Pick up Other People’s Trash?

Should we should start picking up other people’s trash? (I know, I know, just bring gloves or hand sanitizer)

I was strolling along the National Mall with my friends and wanted to take a reflective photo of the Lincoln Memorial. As I crouched down to take a photo, plastic water bottles floating in the water filled my frame. I stood back up and snapped a photo. Though the thought of picking up the bottles popped up in my head, I let it go as soon as I saw the thick algae the bottles were covered with. So, my friends and I headed onwards, though a strange feeling remained with me.

That night, I repeatedly thought back on the bottles and how I should have just picked them up. Should I have picked them up with the algae and tossed them out? What if the algae was food for some fish? Should I have separated them from the algae? I hadn’t brought gloves or hand sanitizer, so it’d be unhygienic. I hadn’t planned on eating anytime soon, and I could stop by a restaurant to wash my hands. They probably had cleaners anyway, right?

I felt torn; on the one hand I hadn’t tossed the bottles in the water. On the other hand, I was akin to a bystander, and shared responsibility on why the bottles had remained in the water. The night inspired me to start bringing a plastic bag with me wherever I went. That small CVS bag that I paid 15 cents for on a night I forgot my reusable bag has been through quite a lot in the last few weeks. I’ve taken it hiking in Great Falls, where I collected a number of cans, plastic wrappers, and food scraps left behind by forgetful hikers. It’s traveled to Baltimore, whose Fells Point was littered with receipts and paper waste. It’s even become a part of my nightly running routine; as I put in my headphones and play my music, I stick the bag into my pocket, so light that I don’t feel in once I set into my rhythm. Though I didn’t think anything of it when purchasing the bag, it’s become highly versatile, functioning as a glove that I pick up trash with, and a bag for the trash until I find the closest waste bin.

It seemed like a highly personal activity until I was walking around my neighborhood with my friends who mentioned that a street I frequented on my runs seemed different. After some chatting, we realized what the change was: its cleanliness. The streets, which had been lined with trash all summer, were mostly cleared of litter. As we looked at the streets, small details I hadn’t noticed before stuck out. I noticed how many gutters the street had, none of which had any metal net to block out unwanted visitors. Who knows how much litter had been swept into those gutters and propelled onwards to the Bay and the ocean over the years?

It got me thinking about the plastic bottles by the Lincoln Memorial again. Is it enough, given today’s climate crisis, to put the sole responsibility for sustainability on what I do or do not produce? Can I be a good environmentalist if I don’t littler? Or was my active effort to reduce litter what allows me to call myself an environmentalist in the first place?

Our world is running out of time. That much is clear. Even if our entire world (energy companies, farmers, industry, etc.) collectively decided that today we will not emit a single pound of greenhouse gas ever again, it would take 40 years for the world’s climate to stabilize, and it would still stabilize at a higher temperature than previous generations. That’s the best case scenario. Most hypotheses are that our current carbon dioxide levels (even if emissions stopped immediately) could warm the Earth’s surface for centuries. The belief that we must only monitor our own practices must be abandoned. The same approach applies for companies and governments.

The USA aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. The European Union and United Kingdom have the same timeline. Many mass corporations followed suit. Though these commitments did inspire a significant push towards clean, renewable energy, it’s not enough. Corporations and organized bodies must take responsibility for previous emissions, investing in carbon-removing strategies. Carbon neutrality is not effective enough; carbon-negative strategies are the key to effective climate change mitigation.

The average consumer has only a limited effect on reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions because of the market availability of products and the high cost of truly sustainably sourced goods. But, because it is companies and manufacturers create these products for consumers, the change must come from them. With their massive historic greenhouse gas emissions, corporations bear the brunt of the responsibility for climate change. Nevertheless, average consumers and citizens cannot be bystanders. We can still reduce emissions somewhat by our own behavior, if millions of individuals act, even more so.

Where possible, individuals must go beyond their personal impact and address the negative environmental impact of their neighbors. Whether that be by picking up trash on hikes or encouraging your peers to take home their food leftovers at a restaurant instead of tossing them, we must cultivate and invite a culture of awareness: aware of our impacts, our neighbors’ impacts, and the impacts of the products we purchase.

As for the critical, but complex issue of how to reduce waste at its source and how to affect individual and corporate behavior, I recommend a deeper analysis of our waste and garbage problem in Edward Humes’ Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash and a perceptive review essay of it by my colleague, RCC Stanback Fellow, Francesca Cetta.

RCC Stanback Communications Fellow – Nicole Masarova

Nicole Masarova is a dual-enrollment sophomore at Duke University and Duke Kunshan University, Duke’s sister school in China, pursuing a major in Environmental Science with a concentration in Public Policy. She was born in California, with parents who immigrated to the US from Slovakia. Her development of a nonprofit, grassroots tutoring program in the wake of the pandemic inspired a passion in the intersection of law, equitable policy, and sustainability