Friday, May 15, 2020

Picking Up Litter During a Pandemic

Local environmental groups--the Watershed Institute, DR Greenway, Friends of Princeton Open Space, Friends of Herrontown Woods, Friends of Rogers Refuge--are encouraging people to pick up trash while out for walks. The pandemic changes the dynamics of this activity, so Sustainable Princeton offered a protocol, below, that includes gloves and a mask.

The urge to intervene in public spaces varies considerably from one individual to the next. My habits of intervention probably began when my father offered my brother and me a nickel (or was it a penny?) for every tin can or bottle we could bring back from the woods. It must have been a throwback to WWII, when every little scrap of metal was needed for the war effort. With the investment of only a dollar or two, my father incentivized me for a lifetime, not only to pick up trash but also to keep sidewalks and nature trails free of obstruction. The act is motivated by an empathy for those who come after--a sense that we are guardians of the future, be it the next person to come along or the next generation.

The most dramatic evidence that not everyone is invested with this instinct came when I'd walk my daughter to grade school. One time, a sidewalk close to the school became blocked by a fallen branch. It wasn't large, but was enough to force parents and kids to walk around it, onto ground that could get muddy after a rain. My instinct was to bend down and move the branch, but I decided instead to leave it there as an experiment, to see how long parents would passively tolerate being inconvenienced. Finally, after two weeks, I couldn't take it any more and spent the thirty seconds required to push the branch out of the way.

Though there are a few litter bugs out there, most litter on the streets is unintentional, the collateral spillage that happens during curbside collection of recyclables. The recycling bins Mercer County has Princeton using are of small capacity and lack lids, making them more prone to spillage. If strong winds coincide with recycling day, bins on the curb can capsize, spilling contents into the street. Rain then directs the litter down storm drains and into local waterways.

Therefore, cleaning up a streetscape or naturescape is largely an opposition not between good people and bad people, or the thoughtful and the thoughtless, but between intentionality and unintentionality. When it comes to nature and the planet in general, unintentionality is winning, particularly given the widespread ideological bias against intentional collective action to solve collectively created problems. But the pandemic has dramatized the importance of intentional, collective action to minimize the unintentional spread of the coronavirus.

That said, here are the guidelines being recommended locally for picking up litter during a pandemic:

The next time you go outside or take your dog for a walk, grab gloves and a bag, and pick up trash. You can pick up litter during a walk around the neighborhood, in your backyard, in the street, in a nearby park or anywhere else you see trash on the ground.

When you participate, be sure to exercise
social distancing and follow these guidelines:
  • Do this activity alone or with your family or the people you are living with, not with friends or other groups
  • Wear gloves and a mask
  • Stay 6 feet apart – be sure to give people plenty of room to pass around you
  • Exercise caution on trails where the paths can be narrow; step off as needed to ensure that the 6 feet distance is maintained
  • Do not congregate in groups!
  • Wearing brightly colored clothing if picking up litter along streets
  • Dispose of gloves and trash properly and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water when finished

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