23 April 2021

 I’ve just finished reading the book, “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). I started it because it has a chapter devoted to George Kennan, an early Siberian traveler, who happens to figure in a study I’ve been working on for several years. I continued reading because it’s a fascinating book, centered around Frazier’s own Siberian experiences, but also filled with Russian-Siberian history.

   Frazier describes himself as a Siberia lover, and he returned almost compulsively time after time. In 2001, his travels included a road trip all the way across Russia, Atlantic to Pacific. Among his descriptions of the land, one less appealing aspect (that he comes back to, regularly) is the trash accumulation. A couple of examples:

  Page 181: “In early afternoon we stopped at an informal rest area like the one at the intersection of the Murmansk and Vologda roads. Here for the first time I encountered big-time Russian roadside trash. Very, very few trash receptacles exist along the road of Russia. This rest area, and its ad hoc picnic spots with their benches of downed tree trunks, featured a ground layer of trash basically everywhere, except in a few places, where there was more. In the all-trash encirclement, trash items had piled themselves together here and there in heaps three and four feet tall, as if making common cause. With a quick kicking and scuffling of nearby fragments, Sergei rendered a place beside a log bench relatively trash-free and then laid out our cold chicken lunch on pieces of cellophane on the ground.”

  Page 285: “That night we again slept near the shores of Baikal. This time, due to bad planning, we camped on the grounds of what was billed as a resort. It had a gate, cabins, picnic shelters, and washroom conveniences best left undiscussed. Its strewn heaps of trash were extreme, even for Russia. Somebody who saw this campground without context or explanation might come to the conclusion that a group of confused people had mistakenly gone on vacation at the town dump.”

  Wherever he traveled, he found trash – from disposable diapers to abandoned industrial and military equipment; in piles, rows, carpets of debris. No one seemed to care, no one seemed to even notice.

   Frazier’s descriptions reminded me of one of my own experiences when working in another country. We had been surveying birdlife in a desert area, and thought we had found an ideal place to camp for the night: a lovely grove of deciduous trees, with a little running water, in otherwise arid surroundings. Obviously, others had found it an attractive location, because clearly it had received heavy public use. What was particularly unfortunate about its popularity was that almost every square foot of unvegetated ground was covered – and I mean covered – with used, disposable diapers. Besides the general unsavoriness of the situation, the stench was almost overpowering. It was late, and we didn’t know where else to go, so we found the farthest corner of the grove, and settled in for an uncomfortable night. We left very early the next morning.

   In fairness, that was the only time I encountered that kind of situation while working in the country. Also in fairness, there was no government agency responsible for trash pick-up, particularly in remote areas. Having said that, it still struck me – as it had Frazier in Siberia – that the people using the area seemed oblivious to the problem. Apparently, no one had made any attempt to - at the very least - consolidate the litter in one portion of the grove. More remarkable to me, people were obviously continuing to use the area regularly, despite (what I considered) the horrible circumstances.

 *  *  *

   In the United States, trash cans may overflow, and public restrooms may not always be as clean as we’d like, but it’s hard to imagine conditions here similar to those described above. We have developed a national fastidiousness that works against displaying our garbage in public. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s and 1950s, as automobile travel increased, road edges were often littered with human-produced and human-discarded debris. Official “roadside rests” and “comfort stations,”  places we take for granted now, did not exist. Thankfully, there were few “fast food” restaurants and plastic water bottles - and disposable diapers were a future plague - so the litter was mostly paper. Even so, there was a lot of it, and it was increasing as more and more people took to the roads.

   In 1953, a group of corporation representatives and civic leaders started what came to be known as the Keep America Beautiful campaign. Some have questioned the corporate motives – did they really want to reduce roadside trash, or did they just want to shift the blame from the producers (them) to the litterers (the public)? Whichever, it worked, and “Don’t be a Litterbug” became one of the most successful slogans, ever. States, counties, and local entities began putting money and jobs into the campaign. Development of rest stops became standard practice along roads, and volunteer efforts to “adopt” certain stretches of roadways became common. The original stated objective of the Keep America Beautiful campaign – “to promote a national cleanliness ethic” – has been realized. No matter what changes in our country, that ethic seems to have remained.

   That’s not to say that we don’t produce mountains of trash; we do. We’ve just learned to hide it. For example, here in the Portland, Oregon, area, we truck our garbage to a rural area over 100 miles to the east, increasing our carbon footprint with the extra vehicular traffic, and fouling somebody else’s back yard, rather than our own. The United States have even paid other countries so we could ship some of our waste overseas - although the former recipients are getting wiser to the impacts of that!

   We’ve made some efforts to reduce the amount of trash, also, but it’s been tough. Because our economy is based on production for consumption, we have to keep consuming, whether or not we need (or often even want) what is being turned out. No company that wants to stay in business is going to reduce production, so around and around we go. Also, some (minimal) progress has been made in reducing unnecessary packaging of products, or in using more biodegradable materials. Many states and communities have encouraged recycling; we’ve done well with returnable cans and bottles, but recycling other waste is a big job, and one that doesn’t readily yield profits for the recyclers. In general, there’s been little financial help available to let recyclers operate as non-profit businesses.

   We can do more. We should do more. Nevertheless, as I’ve driven around the country, I have to be thankful for Keep America Beautiful. It may be mostly cosmetic – it may be self-deceiving – but it has worked. I’ve seen the alternative.





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