May 16th, 2014
by Erica Rose
One day last May, a bag of litter caused me to have a life-changing revelation. I was on the verge of the A170 in North Yorkshire at the time, 100 metres or so into my first solo litter-pick, the wheelbarrow was almost full and I was just about to turn for home when I spotted the bag in a ditch. It was full of the aftermath of someone’s lunch – cans, sweet wrappers and sandwich-boxes – and as I dragged it out I was angry enough to rant aloud at whoever had dumped it there. The bit that was revelatory (and printable) was when I heard myself saying “What did you think was going to happen to this, Mr Bag-Dumping Moron? Who did you think was going to pick it up? Do you believe in the Crap Fairy or something?!” I stopped. I looked at myself with the bag in my hands. Ah.
So, now that I officially am the Crap Fairy, complete with eponymous blog and website, a lot of my time revolves around litter – not just picking it up, but thinking and writing about it as well. That’s because it’s such a wonderful aid to philosophical reflection, browsing along the grassy verges with a picker and a couple of empty feed sacks (landfill and recyclables), steadily disembarrassing the growing things of their besmirchments and drifting along on the stream of consciousness.
After a year of regular picks, people are starting to recognise me on the street and in shops – I get praise and approval shot with a fascinated distaste, and a dash of guilt from the conscientious who feel a bit uneasy about not doing more of it themselves. And then people say such interesting things sometimes, such as “Don’t you get fed up with picking up other people’s rubbish?” which is a question I always find a bit mystifying: I mean, if someone spits in your face would you refuse to wipe it off on the grounds that it isn’t your spit? Or – this is a favourite – “Ooh, well done. That’s a thankless task!” And I wonder: do they really mean ‘thankless’, or do they actually mean ‘pointless’? Is there even any difference?
The two-edged sword of tidiness
Given the number of people who do pick litter, we can probably assume that they all think there is a point. I suspect, though, that it’s not always the same point. Take tidiness, for example: a big factor for some, but for me a bit of a side issue. Not that I like untidiness, you understand, it’s just that it doesn’t motivate me to pull plastic out of ditches.
And, come to think of it, litter-dumpers are sometimes pretty tidy themselves. Some will carefully tie a crisp packet in a knot and insert it into an empty Coke bottle, neatly screwing the top back on before placing it in a carrier bag along with various other bits of jetsam, tidily tying the handles together – sometimes twice, and sometimes putting it inside another carrier bag, which is also knotted – before bunging it out of the car window. In fact, perhaps it might be better if people in cars were less tidy, as maybe then they’d be more willing to put up with their mess for long enough to reach the next bin. Yes, I suspect that when it comes to litter tidiness might be as much of an inspiration for dumpers as it is for pickers.
OK then, you may say, call it ‘unsightliness’ if you prefer. Isn’t that why people pick up litter, because it’s unsightly? And I have to agree that litter looks horrible, and it is very satisfying to contemplate the place you’ve just removed it from and relish the lack of it. But again, it seems to me that this cuts both ways, the clue being in the word: un-sight-ly. In other words, litter is ugly to look at: our eyes are offended by McDonald’s packaging and tampon applicators in car-parks. But that’s also why people go to all the trouble of throwing their bag of dog poo right into the middle of the hedge. And why else heave your black bin-liner all the way up the embankment and down the ditch on the other side, when you could just dump it on the verge? No, I’m afraid that not liking the look of litter doesn’t necessarily stop littering – it just means that your fastidious dumper dumps it somewhere they can’t see it.
Bag of tricks
When it comes to roadside rubbish there’s a further refinement, because when you chuck something out of your car window at 60mph … it just disappears! And of course, because you can’t see it any more, it has actually ceased to exist. Litter? What litter?
It was in the 1920s that psychologist Jean Piaget first described the concept of ‘object permanence’. This is a cognitive milestone babies supposedly reach around the age of eight to twelve months, whereby they understand that objects continue to exist even when they move out of sight. More recent research puts it even earlier in life – possibly from birth. However, we grownups seem happy to carry on ‘disappearing’ inconvenient things by removing them from our mind’s eye – a skill that comes in very handy if you are, for example, a basically kindly person who knows about the kind of ‘life’ led by a broiler chicken but really fancies a tandoori.
While we’re on the topic of magical dematerialisation, consider the occult properties of plastic bags. Specifically, the way that putting stuff inside a bag means that it no longer counts (e.g. the above-mentioned dog poo and flung car rubbish), particularly if you then tie the handles together. When it comes to black bin-liners, you get a sort of belt-and-braces reassurance because you can’t see what’s inside them either – so the contents therefore cease to exist. And then we put the bags into a hole in the ground and bury them so that they don’t exist either.
Magical bag thinking isn’t only applied to fly-tipped carriers. It’s just as popular when it comes to the kitchen swing-bin, and even to proper, official litter-picks, with their proud end-of-pick photo of bulging black bags destined for landfill.
If only our rubbish was like Stone Age rubbish. Then our smoke-and-mirrors self-deluding tricks wouldn’t matter because they would just leave a few bones, wood ash and the inedible bits of plants to dissolve back harmlessly into the ecosphere, their molecules to be born again in some other living thing. But, sadly, it doesn’t work like that in the modern world. These days some of us do very nicely=out of selling the rest of us things that are packaged in materials that are not only hugely costly in non-money terms but are virtually indestructible. Your Stone Age hunter-gatherers would have a better understanding of the true value of an empty Coke bottle than we do: light, watertight, lasts for years – miraculous!
Unrubbishing: the art of valuing
Is an empty plastic bottle a piece of rubbish or a miracle? Who’s to say? Perhaps it depends on what you do with it. If you shove it under a hedge in a lay-by, that’s what makes it rubbish. ‘Rubbish’ may have more application as a verb than a noun: the dumped bottle has been rubbished.
I think so, and for me this idea suddenly brings the ‘point’ of litter-picking sharply into focus: I like unrubbishing.
It goes like this. I know that bottles and cans are valuable because (a) they have been produced at great cost in terms of human ingenuity and labour, and in terms of the environment, and (b) they can be recycled to conserve the investment that they represent. Because I know this, I do not have to let the rubbishers have the last word by shoving them under a hedge – I can pull them out and unrubbish them by putting them in the recycling. Similarly, I can unrubbish someone’s discarded clingfilm-wrapped sandwich by taking the plastic off and slinging the contents under a hedge to rot or get eaten by mice.
So yes, I do think there’s a point in litter-picking, and for me, although it’s partly to do with making the world look nicer, it’s mostly to do with valuing. I like unrubbishing valuable things that would otherwise be wasted, and at the same time I can wipe a little bit of the spat-in face of the natural world. A job worth doing.