I lived in the Presidio in San Francisco for six years, a former military base turned national recreation area right next to the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. It was a beautiful place to live, full of meandering trails, dense eucalyptus groves, and more often than not, small pieces of litter that had either been dropped or escaped people’s trash cans, blown by the wind into the brush near trails, that if not captured, would end up in the Pacific Ocean. Every morning, I would walk from my apartment on the west side of the Presidio to the center of the park where I would grab the bus to downtown, a twenty eight to thirty minute walk door to door depending on my pace. A trash sighting was not a daily occurrence, but it was a bi-weekly one at a minimum and it occurred to me that if I were to start saving the plastic bags that my produce was delivered in and put those in my backpack, that I could pick up the trash on my commute and drop it into a trash can to prevent it from landing in the ocean.
Yet, I was living the busy San Francisco lifestyle, often running out my door a few minutes late for my bus and jogging down the trail in my leather work boots in my suit dress for a few minutes to make up for leaving late and never created the time for trash pickup during my daily commute. All of this changed in 2016 when I took an afternoon off work to recharge and went for a walk on Baker Beach, a beautiful beach right at the mouth of the Golden Gate that faces the Pacific Ocean and often has wildlife like dolphins swimming by, the perfect place to relax and reset. As I sat on the sand, I looked closer at what appeared to be a ribbon of seashells and realized that what I was looking at were small pieces of styrofoam confetti. I started to wander down the beach and saw the beach full of styrofoam pieces, large and small. It turned out that a container ship had a spill nearby and the beach had been inundated with styrofoam that had yet to be cleaned up. I just happened to have a bag on me that day and free time, so I began to pick up hundreds of small pieces of foam. While the thought crossed my mind that I was one person facing an entire beach full of styrofoam and that it was futile to think I was making an impact, I kept collecting the pieces. A few people stopped me to ask what I was doing; some had not yet noticed the styrofoam on the beach and were shocked when I pointed out the pollution under their feet. Others had noticed the issue and stopped to thank me for my efforts. I met a few others collecting trash and while we came from very different backgrounds, we shared a wonderful moment of camaraderie in our shared purpose.
Depending on where you live, there may be small or large amounts of litter on the street. It may take you a minute to pick up an errant piece of trash or it could take hours to clean up a city block full of garbage. My advice is to not let the scale of the problem deter you; if you only have time to grab one in a hundred pieces of garbage, it will make a difference. Someone else could see you stopping it pick up trash and it may impact their behavior, either reminding them to throw their own trash away properly or inspiring them to pick up a few pieces themselves, which could in turn inspire others. Further, I believe that people are more likely to litter in a place already filled with litter versus a place that is trash free (assuming they are educated in the first place that trash belongs in trash cans), so by removing trash from somewhere, you may prevent further litter from accumulating.
It took me a long time to take action and actually start to pick up the trash that I saw around me. Here are my top three tips for how to remove your excuses and get started!
- Carry a bag with you at all times. Unless you have gone zero waste, chances are you have a plastic bag or two hanging around or can begin to collect them (note: I do not advocate intentionally collecting plastic bags – refuse whenever you can and if you cannot refuse, only then reuse). Put those bags in your purse or backpack so you are always ready to pick up trash. Go and do this now, when you finish reading this blog. If you don’t have a way to carry that trash or prevent your hands from getting dirty, you will likely never stop to pick it up in the first place especially if you run into it in nature and there are no trash cans nearby.
- Leave at least five minutes early. If you are in a rush, you are less likely to stop, pull out your trash collecting bag and pick up litter. Try to leave your house early for wherever you are heading; first off, it will reduce the stress in your day and second, if you do see litter along the way, you’ll have time to actually pick it up instead of being forced to make the decision “do I risk missing my bus”, “being late for my appointment”, and so on to pick up this trash?
- Use the Litterati app to catalog the trash you collect. Litterati is an iPhone and Android app that allows you to tag trash when you collect it, building a database of what trash is found most often and where litter is most problematic. Overtime, this data can be used to justify public infrastructure spending, influence brand managers to change the packaging of their products and bring about lasting change to prevent litter from happening in the first place. To date, over a million pieces of trash have been tagged.
I’ll be the first to admit; I’m still not perfect and don’t always remember to follow these rules, but I aspire to them and when I follow them, they work and I feel empowered making a small difference in my corner of the world. Don’t let perfection stop you from getting started or trying. If you fail and forget to bring a bag, when you see a piece of trash that you can’t pick up (because it’s too dirty to pick up with your bare hands or toss in your backpack in the middle of a hike, etc.), set a reminder on your phone to put a bag in your backpack or purse when you get home so you will be ready to pick up other trash the next time you encounter it.