The first day of June was National Trails Day, which is a country-wide invitation to the populace to get out to their national and state parks to help clean trails or just take a walk in the woods. From a list of nearby parks I chose to pick up trash at a park I hadn’t yet seen, Pocahontas State Park near Richmond, Virginia. I pictured myself tramping along a woodland trail, lugging a black trash bag while being almost totally wrapped in protective clothing since I can develop a reaction to poison ivy merely by looking at it. I brought a dozen 30 gallon trash bags and hoped that would be enough to hold all the garbage I assumed would be awaiting my gloved hand. The weather was forecast to be hot and sunny, so Mike and I arrived early to the park to do our duty before the temperature hit meltdown.
We were almost the first volunteers to arrive and had to hunt around a bit to find someone who could direct us to the mountains of cups, plastic bottles, tissues, and fast food wrappers we so eagerly sought. Andrea, the impossibly young park ranger, welcomed us warmly and suggested we pick up around the amphitheater where a concert had been held the evening before. That wasn’t quite the vision I’d had of our park service but I figured if that’s what they needed to have cleaned up, who was I to hold out for the more environment-saving, headline-making task of dragging old tires out of their lake? Off we marched, toting our black plastic bags with us.
So, take a look at what we saw on our approach.
Looks pretty clean, doesn’t it? I thought so too. But, what the heck, this was a start. There were probably a few stray pieces of paper to be retrieved, a cup or two, then we’d get out to the trails and at the real work of park clean up.
After 20 minutes, I knew we weren’t going anywhere else in the park to pick up trash. This sloped hillside in full sun (85 degrees at 10:00am) had so much trash on it that my noble volunteering effort was going to start and end right there.
So, guess what constituted 95% of the trash we cleaned up? Go ahead, guess.
One here, one there. A pile here. Several more over there. Some squashed, some tossed, some field stripped to create infuriating little balls of rolling fuzz. Cigarette of choice: Marlboro; runner-up: Camel.
I want a show of hands: how many of you have picked up hundreds of individual cigarette butts in full sun on a steamy day while wearing protective (aka uncomfortable and hot) clothing, gloves, and a hat? The two possible methods of retrieval are to crawl on your hands and knees or stoop over again and again, working up enough sweat to fuse your pants to your legs so that bending over becomes a chore itself.
Now, I want another show of hands: how many of you have tossed a cigarette butt? Don’t be shy, nobody’s taking names here. I have friends who smoke (I love these friends and wish they wouldn’t, but the choice is theirs) and I have never seen one of them throw a cigarette butt anywhere, ever — not once. So who are you butt-tossers, those of you who leave your trash for others, specifically me, to pick up? Are you somebody’s mom? Are you my neighbor? Are you handing me a hamburg over a counter? Are you taking my blood pressure at the doctor’s office? Are you distracted? Are you blind?
I can’t think of another type of trash that’s as pervasive as cigarette butts. Gum and candy come in wrappers but they’re not in windswept piles at intersections — cigarette butts are. Vehicles are equipped with ashtrays, which seem like an ideal place for spent cigarettes. And those ashtrays can be emptied into trash bins, not out the window at intersections or beside parking spaces. Nor do cigarette butts belong on the hillside of an outdoor amphitheater in a state park. I’m not denying anyone the right to smoke when and where they want but I shouldn’t have to pick up their cigarette butts. Ironically, one of the other items I picked up was a small metal container, meant to hold cigarette butts. It was pristinely empty, resting beside a pile of butts.
So, I want to thank everyone who disposes of their cigarette butts in a way that doesn’t involve me. For the smokers who casually tossed their trash on a hillside for me to pick up, thanks for making my volunteering at the park such a special experience. Next time instead of tossing it, why don’t you just sit on your butt? Oh, right — I guess you already are.