As those of you who’ve tried to find volunteer opportunities as a full-time working adult can attest, sometimes getting involved with local organizations can be pretty tough, especially if you can’t check that box for open availability. All this notwithstanding the bone-chilling prospect of making small-talk with strangers. Eek!
I’ve had some ups and downs trying to connect with local environmental organizations, but here in Ottawa, when the weather warms up, the snow banks quickly turn into mounds of human detritus—empty bottles, soda cups, plastic bags, cigarette butts, and the ill fated gloves and toques that fall out of pockets while their owners fumble for bus passes or cellphones. The grit of an entire season is freed from the snow and ice where it was interred and makes its way down gutters and storm drains and into the Ottawa River Watershed, which empties into the St. Lawrence river and, ultimately, into the North Atlantic. There’s a whole lot of mess, and there are many, many groups working to try to clean it up.
So, despite my introverted misgivings, last weekend, I mustered my courage ventured to the Quebec side for one of the Ottawa Riverkeeper’s annual shoreline cleanups. Have I ever mentioned that mon français est terrible? Well, mon ami, it is. When I woke up the morning of the cleanup, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I could make it to the meeting point without chickening out. I was terrified at the prospect of attending an event, completely solo, where I knew no one at all and didn’t even speak the primary language. But what’s life without a little adventure, right? Be the change you want to see and all that.
The morning of was chilly, but sunny: the kind of morning that promised to blossom into a beautiful spring afternoon. I was one of the first to arrive. I bumbled around and quietly signed in, listening to conversations with the level of comprehension of a well-intentioned 4 year-old. Eventually, I partnered up with a lovely woman named Josée who also came to the event alone. With the sacks, volunteer vests, and clammy plastic gloves provided by the organizers, we began collecting whatever trash we could find.
I’ll be entirely honest: Ottawa’s waste management practices are pretty damned good compared to other places I’ve lived. Compared to the Instagram photos we’ve all seen of perfectly tanned and smiling teams standing in front of trucks overflowing with garbage pulled from the sea, our haul was relatively small. However, I’ve not been more satisfied with a morning’s work in a long, long time. Every little piece of junk we found was a tiny victory: plastic bags, straws, discarded clothing items, bottles, cans, bags… We were able to remove a reasonable amount of human waste from the shoreline, but the most significant impact may not be what you think.
As Josée and I picked our way along the water’s edge grabbing whatever refuse we found, a man out with his family noticed an old oil jug floating in the water. Instead of turning a blind eye and continuing the family outing, the man fished out the plastic container,and brought it to us for disposal. After taking the jug and thanking the man in French, Josée turned to me (and in English far better than my sad attempts at her mother tongue), said to me, that this is why what we’re doing matters. If people see others out there making an effort, the good will spreads, and folks who may have been inhibited for whatever reason from helping out will be increasingly empowered to break down barriers and pitch in. It might feel a little silly at first, spending your valuable free-time doing the types of work that people are assigned as penance for petty crimes. However, if people set up, step out of their comfort zones, and make an effort to clean up the messes we, as a species, have made, we can completely change the dynamic and redefine community service. Not to mention, the more people realize how much of the waste we generate ends up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans, the more likely, I believe, they’ll be to take measures to reduce the amount of waste we generate.
And at the end of the day, doing what we can, however big or small, to shift our societies’ toward habits that help protect the awesome world we have? That’s what conservation is all about.