The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 2, 2011

Do you know who’s watching you?

Monday, I went down to Lake Merritt in Oakland to take pictures of plastic litter for my book.  I’m happy to report that I didn’t see much overflowing trash, plastic or otherwise; but I did see some. And I snapped a few pix.

On my way back to the car, I knelt down to the ground to take a photo of this loose plastic baggie:

plastic baggie litter at Lake Merritt

As I got up to leave, I heard a low voice that said, “Pick it up.”

Wow, I thought, my conscience is really getting loud these days. Normally, I would have picked up as much trash as I could, but that day I was in a hurry and didn’t have time. Plus, I rationalized that I was already raising awareness of the problem through my book and photos, so it would be okay to leave this trash this time. Still I hesitated.

The voice repeated, “Pick it up.”

Wait a minute. Did I really hear that? I turned around and saw a raggedy, derelict looking guy standing about twenty feet away watching me through dark glasses. He said, “Don’t just take a picture of it and walk away. Pick it up.”

All kinds of excuses and arguments ran through my mind. Who does he think he is? He doesn’t know me or all the work I do. He doesn’t know that I’ve spent years picking up other people’s trash. I walked toward him to explain… to defend myself. I looked directly at him, and the closer I got, the fewer excuses I could muster. Finally, standing right in front of him, I said, “You’re right. I should have picked it up.”

And then I opened my hand to show him what I had been collecting instead: little plastic bread bag clips I’d found strewn across the ground near the lake. People bring bread to feed the ducks and leave behind hazardous little pieces of plastic.

plastic baggie litter at Lake Merritt

The conversation turned to plastic and animals and children. It would have taken me a second to pick up the baggie and walk away. Instead, I ended up in a ten minute conversation that made my trip to the lake worthwhile.

The lesson here is that you never know who’s watching you, who’s paying attention to what you do or don’t do. Unlike my friend at the lake, most people are socialized to keep quiet. In fact, most people probably won’t even notice if you pass by a piece of plastic or if you purchase something in a plastic bag because plastic has become the norm. They do notice when you do something unexpected… like pick up trash or bring your own bag. When we let people see us refusing to participate in disposable plastic culture, we help to change what is normal or expected.

Listen to the voices… inside your own head as well as the ones that come from without. I’m not advocating paranoia but getting outside our own little bubbles once in a while to acknowledge how our choices are magnified by the example we set.

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12 years ago

A couple of months ago, I was that man!

I had watched a tourist in our town allowing his kids to kick about a plastic bottle along the road that leads to our beach. No big deal, until I saw them just leave the bottle behind when bored of their game.

I couldn’t help myself. Had they just walked past the bottle, I would not have said anything, but to kick it around (even if they had not dropped it) and then leave it, just seemed selfish to me.

Anyway, the father of course rose to the bait, accused me of being crazy, and I was the one that ended up picking up the bottle and throwing it away. What a shame my efforts fell on such deaf ears. :(

12 years ago

This was a great, “punch in the gut” sort of story, (one that could have happened to anyone) – and a very important one at that! Thanks for sharing. It’s the kind of story that “arm-chair” environmentalists (including me) need to hear to help us to continue to improve ;)

12 years ago

Kinda scary but turned out to be a great story! I’ve been snapping photos of beach trash nearly everyday for two years. I get all kinds of interesting reactions when I’m shooting pictures of trash, dog poop bags and dead birds washed ashore. Some people ask questions which I love because it allows me to educate and hopefully inspire.

One afternoon when my husband and I were walking and cleaning up the beach a young woman said “thank you for picking up garbage” to my husband. My husband offered the woman and her companion a garbage bag and the two set off collecting. I snapped photos and we all exchanged names. I have made dozens of friends on the beach this way.

I do have to share this though . . . most often my walk down the beach I’m focused on walking, enjoying the ocean and taking photos. If I come across a larger piece of trash I draw a line in the sand so that I can locate it on the way back. Sometimes people pick it up before I get to it. That is the most gratifying feeling of all.

Thanks for all you do Beth!!

Lori Popkewitz Alper
12 years ago

Thanks for sharing Beth. True-we never know who’s watching, but it also feels good to do the right thing. Glad the trip to the lake brought you an unexpected blog post!

Bridget Benton
12 years ago

For the last five years, I’ve been working on a book about artmaking and spirituality. And it just makes me laugh how often I would do something completely counter to the ideas I was working to get across in the book so that I could, well, you know, get the book done! I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio – and thank you for sharing this story so authentically and transparently!!

12 years ago

I used to be embarrassed also, but now I try to set an example. Just this week I bought groceries said no plastic please and the lady at checkout started putting my groceries in plastic, so I politely took one of my cloth bags and started switching things into my bags and she said sorry I forgot. Then guess what she started wrapping my fruit in plastic bags to put inside my cloth bags. I stayed nice and explained that I am a green nut but feel plastic is a huge problem etc. she said sorry you are right and put everything into my bags. The lady behind my in line said you know what I am going to buy some cloth bags, I gave her two of mine to start with. So maybe I converted someone. Of course I wish platic bags whould just be banned. g

12 years ago

Ottoline, I have the same problem. I wish I had some clever solution for you, but sadly, I don’t. Though it is quite frustrating for me that he won’t get on board with me (or even make some small efforts), he is a good man, I know who I married, and I love him. And if he lived elsewhere, as you mentioned, that only means he would be creating his garbage out of my sight. Nothing solved. I just hope that one day he will see that MY efforts DO make a difference. We should talk. (Sorry this is a bit off the topic, Beth. Love this post, as always, great lesson).

12 years ago


Thank you very much for your kind response, and for the documentary suggestions. My partner and I did see ‘Bag It’ together when it played here in Portland (OR), but the effect it had on him was fleeting. He had no interest in seeing ‘Garbage’ when I brought it home from the video shop (I haven’t seen ‘Home’ yet, but will look for it). I also gave him Elizabeth Royte’s excellent and well-researched book ‘Garbageland’ to read, but he argued with her facts. He just doesn’t seem to understand that the individual is part of the problem, however small a part. Oh dear – could I be living with a crypto-obstructionist reactionary?

12 years ago

Hi, Ottoline
I know you expect an answer from Beth, but you might find this useful.

I think people are reluctant to change their ways when they don’t really know what they do is wrong. Assume your spouse is not into this subject. You read this blog, I bet he doesn’t. Telling him is not enough. Suggest watching together some documentaries. It will help to put things in perspective.
A few titles: Home, Garbage, Bag it.
I hope this helps

Bee Girl (AKA Melissa)
12 years ago

When we work together, and listen to each other, we can achieve great things!

Bernie Paquette
12 years ago

Funny how the more we pick up litter the more we see it, recognize the blemish, and the more we are likely to feel guilty if we don’t pick up the littered trash we see. When folks complain about “other people” and “those Litterers”, I suggest, Never look down on litter unless we are willing to help pick it up.

Read this short story on my blog on being watched even when there is nobody around…

12 years ago

I applaud the guy that told you to pick it up. More people need to get involved and speak up like he did.

If I am near a litter bug on the bus I will remind them to take their trash along with them with a nice “oh i think you left something behind” or “there is a trash can just outside the door”.

I am always horrified at the amount of trash people leave behind after a movie or a ballgame….that they brought in with them. And then try to justify leaving the mess by saying that someone is paid to clean it up. Yikes! Take some responsibility for your actions.

Pack it in, pack it out. A good motto to use whether you are camping or going to the movies.

Rant over. I am glad you made a new friend at the park. :)

12 years ago

In reading the comments, re: picking up litter, another theme emerges, which is that of personal embarrassment, particularly in relation to one’s significant other. I have been attempting for years to cajole my partner into adopting the greener, plastic-free way of life that I would prefer to live, with little success. Last year, we bought stainless steel nesting take-away containers to use at the food carts he loves to frequent. After a few uses, though, he stopped bringing his container. When I asked him why, he said that it embarrassed him to use it. I told him that he should be embarrassed to be using the (non) ‘compostable’ plastic ware and styrofoam shells that the carts serve food in. He said that he felt self-conscious carrying a little pail around. I think he actually felt that it was emasculating.

Although mandated by our city, separation of curbside recyclables is also something that he cannot be bothered with. When I went away for a month last year, he dealt with his reluctance to recycle anything by simply not taking any garbage out of the house for an entire month. He is also not bothered by plastic packaging. One recycling container is always brimming with plastic junk that would not be here if I lived alone (though he would still produce it elsewhere). He would never want to be seen picking up rubbish in the park, and has suffered acute embarrassment when I have done so in his company. Even with confronted with the facts on toxic plastics, he downplays the perils.

You have touched on the subject of ‘reluctant spouses’ in the past, but I am wondering how prevalent the problem is, since it has become a serious apple of discord in our house. I, for one, would love to see a column devoted to this subject, and responses concerning how others have dealt with it – before I pack up and move out, taking my reusable non-plastic containers and untensils with me.

12 years ago

If someone is watching, then it’s the perfect time to teach them something.

I have a recycling bin in front of the block. I could take out the recyclables any time of the day. But I do it in the evening. Why?
There is a small cafe across the street filled with old guys in the evening. When they see a women or a girl, they stare. It is the culture (or lack of it) to stare at women. So I choose that time to take out my recyclables.
Next time I might make a demo: show them there are other plastics to recycle, not just the plastic water bottles.

12 years ago

I love this story and your honesty! Too bad that guy wasn’t around to say “don’t leave that there” to the person who littered the bag.

12 years ago

There is a woman in my street whom always looks a little frazzled. She is usually wearing a trench coat and no shoes and always pulls a cart behind her. She picks up every single little piece of trash she sees while she walks. We love her in our neighborhood. We call her barefoot lady. I tried to see how big her feet were so I could give her a pair of shoes. I did find that she wears shoes in the winter. I’d love to chat with her some day. I even saw her in another neighborhood one day and I thought how nice she was spreading her garbage picking up love to another neighborhood!!

12 years ago

What an inspiring story!

Betsy (Eco-novice)
12 years ago

It is nice that that turned into a positive interaction. I think just doing your thing while others watch is my favorite way of “sharing” the go green message. So unintimidating and judgmental to others — but often you are so noticeable just by being different.

Sharyn Dimmick
12 years ago

It warms my heart to know that others of you are out there picking up trash: when I worked in a Berkeley park I used to pick trash up everyday when I was waiting for the kids to arrive. I even campaigned (unsuccessfully) to get a trash can at the edge of the park because people arrived and dropped things from their hands and cars when the trash cans were far away. Kids thought I was weird.

When I go swimming at the Berkeley Marina, I pick up trash from the beach. I used to carry a dedicated trash bag just for this purpose. I swim there, so I like it when the beach is clean and free of hazardous trash.

12 years ago

I pick up trash about 50% of the time I see it in parking lots. My husband is always telling me not to touch these things. I don’t take much heed in his warning I can always see what I am picking up. The other night on the way to the car I saw a ziploc bag, I picked it up and put it in my car and instantly my car started to smell like pot. Yup I picked up someone’s discarded pot baggy….I had a good laugh over it, my husband no so much. I really need to try and throw these things away right away and not carry them around with me.

Tracey TieF
12 years ago

What a beautiful story. It shows your good character that you approached him and were honest.

Strange irony that people who come to feed birds leave behind tags that kill birds.

I am always haunted by a remark a respected political buddy of mine said about litter. He didn’t litter himself, but he said that if we pick up other people’s litter, we won’t be confronted with our excess consumption. I wonder about that. Then again, the people who litter and consume excess are happy to walk on by. And I’m not!

Good Girl Gone Green
12 years ago

I guess we are always being watched! People stare at me all the time when I am picking up trash along the street… oh well. It’s nice that his comment turned into a positive conversation :)

12 years ago

Lessons we learned in Kindergarten!!!

Elizabeth B
12 years ago

That’s wonderful. Thank you for sharing this experience, Beth.

It's The Journey
12 years ago

Brilliant! So good that you can voice the feeling, knowing, voices that we are all experiencing… and the feeling behind it all!

Yep, we should just “pick it up!”

12 years ago

Like jj and her spouse, my husband and I have a litter connection. We met on a backpacking trip organized by friends. I had never backpacked before and was finding the uphill switchbacks pretty tiring with a full pack. I noticed a piece of garbage on the trail and stopped. My husband to be (who I had only met that day) stopped to see what I was looking at. I said “if you’ll bend over and pick it up” (I didn’t know if I could do it with the pack on) then I’ll cart it out. The rest is history.

Heather Clisby
12 years ago

What a great story. I actually have a goal that every time I visit the nearby park (couple times a week), I must a) say hello to at least one stranger and b) pick up a piece of trash. I usually end up greeting more than one person and picking up more than one piece of trash but I find it helps to have a minimum requirement.

12 years ago

Besides not knowing who’s watching, you never know who you’ll impress. On one of our early dates, my (now) husband and I took my dog out to the local off-leash park. Partway through our walk, Hubby unthinkingly stooped down and picked up a pop can that someone else had just thrown by the side of the trail. When he realized I was watching, he got a little embarrassed and began to explain himself – It was clearly something he had done out of habit, rather than being something he did to impress me…but it worked! While it’s far from the only reason I married him, it is certainly on the list :)

(PS – he still does this all the time, but he does not get embarrassed when I catch him at it anymore…if we’re hiking off the beaten path, he usually tucks the garbage in my shoulder bag to await proper disposal…)

12 years ago

What a good post to keep us thinking self-reflectively.

When my daughter was in kindergarten at the local public school, I was worried I was getting a reputation for being totally crazy and one step away from bag lady because there were about 10 trashcans I would pass by between the kindergarten rooms at the back of the schoolyard and the parking lot–and I got a little OC about glancing in all of them as I passed. You would not believe the number of plastic water bottles and aluminum cans that were being tossed every day–so it there were any right on top of the trash and not nasty, I would reach in and pick them out, and then carry them in the back of the baby’s stroller until we reached the main entrance where the ONLY recycling bins were. I mean, I was not rooting in the trash or anything, but BOY the looks I got. ; )

Deanna West Piercy
12 years ago

What a great reminder. I pick up stray litter at times, particularly if there is a trash can nearby. I do it because I think every little bit helps and it doesn’t take long. However, now I’ll be thinking of the example I might be setting to anyone who sees me. Thanks for sharing so honestly.

12 years ago

I left the house to walk the dog the other day and noticed a plastic bag on the curb. I made a mental note to pick it up on my way back but it slipped my mind. Later that afternoon I noticed a neighbor walking down the sidewalk, he crossed the street to pick up the bag, crossed back over and continued on his way. I wanted to run out and give him a hug! It made my day to see somebody actually ‘give a hoot’ as they say.

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
12 years ago

What a great lesson! Reminds me of when my mom and I went to a sustainability conference and I watched a lady throw her cigarette on the ground. This was someone attending the conference and their was a trash can a few feet away. I walked over, picked up the cigarette and put it in the trash. She saw me and was totally embarrassed. She said she was sorry and as soon as she did it she knew she shouldn’t have. I bet she has never littered a cigarette since!