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Styrofoam and Road Kill

There were a few things I wasn’t prepared for on last week’s 10-day Erie Canal ride.

My riding companion Kent and I prepared for months; we’d shipped our bikes ahead and carefully packed only the essentials. We were ready for whatever this journey would throw at us — except the ubiquitous Styrofoam and road kill.

“Do you get other aging hippies who complain about the Styrofoam?” At first I wasn’t sure she understood what I was saying; later I would attribute her delay in responding with the time it took her to come up with a little white lie.

Styrofoam was widely in use across upstate New York

As I’m departing on my epic Erie Canal bike ride adventure, I’m checking my email, of course. These electronic links to civilization would be strained over the course of the next 400+ miles, but not yet as I spent much of the day flying to Buffalo, NY.

There was an email from a favorite author announcing his new Amazon single, Lying. I’d never heard of a single and at only $1.99 I was intrigued, but somehow I couldn’t download this 9,000 word mini book at that time. I think whatever difficultly I was having only made me more persistent; the next day I had it on my smartphone and since the ride didn’t start till 3pm, I had all day for idle reading.

Of course what I thought I’d be doing is chuckling through a print version of the hilarious film The Invention of Lying starring Ricky Gervais. Instead, what I’m reading is an almost creepy, skin-crawling, too close for comfort examination of why we lie and how damaging even little white lies can be. This wasn’t a beach read, no matter how skinny or inexpensive it was, but it had its intended affect; I became much more aware of little white lies over the next few days.

You’ve got to be careful what you feed your head as you begin such a bike tour — you’re going to have a lot of time in your head, so to speak, as you pedal and pedal… I calculated over 25,000 times a day. This much time to focus on lying, and here’s it’s only the first evening, was beginning to really creep me out. Thankfully, we had a miserable head wind, blowing 30 mph right in our faces; that gave me something else to fret about.

Niagara Falls

When we finally get to Niagara Falls and settle in, we’re a little concerned about finding food. We’re exhausted and needing a good night’s rest before the serious riding starts. Yelp shows one highly rated restaurant close by — Indian food. We both like the proximity and the reviews. We sit down in this converted home turned restaurant, expecting the best. The food is fine, but plate, cup and dessert bowl are all Styrofoam. I speak up as we are served then again as I check out at the register.

“You see we don’t have room for dish washing; that’s why we use Styrofoam.” She doesn’t mention the cost; that it’s cheaper to throw it in the trash than to hire a dish washer. The true cost is then borne by the community. And she just told me a little white lie. It cost her a tip.

To be sure I know what I’m talking about and since I’m in a snarky mood, I Google “styrofoam sucks” and I’m surprised how many articles are named just that way. Dow Chemical owns styrofoamsucks.com; they use it to direct the user to a building insulation product. Apparently Styrofoam will keep you all snugly — something about sustainability, of course — but most of this product goes straight to the landfill where it lasts forever. Much of it gets broken up into tiny bits where it can find its way into the ocean, which is bad for sea creatures. Upstate NY has a notoriously weak economy; I assumed somewhere nearby there was a plant producing these cheap products and a bunch of stretched-thin restauranteurs unwilling to consider a sustainable alternative.

This first night’s exposure to polystyrene reminded me of a time in high school when I worked for Sweetheart Plastics in Wilmington, MA. Conveniently, I remember little of this time, but today I know that everything this factory produced went straight to the landfill, with only a brief stop at the consumer’s table first.

My motivations for taking this long bike ride are many; one would be the attractiveness of the bicycle’s sustainability. Bikes are good for the environment and for the health of the rider. “Everything’s better on a bicycle,” my guest Tim Blumenthal of Bikes Belong practically gushes. Better for the animals who live nearby, too.

Photo credit: listverse.com

I found it hard to look at all the dead animals I’d see each day. Plastic tableware doesn’t have the same effect on me. My eyes would look the other way; I’d accelerate by, but not like in a car where you’d barely even notice. The woodchucks, raccoons, squirrels, cats, porcupine and deer weren’t so lucky — the automobile was taking quite a toll on the local fauna. It would break my heart.

To rationalize I thought, there’s little to be done to reduce this roadside slaughter, but then I caught myself in a lie.

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