This morning I volunteered to clean garbage from the Hudson River. It was an event organized by the Hudson River Park Trust, I think it was called. Somehow, I was on some mailing list and I found out about it. So bright and early at 9:00 AM this morning I went out to volunteer and it turns out that it was also measuring so there’s a bit of science to it that I didn’t know about. But there were people there who were going to tally up how much we gathered, of what type and measure that for some reasons.
I got there at 9 AM, that’s when I was supposed to meet. It was a sunny day, a little cool. About a dozen people were there. A bunch of people seemed to come from a group that was maybe some recent college graduates, they all seemed to know each other. Otherwise, it was people from New York. I think I was the only one from the neighborhood. Anyway, we met around and we had to sign waivers and get gloves so that we were safe and stuff like that. We broke up into three-person teams, three- or four-person teams. One person was to record on a piece of paper what type of trash each thing that we picked up was. One was supposed to pick up recyclable trash. And one was supposed to pick up non-recyclable trash. So, we walked over from where we met to this pier. So, the pier on the Hudson, it was in… A lot of the piers have been turned into nice recreational areas like places where people can sit on the grass and it’s not really grass but the fake grass, astroturf which is more plastic or playground’s, things like that. This one happens to be one that was still kind of industrial. So, it was a pier that goes out mostly parking lot sort of stuff that was fenced off from us and then there’s a fence that went out to the side where there was all these rocks and like an old torn down pier or something like that.
And as we approached it from the south we could look out over the fence and we could see there was a lot, a lot of garbage on this particular…On this thing jutting out into the water. And you know the water near there was kind of this oily film on top of it. And there was, what do you call it, like a foam, the foam that you see when they show pictures of factories with runoff. It’s not a foam of waves crashing on the beach, it’s foam of something in the water. Also, there is a barrel, a plastic barrel that’s near the fence before you’re on the pier. It’s on the pier but it’s the things that you can reach it and something… If you do like I do and pick up just one piece of trash per day, you notice in the city everywhere you see a horizontal surface. People put stuff there as if that’s, I don’t know what they think. So, if there’s a fire hydrant or a standpipe or what do you call it, a parking-meter things or a ledge on a building, those things people put coffee cups, beer cans, newspapers, whatever they finish they put on these horizontal services and just leave it there. So, this plastic barrel had a plastic surface on the top horizontal so it’s covered with stuff, discarded food things and things like that.
But then you look down on the ground and there’s lots of mostly what actually you see like tennis balls, the brightly colored stuff tennis balls or volleyball. There’s a big one shoe. Actually, before we went over there, there was a biologist apparently with the Hudson River Trust. He was speaking to the organizers and the organizers told us that for us to be careful because there was a couple of geese with some newly hatched chicks. And so, you could see these geese on the rocks with the plastic around them and a couple of these are really adorable little chicks. It’s funny because we had to be careful walking around these rocks with the chicks didn’t have to. They could I guess they would kind of fall down and get right back up again. So, they’re really adorable and we watched them for a bit.
On the pier there was a big area that was fenced off that we didn’t have access to. And in this pier, there were a bunch of these generators with lights. So, at night when I’ve been in the Hudson River Park sometimes I guess as a crime deterrent thing they put up these generators holding these lights that are maybe 20-30 feet up in the air. The bottom is a base with a generator. In this fenced off area that we do not have access to there’s a generator with the lights on it and the generator’s on, the lights are not. So, it’s just burning fuel. As you get close to it you could smell the exhaust coming off of it. There’s no one around. I don’t know how long this thing has been locked there but the generators just on making a lot of noise, making a lot of smell. Maybe it’s been a day, maybe less than a day, maybe a couple of days. In any case it’s just on.
When we get to the pier we go through the fence and that gives us access to this rocky area. Each group of three or four people got a different area to work with. So, the group that I was on had the area that was farthest away from the land, from the jogging path where a lot of people were still jogging past. So, we’re out there picking up trash. The rest are closer to the jogging path which is closer to land not as far out on [unintelligible]. Since we were farther out there’s less stuff there. The people closer to land had a lot more stuff to pick up so they were all kind of in the same area.
So, you go out there and you realize that no matter where you are if you just quick look down, you look down and you see all these rocks. But if you then look more carefully, no matter where you are, there’s plastic, there is stuff. Sometimes it’s string, sometimes it’s styrofoam. There’s big stuff, there’s little stuff. The bigger stuff is like bottles, big things of a plastic lid, styrofoam, big things of styrofoam but also lots of little things – little plastic bags, the tennis balls, lots of string, lots of stuff that came from I guess boats like rope type stuff, fishing line type stuff. I don’t know how to describe it. Just everywhere you go, you could just sit down and look closely and then there’s lots of stuff. And so, you pick something up. We were only supposed to pick up stuff that was bigger than an inch or only catalog that stuff. You pick up everything and you say, “Oh, I’ve got a bottle cap here. Oh, I got a bottle and it’s number one recycling type or whatever.” We’re just filling up these bags.
And at one point the chicks started walking toward us and the parents started getting kind of nervous looking at us. So, we’re kind of nervous that the chicks are going to come too close and we are going to have to move away because geese won’t attack us. But as it happened, all that happened was we got to see the geese up close and those little chicks are really adorable. Naturally we’re out there talking and talk about life and so forth and talking about all this trash and stuff. Of course, I mentioned how a few years ago I did this experiment… You guys have all heard on the podcast of how I avoided food packaging for one week. This is why I’m recording today. This is when I said that the response from this guy who is in my group is that’s when I realized I wanted to record this because the response is the same response that I get from almost everyone which is defensive. What I mean by defensive is that it’s always explaining why it’s impossible. You know it’s like, “You know I could never do that. I don’t have time to do that. I don’t have the ability to do that.” I’m not trying to convince anyone to do anything. I’m just trying to share what I do. I’m just saying the conversation. I’m unhappy now but I was just telling him like, “I find that it’s faster and cheaper and more delicious to do it.” And he’s saying, “Well, I don’t have time. I always have to get takeout.” I say, “It was hard to make the switch, I say to him, but once I make the switch it’s actually a lot faster.”
I don’t go into the details but so you know it’s about 20 minutes prep time for me to make one of my stews, then it cooks. It’s an electronic pressure cooker so it just cooks on its own. And then I got five, six, maybe seven meals depending on if someone’s coming over and I feed them because it seems most people eat less than I do. Then he starts asking me, ”What if the food delivery came in cardboard?” You can eat it but I’m not going to. I don’t eat packaged stuff. And the thing is we’re surrounded by all this garbage and he’s just saying like, “What about this? What about that? What about this? What about that?” What he’s really saying as far as I can tell is, “What if I don’t want to change? Isn’t there some way I cannot change and still be OK?”
I’m just going to describe what I saw. That guy was overweight, maybe obese. And I know take out New York City, the best take out in New York is not particularly healthy. It’s going to be this yummy…. What I mean by yummy is comfort food and it’s not going to be particularly healthy. I’m presenting him another way of eating, another way of doing things and he’s just pushing back, not pushing back, just asking questions that are just saying, “Look this is possible. I know this is impossible. Just let me establish why it’s impossible.” And I can’t say that five years ago before I started doing this maybe I would have been the same way. I’m not sure. I know that I saw the video of Lawrence [unintelligible] who pollutes less than I do. As far as I can tell she’s got four years of stuff, last I heard, that fit in one bag.
In any case, we’re scheduled to be out there for two hours. The tide is coming in. It was maybe 20 minutes, half an hour of setup before we got out there picking up stuff and we had to finish by 11:00 so I would guess we’re out there actually picking stuff up less than 90 minutes but more than an hour. Then we get called back in so we got to go back through that fence, back onto the dry land on flatland by that generator that’s still going. And they start tallying up all this different…. They take our tallies, the sheets for how much stuff we picked up. Then they start weighing all the bags. There’s still a lot of garbage left out there. Having seen it before I would say we cleaned up a lot. Had I not seen what was there before I would say there’s a lot of stuff still there especially because I was at this point used to seeing styrofoam that kind of looks like rocks, it gets covered with dirt and you can’t really tell. But at this point I’m gotten used to it. And by that barrel there’s still stuff on the barrel so I don’t know what… I mean they picked up a lot of stuff but there’s still a lot left.
And also, the people there we’re all standing around because we’re going to take pictures of us by the trash we picked up and so on and so forth so everyone’s kind of standing around talking and sharing what their experience was like and so forth. And now this is among people who got up early because a lot of people came from other boroughs. So, to get there I just walked it’s you know the Hudson River is not far from where I live but they came from far away which tells me they care about something and they break out the food and it’s all packaged plastic stuff and I can’t… How can they not see that they’re doing… Like I guess, I think a lot of people think if something’s recyclable I think a lot of people equate recycling with there’s no pollution involved or that if you put it in a trash can, then it’s not really polluting as if it doesn’t go into some landfill and stay there for another 400 years before it breaks… I don’t know how exactly how long it takes different types of plastic to break down but it’s more than a human lifetime and there may be some technology in the future that handles it but that technology doesn’t exist now and may never exist. End even if it does exist, it may create other problems.
And I got to say how I look at… Recycling to me as compared to polluting just outright polluting is to me like putting on a filter when you smoke cigarettes. Yes, it’s probably a little more healthy to put a filter on your cigarette but you’re still smoking. And yeah, it’s probably healthier to recycle. But you know a lot of people… There’s this whole Jevons Paradox stuff that when you make something more efficient, when you make something more healthy people will use more of it until it becomes as risky as it was before. I think a lot of people when they think, “Oh, this is recyclable,” then they just use more stuff. So even if it wasn’t recyclable, even if the recycling was restoring it a lot more than I think it is, I think they still undo it. OK, I don’t want to get into the math of it but there’s no talk of conservation, there’s no talk of, “We don’t have to do this.” There is total acceptance of, “This is the way things are. There’s nothing we can do about it.” And that’s among people who got up at, I don’t know. 6-7 AM to get out there on a Saturday.
So, after they weighed all the stuff, the Hudson River Trust people who organized this stuff they said that the amount we picked up was like 200 and some pounds and they compare that with last year. They do this in dozens of places up and down the Hudson and they said that compared to last year what we picked up was a quarter of all the stuff that was picked up of all of last year which got applause which is kind of an odd thing because it makes sense to applaud that we got a lot done comparing it with the numbers from last year. But it doesn’t make sense in the sense of that that’s a lot of garbage. We could pick it up because there’s so much of it. So, it’s kind of like it’s a bittersweet thing. Having picked up garbage every day for I guess it has been over a year now, I can tell you that on some city blocks what we picked up was less than what you’d get in one city block and how many city blocks are there in New York City?
Actually, when we got back there, the people who were closer to the jogging path said there was a bunch of joggers at various times and stop and thank us for cleaning stuff up. But I suspect that none of those joggers, none of the people who saw us, no matter what thanks they gave us, I doubt any of them changed their behavior and said, “Maybe we should get less packaging, maybe we should get less stuff from Amazon prime delivery that we can just go and pick up from the farmer’s market or whatever.” Personally, I’d rather have that. There’s probably the sound of impatience or forlornness or hopelessness in my voice. I’m not sure hope is what I think about. Do I have hope that I will make a difference? Do I hope that we will make a difference? Do I have hope that enough will change that we can prevent some of the bigger disasters that people foresee? As I’m sure you know the Great Pacific garbage patches, great Atlantic garbage patches so this stuff is all out there. I just saw this documentary called Albatross about basically every albatross that they find has plastic inside it and it’s causing them to die because they feed it to their babies, the babies can’t take off.
And people say, “What difference does it make what I do?” Well, whoever put that plastic and kill the albatross so you can make a difference in that direction. We can make a difference in the other direction. But back to the idea of hope. Do I have hope that we can make a difference that we can divert the path that we’re on from the bigger disasters? I don’t know. People don’t seem to care. If you measure caring by behavior not by what they say or what they think but by their behavior people don’t seem to care enough to overcome, to challenge comfort and convenience, to reflect on how what they do affects others. People would never punch a random person in the face. No one would blow cigarette smoke in a baby’s face. But somehow when it’s intermediated by the environment by sea, land and water that people don’t seem to mind that what they do hurts others and they know. There’s no question that it hurts others. There’s no question that a lot of it is unnecessary. A lot of it is a waste. And they know that it’s a waste and they still do it.
This guy is not living a particularly healthy lifestyle. He’s got the opportunity to change and he’s arguing… Not arguing but speaking in a way that’s saying he’s not going to change. And look, I have been in that lifestyle. I have eaten a lot of Doritos in my lifetime. I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream. I remember as a kid knowing like all the different kinds of candies and I ate a lot of it and I didn’t know that there was another alternative. But there is another system, from the system that you were in if you believe that it’s hard and takes a lot of time to cook, then it looks like cooking seems like it’s swimming upstream, seems like it’s going against the current, seems like it’s really hard, deprivation, sacrifice. But viewing any system from within your system makes it seem weird looking at any culture from your culture it’s a different thing. It’s hard to get but when you get into the other system as I have and there’s nothing special about me in this regard. I didn’t start with any special ability to cook or identify vegetables or anything like that. As it’s worked out for me, there’s more emotional reward, more joy, more pleasure. As it’s worked out it also tastes better, I’m saving money. I’ve said that many, many times before. It seems unthinkable and unimaginable from the other perspective, it seems like it shouldn’t be possible that you would save money, have more delicious but it’s actually easy.
But still the issue for me is not do I have hope because I can’t tell the future. Maybe there’ll be some big discoveries or big changes. I hope there are big… I hope to instigate big changes. But for me the issue is living by my values. Now what values? The same values of not punching people in the face, not blowing smoke in babies’ faces, that value, the value of not hurting people just for the sake of my comfort and convenience especially when it’s unnecessary, especially when it doesn’t improve my life. As it’s turned out it’s worked out to be more delicious for me, more pleasurable for me, more community, more meaning, more purpose but it’s living by my values. That to me is the essential question. Do I want to live by my values or not? In this regard it’s a matter of integrity. It’s a matter of when someone says, “Yeah, I want to do something but if I do and no one else does, then what difference does it make what I do?” That’s the opposite of leadership. It’s giving up. It’s not a way that I choose to live. Even if the difference that I make isn’t that great. I don’t want to be the one who just blows smoke in the baby’s face even if the person on the receiving end of it, the communities, the wildlife on the receiving end of the pollution, even if they don’t know that it came from me, I still don’t want to do it. I think that in the long run things will work out even if you think, “It’s all going to hit the fan. It’s all going to be disaster.” There’s different levels of disaster.
Say that all this pollution means that Earth can’t sustain as much life as it would have otherwise. Well, there’s a difference between dropping down to a billion versus dropping down to 2 billion versus dropping down to 3 billion versus dropping down to hundreds of millions of people. At a certain level you can keep sustaining the Internet, you can keep sustaining our cultural institutions. Maybe it’s the difference between that and not that, between going back to subsistence living. I want to keep culture the way it is. People say, “Oh Josh, we can’t go back to living in caves and stuff like that.” Yes, exactly. I’m not proposing that we go back to live in caves. I’m proposing that we live a simpler lifestyle. If we don’t, there’s the risk that nature may choose for us an outcome that wouldn’t be so pretty for us. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I don’t want to get into this.
My point is that we have the potential to do something about. If you do stuff that you know affects others, to me that’s really, really important. It’s not about an abstract environment. It’s about the people, I guess to some extent the wildlife but my compassion and my empathy is much, much greater for other people than for wildlife and trees and things like that. It’s other people that are affected by this stuff. I actually at one point it picked up a piece of trash, I saw something and it was a little crab and this little crab was, I don’t know, wandering around in the dirt there and I mentioned that it was there and someone said, “How can he live there?” And you know I’ve read somewhere that people used to eat the shellfish and the clams and so forth used to live all around Manhattan Island, all around the bay here at the harbor. And it was just you could go and get your food that way. And now it’s weird for there to be wildlife there. To me taking responsibility is the opposite of, “If no one else does it, then it doesn’t make a difference what I do” which is the opposite of leadership.
What I want to leave you with is there’s nothing that I can say, nothing you can read as far as I can tell facts don’t measure up to experience in this area and experiencing this stuff it’s really eye opening to see how much garbage there is, to see at what level it is, to see contrast with these adorable and beautiful swans, not swans but geese. If this means anything to you, if you made it this far, here’s the challenge for you. It’s not even a challenge. This is a privilege. Just us an easy thing for you to do especially if you live in a city. For one week, maybe a month if you you’re up for it, pick up one piece of trash per day and take it to a trash can. You don’t have to get your hands really dirty because there’s like lots of things like coffee cups that are pretty clean or bring a pair of gloves with you for a week for a month or whatever healing you do it and just see how things change. Let me know how it goes. Actually, if you go to my podcast page and its joshuaspodek.com/podcast and click on Commit to Your Personal Challenge, put it up on my screen, put it up there so other people can see that you’ve done it. And then at the end when you finish it you can put up your reflections and people can learn from your experience. But mainly it’s for you to learn from this experience. I can’t tell you what you’ll find. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’ll be less than I have, maybe you’ll give up and say, “This isn’t worth it.” But give it a shot. Think about picking up a piece of trash every day for a week, for a month, just carry it 10 feet to the nearest trash can, see what happens.
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