“I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.”

- Jeremiah 2:7

I was so eager to show off DeKalb County to my friend Amanda, who was visiting us from New York. She’d seen my photos of DeSoto Falls and Little River Canyon, so her expectations were high.

I was quite surprised, then, when I asked her, “What’d ya think?” and her answer was, “Honestly, it’s pretty, but I was kind of shocked by how much trash you guys have on the side of your roads.”

Ouch! That felt like a punch to the gut! But she was absolutely right. We can and must do better.

When you’ve been in a place long enough, things become so familiar that you no longer notice them. Seeing our county through fresh eyes makes me feel ashamed because it is a smudge on such a beautiful place.

Sources tell me DeKalb County lost at least one prospective new industry because the owners considering a move here had the same reaction and presumed that the amount of garbage just laying on the ground piling up was indicative of a low-quality workforce that would be lazy and take no pride in itself. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but first impressions are lasting ones.

We’ll have organized spring cleanings soon. Good people will comb the roadsides with trash bags in hand, picking up the discarded waste of the not-so-good people. But we all know that unless we crack down on polluters, they have no incentive to stop. Tossing something out of a car window is one of the laziest and most inconsiderate acts; it is essentially thinking, “I could wait until I get home and clean all of the fast food bags and candy wrappers out of my car, but I think I’ll just throw it out of my window and let someone else deal with it.”

I don’t know which is bigger garbage, the waste itself or the waste of oxygen that created it. Harsh? Yes, but why should I respect anyone who shows so little regard for the rest of us? I’m all for having prisoners on the side of the road picking up garbage. Something tells me they may have contributed to the problem and being part of the solution builds character and community pride.

Leaving garbage in the back of your pick-up truck that blows out is no excuse. Clean up after yourself!

I’m not just giving lip-service. I have skin in this game.

I volunteered in the 1990s as chairman of the Adopt-a-Mile program as a Jaycee, so I can tell you it’s very eye-opening to get up early on a Saturday morning and spend it removing used condoms and syringes from ditches. Garbage encourages rodents and disease.

We need to shame those who litter. We need to fine polluters sufficiently enough to make it hurt so they think twice before doing it again. We need to keep them looking over their shoulders. We need to make it so shameful to dump something on the side of the road that it’s just not worth the humiliation of getting called out by a neighbor.

We need to be mindful of our consumption and habits. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine that future dystopia from the movie “Wall-E” with the towers of garbage and soil so toxic that it can no longer sustain anything living. It’s not science fiction to acknowledge that our simple actions today will impact the lives of those who follow.

Fort Payne is fortunate to have a Recycling Center that’s open 24 hours a day at 406 Logan Street SE. They accept clean washed aluminum cans; mixed metal including clean washed food cans; used motor oil; used automobile batteries; styrofoam peanuts; plastic bottles such as milk jugs, shampoo bottles, soda and water bottles; shrink wrap plastic including grocery store and Walmart plastic bags; white office paper and computer paper; cardboard boxes broken down flat; and other mixed paper products.

Just think of all of the stuff we can keep off our roadsides and out of our city’s landfill! The city dump can only take so much of our garbage before we have to start burying it elsewhere (and Lord knows how expensive that will get when we have no choice and no control over it!).

I encourage you to take on the challenge of reducing your personal waste. Abandon single-use plastics for refillable mugs. Unless there’s some kind of contamination crisis, plastic water bottles are an easy target for reducing waste. Bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. It’s common sense (not politics) to say no to straws, which just aren’t necessary. Choose cardboard (which biodegrades more easily) over plastic bottles and bags.

I did some research in my last job as a blogger for a recycling solutions company. Our way of life, this runaway consumption, is unsustainable. China has begun imposing higher standards to increase the value of recyclables they sort out from our exported waste, so it is absolutely critical for us to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. Unless we want to be up to our necks in it.

Wake up, DeKalb County. To let our home fall to such squalor is beneath us, and we should honor this beautiful place where God blessed us to live.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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