Deja vu, again

Published: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 10:36 p.m.

Did you ever have one of those deja vu moments?

When you saw something that suddenly whisked you back in time?

I had one of those moments last Sunday.

It was a cold gray morning, and I was cycling to Micanopy.

For some reason, I stopped at the Paynes Prairie scenic overlook on U.S. 441.

Probably just because there's never a bad time to look at the prairie.

Even when the sky is leaden gray and the prairie is wrapped in drab winter brown.

Anyway, I walked out to the end of the observation dock to take in the sweeping vista.

And then I made the mistake of looking down.

At all the beer cans and plastic bottles and giant economy-size fast-food cola cups and plastic wrappings scattered among the aquatic plants and in the water.

And I thought: Whoa, deja vu all over again.

It took me back maybe a quarter of a century, to the mid-1980s.

At the time, environmental groups were trying to get a "bottle bill" passed in the Florida Legislature.

You know, a law requiring deposits on glass and plastic beverage containers.

The theory being that the best way to make roadside litter disappear is to provide a little economic motivation to pick it up. Or to refrain from tossing it out the window to begin with.

Every year, the bill was introduced. And every year, lobbyists from the grocery store, liquor and beverage industries fiercely resisted the communistic notion that their businesses should somehow be held responsible for the containers they sold once they were out the door.

And every year our state senator at the time, the late George Kirkpatrick, played a key role in killing the bottle bill.

Anyway, standing on the boardwalk last Sunday and looking at all the litter, I recalled a pre-session editorial I wrote many years ago.

It advised Sen. Kirkpatrick to take a stroll on that very same Paynes Prairie overlook before returning to Tallahassee.

If he did so, the editorial assured, he would certainly be disgusted by all the glass and plastic garbage so carelessly tossed into our beautiful prairie.

Perhaps the sight of our best slice of nature so casually trashed might even cause Kirkpatrick to reconsider his opposition to a bottle bill.

Of course, George went back to Tallahassee and killed the bottle bill again.

Funny thing, though. The next time his re-election rolled around, Kirkpatrick decided that green was a good color to be wearing that particular campaign year.

So George the environmentalist taped a TV spot that depicted him striding out onto the scenic overlook on Paynes Prairie and gazing thoughtfully around the horizon.

As if to demonstrate his commitment to protecting nature.

I remember that every time I saw that ad, I'd shout at the TV: "Look down, George! Look down!"

But he never did.

He never once looked down at all the litter strewn around the end of that boardwalk.

Not to be unfair to Kirkpatrick. He could legitimately claim to be the father of Florida's landmark 1988 recycling law.

The one that took the burden for reclaiming recyclables off the backs of businesses and put it on the backs of the taxpayers.

George's law institutionalized curbside recycling and got us all to separate our paper, plastics and aluminum at home.

But clearly it's done nothing to reduce roadside litter.

I spend a lot of time cycling the back roads of north Florida, and it's the rare road indeed that isn't lined with the detritus of American consumption.

This summer I had the opportunity to do some cycling in rural upstate New York.

I rode more than 200 miles over rolling green hills and down into valleys lined with neat farms and picture-postcard small towns.

There were lots of things to see, including a giant wind farm spread out along the top of one steep ridge.

One thing I didn't see, however, was a lot of roadside litter.

Some, of course. But not much.

And certainly nothing like the mess of bottles, cans and fast-food containers that typically line so many Florida roads and highways.

Are New Yorkers less prone to littering than Floridians?

No, but for more than a quarter of a century, New York consumers have paid a deposit on metal, glass, paper and plastic containers.

And those containers mostly get returned to retail stores and recycling centers so the deposits can be redeemed.

The state claims that, as a result of The New York State Returnable Container Act, roadside litter has been reduced by 70 percent.

And we're supposed to be the state that takes Florida's natural beauty to the bank.

The state that lives or dies on the tourist trade.

I wonder what our New York visitors think of our beer-can-strewn roadsides?

So last Sunday I stopped by the scenic overlook at Paynes Prairie and had one of those deja vu moments.

And I wondered: Will we never learn?

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at

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