Greening up the little things

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/30/11]  
It’s not easy being green. Then again, it’s not that hard either. Recently, I spent a morning with several volunteers from Sustainable Rutland cleaning up the rocky moonscape of a parking lot on the corner of Wales and Center Streets in downtown Rutland better known as The Pit.

The clean-up was in preparation for Friday Night Live, which will use the space several times over the course of the six-week summer series. (By the way, FNL held its opening night on June 24 and will return after an Independence Day weekend break on July 8.)

As we combed the edges of the lot and the steep, green hills and fished various items out of the Bomoseen-sized puddles, I noticed that the litter we were collecting was not so much the deliberate kind as it was the absentminded kind: cigarette butts by the fistful, gum and candy wrappers of all flavors, bottle caps ground into the dirt like seashells buried by the tides.

It’s odd, but sometimes litter can be beautiful — shattered beer bottles, pulverized by car tires into green and amber mosaics shimmer in the daylight. For a fleeting second, they are striking until you realize the carelessness with which they were created.

I was particularly stuck by all the beer cans — evidence of “road sodas” discarded by the late-night bar crowd as they disembarked for a night on the town. Knowing their origins, I imagined, rather humorously, that the cans were left by daytime workers who sneak out each afternoon to crush Budweiser tallboys on their lunch breaks.

My good humor, however, was short lived. Cigarette butts and beer cans are easy to pick up. Styrofoam shards, on the other hand, are impossible to collect entirely. The shards, remnants of castoff coffee cups and takeout containers break down into infinitely smaller bits, but never fully degrade. The result is a dandruff dusting of toxic white particles that, while dispersed to near invisibility, never go away.

At the end of the cleanup, we convened at the center of The Pit to share our grossest discoveries. A used Band-Aid was the winner.

Inspecting our work, the casual observer might not notice a difference, but the 30-gallon bag says otherwise.

As I said, the type of litter we collected was not large or purposefully deposited there; we didn’t find bags of trash, broken TV sets or tires.

True, we found a stray Grand Union shopping cart, but in Rutland I consider these a form of indigenous wildlife. (I’m happy to say the cart has since been collected and safely returned to its natural habitat on North Main Street.)

The carelessness is what got to me. The nonchalant way with which people will discard those tiny pieces of trash — a wrapper here, a bottle cap there, a cigarette butt everywhere.

Admittedly, in my smoking days, I was just as guilty of this type of littering. Then, I learned about the consequences of that act: discarded butts can get into the water supply, the harmful chemicals trapped in the filter leak out, and the butt itself can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to biodegrade according to various sources.

To that end, Sustainable Rutland is continuing its outreach and awareness-raising efforts to get people to think about the impact each one of us has on the environment each and every day. (Full disclosure : I work for SR.) We will once again be at Friday Night Live where our Trash Ambassadors will be helping people easily recycle and compost waste generated by the event. Be sure to look for them at our trash stations each week during FNL.

While one cigarette butt might not matter, remember, it’s never just one. It adds up. In The Pit alone, we found scores of them, and that’s just one parking lot. Take a stroll past the bars on Center Street next Saturday on your way to the Downtown Farmers’ Market, and you’ll see scores more. Fortunately, many of these are swept up by the city and by business owners conscientious enough to do their part.

But at the end of the day, the solution lies in each one of us. Like, I said it’s not that hard to be green. The next time you smoke a cigarette, don’t toss the butt. The next time you reach for a stick of gum, keep that wrapper in your pocket until you can throw it out.

You may think those little things don’t add up, but the 30-gallon bag of litter we collected from The Pit says different.

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