People seem to really like to talk about the good old days. Remember when kids played outside and could shake your hand because they weren’t playing Angry Birds? I remember those days too, but here’s what I also remember about growing up in the 70’s: driving down the freeway, inhaling that first morning puff of second hand smoke (I still like the smell), and watching my mom swerve a bit because the driver of the car in front of us had chucked the remainder of his McDonald’s meal out the window. This was such a common experience that we didn’t even flinch. My mom would just run the windshield wipers a bit and be done with it. I don’t know if this was even illegal in 1975.
So now every time I hear someone say how we are all going to hell in a hand basket, that image crosses my mind. I see a chocolate milkshake dripping down the windshield, carrying with it a discarded pickle and maybe an empty ketchup packet. Sure, things aren’t perfect today, but the fact that we don’t do that anymore shows that we have the potential to improve.
The freeway of my childhood was literally lined on either side with garbage, not just lunch remains but sofa cushions, newspapers and tire irons. Traffic pushed the garbage onto the shoulder the way plows form snow banks. I honestly never thought anything about it.
Then at some point in elementary school things changed. It became unpopular to be referred to as a litterbug. I am still not sure if this is an entomological term for an actual bug who chucks his Big Mac wrapper out the window, but being a litterbug was a worse social stigma than having the cooties. Naturally I’d had my cootie shots, but in 1978 there was no inoculation for being a litterbug.
My school had a contest to see who could collect the most pop-tops off of the ground around our community. You might recall that in the early days of Tab, sodas had pop-tops that came all the way off. It was glamorous to pop open your Tab and then drop that little piece of metal into the tall grass, where it would later choke your dog or cut your foot. I collected literally hundreds of pop-tops off my school playground and the surrounding few streets, and I wasn’t even really trying that hard.
My mind is blown by how far we’ve come, that this same careless generation has managed to change its habits. The early days of recycling required so much personal retraining that I wondered if it would ever catch on. You mean I am going to have to separate my garbage? Like, touch it? Are you kidding? But now we design our kitchens around the task, and the separating is unconscious. My kids would sooner eat cauliflower than put a plastic bottle in the regular garbage.
Plastic bags are illegal in our town. You can’t even buy a plastic bag with a permit and a four day waiting period, that’s how illegal they are. Carrying reusable bags is a major behavioral change, and we embraced it because it involved a bit of social pressure. If I forget my bags and have to take the paper ones offered by the store, I am awash with the childhood stigma of being a litterbug. We have even repurposed the phrase “walk of shame” to describe the trip through the parking lot carrying these wasteful bags.
I wonder if my kids can even fathom the madness of my childhood. Their generation is miles ahead of us and my hope is that they will keep us out of that quickly descending hand basket. They learn songs at school about the subtleties of recycling different types of paper: “If it’s grey, throw it away; if it’s brown, pass it down.” That really beats “If you’re done with your fries, just chuck them out the window.” Which doesn’t even rhyme. I think there’s hope for us yet.