Garbage, were it not everywhere it shouldn't be, would likely be a topic of conversation only among waste-management professionals and archaeologists. Sadly, trash being on the lips of more folks than usual these days is less connected to major advancements in how to deal with it than to the sheer and inexplicable scope of its ubiquity and growing volume. Even here in Shangri La, litter — in the bush, along roads and trails, in parks and neighbourhoods — is bad and getting worse. And one thing is clear: with governments having neither the bandwidth nor the capacity to keep up, increasingly it's citizens stepping in to lead the way.
Whistler's trash talk kicked off in June when Escape Route employee Vince Emond and friend Devan Francis hiked into Joffre Lakes only to pull out 20 kilograms of garbage left behind by thoughtless partiers. Social media photos — of Devan striking the classic log-in-lake pose, but while hefting the trash haul — garnered instant attention on the heels of the closure of Keyhole hotsprings for similar reasons. Emond's Facebook post garnered 8,000 likes, 7,000 shares and a raft of television, print and social media exposure. Though he'd only hoped to inspire environmentally minded friends to pack out a bit of other people's leavings, Escape Route thought a public contest tied to Canada's 150th birthday could make a bigger impact. All you have to do is follow Escape Route on Instagram and post a photo of the garbage you've picked up tagged with #packitout150, and each Friday a winner will receive a pack of swag donated by the store's brand partners, with a grand prize awarded at the end of August for the most-liked photo overall.
"There's been good response but not a lot of entries yet. It's hard to ask people to turn a nice hike into a garbage expedition," noted Escape Route spokesperson Linsey Stevenson. "Still, the photos we are getting aren't pretty. I hope this gets into people's hearts, so they're thinking 'I'm visiting these beautiful places I want my kids to visit in 20 years, and I want them to still be that way.'"
Getting onboard, my partner Asta hauled a bag of garbage down from a hike on the Blackcomb Ascent trail, posted a photo, and won last Friday's prize. Inspired (and depressed), she began picking up garbage everywhere, one day painstakingly plucking over 400 cigarette butts (among other items) from a stretch of the Valley Trail. She laid them out on a black background for a dramatic photo. When I posted this cigarette art on Facebook, local Jorge Alvarez responded with a find made while swimming that afternoon at a secluded beach along a nature trail at Lost Lake. "I saw at about five feet (1.5 metres) deep in the water off the shore... this bag of garbage. I pulled it out... it was filled with rocks to keep it on the bottom of the lake... (and contained) leftovers and Styrofoam trays from somebody's lunch. Good times!"
Through its contest, Escape Route also discovered and shared info on the Litterati app (litterati.org), a company using social media to help clean up and encourage governments and brands to make changes that will help deal with the litter problem. Turns out there are many on-the-ground efforts as well:
• Coastal Cleanups (www.facebook.com/coastalcleanups) is a group of Salt Spring Island friends who organize kayaking garbage cleanups. After finding themselves hauling out the filth left behind by an abandoned fish farm that government no longer took responsibility for, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the expenses of disposing of the Styrofoam, tarps, nets, plastics, and metal they were finding.
• In 2015, three young backpackers launched "Packing It Out," an end-to-end hike along the 3,520-kilometre Appalachian Trail to pick up garbage, lugging out an inspiring 500 kg. In 2016, the crew gave the same treatment to the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. This summer they plan to remove trash from 8,100 km of iconic American landscapes by bicycle.
• The Adventure Stewardship Alliance expedition started paddling Minnesota's Upper St. Croix River in June looking for garbage. Fifteen days and 378 km later they'd collected 333 kg of it as they began the second leg — 530 km down the Minnesota River, eventually to pick their way along 1,000 km of the Mississippi.
Here at home, while contractors clean ditches along Highway 99, the municipality organizes an annual Pitch-In Day where volunteers, community groups and other associations come together to clean up neighbourhoods with the stated goal of changing littering behaviour. There are also lake cleanups and AWARE's Zero Waste initiatives.
Yet, the trash problem worsens. To be sure, some tourists are to blame, particularly party-oriented day trippers, but oddly, some of the problem lies in the itinerant local population of seasonal employees (just check out Alpha Lake Park any day of the week). The message isn't getting out, or, if it is, somehow disregarded.
Is it generational? Bad parenting? Or is it possible that the greater the struggle of living in a place, the less your sense of stewardship? That's not trash talk, but it is food for thought.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.