Care to know what it feels like to be thanked by a total stranger? Pick up a piece of garbage.
I was on the Common yesterday, my neighbourhood park, with my garbage grabber, a bag, and my dog. My garbage habit predates him but he’s the reason I’m there these days, him off-leash, following his nose, me following my eye, stalking the litter.
As we were finishing up, a young woman jogged by. She didn’t make eye contact, didn’t slow down, but as she passed she said loudly and clearly, Thank you. You’re welcome, I said into her wake, my voice raised to catch up with her. Moments earlier a fellow dog walker stopped to talk while I poked around in the bushes. He told me he picks up garbage as well. I think there are a few of us, I said. We agreed that taking matters into our own hands was preferable to being annoyed and grumpy. If we cross paths the next time you’re out let’s do it together, I said. Deal, he said. The previous week I’d passed a woman who’d been eying me from a distance. Do you work for the city, she asked as I approached. I toyed with the idea of telling her I’d just been released from prison and this was my community service. No, I said, I just don’t like the mess. She told me she and her neighbours had been talking about doing the same on their street. It seems garbage brings out the best in people.
I wrote to my city councillor to say I wanted to start a citizens’ garbage brigade. We have annual cleanup days for beaches, the downtown, and our harbour island, and those are great but the state of our streets and parks is such that we could use all the other days of the year for everywhere else. I suggested that the councillor invest in a small fleet of garbage cans on wheels that people could check out of the library, fill, and return. I didn’t hear back. As an alternative, I retrofitted a perfectly good grocery buggy someone had abandoned and now use it for days when I want to take on an entire section of street. Do you live here?, an apartment dweller yells down from his balcony. No, I say, But I’m not picky, Garbage is garbage.
Litter’s not always the product of carelessness; it’s not necessarily the work of a deranged sociopath. Sometimes it’s bagged garbage that’s gotten loose, the victim of a hit and run or a strong wind, contents spilled and spreading. Someone has to deal with it. It won’t pick itself up, my mother would say. Now that it’s loose it’s up for grabs, anyone and everyone’s responsibility. That bag of dirty diapers that broke open in front of my neighbour’s place when the sidewalk plow hit it in the winter? It’s all mine now since I’m the one who’s so bothered by it. More speechless and stunned than overtly grateful the neighbour joined in when she spotted me.
I don’t pick up garbage every day and when I do it’s not born of altruism. It’s simpler than that. I’m selfish. I don’t want to look at it. I’m indulging an I-can’t-stand-this-another-moment urge, a slightly despairishy state of mind for which garbage-letting, my version of bloodletting, appears to be the only solution. It’s all about me. It stops my head from imploding with outrage and indignation about the state of our planet.
My garbage hobby is just that though, a hobby. I’m aware that it does nothing to fix the underlying problem. Garbage is a symptom, after all. It’s runaway consumerism’s chunky vapour trail. Garbage does not figure among the worst of the world’s problems, war and oppression and bigger environmental degradations topping that list. Picking up garbage doesn’t really help the world, it just tidies it. For a minute. A bit.
But once you do it and someone says thanks you realize you’ve tapped a vein. You’ve happened upon a shared sentiment. You’re not alone. Others feel similarly. The sight of garbage is depleting; it erodes the spirit. It requires active ignoring to walk around or step over and that takes a toll. Picking it up is almost easier. It’s not for everyone but it doesn’t need to be. Even a few of us can make a big difference. Not everyone needs to be a zealot but those of us who are might as well use it.
My kids and I started picking up garbage years ago on the way to school. Finding it hard to walk past each day, I suggested we take along plastic shopping bags and clean as we go. The kids tried to out-do one another. It was a game, a scavenger hunt. When it didn’t slow us down it sped us up. We deposited the proceeds in dumpsters and sidewalk receptacles along the way. I don't think they do it any more but at least they know they can.
Embarrassment can keep us from acting, self-consciousness a disincentive. I know. I used to feel that way. Who wants to be seen picking up garbage? But what if we thought of ourselves as the litterati? I’ve fantasized about garbage grabbers — Nifty Nabbers, Reacher Grabbers, Grip n’ Grabs — being available at Mountain Equipment Coop in amongst the running and biking and hiking gear, like walking poles. Everyone would want one. Picking up garbage would become cool. Legit. Competitive. We might even run out. But in the meantime, until we do, those of us who pick up garbage can do so safe in the knowledge that if our efforts elicit any response at all it’s likely be one of gratitude.
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I also do this on hikes, usually by the ocean, where plastic floats in from the littered ocean. It is heartbreaking at times but satisfying when picked up...
When I had a dog and a ready supply of poo bags, I'd pick up other dogs' doo on my walks too. It's true it helps disperse the moral outrage.