Those Who Make Messes & Those Who Clean Them Up by Carol Turner

Plastic debris littering Hawaiian
shoreline. Hawaii is located near
the center of the North Pacific gyre
where debris tends to concentrate.
Photo by Eric Johnson. Courtesy of NOAA.
Plastic debris littering Hawaiian shoreline. Hawaii is located near the center of the North Pacific gyre where debris tends to concentrate. Photo by Eric Johnson. Courtesy of NOAA.

I have some neighbors who routinely empty their ashtray at the corner stop sign. At Lincoln Park recently, someone dumped a pool of green paint in front of the trash cans near the ball fields. A few weeks ago, along the Peabody Creek path between 3rd and 5th Streets, a bunch of newly planted saplings were yanked out of the ground and left lying in the path. The young trees had been planted months ago by a group of volunteers.

These small incidents make me wonder about the long-term viability of the human race. If it were only a weekly pile of cigarette butts at the corner, perhaps it wouldn’t be so worrisome. But of course the problem is a whole lot bigger than that. We are a species who continues to dump trash and chemical pollutants into our waterways, oceans, and atmosphere – resources without which we cannot survive. We are a species who insanely soils our own nest.

Superfund Sites

In the United States alone, over 1,300 sites have been designated by the government as “an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people.” Known as Superfund sites, these are giant toxic messes created mostly by business entities and left behind for the taxpayers to clean up. Washington State alone has 120 Superfund sites. These are just the really nasty spots; there are tens of thousands of other hazardous waste sites across the country that aren’t quite horrible enough to rate the Superfund designation. And that’s just the United States.

Hopelessness: Not a Viable Option

It’s easy to give in to cynicism and conclude that the human race will do itself in sooner rather than later. I used to hike with a woman who was and is so overwhelmed by her research about climate change, she has warped into an “end times” frame of mind. She exerted considerable effort trying to convince me that we humans and everything else that lives and breathes on the planet are headed for extinction very soon. This made for a rather unpleasant hike. I may be foolish, but not only do I believe that hope is good for our mental health, I think that, given the will, the human race is likely capable of fixing these problems. Remember the hole in the Ozone layer? Human beings figured out what caused it and fixed it. (See the Montreal Protocol of 1987.)

People Who Clean Up Other People’s Messes

I know a woman who walks through Lincoln Park with her dogs, cleaning up trash and dog poop left by other people. I met another woman who spends some of her Sunday afternoons trimming hedges – not in her own yard, but in a public park where the hedges encroach on a footpath. On the Peabody Creek trail in Olympic National Park, I often see a certain fellow who spends his days grooming and cleaning it for others. Twice a year, Washington CoastSavers organizes a massive cleanup of our local beaches, all done by volunteers. The planet is teeming with human beings who clean up messes left by other people.

I suspect that for every ashtray dumper, for every idiot getting rid of paint at the park, there is someone else who plants saplings and picks up trash at the beach. After the sapling vandalism was reported on a local facebook page, one fellow went out and did his best to replant them. On Earth Day this month, another group of volunteers cleaned up and replanted that Peabody Creek path. Maybe the trees will get pulled out again. If that happens, someone else will replant them.

Worldwide, many thousands of individuals and organizations volunteer to clean and advocate for the planet, fighting against polluters, rescuing threatened wilderness areas and wildlife. A quick browse through the internet shows a stunning level of activity. One group concerned about climate change, instead of mapping out doomsday prophesies, set up a website detailing and promoting renewable energy programs across the United States ( There is plenty of hope and reason to fight. This is a war – a war for the health and well-being of our town and our beautiful planet.

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