Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wading ankle deep

Sometimes, when you start seeing something it's hard to un-see it again.

On the one hand, back in the days that I was house hunting, I became super-sensitive to the "For Sale" signs in front of houses, but once I bought a house, I quickly learned to ignore those signs again.  So there are things I've learned to un-see after seeing them.

But somehow, this spring, as the snow melts and the sun begins to shine, I see trash everywhere.  I want to see the crocuses, and the daffodils, and the amazing blue skies, and the buds on trees.  But instead I see plastic bags and bottles, candy wrappers, stray paper.  I drove my students to a math conference last weekend, and the whole long drive through our region's rolling farmland, I saw litter lining the roadway.  I can't un-see it anymore.

plastic bag in the grass

The first time I remember being sort of rocked back by roadside trash was in Haiti, which my husband and I visited back in 2011.  The environmental trash there is really astounding; it's everywhere.  People sell drinks and food along the roadways, propping their tables along sidewalks next to gutters full of piles of trash.  The garbage there is like music and advertisements at the mall -- it's so ubiquitous people don't even seem to notice it unless (like me) they're strangers to the experience.  In fact, the mall drives me bonkers in the same way the streets of Haiti did (or maybe even worse, actually, because I really detest the mall).
Styrofoam block in the bushes

In the same way, I remember being somewhat amused and impressed by Bea Johnson (writer of the Zero Waste Home blog) and her excursions to pick up trash at her nearby beach. Surely this is a Sisyphean task because the giant ocean keeps bringing in new waves of plastic and other detritus.  It was probably shortly after reading that post that I ran a marathon with one of my running buddies, slogging our way through miles and miles of nearby Amish farmland.  And it was on that long run that I realized that it's not just beaches that have garbage washing up on its shores -- it's, like, everywhere.  There's trash washing up on the shores of Amish farms, just like it washes up on the shores of our beaches.  
white plastic rings and black plastic lids in another yard
How did this trash just pile up all around me without me ever noticing it?  Am I like the frog in that gradually warming pot that never realized the ever-increasing danger around me?  Or has my world always been like this, and I've just become so garbage-obsessed that I never noticed it before?  Is it the world, or is it just me?
This plastic ring is not a crocus.

I used to think that litter was caused by litterers: the jerks who threw their soda cans out the car window.  Litter, my teen-age self believed, was a deliberate act.  But now I see litter as a structural problem, caused by a society overrun by excess.   When we buy fast food, it comes with so many varied pieces of trash -- straws and their wrappers, condiment containers, the plastic bag containing napkins and plastic forks and bags of salt and pepper -- that it's all to easy too accidentally drop some of this trash as we walk from one place to another.  Trash overflows the cans that line the streets of my neighborhood, and because of that overflow, some of the trash escapes on the wind.  Trash haulers do the unenviable job of pouring garbage from one container to another, and --- like any of us --- they spill a fraction of this, which escapes yet again. It's no surprise, since we're surrounded by disposable objects, that we have a disposal problem.

I know there are other problems more urgent and pressing.  The impending famine that 20 million people across our globe will soon be facing is much more terrible, much more urgent, than roadside garbage on American highways and byways.  I also know that I can't do much on my own about either problem -- I can't feed people in war-torn countries, and I can't stem the tide of senseless plastic filth that permeates my landscape.

Still, it needs to be said.  We're living ankle-deep in our own trash.  Maybe we could try to change our society so that we focus on creating things of lasting value, and start to avoid creating things that get thrown in the trash, and on the roads, and in our oceans.  And if we can't change our society, at least maybe we could try to change ourselves.


  1. Northern California is pretty amazing about this. Plastic bags are very rare, mostly limited to takeout at cheaper restaurants. Most disposable packaging is biodegradable, including cups and takeout containers. People bring bags when shopping and often don't get things bagged it'd not buying much. A big difference from most of the rest of America.

    1. That's pretty neat. I wonder if that means there's less trash along the sides of the roads, or merely if the trash there is biodegradable. Probably, I should find something more productive to obsess about.

  2. There's trash even in California, especially Southern Cal, where I grew up and still go to visit my Dad. In fact, over the years it has been getting worse with the continual influx of immigrants, legal and otherwise. My sister enlightened me as to why Mexicans don't pick up trash; it is because in Mexico that is someone's job. The streets are cleaned at night with someone sweeping and picking up trash. It is a cultural difference that becomes problematic once the Mexicans are in the US dropping their trash and there is no one to pick it up. We are (or used to be) a culture of picking up after ones self and making the place better than you found it. Trash along the roadside drives me crazy too! We have some very lowlife neighbors who don't pick up anything they drop, as if the effort is just too much for them, and their droppings blow into our yard for me to pick up. Perhaps it is a matter of pride of place, a feeling of personal responsibility, and a desire to have a clean world that motivates us to keep picking up. I'll cheer you on and you can cheer me. Deal?

    1. Definitely it's a good idea to keep encouraging one another to do our best. Deal, indeed!

    2. While I applaud your desire to create a beautiful, clean world, I'm taken aback by your characterization of an entire country as full of "lowlifes." It is an unkind, incorrect and racist sentiment.

    3. To be fair, I don't think Rozy was characterizing an entire country that way -- she's talking about "some" of her current neighbors, and she no longer lives in California where she grew up.

      I do agree with Nichole-and-Maggie (below) who point out that our country never had a monopoly on picking up our trash without prodding. In fact, one of my favorite examples of changing a culture was in Texas, where a very costly and surprisingly effective advertising blitz was aimed at the traditionally macho guys of the state: "Don't Mess with Texas". Before that, the state government had been tearing out their hair because of people's propensity to litter.

  3. I suspect your sister is wrong about Mexico.

    And I don't think we were ever a culture of picking up after ourselves.