Litterbug

This post originally ran April 25, 2017. It’s almost Earth Day again, and litter still seems like the least of our environmental concerns.

On Saturday, Earth Day, I went for a run. About a mile in, I came upon a bald, middle-aged man. He wore a leather jacket and a Bluetooth headset. I was perhaps twenty feet from him when he chucked a crumpled plastic bag on the ground. Then he got on his bicycle and started peddling away.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The man wasn’t moving very fast. I had time to yell. I imagined myself saying, “Excuse me! Sir! You dropped your bag.” This made his action sound like an accident, but I what else could I say? I wasn’t looking for a confrontation.

Instead, I did nothing. I let the man ride off. I left the bag where it lay. I kept running. And for the next 43 sweaty minutes, I thought about the man, the bag, and my reaction.

I can’t remember any specific anti-littering advertisements from my childhood, but they must have been effective because I don’t litter. Ever. I carry trash in my pocket or purse. When the wind takes a gum wrapper or a napkin, I chase it down. I could try to throw a plastic bag on the ground, but I’m not sure my hand would unclench to release it. Not littering is engrained in my muscle fibers. I have anti-litter muscle memory.

So when I saw the man ditch his plastic shopping bag, it felt like an affront. It’s 2017! Who litters? With the myriad of complex environmental problems threatening the planet, not throwing trash on the ground seems like the least we can do. Seriously. The very least.

People can change, and studies suggest that disapproval is a powerful littering deterrent. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to admonish the biker. Why?

I came back to this question again and again as I ran. And I think I now have at least a partial explanation. First, I am in no position to criticize someone for being a poor environmental steward. Sure, I don’t litter. But I take long showers. I use bleach in the washer sometimes. I fly across the country. I buy bottled water in the airport. I often drive instead of walking. I forget to bring my reusable bags to the grocery store. My daughter wears disposable diapers. And on and on.

I am very much living in a glass house. Throwing stones seems petty and potentially reckless.

Second, littering seems like such a minor offense when you consider the full scope of environmental crimes being perpetrated by humans. Oil companies spill millions of gallons of crude. An entire community drinks lead-tainted water. Reefs are dying. Polar bears are dying. Giraffes are dying. The Arctic Ocean is rapidly becoming an enormous plastic trash patch. And then there’s the climate . . . oh god the climate.

So while I was deciding whether or not to confront the man on the bike, I started to think about all of these other catastrophes, and my body began to feel heavy. I was consumed by . . . not apathy exactly. More like deep resignation. We’re f*&$ing the planet. What does this bag even matter?

But I should know better, of course. You have to start somewhere. So three miles into my run, I turned around and retraced my steps. I picked up the bag and carried it home. I didn’t save the planet — I can’t. But I made a small and quiet stand against resignation.

***

Image courtesy of maxi2k6 via Flickr.

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