One day, driving along the curvy road next to my street, my eye latched onto a white piece of paper stuck in the grass on the side of the road. As soon as I saw that piece of litter, I saw the rest – cups, containers, bottles. There was too much to count, too much for one person to even stop and pick up.
Is it really that inconvenient to hold your trash in your own car and then dispose of it later, I wondered. Someone else should worry about it. It’s not my problem, I thought.
Then there was some trash talking – not, the trash talk between adolescents on playgrounds and basketball courts – the garbage was speaking to me.
This is what the Roadside Rubble had to say.
Mr. Styro had been resting firmly in the grips of his purchaser, a dad-like guy, who was going at break-neck speed down a narrow windy road. Without a goodbye or any proclamation Mr. Styro was launched through the car window and onto the side of the road.
“What is this place?” Mr. Styro asked. There were brown, crunchy leaves beneath and large trees lurked in the background. He was not trained for this environment. This was no coffee shop.
“Hey, man,” said another styrofoam cup with pink and orange writing on it. “Welcome.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re in the land of the discards, the roadside rubble, the unwanteds. We go by a lot of names, actually,” the cup motioned to the other cups and plastic containers and paper wrappers around. There was a deflated beach ball nestled against a log and a large rubber tire partially submerged in the earth.
Mr. Styro trembled. Everyone around him looked so…damaged.
“You’ll get use to it. It’s almost like vacation. You get to be in the fresh air, no one is trying to put you back to work, and you’re safe from being turned into some other takeaway container. See that brown container over there: used to be a newspaper, then got waterboarded into becoming a vessel to hold organic lettuce. You’re safer here. Well, you’re safer here for a little while.”
“How long have you been here?” Mr. Styro asked.
“I think it’s been six months. I don’t mind it. I get to see the stars. Everyone is pretty nice except for Mr. Beach Ball. I’ll be here for quite a while. I’m Duncan, by the way.”
“What happened to the beach ball?”
“He rolled away from a pool party last May and he’s been deflated ever since.”
“How do you know you’ll be here for a while?”
“If no one snags me, I should be here for at least five hundred years; that’s how long it takes for the chemical bits of me to decompose. Old Cutie over there, the tiny styrofoam cup with the old pink and orange label has been here almost twenty years.”
Mr. Styro saw the wrappers hanging out telling jokes. Old Cutie and the other cups were keeping warm in the one sunny spot. All the plastic utensils huddled together. They must be used to being in a pack, Mr. Styro thought.
“Yep, everyone kinda sticks to their kind. It’s easier to hang with those who have the same biodegradable rate, that way you don’t miss your friends when you’re gone.”
“You said that you’d be here a while, but not if someone picks you up. What does that mean?”
“See that white and green sign over there on the side of the road? That says this road is adopted by some group of teenagers who are supposed to pick us up and throw us in the garbage. It almost never happens. If you see more than three teenagers walking, hide. They’ll come after you with these horrible pinching things.”
Mr. Styro wanted to take notes, wanted to keep himself from further misery. When he was born at the factory with his other family, they told him it was his duty to serve wherever he was called: coffee shop, office, birthday party. And it was his duty to handle the heat, to provide caffeine to the humans who needed it all day long. He’d have a great tour. He’d see the world, and, when his tour was over, he’d meet back with everyone at the landfill. No one ever mentioned anything about roadside rubble.
“You’re wondering if you’ll ever see your family again, right? The landfill? Look, kid, I’m not going to lie; It’s probably not happening. So get used to us; we’ll be your family now.”
The cup took him around to meet the other cups, each one starting to decay just a bit. The plastics still looked remarkably well. One plastic salad container told him that they were thinking of splitting into two groups: true plastics and biodegradable plastics. The paper products were all lumped together: wrappers, containers, newspapers, homework assignments, receipts. They lived each day like a party because they were the first to go. Then there were the others: a group of misfits who didn’t have enough of their kind to form their own group. The deflated beach ball, the broken lawn chair, and the clothing all stuck together, but didn’t speak much. The old tire seemed to be the elder, and he was certainly stuck in his ways.
“Why do the humans get rid of us so easily? No one said anything about this during training. We were supposed to feel pride in serving.”
“Ha!” the cup laughed. “Why do the humans do anything? They are an entirely strange species who drive too fast, eat too much and care too little for this land beneath us. But they rule. We’re at their mercy.”
Mr. Styro looked up when he heard the screams. A tiny long plastic green thing was flying through the air; another toss from a fast-moving car. The skinny green stick stood on its one leg, it’s tiny round head shaking in disbelief.
“Splash sticks go over there,” Duncan pointed to a small group in the shadows of the paper cups and plastic lids.
Mr. Styro recognized him. Cups, stirrers and splash sticks were like different troops working in the same battle. He felt sorry for the little guy, who was used to being supported by the cups and the lids.
Duncan leaned on Mr. Styro. “Don’t get attached to them. Those little guys don’t even get a chance to decompose gracefully. Usually some animal comes by and chews on it thinking it’s a bug or a stick.”
“Why don’t they move, get out of harm’s way?” Mr. Styro asked.
“Safety in numbers, man. Stick close to the road, then you’ll always have someone around.”
On Earth Day make a vow to be mindful with your garbage, and please, think twice before adding to the Roadside Rubble.
Locally, you can participate in clean-ups. Information is available here:
Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Great Saw Mill River Cleanup
What are you doing for the Earth today?