Guest Column: A confrontation with a passing litterer

When my two daughters were young, we kept a trash bag hanging from the radio knob in the front seat of the car. If the bag was full or forgotten, trash was kept inside the car until we arrived at a destination that offered proper disposal. If my daughters threw anything out the car window, which was rare, I forcefully reminded them that littering is unacceptable and unnecessary.

They are long grown but I still have a trash bag in the car and am happy to report both girls espouse this childhood lesson drilled into their receptive little minds.

I live in Riverhead, the gateway to the beautiful North Fork of Long Island, which is surrounded by the Peconic Bay to the south and Long Island Sound to the north. That means the litter thoughtlessly tossed onto our roads may end up in those beautiful bodies of water.

My home is on Roanoke Avenue, a hilly, tree-lined street that slopes sharply down and, less than a quarter-mile away from my house, ends at the parking lot that leads to the rocky beaches of Long Island Sound. 

Recently, as I walked my dog along Roanoke Avenue, a car zoomed by, the driver lowering her window and tossing a half-full plastic soda bottle out onto the road. It was such a blatant act of littering and so infuriated me that I hollered at her retreating car, “Littering is disgusting.” The car screeched to a halt, backed up and stopped next to me, the driver’s window open. 

“Were you screaming at me?” she asked.

I repeated, in a softer tone, an explanation of what I had hollered. She was silent. A fleeting moment of hope: had I enlightened this person? Instead, she sneered, “Lady — get a life,” rolled up her window and roared away, leaving me fuming as I picked up her trash.

All year round — more often in the summer — Roanoke Avenue, like many of the busy roads on the North Fork, is lined with litter tossed from car windows whose thoughtless occupants are headed to or from the beach. Unfortunately, no one has taught them to put their trash in the two trash cans the town always provides at the beachfront parking lot. Water and soda bottles and cans; plastic and cardboard fast-food containers; plastic bags that tumble along until they reach the beach or latch onto a tree, where they hang until shredded by the elements; plastic straws, which recently got a lot of press after one turned up in the eye or mouth of a turtle. 

Often, I bring a bag and pick up what I pass so the wind and rain do not wash or blow all this junk down the road and into the water, where it will be ingested and kill our marine life.

What is wrong with people? How could they not know that littering is disgusting, dangerous and unhealthy — that it is aiding in the destruction of the beautiful waters that they so enjoy. 

My heart aches as I pick up each item. I’m sad and mad, part of a frustrated minority judging by the amount of debris I see everywhere. In this case, there’s no question that we have control over our environment. Why aren’t we exercising this ability?

The author lives in Riverhead.