At the beginning of April I went for a walk in my neighbourhood and I picked up 5 small bags of garbage. And that got me thinking (more on this below). On this particular walk, I was alternately told “good for you” and “you’re a saint”. The rest of the folks I passed said nothing. And no one else was picking up garbage.
Picking up garbage in my community shouldn’t be a novelty or a saintly pastime.
My challenge for April was born out of this first walk, and I aimed to do four pickup walks a week. Two in my home community and two in my work community.
I figure, the more I am out there visibly and consistently doing this, the more people will see that it’s totally normal and not weird. And maybe they’ll start doing it too.
LOGISTICS & SAFETY
Safety is a big consideration when out walking just normal like, but picking up garbage adds another layer. I use a grabber so I am not handling the garbage with my hands, but thick work gloves would do in a pinch. Also, my body is not as young as it used to be, so using the grabber puts less strain on my knees and back. I wear my high vest vest when walking at night, stick to the sidewalks as much as possible, and watch for drivers because pedestrians are mostly invisible to you. I am a woman, so I am (already) constantly vigilant to what and who is in my surroundings.
Other than my grabber, I don’t use any specialized equipment. I’ve got a stash of plastic bags I can’t use for grocery shopping that come with me on these walks. I don’t sort out the recyclables, other than cans, which I leave out for my unhoused neighbours to collect.
My office is in a less privileged/wealthy/white part of town, so the garbage there is of a different quality. Over the course of the month I picked up a condom, some harm reduction supplies, and one needle.
Do not pick up needles or anything otherwise hazardous. In Edmonton, if you find needles on the street you can call 311, or report it using the 311 app.
This might sound weird coming from someone who is literally picking up garbage as a hobby, but there is a lot of unearned white and class privilege involved in this act. I am a cleanly dressed white lady walking around a lower-middle class neighbourhood. I am not stopped or harassed on the street for doing this. No one asks me what I’m doing or if I belong there. I am left alone. The cops have never been called because someone saw me wandering around their property. This is a huge deal for me, and I plan to spend this privilege wisely.
WALKING AND THINKING
On my garbage walks I think a lot. I don’t distract or numb my brain with music, podcasts, or audiobooks. I like letting my mind wander. Sometimes I come up with Big Ideas. And sometimes I get sad.
Who wants to befriend someone whose idea of a nice night out is a quiet walk in the neighbourhood picking up garbage? I couldn’t even hold a conversation with the guy outside the 7-11 while I was buying him dinner. I read so much and I know so much, but my brain gets stuck when there are other people involved. And I get snarky when I can’t articulate my thoughts and people aren’t magically on the same page as me. From what I have seen & experienced, people want a friend who watches the same TV as them, and buys the same clothes, and gets their hair done, people who do capitalism the same. I don’t participate in society in the way I am supposed to, so I am a weirdo. Folks tell me how great I am, how inspiring, how interesting, but they don’t ask me out for coffee. This is not a pity party. This is part of how I examine my life, explore my interests, and figure out my goals.
RUN THE NUMBERS
I went for 16 Trash Walks over the month of April, split almost evenly between home and work. The home walks were longer distances overall, with more time spent there, as I was using my "lunch break" 30 minutes for the work walks. I picked up 23 bags of trash, some the size of a (literal) bread bag, and some large black bags that I received in a garbage pick-up kit. I walked almost 24km in total, and found 727 hours in my month to take this on!
I need to take my individual environmental actions and turn them into community actions that have a wider impact and can influence systems change. No more excuses. I have no idea how to do that, but here we are.
I need to make better use of the connections I have in the community, that I often forget about. The Waste Free Edmonton advocacy group, my Community League, and the Master Composter network.
I plan to incorporate garbage picks into the community walking group that I’m (hopefully) spearheading this spring. I have reached out to a local business about how all of their compostable cups are ending up in the garbage, and I sent an email to Bulk Barn asking when their refillable program will be starting up again.
It's not a lot, but it's a start.
LEARN AND TAKE ACTION
Watch: Garbage Dreams
Join: Trash Hero World
Register: Edmonton Cart Rollout Info Sessions
Edmonton installs 23 new safe needle disposal boxes (Global News)
Government of Canada taking action to reduce plastic pollution (Gov of Canada)
Waste Reduction Community Grants (City of Toronto)