Ralph Gardner Jr: Earth Day 2019

Apr 20, 2019

The writer celebrating Earth Day.
Credit Liz Neumark

I use Earth Day – this year it’s Monday, April 22nd – as an excuse to clean up the garbage that’s accumulated along our road over the previous twelve months. Actually, it’s not an excuse. That’s the point of Earth Day at least as I understand it, to respect and repair the planet.

After all these years, I’ve got the sanitation process down to something of a science. I line a shopping cart with a large, heavy duty, construction debris-strength garbage bag and wheel it down the road, picking up cans and bottles, and losing lottery tickets, as I go.

This year the chore was more streamlined than in the past for a couple of reasons. My daughter Lucy thoughtfully bought me one of those trash picker-upper poles with rubber grips at the end.

It made the process infinitely easier, especially on my back and the remainder of my body, since I’ve been known to rappel down embankments and into streams to retrieve every last withered coffee cup and soda bottle. No candy wrapper is too small to escape my effort; while usually self-righteously cursing whoever it was that was so insensitive, uncouth, and anti-social to cavalierly toss the remains of their kids’ McDonald’s Happy Meal out their car window.

But this year the process was also easier because there seemed to be less trash than on previous occasions. I doubt it’s because civility is ascendant; in fact it often feels the opposite.

It seems like someone got there before me. A Good Samaritan? The town highway department?

That’s not to suggest I was idle. I managed to fill an entire large trash liner to the gills.

And between cussing out litterers – I may be going slightly overboard, but it doesn’t take much encouragement for me categorize their offenses as crimes against humanity – I try and deduce trends and the personalities of the offenders through the type of garbage I’m retrieving.

For example, in years past certain beers were more popular than others – Heineken, Yuengling, Genesee. Also, for several seasons there was a rash of Angry Orchid empties.

I didn’t find a preponderance of any brand this year.

Yet some of the same trends continue. McDonald’s is the most popular fast food based on the number of crumpled Big Mac and French fry boxes I retrieved.

While I couldn’t make any generalizations, beer-wise, Jim Beam seemed to be the bourbon of choice, at least among those who drive the back roads of Columbia County. I collected three bottles.

But then it occurred to me that because the type and brands of debris doesn’t change all that much from year to year perhaps what I’m looking at is a single perpetrator, or only a few perpetrators, who regularly drive down our road and are responsible for the majority of the garbage.

How else to explain the couple dozen Newport cigarette boxes I recovered? I find it hard to believe everybody has switched to Newports. It’s obviously the same chain smoker that also happens to put his butts in a jar filled with water and then, when it’s full, tosses the brown swill, jar and all, into the bushes.

Which raises the question this and every year: if he’s going to that effort of dedicating a receptacle for the purpose why not wait until he gets home and throw the jar into his own trash? (Why I assume it’s a he and not a she I don’t know, except that I tend to think of the average female as slightly more evolved than the average male.)

Unless he, or she, is trying to hide his or her habit from somebody.

If, in fact, the same person is responsible for much of my trash, then a personality profile starts to emerge; and it’s not a particularly happy one. This is not an individual making healthy lifestyle choices.

He or she appears both hard drinking, hard smoking and routinely engages in magical thinking. I base that mostly on the number of losing lottery tickets littering the road.

However, my hunch is that the person isn’t the same criminal who dumps thirty-gallon trash bags filled with deer carcasses down our ravine. Or the bald tire recidivist.

There must be twenty used tires up and down the road. What makes that crime so egregious is that some of the tires land in pristine streams.

Each year I vow to collect them and take them to the town dump. But I never do. It’s less the cost – though it angers me to think I’m underwriting someone’s felonious behavior – than the effort and messing up the interior of my car.

But it’s the least I can do. And no matter the price I’m confident that it will be worth it, if only for the sense of civic virtue that will flood my being once the tires are gone. And for returning my woods to their nature, unblemished condition. If only temporarily.

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

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