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Decoding Earth Day's roadside trash

Gracie Gardner, left, and Lucy Gardner collecting trash on Earth Day
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Gracie Gardner, left, and Lucy Gardner collecting trash on Earth Day

Once a year Maureen Dowd relinquishes her New York Times column to her conservative Republican brother. I find his take on things annoying but I’m really not qualified to pass judgment since I usually drop out after the first couple of paragraphs.

The Times’ David Brooks has his own annual ritual. He hands out something called the Sidney Awards to celebrate the year’s best long-form journalism. Whatever you think of Dowd and Brooks and their decision to devote precious column inches to these subjects – are column inches even relevant in our virtual world? – their stories accomplish something important that people that haven’t had to write a weekly, or in my case once daily column for the Wall Street Journal, never have to consider.

The day those stories run you’re off the hook. You don’t have to come up with new and hopefully engaging subject matter. I have my own modest version of that contrivance: my annual report of my findings collecting trash on our country road on Earth Day; and what it may say about the state of the planet.

I realize there’s only a limited amount of reconnaissance that can be gleaned about the human condition and whether we’re on an accelerated pace towards oblivion, or taking a baby step back from the brink, from spending a couple of hours picking up garbage. But one of the qualifications for being a columnist is that you feel no shame in making grand generalizations based on scant science just so you reach 800 words.

I didn’t devote a column to our trash last year, not because our local litterbugs weren’t hurling it from their cars as is their custom, but because I was on the West Coast during Earth Day and for several weeks afterwards. By the time I returned the trash had gone into hiding behind the spring foliage and the urge to tidy up had passed. So I assumed there would be double the accumulated debris this season.

I’m happy to report I was wrong. We filled the same two humongous contractor bags of garbage that we do every April. I’d like to think this means that the general public – at least that quotient of it that travels our rural road on a regular basis – has become more enlightened and passionate about saving the Earth. That’s one possibility. Another is that our town road crew recently dug deep gullies to facilitate drainage and my have simply ground the assorted refuse into microplastics and micrometals that avoid detection. I prefer to believe it’s the former.

My modus operandi is to line one of those folding shopping carts with a contractor bag and then proceed up and down the road plucking debris with an E-Z reach grabber tool. I imagine I must cut a pathetic figure because a few years back a motorist paused and generously offered me his empties.

While I’ve considered it – not accepting his spent beer and soda cans but returning those I discover on my own initiative for their deposit – they’re often in such an advanced state of decay that, reluctantly deciding to forsake the cash, I deposit them directly into our recycling.

This year I was joined by my two daughters who cut the time in half, working one side of the road while I worked the other. It won’t be long now until we can add my twin granddaughters to the crew. I mentioned to my children that it’s a pity they don’t make child-size versions of E-Z reach grabber tools and Lucy corrected me. She works for Prospect Park in Brooklyn and informed me that the Prospect Park Alliance distributes child grabbers to pint-sized Brooklynites on Earth Day. It must be awfully cute.

I have no doubt it also instills important values and turns them into engaged citizens at an early age.

So what debris worth comment did we discover and deposit in its proper place in 2023? Unfortunately, nothing as head scratching as the single size-13 stiletto I found in the underbrush a few years back. This year’s big get were two pristine Meyer lemons. Why someone would chuck perfectly presentable lemons from a moving vehicle was beyond our understanding. I’m open to suggestions.

While the miscreant who habitually drowns his cigarette butts in a water bottle, then tosses the container into the forest, hasn’t quite kicked the habit I’m pleased to report that his consumption seems to be ebbing – perhaps he’s taken to wearing nicotine patches – and I only found a couple of bottles of the swill, not the half dozen from previous years.

My daughters made an unfortunate discovery. A plastic trashcan filled with the odiferous remains of feathered animals. Lucy tentatively identified them as pheasant. Perhaps it’s the same recidivist that discarded deer carcasses a few years ago. I’m tempted to purchase a motion-activated camera to see if I can catch the creep.

On a more upbeat note takeout food packaging seems to have plummeted as well as cans and bottles of all kinds. For a while our local beer connoisseurs seemed on an imported beer kick, favoring brands such as Beck’s and Heineken. Not a single such specimen was found this season. Coors Light seems to be this year’s alcoholic beverage of choice with Angry Orchard hard cider coming in a close second. I find that somewhat disappointing as I’m wary of light beers and those who consume them. Especially those who consume them and then egregiously chuck the cans from their car windows.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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