It’s hard to not look up when Mt. Hood is in view—her beauty is incredible (even without much snow). My iPhone is filled with images that would entice even the most stubborn New Yorker to move here.
“Start at your feet” – these powerful words were referenced in an article about everyday heroes who are removing tons of plastic from our oceans and beaches—plastic that will soon outnumber fish in our oceans.
While the mountains and trees keep me grounded, trash on our trails inevitably shifts my head in a different direction—toward my feet. You could say, I’ve become a little obsessed lately with scouting and picking up trash. Below is a small collection of what I’ve picked up the last few days running around Mt. Hood.
People spot me picking up litter and thank me. While appreciated, I don’t want thanks—what I want is for everyone to join me in my litter crusade—and some have by sharing their photos as part of my Make a Pact, Pact it Out initiative (a special thank you to my friends Troy, Kendra, Katherine, and Lauren for joining me). And there’s certainly other campaigns out there focused on litter awareness and clean-ups.
I’ve written many times about my trashy runs and the frustration that ensues. Pick up one bottle and you many find two took its place when you return. Outside of installing “caught you” cams throughout our wildplaces, I’m always a little stumped about what to do.
It comes back to we need more people connected to our environment. As Sebastian Junger sums up in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, “when you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in.”
Tossing a bottle (or whatever) on the ground is egregious and destructive, but is walking past one and not picking it up much better?
When I moved from NYC to Austin for grad school in 1998, a colleague joked with me to find out the meaning behind, “Don’t Mess with Texas.” It is of course, a popular anti-litter campaign in Texas. Research from 2007 found that third-graders growing up with the campaign are less likely to develop the littering habits of earlier generations. I can’t recall the last time I saw an anti-littering PSA on television or the radio. Can you?
So maybe that’s the answer—we focus on the kids. Yesterday I did a very unscientific poll with several friends who have young kids. Their kids couldn’t recall any discussion around littering at school. Perhaps the kids just forgot, but it seems there’s an opportunity here.
Last Thursday the National Park Service celebrated its centennial birthday. As part of this milestone, the US Department Interior launched Every Kid in The Park, a program that gives kids and their families (and schools) free access to national parks for one year (though a bit of a misnomer as the initiative targets fourth graders). Exploring the site further, I was happy to see a lesson plan focused on environmental stewardship, which includes litter awareness and prevention. I would love to see activities like this not just as a one-off, but as part of the core curriculum in all our schools.
In addition to partnering with schools, we need support from city and state governments, businesses, and the media. We need collective action. If it “bleeds it leads” is a common moniker in the news industry. Folks, we’re bleeding—litter cleanup costs approximately $11.5 million per year; over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year; plastic bags in the ocean kill over 1,000,000 sea animals each year. Our litter conditions deserve more coverage in the news—people need to be informed and then inspired to act.
As cliche as it sounds, we need to start in our own backyards. I was recently introduced to Museum of Litter, an online project dedicated to the elimination and prevention of litter. Its website has a wonderful article with many suggestions for eliminating litter in our cities. While my focus is primarily on cleaning up our wildplaces, many of the ideas here will translate well to the trails. My head is spinning and yours should be, too. Maybe there’s more we can do to clean up and prevent litter than I first thought?
Hate litter? Me, too. Want to do something about it? Start at your feet.