Friday, October 13, 2006

10 THINGS: LITTER by Susan Messer

litter 001/susan messer, originally uploaded by patryfrancis.

I'll be away for a couple of days to celebrate a particular anniversary. (More on that when I return.) While I'm gone, I leave you with my guest blogger and co-creator of the Literary Blues Pie, Susan Messer, who takes on the assignment of collecting ten things that are alike, but different. In an interesting and illuminating choice, Susan chose litter.

"It is estimated that 40% of the litter in the Borough is smoking related, be it wrappers, cartons or cigarette ends."
-- Gedling Borough Council, England

“Studies show that areas which are allowed to remain dirty are prone to becoming more dirty, i.e., litter gives ‘permission’ to litter.”


Well, I can’t confirm the 40% (I wasn’t that scientific), but I can confirm that once you start paying attention, a lot of the litter you’ll see as you go about your business has something to do with cigarettes, and an awful lot has to do with eating and drinking. I can also confirm that litter gives permission to litter, because I’ve now started to notice that these pesky discards tend to occur in clusters, sometimes in extremely heavy clusters.

I can confirm, too, that as soon as I got the idea from Patry’s blog to collect litter while strolling, I started to see litter everywhere: Right on my front lawn, a Hostess snack cake wrapper. At the corner, a Kool cigarette butt.. Across the street, a cluster—a turquoise plastic cup, a Red Bull can, and a Nestle’s Crunch wrapper. All along my way, tucked into bushes, lying in parkway grass, bunched up in gutters, I saw litter: water bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers, potato chip bags, Styrofoam cups. Cigarette packs, more cigarette butts. Scrunched-up newspaper pages. Pens and pencils. Coffee cup tops. A high-heeled boot.

It didn’t take long to see that I couldn’t pick up everything I saw, so I set limits, established guidelines: (1) nothing too gross, (2) nothing too big or heavy to fit in my bag (no car parts, for example; no rain-soaked shirts or jackets), (3) nothing that would require me to step into mud puddles or walk across a stranger’s lawn, and (4) no duplicates (e.g., one Aquafina was enough).

At home, I took my collection down the basement, divided it into two arrangements, and went back to work, slightly forgetting that I’d left it all there, and not bothering to check whether the photos were any good. A few days later, my husband asked me how long I was going to leave those things lying around in the basement, so I said "I'm throwing them out right now," and I did—sorting the garbage from the recycling and disposing of them properly.

Another thing I can confirm: Once you start noticing, it’s hard to turn the noticing off, which can be kind of sad when the thing you’re noticing is litter.


Anonymous said...

Susan, I'm fascinated by the color palette. Was that result random or designed?

gerry rosser said...

I have noticed that smokers think nothing of throwing their butts out just anywhere. I refer to them (not to their faces, never confront a smoker) in my kind-hearted way as "pigs." I guess, if it even crosses their mind, that a cigarette butt doesn't amount to much, but neither do drops of water, but those drops in their billions still manage to make oceans.

Kay Cooke said...

Have a happy anniversary Patry.

Thanks for the post Susan - food for thought. Or should that be - thought about what you do with your food?

Anonymous said...

Good and interesting point about the color palette. It was random, so this leads to the assumption that packagers confine themselves to a certain color palette. Hmmm. What can this mean?

I myself was a smoker many years ago, and back then, it never even occurred to me that a cigarette butt was litter. I don't know why it didn't (still can't figure out how I could have been so dumb)--and I was/am a person who would never litter. There are some disgusting images at
Imagine, a whole website devoted to the topic.

Absolutely. While I was collecting, I was thinking, "what a hungry, thirsty people we are." As I had predicted, though, I didn't see any wrappings from tofu-related products or other organic snacks. No literary magazines lying around in the gutter either.

Zhoen said...

Eleven, plus the cup cover.

gods I do hate cig butts.

Laini Taylor said...

Interesting post -- I remember reading about studies that had been done about the amount of household waste (not litter) one American family is responsible for in a year. It was staggering -- I think as part of the study they laid the garbage out over a field to really show the quantity -- it's very disturbing. What is going to happen to this planet?

(Also, Patry, I'm about halfway through Half of a Yellow Sun and WOW. Thanks for the recommendation!)

Anonymous said...


Actually, there's also that little beige/brown thing on the left side of the photo--a piece of a balloon, I think. And I had a whole second arrangement (that included the high-heel boot, a Chicago transit card, and many candy and snack wrappers), but the photo came out blurry--perhaps appropriate for the blur of litter that covers the earth.

Thanks. I, too, worry about this, as litter seems like an overt symptom of the carelessness and disrespect for out planet.

Anonymous said...

Susan, What an illuminating post. It's inspired me to think about this today and pick things up. I liked your rules -- we cannot fix everything. But we can do a few things. It's a good way to effect change. (And in fact, reminds me of the way the new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Tunus, has gone about making things better with microloans.)

rdl said...

Litter - a pet peeve of mine. It accumulates in the woods in front of my house cause my street is a cut thru and my house the 2nd from the stop sign. I guess as they slow down they fling, mostly beverage debris, but yes some butts too. UGH!! I of course dutifully pick it up. I did find a $50 this summer when i was cutting back the brush. So at least I got rewarded.

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much. I hadn't thought about it that way before--that I was doing something that was manageable for me, but that these small things can add up. And what a great analogy to the Nobel winner. I was amazed when I heard that his first round of loans was something like $28.

Great news about the $50, but what a bummer to be in one of those litter accumulation sites. I was once out with my husband, and he saw a nun (a nun!) litter in a parking lot, and he confronted her. He just kept standing there beside her discarded fast-food wrapper and calling "Ma'am, ma'am," until she turned around and looked. It was terribly embarrassing and impressive at the same time. I don't know why I was embarrassed (I wasn't the one who littered), but there you have it.

Patry Francis said...

Susan: Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post here. It really made me think and see and notice, the absence of which is what allows litter to exist.

A rather eccentric, but wonderful guy has been carrying out a one man campaign against litter in our community. Every Saturday, he walks miles along the main road and bags up the litter he collects in bright yellow trash bags. Then he leaves them out till Sunday so people can see how much trash they're leaving behind.

gulnaz said...

hey that is an interesting idea!

hope u had a good time Patry

Unknown said...

As my mother always said "God bless your heart" Susan Messer. You have inspired me to get my fat butt out the door and start walking and now pickin' rubbish!As much as I knew I needed to do it I never really saw much point to walking. Now (being such a task oriented virgo) it has a purpose!
This could be the start of a whole new movement. What do we call ourselves? The litter-ettes? Ray Charles would have liked it.

Anonymous said...

Sisters in junk arise!---sculpture---personification would involve assembling the detritus into figures.