I was standing atop a mound of dried reed grass, piled high inside a circle of scrub brush, plucking up plastic pens and aluminum cans and depositing them in a big black garbage bag, when the ground beneath my feet suddenly gave way. I crashed through the reeds and onto a patch of soft mud. There, buried beneath the dried grass, I discovered a treasure trove of trash.
There were dozens of glass bottles, strands of nylon rope, fast-food wrappers, dental picks, cigarette butts and condoms. I avoided picking up the condoms, even though I wore thick leather gloves. Sorry, but this tree hugger has his limits.
On March 16, I took part in Operation SPLASH’s annual spring cleanup of the wetlands and bays that hug the South Shore. I’ve taken part in a number of cleanups over the years –– at beaches, in the woods and on the bays. This time I was dumbstruck by the sheer volume of garbage that accumulates in the wilds beyond our everyday view.
The wetlands, which seem so pristine from a car speeding by on the parkway, look more like a trash dump when viewed from close up, where nature abides our throwaway culture.
I probably paid greater attention to the trash I was gathering because of late I’ve been reading “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” by Elizabeth Royte, an environmental journalist from Brooklyn who followed her own garbage, as best she could, once it left her home and wrote about her experiences over the course of a year. “Garbage Land” is a fascinating read, published in 2005, when environmental consciousness peaked nationally before waning amid the Great Recession.
Over the past 20 years, Operation SPLASH (Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors), a Freeport-based nonprofit organization with 2,500 members and 350 regular volunteers, has collected trash in the wetlands seven days a week. In all, SPLASH officials estimate that the group has removed more than a million pounds of trash over the past two decades.
But the work, SPLASH officials say, is never-ending because people just keep throwing their garbage wherever they please, without giving any thought to where it all ends up.