The snow’s been melting. It’s almost gone here, and that’s a welcome sight. But as it disappears, it’s leaving behind a whole season’s worth of garbage: coffee cups, party balloons, cigarette butts, take-out bags and containers lining the sides of the highways. And at my usual trailheads and ocean lookouts, enough yard waste and furniture (yes, furniture) buried in the bushes to prove that folks have been taking advantage of the snow to back their trucks up and empty them into the woods while no one’s looking.
I’m probably not remembering right, but when I was a kid in the 80s, I feel like there was consensus around putting trash where it belongs. Give a hoot, don’t pollute. Don’t be a litterbug. You may remember some of that too. Recycling gained support at the same time. I think I wore temporary tattoos of that cool arrow-triangle symbol for a while. My community petitioned the town council to add a recycling program, and when the new recycling center opened up, my family was so excited to drop off the containers we’d been saving for weeks.
So I don’t know if I missed something—if litterbugs were carrying on the whole time while I wasn’t looking—but my younger self, Little Conservationist Erin, is really disappointed that we haven’t gotten much beyond that simple message. And grown-up Conservationist Erin is even more devastated. Reducing waste and putting trash where it belongs is Step One in taking care of the planet. No wonder we can’t make headway against climate change. No wonder we’ve lost ground against air and water polluters, decades after the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts changed history and public health.
We can’t even get our act together about garbage.
Doesn’t this bother people? That after at least a century of clean-up messaging, we still spend millions each year in taxpayer dollars and volunteer hours to pick up after adults who are smart enough to get their driver’s license? That so many consumer products are designed around single-use packaging that can’t even be recycled? A good portion of the plastic trash in the ocean got there straight from someone’s hands because a garbage can was just too far away.
You know, climate change is a big deal. But even though that environmental disaster seems all but inevitable at this point (and I hope and believe it’s not), we shouldn’t just give up on the other environmental disasters happening around us too. We can’t be so distracted by arguing or worrying about the one issue that we don’t bother to hold our soda bottle until we find the recycling bin.
Maybe instead, we should get back to basics. Not littering—and countering the effects of other people’s garbage—is an aspect of conservation where individual actions accumulate quickly. It’s easier to be engaged when the results are immediately visible. And the stakes are so high.
What would it take to resurrect the litterbug campaigns of my childhood? Would they make a difference? I’m going to go dig up some of those cool recycle-symbol temporary tattoos first, and then I’m going to find out.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.