Unfortunately, humans and wildlife have too much in common when it comes to garbage.
Despite what you might think, humans did not invent litter. And we did not invent those trash mountains we call landfills. The fact is, every living creature on Earth creates some form of garbage, whether it’s discarded hickory shells, molted snake skins, feathers, wood chips, mountains of bat guano and even bones. The difference is how we deal with it.
Humans do their thing with their trash. But those wild litterbugs that created all of that garbage have absolutely no interest in picking up whatever it is they just dumped out there in nature.
They’re animals. They don’t have any interest in gathering up all of the wood chips they just pecked away or retrieving the antler they just dropped. Animals generally don’t care about what happens to their trash.
Of course we humans see the wildlife trash as perfectly natural and acceptable. It’s part of nature. We don’t even recognize it as trash because it’s always been out there—and nature has its own recycling system.
Our human trash, on the other hand, we recognize as our own. It’s unique to our species. Plastic bags waving in tree branches, cigarette butts in parking lots and old tires in ravines were clearly left there by people.
Or were they?
At the state park where I work, we have a very clean operation. Littering in the park is not tolerated by anyone, including nearly all of the million-plus human visitors who enjoy visiting this clean state park each year. We make the rounds daily, emptying trash barrels and removing litter wherever it occurs. And we do get help. People voluntarily pick up trash along trails or in parking lots or wherever they see it. Thanks to this public-citizen stewardship, an empty bottle or can along a roadway doesn’t stay on the ground for long. People driving through our park will stop their cars to pick up trash just as willingly as they would get out of their car to move a turtle that’s crawling in the road.
It’s a source of inspiration to realize the majority of people who come to our state parks are all good people. They know the value of taking care of nature.
But then there are those careless, infuriating slobs. They’re animals. They’re the ones who intentionally dumb human garbage everywhere, apparently without a trace of remorse or conscience. They’re not human. Literally.
Each night, after the clean park visitors have left for the evening, the local, four-footed litterbugs waddle out of the woods and climb into the trash cans where humans have deposited their trash during the day. The raccoons, opossums and skunks that roam our state park are making humans look bad. They rip out everything they consider food and drag it away. In the morning, piles of human garbage can be seen scattered around parking lots and picnic areas.
It looks as if nobody cared.
But we humans do care. And so we once again gather up all of this twice-discarded human trash and put it back into its proper container. It’s a ritual we perform day after day, out of conscience, accepting the fact there will be more trash tomorrow, because, until that day when someone invents a trash can that raccoons cannot decipher, people will be picking up human trash animals have left behind. It’s what we humans do.
Of course not all humans deserve a clean conscience. A big portion of the litter in our state park does, indeed come from wildlife pulling human trash out of trash cans. But wildlife aren’t the only culprits.
Some people think it’s perfectly acceptable to throw garbage out of their window as they drive through a state park. They’ll drop fast food bags in the street. They flick lit cigarettes into the woods and deposit empty bottles and cans in roadside ditches. We find dirty diapers on picnic tables and pizza boxes sitting on boat docks. Inexplicably, some people dump garbage into recycling bins.
It looks as if nobody cares. But the rest of us do care. Again, it’s a source of enduring inspiration to realize how many good citizens take it upon themselves to do what’s right. The fact is, the people who voluntarily pick up trash in our state parks represent the best of our species. We rarely can acknowledge any one of them because it’s hard to notice trash after it’s been removed. We aren’t always there to thank them. Yet it’s a shame these caretakers of nature never get enough credit.
But they should.
So I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge this beautiful thing that makes us human. From the bottom of my heart I thank you good citizens, the ones who act on behalf of our environmental conscience, leading by example. I see you sometimes standing at trailheads with an armful of trash found today while hiking, sorting and filing the bottles and cans into their proper receptacles. Here’s to all of you hikers who know in advance to bring along empty trash bags while you hike, expecting the need.
Here’s to anyone who sees any and all human trash as their own, and responds.
And here’s to those leaders who lead us, the cleanup-event organizers who rally the troops for massive assaults and provide the good stewards with a coordinated purpose and sense we are not alone.
There’s Chad Pegracke, for example. You might have heard his story. He’s that Illinois dreamer who started a seemingly impossible one-man war against floating trash in our rivers. As a teenager in the 90s, this East Moline outdoorsman began loading his own boat with garbage he found along the Mississippi River. His reason: Nobody else seemed to be cleaning it up. He made the war on river trash his mission. Along the way, Pegracke found his life’s calling. He inspired a movement. Donations and determination kept him afloat. Today Pegracke and his Living Lands and Waters Institute (www.livinglandsandwaters.org) has expanded beyond Illinois into nationally recognized champions for clean water and the environment. Living Lands and Waters barges—all acquired through donations—scour America’s waterways, all as a public service.
And he’s not alone anymore. Entire communities crowd the riverbanks when Pegracke shows up. Citizen stewards with boots and work gloves and trash bags are ready to get onboard, eager to be a part of this community service and what it does for this land.
Individually, the lone trash hunters act without the expectation anyone will notice. I am thinking of people like Bill Abney, a local shop owner who closes up his store near our state park once or twice a month to go for a long walk in the park.
He mentions to nobody where he’s going. I’ve never heard him take credit for this. But I see him strolling quietly along the park roads, shouldering trash bags like Saint Nick, combing the roadsides for whatever overlooked trash might have appeared since his last hike. He has to scrounge sometimes, which is a good sign: He might spot a dirt-caked bottle that’s been hidden in the leaves since 1978, or a pull-tab somebody pulled off a beer can in 1967. When he’s finished, he visits the park recycling bins and files it all where it belongs. Eventually, as long as there are people like Abney, there will be no trash in our park beyond whatever the animals dumped here last night.
There are others who do not perform this exercise of conscience so quietly. And there is a place in this world for those who shout their conscience. I must also salute those who do not go quietly, the ones who make known their mission to clean up nature everybody’s mission.
Here’s to people like DNR’s own Paul Willms, biology student who joined the anti-littering movement of the 60s and never lost faith. He’s been on the job with DNR for more than 35 years, quietly coordinating and administering federal habitat programs for the benefit of all who enjoy the outdoors of Illinois.
But he’s far from silent when it comes to trash. Spend a few minutes with Willms and it’s hard to imagine anyone in Illinois more fired up about cleaning up our environment than this barrel-chested warrior who’s been picking up other people’s trash for most of his life. He’s not afraid to get in someone’s face if he thinks they’re part of the problem.
“Idiots!” Willms bellows while clutching fistfuls of litter he finds along Illinois roadsides. Plastic bottles are one of his hates. He thinks a can and bottle deposit makes sense. Bearded and gruff-voiced, Willms gets attention when he bears down on his pet peeve.
“What kind of idiot does this?” he thunders. He’s almost yelling. “The same people who wouldn’t dream of throwing garbage onto their own front lawn have no problem dumping garbage on other people’s property.
“What happened to the environmental movement of the 60s and 70s?”
He’s actually furious.
It’s impossible to estimate how many tons of trash Willms and other good stewards like him have personally picked up over the last several decades. The workload never decreases. In fact, despite his years of ranting and picking up trash, Willms suspects the problem is getting worse than ever.
“Thirty years ago I’d go jogging down the road near my house and find maybe one bottle or can along the way,” he reports. “Today I can’t go 20 feet before my arms are full of garbage.”
He is yelling now. But he’s not finished. And he will not finish. Even as Willms prepares for retirement, he’ not retiring from his mission of cleaning up nature. He could call it quits. But he refuses to call this war on trash a lost war. He knows it could be worse. In fact, everything could be worse.
“How bad can our economy really be if people can still afford to throw aluminum cans out their window?” he grumbles. He goes on and on. The ranting never ends.
And as long as there are people doing what he does, and as long as there is trash, this will never end. Nor should it.
We must realize that all trash is perfectly natural. Every living thing we admire in nature creates trash, including humans. Wildlife may ignore it. Some humans ignore it. But the rest of us, the ones who choose not to live like animals, will be the ones who save us all.