Picking up trash in the park

Have you ever been yelled at for picking up trash? I have. Many times. I have been picking up trash wherever I go for years now but it wasn’t until we moved to the Netherlands that anyone took offense.

What the fuck did I do to get yelled at for doing the right thing?

First, a little background: I live in an apartment with a large forest (park) right next to us. It’s a beautiful park that stretches on for blocks and blocks. There are areas that look more like a park with a pond and benches and more open space but there are also areas of forest with smaller paths, horse-riding paths, and even some small trails that look like they were never meant to become official paths.

There is a lot of wildlife in this park. Admittedly, a lot of the wildlife here is rather common. We have the usual birds like mallard ducks, Eurasian coots, mute swans, wood pigeons, but there are also rose-ringed parakeets that escaped decades ago, and I once saw a really cute colorful Dwarf Kingfisher. I never saw it again and didn't manage to get it on camera but my husband and I just stood there and watched it in amazement. So cool. Mammal-wise, we have the common European coneys, gray and red squirrels, and some voles and mice. Plus, a million insects, of course.

Okay, so how did I manage to get yelled at for picking up trash?

There were two instances that stood out:

  1. The first one was while the swans were nesting. The cygnets hadn't hatched yet, so the parents were busy protecting the eggs. I saw that some of the trash from the party the night before that had spread all around the park, had been blown into the canal near the nest. There's already at least one beer can that has become a more-or-less permanent part of the nest, so I didn't want more to get into it. With the help of a friendly swan-fan on the other side, I found the right spot, stuck my hand into the water, and fished around underneath me for the can. Before I could locate it, someone started yelling at me in Dutch. I turned and explained calmly that I don't speak Dutch and that I would appreciate being yelled at in English and the woman obliged. She told me that I should never stick my hand into the water. At first, I thought she was worried about my health, as the water in question was canal water and there's probably a million things in there that I wouldn't want on my skin, but that wasn't the case. She explained–still yelling–that the oil from my skin would pollute the water and that I was harming the environment. When I opened my mouth to explain that I was fishing out trash and that the water was so dirty that the oil off my skin wouldn't make a bit of a difference, she shook her head and stomped away. In her defense, this is a valid concern for home aquariums, especially small ones like the one I have on my desk. It's also a real problem if a bunch of humans with sunscreen on their body wash off all that sunscreen and oil from their skin in the ocean near coral reefs or other delicate ecosystems. Sure, I agree. But when it comes to sticking a lotion-free, sunscreen-free hand into the canal, I should be more concerned about what gets onto my skin than what my skin adds to the water.
  2. The second one is actually a collection of instances, as this one has been repeated at least three or four times in various intensities. There are no trash cans in the upper half of the park on our side. That's the part where the forest is as untouched as possible and the paths are a little more natural than in the more touristy area on the other side, so it kinda makes sense, but I still wish they'd add trash cans near the benches in some places, so people don't have a (bad) excuse for leaving their stuff. As it is, there's usually a few cans and leftovers from pre-packaged lunch meals on each bench. I usually take those with me on my walks with Pepper. It's an off-leash area, so I have two hands to carry trash while Pepper walks himself. I then walk it up to the only trashcan in that area (which means walking away from home...) and throw it away there. But the thing is, that means walking around with beer cans at 8 am in the morning and people don't seem to like that. One woman took particular offense while walking in the park with a stroller. She told me off for being a bad example to children. She really thought I was walking around drinking beer in the early morning. And while I've totally had beer in the morning (I'm German, after all), it's not a common thing for me, especially while walking alone through the forest. Just to be clear, I'm walking around with upside-down beer cans that are dripping leftover beer and rainwater, not holding it as if I want to drink any of that stuff. And usually, I am carrying more than one can and a bit of other trash at the same time. But people see what they want to see. As I said, this happened quite a few times now but only in the Netherlands.

Sometimes it feels like I'm the only one who cares about this forest–and I know that's not true, as I've seen people like me (and more advanced helpers with trash pickers and bags–goals, right?). Sometimes it feels like every time I pick up two cans from a bench, four new ones appear somewhere else. But that's no reason not to try.

Believe me, I’ve got enough cleaning to do at home.  So despite my constant fight against boredom, I am not bored enough to clean the park. That’s not it.

The main reason for picking up trash is, of course, that I want the park to be cleaner. I want less waste in the waterways and nesting sites. In short, I want more cute little cygnets and fewer birds eating plastic bags just because there are a few crumbs in them.

But there’s more to it. A huge part is that–despite being yelled at for the opposite–I want to set a good example. And I don't mean just kids. If people in general, old or young, see me picking up trash (and hopefully not misinterpreting it as morning drinking...), they might see that it's a thing one can do. I've seen people watch me pick up trash and throw it away and a few moments later, they bend down and pick something up. And even if they don't join in, seeing me pick up the trash hopefully makes them more aware that there is trash everywhere. Opening other people's eyes is a huge part of making a difference. Awareness is half the battle. If people don't see the trash, they don't have a reason to rethink their behavior. And the same goes for the nice things. Most people who walk through the park don't see the beauty. They see trees and see that it's a nicer walk than the city blocks but they don't see the beauty. They don't see the tiny Dwarf Kingfisher perched on a branch above the water. They don't see the parakeets swarming above. They don't see the red squirrel running up the branch. They just walk on, often with a phone in their hands. They don't see. And I hope to open some eyes. If I can encourage one other person to do what I do, it's worth it.

Do you want to make a difference yourself?

If you want to do more and give it a try, too, you can make a difference with only a few little changes to your routines . All you need is to keep your eyes open and to care.

TIP ONE: Keep your eyes open.

The first thing you can do is to keep your eyes open and to become more aware of the trash that is all around us. Just walk around the neighborhood and pay attention to your surroundings. Put that phone into your pocket–you won’t need the distraction. There is enough to see, almost no matter where you are. If you want, put on some good music or a good audiobook instead.

TIP TWO: Clean up near trash cans.

The second tip is to clean up near trash cans. You don't have to carry beer cans from one side of the park to the other while getting further and further from your destination. Just pick up the items that didn't make it into the trash can. This alone will already make a difference. Over time, you'll build up a resistance to weird stares and get used to carrying trash around and you'll be able to increase the area that you consider "near a trash can."

TIP THREE: Don’t pick up the really gross stuff.

The third tip is to only pick up items that are not too gross if you can't wash your hands shortly after. I don't care how dirty my hands get in the forest, as I can wash my hands right when I get home, but if I'm in walking around town or if I'm on my way somewhere else (or when I'm walking with other people) I skip the really gross trash and only pick up items like empty cans or containers that are not too bad on the outside. Yes, you read that right, I also pick up trash when I’m walking with other people. Most of them actually start joining in after a while. It’s pretty cool.

EXTRA TIP: Carry a plastic bag

If you want to take it a step further, take a plastic bag with you. Even if you don't use trash bags at home and use reusable bags when you shop for groceries, you'll likely have some flying around somewhere that you couldn't avoid. I collect those. Most of them go to my grocer who reuses them in his store, but I keep the smaller ones or the ones that are close to the end of their reusability and knot one to Pepper's leash. When I'm outside and there's a lot of trash or a lot of smaller items that are hard to carry (for example, when idiots use plastic confetti in the park again...), I use the bag, then replace it on the leash when I get home.

Sure, there are more things you could do like that beach cleanup or park cleanup. You could even organize one yourself, but this video is about the little things, about what we can do every time we are outside.

On my list of things to get soon are reusable gloves that can go into the washing machine. They need to be thin and small enough to fit into a pocket but sturdy enough to last a long time. Another thing is a trash picker or net for fishing things out of the canal without actually going into the water, but I'm waiting with that one until I know if there's water on my routine walking route. No need to get something like that if I can't use it regularly.

I hope you’ll join me in the never-ending fight for the environment and pick up some trash along your way. As Mad-Eye Moody would say, “Constant Vigilance!”

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.