“Forty three!” my father calls out to me as he enters the house, returning from his afternoon run.

“Good job!” I shout back, or maybe “I can’t believe it!” or simply “Ugh!” We’re not talking about mileage (although we could be: my Dad has been known to run down to the Cape Cod Canal, just for fun). We’re talking about cans and bottles — soda cans, beer bottles, and so forth — all discarded at the side of the road.

From what my Dad has seen, forty three is a not a particularly high number. Some days he’s brought in hundreds.

You probably know my Dad, even if you’ve never met him. He was mentioned in the Mariner once, described as “that runner in the yellow jacket who’s always stopping to pick up some trash.” But most people recognize him because he periodically runs by their house or business, or down the same road that they travel by car.

“I saw your father today,” people are always telling me. “He was running down Route 3A,” they say, or “on the way to Duxbury Beach,” or “somewhere up in Norwell.” Usually they add, “He was carrying some trash.”

My father is a long-distance runner; he’s been doing it for more than 20 years, going out every other day or so, for at least fifteen miles. These days it’s closer to twenty or twenty five miles, because he says he’s feeling fat. When he’s training for a race, he’ll run even more — maybe thirty, or even forty miles. He’s done 100-mile races but he prefers the 50-milers.

Dad plans his day around running. He gets up early, works all morning, runs in the afternoon, gets cleaned up, and then, if necessary, he goes back to work in the evening. He’s a salesman, so he makes his own schedule. The trash collecting is a fairly recent addition to this routine.

In 1997 alone, my Dad picked up a total of 6,669 returnable cans and bottles, primarily while running. He doesn’t carry them all with him: he’ll collect a few, stash them in the woods, and then return in his truck to retrieve them at the end of the day. Eventually he brings them to the redemption center, and the money he gets in return helps to fund our family vacations.

In addition to cans and bottles, my father has found all sorts of other trash along the road — predominantly fast food wrappers and cigarette packages. Occasionally he is rewarded for his efforts. Money, toys, and hand tools are among his most common finds, not to mention wallets and licenses which are promptly turned in to the police. But that’s just the small stuff.

The path that my father typically takes when he sets off for an afternoon run begins on the fire road that connects our neighborhood to Route 139. Accessible by car, but used primarily by kids on bikes and other runners, this path is also frequented by an unscrupulous lot of knuckleheads who don’t seem to understand the words “No Dumping.” Thus, as part of his afternoon run, it is not uncommon for Dad to find discarded water heaters, refrigerators, washing machines, mattresses, and all sorts of other useless junk. Much to my mother’s horror, Dad can’t bear to leave this stuff alone. He’ll devote an entire afternoon to removing it, often enlisting a neighbor to help him heft some derelict household appliance into his truck, and cart it off to its rightful place: the town landfill.

You’d think he have better things to do. But in addition to running, Cajun music, putting together photo albums, and keeping up correspondence with scores of friends all over the country, trash collecting has become his hobby.

My father’s zeal for “cleaning up the streets” has extended beyond the boundaries of his running route. Expired yard sale signs on telephone poles? He can’t drive by without taking them down. Old tires? He picks up probably twenty each year. Abandoned mufflers at the side of the road? Dad’s your man.

As reprehensible as it may be, littering seems to have become acceptable. We’re certainly not surprised when we see trash in the gutter in the center of town. So in a way, I understand all the candy wrappers and soda cans. Dumping major appliances in the woods can be chalked up to laziness. But what I don’t understand is the shopping carts.

One of my Dad’s favorite clean up spots is the South River at the Willow Street Bridge. Willow is a one-way street, and thus heaven for litterbugs. I’ve cleaned it up a few times myself (during NSRWA’s Annual River Clean Up Day), so I know first hand what a mess it can be. But given the relative distance between Willow Street and Marshall’s, Ben Franklin, and Star Market (the only stores with shopping carts in Marshfield Center), how does it happen that at least once or twice a year, such carts can be found buried up to their necks along the muddy banks of the South River? I don’t get it.

Just last week, Dad pulled seven — that’s seven! — shopping carts from a ditch behind the Dairy Queen. At least Dairy Queen is in the vicinity the storage area for these shopping carts: it wouldn’t be unheard of to blame it on the wind. But could a shopping cart travel up a steep incline, navigate some tricky traffic patterns, and cross Route 139, before rolling downhill into the South River, all by itself? I don’t think so.

With all of that in mind, I’m disgusted. Humans have been walking upright on this planet for how many years? And yet we won’t take responsibility for our trash? Yeah, bringing an old tire to the dump might cost you a buck or two; bringing in a dead air conditioner may cost a bit more, but instead you just toss it in a ditch on someone else’s property and wait for a more conscientious person to pick it up? Don’t even get me started on the willful waste or destruction of perfectly good stuff like shopping carts . . .

On average, Americans generate approximately 4.5 pounds of garbage per person, per day.
In Marshfield we are lucky to have a service that picks up this trash, practically at our doorsteps, every week without fail. We can even call them if we have something unusually large or heavy and they’ll make a special trip to get it. Some other towns on the South Shore have similar systems, and others require regular trips to the transfer station. Eventually all of this trash is either recycled, incinerated, or buried.

Thanks to the people who dispose of their trash responsibly — at last count we’re still in the majority — our roads, trails, and public spaces are still relatively clean and pleasant to uphold . . . at least at first glance. Still, not a week goes by when I don’t see someone carelessly fling a paper bag, cigarette butt, or even the entire contents of an ashtray out the window of a car. That I just do not understand.

The late great naturalist Edward Abbey was known to toss beer cans out his truck window while driving the highways of the western United States. He was widely criticized for this seemingly uncharacteristic behavior, but Abbey justified it by saying that interstate highways contributed far more damage to the American landscape than errant beer cans.

One day while my Dad was running on Route 139, someone threw an empty plastic soda bottle at him. I doubt the perpetrator meant it as a political statement. I’m hoping it was meant as a joke.

by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
March 1998

Kezia Bacon serves of the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.