Every once in awhile I get the notion to create a Virgin Islands nature photo series that includes the litter. Curiously, you don’t see this particular point of view among the postcards, calendars, watercolors, and fine prints already for sale. I suppose this project wouldn’t fall under the category of commercial art. It would be more like my own little PSA campaign.
Because as much as the water—with its multiple hues of turquoise—dominates the island landscape, the garbage is undeniably part of it too. We’re surrounded daily by stunning natural scenes of the sort that most people use as desktop backgrounds, a little in-cubicle motivation toward that one annual week at the beach. And yet, plenty of island residents soil the beauty of their home by littering with absolute abandon.
Thus, the vistas are a mosaic of verdant hills speckled with brightly-painted houses, vibrant flora, and the green and brown shades of beer bottles. The beaches, with their white sand and crystalline water, are bordered with a mix of coconut palms, sea grapes, and washed-up trash. Detritus that resembles the innards of a junkyard piñata, cracked open to release a confetti of partly-broken-down plastics, mixed with more substantial prizes: work boots, for instance, and empty dish soap bottles.
Waste Management consists of a series of dumpsters scattered throughout the rock. Extremely limited truck service is offered only in “urban” areas like Cruz Bay and Charlotte Amalie. So one must take their trash to the neighborhood dumpster. Yet this proves too taxing for some, who find it simpler to fling their trash bags into a roadside ditch or an abandoned lot.
This despite several signs encouraging people not to litter, a few that even threaten fines. Which of course makes no difference to those for whom it’s essential that the inside of a moving vehicle be completely free of debris at every moment. Immediately after a water bottle has finished serving its purpose, out the window it must go. Reflecting upon the live-grenade-like haste with which it’s abandoned, one might wonder if, perhaps, an island legend claims that the Snickers wrapper will self-destruct ten seconds after the candy is consumed.
I’ve started using walks with my dog, Hershey, as an occasion to pick up trash in my neighborhood. I don’t do it every day, I’m no saint. But, if the mood is right, and if he voids his bowels in a considerate location, I use the (evil) plastic, doubled grocery bags I carry with us for litter.
It’s mostly Heineken and Vitamalt bottles that I come across, mixed with a smattering of Fanta cans and plastic cups. Sometimes the beer bottles have been hillside long enough to now be considered erosion control. Those are left untouched; I’ll be damned if I’m going to dig them out and cause a landslide.
I see my share of picnic forks and Vienna Sausage tins left from the lunches of laborers. When the utility company has been in the neighborhood, in addition to the decimated landscaping left behind, are remnants of job site meals: chicken bones (biodegradable, yes, but gross and my dog remains obsessed until they’ve composted into oblivion), scraps of tin foil, to-go boxes, beverage containers, and more plastic cutlery.
At one house, I finally picked up a large plastic child’s ball bat and a pair of toddler shoes I’d often passed with no motivation to grab. How many times have these people walked from house to car, stepping over their own garbage, without feeling moved to collect it? I mean, if the three minute drive to the dumpster proves too laborious, you’d think they’d at least deposit their rubbish in the abandoned lot down the road.
A few days later, I picked up several old car parts outside the same house that I didn’t have room for when grabbing the kid things. Last weekend when passing, I saw that they had started another auto repair. The parts boxes strewn on both sides of the street were what tipped me off, that combined with the collection of freshly-extracted auto guts lying adjacent to the vehicle.
Do they notice that someone has come along and picked up trash that’s languished outside their home for who knows how long? And if so, what do they think? Are they pleased that someone has finally removed it on their behalf? Are they pissed at the phantom trash collector for not minding their own business? Embarrassed that their own lack of pride and effort has finally moved a stranger to clean up after them? Although I’m curious, I must admit, I really don’t care.
This particular house also has one of the grossest items I’ve encountered. Namely, an overturned plunger head that’s been re-purposed into a water collection vessel with the apparent function of aiding in the reproduction of mosquitoes and, therefore, the dissemination of dengue fever. Other nasty items found in various locales (and all left behind, like I said, I’m no saint) include dirty diapers, one tampon applicator, and of course, the occasional used condom….At least they used protection?
Recently, I came upon a man washing a decades-old truck that had long ago lost its color to the sun. A truck I might not bother washing at all. I noticed a small pile of beer cans in the grass next to the truck. And then watched the guy travel from truck to pile, depositing another can. I had enough room in my plastic bag to fit the cans, and had every intention of going home with them. But how to go about it? I mean, the perpetrator being right there and all. I considered the possibility that he was, indeed, planning to throw these cans in a proper trash receptacle when done with the truck. I decided, however, not to take my chances.
I wondered if I should say something when entering the man’s personal bubble to pick up his trash. Something non-threatening yet pointed like, “I’m sure you were going to get these, but while I’m at it, why don’t you just let me,” stated with a smile, of course. Or something more confrontational like, “So do you expect someone to pick up after you or is it that you just don’t give a shit?”
In the end, I said nothing. Just nonchalantly crossed to his side of the street, bent over, retrieved the cans, and put them in my half-filled sack. Not breaking pace, removing my headphones, or even so much as glancing in his direction.
I haven’t stated what is perhaps the obvious yet, but certainly attitudes toward litter are, in part, a cultural thing.
One day Magnum and I were outside a St. Thomas shopping center when a Cheetos bag swept across our path like a millennial tumbleweed. I followed my instinct, which was to race down the trash and deposit it in the closest outdoor garbage bin.
When I returned to his side, Magnum’s glare held a mixture of embarrassment and disgust.
“When we together in public, you never pick up trash. Understand me?”
“Bullshit,” I told him. “I’m not letting this stuff end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You don’t like that ’bout me, then we shouldn’t hang out.”
“But you taking somebody job.”
“Nobody picks up litter, you kidding me?” I sucked my teeth. “Maybe downtown where the tourists go the government pay someone to do it but not out here by the mall.”
“The kids do it in summer.”
“You full a’ shit, man. I never seen anyone picking up litter on the side a’ the street down here.”
“Well, outside dis business, dey pay someone to pick up trash. You takin’ dey job. Plus, you ain’t no dog, Miss. Why you need to go messing wit dah trash?”
Because someone has to give a shit! And it might as well be me.
It’s sort of therapeutic, anyway. And I can’t completely squash the idealistic hope that if people see me picking up litter, they’ll be less likely to create it in the first place. Although, I admit they’re more likely to throw it out with greater glee, knowing that some white girl has taken it upon herself to act like the dog she’s always walking and mess with other people’s trash.