Trash Talkin’, or Pickup on Westcott
April 20, 2023
by Sam Gruber
Earth Day 2023 is upon us, marking two years of regular WNA monthly neighborhood clean-ups. Longtime resident and WNA co-president Sam Gruber has some thoughts about that …
On the third Saturday of every month, early in the morning, I walk around the corner to meet some neighbors to go pick up trash. Five to ten neighbors – converge with plastic buckets, garbage bags, and long wooden tongs. After a brief social minute, we head our separate ways. Heads down, arms out, tongs clicking, we start reading the neighborhood from the ground up. We are not a group of obsessives, but we do like a certain level of tidiness on the streets where we live and walk. We may not be able to stop climate change, fix the schools, or end political corruption, but this is something small that we know we can do. For at least a short time after a trash pick-up, there seems to be some order in the universe.
When all you want to see is trash, you look at the streets, gutters, berms, and sidewalks in an entirely different way. We are not looking at the structure of the neighborhood, we only see the surface. It is a scavenger hunt, but the prizes (trash) are easy to find. Cans and bottles, snack wrappers and plastic cups, empty cigarette packs and used face masks, all are harvested in our bags and buckets. Bits of plastic and paper packaging of every size and shape are our prizes. We do this not to keep things clean, but to vainly try to keep things neat.
In a neighborhood that is built along orderly lines, the distraction of a paper flying across a lawn, a soggy cardboard pizza box crushed in the gutter, or a plastic bottle rolling on the sidewalk is an offense. Scores of other types of litter are our monthly challenge. But it is not just about aesthetics – or so I rationalize. If left alone much of the trash will be washed into the city storm drains with the next rain or snow melt off. Larger trash will block drainage and water treatment systems.
The smallest trash will flow into our natural waterways or be eaten by animals, so my most hated enemies are bits of styrofoam from packaging, or tiny pieces breaking off from old brittle styrene plastics. I used to curate the Plastics collection at Syracuse University – so I know something about the eternal qualities of synthetic polymers. Plastics break down, but never disappear. Geologists are already calling this era of history the “Plasticene Age” I cannot see close enough to stop the flood of micro beads and microfibers that will inevitably embed in sediments for millennia. But if I can see a plastic bottle top, I’ll pick it up with tongs or fingers.
When we start, there is always plenty of trash. How did it get here? Let me count the ways.
On windy days, trash put in uncovered recycling bins gets blown around, and blown again and again. Paper intended for recycling makes its way across streets and lawns and entangles into hedges and shrubs. This should be a problem easily solved. We cannot stop the wind, but we can require containers with lids. The city and county have announced that changes are in the works, we’ll see …
The second type of trash would also disappear with just a little planning and enforcement. Too many people put their trash out days before actual pickup time, and many residents just put out their garbage in plastic bags. Inevitably, these are torn open, sometimes by people searching for returnable cans and bottles, but mostly by dogs, cats, raccoons, birds, and squirrels. Trash and garbage of every sort is strewn over the ground, and light stuff gets blown away.
Lastly, some of what we pick up has been thrown onto the street or sidewalk by people walking by, but often it is tossed from cars. We have lots of new brightly colored trash cans in the neighborhood (courtesy of the Westcott Neighborhood Association and an UNSAAC grant) and it would be nice to think pedestrian littering is way down because of them. Maybe. But there is no slowing drive-by litter. More than once I’ve cleaned up the leftover trash of an entire fast-food meal. On the bright side, though, in this packaging there now seems to be more paper than plastic. But when tossed from a car, this paper spreads itself up and down a block just as much. Luna, my dog, loves to find these leftovers – but I do not.
Our patrols will pick up almost anything no matter where it came from. Some of it is blown from trash or recycling bins and has sat for days or weeks or even months and settled into the grass or infiltrated the piles of unraked leaves. There are cigarette butts with their plastic filters tossed by customers outside bars, restaurants, or waiting in concert lines. According to a recent environmental report, cigarette butts with plastic filters are now among the most ubiquitous items in our waterways and beaches, followed by a host of plastic bottles, bottle caps, and plastic packaging. When this neighborhood was built our modern concept of plastic did not exist. What synthetic plastics there were in common use back then were not disposable. A Bakelite radio or cooking pot handle was meant to last for as long as one made of wood or metal.
We used to clean up just on Earth Day. Lots and lots of trash was collected as it was just after winter, when garbage had lain beneath the snow. But it was clear that cleaning once a year was not going to do much overall for the neighborhood. So, if people can’t be trained to pick up trash when they see it, we decided that at least a monthly clean up would make some difference. It might also draw people’s attention to the problem more often than once a year.
A few streets seem irredeemable when it comes to picking up all the trash that’s been left, but we’ve learned most streets can be nearly pristine in only a few minutes, just by picking up a small amount of litter items over the course of a block. Big items, especially those sitting on the berm between the sidewalk and the street are especially ugly. Just a few plastic bags or chip wrappers or beer cans, or even discarded face masks, will make a street look trashy, especially if they get to sit there long and when these get ground into the mud, or accumulate in the gutter, our streets begin to look like rundown.
We encourage residents to pick up trash in front of their own houses – something I had mistakenly taken for granted that most people would do. After all, who wants to have garbage accumulate round where one walks every day? But it’s not a given. People respond differently to disorder, as do differnet subgroups within any one culture. It is so obvious. In my own family of four we all have our preferred levels of order – and disorder – in which we function best. And even living alone, I seem to keep four rooms in different stages of disarray.
Too much order – just like too little variety – may not be a good thing. I suppose that is why we are only neighborhood trash pickers just once a month. Unintentionally, we allow everyone to enjoy their preferred level of order – or disorder – for some days every month.