All too often, I see someone walking or driving around Richmond carelessly leave a piece of trash behind. Thrown out of their vehicle window. Tossed onto the sidewalk. Flicked into the grass. Cigarette butts. Fast food containers. A receipt or other slip of paper they don’t want any more.
Sometimes I give them the benefit of the doubt, pick up the trash, and bring it back to them.
“I think this accidentally fell out of your truck, sir.”
“Oh, um, thanks.”
Usually the same piece of trash is on the ground again in a few minutes, just a bit further down the road.
The trash lying about is not good in itself. It’s unsightly. It mars landscapes, clogs drains, harms non-human forms of life, leeches into the soil and water.
What’s more problematic for me is someone’s willingness to trash their own community, street, or even yard.
Humans have a long history of disposing of their trash in other people’s back yards; it’s a very problematic practice in itself, but we can almost begin to understand the logic: “well, trash has to go somewhere and we don’t want to see it here.”
But what does it mean when someone is willing to leave trash in the landscapes and thoroughfares that they themselves frequent? What does it say about their level of investment in the health and beauty of their community?
I remember watching a young man walk out of his house sipping the last few drops from a large gas station soft drink cup. As he opened his car door to get in, he tossed the cup onto the grassy median between the sidewalk and street. Presumably he would come back to that same house some time later on, and that cup would be in his yard, or a neighbor’s yard. For him, instead of finding a trash can or re-using it, somehow it made the most sense to leave that cup behind in plain sight on the side of the road.
As we talk about ways to make Richmond a better place to be, I have to wonder if that young man would ever show up at — let alone take any interest in — one of the many community improvement meetings, conversations, or forums that are conducted here on a regular basis. Probably not. If he can’t be bothered to keep his own yard clean, why would he invest time in the health of the wider community?
(There’s the theory that it can work in the other direction; if we make Richmond a place that people have more pride in, they will naturally come around to acting out of that pride, doing their part to clean up and preserve our properties, streets and neighborhoods. This approach can work, but it’s a hard equilibrium to reach and a fragile one to maintain.)
Of course, there are other kinds of trash we all leave lying about, and they litter our landscape in different ways.
There are the abandoned buildings and empty retail spaces we drive past, home to ghosts of businesses and ideas we once supported but that couldn’t quite compete for our time and dollars.
There is the human waste that flows into one of our few natural bodies of water, poisoning a source of recreation, life and natural beauty because the political will couldn’t be mustered earlier on to find a better way.
There are the budgets we hastily cut for things that seem superfluous, but that turn out to be essential to the vibrancy and diversity of our city.
There are the tax dollars we relinquish or spend on economic incentives toward job creation, where no one can quite demonstrate that they worked or didn’t work. There are the countless hours spent trying to temporarily steal a few jobs from a neighboring city or region in hopes of jump-starting our economy.
There are the relationships and friendships that didn’t quite end well, the neighbors we don’t know as well as we should, the moments in the board room or grocery aisle where we didn’t stand up for someone who could have used some help.
We leave these bits of trash behind and they, too, raise the question of how invested we are in the health and beauty of the place we live.
What can we do to answer that question?
Perhaps it begins with paying closer attention to the trash we produce, and what we do with it.
What scraps of our lives and of those around us do we let flutter out onto the sidewalks and streets?
What unsightly, unwelcome deposits of unwanted things do we usually just ignore, or accept as necessary? Why does that happen?
And if we play that approach out in the long-term context of Richmond’s health and prosperity, does it get us where we want to be? If not, what changes do we need to make?
Photo by Alan Levine