Shown above is the garbage collected and sorted by the writer of this column, all in a lovely July afternoon. Photo credit Zack Metcalfe

Last week I did something a little radical, defying a social norm so insidious I didn’t even realize it existed until I was face-to-face with it. In broad daylight, with the full attention of my neighbours, I spent an afternoon picking up trash.

You don’t see this often enough these days, besides folks earning volunteer hours by adopting a highway or the occasional rogue individual polishing a ditch. It’s especially bizarre in apartment complexes were residents don’t feel responsible for anything beyond their front door. I thought garbage removal was the responsibility of the owners in this case; perhaps they hired a crew to sweep the grounds annually and remove its plastic taint, but I never saw such cleaning crews and I began to wonder.

I’m fortunate enough to live in a particularly beautiful apartment complex, filled with trees both mature and freshly planted. From my parking space I need to cross a small footbridge over a stream and walk through a small stretch of forest before I can climb the innumerable stairs leading to my apartment. I love this walk and the stream, although modest, always serves to put me in a good mood, but more and more I saw it clogged with plastics. When I spoke to my landlord about keeping this garbage under control he told me only himself and his wife, the other landlord, cleaned the complex. Considering the size of the property they were grossly understaffed, and my act of social rebellion was born.

I was hesitant at first for silly reasons, one being a mortal fear that my neighbours would see me and sneer, thinking me as smug and self-righteous as the owner of an electric car (I joke; buy an electric car). There was also the uncertainty surrounding the land itself. Does it belong to me? Am I in any way responsible for its cleanliness and if so, shouldn’t I have some help? Like I said, my reluctance was silly. If I couldn’t bring myself to clean this stretch of beautiful wood and water, how could I expect anyone else to? If I’m paying rent to park and live and prosper on this property, surely I have the right to clean it, if not the responsibility.

So I pulled on rubber boots and began, picking the countless reflective flakes of plastic from the grass and pines leaves for hours on end. Some of this litter had been there for year, embedding itself in the soil and occurring as frequently as stones. This trash was so common in fact, so familiar, that my eyes passed over some of it without taking notice, as though it were a part of the ecosystem. I’d been desensitized, so to speak, and the possibility frightened me. We expect to see the logos of fast food restaurants at our feet more so than flowers these days.

In the stream I found this garbage most of all, caught on rocks and twigs perhaps a hundred metres upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. I became so filthy and wet that finally I embraced it, wearing the mud and muck like a badge of honour as my neighbours passed me by, smiling without a trace of judgement.

One man did speak to me, asking what I was searching for so fervently in the water, perhaps thinking I’d lost my wedding ring. When I explained, he immediately assumed this was a part time job of mine, not expecting anyone, particularly a young man, to spend an afternoon thusly without reward. Can’t say I blamed him.

In the end I filled two bags with garbage and a third with recycling. Funny enough I found the third bag in the mud, untorn and ready for use. I covered only a small fraction of the property that afternoon and already my territory has accumulated more plastic, but now that the social barrier has been broken, I have many expeditions ahead of me.

Regardless of where you live or what land you might reasonably call home, you should have no reservations about getting on your hands and knees to keep it clean. This is a public service we’ve blissfully assumed is being done by someone else, but the truth is very few people keep it up these days. If you’re one of those people, you have my respect. If you’re not, then I encourage you to give it a try. It’s liberating.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of Shades of Green. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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