How I started my litter adventures . . .
I’ve always had a bit of an addictive personality. Instead of dipping my toe into the water when I get involved in a new hobby (i.e., a new-to-me video game, gardening, shopping for quirky and unique secondhand clothes and accessories), I instead tend to plunge in headfirst (for better or for worse). My significant other says he loves this about me. I didn’t plan to wage a weekly battle against litter in my neighborhood, it just sort of snowballed from a single pickup. But then, that’s exactly what happened with my career path--one bird sighting snowballed into changing my major after three years of something totally unrelated, and now I teach biology.
In late July 2017, I had an unpleasant encounter with someone who littered in a parking lot, perhaps 100 feet from a trashbin. A couple weeks after that, in early August, a man tossed a receipt out of his car window in my neighborhood, just as I was about to leave on an errand. He noticed my exasperated expression as I got out of my parked car to pick up the piece of litter, and strangely asked for it back. I handed it back, and requested that he not litter. He replied (paraphrased), “Why don’t you try picking up litter for hours at a time downtown?” (I’m still not sure what that has to do with justifying his littering.) My temper flared a bit, and I responded with a partial lie, “Actually I have!” It had in fact been several years since my last litter pickup, and that had taken place on a deserted beach about 1,000 miles away from Savannah. Prior to those unplanned beach cleanups, I used to pick up litter at my favorite bird watching spots off Lake Ontario in New York.
I didn’t want to keep sitting back while people littered, sometimes right in front of me. I knew I could use my socioeconomic privileges for positive changes—I had some “disposable” income and some free time. Not everyone can spend hours picking up litter, plenty of people in my neighborhood work multiple jobs to support family members and have no extra free time or money. There are, of course, many other reasons why not everyone can spend resources on environmentalism. So, wasn’t it my duty to step up and pitch in because I could? I personally felt like it was (and is). I shopped for a trash grabber online, and found one with great reviews at a reasonable price. Here was the tool I needed to maximize efficiency and minimize back pain. Heck, I’d look like a pro out there with one of those grabber things I’d seen from time to time, though I couldn’t quite remember where or when.
On September 5, 2017 Hurricane Irma was raging in the Caribbean and projected to hit the Florida peninsula within a few days. From my current residence in the Savannah, GA area my significant other and I began preparations. We couldn’t help but remember the events of Hurricane Matthew the year before, and knew that if the storm headed our way and evacuation orders were issued, we wanted to be ready within plenty of time. We are privileged and lucky enough to be in a financial situation where preparations were possible and feasible. Too many others in the Caribbean and the southeast United States could do little but wait and hope. Like many other southern coastal cities, Savannah is prone to flooding in certain areas during heavy rainfall. During heavy summer rainfall, it is not uncommon for the water to reach knee-level around our house. Knowing that Irma could bring torrential downpours, among other threats, I decided that my Hurricane Irma preparations should include litter removal around our house in an attempt to mitigate storm drain blockages.
Irma came, took lives, did damage, and moved on. Once again, we were privileged and lucky to have no serious damage to our home. Others continue to unjustly and disproportionately suffer from the hurricanes of not only the 2017 season, but of many years passed. We must not forget this, even when the suffering is many miles away and no longer receiving frequent news coverage. If you are able, remember that even relatively small donations to reputable charities can have large impacts. If financial resources are scarce, your voice can potentially also be an important tool for helping others. And if perhaps you don’t have ability, for whatever reason, to spread the word or if people won’t listen—that fact that you care about others still counts for something, it counts for a lot.
I went out with the grabber and a trash bag again when we returned to town. After a couple of clean up sessions with these two basic tools, I realized I wasn’t satisfied to lump all the recyclable bottles and cans I found in with the non-recyclable litter. However, I didn’t think I could hold two trash bags at the same time. I also found that some of my fingertips were going numb for a couple hours at a time from grasping the heavy trash bags too tightly. (That didn’t seem like a good thing.) I wanted to keep cleaning up, but needed a better strategy. So, I shopped for a collapsible wagon that could hold two bags—one for non-recyclable litter and one for recyclables. Now my red wagon and I help clean up the city at least once a week.
At first I kept my litter pickup posts on a private Instagram account, but few friends seemed enthralled by the constant pictures of trash bags and I was beginning to discover that there were dozens, even hundreds or thousands of other people all over the world doing the same thing I was. I wanted to connect with them while keeping a separate private account to keep in touch with friends and family. I started the Savannah Litter Pickup Instagram account on January 1, 2018 and already feel like part of the community. The litter-picking/zero waste community has been welcoming and with rare exceptions, very supportive and encouraging. Networking and collaborating to work towards solutions for the litter and plastic pollution problems we all face is extremely satisfying and helps me maintain momentum even when I occasionally feel worn down. I’ve been so inspired and motivated by local organizations, like Tybee Clean Beach volunteers, and by efforts all over the world. I hope that the litter-picking/zero waste community will continue to grow to be more inclusive and will continue to educate others in a productive, honest way so that more and more people can fight back against plastic pollution and litter. I’ve still got a lot to learn from the litter picking community, and I hope to be a positive addition to it for many years to come.