The Scourge of Inflight Garbage

January 24, 2017

DEAR PASSENGER: Look, I know it’s a long flight, and I realize that, at least in your aggrieved mind, commercial air carriers are the most malevolent entities the universe has ever known, fully deserving of your disrespect. But must you? Must you throw your garbage all over the floor? I realize that you’re seated for an extended period of time in cramped quarters, and it’s not like there’s a waste receptacle at every seat. But I’m afraid that’s not a good enough excuse for, say, leaving leaky Chinese food cartons or a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich under your feet.

It’s a sobering spectacle, standing at the forward bulkhead and looking down the aisles once the passengers have disembarked. Arriving from Europe or the West Coast, the cabin of my 767 looks like a typhoon has blown through it. I’ve seen an entire can of Pringles mashed into the floor like sawdust. I’ve seen a mixture of chips and soda trampled and congealed into a kind of carpet-eating concrete. There are newspapers, cups, cans, plastic wrappers of every conceivable color and size, candy, gum, cookies, apple cores, and even sullied diapers, thrown under seats or crammed into pockets. By the time the cleaners have finished, they’ll have stuffed several oversized bags full of waste.

Thousands of long-haul flights operate every day, and each leaves hundreds of pounds of trash in its wake. (Much of this refuse is recyclable; unfortunately, regulations require all garbage be incinerated when a flight is coming from overseas). The amount of litter seems to be more or less proportional to the time spent aloft, but it can be astonishing even after a short flight. The sheer volume of it is depressing enough; the fact that some people are obnoxious enough to dump it on the floor makes it worse.

Airlines, for their part, could and should enact a few sensible, and cheap, countermeasures:

1. Put a lunch-sized, recyclable paper or plastic trash bag in each seat-back pocket. Or, if that itself is deemed too wasteful, supply a bag for each block of seats, to be shared. 

2. Have the cabin crew make more frequent trash collection runs, especially toward the end of flight, accompanied by a PA announcement. Some carriers already do this; alas, many flyers find it easier to simply dump their crap on the floor. Maybe that PA announcement needs to be a little more specific? “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be coming down the aisle to collect any items you wish to discard. Please do us a favor and not leave your trash under your seat.”

3. Cut down on the insane amount of plastic that accompanies the typical inflight meal (cellophane wrappers, cups, etc.).

(I was going to suggest, too, that carriers maybe get away from the types of snacks that are, by their nature, messy. Things like peanuts, chips and mini-pretzels are all but destined for the carpet and seat tracks. But then, what are the alternatives? Carrots?)

As a result of any or all of these ideas, interiors would be less soiled, while turnaround times would be quicker and require less labor. I’ve watched cleaning crews spend a better part of an hour picking up trash after a long flight. Am I wrong, or would a few pennies per plane save an airline millions in annual cleaning costs? Plus you’d have a more attractive product.

Until then, here’s a tip: In a pinch, an airsickness bag might be too small for cans, but it otherwise makes a semi-useful trash container. (Just remember, though, that you’re taking it away from the next person). Or, better, if you’re up in first or business class, your blanket or duvet frequently comes wrapped in a plastic sheathing that, if carefully removed, makes for a roomy receptacle.


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The United States of Trash, Dog Shit, Rubber Bands and Dental Floss

UPDATE: July 13, 2017

I continue to be flummoxed by the volume of dental flossers, rubber bands, and plastic bags of dog shit that litter the streets and sidewalk of my neighborhood (see original post below), but now I’ve discovered a new plague: elastic hair bands. The kind that girls use to hold up their pony tails. It’s possible I just never noticed them before, but suddenly, it seems, they are popping up on every sidewalk and in every curbside gutter. Maybe one of my female readers can explain? Do these bands just spontaneously pop from the your head while you’re out walking? This photograph shows a harvest from just a handful of afternoon strolls around Somerville and Cambridge …


June 16, 2016

TIME OUT for a culture rant.

IS THERE such a thing as an “undeveloping country”? We all know about the developing kind, but what about a formerly great country now in the throes of devolving? If there are such places, the United States has to be leading the pack. We live in a nation where nobody wants to pay for, or take responsibility for, anything, and the results are starting to show. We see this in the bigger, macro sense. For instance, we are by some measures the wealthiest nation on earth, yet our infrastructure is rated 29th and is steadily falling to pieces.

But I see it in the small things, too. Take, for example, litter. I see litter and trash as a sort of bellwether for bigger problems. Our airports, to pick one spot (and to keep this conversation at least nominally within the sphere of air travel), are getting dirtier and dirtier. I see discarded cups and cans in the jet bridges, overspilling barrels, filthy curbsides, and apron and ramp areas that are just aswarm with trash. It didn’t used to be this way, and it’s not this way anywhere else in the world. I was at LAX not long ago on a windy afternoon, and the wind currents, whipping between two concourses, had created a sort of garbage cyclone — a great, rotating, three-story cloud of paper and plastic and styrofoam and dust. It was awesome.

There’s the litter itself, and also the human indifference to it. I’m not sure those are different things, but it drives me crazy when I see an airport employee step over a crushed coffee cup or a wadded up newspaper sitting on the floor of the jetway. Hey, it’s not my job! When I do the preflight, walk-around inspection of my aircraft, I’ll often scoop up an entire arm-full of refuse along the way — cups, bags, fasteners, locks, miscellaneous plastic luggage shards, wheels, and so on — because heaven forbid the apron workers bother to pick any of it up. Would this happen in Munich or Dubai or Osaka?

Then there’s my neighborhood. I’ll let a picture do the explaining. This snapshot was taken recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is a it extreme, but it’s not unusual, and even the tidier neighborhoods around here are strewn with litter in a way that simply wasn’t the case in years past. Some of the traffic islands around Boston look like a dumpster exploded. When did it become acceptable for drivers at red lights to simply heave their trash out the window? Because, apparently, everybody is doing it.

Trash 1

We also need to talk about dog shit.

Pet owners in my neighborhood are for the most part diligent when it comes to cleaning up after their dogs, tidily stuffing the droppings into small plastic bags. So far, so good, right? Except, the new custom is to simply leave the plastic bag sitting on the ground, thus turning one problem (dog waste) into two problems (dog waste and plastic). You’ve doubled the amount of litter, and you’ve made it permanent. Dog crap by itself is at least natural and biodegrade.

I can’t fathom the thought process of a person who would do this. As the kids would say, WTF? But obviously I’m missing something, because lots of people find it defensible. Every day I encounter more and more of these bags. Cambridge and Somerville are absolutely littered with them. It’s not merely a local thing, though. I’ve been seeing these bags in parks and on walking trails across the country, and even in other countries (including one in the pretty grass courtyard behind Chartres cathedral, in France!).

Dog Shit

Dog Shit 2

This one, though, is my favorite. Here you can actually see four separate bags. This is just around the corner from my house, and I watched as the bags were added, one at a time, over a period of several days, presumably by the same dog-walker:

Four Bags

Or this multi-bag collection, photographed near the Davis Square subway station.

And when I say it’s the small things, sometimes it’s the really small things.

Somebody needs to explain where the profusion of plastic dental flossers has come from. These blasted little things are everywhere. I never, ever, see pedestrians or drivers actually flossing, yet somehow these discarded flossers are popping up on every sidewalk and curb. Do they self propagate? Is there an army of secret night-flossers who roam around in the dark, keeping their gums healthy while sprinkling the ground with these things? (And yes, I know about the flossers in Infinite Jest.) I’m all for dental hygiene, but take your disgusting mouth picks home with you and dispose of them properly.

It’s funny, because according to some studies, flossing your teeth is mostly a waste of time. This has been long an open secret, apparently, but dental professionals have been loath to go public on the matter, perhaps fearing backlash from the influential flossing lobby (“Big Floss” has deep pockets). I learned about this in The Guardian. The Guardian is a U.K. publication. The Brits gave up on flossing years ago, and have since been laughing at the American obsession with the practice. It’s ironic, I know, that the Brits would be lecturing to anybody about dental health, but they may have this one right. The big question is whether or not this might result in a reduction of the number of plastic flossers littering American cities.

These beautiful collages (I actually spent a fair bit of time tinkering with the placement and textures of each image) were compiled over just two or three brief walks through my neighborhood:

Flosser Collage

Flossers Diamond


Flossers Collage 3

Here, though, is clearly the best of the bunch. This picture was taken below the fuselage of a Boeing 767 at Kennedy Airport, while I was doing the preflight walk-around check!

People don’t seem to care much for public property. Neither, if the streets of my neighborhood are any indication, do they care about the their own. Consider the two front yards in the photos below. The top picture shows the house directly next to mine. Mind you I don’t live in an Appalachian trailer park, but in a trendy big-city neighborhood where property values have skyrocketed — a phenomenon untarnished by the fact that certain landlords can’t be bothered with even minimal maintenance. The bottom house is several streets away, on the border with Cambridge and West Somerville — an equally expensive area, where renovated two-family homes, with no backyard and neighbors only inches away on either side, can sell for upwards of a million dollars:



And our final culprit is the United States Postal Service.

Letter carriers around here carry bundles of mail tied with rubber bands. Lots of bundles, and lots of rubber bands. And when they unwrap the bands, what do you think they do with them? Thats right, and so the sidewalks where I live are littered with thousands of little brown noodles. What you see in the photo is about a month’s worth of bands picked up from around my neighborhood. Would it really be that difficult for USPS workers to shove these things into a pocket? And in case you didn’t realize it, they’re reusable!

And with that, for now, I am finished. Curmudgeon meter pegged.



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