How do we do good without doing more harm than good?
My husband and I are in the habit of picking up litter as we walk along the path behind our house. As piles of snow melted away in March, piles of trash came into view, dotting the wetlands and prairie with the sheen of clear plastic, the bright colors of newsprint advertisements, and—most ubiquitous of all—shopping bags. We didn’t have to bring our own trash bags, simply loading up the ones we found before depositing them, plump as beach balls, into the trash bin along the trail.
Could we recycle them? Probably not, if they’re dirty. About 80% of newspaper is recycled while only about 7% of plastic is. More than 85% of plastic, especially if it’s soiled, goes to landfills. Lightweight as they are, bags often go sailing in the breeze to end up snagged on trees, in the ocean, or clogging storm drains. (See the National Geographic article about plastic trash online.) One billion tons of plastic bags have been discarded in the last 60 years and will persist virtually forever. It takes centuries or longer to break down their high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas, containing benzene and other toxic chemicals.
To sea turtles, the floating bags look like jellyfish, their favorite food. Turtles, birds, fish, and other animals die from ingesting or respirating the trash, or getting it stuck around their mouths, heads, or abdomens. Researching plastic bags online, I see that three hours of work yielded 1.4 million bags during the 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day. Plastic bags were the second most common trash item found along lakes, streams, and beaches.
My biggest challenge at the duck pond behind our house was a plastic shopping bag mired in the middle of it. We saw it there all winter. The ducks and geese seemed to ignore it, but I didn’t like seeing that petrochemical flotsam in their midst. Last week, after the snow was gone but before the grassy banks thawed to mush, I stood at water’s edge, casting an oak branch toward the slimy bag. The branch was too short. I got some string from the house and tied it to the branch. I hung onto the string and threw the wood with all my might. After a few flings, I lost my grasp on the string and the branch floated out of reach. I fetched it back with another branch. My husband, chuckling at the spectacle from across the pond, shouted, “Tie them together.” Good idea. The length of the two branches was sufficient to rake in the beige bag. I dumped out the mud inside and carried it away. The pond looks much better.
Collecting pound after pound of garbage is a good way to reflect on the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve been composing letters in my head as I walk through the dry grass, wondering if nearby residents would heed a reminder to be more careful, such as bundling up their recycling good and tight before setting it at the curb for pick-up. The winds blast at high speeds across this part of Illinois, scattering paper from recycling bins and assorted junk from trash cans. If such a letter were in our local newspaper, would it help decrease the amount of debris along the path? Or would it just annoy readers and earn me a reputation as an over-zealous nag?
A few years back, I was irritated by just such a “do-gooder.” We happen to drive a hybrid car. We bought a Prius when they first came out and still have our old one, the kind with the trunk before they made hatchbacks. Because our two children had active lives in high school with music and with equestrian and lacrosse teams, we also got a red minivan. It was the only vehicle we found that could carry our daughter’s string bass, not to mention saddles and sports equipment and players. One day I found a note tucked under the wiper on the van’s windshield. The typed words said that, wow, what a big vehicle we had! It then said that we should get a smaller, more environmental car.
Now who would leave that note? I pictured a woman a lot like myself, concerned with the state of the planet and wondering what to do about it. She had a brainstorm to deliver these leaflets to people like me, people she assumed had to be persuaded by her (or him) to change our ways. I should empathize with, or even applaud, such an activist! Instead I wanted to slap them upside the head for being so preachy and presumptuous. This is precisely the outcome I seek to avoid. I want to write about and protect nature without turning people off by sounding judgmental or shrill.
After all, one of my reminders to myself on a regular basis is to avoid “shoulding” on myself. I don’t want to “should” on others either, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, “guilting” them into compliance. That’s one way to make people go suddenly deaf. I could do more harm than good.
What does persuade people to act with the greater good in mind? Perhaps peer pressure. A sign was posted at a petrified forest asking people not to take bits home with them. Trouble is, the sign mentioned that pieces of petrified wood were disappearing from the park at an alarming rate. The message, for some people, was, “Everybody does it.” The rate of pillaging went up rather than down. This is why, instead of the “just say no” campaign, our kids’ high school started spreading the word that the vast majority of students do not smoke, drink, or do drugs. The goal was to normalize staying sober and healthy. Just say yes to intelligent norms.
How do we normalize diligent trash containment and also the use of reusable bags when we shop? (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/06/reusable-grocery-bags_n_1409065.html.) One thing I can do is clean up this patch of the world. With no butts on the ground, smokers won’t see it as a giant ashtray. With no random bags or papers stuck in the grass, people may just chase the next one that gets away. It sets a standard.
I can write a letter, too, asking my neighbors to remember the land. Remember the birds. Earth Day, April 22, is for everybody.