I’m not a flag-waving patriot. I don’t drink Budweiser. When I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I edit it to more closely match my beliefs. I don’t even watch football. For a fifty-something guy born and bred in America, I don’t seem very American.
On July 3, Susan and I walked out for coffee. This is one of the benefits of living in a small town like Gettysburg. Much like living in a big city, you can actually walk to the places you want to go. But without the noise… or the trash. So I thought.
Our walk disgusted me. We make this walk on a regular basis, but this time, everywhere I looked, I saw litter. Things broken off of cars, plastic shopping bags, water bottles, fast food containers, straws, cigarette butts, and so on. In that moment, my past rained down on me like a cloud-burst of Styrofoam peanuts. Grumbling over litter is familiar ground for me. In fact, for an eight-year chunk of my life, I tried to pick up at least one piece of trash per day. But this stopped more than a decade ago.
Back in the early nineties, while bicycling through North Carolina, I lost a food wrapper lashed to a rack on my bike. One more piece of trash left behind in what has to be the most litter-infested state I’ve ever visited. One piece added to the millions already discarded by the many uncaring souls living in the Charlotte area. No one would possibly notice, but my carelessness weighed heavily on me. As penance, I picked up two pieces of litter. It felt good; It was so easy, and Earth was now one piece of garbage cleaner. So it started, my eight-year trash cleanup. Usually, I did this as I walked through my Washington, DC neighborhood or on my daily commute.
Litter is a simple metaphor for society’s faults. People are self-centered and self-absorbed. Dropping a straw on the ground doesn’t affect me, so why should I worry about it? Someone else will get it. Or the rain will wash it away. And that’s true. For the most part, the rain does dispose the majority of the litter people leave on the ground. And when I think about how much that is, I wonder where it all goes.
What I picture is a secluded, wooded stream-bed near the Maryland border—maybe a dozen miles south of Gettysburg. In my small, made-up swath of nature, mounds of garbage lurk. I envision a natural trap that catches my community’s cast-off trash. And every year or so, the Boy Scouts come and haul it all away. Problem solved!
My vision of this garbage trap is just wishful thinking; There actually is a trap; but it’s called the Chesapeake Bay. And no one hauls away the trash. It just mixes into the water.
My years of self-imposed litter-patrol stopped when Sophie was born. As soon as my walks and commutes included pushing a baby stroller, I lost my appetite for picking up other people’s trash. That hand that just plucked a condom out of the bushes now needed to retrieve my daughter’s lost pacifier. The easiest way to keep my hands clean was to stop touching random garbage on the street.
So for the past fourteen years, I haven’t done my part—meaning my part in cleaning up after others. Of course, I don’t litter, and neither do my wife and children. None of us would think of it. And when I’m out hiking in nature, I can’t possibly step over a food wrapper or a bottle left on the ground—it always goes in my pack. But around town, I just walk right by.
On my July 3rd coffee date, besides all the litter, the thing I noticed around town were displays of patriotism. Flags! Bunting! Everywhere! Messages in shop-windows thanking our troops. T-shirts with pro-America slogans. Weekend sales events! Yes, Gettysburg was pulling out the stops to give a huge thumbs-up to our country. I wanted in.
I began to think about how I could say thank you for the awesome and amazing life I stumbled into simply by being born in America. What I came up with was something I already knew. I could help make it beautiful. Not just in the woods and the hiking paths and the secluded streams, but the parts that everyone else sees—in the gutter, right here in town.
So on July 4th, before most people got out of bed, and certainly before almost anyone was out and moving around town, I grabbed a plastic bag and a pair of latex gloves and I went out to honor my country. I went out to pick up the trash that leaves Gettysburg looking uncared for, like a second rate town. But all I really did was clean up after a bunch of smokers.
If you smoke cigarettes, please keep reading, and then take a hard look at yourself.
As I started grabbing litter off the streets and sidewalks, I found myself subconsciously counting cigarette butts. Really I was just counting the litter I picked up, but I quickly realized all I was picking up was cigarettes. On one short block, two hundred of them. Around the corner, hundreds more. At the edge of a sewer grate, dozens of them—all set to disappear from human observation and make their way down stream to the Bay. And then into the Atlantic Ocean.
A cigarette butt is an insignificant amount of litter. A remnant of tobacco, a wisp of paper, and a filter that will disintegrate within a few weeks. Not a big deal, right? Until you’re standing there with a garbage bag filled with a thousand butts picked up off a few city blocks in forty-five minutes.
Butts aren’t made of cotton or wool or some other innocuous ingredient. They’re made of cellulose acetate which is a manufactured plastic that takes up to ten years to biodegrade. While that filter will become unrecognizable in a few weeks, dissolved plastic will remain in our waterways for a decade. It will be ingested by fish, mammals and even humans. With billions of cigarettes being washed into our streams every year, the problem is only getting worse.
As bans on indoor smoking have proliferated over the past twenty years, smokers have moved out of restaurants, bars, and offices, and onto the sidewalk. People now even smoke outside their homes. Outdoors is the last acceptable place for people to smoke cigarettes. At least smokers think so.
I don’t. Every time I go to an outdoor event—a parade, a festival, a concert, sometimes just a walk—people light their cigarettes and blow their smoke my way. Bad enough that they’re polluting my air, they almost always finish up by crushing their butt into the ground or the street. Completing what I consider to be just about the most selfish and unpatriotic thing a person can do: create pollution.
Of course, on my Fourth of July litter collection day, cigarette butts weren’t the only trash I cleaned up. I found several empty cigarette cartons, some of those cellophane wrappers that cover new cigarette packs and even a spent cigarette lighter or two. I did find a couple of discarded fast food containers and plastic water bottles. But for the most part, without smokers, Gettysburg doesn’t seem to have litter.
So smokers: fly your flag, praise your troops, shop your sales, but take your love of country a step further. Show your fellow citizens some respect by picking up your own litter, and getting your cigarette butts into a garbage can. What might seem insignificant to you is part of a huge pollution problem. Your small selfless act of not littering is a step towards a healthier nation and a healthier world.