Picking Up Trash in the Pandemic

First the pool closed, and then the gym, and so, a couple of weeks into the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place directive, I became a walker. I’d walked before, of course, but always with a goal: the movie theater, the post office, the BART station. Now I walked in circles: around the block, around the lake. I counted steps. I checked my pulse. I hated it.

I needed a new goal, and then I discovered it, right at my feet: trash. Piles and streams and sticky mounds of trash.

The area of Oakland in which I live has its charms, but cleanliness is not among them. “Gritty” is the word reporters resort to when they describe my adopted city, and by “gritty” they mean “dirty.” The city has placed trash cans at regular intervals, as well as cleverly designed bins for recyclables, and even Bigbelly solar compactors, but to many of my fellow Oaklanders those receptacles are abstract concepts. Trash ends up all around the bins, even when the bins themselves are empty.

And then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which made matters worse. Now, in addition to the fast-food containers and cigarette packs and cigarette butts and soda cans and mini liquor bottles, I was seeing discarded masks and nitrile gloves everywhere.

It was an unsightly, unhealthy problem. I had found my mission.

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Typical street scene (unstaged)

I put on my own nitrile gloves, grabbed a 13-gallon trash bag, and went out into my street. One block later, I had to return to get more bags. That afternoon I covered two blocks and filled three bags. It was a start.

I had expected the activity to be dispiriting, but the opposite was true. I was getting some exercise — those bags were heavy — and I was righting what I saw as a civic and aesthetic wrong. Why not make it a regular habit? After all, I had lots of spare time now that all my freelance work had dried up.

I began venturing further, into the local park and beyond. I invested in a PikStik: a nifty grabbing tool that spared my back and turned the trash-picking enterprise into a sort of sport like (I imagined) spear-fishing. I put on headphones and listened to audiobooks downloaded from the library app. Although I hadn’t planned it that way — I’d put the books on hold long before the pandemic — what came into my ears was an uncannily apt accompaniment to my urban tidying. I listened to 13 hours of An Elegant Defense, Matt Richtel’s investigation of the human immune system, and I thought about infection and disease. I listened to eight hours of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and I wondered whether what I was doing was nothing or something. It seemed like something while I was doing it, and nothing when I returned the next day to find fresh litter in the same spots.

A few weeks into this Sisyphean yet oddly satisfying chore, I stumbled upon an entry on the Merriam-Webster website that seemed to have been written just for me at precisely this moment. The entry was about plogging, a word invented in 2016 by “an outdoorsy Swede by the name of Erik Ahlström” who liked to pick up litter while he jogged. Plogging is a portmanteau of the Swedish plocka upp — pick up — and the English word jogging. Not into jogging? You can also plike — pick up trash while biking (which sounds like it requires acrobatic talents far beyond my capacity) — or plalk: pick up trash while walking.

Now I had a new identity to go with my new mission. I wasn’t just “that crazy white lady who picks up litter.” I was a plalker.

I had a role model in the writer David Sedaris, who has famously written of his zealous litter-picking forays in West Sussex, England. (Ten miles! Twenty-five miles!) And I’d taken some experimental steps myself. A few years ago I’d been part of a group of volunteer plalkers at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. This group was obsessive beyond my wildest imagining: When we picked up cigarette butts, we had to keep them separate so the clean-up organizers could count and weigh them.

More recently, I’d accompanied friends in Southern California who drive to Malibu Beach every weekend to pick up litter. I’d found the activity appealingly quixotic, and I wished I lived somewhere picturesque where I could pick up litter while listening to the surf.

Well, you play the hand you’re dealt. Now I listen to traffic and sirens as I tweeze vape pens and impale napkins, and my thoughts drift toward anthropology. What would some future civilization make of this detritus? Why the preponderance of Newport and Marlboro cigarette packs? Why did someone abandon a full container of takeout curry, depositing the clamshell container in a doorway? Did the wearer of that medical mask suddenly decide that contracting the coronavirus was a more attractive option than walking around with a covered nose and mouth, and then rip off the mask and fling it into the gutter? Is that person OK now?

There are no answers, and no glory or glamour or even gratitude in plalking, not around here, anyway. But I’m all right with that. Compared to my pre-pandemic routine, which involved a lot of buzzwords and jargon, plalking is refreshingly straightforward. I pick up litter, I throw the litter into a designated receptacle. I get some fresh air; my neighborhood looks a little better.I cannot do everything, as the saying goes, but I can do something. For an hour or two a few times a week, I tell myself, I am an essential worker.

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist. Find me on Twitter and Instagram (@fritinancy) and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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