Vicky Gall is on a mission, walking and stooping, over and over, along a short stretch of neglected pavement between busy Hyde Park Avenue and a trash-strewn tangle of weeds near the commuter-rail tracks.
She’s picking up nip bottles, miniature servings of alcohol that have been emptied and tossed aside — in the bushes, on the tracks, under cars, and along the street. In less than two months. Gall and a group of litter-picking stalwarts from Keep Hyde Park Beautiful have reached their goal of collecting 10,000 of them.
“We’re not doing it for the money,” Gall said with a laugh, noting that Massachusetts law doesn’t allow a cash redemption for nip bottles.
They’re doing it — on weekends, on designated cleanup days, and just when they’re walking around — to help reduce litter in Hyde Park and bring attention to a nagging problem that Gall and others say is getting worse.
Cathy Horn, founder of Keep Hyde Park Beautiful, said she originally thought it would take until next spring to collect 10,000 nips.
“In one sense, that’s a success,” she said. “And in another sense, it’s not.”
The downside is the surprising speed at which the goal was reached, Horn said. It’s one more reason, activists say, that the Legislature should include nips among the bottles that can be redeemed for cash, currently 5 cents in Massachusetts. That list now includes containers of carbonated soft drinks, beer, malt beverages, and sparkling water, according to a state website.
Two bills that would allow nips to be redeemed are pending in the Legislature, but whether they will become law is uncertain, said Neil Rhein, founder of Keep Massachusetts Beautiful, a statewide group that includes the Hyde Park chapter.
Complicating the effort to add nips to the list of redeemables is that the tiny bottles can’t be recycled because they clog the machinery, Gall said.
By contrast, Rhein said, the bottle law in Maine allows nips sold in that state to be redeemed for 5 cents each.
“The last I checked, the world was still spinning on its axis in Maine,” Rhein said.
The Hyde Park effort was inspired by one in Gardner, where a liquor store in that central Massachusetts city offered 5 cents per empty bottle. Over two years, nip-hunters brought in 100,000 bottles and $5,000 was donated by the business to Keep Gardner Beautiful, Rhein said.
In Hyde Park, Kelly’s Liquor Mart stepped up when the neighborhood group asked if it would participate in a similar program. Located beside the street where Gall found dozens of nips this recent day, Kelly’s agreed to donate $500 to the group for 10,000 bottles. An anonymous Hyde Park donor gave another $500 to the effort.
The owner of Kelly’s could not be reached for comment.
The empty nips will head to a Dumpster. And although the cleanup in Hyde Park removes only a fraction of the bottles, business owner Domenic Rosati of J&D Cycles applauded the effort.
“This place will keep you busy,” Rosati told Gall after she had checked for empty bottles near the tracks. “It’s a dumping ground, unfortunately. I come out every day and pick up all the nip bottles and put them in a bag. Is there any accountability anymore? It’s awful.”
Joe and Janet Smith, cleanup volunteers who have lived in Hyde Park for 50 years, said they are being schooled in drinking preferences.
“This is the one we see the most often,” Joe Smith said, holding up an empty nip of Fireball whiskey.
There are plenty more where that came from.
“Massachusetts is the number one market in the nation for Fireball nips. For whatever reason, people have taken a shine to them,” Rhein said.
Other brands also are familiar sights for the Smiths — Smirnoff vodka, Jack Daniel’s, Baileys Irish Cream, and Southern Comfort to name a few. Gall said she’s found that their popularity varies by location.
“You can’t help but become an expert fast,” Joe Smith said with a chuckle.
The team’s next stop was Cleary Square, where Gall clambered into a thick bed of bushes in a small park near the post office at the intersection of River Street and Hyde Park Avenue. Within two minutes, she laid 10 nip bottles on a small wall near a park bench.
There was a flagpole in the park without a flag this sunny day, and a few people sitting near a No Loitering sign who appeared to have been imbibing.
“The benches are nice to have here, but unfortunately we have people who like to hang out and drink,” Thien Simpson, executive director of Hyde Park Main Streets, said as she watched the cleanup.
“Oh my God, I don’t know what we would do without them,” Simpson said of Keep Hyde Park Beautiful. “Before they came along, there was no organized cleaning.”
Mary Hogan, another cleanup volunteer, said she felt the need to take action, even if it’s sometimes more symbolic than game-changing.
“I’ve been an avid walker for 30 years, and I was just getting so annoyed with the trash,” Hogan said. “But I didn’t do anything about it before; I just complained.”
Horn, the founder of Keep Hyde Park Beautiful, called for broader city and state attention to litter.
“There has to be a multiple-pronged approach: education, enforcement, and prevention. It can’t just be a handful of volunteers cleaning up after people all the time,” Horn said.
Rhein echoed the sentiment that government needs to act.
“In Massachusetts, we seem to have accepted that this is just the way it is,” he said. “We feel the state needs to do more from the top down.”
Now that the Hyde Park group has reached its goal, Gall said she’ll take a bit of a break from bending, stooping, and clambering into overgrown planters.
“I’ll resume enjoying the views ahead and skyward,” Gall said.
But she won’t stop picking up nips and other trash completely. She can’t.
As she walked away from the Hyde Park train station, more empty nips in her hand, Gall fumed and scolded no one in particular.
“Be a caring, respectful person,” she said. “Don’t be like that!”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.