On a recent Sunday morning walk, I found myself walking through Taylor Park in north Oak Park.
Near the soccer field, next to a bench, I saw three plastic bottles, one half-filled with blue liquid, an unopened water bottle, and an almost-empty bottle still holding a bit of strawberry-something.
I picked them up and started looking for a trash bin, a habit of mine.
A little further, near the playground, I came across a plastic bottle minefield. There were dozens of empty water bottles, some promising seltzer or fruit, generic water bottles, canned water and so on.
Thirsty park-goers, I thought. A wild non-alcoholic party the night before.
It’s spring and people, especially young people, especially teenagers, hang outdoors in public places. The fruity flavors and aquamarine-colored liquids gave them away.
But dumping trash in park settings is not solely an Oak Park youth problem.
On warm summer Monday mornings, when I commuted by bike through Garfield Park to work Downtown, I would see city workers, specially tasked, clearing a sea of trash left across the park’s green from weekend card players and picnickers. By my evening ride home, the park would have been returned, more or less, to its non-garbaged state, only to repeat the process next week.
And public trashing is not only an urban thing.
We have a cabin up north in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s next to the Sylvania Wilderness, a pristine 20,000-acre, old-growth forest with 30 or so remote lakes.
Before the native grasses revive, I walk both sides of Thousand Island Lake Road, under the cover of massive hemlock and white pine, filling construction garbage bags with empty beer cans and super-caffeinated drinks such as Red Bull and Monster.
When I asked a local, she explained that it’s illegal to drive with open alcohol in a pickup, so people chuck the empty beer can out the window and into the forest.
I wanted to ask her why people don’t see the forests as if they were their front yards? And why would people drink and drive anyway? And what about all the empty non-alcoholic pop cans and McDonald’s coffee cups?
But I kept quiet. In a remote forest, no one likes to hear from a holier-than-thou garbage-picker from trashy Chicago.
How do we change this urban and rural trash culture? A film at the recent Good Earth Film Festival highlighted that a plastic bottle can take 450 years to decompose in a landfill. That’s a long time. And only around 10 percent of plastic bottles are recycled.
What can I do? I haven’t got a few centuries to wait for decomposition.
For one thing, I am becoming a more discriminating consumer, buying fewer plastic food containers, including products that have unnecessarily complex packaging. So goodbye to those delicious Costco chocolates with nuts wrapped in foil, placed in wax paper cups, arrayed in a hard plastic non-recyclable tray, all sealed with plastic wrap.
And I collect and reuse those ubiquitous carry-out plastic containers. They even make it through my dishwasher.
And goodbye to buying single-use plastic bottles. No more Poland Springs on a hot summer day.
I will keep picking up empty plastic bottles I see in Taylor Park and elsewhere around Oak Park. The real challenge is to do so placidly — without the smugness of a non-trash thrower.