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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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The other day I lugged six big 20-litre paint containers crammed with empties into my return depot. Dirty empties they were, crumpled, stinking, torn, hurled from passing cars and trucks. Beer, wine, the hard-stuff: my harvest from the ditches and roads, byways and hiking trails that thread out and about the Ontario hamlet where my wife and I live.

I sorted them, placing each can and bottle in the black plastic baskets the Beer Store depot provides, which I found stacked at the start of the narrow, noisy, metal-wheeled runway along which cartons of returned beer, wine and liquor bottles are to be slid. Somewhat akin to my soiled throwaways, I was a couple of days unshaven, wearing a grubby baseball cap and less than resplendent in worn jeans and a knitted sweater that had one elbow amiss and a few burrs.

I was getting a dime for the cans, 20 cents for full-sized liquor bottles. Adding it all up is not the Beer Store staff’s favourite chore, but it’s a wonderful service and the environment thanks them. The claim is that more than 80 per cent of the bottles and cans purchased are brought back for refunding. In 2018, more than 1.88-billion beverage alcohol containers were returned for recycling rather than dumped in landfill sites. Or, more precisely from my point of view, not cast out of car windows to foul nature’s splendour.

“Thirteen dollars and 25 cents,” said attendant after totting up the clinking contents of my black basket queue. She laid out my modest gleaning on the countertop. Her glance flitted over my array of emptied paint containers. “You know, we could loan you a cart,” she said.

My wife was standing behind me. Not in jeans. No burr had snatched at her pristine sleeve. “He doesn’t do it for a living,” she said with firm emphasis.

Which is more or less true. I do it because I like living. And I hate running. But I’m 79 and I need the exercise. So I jog a mile or two each day, two bags in my grip: one for recyclables and returnables, one for the rest of the trash. As I lope through the countryside, I don’t cast my glance wide to admire the soaring birds or the scurrying wildlife. My eyes are welded onto the ditches and the road shoulders. Alert for anything that flutters or glints. Seeking out the dirty little treasures that distract from my wearisome running chore.

How do passing drivers and passengers justify spewing their empties and their disposables out the windows? I suppose one reason is that they don’t want alcoholic empties smelling and rattling about the car if perchance the cops pull them over. Or they don’t relish crumbs, germs and sticky compounds fouling their spiffy vehicles. Or perhaps they rage at the beauty of the natural surroundings they are passing through while they live confined to concrete high rises.

This spring, I spied a dark fragment of what looked like a bicycle tire in the drooping grass. I slowed, stooped, scooped and found myself holding aloft a black dildo that some disillusioned lover had cast into nature. My wife tells me I should wear gloves, as do a few other friends and family. Too late. I took it home and glued the dildo triumphant atop our garbage can lid. A neighbour passed by a few days later and festooned it in pink ribbon. A week passed and a squirrel hopped up and bit off the tip. That did it, I threw the dildo inside with the other garbage.

I won’t pretend I pick up after the litter bugs with love in my heart. Okay, love in my heart for the besmirched trees, the golden rod and the animals whose delicate tongues lick at the shattered glass, yes. But in truth, a constant resentment accompanies my gathering of the strewn refuse. I study the individual items besmirching the Bruce Trail that winds along the Niagara Escarpment in our region. A Tim Hortons cup, lying scarlet among the greenery? Could be anyone. A cigarette carton? Any person sufficiently uncaring for his/herself to smoke is uncaring enough to despoil the countryside. If the garbage had accumulated on the weekend, I could accuse visiting urbanites. But it’s the same every day of the week, so we local peasants are equally to blame. It’s a fool’s game, trying to pin the blame on any particular segment of the population. After all of my running over the years, I figure litterers form a similar quota out of every population: male, female, young, old, urban, rural.

In the fall, I parked near Caledon Village, an hour northwest of Toronto. I had chosen to run and cleanup a stretch where the Credit River flows under the two-lane highway. But there wasn’t much running that day or the next. I spent four hours over two afternoons cleaning up 300 metres along both sides of the highway. I picked up more than a thousand pieces.

Not far from Caledon, I also used to fill two big, green garbage bags every fortnight at the Cheltenham Badlands, a bare expanse of red clay erosion owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust. Photographers loved the place. Helicopter parents loved it – their kids couldn’t hide behind trees. Badlands visitors would look at my bulging green bags and avert their eyes. In all my years of scavenging there, only once did I get an offer of help. A young man, maybe 20 years old, trotted over and said: ”What are you doing?”

“Cleaning up after the pigs,” I said, admittedly not my most affable response.

“Can I help?” he said.

He took a bag and together we made the Badlands good. The area has since been fenced off to curtail the erosion (and the litterbugs), so I am no longer needed. But we’re all needed to pick up the mess just about everywhere else.

David Kendall lives in Belfountain, Ont.