Commentary: Trash Into Treasure

By Louis Zona

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The good people who manage our national parks complain about the ongoing problem of littering. Justly so.

It pains all of us that there are people who possess little regard for the beauty of nature and will toss anything and everything into a pristine wilderness. Remember how mom would scold us with, ”That’s why we can’t have nice things!” Well, we can now hear Mother Nature’s similar warning to litterbugs who defile our world.

I recently saw a  segment on television about a sign that was put up by a national park to call attention to the problem. The sign reads: “Why are you littering?” And then the sign lists the following possible reasons: 

a) I’m a jerk.

b) I don’t care about protecting natural areas.

c) Mommy still cleans up after me.

d) All of the above.

I recently read a piece about how long various kinds of litter last before nature is able to reclaim them. For example, cigarette butts can last between one and five years. Aluminum cans can exist between 80 and 100 years. According to the article, scientists determined that a glass bottle could last one million years. But hold on, plastic bottles apparently can last indefinitely!  

According to a survey of cities known for their littering, at the top of the heap (with apologies to Frank Sinatra) is New York, New York.

One of my favorite artists is Poland resident Ron Barron, who has lived in New York City and was inspired to create works of art based upon the litter in that big town.

Ron went to every significant neighborhood in that city and picked up litter. As he found out, the nature of litter near Lincoln Center was quite different from the litter in Times Square.

As one can imagine, the litter near Broadway is composed of ticket stubs and playbills. And that litter was different from the litter found in Greenwich Village. Ron’s exhibition at The Butler consisted of boxes of New York City litter with appropriate documentation and in the form of collages and constructions. In all, it was a wonderful exercise in human behavior as well as being fascinating art.

I recently saw a news story about ocean pollution. It’s hard to believe that our oceans have become gigantic garbage dumps. It’s wonderful that some young people have taken it upon themselves to reach into the ocean and pull out tons of empty plastic bottles. Given how few people are engaged in ocean pollution awareness, I dare say that those caring young people will not even begin to scratch the surface of the problem of ocean littering.

Remember that scene from the classic movie, “Jaws,” when the young scientist played by Richard Dreyfus cuts open a shark to determine if it is a killer. As you might recall, he opens the shark’s belly only to discover that it had eaten tin cans, whole fish, and a state of Louisiana automobile license plate. Talk about ocean littering – and a not so great solution!

Don’t you just love people who exhibit their neatness while littering from their cars? Whereas most people just freely toss their garbage from their automobiles, neat people hilariously open their doors at a red light and place a drink container upright on the street.

Neatness counts!

I have no earthly idea as to what is in their minds. Do they think that if they place their drink containers upright, it is no less litter than if they had just flung them out of the driver’s side window?

I once knew a lady who should have known better but who believed that if you litter it gives somebody a job. To carry that way of thinking through to its logical conclusion would mean that if you steal an automobile, it gives the local police department additional work and causing a fire keeps the fire department busy and more jobs. What insanity abounds!

But of course there are always the work crews in orange jumpsuits sent from the sheriff’s office sent to pick up litter along the interstates. To follow that thought process further, one could rationalize that while crime doesn’t pay, it does make for an abundance of highly skilled litter pickers.

One of the most impressive works of sculpture/architecture is situated in the area of Los Angeles known as Watts. If you’ve been there, you know that an Italian immigrant by the name of Simon Rodia created a tower composed of discarded bottles, ceramic cups and other kinds of litter known to art historians as the Watts Tower.

Rodia never really thought of his tower as a serious work of art but he did see it as the recycling of street litter. Thousands of people each year visit Rodia’s tower, which stands as a tribute to human ingenuity. And while the Watts Tower is not the only work of art composed of discarded items, it certainly is the most studied.

In terms of natural beauty, not many places on earth are in the same category as Hawaii.

But sadly, one of the most littered cities, according to several surveys, is Honolulu. I can’t fathom as to why someone living in paradise could throw that empty McDonald’s bag out of his car window without giving it a second thought.

Such people could certainly use my artist friend Ron Barron to recycle Hawaiian litter. Somehow I don’t think he’d mind visiting Honolulu to take care of its litter problem and to turn it into one of Ron’s “trashscapes.”

For those of us who are not aware of all that Virginia Beach has to offer vacationers, there is the required side trip to Mount Trashmore Park. That’s right, it’s one of Virginia Beach’s unique attractions and is a good example of landfill reuse.

Mount Trashmore is a converted garbage dump that on a hot day reminds us of that fact. But who’s smelling when a visit to the famed Trashmore restrooms await us?