‘Clamming’?

Some would call what I do a form of ‘land clamming’, and me a ‘land clammer’, but it’s not and I’m not.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

P2030030-1

A land clammer, in the colloquial, is a derogatory term for someone who travels around picking the valuable empties from the recycling cans and from the roadside.  I hate the term, because it insults people who are engaged in productive work.  I think it sneers, so I think that I’ll call them deposit harvesters instead at least until something more appropriate occurs to me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What I do, first and foremost, is, of course, pick up and properly dispose of, litter. And in the course of cleaning up my neighborhood I come across empties: beer cans mostly, usually on the weekends, as I have discussed. Much of the time, when I recover the odd empty, it just goes into the nearest trash can.  It’s just not worth the effort (picking up, carrying home, sorting from the rest of the trash, putting in the recycling can, taking to the redemption center, cashing in the chit) for ten cents a can or bottle: but weekends can be lucrative.  Weekends are different.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Saturday Morning

On the weekends, people throw lots of empty beer cans out the car window. Sometimes people sit in their cars on a back street and knock back a whole case of beer at one time.  Out the window it goes, one at a time or all at once, carton and all.  These people are known as drunk drivers, usually, and as such they are criminals much to be despised. They can’t compare in virtue to the humble and productive deposit harvesters.

On the weekend, I make sure to bring the pick-stick along, and some repurposed bags, and I collect the cans. What must the neighbors think?: land clammer (deposit harvester!).  I’ve never cared.  If it were true, I’d be proud of it.

We used to have visits from one particular deposit harvester, locally.  He pushed a shopping cart down the street in the middle of the night, tossing through everyone’s recycling can every other week looking for deposits to cash in.  It got annoying because of the racket. The noise from the shopping cart wheels was like the introductory symbol solo from a bad rock song.  With a refrain like a washing machine full of clinking and  clanking tin cans, he’d fish through the recycling cans, one by one, working his way down the block.  It used to wake up dogs throughout the neighborhood and annoy the shit out of everyone.  This at four am.  Every two weeks.

It got so annoying during the warmer months that action was required.  What I did was, drum roll, wait for it – I started cashing in my own empties.  I know, it’s not something that many people relish doing.  I sure didn’t, I had other things to do.  But I started taking the empties to the supermarket and feeding the machines and recovering the paltry sums, mostly to discourage our nocturnal visitor.  That damn shopping cart was driving me insane.

I think the neighbors did the same thing, or else they just started throwing their empties into the regular trash to throw him off the scent, because after a while – the brass band went away.  He disappeared.  I suppose that once we took away the cost-benefit, he started skipping our street.  Or he died or moved away or found a better paying line of work: it’s hard to be certain.  I felt a little guilty about that, but we all need our sleep.

I’m not a land clammer/deposit harvester, I’m more like a deposit grazer.  I pick up what comes my way in the treadmill course of my daily block-circling dog walk.   On the weekends, the proceeds come home and get added to the recycling and yes, I recover the cash for this.  In a good week, we’re talking less than a buck.  Which I donate. I don’t do this for the money: it’s civics.

Advertisements

The Banality of Litter: Promoting Civic Activism

Some litter is probably inadvertent.

Bic

Other litter is casual,

Empties
Drivers who drink discard the empties, eliminating the evidence

 

or just the result of bad weather and bad timing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Weekly ‘free’ coupon papers, buried in slush and frozen solid

 

But the bare fact of litter is that it’s all very basic and human: it’s banal.

If the annals of litter were ever written, they would probably describe the occasional litter kingpin (a contractor no doubt), who would roam the night streets looking for a good spot to offload the days demolition: but the real serial litterer is a much more ordinary person.  In the end, it’s mostly carelessness, expediency, laziness and inadvertence that contribute to litter.  The litterbug, if we were to paint a picture of him or her, is very ordinary; he drinks Budweiser from a can,

Budweiser

enjoys coffee from 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts,

7-11 Coffee cup

likes those caffeinated energy drinks,

Energy Drink, after

and eats a lot of drive through fast food.

Taco Bell!

He (and she) leaves the coupon weekly at the curb, likely because he’s not a clipper.

This Week! (every week)

He fills the recycling can to overflowing,

Overloaded Recycling can

and doesn’t take the time to tidy up after the bulk collectors take away the wreckage from that kitchen demolition.

Construction Debris

All of which can add up to a pretty untidy community.  Unless someone like me picks it up.

My ‘habit’ of picking up litter makes a lot of difference in how the area looks.  I take pride in this, it is a civic good.  But if I were to stop cleaning up, the tidiness of the neighborhood would quickly deteriorate.  I’m only one person and I’ll be gone one of these days.  I’m not alone; other people pick up litter, particularly at organized cleanup events.  But I hope to inspire another person or two to start picking up litter as a habit – to take some day-to-day ownership of the neighborhood.

This is not an activity that comes naturally.  Most adults wouldn’t readily pick up trash by the curb because it’s not something that we’ve been taught to do.  It’s an oversight, really, in our civic upbringing. We didn’t learn this, most of us, in school and in the home – and that needs to be addressed.  And it is being addressed.  Most children are learning this type of civic behavior, this community responsibility, in school these days.  That’s what this is all about in the end, promoting a sense of community, a sense of shared responsibility for our own little patch of the world.

I actually see a glimmer increased community mindedness among the adult residents of the area.  This could be because I’m noticing more, because I’m looking for it.  But maybe not.  Maybe people are taking more ownership because of the example that is being set by civic beautification organizations like Keep Islip Clean, now twenty-five years old, and by the visible results of the cleanup efforts sponsored by them, by the grass roots cleanups that neighbors put together each Spring and Fall.

IMG_3450

One neighbor plows the street with his truck even though he’s not contracted to do that by the town.  Another neighbor rakes and sweeps the elderly persons curb and street area. Someone finally picks up a load of trash that got washed into the dead end by the epic rainstorms last summer.  Flowers get planted in a public space.  People start looking out for each other a little more.

On the other hand, some of the neighbors behave in ways that don’t help. Whether it’s the garbage can that’s left on the curb all the time and never brought back in, or the commercial business vehicle stored in the driveway, the unkempt rental property or the house with a car parked on the lawn – there are behaviors that detract from the beauty of the area.

Short of complaining to the town authorities, there’s nothing much that a resident can do about these sort of eyesores.  Official complaints really ought to be a last resort because it’s not worth starting trouble over minor issues.  In the end, the best offense is a good defense.  Being a steward of the neighborhood, building a sense of community, leading by example.

Recyclables: Batteries, Grass and Ewaste

Decades ago, the roads, rivers and seas were littered with all manner of trash and pollution.  Fortunately, America didn’t kick the can down the road on this issue,  we’ve learned to clean up our neighborhoods and better dispose of what we’ve used up.  We’ve adapted to the evolving waste stream and increased the focus on our environment.  There’s room for improvement of course.

In terms of resource recovery we’re actually a pretty efficient people. In fact, one of the things that DOESN’T frequently turn up in roadside litter is the recyclables. I seldom find tin non-deposit cans or jars; I don’t see a lot of newspapers, magazines, boxes and the like; I certainly don’t come across many batteries and hardly ever a car battery or waste oil.  I do see too much yard waste and some locations around the neighborhood are magnets for ewaste.

Some of the recyclables that I do come across and pick-up a lot are discussed here and here.  But what about the batteries and electronics?  What happens to them? What’s supposed to happen? And what about yard waste? Let’s start (hehe) with the batteries.

Something like 99% of the terrifically pollutive lead-acid car batteries are recycled, which makes these items the most recycled products of all.  Thanks partially to recycling, there are a lot less lead smelting factories than there used to be: the Manongahela type smelting operations of Bob and Ray fame are a thing of the past.  The last US ‘primary’ lead smelting plant closed in 2013, so now all of the domestic lead smelters are recycling used lead and any new lead comes from overseas.  In terms of the environment, smelting is bad: really bad.

As for the rest of the lead batteries (the rechargeable kind but not the alkalines apparently) you can’t throw them in the trash any where in New York. Rechargeable batteries and other miscellaneous sources of potential pollution are not appropriate for a landfill, and they’re disposal is regulated – they’re required to be brought to a recycling facility.  As for the alkalines; even though it’s not required by law I save them up and bring them to the local library where they have a collection barrel.  Why not?  Here’s a site with some good guidance on storage of used up batteries before disposal.

Rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous.  Try counting up the battery operated things that you use and you’ll agree that they’re only getting more burrowed into our every day lives.

As in many areas, the consumer is a little tougher to regulate than, say, the local auto repair shops or the Boeing Corporation.  Consumers dispose of a broad range of wastes, and local governments aren’t in the habit of citing them for improper recycling.  It happens, of course, but recycling rules are mostly self-enforcing. Although that may be changing: good, imo.  Government’s first responsibility with regards to the waste stream and how to dispose of things properly should, of course, be to educate and inform.

Ewaste is a growing problem, even if it’s not high on the list of picked up litter items.  Electronics contain lots of potentially toxic stuff and stuff that really ought to be reused.  Best practices are evolving and many modern appliances and electronics are designed to make recovering the useful parts easier.  Many governments, however, are still in the process of adapting to this rising tide. Considering that the average household owns 24 electronic gadgets, and considering how quickly our gadgets wear out or become obsolete, these efforts are important.  Probably, most of the electronics that are dumped, are dumped by contractors of one sort or another who are looking to save on disposal costs, but the other side is the consumer who may be understandably confused about how to dispose of ewaste.  Look to your government website for guidance.

Other stuff that tends to end up by the roadside, or in the woods, is yard waste. The problem is that most municipalities won’t pick up grass clippings.  Homeowners (taxpayers) are a hard shelled lot, and they haven’t taken kindly to bans on the disposal of grass clippings; they’ve found other ways to ‘dispose’ of them.  Nearly any tract of woods adjacent to a suburban community on Long Island has become a grass dump.

Unfortunately, the bagged grass clippings become a smelly oozing mess in short order and are a real menace to the waterways.  Even if grass clippings aren’t bagged and instead are just dumped in the woods, they’re a problem.  Decaying grass releases lots of nitrogen which is a pollutant when it enters the watershed. Most municipalities ask people to leave the grass clippings on the lawn or compost them obviously not enough, and more needs to be done to address this issue

By the same token, most municipalities will pick up other kinds of (non-green) yard waste, so there’s really no excuse to dump that in the woods.  Of course, people still do; with landscapers being the prime suspects (follow the money: they have to pay someone to dispose of it). Volunteers pick up a lot of bagged yard waste.  Well, at least it’s already bagged up.

Conclusion?  Recycling efforts are really helping to reduce and refine the waste stream, and the litter stream.  There are some outliers, like batteries, grass clippings and yard waste, that need to be better addressed.  The consumer has an obligation to dispose of used products in a responsible way,  and government has an obligation to develop effective and efficient recycling programs: for everyone’s good.

Some Litter is Useful

Today, I’m putting litter on the ground: cat litter that is. I’m not trying to find an eco-friendlier ice melt here, I just ran out. I’d bought only one bag of the stuff instead of two or three back in early January out of some cheapskatism and a wistful hope that this Winter would be different. It’s not.

In the past week we’ve seen a two foot snow event, a deep freeze, a rain that changed to sleet and ice and road icing everywhere. The stores of course, are sold out of ice melt. I guess they went with a warm Winter theory like I did and kept the stock pile of ice melt small. Some places that have ice melt are gouging prices. Lovely.

Without the ice melt I went with plan b and plan c: wood ash and cat litter. They both work ok for giving traction on the ice, even if they don’t melt it, but both substances turn the icy stuff into a gray mess. So it’s shoes off as soon as I enter the house.

As for the litter, the conventional kind, I’d expect that once things start to melt a bit there’ll be a mess all over town. Most folks keep the trash cans off the streets during storms, but enough cans are left out for the plows to smash that there’s going to be a mess when it all melts. Can’t wait.

Should the Suffolk County Legislature Ban Plastic Grocery Bags?

Do you support a ban on plastic grocery bags?  For some of my analysis and comments, click here.

About Banning Those Plastic Bags

We’ve all seen the pictures: the plastic bags blowing and fluttering in trees, the gross out shots of strangled sea turtles and dead fish, the discarded bags amid methane-steaming seagull-patrolled refuse at municipal dumps.   Plastic supermarket bags are bad, bad, bad!

But are they?  Are they really that bad?  Let’s take a quick look at that question from both sides and address some of the claims that are made; from the environmentalist viewpoint and from that of the consumer.

Full disclosure  – I’m anti litter.  I know, real controversial.  This is a blog about litter after all.  I also believe that public policy should be carefully considered before we adopt it.  It should make sense and result in a public good.  Any reasonable legislative action that will help keep my community cleaner has my tilt, as it were.

First, some background.  From the Pacific Gyre to Main Street, disposable plastics are fast becoming a central focus of anti-litter campaigns.  At the behest of civic activists and the environmental movement, local and state governments across the country are taking up the issue of bag bans.  The argument goes like this: grocery store plastic bags should be banned because they contribute to litter, harm wildlife, are a waste of precious oil resources (non-renewable), wind up in landfills and last for thousands of years.  Have I got that right?  Close enough.

Unfortunately, like most feel-good campaigns, there appear to be some pretty big holes in the rhetoric.  That doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do, but it sure is annoying.  For example there are the claims that plastic bags remain ‘toxic’ in the environment for years.  Let’s stipulate that polyethylene is inert, ok?  Nobody has ever died because they ate food that came into contact with a grocery store food bag.  No cancer, no extinction events, no terrible birth defects.  Some things are over the top.  And then there’s the downside for the consumer, but later for that.  Let’s discuss the litter aspect:

Statistics from the annual Nature Conservancy sponsored International Coastal Cleanup, (ICC) which is a good source for litter data, show an alarming statistic: at the 2013 cleanup, grocery store plastic bags were the number six ranked litter item. During the 2013 cleanup, volunteers recovered 411,493 orphaned grocery store bags.  Slam dunk, right?  Maybe.  The ranking is actually down from 2010, when those bags were #2 behind cigarette butts.  Not that that’s problem solved or anything.  Lets drill down a bit.

We’re talking about Long Island here – a microcosm of the big picture ICC cleanup, but the ICC includes the entire planet. Litter travels, yes, but it’s also local.  The Nature Conservancy doesn’t share local stats on their website.   Maybe they should.  As a local, I’d love to be able to discuss local litter statistics with policy makers.  Anyhow, I parsed the available data from their 2013 report and was able to compare the numbers for the US with the world totals.  Close enough for now.  Some takeaways:

Unsurprisingly, the US contributes the largest raft of collected trash in nearly all categories measured.  America had a third of the total cleanup volunteers: about 209,000 out of 648,000 people showed up for the US based cleanup.  Americans also picked up the highest total pounds of trash, cleaned the most miles of coastline, and picked up the most total items of trash.  Only the African country of Ghana beat out the US for first place in a category.  93 Ghanian volunteers picked up 295 items of litter per person compared to 21 for the Americans.  Sounds like a sports analysis, I know.  In fact, the US ranked only 56th of 92 countries in total items per person.  Not sure what that means, maybe Ghana is very littered, maybe they work harder, maybe they get paid.  But GO GHANA! I guess. More power to them.

In terms of press release numbers, the one that is most often quoted is that plastic grocery bags constitute the #6 ranked category of litter picked up during the ICC.  That’s true, but not precisely accurate.

In the US, grocery store bags are actually the #8 item of collected litter, behind bottles and cans.  It’s practically the only stat in which the US ICC count varies from the rest of the planet.  Why?  Does the rest of the world not have as many bottles and cans to throw out the car window?  Or maybe the rest of the world aren’t pigs: like some of us.

Bag bans attempt to impact the #6 (…#8) source of litter.  So what about number’s one through five litter items?

1. Cigarette butts.  The most vilified lawful public activity these days is smoking.  You can’t smoke anywhere.  Not at work, not on mass transit, not at any public event, not even in the parks.  You can smoke in the car.  And where do the butts go?  Out the car window.  There’s not a lot of leverage there in terms of litter reduction.

2.  Candy wrappers.  Kids, mostly.  What can you do? Educate and inform.  This is something that parents and schools can have an impact on – starting young.

#3, bottle caps.  There are about 20% more bottle caps recovered by cleanup volunteers than bottles. Bottle caps are recyclable, but not for a deposit like the bottles and cans and perhaps this is one reason they go out the window.

Cans, coffee stirrers and bottles are next, at #5, #6 and #7 for the US.  Maybe the stirrers being made of plastic when most cups are made of paper products that break down quickly is the reason why so many of these end up by the roadside.

Which gets us to the bags, and one reason to consider a ban.

But before we go there, (had ya!) let’s take a quick (Google) look at two more aspects of this ‘nuisance’: the claims that grocery store plastic bags  last a millennium and that they kill a lot of wildlife.  As anyone who’s ever stooped to pick up a discarded plastic grocery bag of any great vintage already knows (help me out here volunteers) a grocery bag in the wild begins to deteriorate pretty fast.  For whatever reason, sun, weather, getting run over by cars and lawnmowers, wind, ice, cold, heat, all of the above or some as yet unknown process, they fall apart out there.  It takes a while and they’re a real eyesore while they linger, not to mention a handy spot for mosquito breeding, but these bags go to pieces a lot faster than the ‘ban it!’ crowd wants you to believe.  More like a few years than a thousand.  What happens to the pieces of a plastic bag is another matter.  Micro bits of plastic are a problem too.

But I don’t think that the degradation rate of polystyrene bags is the primary concern here.  I think that the big problem is the fact that we as a society have become too accustomed to disposable packaging that is made from a finite resource and that doesn’t really ‘compost’ at all as far as anyone knows: it just gets smaller.  Packaging should go away after a while, like those corn based packing peanuts.

As for the threat to wildlife, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of the dangers that the bags pose, but the science is a little thin.  We don’t really know for sure just how hazardous these bags are. This is particularly true if you realize that much of the inadvertent wildlife killing that happens is done by discarded fishing equipment and not plastic bags. Let’s cut to the chase on this one though.  It’s not nice to fill up the environment with choke hazards like plastic bags.  There are alternatives like reusable bags.

One important and probable down side of bag bans is the impact on the consumer.  The bag ban as inconvenience and proxy tax.  Is there really anyone out there who simply discards the grocery bags?  Every thrifty shopper has a stash.  They even manufacture those wall mounted ‘bag savers‘ just for the purpose of saving the bags for reuse.  They’re unbelievably useful around the household.   It’s recycling, for Pete’s sake!

Consumers fear, rightly, that they’ll have to pay for a product to replace the free bags that they’re using for a broad range of household purposes.  I think that the only question is: “how much is this going to cost me?”  The bag manufacturing lobby has an opinion on that one, take it for what it’s worth.  Environmental groups don’t really highlight this aspect.  For sure, the paper bags cost more money to produce, and have other shortcomings, as do the reusable shopping bags.  The end cost to the consumer could be small or it could be considerable, we’ll see what the market does with this.

Which brings me back to the ICC list.  The logic is this: Because we’ve already got measures in place to discourage or reduce the first seven ‘big’ items on the litter list, it’s time to do something about #8.  Banal, I know, but grocery bags constitute a lot of litter and it’s their turn.  It’s time to find out if we can do without this item.  From this simple expedient flow the millions of dollars and the millions of words.

Local bans help with the process of discovery, but the cultural war between the ‘ban it!’ crowd and the ‘don’t ban it’ crowd is far from over.  The smoke of the ‘bag’ war is thick.  Here’s one analysis.  I wonder who paid for that?  Suffice to say, both sides are well funded. The first state-wide ban is in effect, but it’s still to new for there to be any real assessment of it’s impact on the consumer and on the environment.

What’s my opinion?  Is a bag ban in the interest of public sanitation and the health of our environment?  Some dope once said, famously, that we would have to enact legislation to find out what was in it.  This time that might actually be the only way to know for sure: to try it.  But the interested governments should have hearings, do the due dilegence, let the public speak, debate.  No secret sessions.  If that plays out in favor, then do the ban.  What’s the worst that could happen?  We can always tinker with it if there are problems.  My two, what’s yours?