Take out the trash, but watch out for the waste

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The beach here is beautiful: miles of sand along a thin peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Intracoastal Waterway. But tourism - the staple of this jumble of communities stretching south from New York along the New Jersey shore - has been miserable.

The culprit: medical wastes, washed up from as-yet-undetermined sources. Never mind that used syringes and other such paraphernalia have caused only one Ocean County beach to close this summer - and for only one day. As tales of grisly flotsam on other beaches have spread, vacancy rates here have soared.

What is the ocean trying to tell us? The quick and obvious answer: We need to dispose of hospital waste more carefully. In fact, however, that's only a tiny part of the floating litter problem. Incinerate every ounce of medical waste, and shorelines from Penobscot Bay to Puget Sound would still cry foul.

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Why? Because the nation now stands at the convergence of three significant facts:

Population. For all its vast interior, America is essentially a coastal society: About 70 percent of the population lives within 50 miles of the seacoast. Sooner or later, much of what that population discharges ends up in the oceans, long thought of as the ultimate out-of-sight, out-of-mind repository.

Affluence. American wealth makes it easier to dispose of unwanted things than to repair or recycle them. Japan reportedly recycles about 50 percent of its household waste. European cities and towns still sport numerous repair shops. But Americans who would happily see their leaves composted or their broken tape recorders fixed can rarely find ways to do either: It's cheaper simply to dump or replace them.

Packaging. Unlike many other countries, where grocery shoppers still bring their own string bags to market, Americans have refined packaging into a million-dollar art. From the clear plastic box around a new watchband to the heavy-duty carton around a refrigerator, nearly everything is packaged. Not surprisingly, half the yearly volume of trash from the average US household is packaging materials.

Taken singly, none of these three facts necessarily produces seacoast pollution. A dense but thrifty coastal population, even if committed to packaging, would find plenty of good uses for its trash. A wasteful but thinly dispersed inland population could bury a lot of junk without harming itself. Even an affluent, concentrated population could surely find happiness in the absence of packaging.

Put these facts together, however, and it may be only a matter of time until most beaches, during most summers, are turned into sunlit junkyards. Sad as that may be, it will at least draw attention to the problem - and to possible solutions.

What's to be done? Some things may always need ocean disposal - sewage, for instance, which no society can avoid producing. But we can avoid producing some of the other things we dump into the ocean. Individuals can help in at least three ways: stop buying such things (example: excessive packaging materials); start insisting on reusing them (example: glass milk bottles, which the British still prefer); or continue to separate them out for recycling (examples: aluminum cans, newspapers, and leaves).

To bolster these individual actions, however, governments will need to take part. Some states' agencies, like those in Maryland, already buy recycled products whenever possible. Other states, like New York, are looking at ways to tax any container that is neither recyclable nor made from already-recycled products. And some municipalities are increasingly seeing the economic benefits of recycling over dumping. On the federal level, some of the antiquated subsidies designed to spur a young nation's economic development need rethinking - like depletion allowances that make it more profitable to mine new minerals than to reuse old ones.

In the end, however, it's that old buy-use-and-toss mentality that must be changed. That's slowly happening. Last year it was that barge from Islip, N.Y. - the garbage without a country - that seized our imagination. This year it's been sutures in the surf. Let's hope that before next year's trash trauma - whatever it may be - we'll be well on our way toward that change.

A Monday column

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