A few days ago, I was walking on the beach, and there was a ton of plastic jetsam trashing up the place. I crossed paths with another beachgoer (with a dog) who was picking up as much garbage as she could (a lot!) on her way back to the parking lot, which I thought was awesome of her … until I realized, when I got a little further down the beach, that she hadn’t cleaned up her dog’s poop, probably because her arms were full of trash. On the one hand, the beach was basically deserted, it was midweek, the weather was crappy, and the dog pooped someplace pretty discreet. On the other hand, the rules and common decency say you’re supposed to pick up your dog’s poop. Isn’t it ironic and wrong for somebody to clean up other people’s trash but leave their own? Should I have told her she had to come back and pick up her dog’s poop?
First, thanks for bringing up a topic that is going to get me in hot water no matter how I answer it. Second — and more importantly — thank you for helping to clean up our shoreline. I know you didn’t say you yourself picked up any trash after admiring her for doing so, but I’m going to assume you did, since you were taking such an interest in her activities. And even if you weren’t picking up any trash, thanks for letting us know that there are people that do.
To answer your first question on a nitpicky level: Yes, it would be ironic for somebody to clean up other people’s trash and leave their own, but actually poop is not trash, it’s just poop. If she had put it into a little plastic baggie and left it behind, THEN it would have been trash. And yes, people do that, and it’s wrong and gross, and if she had done that, I’d encourage you to chase her off the beach the next time you see her, as long as you are willing to pick up the other plastic trash in her stead, because overall, she’s an asset we can’t afford to lose.
Let the record show that I received this question before June 15 (as well as, as you said, midweek and in bad weather). If this happened during “the season” on a weekend with plenty of beachgoers, especially children, I’d have a different answer, but Under These Circumstances, I think her choice (trash removal over poop removal) was OK. There’s a good chance that by the time anyone else passed that way, the poop would have either been washed out with the tide, covered by sand in the wind, or just decomposed “en plein air,” while there’s a 100 percent chance the plastic would still be around, and nobody else (including — be honest now — you) was cleaning it up. Poop is ickier in the immediate moment, but plastic is far more toxic to the general health of our beaches and oceans in the long run, and it doesn’t decompose. It needs to be removed from the beach.
On the Other Hand, if you were bothered by it, that’s a valid issue. Legally, you’re in the right, but you can’t enforce it; morally, it’s sort of a wash. So let’s consider how to maximize the positive outcome. You should not have to pick up somebody else’s dog’s poop, period, but you could say to her, “Hey, I’d like you to pick up your dog’s poop — but since you are so encumbered with all that trash, let me help you with the trash so you’re free to do pick up the poop.” Do you have to do that? No. Are you a bad person if you don’t do it? No. Are you a good person if you do it? Yes. Does the poop get cleaned up that way? Yes. Does the trash get cleaned up? Yes. Do you have to handle the poop? No. Do you have to handle the plastic trash? Yes. Do you want to not have to handle plastic trash? Yes? OK: then send a donation to any of the following: theoceancleanup.com, 5gyres.org, oceanconservancy.org (or if you want to keep it close to home, if less plastic-centric, remember our friends across the sound, giving.whoi.edu).
That’s my take.
Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” was published last summer by HarperCollins.Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.