Many people talk about there being certain behaviours that adults who grew up around alcoholics do, and given my own childhood, I am sure a few of those apply to me. One habit that I have picked up is the idea that if something needs to be different, I can’t necessarily count on anyone else to make it happen. Sometimes that can mean I take on too much, or blame myself for not fixing things that are clearly not my responsibility. On the positive side, though, I have found that it also means I’m more likely to just do something I think needs to be done rather than wait for it to be fixed.
A little over a week ago there was a thread on our neighbourhood’s Facebook group lamenting the state of our recently-renovated park. The park is situated in the middle of a semicircle of apartment buildings with a school on one side. It gets a tremendous amount of traffic and is effectively the back yard for hundreds, if not thousands of children. With that many people, even with trash bins, things can get messy. Coffee cups, snack/candy wrappers and water bottles get tossed on the ground or sometimes simply blow out from an overflowing trash bin. Some, seeing trash already on the ground feel less resistance to tossing their own trash on the ground. After all, “it’s only one [cup, wrapper, mask]” but with almost 30,000 residents, even if 1 percent feels fine tossing trash on the ground, that’s 300 people who aren’t taking care of things. Over the course of months, that can really add up.
So the post thread talked about how so many people don’t care about how our neighbourhood looks, and eventually descended to the political, saying that there should be more enforcement, or that our political leaders aren’t helping us when they should.
Reading this I felt really frustrated. As long as people argued about it being someone else’s problem, we would have to wait for them to realize that it was their problem. (Let’s ignore whether or not it actually is anyone else’s responsibility). After reading and engaging a bit more than I probably should have, my old habit kicked in. I decided that I would just go out with a few trash bags and start picking up what I could. Maybe it isn’t my responsibility but it’s something I’m capable of doing, so why not do it? One person suggested I make it a Facebook event and post it and off I went.
It was interesting to see the reaction to that. Some joined the event, others advised me not to get my hopes up as others have cleaned up and people just littered again. But in the end I didn’t let that discourage me. My expectations were simple: When I am done it will look better than it did when I started.
When I told Sage about this plan she laughed and said that “Clean up trash in the park” was the next adventure she had planned for this weekend anyway. So sometimes things have a strange way of working out. Whether or not Sage initiated it, it was happening.
Saturday rolled around and Sage and I went out with bags, gloves and a bright yellow jacket to make me easy to find. Soon a couple of people from the Facebook group arrived. Soon after that one of the organizers of the Thorncliffe Park Autism Support Network arrived with several of their friends, volunteers, and children.
We scattered to various parts of the park, each with bags in hand, picking up what we saw. I’ve done cleanups before and it’s always interesting to see what the trash is composed of. Some places you might see lots of cigarette butts, other places alcohol bottles or even syringes. Here we found very few alcohol bottles or cigarette butts. There were many candy wrappers and chip bags, some paper plates and plastic cutlery, Tim Horton’s cups are ubiquitous in every Canadian trash cleanup. The centre of the park had lots of small wrappers for hard candy, but the fences near the edges had tons of trash made up mostly of what appeared to be the aftermath of picnics. Plates, cutlery, water bottles and water bottle case wrappers. Much of it was very light – it may have been left on a table at one point but the wind carried it to the edges.
When I went back to drop off my first full bag another family had joined in: a mom and her two sons saw what we were doing and asked to join in. Together they filled four bags. Before they left the mom said how glad they were that this was happening. “It’s our responsibility,” she said, “We live here. This is our space and we all use it.”
In the end about a dozen people came and spent anywhere from 1-2 hours. The work was challenging but not strenuous – though my legs are a bit tired and Sage and I both went to bed about two hours early. But this is the beauty of things like this. They say that “Many hands make light work” and it’s true. An hour doesn’t sound like much time on its own for a big project but when 12 people do join in, it’s the same as if one person spends twelve hours doing it. In the end there was a vast improvement for much of the park.
I’m so glad I got out and did this – to see how so little relative effort made such a difference and furthermore to see just how many other people felt the same way and also wanted to see their neighbourhood look better. For me, though, the biggest lesson is this: talking about something on social media may feel like activity, but in the end, the only thing that can make a change like cleaning up a park is getting outside, picking up a piece of trash and putting it in a bag. If someone joins you, that’s excellent. But if nobody else joins you, even then, the trash you pick up is no longer in your park. As Lily Tomlin said: “I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”
This adventure was such a positive experience that I’m already scheduling another to finish the job. I think in short time the big part of the job can be finished. Will we stop people littering? There’s no guarantee of that. But that, for me is something that is at this time beyond my control. What I can control is what I do and spending a little time every now and again to put some litter in a bag is something I can definitely do without a great deal of disruption in my life.
Many, many thanks to Shakhlo Sharipova and my friends from the Thorncliffe Park Autism Support Network for all of their help. Together we made a difference!