Earth Day 2016

Earth Day makes me sad.

I say that only because this year marks the 46th celebration of what many call the birth of the modern environmental movement, and I am older than Earth Day. That brings to mind unfortunate jokes about being older than dirt at a time when I’m not sure whether to celebrate my age or lament it.

Of course Earth Day is ultimately an optimistic celebration, and so, in that spirit, I think that being older than Earth Day means that I can remember some of the first positive impacts of the movement that led to its creation. Like many Tennesseans of a certain age, my awareness of littering was forever framed by a Tennessee Department of Transportation public service announcement featuring a catchy tune and an unshaven man driving a beat-up convertible. The car was filled with trash that the driver gleefully discarded like so much confetti as he drove along and befouled the otherwise picturesque landscape of Tennessee.

The commercial was set to a memorable tune called Tennessee Trash, which was sung by Ed Bruce (the same fellow who wrote, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and he also played the part of the unwashed litter bug); it first appeared in 1976, six years after the first Earth Day. I can still sing a few stanzas of the song: “A little bit of litter goes a long, long way” and “Lord, there ain’t no lower class than Tennessee Trash.”

I can’t say for certain that the celebration of Earth Day specifically motivated the commercial, as it did another famous PSA from Keep America Beautiful; commonly known as the “crying Indian” ad, it featured actor Iron Eyes Cody standing alongside a highway with a single tear in his eye – the result of a bag of litter tossed at his feet by a passing motorist and a symbol of the gross and public disrespect for the nation’s natural beauty. This ad first ran in 1971 to coincide with the second Earth Day and remains a haunting, iconic memory for those of us who saw it.

(You can see both of these public service announcements on YouTube, and they’re worth a look.)

Fortunately the conversation didn’t die with time, and now we’re a little more likely to think about recycling that litter instead of just picking it up for a landfill deposit. At Tomato Head, we began recycling very early in life, back in the days when Mahasti’s old Datsun B-210 was the recycling vehicle and separation of paper and plastic was the rule. Those memories make us particularly happy about today’s single stream pick-ups. Still, whether it was easy or not, we’ve always tried to eliminate waste – we figure that over the last 25 years we’ve recycled over a million pounds of cardboard, metal, glass, plastic and paper.

Today, like many forward thinking businesses in our town, we consider our business in terms of sustainability. In addition to recycling, we compost almost every scrap of food that qualifies. And when we remodeled our Market Square location we included lots of LED lighting, water free urinals, and more elements that make the building less taxing on the world. In fact, while that remodel increased our space by 50%, it only added about 10% to our utility consumption. We’re proud of our efforts, of course. But more than that we believe in a holistic approach to sustainable business, which is why we support organic agriculture, food grown close to home, and other companies that share our goals of helping create a clean environment.

The “Tennessee Trash” commercial ended with the ominous words, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” While that might be true, we prefer to think of it in a different way, one that reflects the hope and optimism of Earth Day: we have seen the solution, and it is us.