Trash from the past |

Trash from the past

Open Space
Derek Franz
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

The exhausted 16-ounce Red Bull can was still lying in the gutter as I walked home. The thought to pick it up and carry it to a recycle bin 50 yards away didn’t occur to me until later.

I was different not so long ago. I used to pick up trash all the time. It started when I was a college student, walking along the Boulder Creek bike path to class every day for three years. I’ll admit that I got a bit obsessive and weird – and even threatening – with my crusade.

I simply got sick of watching endless amounts of plastic bags, bottles and tennis balls wash into the creek, wrapping on pylons and bobbing in eddies, with no one seeming to care. It was up to me, I decided. How could I hope – or expect – that other people would pick up trash when I wouldn’t even touch it?

One day, like a maniac, I changed my behavior on an impulse. First I saw a bottle, so I picked that up. Then five feet over in the grass was a bag and then a can … I lost my breath hurriedly picking up a small area until my hands were full and I was 15 minutes late to class.

The method was not sustainable but I struggled philosophically with the solution. I had a hard time only picking up some trash while leaving other obvious refuse where it was. Why do something if I wasn’t going to finish the job? Then I realized that kind of job can never be finished, like trying to clean the fine red sand out of your tent while camping in Moab.

The solution was a compromise. I could not rid the world of trash by myself, much less a one-mile stretch of bike path. What I could do was pick up pieces if I could carry them. If I picked up two bits on the way to class and a couple on the way home, and did that as a regular habit, in the long term I’d make a bit of difference, wouldn’t I? Before long, my stretch of bike path was pretty clean.

My new habit did good and bad things for my psyche. On the positive side, it boosted my self-esteem because I felt proactive about making the world a better place. Even if it was only in a tiny way, it was a tangible difference.

On the other hand, I started cursing humanity with righteous indignation. I started to feel that I was better than all those other sloppy slobs I imagined hurling garbage wherever they went. To quote a character from “30 Rock,” I became “Greenzo! Savior of the planet!” Only I wasn’t wearing green tights with a yellow cape.

Along my route were some tennis courts – the source of many green balls that drifted down the creek in the spring, summer and fall. Those tennis balls pissed me off as much as anything, and I eventually had the pleasure of catching a slob in the act of being sloppy.

I watched the metrosexual-looking, gold-watched yuppie chase a ball out of the cage as it rolled toward the creek. The ball plunked into some still water by the bank and the guy turned back without a thought, leaving it in the stream. I plucked the ball out of the eddie, barely stepping off the bike path, and walked toward the tennis cage.

“You forgot your ball,” I said. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Uh, that’s OK. You can have it,” he said.

By then I must have looked psycho, because he sort of ran from me, darting into the tennis cage, and held the gate closed as he faced me from the other side.

“No, you forgot to pick up your trash!” I hissed, hurling the wet thing high over the fence onto the court. I yelled something about why he was an idiot and went on my way.

Apparently I was still losing my mind over trash. The look on the guy’s face told me I had to mellow out. It’s hard to not have anger and judgment for people who don’t value the same things I do.

Since then, I was less of a zealot but I continued my habit for years after college. I don’t know when I basically stopped.

Maybe I started to feel too busy or that I’d done my part. At some point, I started to walk by trash more often than I picked anything up. It’s like I was so overwhelmed from the endless mission that it was easier to try not to care because no one else did.

Now, when I walk the dog, I pass by garbage I recognize from months ago, such as a broken coffee mug – half of it lies on either side of the sidewalk. As I write this, the Red Bull can has been sitting in the gutter for days with snow melt flowing around it toward the Roaring Fork River.

The irony is that in college I was addicted to Red Bull, drinking two 8-ounce cans a day during final exams. I don’t touch the vile stuff anymore.

It’s unfortunate how some habits die so much more easily than others.

– “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Glenwood Springs. He can be reached at

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