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Taking out the trash April 29, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in consumer, environment, learn, life, urban.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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A few days ago, while I was walking along the sidewalk beside a gas station, I witnessed a 30-second non-verbal exchange that spoke volumes. The passenger in a truck filling up at the station dropped a cigarette package out the window. The pedestrian ahead of me — a tall, slim, ipod-and-shorts-clad athletic man — immediately stooped and picked up the offending piece of litter, showed it briefly to the startled passenger, then calmly dropped it in the nearby trash bin as he strolled by.

I braced myself for what might happen next: an apology, an insult? But there was no reaction. I glanced at the faces of the two guys in the truck as I walked by, and they seemed amused, as if they just saw somebody doing something silly. I felt like saying something to support the actions of the litter-nabbing pedestrian, but there was no confrontation, no chance for me to speak out against litterbugs, irresponsible behaviour, jerks… well, you know.

But that didn’t stop me from continuing an imaginary conversation in my head, however, as I reflected on other occasions when I have seen careless — as in, “I couldn’t care less” — people dropping their trash on the ground.

Like the time I was walking behind a mother and two young daughters, one with a new doll encased in plastic packaging. The daughter with the doll lagged behind as she worked to get the doll out of its packaging, and when she released the doll, she simply dropped the plastic packaging on the ground.

I promptly picked up the plastic packaging, caught up to the young girl and said, “You dropped this. Excuse me, you dropped this.” The girl looked at me blankly, and glanced at her mother, who had stopped and turned around. I pushed the packaging into the girl’s hand. “You dropped this,” I repeated, “and if it’s garbage, the garbage can is right over there.” I gestured to the garbage can a few steps away. She looked at her mother, but her mother just stood there, watching, saying nothing. I waited. The girl glared at me, but finally took the package and threw it into the garbage can, then rejoined her mother. I walked away, seething.

Do I need to say why I was seething, why I was incensed that someone could carelessly drop trash on the ground when there are recycling containers and garbage bins at every street corner? Do I sound old-fashioned (or just old) to complain about littering, to see it as a sign of disrespect for other people, as an act of vandalism against everyone who does their best to keep their neighbourhood or their city clean and tidy?

And it’s not only our cities — garbage dumped in the world’s waterways is getting so bad that some people are calling the ocean “the world’s largest landfill.”

Following the 2007 international clean-up of beaches in 76 countries, the Ocean Conservancy reported that volunteers gathered an incredible 2.3 million pounds of trash. The largest percentage of litter was cigarette butts. In the city, I think the dubious honour of a second-place prize would go to coffee cups.

Volunteers found 81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals, 11 reptiles, and one amphibian entangled in debris such as plastic bags, fishing lines, fishing nets, six-pack holders, balloon and kite strings, glass bottles, and cans. Aside from urgent issues like pollution and harm to natural species caused by this littering, there’s the question of intent: is this the kind of heritage we want to leave the next generation?

cigarettes are top trashI know littering isn’t as important, in the scheme of things, as global warming, war, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS and poverty, for example. But to me, it’s a sign of a bigger problem. It shows an apparent lack of willingness to take responsibility, to acknowledge that our actions — or inactions — affect other people. And that, I believe, is serious.

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Related Links:
Wired: “Drowning in an ocean of plastic”
BBC: “Author hits out at litter culture”
Ocean Conservancy website
“Litter: It’s often a different story on the street”



1. lavenderbay - April 30, 2008

Great article, Eyegillian!

Many vegetarians — among them, George Bernard Shaw — have said that if one isn’t respectful of smaller life forms, one will have a harder time respecting other humans. Littering shows a lack of consideration for others. People need to be taught to be considerate. Getting one’s three-year-old to put her packaging in the garbage is an easy first step.

2. eyegillian - April 30, 2008

Thanks, lavenderbay! Your comment reminds me of the Carson McCullers short story A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud. in which she writes about learning to love the simplest things first before attempting the most complex relationship of all — learning to love another person.

3. themarvelousinnature - May 3, 2008

One of my hugest pet peeves is smokers who chuck their cigarette butt out the window or on the ground when they’re done with it. I can’t drive down the highway anywhere without seeing at least one such offender, which are especially obvious at night. Like, would it really be so much trouble to use the ashtray, which is built in to all cars for that purpose? Blackburnian is a smoker, and while I absolutely detest his habit, at least he’s a responsible smoker, always smoking outside or away from others, and properly disposing of his finished butts, putting them in his pocket if there’s no trash can available.

Another one is the litter and debris left over after a concert or other such event. I think that a lot of people feel okay with littering because “there are other people who are paid to clean it up”. It really does make you wonder about people, though.

4. eyegillian - May 3, 2008

Thanks for your comment, themarvelousinnature! I know what you mean — it’s as if people think cigarette butts aren’t really garbage because they’re small. But those butts really pile up, and sweeping them into the gutter/drain doesn’t make them go away either!

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