Saturday, January 1, 2011


When I got back from my morning walk the other day, I carried a plastic shopping bag bulging with stuff. Not consumer goods from post-Christmas sales, but empty Miller Lite and Budweiser cans, empty Red Bull and Pepsi and Coke cans, tiny Jim Beam bottles, wadded fast food bags, crushed cups, a Gatorade container, empty cigarette packages, a discarded glove, five playing cards (King of Diamonds high), a noodle box, and a short length of rope.

I picked all of this stuff up from the side of the road. I simply cannot walk past it anymore. Once I got home I sorted the trash from the recyclables and put each in its appropriate receptacle.

Then I washed my hands.

I’ve been on a renewed anti-litter kick for the last year or so. I hate litter – and I mean hate. It astounds me how casually people treat the earth – like it’s a big garbage dump.

During warm weather, when I bike a lot, I often carry a shopping bag with drawstrings that can be worn backpack style. I pick up litter, but it doesn’t take long to fill. I don’t always take the bag along, because I have to make so many stops it gets in the way of a decent ride.

Now, in the cycling off-season, I walk. And I always take a plastic bag with me, filling it with litter and moral outrage.

There used to be a guy in my town who spent long hours each day picking up litter. He was a familiar site, riding around on a mountain bike carrying big trash bags filled with discarded cans and bottles. I’d see him morning noon and night, summer and winter, riding along with a couple of big overstuffed bags. Sometimes I’d see his bike propped on the side of the road, and there he’d be in the weeds, bent over to retrieve a can or bottle.

On the next-to-last day of January 2009, as he rooted about collecting litter along a major thoroughfare, he was struck and killed by a car. He’d been twenty-five or thirty feet from the side of the road. Initial press accounts stated the driver was under the influence of prescription medicine, but this turned out to be inaccurate. In any case, there was a tremendous outpouring of grief from the community. Within hours someone created a Facebook page to honor him, and a few months later someone else was inspired to organize a community clean-up. Hundreds of people pitched in to pick up litter, and it’s become an annual thing. On the first anniversary of his death, the town unveiled a statue in his memory.

But I’m not trying to take this guy’s place. Litter offends me and always has. When my son was in first grade I suggested we pick up all the litter we found between our house and his school, a distance of five or six blocks. He could take the collected stuff to school for show-and-tell. Look how much I picked up in just that short distance, he would say. I secretly hoped his demonstration would shock his classmates, and convert them.

In any case, my anti-litter stance has intensified. Every day during my walk I pass a grassy knoll where teen drunkies congregate at night. They leave behind assorted empties, so I pick them all up. I pass a fast food place and find discarded bags and cups strewn along the sidewalk. I pick them up. I cannot pass this stuff by.

Now it is New Year’s Day 2011, and along with the usual vows to quit smoking, lose a few pounds, etc etc, I urge everyone to think about trash. Not necessarily to the point where you carry around an empty bag to collect litter, but to be mindful of always disposing of stuff properly.

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