Essential Elements: Spring Cleaning

With April’s Earth Day and May’s Green-Up Day fast approaching, I find myself more and more puzzled by a phenomenon I witness every time I leave my house. This is no natural phenomenon—it is entirely man-made which, I believe, makes it even more puzzling. The puzzle? Litter. The setting? Vermont. Yes, the picture postcard, idyllic, Green Mountain State, Vermont.

I live in tiny (population 2,200), rural Monkton,Vermont. It is about mid-way between Burlington and Middlebury and is blessed with more than its share of natural beauty. The heart of town is called Monkton Ridge and is where Town Hall, the Monkton General Store, Monkton’s one church and the 20’ x 20’ library flank its major north-south road. This ridge road offers breathtaking views of the Green Mountains to the east and New York’s Adirondacks to the west. And nestled just below the western ridge is sleepy Monkton Pond. It is not unusual to see a car pulled over on the eastern side of the road, driver nearby and intent on photographing Camel’s Hump. Or the car and photographer are parked on the western side of the road where a prized shot would capture multiple tiers of the Adirondacks, including ski slope-scarred White Face. And let’s not forget little Monkton Pond in the foreground.

The beauty of the scenery I am describing hardly fits one’s image of litter. Yet any route around town is far from pristine; all paved and dirt roads are dotted with trash. As an almost daily three-and-a-half-season walker/runner around town, I can’t help but fixate on the litter, ruefully inventorying it as I pass.

The litter falls into three main categories: trash from smoking, trash from eating/drinking and trash from anywhere and everywhere else. Cigarette butts are omnipresent; cigarette packages frequent. Bottles and cans blemish gullies, fields and even well-kept lawns. Food detritus is almost as bad. Some days I witness the sequence of a whole meal consumed in transit via packaging tossed out the window as the diner finished: drinking straw wrapper, whoosh; burger paper, whoosh; box from fries, whoosh; napkins and carry-out bag, whoosh. Usually the last item jettisoned is the cup with straw inside, WHOOSH! Most distressing is when I see a Happy Meal wrapper/box mixed in with the other trash because I can’t help but imagine the dialogue inside the vehicle: Litterer Sr., “All done, son? I’ll open your window—give your trash the old heave ho. Good job!” Litterer Jr., “Oops! My toy wrapper. Open the window again, please.” (Ironically, Monkton has no McDonald’s, Burger King, etc. The closest such business is almost 20 miles away.)

Even the public pond access is not immune to litter. Again I imagine the scenario: Litterer #1, “What a great spot for a picnic! But time to go. Just leave the trash near this rock.” Litterer #2, “Sure. I’ll throw out that broken hairbrush and busted beach ball that are on the backseat, too. This was so nice! Let’s come back soon.”

These scenarios are illogical, I know, but deliberate littering is even more so. Is its cause mindlessness? Callousness? Selfishness? All of the above? So hard to understand. Sadly, even harder to stop.

Littering due to carelessness, however, is not as dismaying since its solution lies with you and me. Owners of open-bed pickups can better secure what’s back there. Recyclers and trash haulers can take more care as they lug and dump their bins. Shoppers can watch their receipts, coupons, bags, etc. Parents can keep a better eye on their little ones while conscientiously training them not to litter. Those physically able can participate in Green Up Day patrols or set their own days to pitch in to clear around town. A little vigilance goes a long way—as well as the simple act of bending down to retrieve an item dropped.

Another spring event is Mother’s Day; a rite of the season is spring cleaning. Mother Earth could certainly use our help to make and to keep her clean!