Saturday, July 14, 2007

Litter Nation

In May while writing about mobile phone etiquette, my post concluded with a sarcastic proposal that I might one day write a rant about littering. How silly, I thought, because along with reminders not to kick kittens or slap the elderly one would assume that we need no more calls to end littering. When I was a kid in the seventies, I remember the television PSA about the "Crying Indian" and thinking even then: Do people actually toss their stuff from moving cars? Yes. They did then, and they still do now.

In fact when Jenny, Vienna, and I drove into California in 1998 I remember how embarrassed I was to see the freeways covered with litter. I was ashamed because I'd taken a job in San Jose and was bringing my family to our new home. Their first glimpse of California's west coast was mile after mile of trash-strewn interstate. I imagined their unspoken question: We're going to live in this place? Nine years later we love California. We own a home here and plan to stay for a long time. But we still are amazed by the trashing of this beautiful land. And we see much of the same in other parts of the country. It seems that many Americans have no problem with litter.

Why do people litter? One response to that question on Why Do You Do That? mentions a combination of laziness and rebellion. I certainly understand the first part of that answer. It really can be inconvenient to keep a piece of junk until you find a trash can. And I imagine that some folks feel no particular love for their surroundings. There are so many ugly places in America that one more piece of detritus must not seem so awful. Yet I still have no patience for littering. My thinking is that a person willing to toss a cigarette butt out their car rather than fill their ashtray isn't just disrespecting the physical environment, they're disrespecting the people who share that environment. And that includes me.

Looking back, I think the "Crying Indian" PSA inspired me to think this way. But it wasn't until the last year that I began to develop a small but daily response to the problem of littering. It does not call for confrontation or bellyaching. And it only takes a moment. Every day, no matter where I am, I pick up at least one piece of trash. Sometimes it's a fast food wrapper. Sometimes it's a discarded newspaper. One day my choice was a box of moldy doughnuts. It doesn't matter, as long as it's trash. I usually choose my daily trash pick-up while I'm walking in a public place. There's no announcement, no posing. But if someone sees me picking up a piece of trash that's clearly not mine I figure that other folks might get the message.

And that's the real point of this blog post. Because you know that one person picking up one piece of trash per day will accomplish pitifully little. And believe me, the momentary feeling of a good deed is insufficient to the problem we all face. No, what we need is for everyone, everyone to pick up one piece of trash every day. And that means you. Imagine if you made that commitment and stuck to it, and imagine if you asked your friends to do the same. Just imagine how easy it could be to make our public places just a little nicer.

Certainly we need much more than litter pick-up to clean up the junk that clogs our society. All of us, myself included, need to think much more carefully about the things we purchase that merely produce more junk that must somehow be thrown away. Each of us can think of ways to buy smarter, buy less, or get by without. And we can find ways to tell producers and retailers that we won't participate in an economy that junks our planet. There's much more to be done than one moment of trash cleanup. But we must start somewhere, so I propose we begin with the next piece of trash. Remove or recycle one piece today and one piece tomorrow and one piece every day thereafter. It must be something that is "not yours" because the consequences of this problem do indeed belong to us all. Don't think of it as empty symbolism. Think of it as a first step. Make it a habit and take it from there.

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