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and Red Mountain Park. In this, our third and final installment, we provide 3 ways you can help make, and keep, Alabama the Beautiful.

1. Reduce amount of garbage you create in the first place

Roald Hazelhoff, longtime director of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College, believes the best way to clean up the state of Alabama, and prevent illegal dumps, trashy roadsides and streambanks, is by educating people from all walks of life, young and old. His central message? Reduce the amount of garbage we produce in the first place.

“Our approach has always been to seek a reduction in the amount of trash that we generate,” said Hazelhoff. “Recycling is the last of the Rs. Reduce and Reuse are more important and have a larger impact. We really need to focus on reducing our waste.”

Helpful hint: Saying no at the point of sale

Students at the Southern Environmental Center

Reducing waste is a focus at Hazelhoff’s Interactive Museum, inside the Southern Environmental Center, on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College. Constructed in the early 90s, the center welcomes over 20,000 children and families annually. Famous for its toilet slide and wall of waste, the museum re-connects and reminds people that waste just doesn’t disappear, it has to go somewhere. And the best way to deal with it, is to not make it.

“When you go to your favorite fast food place, do you really need 5 napkins put in the bag when you order your chicken fingers?” chuckled Hazelhoff.

“We need to start saying ‘I don’t need that.’ We need to make changes at the point of sale,” he added. One example Hazelhoff provided, “When you go to a Walgreens or CVS and you buy one item and they want to put it in a bag. What are you going to do with that bag? More often than not that bag ends up not even making it out of the parking lot.”

Want to help make Alabama the Beautiful? Hazelhoff encourages folks to decline “one off” items from bags to plastic straws.

Not just garbage, a waste of human resources

Julie Price, UAB Sustainability Coordinator. Photo from the UAB Sustainability Facebook page

On the campus of UAB, it has become a rallying cry.

According to Julie Price, UAB’s Sustainability Coordinator, the people that manage the grounds and properties at the university estimate that they spend one third of their time picking up litter.

Think about that: 33 percent of their staff time picking up trash.

“Many of them (groundskeepers) have college horticulture degrees. It’s just not the best use of their time. They could be doing their real job, making the campus prettier and being better stewards of the land, instead of picking up litter on campus, wasting money and labor,” stated Price.

The journey of the plastic fork

In her efforts to describe the wastefulness of today’s throwaway society, Price tells the story of the disposable plastic fork to her UAB Sustainability classes.

“Think about the story of the disposable fork. You go to that takeout joint and you use it for let’s say 15 minutes. Imagine the adventure that fork took. First, the fossil fuels were extracted out of the earth. Then, that material was transported to another location, where it was refined. From there, that product was transported to yet another location, where it was made into a fork. It was then transported into another location for packaging and then sold to a couple of distributors and then made it to us on campus. You got that fork and used it for 15 minutes.”

“It is not something we can continue to do for generations,“ Price concluded.

Tips to reduce waste

So what is the answer? How do you reduce waste?

“Start to think about all of those things in your life that are disposable. What can you replace?” asks Price.

“There are cutlery kits you can keep at your desk. Begin using reusable tote bags and water bottles, coffee mugs, a lot of things will have a high impact if you substitute something that is reusable.”

2. “Dig in.” Get your hands dirty at a local litter cleanup

Photo of Renew Our Rivers volunteers, from the Renew Our Rivers Facebook page

“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” ~ Gary Snyder, poet and conservationist

In Alabama, if we ever met Mother Earth, she would most likely forgo any pleasantries and tell us sternly, to go clean up our room.

Want to become a crusader against the trashing of our planet? Participate in a local cleanup.

Since 2000, one such program, Renew Our Rivers, has enlisted over 110,000 volunteers and removed a mind-boggling 15 million pounds of trash, primarily in Alabama.

Volunteer at a local cleanup

Photo from Alabama Coastal Cleanup 2018 Facebook page

There are no shortage of volunteer clean-ups in the state. Renew Our Rivers (their new schedule will be released in a few weeks) holds up to 30 clean-ups throughout Alabama. People Against a Littered State (PALS), the organizer of the state’s adopt-a-mile program, is also the “go-to” place for clean-up information, especially the annual Alabama Coastal Cleanup. In Birmingham, Keep Birmingham Beautiful and the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) are two waste and recycling “clearinghouse” organizations. The AEC, the state’s oldest recycling advocacy and education organization, needs volunteer support at their recycling center in Avondale.

3. Become a Watchdog

Black warrior Riverkeeper staff and Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School intern (center) investigate the Oak Grove Mine

If you see something, say something. Don’t just look ‘the other way’ at pollution problems.

If you spot an illegal garbage dump, report it to the Jefferson County Commission at 205-325-5638 (option 6), or email Contact_Zoning@jccal.org. Beyond cleaning up the dump, they will even prosecute people.

If you see dumping our our local waterways,  contact Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Cahaba River Society, or Coosa Riverkeeper, depending on the watershed the pollution is occurring.

UAB’s Julie Price, who also serves on the Homewood Environmental Commission, recommends getting involved with your local neighborhood association or “friends” groups, dedicated to a place you care about, like Friends of Turkey Creek, Ruffner Mountain or Village Creek.

Take personal responsibility

Tire cleanup at Red Mountain Park. The park removed more than 4000 tons of garbage from illegal dumps in 2017. Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Park

This photo of volunteers cleaning up Red Mountain Park symbolizes what it will take to clean up Alabama. It will take all of us.

Alabamians have successfully turned dumps into natural wonders, passed laws that have removed up to 20 million scrap tires and cleaned up countless illegal garbage dumps over the past decade. We have confronted some of our past destructive pollution problems.

Now is the time to take personal responsibility, reduce our own waste, help bring back special places in Alabama and in our neighborhoods.

Dig in and get involved.

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.