Long before we were urged to Make America Great Again, we were told to Keep America Beautiful. Baby boomers may remember the 1950s campaign that made littering a criminal offense, a time when offenders were targeted by Donald Duck singing “Litterbug, Shame on You.”
Did we grow up and forget the message? Or did our children never receive it? Los Angeles is filthy.
About a year ago, I started picking up trash around the Silver Lake street where I live. There was no special reason. I was already walking every morning with my dog. I’d noticed little bits of trash here and there. So I attached a plastic grocery bag to my waist, took a 26-inch grabber tool from my garage, slipped on some gardening gloves and started picking up garbage.
Turns out, there’s a lot of it. Once I started looking for litter, I saw it everywhere. The plastic bag I brought with me was full before my first walk was halfway through. I was going to need a bigger one.
I was going to need more time, too. The 40-minute loops I’d been taking with the dog now required almost twice that long to complete, as I stopped every six feet to pick something up.
Though my neighborhood is cleaner than when I began, the rain of rubbish is unrelenting.
A lot of smokers were using the streets and sidewalks as their ashtray. Cigarette butts were everywhere. Drug users, too, were litterbugs. I found discarded baggies bearing labels from medical marijuana dispensaries, as well as empty packages of Swisher Sweets, the cigarillos often used as marijuana blunts.
There was also a huge amount of fast-food trash, sometimes the remnants of an entire meal: paper cups, plastic straws, burger wrappers, ketchup envelopes, register receipts and all. At first I took this as proof of my theory that junk food makes junk minds. Then I decided it meant that these unfortunate diners, having consumed their malignant meals, couldn’t abide any reminders of the culinary crime they’d committed, and threw the evidence out of their car windows.
I also harvested a lot of drink containers and water bottles, or their caps. I was glad to see people were hydrating, but I wondered why — as with the drug users — they couldn’t dispose of the delivery systems in a responsible fashion.
Sometimes, I’d come upon debris that suggested a whole narrative. Scattered along the curb were beer cans, Swisher Sweets packets, Green Cross baggies, fast-food containers and used condoms. Some party!
Much of the trash in my neighborhood was, I thought, left behind by people who were just passing through. The most persistent rubbish dumps were on shadowy streets, where drivers could park and dine in privacy. Steep streets offering good downtown views seemed to attract the trash-throwing partiers.
But locals contributed their fair share to Silver Lake’s trash problem. Certain houses always offered a bumper crop of cigarette butts at the curb, evidence of a lonely smoker shamed out of the house and too lazy to use a proper butt can.
In front of a few driveways I always found the plastic ties used to bind copies of this newspaper, apparently discarded by impatient subscribers who couldn’t wait to get inside the house to read the day’s headlines.
After a year of this, making the same circuits, collecting a big bag of someone else’s crap every day, I began to feel like a sidewalk Sisyphus. Though my neighborhood is cleaner than when I began, the rain of rubbish is unrelenting. I sometimes despair, and wonder why I try to stem the tide of trash.
Maybe because I know it’s a problem for us all. The Keep America Beautiful organization estimated in 2009 that it costs $11.5 billion annually to pick up rubbish in the United States.
Is legislation the answer? Though the early ’50s campaign was funded by beer, tobacco and soda manufacturers with dubious motives, it did lead to anti-littering laws and resulted in cleaner highways.
Should we then demand better enforcement? It’s likely the authorities are busy with other problems.
Maybe in the end it has to be a DIY sort of thing. I just returned from a month in super-tidy Japan, where in several different cities I saw early-morning squads of senior citizen street-cleaners, all volunteers, picking up trash. When I asked them why, they told me that, after all, it was their neighborhood they were keeping clean.
I recently learned that the humorist David Sedaris also picks up trash during his daily walks near his home in England. This earned him an invitation to biscuits and tea with the queen.
I don’t think I need tea with the queen, but I could sure use some help. Grabber tools cost about $15. Plastic bags are easy enough to find. If enough people start doing what I’m doing, we could have this place cleaned up in no time.
Charles Fleming writes the monthly LA Walks column for the Times’ Health section. He is the author of the urban walking guide books “Secret Stairs” and “Secret Walks.”