Photo of Whitney cleaning up her hometown. Photos provided by author.
I live in Des Moines, Iowa. Once known mostly as a “fly-over” state, we are now a fast growing city whose inhabitants strut around with intense pride for their thriving cultural accoutrements and affluent economy. Des Moines is often described as mid-sized, safe, clean and accessible — a place where you can make an impact, see the ripple effect and still leave your front door unlocked in the event a friend wants to deliver a homemade pie. But this spring as the snow melted, I started to see that my prideful perception of my perfect little town wasn’t quite accurate: The “clean” landscape I frequently boasted about now appeared trashy and unkempt. And I was embarrassed.
En route to a favorite brewery one day, I happened to glance out the window, acutely tuned in to the surroundings. One side of the road was a big lot filled with semi truck trailers. The other side was lined with trees and brush — and should have been the side of the street that harkened to nature and serenity. It was not. The natural landscape, brown and barren after the winter, was choked with cast aside water bottles and convenience store cups, five month’s worth of plastic grocery store bags and more cigarette butts than I could shake a Marlboro at. I was astonished; had I really not noticed that my community had become an ad hoc landfill?
My mind conjured the proverbial frog in the pot of water, naively lounging in a warm bath while the temperature gradually increases. Eventually, the unwitting frog boils to death, living its last few moments in a warm tub gone rogue. While this fable is scientifically inaccurate, the message remains powerfully real: The more gradual the change, the less likely one is to recognize a new reality. I’m going to raise my hand and admit that I am the naive frog here. I’m not sure if there has always been this much litter because, honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. I had other priorities while driving: lining up dinner dates on my cell phone and tons of texting to be done (only at stop signs). When on foot, I was often too tight on time to my next appointment to pick up the random plastic bottle I undoubtedly came across. It was challenging enough to dodge Spot’s dog poop.
Once I cleaned this stretch of road, how long before it looked exactly like this again? What would my mother say if she knew I hadn’t worn gloves?
The next day, armed with a sense of deep resolve and several heavy-duty plastic garbage bags, I drove back down to that road, determined to rid the byway of trash and reinstate it to its full spring glory. As I walked, I gathered plastic bags and water bottles, beer and booze bottles, candy wrappers, a wallet, convenience store cups, cigarette butts by the hundreds, McDonalds bags, a screwdriver, socks, a five dollar bill(!), a bed sheet, several pairs of pants and so many more items. The garbage bags filled quickly, averaging one filled bag every 50 feet.
As I repetitively humbled myself, bending over to pick up each piece of discarded trash, I found myself contemplating the life cycle of each item. Where did this trash start its journey? How far did it travel to get caught in this particular branch? How were the local animal populations affected? Once I cleaned this stretch of road, how long before it looked exactly like this again? What would my mother say if she knew I hadn’t worn gloves? Who had lost so many pants???
The first of these questions is the easiest to answer: Trash is an unavoidable byproduct of consumption. I have a guilty habit of consuming multiple beverages a day, and most of these beverages come in an aluminum can or plastic cup. Every time I crack open a seltzer or swing through Starbucks, I’m now reminded that the disposable vessel could potentially end up on the side of the road or the landfill.
The first step to reducing litter is to reduce our creation of waste. I started by bringing my own cup to Starbucks and limiting my seltzer intake to one a day (no easy feat, I assure you). My next purchase will be a seltzer machine for my office.
Next, after I realized I was arriving home from the grocery store with at least 15 plastic bags containing about three items each, I started bringing my own bags or politely asking to sack my own groceries. (The beleaguered baggers don’t seem to mind.)
But the biggest change yet has been my perspective of my hometown. Now I drive through life with eyes wide open, identifying the breeding grounds where trash seems to accumulate. I see the most litter in the worst neighborhoods, in places where I would personally feel unsafe to walk day or night. I also find trash haphazardly blown away from construction sites (come on fellas — put your stuff in a garbage can!) and abandoned parking lots. Interstate on and off ramps are absolute pits of plastic bags and discarded cups. And as I make my way through cleaning up these spaces, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of ownership.
Who owns these spaces? Who takes pride in the neighborhood’s care and presentation? Why do the people creating litter not feel ownership in the spaces they choose to clutter? These are bigger questions with huge economic and cultural impact, but they are the problems I’m mulling over as I bend to pick up litter, piece by piece, cup by cup.
The simple answer is, we all own these spaces, but who among us will step up and make the change? While I can’t change other people’s habits, I can shift my own. Picking up litter is my small contribution to this community. In an effort to empower my community, I reached out on Facebook and offered a free photo shoot (I’m a professional photographer) in exchange for filling one large bag with trash from a littered area. The response was immediate and enormous – I ended up on a local news station talking about my litter elimination project and taking ownership of vacant spaces. As the challenge got underway, people started posting photos of their daily dog walks, plus a big bag of trash they had picked up. Parents were choosing picking up litter as their weekend family activity. I personally started asking my friends if they would pick up trash with me, in lieu of grabbing lunch. Litter is still a huge and seemingly unending problem. Even with recent efforts, my list of locations to eliminate litter is longer then ever. But the residents of Des Moines have made a start and, for that, I am proud. But still I wonder . . . what happened to the guy who lost his pants?