"I can't believe that people litter like this." I've heard variations on this phrase repeated so many times. Sometimes by people who are angry at 'litterers' (as if they were some definitive sub-class of humans). Other times by folks who are genuinely confused by the lack of care that others show for their surroundings. And every time I hear it, I think: Believe it. It's been happening your whole life. I've seen litter tossed from SUVs and sports cars, dog feces bagged and left on the sidewalk and the trail of waste that forms in the wake of students drinking hard on the (every) weekend. I've seen massive graveyards of propane tanks, appliances and other debris that would shock most city dwellers. Hundreds of rotting, rusting, decomposing pieces of trash that were no longer seen to hold value, driven down back roads away from critical eyes and left to slowly fall apart and leak their contents into the earth and streams beneath them. Truckloads of construction debris backed onto riverbanks and dumped into the marsh below. Surplus cement poured straight from the truck into Nova Scotia harbours. So let's not pretend that this is something new and inconceivable.
Rampant litter is a by-product of the kind of society we live in. We buy things we don't really care about, and we shed them with startling frequency. Feeling sad? Go shopping. Bored? Get new furniture. Or whatever. Hurried and hungry? Get it wrapped in plastic, to go. We stampede to sales and pack our houses with the latest trends, carefully marketed to us to lose their appeal as the next batch is ready. Or they're designed to break, straight up. We can't sell you something new if what you have is serving its purpose, of course.
One thing I'm sure of: If all the things we purchased had an appreciable value, they wouldn't be littered. They would be reused, repaired, repurposed or recycled. Consider the fact that our provincial bottle deposit system has created an informal economy that is run by sports teams, community groups and others in need of additional income. In my neighbourhood, this system is predominantly managed—nickel for nickel—by people living on the streets and dealing with addictions. If that's not an impressive entrepreneurial feat, I don't know what is, as it can be hard enough to get even the most privileged people to stoop to pick up the waste we've scattered across the landscape.
Of course, we can't just decide that "worthless" objects be appraised at a higher value than they actually hold—we would bankrupt ourselves in short order if we started throwing money at people for all the disposable debris we produce. So we need to rethink our purchases, and ask some critical questions about our habits of consumption.
A number of years ago, I watched an interview with an elder in Africa who discussed the role of repair in his tribe. He spoke of how his culture took no pride in having something new when something old would serve the purpose. The moment something broke, they saw it as an opportunity to understand the object's weaknesses and through the act of repair, refine and improve it. What's more, he said that this perspective applied equally to relationships and social structures. When a relationship was broken, they looked at where it was weak, and improved it through conscientious repair. An incredibly enlightened perspective---one that I feel is often missing in my own society, despite our high standard of living and access to education.
Last year, I was hired to coordinate a province wide litter clean-up called Clean Across Nova Scotia. I certainly doubt that clean-ups alone are a solution to our wasteful habits. Yet, 8,000 people registered to take part over two days in June, excited to show their civic pride and work together to beautify the places they inhabit. It was inspiring, and an indication that there is a tremendous amount of care, waiting to be expressed.
There is much that's broken in our society. Let's stop complaining, and start talking about how we're going to fix it. On April 19 and 20, we're doing it again, and you can join us. Learn more at cleanacrossns.ca
Send your essay ideas for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org