We’ve all heard the rhetoric about our ‘problem with stuff’. As the chorus goes, we are mega consumers of goods and have inundated ourselves with so many products and materials that we’re now swimming in the excess, unable to properly dispose of the things we no longer want. The recent popularity of hoarder tv shows, with their stories of families ruined by obsessive pilers and less sensational documentaries such as The Story of Stuff, seems to bear out the presence of a growing angst with our consumptive ways.
This kind of anxiety or guilt is not new, but it‘s most current iteration is spurred by the almost wholesale shift toward cheap disposable goods and packaging that has occurred in the last few decades. The sheer accessibility of stuff has meant that the challenge of disposing of it, is ever present.
I was struck by this unpleasant fact, several years ago while traveling by public bus through northern Guatemala. Crammed for hours on a re-purposed school bus with traveling locals and occasional livestock, I observed an eye-opening routine. Every hour or so, the rickety bus would stop at the side of the highway, where it would be rushed by a dozen or so merchants yelling out prices and dangling tamales, candies, nuts, and other edibles in front of the windows. Usually, one or two of the lucky sellers would end up on to the bus and then would walk up the aisle with a large jug of Orange Crush soda, calling out “Bebidas, bebidas, bebidas”. If someone voiced an interest, the woman would pull out a clear plastic bag from her pocket, fill it with orange pop, add a straw, tie a knot and bam! – instant drink.
Watching this drink in-a-bag ritual, became a common and colourful routine of the long tiring trip. Less enjoyable was what usually followed. Sometimes at the same stop or at the next one, after the bus had come to a rest, windows would be popped open by my bus compadres and those nifty plastic drink bags, now filled with gum wrappers and other trash, would be thrown out the window onto the side of the road. Often plastic bottles, chip bags, juice boxes and other metal, plastic and paper containers would join them, hitting the road in a dull clatter.
I can still conjure up the feeling of shock and the subsequent nausea that washed over me when I surveyed the inches of garbage lining the roadside as we carried on. My surprise at the time, what not only with the act of dumping but the fact that the doers were Kekchi – rural indigenous Mayans, who are generally land-based and, one might imagine, less prone to garbage tossing. This was not the case, and as a Guatemalan friend would later explain, the traditional mayans communities, having had the shortest exposure to plastic goods, where indeed often the least aware of the impacts of wanton littering. Set against more pressing subsistence concerns and a history of using only natural materials derived from their surroundings, the accumulation of persistent waste was not yet top of mind.
In the urbane west, education or cultural gaps of this type seem less of an issue. Littering is generally accepted as being bad behaviour, and part of the greater waste problem. It’s a message pushed by parents, teachers and the anti-littering campaigns found in schools and in government ads, and by the presence of signage and trash containers in most public and retail areas. As such, the social stigma around littering is fairly established.
And yet, the sight of abandoned fast food containers, food waste, strewn cigarette butts and discarded gum on our streets, parking lots, parks and plazas is still common. Tossing trash on mass from Greyhound buses might be uncommon, but all the same, highways and other roadsides remain robust trash magnets in Western countries. Estimates of roadside litter in the U.S now total over 51 billion pieces a year, with clean up costs approaching $11.5 billion. The situation in Canada, the UK and Australia is only marginally better, and many campaigns have been launched by cities and even nationally to stem the growing problem.
The factors at play – our disposable culture, increasing population density, youth in revolt – are all things that can be pointed to as a way of explaining the presence of litter. The role of litter in our public lives, however, seems to be often overlooked. Notwithstanding the serious environmental impacts of persistent plastics and the health risks brought on by rodent attracting garbage, the general focus often centres on the litter-begets-more-litter-begets-other-neglect-which-begets-petty-crime theory of urban tipping points.
This urban spoilage argument is sensible and is in need of address, but parceled with the growing attention to litter, is an opportunity to not only shepherd it’s removal, but to also glean it’s messages. Litter after all is part of the disorder of cities, a disorder that makes them more dynamic. Arguably different from the overt artistic intent of graffiti and posters, litter is in some ways just as potent in telling a particular story or revealing a pattern of use.
Several years ago, while taking a friend on a tour of downtown Vancouver I pointed out what I’d come to learn was the easiest way to identify the location of the many ESL schools that populate the city. The dinky signage was easily missed, but if one kept one’s eye tuned to the ground, a splattering mass of gum fused to the sidewalk, would announce, almost without fail, the presence of one of the schools. A return at lunch time, would find an animated frenzy of students from China, Brazil and Japan, straddling that sticky makeshift doormat.
As with the language school discovery, the happenstance aspect of discovering different types of litter, can reveal many activities that would otherwise be missed. Fast food wrappers as vestiges of students hanging out, beer or liquor bottles in parks as traces of nighttime escape, even condoms and needles tell of the things that we might imagine (or wish) didn’t occur in the relative public.
The need to remove the dangerous and harmful, or even otherwise disturbing types of litter is understandable and real, as is the importance of combatting it’s origins, but it’s presence can also hold particular interest as an element of instant urban archeology. A departed group may only be known via what they leave behind – vestiges that speak to their habits, age and interests. The fact that kids and teenagers are more likely to litter than older adults means that their traces are more obvious to the rest of us, more in our faces. Their littering might be a kind of F__ you to the adult world, but it also tells us something about young peoples’ strong need to leave their mark, something, if paid attention to, might be channeled in interesting directions. What if litterers were challenged to turn the act of discarding into a more fruitful expression of assembling and creating? Litter as treasure and art might be an evolution that turns refuse into a base material for creative provocation, along the lines of street dance and skateboarding. It’s a territory that’s already being explored by public artists in small and grand fashion.
The desire for order in our urban environments has legitimate roots, but like the neighbour who immediately removes each and every tree leaf off of his lawn, the desire to blindly erase the ‘bad’ can leave a sterilized pretend scene. A better course would be in paying attention to what these scatterings tell us about our culture and our city behaviours, a curiosity that might yield surprising insights about city life, those around us and even come in service in combatting the more harmful effects of litter.