On what picking up roadside garbage can teach us about our relationship to the environment and to our fellow human beings.
A long walk would hardly feel complete without it: the moment of truth, the acquisition of a peculiar treasure. On our somewhat-regular suburban rambles, my partner and I pick up garbage as we go, using one of those cheap metal grabbers (ordered from AliBaba) to extend our reach and a canvas bag emblazoned with the name of the regional supermarket on it. By the numbers, what we collect is largely cigarette butts and cellophane wrappers of all kinds; by volume, the bag bursts with carboard scraps, bottles, and fast-food wrappers. But the once surprising and now expected peculiarity is the item we’ve taken to calling “lonesome glove.” Often, the single abandoned glove is latex or latex-like, disposable. More often than you’d think, it’s leather or neoprene or some combination, built to be tough and durable for utility work or lawn-care. Seasonally, it’s a driving glove or a cheap, knitted drugstore magic-stretch style, perhaps lost by a kid in the rare snow.
Mostly, we chuckle at our arch, grandiose naming of these “lonesome gloves,” but the lugubrious label belies what we more deeply feel about our garbage-picking experiences. It’s funny to imagine the lost glove mourning its partner, its work, the hand it protected, its cartoonish loneliness. It’s hyperbolic to imagine the person who lost the glove mourning it. But these garbage-gloves pile up, literally, and after a while, representatively, to speak of the way we live here in the U.S. in the 21st century.
Why Pick Up Garbage?
My partner told me one day that he had ordered a “grabber” and was taking long walks around his neighborhood collecting garbage in a shopping bag. The thought tickled me — it seemed a natural development for a man whose seventy-odd-year-old father will still lay himself out flat on the floor of an arcade to scavenge quarters and has spent hours scouring beaches with a metal detector; walking around the world picking up what’s been lost or abandoned by other people seems like a part of his heritage, you might say. Picking up garbage also gives purpose to a walk, and sometimes one needs purpose beyond the idea of maintaining one’s health to create the necessary momentum. I found myself a little envious, so the next time I visited, we went on a garbage walk together, sharing the grabber. It was immensely satisfying, not in spite of but because of how disgusting the haul was. What a sense of do-gooderism flooded me when I emptied that nasty bag! The ashtray aroma confirmed the value of removing each tiny cigarette butt from its all-too-permanent perch in the landscape — out of the water-supply, out of the suburban scenery. It was the tiniest bit addictive.
Picking up the garbage from the roadsides where we walk the dog, do much of our running, and take our own walks also forged in me a sense of guardianship: these shoulders started to feel like they were mine, and each time I spotted a butt or can, I felt the urge to make a round with the grabber. How dare anyone sully our clean avenues? It became more impossible to imagine how people could cavalierly flick butts onto the ground.
Of course, we didn’t arrive at this practice all on our own. After all, there is a constant stream of articles in the constant stream of internet news referring to such subjects as global warming, environmentalism, recycling, and, recently, the preponderance of plastic refuse in the ocean. After seeing numerous images of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” it’s difficult to feel good about using plastic, throwing plastic away, or even being part of a human culture that regards plastic as indispensible (we do; it is, to life as we’ve come to know it), and it is very likely that our exposure to article after article, image after image, has propelled us to do our part to “keep America beautiful.” Moreover, we grew up in the 1970s, when Iron Eyes Cody, a man dressed in indigenous clothing,his long black hair braided, cried on television at the sight of litter in the wilderness. We were boy-and-girl-scouts whose troop leaders taught us to leave any natural place cleaner than we found it. The message we’ve been hearing all our lives is that we can, as individuals, keep trash from destroying the natural beauty of our world. Yet, we are part of this culture, and whatever we do in our little lives to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as the slogan goes, we can’t put a dent in the production of garbage in any meaningful way. We know this now.
We also know now that Iron Eyes Cody was an actor, a second-generation Sicilian-American playing an indigenous American (in his real life as well as on TV, it turns out: click here). And the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, far from being a well-meaning effort to educate and mobilize Americans on behalf of the land, was and is funded by such corporations as Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Anheuser Busch (here), which lobby Congress in opposition to environmental measures that would, in their view, limit their ability to profit off the convenience of single-serve containers, among other things. The whole iconography of “keeping America beautiful” is fake, a cynical ruse meant to shift responsibility for the environment from the major corporate actors whose products have, collectively, devastating effects on the land, to the individual actors — consumers — who, to be sure, could refuse to consume these single-use containers and demand other options from corporate powers, but who cannot, individually, have any meaningful impact on this problem. So, in a way, our picking up garbage in our neighborhood is a completely meaningless gesture. An exercise in futility.
If we succumbed to the desire to think that we’re really doing something to combat pollution, our garbage-picking would be dangerous, a placebo that soothed us into believing that our work was done, the problem solved. That is the problem with many people’s dedication to recycling, too. A segment of the informed populace has come to believe that recycling is the savior of the planet, that those who do not recycle are villains, and that the more they dedicate themselves to the cause, the more good they do. The danger of this is not the recycling itself, it’s that it becomes easy to believe that personal recycling is enough, that continuing to buy and dispose of the cups and bags and butts and wraps is fine as long as they make sure to put that cup in the proper receptacle. Or maybe they’ve brought their own mug to Starbucks: there lies virtue! But the pounds of plastic tubes of lipstick, chapstick, mascara, and lotion in countless purses and pockets go unconsidered, as do so many of our habitual practices of consumption. This is how doing good things can become counterproductive, or, at the least, can render us complacent and unable to recognize our complicity in the problem.
Yet, desiring to do good and acting in ways one believes to be good, when those beliefs are misguided or unsupported by sufficient evidence, still isn’t evil. Good acts retain some goodness, even if ineffectual, I think. The large-scale irrelevance of our garbage-picking doesn’t reduce our actions to zero. As long as we don’t allow ourselves to believe that we are saving the planet with our collecting and recycling while we unthinkingly consume single-use containers, straws and bags and fuel and eat meat like there’s no tomorrow, we must be doing something worthwhile, right? It is important to be able to believe this, important to be able to physically do something that feels helpful, even if it is little more than a gesture. Gestures remain important, hopeful. Gestures direct and confirm our intentions, however powerless we may be. If we cease to believe that we can have any effect on the world, we may cease to care, and if we cease to care, we may as well concede that the values of convenience and cheapness have won. Maybe they have. But we’re not quite ready to give up yet.
Whose Garbage Is This?
In the spirit of anthropology, we can’t help but wonder what the garbage we collect says about the people around us. We rarely see people chucking trash out the windows of their cars, and it is also rare to see people walking rather than driving, yet the physical evidence we’ve collected during our walks counters both of these impressions. Somebody’s walking, and somehow, items are being released from vehicles, whether they’re thrown or jostled off or forcibly removed. In fact, the only thing that people seem to think is socially acceptable to throw from a vehicle is a cigarette butt. Other items are unintentionally lost, or are stealthily tossed, maybe, at night.
Pieces of vehicles find their way into our bag frequently: crunched bits of windows, lights, plastic parts, screws, bolts, engine parts. Sometimes the evidence of a wreck is clearly distributed along a stretch of road. Other times, we find a part and think uh-oh! Someone had to find out the hard way that a piece went missing, jolted out by wear and the sharp reality of a pothole.
Where the shopping center fronts a busy road, we find the remnants of our nation’s fast food habit: plastic lids and straws, styrofoam and waxed paper cups, cardboard containers, pieces of waxed paper emblazoned with logos, and crushed plastic packets of condiments. These items cluster near corners of the shopping centers and along the bus-route. Nearly always, cigarette butts cluster similarly. Often, we find butts discarded at regular intervals and wonder if the time required to smoke one cigarette is a sort of constant, using which we could calculate the smoker’s walking pace. If the convergence of discarded lottery tickets, fast-food wrappers, and cigarette butts is to be trusted (the forces of wind and rain should not be discounted entirely), the people walking these sidewalks are bus-riding, hourly-wage workers, most likely. These are the discards of the people who run the cash registers in these retail stores, of the line-cooks and waitstaff, of the dishwashers and stockers. The CDC confirms that these smokers are likely to hold GEDs (a whopping 40% of people with GEDs smoke) or have less than a high-school education (see CDC report here and article from The Washington Post here). They’re likely to be between 25 and 44, and they probably don’t have health insurance, according to the national data. The people keeping all these businesses going are the ones who rely on the bus system, and there aren’t even trashcans or shelters at most of the bus-stops. They’ve got to walk and eat, walk and smoke, turn their backs to the wind, waiting.
And so a picture starts to come clearer: I’m not upset with the litterers for not caring to put their discards in the right places, as much as I am unhappy about the state of the nation. If Americans cared about each other’s health in a way that was not moralistic and judgmental but rather genuine and human, so many people might not be smoking as they waited for the bus and eating the cheapest, quickest food, available on the way to or from their too-long hours of work. If we cared about the environment that we all share, we’d be more involved in changing the amount and type of waste we produce all the way up the stream. Garbage is not a barometer of the virtue or failings of the consumer, singly, nor even precisely of corporate bodies, manufacturers, cities — the content and distribution of garbage reflect the thoughtfulness of a society. These small glimpses of roadside litter are thumbnails to the big picture of an American society in which we’re all individuals, all free — to toss our trash, to pick up trash, to make as much or as little of it as we please. But the plastic lodes are growing in dumps and oceans, and out where the roads shrug their shoulders, we’re looking like a lot of lonesome gloves, lost, stranded, and single-handed.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.