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To reduce trash, from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore, start with a new, smart counter message; a lot of people missed the memo

To reduce trash, from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore, start with a new, smart counter message; a lot of people missed the memo
Jay Falstad, Executive Director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, is backing a bill to make balloon releases illegal in Queen Anne's County and shows some balloons he has recently found on the Chester River. (Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette)

The other day, while aboard a boat, I spotted a deflated Mylar balloon floating in Prospect Bay, south of Kent Narrows, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and it made me groan. All trash makes me groan, but balloons symbolize the littering that takes place all around us, and not by accident.

Of course, I had no way of knowing where that balloon originated. Its release could have been accidental; it might have slipped from the hand of a child at a birthday party in Annapolis and sailed east. But it also could have been part of a mass release of balloons after a funeral.

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I know of at least four such incidents within the last year: Relatives of the victims of drug overdoses, homicides or car accidents gather to mourn them, then step outside and release balloons in their honor. The practice continues despite criticism that erupts at images of a balloon release in news coverage and social media. What some people see as traditional tribute to the deceased others see as the intentional trashing of the environment and a hazard to wild animals, particularly those that swim and fly.

In some states, the mass release of balloons is banned. There was an attempt to prohibit the practice in Maryland several years ago, but it failed. This summer, Chris Corchiarino, a commissioner in Queen Anne’s County, filed a bill to ban releasing non-biodegradable balloons on purpose. If commissioners enact the ban, Queen Anne’s would be the first Maryland county to do so, says Ashley Van Stone, executive director of Trash Free Maryland.

Corchiarino’s bill would have the Queen Anne’s sheriff issue a citation carrying a $250 fine to the party who releases the balloons. Now, try to imagine that. Try being the deputy who walks up to a mourning parent or sibling with a ticket for releasing memorial balloons.

The point is, we do not work against trash enough. We do not have, in the public sphere, a sustained anti-trash message. If we did, we might have fewer people buying 20 balloons to release at a memorial service. I don’t assume that people who do that understand that it’s not a good idea.

In the last three weeks, since the Trump tweets about rats and trash, there has been a lot of focus on Baltimore’s chronic problems with filthy streets and alleys, and with trash dumping in vacant lots.

I walk, drive and sometimes take the bus along streets that get trashed regularly. Example: York Road near Woodbourne Avenue in Govans, an area with carry-outs and several stores, and too many selling liquor. Twice a month for the last four years, volunteers from St. Mary’s Catholic Church have done a nice job sweeping up the depressing amount of trash in the gutters and sidewalks. A city worker and some business owners do their part. But a day or so later, it’s on the way to being a mess again.

I’ve stood at bus stops and watched men and women throw food wrappers into the street. I was in my car, in traffic on Mulberry Street, when out of the driver’s window of the SUV next to me came a fast-food bag.

I’ve spoken up a couple of times, only to have the offender deploy his middle finger to nip our dialogue in the bud. So I’m not about to crash a funeral by popping tribute balloons.

People should know better. But they don’t because they haven’t been told. There is virtually no counter-messaging to littering. It has been some 40 years since we saw consistent, public-service ads in all media about the need to stop trashing up our cities, towns, roads and waterways. We need something new, sharp and YouTubesque.

There are among us plenty of creative people who can sell everything from cell phones to shoes to vasodilators. Certainly we can come up with advertising that reduces trash. The mayor of Baltimore should ask for help with this, and get the local media to commit to the message. It’s not the whole answer, but a start.

-o-

A postscript to Wednesday’s column on immigration, and the anecdote I related about my father, Joe, who was an immigrant as a boy from Madeira, the Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco: In 1925, when Joe was 11 years old, his father, Joseph (Rodrigues) Rodricks, died. Neither his widow, Justina, nor his son were U.S. citizens. They had little income, just what Justina made from doing laundry for other families in the small New England town where they lived. Justina asked for and received food vouchers from the local government. She was able to obtain flour, salt, butter, milk, eggs and bacon. When Joe turned 14 in 1928, he was removed from public school and sent to work full-time in a piggery. The food vouchers ended. Years later, my father shared with my younger brother a vivid memory of a man and a woman coming to the school, pulling him out of 8th grade, and driving him straight to the piggery in a black Ford. My father never completed his schooling, but he later became an American citizen. Had this transpired under the new rules of the Trump administration, which make it tougher for legal immigrants to remain here if at some point they needed public assistance, Joe, and probably Justina, would have been deported for having taken the food vouchers.

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