The Hump

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.

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The Big Melt is on

The enormous grey piles of snow are vanishing and revealing a real mess.  There are always these types of days in late Winter, where the sun shines brightly and kids play in the streets after a season cooped up.  It’s always the same and we think: is this over?  It’s not, of course, but it sure feels nice to be warm outside even for a day.

The streets are badly damaged after three consecutive brutal Winters.  This one featured some zero degree nights, sub-zero wind chills and successive, layering, snowfalls. There are new cracks and potholes everywhere. Locally, we had the water mains burst in three spots, tearing up the pavement.  The authorities could only patch them and put some cones in place: it’s going to take a lot of work to repair and clean up. When I walk the dog, road sand left by the spreaders gets on to her jacket and my shoes and gets tracked into the house.  Trash is emerging from snowpiles like the corpse in a detective novel.

As we walk, it’s pick, pick, pick.  A one block circle brings in the usual detritus from upended recycling cans, casually tossed This Week coupon clipper, out-the-window beer cans and bottles, coffee cups, water bottles candy wrappers and cardboard.  More of the same trash that’s always turning up. Notably absent is fast food: though I don’t know why.  I ‘recover’ four or five deposit beverage containers.

As I’m walking it occurs to me that it would have been nice to have an easy metric to know how much trash I’ve removed from the community in the course of my local wanderings.  I don’t. It’s not because I didn’t think of tallying up the trash, I did.  But I haven’t bothered to keep up with it; counting, weighing and the like.  I’m not even taking photos as frequently.  As has been intimated to me – who wants to look at pictures of trash?  Indeed.

When I started this blog, I was full of ideas about how to catalog my findings. But like most new activities in life, I have gradually reduced this one to the essentials – a pick stick, a repurposed plastic bag from the store, the odd blog entry. I just do it, like the Nike slogan says, me and the dog.  It’s a habit with a purpose and it makes me feel good and that’s enough. For the record: Today I picked up 1 grocery bag of trash.

Nature Verses Nurture

Having grown up at the very time that America decided to do something about all that litter everywhere – and it was EVERYWHERE, I have internalized the anti-litter ethic.  Nothing ticks me off like a litterbug.

But people aren’t born caring about street neatness.  That’s why volunteer organizations like Keep America Beautiful and Keep Islip Clean are critical.  If people want their communities to shine, litterwise, we have to bring along the children.  Lectures and programs in the schools are important, as is sponsorship and participation in community cleanups – children will live what they learn.

And parents must set the example.  A parent who casually litters is sending the wrong message to their child.

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Banality of Litter: Promoting Civic Activism

Some litter is probably inadvertent.

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Other litter is casual,

Empties
Drivers who drink discard the empties, eliminating the evidence

 

or just the result of bad weather and bad timing.

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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.

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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.