Thursday, June 2, 2016


Mom and dad were in town over the holiday weekend, and we got a little time to visit. I always appreciate our walks and chats, and this occasion was no exception.

They both brought up something that hadn't really struck me before, but as I've reflected on it, I've realized just how profound it actually is. That something? Litter.

Both mom and dad recalled a time when our streets did not have litter. As in: none. Mom even shared how she could remember the first piece of litter she ever saw.

As someone who's grown up seeing anti-littering campaigns, who's always viewed the gutters on streets as places of utter filth, and who is grossed out looking out along the sides of freeways littered with trash, it's near impossible to contemplate a time where litter didn't even exist.

A few weeks ago, I took part in a neighborhood clean-up. Groups of us each claimed sections of street that we then spent 2-3 hours cleaning. We picked up broken glass, fast food wrappers, dirty diapers, needles, and plastic bottles, among many other things. On a single third-mile stretch of street, my group packed five 40-gallon bags with trash. These were things that people had just discarded, likely without a second thought as to when and how they would eventually get cleaned up.

It begs the question: How did we once have streets with no trash that now have so much that we have to organize neighborhood clean-ups and include weekly street sweepings in our city budgets?

How? Cars. Cars changed our relationship to our streets.

Think about it for just a moment. My parents were born at a time when cars were just starting to dramatically change the landscape. What are the quintessential images of the 40s and 50s? Drive-in movie theaters. Drive-up diners. Cars with big tail fins. Fresh, new freeways. Suburbia starting to sprawl across a virgin landscape. Perhaps the most striking change was drive-through restaurants, which transformed our relationship to food, how we use it (less walking, more sitting in a car), with whom we eat it (less social, more isolated), and what we do with its conveyances (less washing and reusing, more disposing).

Is it any wonder that at the time America's fascination with automobiles took full flight that we also started to trash our streets? As we turned our streets into conduits for our cars, we disregarded their value. No longer were they a gathering place - where people dined and children played. They were simply a utility, like our water or sewer pipes - with engineers calculating throughputs and speeds to maximize car travel, without regard to anything else, least of all their cleanliness. From the vantage points of our windshields, we treat our streets like we see them on a map - as interchangeable grey lines.

The price we've paid is enormous. The cost of street sweeping eats a chunk out of most cities' budgets. Never mind things like the North Pacific Gyre, which is a State of Texas-sized floating mass of garbage that has been swept to sea from millions of sewer drains carrying our trash off of our streets and out of immediate sight.

I think about this today after seeing this video of a young kid bemoaning how we trash our environment. His teacher showed him video of birds eating trash - and he was stung by the whole experience. And who can blame him? He looks up to adults to be the one's in charge, fixing things; and instead he sees adults not caring a whit for what they're gonna leave for him once he has the ability to do anything about it.

We have made incredible sacrifices in order to be able to drive everywhere and anytime and at a very low cost to us as drivers. Litter is just one example of that. Imagine a world without litter. I want to; but the difficulty I have doing so just tells me how far down the rabbit hole we've gone and how much work remains to be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment