Today’s lesson about the reality of fighting pollution starts on the floor of my barn.

For years I have bought compressed bags of sawdust from regional lumber mills as bedding for a few sheep. It is good bedding, uses a byproduct of New England industry, and makes great compost after it is mucked out. Plus, it comes wrapped in brown paper that can also go into the compost pile.

Or, rather, it used to come wrapped in paper. This summer, each of the 20-pound bales started coming in plastic.

From the manufacturers’ point of view, there are good reasons for the change. The sawdust can be kept dry longer in plastic, it’s probably easier to do the wrapping, and I bet the price is cheaper because the petroleum industry is boosting plastic production to make use of all that ethane produced in the shale boom.

But there’s also a cost, and it’s all on me. Suddenly, I’ve got sheets of heavy plastic film on my hands, the kind that cannot be recycled and will float around landfills for decades or maybe wash out to sea. I’m looking for bedding alternatives but in the meantime, all my do-gooder efforts to cut back on plastic have been swamped. It doesn’t matter how many single-use bags I avoid at the supermarket because I’m suddenly responsible for more plastic waste than ever.

This sort of thing happens all the time because companies don’t usually bear any cost for their products’ pollution. They’re happy to leave that cost to you, me and tax-supported systems unless they’re forced to take it on.

Forcing them to take it on is why it requires more than individual actions to solve major environmental problems. It takes changes in laws, regulations, subsidies, ordinances, taxes, building codes and the like, which in turn requires my least favorite activity, political activism.

Surprisingly, this is the message being presented by a regional challenge that seems to take the exact opposite approach.

It’s called the Zero-Waste Challenge, running all this week, and it seems to be a typical eco-guilt trip: “We are challenging you to reduce your trash (and recycling) in your home, your office, and your community.”

This week, participants who signed up are swapping online waste-avoiding tips and getting more ideas from the Conservation Law Foundation, which is running the challenge. There’s no score-keeping or mandates because the foundation knows that the happy mantra saying we can save the planet through our individual actions is often used as a distraction.

“Yeah, it’s a good thing if you’re creating less waste in your home or business, but the most important part of the challenge is understanding that the system is broken,” said Kirstie Pecci, a senior fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation. “We don’t need to make each of ourselves perfect in how we handle our waste – that’s not possible. We need to make a better system.”

“The waste industry, the plastic industry, like pointing finger at the consumer: ‘we’re just making plastic because that’s what people want’ or ‘people don’t recycle well enough and that’s why recycling isn’t working’. But that’s not the real problem,” Pecci added.

The actual goal of the Zero-Waste Challenge is to make people face up to how much waste we generate in 21st-century America and how very difficult it is to avoid generating that waste. This, in turn, could prod us into trying to take control of our economic and social systems so it can be easier to avoid the waste.

“We know from experience that when you’re entangled in a dysfunctional system, it can be hard to see the paths to change from the inside. That’s why we are challenging you to make your life zero waste for just one week – so you can get a view of our current waste system from the outside and find the cracks in it that will help us tear it down,” is how the website puts it.

“What’s important is not just actions in what they choose to buy and do in their home, it’s reaching out in the community and taking political action,” said Pecci. “Without that, we’re not going to succeed.”

In my sawdust-bedding case, for example, I have to wonder why is it cheaper to use plastic than paper. What hidden systems are reducing the cost of the petroleum product compared to the wood-based product? How can we make the pollution cost of the plastic vs. the pollution cost of the paper apparent so costs can be properly assigned? Can the manufacturer be forced to collect the waste from the products they sell, rather than leaving it up to us? Or is the long-term cost of plastic pollution so great that political action – regulation or even bans – are needed?

None of those questions can be answered on an individual basis. The climate is worsening and our ecosystem is filling with petroleum derivatives because of decades of society-wide actions, and it will take decades of society-wide actions to undo them.

So, yes, you and I need to reduce-reuse-recycle, to drive less and turn down the winter thermostat and all that. But we also need to vote, join the local sustainability committee or run for select board, and to support actions that we may not like because they raise our costs or reduce our choices in the store (bottle deposit bill, anybody?).

And we need to call on our elected officials to prod them into making hard choices that they say they support but which they’ll back away from if we don’t let them know that they shouldn’t.

Speaking as a guy who’d rather clean out the sheep barn than get involved in politics, that’s an unhappy conclusion to reach. But I’m afraid it’s a real one.

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