One of my long-standing pet peeves has been littering. I even won a speech contest by ranting and raving about it in my high school years. Linda and I were running errands recently and we saw several places strewn with litter. Two years ago when I contacted the person in charge of cleaning up litter in the city, he not only encouraged me to report areas of gross negligence, he followed through, even to the extent of notifying his counterparts in surrounding municipalities that were not in his jurisdiction. Gratefully, the areas I brought to his attention got cleaned up.
Around that same time I was picking up trash in the neighborhood on my too infrequent walks for exercise, when I picked up this beer can. Wearing my “waste management hat,” I saw it as garbage and the negative thoughts came pouring in. How many such cans are going into landfills or clogging up sewer drains? How much of the earth’s supply of aluminum is being used to deliver gazillions of beverages every month that take minutes to consume? And I wondered about people who litter—What are they thinking? Or are they not thinking at all about what they are doing? Also, how does a person get to the point where they have little or no regard for their neighborhood, community or planet, much less an aesthetic sensibility that makes them think twice about littering?
Some years back a young colleague observed a neighbor drop a bag of half-consumed fast food onto the yard of the apartment where they both lived. My friend knew this person well enough that he could ask about it. The man’s reply was “Why should I care? Nobody else cares. What has the world ever done for me?” That was insightful. Not everyone in this country grows up like I did—in a loving family, particularly one in which consideration for others and respect for property was strictly enforced—and modeled. And not all educational systems in the United States teach young people about the impact we’re having on the environment and that something—like recycling, not littering and cleanup initiatives—can be done about it.
Waste is a global challenge. Travelers to Germany report that their land and cityscapes are largely litterfree. In other countries littering and letting garbage collect is the only option. So how a society handles its waste is a complex issue, conditioned by historical, geographical, cultural, political and economic circumstances. As such, less developed countries deserve some understanding in this regard rather than judgment on my part. They just don’t have the resources to manage waste.
Closer to home and on a more scientific note, research by Keep America Beautiful has determined that people litter because they feel no sense of ownership, even though areas such as parks and beaches are public property. They believe that it’s the job of city, park maintenance or highway workers to pick up after them. Their other findings include:
- People of all ages and social backgrounds have been observed littering, but individuals under 30 were more likely to litter than those who are older. In fact, age, and not gender, is a significant predictor of littering behavior.
- 18% of all littered items end up in our streams and waterways as pollution.
- 1. 9 billion tons of litter ends up in the ocean every year.
- $11.5 billion is spent every year to clean up litter.
- 50% of littered items are cigarette butts.
When I arrived home from my walk and separated out a bottle and this beer can for recycling, the dew on its surface forced me to put on my photographer’s hat. In its own way, this smashed can was an object of beauty, a common item that was now visually striking. And the negative thoughts it evoked in me made it, well, evocative. I’d considered this image for a posting, but put it off because I couldn’t decide on a theme. Then I saw a bumper-sticker that read, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
I laughed. But it was just the impetus I needed. My perspective shifted! One moment saw this beer can as litter, evidence of someone’s not caring and not taking responsibility for the neighborhood or planet, and moments later considered it an object of beauty. And then a bumper-sticker—comically but nonetheless poignantly—pointed to its place in the broadest of contexts. The can didn’t change, but my way of seeing it did. One of the aesthetic terms among the Japanese is “wabi-sabi,” finding beauty in things that are dying or decaying. It’s an appreciation of impermanence, including that which is incomplete or imperfect.
So this contemplation reinforces for me, how even the smallest, seemingly innocuous and possibly annoying things in life can be seen in a different light. It’s not that I gained a greater appreciation for litter. I didn’t. It still offends my aesthetic sensibilities, but I’m more at peace with it now, trying to rest in wabi-sabi.
Ultimately the best way of teaching, whether the subject is mathematics, history, or philosophy, is to make the students aware of the beauties involved. We need to teach our children unitive perception, the Zen experience of being able to see the temporal and the eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object.
ABOUT THIS IMAGE
Title: Smashed Beer Can
I didn’t want the dew on the beer can to evaporate by bringing it inside, so I left it out in the cold while I made preparations to photograph it on my copy stand. Once the camera and the background were in place, I brought the can in, turned on the lights, quickly centered it in the frame and clicked the shutter. What you see is the actual dew that was on the can. No spritzing needed. In Photoshop I softened the contrast to keep from blowing out the highlights. And I darkened the bottom part of the can so it would match the top part in tonality. Oh, and I recycled the can.