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 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.

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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.

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.

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?


	

I Despise Litter: That’s Why

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?

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Litter Collage

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.

Concrete Blocks, dumped by the roadside in a local wildlife preserve
Concrete Blocks, dumped by the roadside in a local wildlife preserve: lovely

 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:

Still Life: Litter

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.

Into the litter.