Columnist Gregory Hayes talks trash about roadside litter

Published: 5/2/2017 7:55:55 PM

With spring in the Hilltowns comes daffodils, the sounds of tree frogs — and our semi-annual labor of cleaning up the country road where we live.

Our home is in Goshen, and that road happens to be a handy corridor between routes 9 and 116, so it sees more than its fair share of automotive traffic, especially in the morning and late afternoon.

On Saturday, armed with rubber gloves and pockets full of plastic trash bags, we accumulated seven bags full of trash — and, as always, the attendant at our landfill graciously took them off our hands without charge. In our cleanup this time around, we were armed with two new weapons: “picker-uppers,” one a “PikStik” and the other a nameless tool from A.M. Leonard. They’re a boon to aging backs, and a crucial aid for the occasional foray into roadside groves of thorn-bedecked multiflora roses.

Our road is located many miles from the nearest fast-food outlet — meaning that it serves as a convenient dumping ground for those just finishing their meal or beverage from McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Cumberland Farms, Wendy’s, and Papa Gino’s. Why leave those pesky containers to accumulate in your car or pickup when you can roll down your window and bid them goodbye forever?

The debris mounts up more quickly nowadays. Maybe dumping garbage while motoring on Route 9 is a bit too public for many drivers. But, a few seconds after turning, conveniently out of sight of property owners and other drivers, the world is their Dumpster. It’s mostly the usual stuff: beer (most often Bud Light) and shot bottles, used scratch tickets, countless plastic cups and bottles. Many of the latter, eminently recyclable (the plastic containers far outnumbered the glass ones), have been discarded with their caps screwed back on, sometimes sealing the remaining contents within. This seems strangely tidy given the enterprise at hand.

Then there’s the more exotic fare: the occasional CD, porn magazine, paperback book, or pill bottle (sometimes with the patient’s name still visible on the label). Saturday’s expedition included some new items: a child’s brightly-colored sunglasses; a soaked bag containing five identical, slightly stained shirts, two on hangers; a pair of panties and a maxi-pad; a tire to a child’s bicycle.

Some of our trash-tossers are blessed with especially good arms: they’re able to fling their junk far from their moving vehicles. One side of our road, like many other country byways, has a big drop-off a few feet from the pavement — so some of the trash makes its way down the embankment, to become a permanent part of the landscape until an especially intrepid and agile cleanup person makes an effort to retrieve it. Then, too, some of the bigger stuff found there — construction debris and tires — suggests it was a considered decision, and not a passing fancy, to deposit it this way.

A commentary a few years back in The New Yorker discussed Pigovian economics in relationship to global warming. Arthur Pigou was a British economist whose idea it was (in the words of Elizabeth Kolbert) to “incorporate into the cost of what might seem a purely personal choice the expenses it foists on the rest of society.” Thus, we have taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, since their reckless consumption sometimes leads to consequences (hospitalization, crime) that become society’s problems. We have similar disposal taxes or fees on other purchases too — think of your old computers or automobile tires.

Short of a sea change in ethics and personal behavior … anyone for a census-taking of roadside litter? This would give an entirely new meaning to the term “trash-talking.”

We can tabulate the results by origin and then pinpoint the sources. Then we petition the town managers where these establishments do business to institute their own local Pigovian taxes, maybe just on the drive-through lanes in the beginning. If our government can dispatch crews to clean the trash from our interstate highways, why not do the same with our rural byways?

Our expedition Saturday concluded with an especially messy stretch near Route 9. The orange straws (from Dunkin’ Donuts) are eye-catching. So too is the bright blue one, via Cumberland Farms. This time around, that was the last straw.

Gregory Hayes, of Goshen, is a musician and teacher.


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