Upland freshwater marsh, a stream, a pond, woods and one macadam road running through it. Everyone in town knows the Brook Street Preserve. At first glance, it looks idyllic, beautiful even, and it is.
You have to slow down and look a little closer before you see the mess.
As with any out-of-the-way wooded area in a busy suburb, the Suffolk County owned Brook Street preserve is a litter magnet.
It requires constant attention to keep clean. Brook Street has been the focus of Keep Islip Clean sponsored cleanup efforts for decades. Year in and year out, Spring and Fall, the cleanups continue. The Middle School ‘KIC’ team is the sponsor. There are lots of volunteers, official and unofficial. I pick at it throughout the year.
The cleanup date is April 18th, a Saturday, and I’m planning to join in. I’m also trying to drum up some more volunteers from the neighborhood to show up. This is not an easy thing to do, since Saturday mornings are busy times for all of us. But there are always the few reliable volunteers who come out for most of the cleanups, and you often get a neighbor or two who pop in to help. There are seldom a huge group of volunteers showing up, but in my experience there are always enough.
Or midpoint of any project is a good time to review. I envisioned this project as a ‘season’, not forever, so I took this late March evening to read my own blog entries. How embarrassed am I? Well, a little. It seems that, like most projects, this one started out pretty ambitiously and seems to have run somewhat aground. Here’s what I envisioned:
-Picking up lots of litter around my immediate neighborhood.
-Taking photos of it.
-Measuring, weighing and cataloging it.
-Blogging about it.
Noble goals, I know, but I have fallen short. The photographing and cataloging part has gone completely ‘out the window’, as it were. I’ve managed to keep picking up litter and blogging it. Perhaps the rest is fluff anyhow.
As I mentioned in another post, nobody wants to look at pictures of litter: pictures of litter are gross. Yes, they could help electrify and motivate people to do something about litter, but this isn’t a shock blog, and that’s not something that I want to overdo. The pictures will continue (with restraint), but no gross-outs. Sadly, if you want to look at garbage these days, you can visit almost any art gallery.
As for the tally sheets, I lost the will to keep tallying the same stuff every time I do some cleaning up. It’s always the same crap, everyone knows what’s out there, and there’s little real need for the data. It became: collect, bag up, bring home, weigh, dump out, measure, photograph, catalog, pick-up, rebag, dispose of; too much toil. Anyway, What it is right now is me toting the pickup stick while walking the neighborhood, dog in tow, and ‘picking it up’. Keeping it real I guess you could say, and that’s what counts.
As for this being the midpoint, yes, I’m going somewhere with that. The Month of April is The Great American Cleanup (it’s like the litter-picker’s holy month), there are cleanups ALL month, everywhere. I spent two hours at the office of Keep Islip Clean last week stuffing envelopes. The word is going out far and wide across the town (and the Nation and I suppose the whole planet) to gear up and get ready. The big push is coming, volunteers will work to banish the detritus of a bitter Winter. I’ll blog some of it, from my point of view.
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,
enjoys coffee from 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts,
likes those caffeinated energy drinks,
and eats a lot of drive through fast food.
He (and she) leaves the coupon weekly at the curb, likely because he’s not a clipper.
He fills the recycling can to overflowing,
and doesn’t take the time to tidy up after the bulk collectors take away the wreckage from that kitchen demolition.
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.
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.
Ok. You can almost understand this one. But not. The empties really ought to go right out the window as soon as they’re empty. After all, they’re evidence. Kind of like dumping the dead body. We get it, yes, but… .
I suppose this is why the baggies go out there too… .
Of course there’s another option – don’t drink and drive; don’t take drugs and drive. But if people were inclined to obey all of the laws there would be no need for the police. In fact one of the stand-out statistics for the County of Suffolk is our leading position in the number of people arrested for DWI under Leandra’s Law (354 since inception, followed by 185 for, you guessed it: Nassau). That’s the crime that you commit where you’re loaded and driving around with the kids in the car. Usually, it’s after an accident but there’s not always a crash before moms, dads or caregivers wind up in handcuffs for this one.
Suffolk, according to a representative from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, had a ‘team in place’ already when the law went into effect and so was ready to enforce this law immediately. Nice to hear MADD giving props to a well planned police initiative, the cops need their support.
There’s another side to that coin: It’s fair to say that Suffolk County has a DWI problem. Whether it’s the sheer number of roadways in the County, population density, some kind of suburban thing, the lack of mass transit (don’t buy that one), or a cultural tilt(s) towards the bottle as fuel for fun and entertainment, it’s a problem. A summer spent picking up empties every Sunday morning doesn’t make me optimistic about the trend line on this crime.
Beer cans and bottles, wine bottles, vodka bottles, mixed drinks, ‘shot bags’ (I’d share a link to a purveyer of these but I don’t want to promote them, think a small baggie full of booze) and lots of variations on the theme can be found lining the roads ANYWHERE you look in Suffolk. Many of these containers are conveniently ‘travel sized’,
and contained in small non-transparent plastic bags (usually black) from the convenience store. If the cops can’t see it, maybe they won’t think it’s beer! Wrong. Anyhow, we have a retail sector that caters to the ‘mobile’ alcoholic.
A lot of people who never thought they’d be arrested are going to be arrested before this worm turns, count on it. Cheers? I don’t think so.
Litter irks me, and so that’s why I pick it up. It’s that simple. People have a choice, they can either complain about it and do nothing or they can decide to do something about it: they can pick it up. For me, it’ll be the latter. I’m not going to wait for someone else to take care of this problem.
A cursory look at what lies by the roadside will tell you that most litter comes right out of the car window: it’s a collage of convenience foods, cigarette butts, beer and soda cans, fast food packaging and the like. Change the diaper, throw it out the window. Down that cold beer, throw it out the window. Done with those chips?, out the window. Can’t have the interior of the car dirty or smelling like lunch I guess. It’s so obnoxious. So selfish. Here’s a photo from day one: isn’t this gross?
Add to the intentionally-thrown variety of trash the windy-day variety: the litter from overturned trash bins and the stuff that flies off trucks. Then there are the pole signs, the political lawn signs, the discarded appliances, the furniture. Don’t forget the parts of vehicles from accidents and construction debris dumped in the dead of night, and the dreaded hypodermic needles and condoms. Left for the volunteers to pick up.
Litter is an ethnographic picture of who we are as a culture, at the point of the least denominator. Too many people are slobs. And it’s everywhere. Everywhere.
What can the government do about it? Not enough. The police, for one, have their priorities and littering isn’t among them. It’s not on the radar and likely never will be. They have bigger fish to fry. Aside from the odd incident where some contractor gets nabbed while dumping debris from a job, you can pretty much forget about the enforcement component of this issue. Littering laws, like a lot of low level rules, are self-enforcing. Few people are caught, fewer cited: Littering isn’t getting solved, not by the government.
Of course, street sweepers make the rounds at intervals and do a fair job of snagging litter, but only in the gutters. Community beautification isn’t really their purpose, keeping the storm drains from silting up is their real purpose. Public works departments dredge out the storm basins from time to time if they are diligent, but can’t be expected to prevent the casual tossing of Wendy’s bags.
So I pick it up – me, and a lot of other people who want their communities to be clean and pleasant places. How did I get involved in this? I got my start with community cleanups and eventually made the transition to do-it-yourself litter picker. It’s not much of a transition really, because once you start doing your part with the organized cleanups you pretty quickly either quit or become a zealot. Not everyone enjoys picking up soggy trash on a Saturday morning. But for some, it becomes an addiction. You despised the litter in the first place or you likely wouldn’t have gotten involved, and then you find out that you actually like doing it. So, spearing candy wrappers and bagging up empty beer cans as you’re walking the dog is an almost natural next-step. The organized cleanups are opportunities to refresh and renew the passion and the comradery.
I doubt that too many people would, however, decide to blog their litter picking efforts. You have to be a little nuts is what occurs to me – but what the heck. Guilty as charged if civic activism is a form of nuttiness. I’ve never been one to do something in half measures. If by chronicling my dog-walking litter-picking adventures I can draw some attention to the issue then I’m happy. If I can inspire people to volunteer or to begin picking up trash that would be great. If I can inform the public debate about this problem in any way, then great. At the minimum, I’m happy if I can make a difference in my neighborhood, and I do.
So in the interest of having some (maybe) compelling facts to throw out (pun intended) at dinner parties or, more likely, at meetings with other volunteers, I’m keeping track of what I collect. I have downloaded some ‘citizen scientist’ data forms from the Nature Conservancy (the same ones that we fill out during the semi-annual International Coastal Cleanup, and am filling them out after each time I venture into the streets with my litter pickup stick. They’re downloadable (http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/data-form.pdf) in case anyone wants to do a coastal cleanup. Maybe I’ll contact the Ocean Conservancy to see if they want my data. All of the trash that I pick and photograph and record on the data sheets will come from locations that are within walking distance of my home.
I’ve actually invested some money in this project. But not much. My tools will include a constant supply of reused grocery store bags (at least until those bags are banned by the legislature which I expect will happen soon, but more on that later), an Olympus tg-850 digital camera, a pair of old leather gloves, a wallboard square for scale and a brand new hardware store bought pickup-stick that cost me 22 bucks. It’s a nice one, a Grip’n Grab made in the United Kingdom by Ettore (http://www.ettore.com/professionals/products/grip-%E2%80%99n-grab/) I’ll be reviewing this product by the by. I got it from the local Hardware here in Islip (http://ww3.truevalue.com/isliptruevalue/Home.aspx) where you can get anything at all.
The tool of choice, a Grip’n Grab:
Every day that I pick up trash, and it won’t be every day (I mean, really), will involve data collection and a photo of the proceeds. Like this one:
Not sexy, I know. It is trash after all.
I’ll keep a record of the names of source vendors (franchises and the like), some shame can come out of that, as well as the location cleaned and a completed data sheet. I expect to write about the various aspects of this admittedly quirky project, such as unusual items found, equipment used, a tally of those bottles and cans returns (proceeds to be donated), philosophical observations about trash and any other spinoff ideas that come to mind. It’ll be interesting, at least to me. If anyone else finds it worth reading, like I said before, great.