Trash Talk

Trash along a fence

What if I were to tell you that for less than one minute a week you could help your community, feathered friends, and the environment all while adding to your good karma. Too good to be true you say, but I assure you, it is more than possible to do. The only caveat (I know, there always is one, right?) is that we need our entire community on board.

A little back story……I’ve lived in the same house in this Eliot neighborhood for over 25 years. As you can imagine I’ve witnessed more than a few changes. I miss the diversity, the quiet, and the ability to wonder who is parking in front of my house. Eliot was not the magnet it is now, and anyone pulling up to your curb invited curiosity. We knew all our neighbors, and the cars they drove, and everyone had their own space.

Fast forward to 2016…. Luckily, I have access to a driveway and can always take refuge there on busy evenings. Others don’t have that luxury and may have to seek parking blocks away. Our little community has become a bustling destination for foodies, concert goers, and Air BNB providers. Density has increased considerably, and there seems to be no end to the construction frenzy in and around our area. There are some days I long for the quiet and simplicity of the early 90’s but my nostalgia is tempered by a three minute walk for coffee, two minute walk for great wine, music or salt-cod fritters, and a 12 minute walk to New Seasons. Anyway, back to that karma-promoting idea…

Sidewalk Trash
Trash left on the sidewalk

In addition to more of everything, I’ve noticed a lot more trash than in years past. A whole lot more. On occasion there would be a community trash pick-up, or you would spy the same good Samaritans picking up litter as they walked along. Things would look better for a while, but eventually it would revert back to the same sorry state. There were a few good battles on the side of beauty, but the debris was definitely winning the war.

Actually, you might think I had the wrong neighborhood if you’d taken a leisurely stroll in the middle of March. “Trash? What trash?” And, indeed there would be little to discover because on Saturday, March 12th a group of volunteers from the Eliot beautification committee teamed up with SOLVE and New Seasons and canvassed your ‘hood to the tune of 30(!) bags of garbage weighing in at over 400 pounds…..a pretty impressive and also disturbing haul for our small neighborhood! And yes, I was one of those volunteers, and yes, I’m finally getting to where your 9 seconds per day comes in.

Those volunteers who picked up trash in the driving rain picked up in abandoned lots, around schools, businesses, and churches, around community gardens, playgrounds and storm sewer drains but we also picked up trash in front of almost every home we canvassed. Please be assured, we aren’t blaming any one person! We realize that additional density, not enough trash cans, a homeless crisis, and the just plain clueless who didn’t get the littering-is-bad memo are all part of the problem. And what would make this manageable (and winnable) is if every homeowner, renter, apartment dweller, and business owner decided they would take those few seconds a day, and rather than step over someone else’s discarded cigarette package, candy wrapper, fast-food container, or empty bottle, dispose of it into their own trash-containers instead. Consequently, we might not have to work so hard in the future as it would be more of a shared endeavor. Most of us know it wasn’t ME who did the littering, but if you take YOUR 9 seconds, and your neighbor takes HIS 4 or 5 seconds, and your neighbor down the street takes HER 15 seconds…..why, it might be possible that we can win this war. If done daily you can usually keep it under the 10 second rule. Once a week, more of a minute. I know some of you are waiting for the city to step up, but unfortunately they no longer have the man-power to street-sweep, and the few times it does occur our lack of off-street parking prevents it from getting anywhere near the curb.

We really need our business community and churches to get on board as well! There are some that take the time to sweep every day, and it does not go unnoticed. I’d just like to give a personal shout-out to two of my favorites, Toro Bravo on Russell, and Evermine on Hancock. They are difficult areas to keep clean, but I see nary a cigarette butt whenever I pass, they each set a high bar, and they and others like them perhaps should be acknowledged. Additionally, I’d like to thank businesses that allowed us to proudly place our SOLVE volunteer signs in their front windows. They each do a great job keeping their public spaces clean of debris….and our appreciative thanks go out to Ex Novo, Pocket Pub, Tiny’s, Pine State Biscuit and Gold Rush Coffee house. Additional thanks to Little Gem, Tiny’s and New Season’s for providing great coffee, juice and snacks for all those hard-working volunteers. And a special thank you to all 60 volunteers. You are REALLY amazing!

Another problem with leaving trash in the street or sidewalks is that it will eventually find its way via wind or water down to the sewer drains of your neighbor, and he in turn will have to struggle with the accumulated detritus of all his upstream neighbors. That was truly the most depressing part of our clean up. We realized that if everyone would scoop up those lingering leaves, that flooded corner would be a thing of the past. (Psst….here’s where the karma comes in…) Noticing that flooding has ceased and his drains are remaining remarkably clear, that neighbor will most certainly decide to bake cookies for everyone upstream on his side of the block. The take away here, is that so much of what we decide to do or not do can really impact others who share that street with you. Wouldn’t you rather live with cookies?! This will take a few more of those minutes, I know, but if you stay on top of it – maybe 2 or 3 times a year – it won’t be THAT many more.

Cigaratte butt litter
Cigarette butts littering the neighborhood

Hopefully this is resonating with some and you’ll look with renewed passion at the next empty Popeye’s wrapper that lands at your curb. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how any of this helps our “feathered friends”. The answer, I’m afraid, has to do with the increasing amount of cigarette butts littering our walkways and parking strips. In addition to the unsightliness, each butt contains toxic chemicals that leach into groundwater and soil. The filter, composed of plastic, (no, it’s not cotton as one would guess) can take up to 15 years to decompose, and if ingested by birds can cause digestive blockages. Many get washed into storm sewers, and eventually make their way to rivers and streams where they can poison fish. No longer allowed to smoke in public places, some smokers consider the streets and curbs to be their ashtrays and aren’t aware of a filter’s lingering footprint. Although small, their negative environmental impact is huge, and keeping them out of our storm water is important. Every neighbor picking up one, two or three a day from their personal space would be an incredible boost for their ol’ mother earth.

I realize little can come from an idea or suggestion to improve one’s area without the entire community flexing its collective power. We don’t need perfection in our little area, but we should not accept the idea that we cannot have a more inviting, pleasant Eliot ourselves. Extend that caring to your neighbor with a gift of trash-scanning their walkways if they are elderly or home-bound. Take your trash cans in at Tuesdays’ end, and make sure you pick up blowing bits that got away from the haulers. This is more of an awareness plea and delivered in a spirit of hope.

Finally, I know it’s hard to find enough time to do all the things we desire, even if it’s only to sit quietly on our porches and watch the day go by. We are varied and diverse in our jobs and motivations, but I’m guessing that as a community we are close in our shared commitment to a healthy, beautiful environment. We should be relentless in protecting it, and our precious little corner of Portland.

By Jody Guth

William Smith
William Smith does his part.