Not long ago, as I walked through the parking lot at my local supermarket, I picked up a couple of plastic bags that were wafting across the asphalt and stuffed them in my pocket. A passing woman thanked me. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it made me wonder: If people recognize that picking up trash is a good deed, why don’t more of them do it?
At the time, I didn’t know I was following in the footsteps of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who has been a one-man cleaning crew for years. He doesn’t recall exactly when or why he started but says he “instinctively just can’t stand living in a dirty neighborhood.” When he entered politics in the 1960s, he recalls, “Boston was filthy.” While it has gotten much better — 46 Massachusetts communities currently regulate the use of plastic bags, and recycling rates have improved across the board — some areas still have a long way to go.
I moved to East Boston in 1999 after a decade in New York’s then trash-strewn Alphabet City. I don’t mean to single out Eastie, because there are certainly many other Boston neighborhoods and suburbs with too much litter, but that’s where my house is, and that’s where I see the papers clinging to chain-link fences and McDonald’s cups rolling down gutters. The supermarket I mentioned earlier is right up against Boston Harbor, and its bags look a lot like edible jellyfish to whales, sharks, sea turtles, and other large marine animals, which then die with bellies full of plastic. I sometimes can’t bear to watch the cashiers pack people’s groceries. Loaf of bread? Double-bag it. Half-gallon of milk, with its very own handle? Double-bag it. Pack of cigarettes or a single soda? Yep, I’ve seen those go into bags, too. And often the bags get removed and tossed onto the ground, still pristine, the second a customer walks out the door.
East Boston City Councilor Sal LaMattina has been working on the neighborhood’s trash problem for years, but lone politicians — even those who buy their own paint to cover the graffiti on mailboxes, as Dukakis once did — can only do so much. It is up to us to do the rest.
Roadside litter, for example, has decreased by 61 percent since 1968, according to the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful (KAB), but a landmark study the organization did in 2009 found that there were still 51.2 billion empty cans, straws, cigarette butts, disposable utensils, and six-pack rings scattered across our parkland, roads, and walkways. That’s about 160 pieces for every American, and trying to contain it costs taxpayers an estimated $11.5 billion a year.
In Massachusetts alone, the Department of Transportation gathers 90,000 bags of trash along highways annually — trash that endangers wildlife from birds to deer to chipmunks and makes your commute a lot less pleasant, even if you don’t consciously register it.
Community groups and environmental organizations are making a dent in the problem. Volunteers gave almost $600,000 worth of their time and picked up 32.75 tons of trash during the Great Massachusetts Litter Cleanup last April and May, and this year they’re hoping to do even better. “Our goal is that ultimately all 351 communities in the state will have a spring litter cleanup,” says Neil Rhein, executive director of Keep Massachusetts Beautiful, the state affiliate of KAB that sponsors the program (sign up at keepmassbeautiful.org). “Last year we worked with about 50 communities.” This year, they’ve already doubled that number. “So we’re making progress, but it really is up to individuals to take action,” Rhein says.
People litter out of laziness and because they don’t feel a sense of responsibility for wherever they happen to be standing at the time. And there’s little official disincentive for doing it, since litter laws are rarely enforced.
Peer pressure doesn’t always help. Once, as I was going into a drugstore, I watched a middle-aged man standing at a nearby bus stop intentionally toss a fast-food bag onto the sidewalk. I picked it up and said, “You shouldn’t do that,” and he placidly replied that there was no trash can nearby — even though there were two maybe 100 feet away. It was disheartening.
But another time, as I walked behind a guy on my street in Eastie, I cried “Hey!” when he dropped a candy wrapper, and he immediately turned around and picked it up. One word was all it took.
If that makes me sound like an old lady shouting, “You kids get off my lawn,” then so be it. I often feel as if I’m swimming against the tide, but with every piece of plastic I pick up — especially along beaches, where I never come back empty-handed — I think that might have been the one that killed a seabird or a fox. And setting a good example never hurts. Dukakis, a big fan of the “broken windows” theory of policing, says that when he’s spotted picking up litter, “every once in a while someone will come up and say, ‘Now you’ve got me doing it.’ And I say, ‘That’s the point. If we all do it, the place will look good.’ ”Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.