Monday, April 11, 2011

Talking trash

Saturday morning was all about trash-talking for my friend Lisa and me.

This wasn’t the kind of trash-talking you hear on the field at a Patriots-Jets game. This was talking about trash in the literal sense, and for us it’s actually an annual tradition. For the past three years, Lisa and I have served as coordinators for Carlisle’s annual Trash Party, the Saturday in April that everyone in town is encouraged to go outside and clean up their neighborhood or other public byways.

Lisa and I, however, do not spend the morning picking up trash, because our job is to suggest collection areas for people not committed to their own neighborhoods, list the sections of roadways that various participants have laid claim to, hand out free coffee, juice, donuts and trash bags (medium, large, or extra-large – the latter for those who want to look like Santa Claus as they trudge on down the road), and offer to pick up trash bags when people are done filling them.

The good thing about this event is that it tends to draw an enthusiastic cohort. The bad thing is that the enthusiastic cohort tends to want to talk about, well, trash. And this gets old fast. We hadn’t been at our post for two hours yet yesterday when I snapped to Lisa, “I’m officially tired of discussing how many cigarette butts everyone finds along the road.”

This was not at all the right spirit for the event, though. Our role as event coordinators goes beyond the route assignments and the free coffee; for the duration of the Trash Party, we’re like trash therapists. People want to talk to us and we have to listen. People want to vent about how although it seems like the number of smokers has decreased dramatically in recent years, you’d never know it from examining the trash along the roadways: cigarettes are still multitudinous, and so disgusting to have to pick up. People want to muse about the number of nips bottles they find, and Lisa and I cite frequently the data the town newspaper actually collected from this event one year: nips bottles, beer cans, and other items typically related to secretive teen activities tend to be found in large amounts along main roads at the entrances to subdivisions, because young people dump all the evidence out before they turn into their own neighborhood.

Another discussion that takes place every year without fail is the one about how surprised trash-party participants are to find empty plastic bottles that held vitamin water or other hydration supplements associated with athletic activity. “The cigarette butts, you can almost understand,” someone always says. “You know, pollute your body, pollute the world, same thing. But bicyclists you think of as being such committed environmentalists. So what are they doing tossing their empties into the woods?”

And then a pickup truck devotee always brings up the subject of intentionality. “Not all litter comes from someone who deliberately tossed it out a car window,” goes the explanation. “When you drive a truck, sometimes things just fly out even though you tried to secure them.” This year one pickup truck driver even explained how the problem is worse after a snowy winter because small pieces of litter get encrusted in the ice and snow in the back of the truckbed and then fly out once the snow starts melting, when the driver has long since forgotten they are back there.

The conversation may get tedious, but the mission is important. Saturday’s haul was typical of past years, when we asked participants who checked in with us at the end what they found, along with cigarette butts and nips bottles we heard about soda and beer cans, endless quantities of takeout food packaging, especially plastic cups, a hubcap, a large work boot, pieces of duct tape, popped balloons. In past years we’ve found PVC pipes and plumbing supplies. One man unhappily found a live snake when he picked up a soggy, misshapen cardboard box.

On Sunday when I went running, I really did notice the difference. Even though I grumble about the repetitive conversations, I’m grateful that so many people get into the spirit every year. Today our roadways look clean. They’ll become untidy again soon enough, but for now, I’m happy to know it’s another year before I have to talk trash. And though there’s no question that trash pickup should be a daily rather than annual habit, once a year is more than enough when it comes to the discussions that accompany the event.

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