Urban Environment As Trash Receptacle

The street that empties into my local park is strewn with litter—plastic, junk food wrappers, broken glass, tobacco sleeves and the like. Sometimes, along the way, I scoop to something up and deposit it in a nearby bin. Other times I simply walk past, sighing inside like the Native American with the tear in his eye in that powerful Ad Council television spot from the 1970’s.

That there is more litter on our urban streets today—much more—is clear to anyone who has lived long enough. Today’s urban environment can seem like a giant trash receptacle–and one routinely observes folks treating it as such: reflexively flinging wrappers, lids and empties to the ground as if behind them was a Disneyland cleaner–broom and dust pan at the ready.

Remember the street signs that used to warn of the hefty fine for littering? $1,200 I believe it was. That was lot of money back then. To many, it still is.

However, the idea of an individual receiving such a citation today is almost unthinkable. Aside from the most glaring example of a vehicle occupant tossing garbage from their window directly into the path of a police car, a charge of littering these days might be considered arbitrary enforcement so many would seem to engage in it. Though I don’t possess evidence to prove it, this seems especially true of the ever-growing number of citizens who, as the saying goes, live hand-to-mouth. To speak an obvious but un-PC truth: the distance from hand-to-mouth to hand-to-mouth-to-ground can a short one indeed.

Now, you might ascribe this rising tide of urban litter to the simple fact there are millions more people in the environment than there were when the TV Indian was shedding his solitary tear. And you’d be right—but only partly.

It is my view that the rise in urban litter beyond that which is owed to the increase in population is primarily due to two interrelated factors: the rise of convenience culture (and the relatively few who profit by it) and the concurrent rise of victimhood culture (fostered by resentment—by the many, of those few.)

Clearly, profits from selling convenience products grow ever more gargantuan. Simply put, the leverage technology today provides those with wealth to increase that wealth by making expedient products is unprecedented and colossal. That the manufacture of many of these so-called convenience “goods” despoil the environment–and our consumption of them contributes to ill health—are sober and inconvenient truths.

In the food sector alone, there are fortunes to be made selling packaged convenience foods that cannot be made selling a natural convenience food like the apple. Addictive substances may be added to packaged foods making these products short-term attractive—yet long-term harmful. Many of these—designed by food scientists in vast office parks in New Jersey–are so addictive they require significant will power to avoid. Once addicted, one can expect his or her fix to be delivered in a convenient, disposable package. However, unlike the packaging an apple comes in—an edible and biodegradable skin—the multi-layer packaging applied to many of these processed food products (for the sake of longer-shelf-life and added convenience) often ends up blanketing our streets.

In fact, convenience has become a primary driver of pollution the world over, especially with regards to our oceans, where vast flotillas of plastic break down into tiny particles that are ingested by sea life—and, eventually, by us.

Not just harmful to our health, our addiction to convenience products obscures a larger addiction: to plastic itself. Recent changes by China in the kind of recycled plastic they will buy has thrown a monkey wrench in what has long been the solution to our plastics recycling issue—dump it overseas. Today, recycling centers in many US municipalities are running out of room storing plastics they hope may eventually find an overseas market.

Back home, many hand-to-mouth citizens, who understandably resent the growing profits of the 1%, increasingly fight back by adopting a victimhood paradigm. In this model–victim vs. victimizer, oppressor vs. oppressed–the entirety of the responsibility falls on the so-called victimizer, none on the victim.

In terms of litter, this means that those who reflexively toss wrappers onto the sidewalk or routinely empty their cars of garbage onto the street reflect the belief that litter is someone else’s problem. Someone rich who has rigged the game. Someone making a fortune from all the stuff they can barely afford to buy. Why should they have to clean up a mess someone else has profited from?

The result is as depressing as it is predictable: urban environment as trash receptacle. But what about solutions? How do we reduce the market for convenience products that harm the planet—and us–yet increase the personal agency (antidote to victimhood) that might help convince every individual that littering our streets is akin to littering our living rooms—it is fouling our own nest.

Indeed–given the increased ascendance of both convenience and victimhood-cultures-this would appear a very tall order. Yet it is one we must grapple with—and from both ends of the issue: those who manufacture and those who litter–should we wish to reclaim the pavement of our cities from the swelling legions of discarded trash.

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