“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo (First Earth Day, April 22, 1970)
Walt Kelly (1913-1973) created Pogo, an endearing possum, in 1941. His Earth Day poster in 1970 depicted Pogo faced with a terribly littered forest floor, attempting to clean up with a poker stick and a litterbag.
I have been picking up Napoopoo Road in Kona for over two years by jogging for an hour each morning with a litter bag. I cover 2 miles a day in my neighborhood, alternating my routes along the 4 miles from Highway 11 to Kealakekua Bay and a mile of Middle Keei Road, so a total of 10 linear miles in my area of kuleana if you count each side of the road separately. Before the pandemic, I estimated that I pick up roughly 17,000 items a year. When tourism stopped overnight, I expected my job might go down by half. It’s actually down only about 10% to 15%. That tells me it’s not tourists littering our roadsides continually, it’s us – kamaaina.
What happened to the idea of malama aina, caring for the land? I’m fairly sure that 99% of us believe that we should not use our car window as a trash receptacle. But the other 1% do their damage. Beverage containers and fast food wrappers are the number one category of discarded items. After that, cigarette packages, cigarette butts, ice bags, cardboard boxes and assorted clothing items are common, especially slippahs. Now the pandemic has brought us discarded face masks, disinfectant wipes and disposable dental floss devices. And, of course, abandoned vehicles and fender benders leave assorted car parts on the roadside, not retrieved by the vehicle transport folks. Hubcaps are common.
The natural beauty of the island is a big part of why people want to live and visit here. And yet many of our island roads, beaches and sidewalks look like the entry to the transfer stations. “We have met the enemy and he is US.”
My wife and I have trained tourism guides in two dozen countries, including national park guides in Rwanda. I believe it may well be the cleanest country on the planet. Once a month, Rwandans participate in a nationwide community service effort called Umuganda. People participate willingly and with great pride, cleaning up their communities. Though it is one of the most crowded countries on the African continent, travelers there always notice the incredible cleanliness of the landscape. I wish people would say the same about Hawaii.
Picking up litter is rewarding. I have had people stop to say thanks, hand me a jar of honey, offer to haul away my full bag of litter, and tell me that my effort inspired them to do something similar in their neighborhood. I thank them for thanking me and those heartfelt words of mahalo are the real reward for what I do. I recycle and donate the proceeds from all the HI-5 items I pick up and transport the rest to the transfer station.
As entrepreneurs anticipate more trips to the moon and to Mars, I struggle with our poor record of stewardship on this beautiful planet we inhabit. Will we take our bad habits to space? I suspect so. We once thought the oceans too big to pollute and now gyres the size of Texas in the Pacific swirl with both visible waste items and zillions of micro-plastics.
There’s more to do. We can all make a difference if we will all commit to “Pick up Hawaii.”
Thoughtful behavior begins at home with your kokua to malama aina. Mahalo.
Tim Merriman is a resident of Captain Cook.