Guest Column

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bag

About once a month I pick up litter along sections of the bike path that runs through Mahopac. I used to be self-conscious as I walked the bike path in my latex gloves and plastic bag from the supermarket. But as more and more people said “hello” or “thank you,” I gradually gained confidence in my endeavor. And while we may be unable to completely obliterate litter, I have noticed a disturbing trend recently: Dog doo dotting the bike path like little gift bags.

On my most recent walk, I covered 1.5 miles of trail and picked up no less than nine plastic bags full of dog doo. If I’d found one bag, I’d think, “OK, irresponsible dog walker.” But nine bags? Seriously? It’s as if these dog walkers only understand part of a dog walker’s responsibility with respect to public space. They definitely understand that they should carry small plastic bags, pick up their dog’s “business,” and even tie a knot in the bag—but they don’t understand the “TAKE IT WITH YOU” part.

Come on people! You’re doing a really good job cleaning up after your dog— there’s hardly any un-bagged dog doo on the trail.  Now, please finish the job properly so the rest of us don’t have to walk an obstacle course of yuckiness. I might add that on this particular day I encountered no dogs. None. So that blows any optimist’s theory that the dog walkers might be planning to pick up the neatly knotted poo bag on their return trip down the path. 

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Retired Marine and Mahopac trail-walker Louie came up to me on one of my litter walks, smiled his big friendly smile and said, “Now I know who else is picking up the garbage on this trail!” Louie explained that he does the same thing once a month. It’s nice to know there are others out there cleaning up our trails. Our local Cub Scouts have been doing litter cleanups twice a year for many years now, with proper precautions, of course. I know firsthand that these kids are given safety gear to wear and are instructed not to pick up glass, rusted metal, etc. until an adult can help them. I’d like to believe this experience stays with these kids and that they would never consider littering to be acceptable behavior.

I clean up the paved trail plus about 4 feet on either side of the trail. (I draw the line at venturing too far beyond the trail as it could possibly be garter snake habitat, and an encounter with a snake would end my litter picking instantly!) The strangest thing I’ve found on Mahopac’s bike trail is a hospital admittance bracelet. It was almost a year old and I could still read all the personal information on the bracelet. Which tells you a lot about the permanence of what we toss aside. Don’t worry, 45-year-old Michael—I won’t call you out.

In addition to my gloves and plastic bag, I carry my phone and I photograph every single piece of garbage using a free app called Litterati. The app uses GPS coordinates to map where the litter is found and it has some very real marketing and sociological implications. For example, the app’s creator was asked to provide litter information in an especially dirty section of Oakland, Calif. The app had noticed that a large majority of the litter in this two-block area was, oddly enough, full packets of Taco Bell hot sauce. The city approached corporate leaders of Taco Bell and offered a solution that Taco Bell implemented immediately: They stopped putting packets of hot sauce in takeout bags unless the customer specifically asked for hot sauce. Seems like a very small action, but that two-block area of Oakland is now seeing a lot less litter.

As my bike trail friend, Louie, likes to say, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” Litter on the bike path may not rise to the level of “evil,” but you get the point. It’s the “broken windows theory” of litter: Litter attracts more litter. And that affects our health, our property values, and our children’s reverence for nature. If we do something about it, we all win. At the very least we are keeping our trail walkers happier and the trail’s woodland animals healthier.

Now I have to go walk my dog. 

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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