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A selfish approach to picking up litter

about my experience with picking up litter in the woods.

So before I give the impression that I am some wort of noble altruist, I should explain why, for me, picking up litter is a selfishly motivated act. The explanation won’t take long because it is a simple one: litter infringes on my ability to enjoy myself in the woods. It offends my aesthetic sensibilities. But mostly, when I am outdoors in a place that I care about, it bugs me to see that same spot’s been visited by someone else who doesn’t care at all.

Not that long ago I started carrying plastic grocery bags with me on hikes in the woods. Sometimes I come back with the bag filled with litter, sometimes only partially so. But it seems I always find something to carry out with me, wherever I might be hiking.

I’ve been picking up litter for a few months now, and have noticed an interesting effect.

There is one place in particular I hike to somewhat frequently. It’s a good spot to drink a beer and look at the trees and the sky. I know I’m not the only one who finds this spot useful for these purposes: during the first month or so of summer, I hauled at least a half-sawbuck’s worth of beer cans out of there.

As the summer wore on, all sorts of other trash was starting to accumulate around the spot. It was some kind of snowball effect or contagious apathy. Somebody would finish off their fast food value meal, scatter the wrappers around, then somebody else would come along, see that garbage on the ground, and figure they might as well add their own. Over the course of a month, the litter built up to the point it was really offending my aesthetic sensibilities and really bugging me in general.

So I started carrying plastic bags with me when I headed out there. Kitchen-size garbage bags at first. I actually filled three of those over the course of a few visits, and had to strap over-sized junk to my backpack, besides. After five weeks or so of this, by which time most of the garbage was gone and I was able to switch to plastic grocery bags, an interesting thing started happening with this patch of woods: the litter build-up slowed way down.

A month went by after I’d gotten the place substantially cleaned up, and barely any new litter was added. I’d still bring plastic grocery bags with me, but I had to pick up trash farther and farther away from the spot in order to fill them.

So maybe the contagious quality about littering works in reverse, too. At least that’s what seems to have happened in this particular place in the woods. The absence of trash among the ferns and saplings is a tacit reminder that the place deserves attention and care. People seem to understand and respect that now that the trash is gone.

A few weeks ago I was up there again and found three beer cans scattered on the ground. I’d forgotten to bring a bag with me, so I stashed the cans near the base of a tree, thinking I’d come back in a week or so and pick them up. But by the time I returned, someone had beaten me to it.

I was out 30 cents but I didn’t mind. It was good to know that somebody had been up there before me, saw the place was something to care about, and carried those cans out of the woods.