More than 70 cigarette butts. Lots of fast food containers and coffee cups and plastic bags. Candy wrappers, soda bottles, pizza boxes, a clothes hanger, sardine tin, beef jerky plastic container, bike pump pieces, a windshield wiper, empty medicine bottle, even a Christmas tree with the lights still on it. Lots of beer bottles, one covered in snails. A hat.

I gave a plastic bag to each of the students in a Riley School writing class, and they picked up trash along a short section of the street that passes their Rockport school. The kids were appalled by what they found. Three of them waded out into a wet area and retrieved a tire.

It was when they got to the bottom of a ravine, however, that they started hollering. They’d gone down there to check out some large metal containers. Covered up next to the containers was a dead deer. One of the boys had smelled it before they saw it. I trudged on down and noticed that the hind quarters were missing — a sure sign the deer was poached.

Back in the classroom, after we had dropped their full bags of trash in the school’s disposal bin, the students set to work writing their observances of this cleaning up exercise. For the record, the students were Teague Buchanan, Jaim French, Jason LeBlond, Nick Crawford-Crudell, Elliot Spear, Jack Hanson, Fin Grannis-Phoenix, Molly Davis, Mia Coburn and Emma Wilton.

Earlier that morning, I had been the Earth Day speaker at a school assembly. We talked a lot about recycling and the kids were really engaged in the discussion. I held up a plastic sled used by my grandsons Vishal and Addison Mellor, both of whom attend the school, and asked the kids to guess how long it takes for the plastic to break down.

They had a lot of good guesses, up to 1,000 years, and were surprised when I told them that plastic never breaks down.


Then I held up a coffee cup that I was served on an American Airlines flight a few weeks ago. On the side of the cup, I read, “Rainforest Alliance Certified. Our brewed coffee comes from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, helping protect wildlife and the environment while improving the quality of life for farm families.”

The students agreed that this was a good cause. But then I pointed out that the coffee was served in a Styrofoam cup — and Styrofoam doesn’t ever break down either. So even our best of intentions sometimes fall short.

I confessed that my generation has done a poor job of taking care of our planet, and said that now it is up to them. I tried to motivate them by reporting that Maine is less than 20 years away from having no place in-state to dump garbage. At current rates of waste disposal, the state will run out of landfill space sometime around 2025 — just when these kids move into young adulthood. This is going to be their problem.

And as most of us know, we are falling well short of the state’s recycling goal. I think most of the kids were surprised to learn that we could achieve our goal of recycling half of our waste just by composting food scraps and pet waste. But some of the kids were already ahead of me on this one. One little guy reported, in a loud voice, “The worms eat the food and poop it out.” Yup, that’s recycling, I stuttered.

Some of the conclusions of the kids in the writing class were very insightful. Almost all of the trash was unhealthy, several noted, from cigarettes to fast food. Almost everything could have been recycled, one noted.

“People just don’t seem to care,” wrote Emma. Jack said he was, “annoyed and also a little amazed that people can be so thoughtless.” Finn reported that some of the “insane amount of cigarette butts… had barely been smoked before they threw them on the side of the road.”


Molly wondered how the tire could get way out into the bushes from a car, and observed, “I would think the people would take the decorations off the (Christmas tree) before disposing of it.”

The students’ teacher, Sarah, told me, “For a few minutes I walked along feeling angry and then I saw the children clomping through mud to pick up tiny pieces of plastic and paper,” noting the kids were “excited and motivated. They get it,” she said.

Let’s hope Sarah is right.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at

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