I pick up trash. Not for a living, but just because it’s there. And because I can. Because I want to. Because I have to. Let me explain.
I live on this beautiful tropical island in the Caribbean, Little Corn Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. It’s tiny, so everything (and everybody) is right in your face. You cannot avoid walking past trash, because there are only a few paths that take you around the island. And there is trash everywhere.
I bet your first thought is: why do people throw their trash around in such a beautiful place? Well, there are many reasons. First of all, this is a developing country, with a lack of funds, logistics and poor education. Basically, here we have no system in place that takes care of our trash the way you are used to have your trash taken care of. All you have to do is put it at the curb, and a truck will come and pick it up. Out of sight, out of mind. You pay for the service, they take care of it. Not here. We have no municipal facility or officer here. We have no roads, no cars, so no garbage trucks. We have no central dump or incinerator. Apart from a handful of recycling bins, we have no general garbage bins along our walkways, because emptying them causes a problem: where to take it? So better not have the bins, head in the sand-strategy. Basically, we’re on our own, when it comes to trash. We DO have trash, lots of it.
A lot of the people living on this island have not grown up with the same concepts about trash in nature as you and I have. It’s a cultural thing: I have learned that trash does not belong in nature, and I have learned why it is bad that it is there. So I know. I cannot walk past trash sitting in nature without feeling bad about it. A lot of the people here have not learned that (yet). And let’s be honest, our developed countries took ages to establish this attitude towards trash. I remember I was tiny, when we had only one black and white channel on TV, seeing a government campaign about taking care of the environment. So it was barely 1970 when they started educating us about the environment in the Netherlands. It took us well into the 90’s before there was a firmly established system of recycling and diminishing our trash, which now has become second nature to most Dutch people. So if a well-developed, rich country with a good education system, municipal services and government campaigns needs a whole generation to get this environmental attitude in place, we cannot expect that a poor country without all that is going to get on top of their trash problem in a couple of years. I let go of that dream a while ago.
Here reality is that a lot of people throw their trash wherever they go. Because they don’t know any better. And because there is no real option to put it anywhere anyway, apart from plastic bottles and aluminium cans that are collected and shipped off the island for recycling. At their own homes they may burn their trash, but when it rains (and this is the tropics), that is not an option either. So then it is the bush. Where the chickens will scratch through it, and neatly distribute it all over the place. Dogs will scrounge and find the edibles (including disposable diapers). So what’s left is plastic, loads of it, and cans, everywhere.
Then I walk by. I see the trash. I used to get angry at the people for throwing it there, even though I didn’t know who had done it, a pretty senseless waste of my emotional energy. When I started to understand the complexity of this problem better I managed to stop blaming them, and I also tried to stop thinking that the local government should do something about it. Because they won’t, because they can’t. The person who throws plastic in nature is guilty of a crime against Mother Earth, and in a way that is a crime against every organism on this planet, which includes me. So that could give me a good reason to be angry and upset. But when I walk by and I see that trash sitting there, KNOWING THAT IT IS HARMFUL TO MOTHER EARTH and then not picking it up, I become as guilty of a crime against nature as that person who threw it there in the first place. I should be mad at myself then too! Once you know, you cannot leave it there, can you? That is the most important reason to pick it up: I do not want to be guilty of leaving it there, passively condoning these crimes against nature, which are also crimes against me. So I pick it up, and take it to the recycling bins. I throw the non-recyclables in there too, that is my silent protest to the municipality and government for not providing some kind of trash-bins and a system to take care of that street trash.
Another reason why I pick it up is that it makes me feel better. Every time I walk by and I see that plastic shit sitting between the plants, I feel bad. For multiple reasons: sad for mother nature, sad about the lack of education, mad about people not caring, at a corrupt government not using my tax money what it’s for, at myself that I walk by without picking it up, guiltily! So when I have done a round of picking it up, and it looks all neat and clean, I can walk by there for several days without all those negative feelings. I walk by there feeling GOOD! Until the trash appears again, and then I start all over again.
A third reason why I pick it up, is that I might be noticed by passers-by, which has the potential of creating more awareness, or even soliciting some help. Because there are people here that feel as bad about that trash everywhere as I do, but they need a little push to do something about it. So me picking up trash can be that little push. (Just the other day I got confirmed that this strategy works, because a local hotel owner called me over to tell me that she had cleaned up the trail and the beach in front of her place, because she doesn’t want any more plastic sitting around! Yay!)
Then there is the simple reason of exercise: I often will take a sack, put on my running shoes and start walking and picking up trash as warming up for my run. I consciously vary in the ways I stoop, bend, squat and lift, so that the whole negative vibe of picking up trash becomes a positive one of working my body, while doing something good for Mother Earth. Win-win. When my sack is full, I’ll empty it in the recycle bin, and run home happy with the empty sack along clean paths! Yay!
There is another fun reason to pick up trash: you can do so much with it! When I was still making my living as an artisan and I didn’t have the Karma Shack yet, I would regularly go beach combing and pick up sacks full of colourful trash. I would scrub it clean and sort it in colours, and make puppets, mobiles, Christmas decorations, beach toys and Halloween costumes with it. For years I have sold bracelets made out of chips and cookie wrappers, and belts made of the pull tabs of drink cans. That trash art contributed to the funds to build the Karma Shack with! Whenever I would have all that colourful trash sitting outside to work with, all kids dropping by would dig in and start playing with it as if it were the best toys they’d ever had!
Making this kind of fun use of trash has made it easier for me to not get completely sad and angry when I walk over the beach seeing all the washed up leftovers from our disposable consumerist society.
I hear you think: but you cannot pick up everything! There is too much! If you only pick up a bit of it, you might as well not pick up anything at all, what’s the difference?
Very true: there is too much for me alone to pick it all up. Still, I’m making a difference. The difference is multiple: every little bit helps, every little step towards change is part of that change. And every positive thought and act contribute to raise the vibration of the universal consciousness.That raised vibration will inspire others to start making a change too. If enough people pick up some trash every day, this planet will get cleaner, education is happening and change becomes possible! I rather be part of the change and solution than of the problem!
All in all this whole trash story is a perfect example of the Buddhist teaching: when a situation bothers you, there are only two options: if you can change it, do so, and you won’t be bothered by it anymore. If you cannot change it, stop fussing over it, because that will not change it anyway. I pick up what I can, and I don’t fuss over the rest. It is what it is: too much trash.
So what’s bothering you on a regular basis? You may not have trash sitting around your neighbourhood, but there might be something that you think should be fixed or changed, and of course you have always considered that someone else’s responsibility…. Could you do something about it yourself? Do so! If not: change your thoughts about it and let it go!