The TV my dad hauled out of the salt marsh in Green Harbor..

Now that he’s a local celebrity, my father has gotten into the habit of telling this story. In an effort to study one aspect of civic responsibility, a researcher conducted a test in which he deposited a single piece of trash in a crowded public area — let’s say it was an empty styrofoam cup on the steps of City Hall. The researcher went from town to town, taking note of how many people passed by before the litter was picked up and properly disposed. In Canada, the coffee cup was attended to almost immediately — by the third or fourth person to walk by. However, in the United States it took all morning, with close to 200 people passing before one of them deigned to bend over and scoop up the trash.

I don’t know when or in what cities the test was conducted, but the fact that only one in two hundred of us would stop to pick up a piece of litter says a lot about our culture’s collective sense of responsibility for the places we live and work.

The article I wrote about my father’s hobby of collecting roadside trash has gotten more response than any other piece I’ve published in the two years I’ve been writing this column. My father and I have each received phone calls, letters, and numerous verbal appreciations of the work he does. Some people have even brought other potential clean-up sites to our attention, saying things along the lines of “When your Dad finishes with the Library Plaza area, could you send him over to my house? I’ve got an old washing machine I’d like to get rid of.”

Others have remarked on their own clean up efforts, noting that while Dad was collecting fast food wrappers and empty cans on Willow Street, they were scouring the public playground for broken glass, or raking cigarette butts off the lawn in front of Town Hall. The neighborhood and non-profit groups who hold regular Rid Litter days should be noted as well.

I never assumed that my father was the only person in town picking up litter, and I am pleased to hear that many other local residents are as committed as he is to “Keeping,” as the cliché goes, “America beautiful.” To the people who were tidying up the parking area behind Star Market the other day, I want you to know that your work did not go unnoticed.

It’s heartening to discover that more people than I realized feel a certain sense of responsibility to their neighborhood or town, going beyond “It’s not my mess so why should I clean it up?” to “I’ll clean it up because, even in the smallest of ways, it makes the world a better place.” Probably these are the same people who vote in town elections and show up for town meeting every year.

But before trash collecting becomes the fad hobby for the new millennium, I have a confession to make: I’m the litterbug — the one whose work my father struggles so hard against. I’m not alone, but I’m one of the people who tosses trash out the car window and dumps old appliances in the woods. I’ve wheeled a few shopping carts into the South River, too. In fact, I’ve probably abandoned as much junk at the roadside as my Dad has carted off to the dump.

Why? I have my reasons.

About a year ago, just after the NSRWA’s highly-publicized Tenth Annual River Clean Up Day, I received a phone call from one of our nation’s top environmental experts. Once a leader in her field, this award-winning, advanced-degreed scientist has been all but dismissed by the her professional community, as her work of late has proven most controversial. So as not to sensationalize her findings or forestall further funding for her studies, I will keep her identity confidential. Some of you may already know who I am talking about, but henceforth I will refer to her only by pseudonym: Dr. April Primo, Ph.D..

Dr. Primo explained to me that, laudable as they were on a practical level, the efforts of environmentalists to rid the river banks, roadsides, and woods of trash and debris were actually putting wildlife, the landscape, and the human race at great risk.

“First of all,” explained Dr. Primo, “don’t let your colleagues remove any additional shopping carts from the South River. In fact, you should encourage them to bring some more there.”

At first I didn’t understand. I asked her to explain.

“It’s simple,” she responded. “The fish ladder in the South River has fallen into disrepair. You yourself took part in the study which revealed that great numbers of migratory fish such as herring and shad are no longer able to ascend the river to their spawning grounds above Veterans Memorial Park. The shopping carts help these fish make their way upstream. They may be unsightly, but they’re a great substitute for your tired old fish ladder.

I could see where this was leading. “And the abandoned washing machines and refrigerators, ” I asked.

“Habitat!” she exclaimed. “Now that the regional population is booming and the percentage of open space is rapidly decreasing, our wildlife is in a panic. You wonder why the coyotes are stealing off with all the domesticated animals. . . they’re getting desperate! . Foxes have fewer places in which to dig their holes, raccoons have fewer trees in which to build their nests, even the birds are starting to search for alternatives. These creatures will eventually find new habitats, but in the meantime, we need to help them make transitional homes. It’s an excellent way to reuse non-functioning household appliances. ”

“Those supposedly kind-hearted people never bother to look inside the old dishwashers they drag out of the woods and off to the dump. Little do they know that they may be destroying the home of a family of squirrels.”

“Not to mention old tires,” she continued. “When automobile tires are left to rot in the shade of the woods, they soon become filled with water, producing an ideal breeding environment for mosquitoes. And yet people routinely pry these things from the mud and bring them to the landfill. How dare they interfere with these innocent insects’ life cycle!”

I dreaded to hear what was next. “And the roadside litter?” I wondered aloud. What good could that possibly do?

“That one’s even more obvious than the others,” she said. “Does the term nonpoint source pollution ring a bell? You know, pollution from indirect sources such as faulty septic systems and road runoff. . .” (It’s something the NSRWA has been combating for years.)

“All that roadside trash,” Dr. Primo explained, serves as a buffer. Fast food wrappers and cigarette butts absorb pollutants, preventing them from entering the water supply.”

I could hear no more. Ashamed at all the destruction I’d unwittingly brought upon the environment I was claiming to protect, I disconnected the phone and hung my head. How could good intentions go so wrong?

So on this first day of April, I make this plea to you, Dear Reader. Ignore my earlier words about roadside trash, for I have misguided you. When you finish reading this newspaper, crumple it up and toss it out your front door. Next time you visit a fast food restaurant, be sure to roll down your car window and surrender your trash to the wind. Wheel that shopping cart right into the river. And if you’re planning to remodel your kitchen, be sure to drag any worn out appliances into the woods where a skunk or chipmunk can make its new home.

by Kezia Bacon, Special To The Mariner
April 1, 1998

Kezia Bacon is a member of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association’s Board of Directors.