I will never forget the first time I was confronted with how my personal actions held potentially dire consequences for the environment outside of my immediate reality.
The moment is burned into my memory.
I was walking with a couple of friends after school had let out and we were sharing a can of Pepsi. I was in middle school at the time, the age where kids are trying desperately to fit in and simultaneously find a way to assert their unique individuality. Torn between trying to be invisible, wishing nobody noticed us and feeling despondent and emotionally depleted if we weren’t noticed.
I took the last sip of soda and casually threw the empty can over my shoulder, continuing on my way.
I wasn’t an uncaring or insensitive individual. Throwing the can was not an act of defiance or of being rebellious or trying to assert my angst towards humanity. I was not trying to cause a scene or prove how cool I was.
I was simply uneducated — about many things.
At the top of the list was knowledge of how the environment was being slowly and consistently obliterated and that I was unknowingly a direct contributing factor.
I did not grow up in a neighborhood or a family that talked about the importance of recycling or compost or being energy efficient.
These terms were foreign to me.
The outdoor environment I knew intimately consisted of traffic and garbage. My immediate surrounding was a breeding ground for debris and dysfunction. Littering wasn’t strange to me, it was normal.
I probably should have (and wish I had’ve had) someone who was a bit more passionate about explaining how my impact on the world could be positive or negative and that my choices mattered. Somehow even public education had failed me on this front.
I wasn’t apathetic. I was just ignorant. And it took a stranger pointing that out to me to help me change my ways.
The causally tossed Pepsi can that I had just barely finished swigging off of hit a fire hydrant when I tossed it behind my shoulder and rolled into the street. I had not noticed because I was laughing and joking with my buddies about hair ties or boys or nail polish. I abruptly found out when I heard the screeching of brakes and the screaming of an angry elderly man.
I was truly frightened and confused because I honestly didn’t know what he was screaming about. He probably shouldn’t have approached us the way he did, waving his arms around and yelling about pollution, but he was the definition of that passionate spokesperson I had mentioned being denied previously.
He was seriously angry, unloading on me about not throwing garbage in the street and telling me how I could have killed him or someone else. My friends got defensive. One of them started yelling back.
I may not have known much at that point about pollution but I know on a level of raw humanity that yelling at elderly citizens is just not okay. To say that this situation was embarrassing is not doing the memory justice. My face was on fire from shame — it felt like it was melting off.
The man’s hands, which he had just moments before been passionately waving over his head, dropped to his sides. In one of them he clutched the offending soda can. He handed it to me and told me to think about what my littering was doing to our world.
That is exactly what he said. I never forgot it.
“Think about what your littering is doing to our world.”
I took the can from him, mumbling an apology. He walked back to his car and drove away.
And I did think about it. I thought about it for days. Years, obviously.
I thought about it again today when I was planning activities for my preschool classroom concerning Earth Day and somebody innocently mentioned that every day should be Earth Day.
Of course it should be. But it’s not.
We have made tremendous progress since Senator Nelson’s Grassroots movement in 1970. His passion has led to historical, immeasurably beneficial changes in our country and far, far beyond. Progress continues in myriad ways, but we still have a lot of work to do.
For some people, one day of awareness can make a huge difference. The earth and our environment should absolutely be honored every day, but ultimately it still is all of our responsibility to make a contributing difference in any way we are able. It doesn’t matter if it is from celebrating the earth in a deliberate, over the top fashion every April 22nd or from not throwing soda cans into oncoming traffic inadvertently.
We all play a pivotal role in spreading awareness; we only have to be made aware.
Author: Shana Shippee
Editor: Erin Lawson