Last weekend, at an eco-friendly ger resort, two things were absent: the melody of the trash truck and its cargo, trash. I hiked for two hours in the hills and found an old leather children’s boot, a mitten that had fallen apart and a candy wrapper. In the camp, some small scraps of clear plastic and some shreds of tissue paper which I picked up.
Picking up trash back in my hometown is a civic pleasantry practiced by many, out of habit and pride. At least annually, usually on Earth Day, groups organize and adopt different areas and there’s a big clean-up. For many like me, the clean-up continues year-round.
Here in UB, such “clean-up” falls to the impoverished who search for recyclables that bring in cash. Unprofitable trash is left behind. I have seen people sweeping the sidewalk in the evening; the activity seems linked to businesses along those stretches of sidewalk. On the other hand, there’s a geocache created by a group that picked up litter on Earth Day.
Regardless, the trash problem is overwhelming. So much so, it’s difficult to imagine that anything will change.
I have hope however, because I have the advantage of perspective – age and memory. I remember being seven and seeing an ad from the Keep America Beautiful campaign (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_America_Beautiful) on my cereal box. It featured a Native American Indian (Iron Eyes Cody) with a tear dropping from his eye, and a guilt laden slogan below.
This was in the 1970′s, before the internet. I became an activist by cutting out the form on the box and mailing it in. I received a kit with information about organizing a trash pickup in my community and campaign materials, such as a trash bag for the family car that could hang on the cigarette lighter or the ash tray protruding from the dashboard. This was back when many people – more than now – just threw trash from their car. This problem worsened when fast food became popular.
Only two kids showed up to the trash pick-up I organized. I remember the cynicism and despair of one of our adult volunteers as a result. Truth is, our town had worse problems than street litter. Our river was polluted by a door factory, a shoe factory, raw sewage and other things that people just threw into the water. My present village was no different back then. Those were just two towns and two rivers. In New Hampshire, there were many such towns and waterways, all polluted. We had paper mills, leather tanning factories, woolen mills, plastics factories – all putting their waste directly into the rivers. It was difficult to imagine a world where you could swim or play in that water. The infamous “Love Canal” (epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.html) was just the tip of the iceberg. And yet, 40 years later, our kids take its cleanliness for granted, in most part because of grass-roots community action and the effects of individual behavior change.
Of course, there are laws against littering, but expecting enforcement is ridiculous except in severe cases, such as those involving toxic materials. Most people who litter do it away from the eyes of others, in rural areas and at night. Beer cans and fast food wrappers are most common, followed by cigarette butts and cigarette packages.
Ironically, the founding members of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign were the very companies that were contributing to the trash problem: Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. The bottom line of the campaign was “every individual must help protect against the terrible effects litter has on the environment.”
Honestly, I don’t have a clear idea if the trash problem in my part of the US was addressed mostly by campaigns and individual or small group action, or by large corporations having contracts to collect trash, compact it and ship it out to other places such as the Philippines. I’ve heard account of – and believe them – of vast floating islands of trash in the oceans. The trash can’t just disappear, and I don’t think there are enough recycling centers and places that can make energy out of composting, to account for all of the U.S.’s trash.
I recall camping summers in the New Hampshire White Mountains as a child. For entertainment we’d drive to “the dump” at night where there was no enclosure and a huge hill of trash. People would park their cars there and wait for the bears. The bears would bring their cubs, and the mother bears would forage for edible trash while the baby bears played at sliding down the hills of trash, and climbing back up again for another slide down. They’d snack on whatever they found. Some people would get out of their cars and offer the bears a favorite treat: Snickers bars. The bears were so used to people that they would even come close to get the chocolate. Of course, having bears used to people wasn’t such a great idea. Some people did get mauled. When the dump started using a closed pit and fencing off the area, the bears moved on to other places – restaurants, homes and campgrounds. Some had to be euthanized because they became nuisance animals.
Last year, there was a mother bear and two cubs who would come through our yard and also walk around the country inn. We lock up our trash and my downstairs neighbor chases the bears away. Our bird feeders are only filled in accordance with recommendations published by the state wildlife office, to avoid creating “nuisance bears.” So far, “our” bears have avoided relocation or euthanasia. It’s an example of how we’ve learned to live in balance with nature. In the end we have no choice but to achieve such a balance. Not just with bears, but with all aspects of nature.
Thinking back to my childhood left me more hopeful about what the future Mongolian landscape will look like. I feel that people will take ownership of and pride in the land and their neighborhoods, maybe as an effect of more people settling down and having to live with the results of their own actions. So, it’s not so depressing. Trash is not really one of the top problems right now. There are other issues, environmental and otherwise. But, trash will have its day.
What’s more depressing from my point of view as a public health analyst/epidemiologist, is what’s happened to the contents of the packaging that’s strewn along the roadsides and piled up in corners along curbs: much of it is piling up in the bodies of Mongolians. But that’s a different discussion.
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