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The Boston Globe

Opinion

CARLO ROTELLA

Up to our teeth in litter

globe staff

As you make your way around the city, look down. What do you see? These days, probably floss picks. These f-shaped plastic thingies, each housing a short length of dental floss, are everywhere. They’re meant to be disposable, floss-and-toss, and that’s exactly what people do with them. You see them scattered singly on sidewalks and in gutters, nestled in the grass at the park, dumped in ashtray-like batches of two or three dozen in parking lots. Each time I see one, which is often, some part of me pauses to appreciate the advance they represent in the art of doing one small thing to make the world just a little bit worse for everyone.

It’s a minor but meaningful achievement. Consider the philosophically rigorous accretion of selfishness in every discarded floss pick. First there’s the company that made it, which chose profit and landfills full of unnecessary plastic over the public good. Then there’s the person who dropped it, who did the math and decided that interdental stimulation and the convenience of letting an item drop from one’s nerveless fingers the second one is done with it clearly justify the incremental degradation of everyone else’s day. Not only do the rest of us have to kick our way through plastic crap on the ground, but we also get an unwanted reminder of other people prying gross stuff from between their teeth.

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No wonder the floss pick is rising in the rankings. But it’s up against stiff competition.

The long-reigning champion, the Joe Louis of everyday public ugliness, is, of course, the cigarette butt. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of smoking itself and focus on how smokers have managed to ram through the court of public opinion the seemingly indefensible notion that throwing a cigarette butt on the ground doesn’t really count as dumping your garbage in public. If you chew up a wad of tobacco and then drool it into a paper napkin and throw that soggy napkin on the ground, you’ll be regarded as a pig, but if you do pretty much the same thing with a cigarette, it’s somehow supposed to be not as bad — a gray area, even a kind of rakishly self-expressive flourish, if you flick it just so. Along with the sheer number of cigarette butts out there, the bald presumption they stand for helps keep them in first place.

Close behind them come plenty of worthy challengers. Take, for instance, the plastic bag with dog feces in it, especially when it’s placed next to a garbage can. The perp who left it is saying, in effect, “Picture me tenderly palming a steaming loaf fresh from my beloved pet’s backside, snugging it in this bag, and tying off the bag in an artful bow, then carrying it almost all the way to a proper receptacle and placing it with great care in close proximity to said receptacle. For the love of God, what more can you ask of me?”

Another strong entry is the car alarm, especially those that make a medley of intensely annoying noises or use a Robocop voice to warn away an interloper. The classic of this type, made by Viper, employed the voice of Darrell Issa, now a congressman from California. He got rich on it, a textbook case of one guy making his own life better by making measurably worse the lives of everyone anywhere near one of those alarms when it goes off.

The field may be crowded with intimidating competitors, but the floss pick is a rising star. As little mint-green harbingers of its coming dominion show up across the landscape, people have begun to notice. There’s even a blog devoted to photographs of floss picks in the wild, like so many f-shaped starlets posing for publicity shots. The cigarette butt has had a long run at the top, but its negatives are high. A lot of people disapprove of smoking, after all, while floss picks are not only brightly colored and indestructible but also associated with virtue. You’re supposed to floss your teeth.

So be afraid, cigarette butts. The Floss Pick Age is dawning.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’

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