This morning I went to pick up trash.
A few years ago, when I began running, I was always appalled at the garbage along the Bronx River Parkway in Westchester County, New York. Piles and piles of post-consumer trash, as well as some bigger things – a tire, a shopping cart in the middle of the river, etc. For some time now I’ve regretted not trying to do something there. Now I live in Celebration, Florida, and the trash still drives me bonkers. I pick up litter when I can, and make it a point to be as careful as possible with my own. But a few weeks ago I was finally driven over the edge and into action.
Two things did it – one longer term, and one short term. After the election of 2016, I was so disappointed and frustrated with the general tenor of the conversation in America that I checked myself out of politics, which has been one of my passions since I stayed up in the 5th grade to watch the 1988 election returns. I said at the time that if progressive voices made some noise in the 2018 mid-terms, I would get interested again … and might get active. That happened, and I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to put my money where my mouth is.
And then I was training for a half marathon a few weeks ago and ran past a stretch of road that had so much garbage on it that I was blown away. Just a disgusting amount of trash. A McDonald’s location had recently opened up just up the street, and I felt like I could see yellow “M”s everywhere I looked. But that wasn’t all – while I didn’t get down and look closely, you could tell this area just loaded with garbage.
Well – I have found my issue, I think. I don’t have to be part of a presidential election in order to make a difference. In fact, I will probably be able to make a much bigger difference right here in my own community. I also don’t need to attend enormous river- or shore- clean ups. I can do my part in a much more micro way. Instead of getting mad about the garbage, I’m going to pick it up. And I’m going to try and shine a spotlight on it so people can see and a difference can be made. Who knows.
Enough preamble – this morning I went to pick up trash.
My goal this morning was that area I saw when I was running – about a 1.5 mile walk. I brought a new extended picker-upper and my kids’ Radio Flyer wagon and headed out. I expected nearly all of the garbage to be in that area, about 0.1 mile, what I have highlighted in red below. And while I certainly got a lot of garbage there, my wagon was filling up pretty well before I ever got there.
And then I got there. My mind boggles. All told, including the walk to the area, I spent 2.5 – 3 hours working, and could have worked all day – my wagon got full.
Back home, I sorted the trash into some big categories. As expected, McDonalds played a big part in the overall volume.
There were also plenty of cans / bottles for drinks – Gatorade bottles, energy drinks, Arizona Iced Tea cans, Monster Energy AND Red Bull cans, and tons of water bottles.
Lots of crazy miscellaneous stuff, too. Two Mylar balloons. An aerosol spray paint can. An empty fertilizer bag. A nearly full pack of cigarettes. Plastic bags of all kinds – supermarket bags, Ziploc bags, garbage bags, etc.
But there was one item of litter that really stood out to me – dog waste bags. Celebration has dog waste stations all over town that dispense little plastic bags for picking up your dog’s poop when out on a walk and then feature a garbage receptacle to take the used bags. I probably walked past a dozen.
The bags were EVERYWHERE. Many of them had even been used – the dog’s owner had gone to the trouble of picking up the poop, and then was either careless enough with the bag that it wound up on the ground, or else they just deliberately threw it into the trees. This makes no sense at all to me – at that point, you’re better off just letting the dog poop in the woods. This pile of poop bags was just the surface, too – I walked past many more that I just didn’t have room for.
The insidious thing about all of this garbage, and those poop bags in particular, is that once they have been in the environment for a short period of time they hide. The poop bags are green and black, and often you have to be right on top of one in order to see it. The plastic bottles and especially the cup lids and straws from McDonalds get covered with leaves and discolored so that they are very difficult to find. And much of the litter is just small and clear, and so hard to see.
I have some research to do, but just based on this morning’s outing, I’m going to start calling on the waste bag manufacturers to all either make their bags out of material that biodegrades quickly, and/or make those bags bright orange or fluorescent yellow. If they are easy to see people may be less likely to throw them in the trees, not to mention how much easier they are to see when you are picking up garbage.
I don’t know why all of this is OK, and I don’t know why we, as residents of Celebration, should look past it. If we want to live in a beautiful, welcoming place, we shouldn’t be OK with all of this garbage. The environmental arguments are compelling, and I’ll be making them, but I don’t need environmental arguments here – even if you hate the “tree-hugging libtards” or whatever we’re known as these days, you can’t help but see that this kind of garbage means YOU ARE LIVING IN A TRASH CAN.
I don’t want to live in a trash can.
Three different people thanked me this morning when they realized what I was doing. That probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. People care about this issue. But the comment that has stuck with me was from a gentleman that said “You could spend the rest of your life doing that.” My first reaction was to think to myself “I just might!” But on reflection, his remark has made me sad, and makes me want to put these pictures on the sides of buildings. Because what he said is a lament of our modern reality, which is that we collectively care so little about the community and world we live in that we are willing to trash it to an extent that may not be able to be fully offset, ever. That makes me sad.
But it doesn’t make me despair. Every piece of garbage matters. It matters to the aesthetic, it matters to the environment, it matters to our mindset. Every bag I can pull out is one more bag of garbage that won’t ever make it into the ocean. And every bottle I grab and recycle is one more bottle that won’t make it to a river or a shore to be cleaned up by one of those big clean-up events.
Every piece matters.
So I’ll be out there picking up garbage when I can, and I will post those pictures and those stories here. If you see me with my red wagon, say hi – I’ll enjoy the break if you want to chat. And if this seems bad to you, one of the ways it might change is that we change the culture, and we change the expectation. If we hold ourselves accountable for this garbage, maybe some of it will start to go away. So share the pictures, and share the story.
And, for goodness sake, don’t throw your bagged dog poop into the woods!
My walk wasn’t all garbage – I made some friends, too. Hopefully I’ll do one of these walks soon-ish and it’ll be no garbage.