Ralph Gardner Jr: Reading The Tea Leaves In Trash | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: Reading The Tea Leaves In Trash

May 1, 2021

Good news arrived with Earth Day 2021’s trash collection ritual.  Every year, on or about Earth Day, I don a pair of gloves, nab my EZ reach professional claw grabber, line a shopping cart with a heavy duty contractor bag, and travel up and down our road collecting the previous twelve months’ litter.

The good news is that in years past my efforts resulted in a minimum of two overstuffed contractor bags. This year I ended the two-hour exercise with only one. I have no idea why there was less garbage this year. But I do have several theories. For starters, my daughter and son-in-law have joined me in years past and six eyes, especially when four of them are younger, are more likely to notice garbage hiding in plain sight. This year they weren’t around to help.

Another theory is that in the fall our town road crew dug deep gullies along the sides of the road to facilitate drainage and any bottles and cans might have simply been obliterated by their heavy machinery.

The pandemic might also have reduced the volume of trash since people might be clocking less time in their cars and trucks and thus have less opportunity to hurl waste from their vehicle windows. I frankly don’t buy that theory. We were well into the pandemic on Earth Day 2020 and we still had no problem filling up two bags.

Which leaves only one other possibility. And even though I’m reluctant to embrace it because of my jaundiced notions about human nature and because it sounds too good to be true, it may be the most likely: the general population has gotten the memo that we’re in something of an existential crisis regarding our relationship to nature and are finally coming around to treating it with respect.

I’ll admit that there’s only so much information and so many conclusions that can be drawn from the detritus on a single country road. Also, based upon the dominance of certain brands and debris in the past – for example, Angry Orchard cider and scratch-off lottery tickets – my suspicion is that a small number of miscreants are responsible for the majority of the trash.

Yet even accounting for that there were glaring omissions in this year’s haul. Hardly any lottery tickets at all. Also, no Angry Orchard and no imported beer. For several seasons Heineken, with its characteristic green bottles, seemed to rule the imported beer roost. This year I recovered not a single Heineken bottle, or any other imported beer. In that beverage category two brands were overrepresented, or really represented at all – Budweiser and Coors Light.

I’m not sure what that says. Do beer drinkers have less disposable income these days? Or have they come to favor beers with lower alcohol content and that places less demand on the palate, to put it kindly. I don’t drink light beer. If you’re going to tax your kidneys why not do so with a brew that offers some complexity? I realize I’m straying off topic but I’ve been recently been impressed with the intense hoppiness of Dog Fish Head 60 Minute IPA.

After years of collecting roadside trash – I’ve lost count but I’m probably closing in on two decades – I’m still arriving at new insights. One of them is that the majority of trash falls into two categories. There are the simple, boorish litterers who look at nature and see a garbage can that doesn’t require any aim. And then there are those whose trash is associated with sin in their own minds. They’re trying to hide something from someone. How else to explain the two empty handles of vodka I found in our wetland and the single one of Jim Beam?

Also, for the first time ever I recovered a girlie magazine and not one of the glossier ones. I didn’t examine it too closely – I had work to do – but it was published in 2011. Had it been sitting there among the leaves and gravel, evading capture, for a full decade? I doubt it. Its pages were faded by not that faded. Come to think of it what’s most remarkable is that it’s the first of its kind I’ve encountered in all my years as a trash collector.

Packaging from McDonald’s, Burger King and Stewart’s was way down, I’m happy to report. The motorist who smokes Newports still hasn’t kicked the habit. I probably found just as many decomposing boxes of that brand as always. What I didn’t find at all were jars of brown swill. I can’t swear it’s the Newport smoker but in years past someone would deposit his butts in a jar and once it was full toss it from his car window.

That never made any sense to me. If you're conscientious enough to have a designated receptacle for your cigarette butts you’d think you’d be responsible enough to wait until you got home to throw the container in your own trash. Unless, of course, you were trying to hide your habit from someone.

On the whole, however, it was a good year for garbage. Meaning a bad year. At this rate there eventually won’t be any. I doubt that will happen in my lifetime. It’s also possible that as things get back to normal trash will return to its pre-pandemic levels. But I’m hopeful. And if, indeed, garbage serves as a harbinger, the proverbial canary in the coalmine, the canary is singing a little sweeter this spring.

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

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