by Catherine Breese
After a few months in Radford, Virginia, a city entirely without a legitimate recycling plan[i] and one where the roadsides and river banks are littered with every conceivable type of trash, I was really starting to think less of the human race (if that were possible). Bryan and I have routinely cleared the roadside along Auburn Street, only to have rude, lazy people cover it with an unsightly sprinkling of wrappers, beer bottles, and kitty litter containers (weird but true) before the very next weekend. When we’re out there picking up trash, people pass us in cars and on foot. They give us puzzled glances and shout from car windows. One woman yelled, “Hey, the city is supposed to do that!” Last weekend we picked up something so vile that I cannot describe it here without making myself gag. (Ok, here’s a hint: it was something that belongs in a toilet bowl but instead was nested in a segment of paper towels. Who does this?) Look, I’m not some crazed environmentalist tree-hugging hippy. I just don’t want to see garbage littering the streets of the town I call home.
Recently, however, I visited the city of Asheville, a tourist haven in the mountains of western North Carolina. How do I know it is a tourist haven? Because the name of their Class-A affiliate baseball team is the Asheville Tourists. And because Asheville is the home of the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned house in the United States. It is also known in some circles as Beer City for its many breweries, microbrews, and brewpubs. It has a thriving live music scene and a busy and productive arts community. It is really, really clean, and Ashevillians seem dedicated to keeping it so. As an example, the city is chock-full of dogs of all sizes and their owners, but I didn’t see a single poop pile on the sidewalk or on a lawn. Named one of the happiest cities in America, or the happiest city in America in the book The Geography of Bliss, the attributes of Asheville, North Carolina, are just plain obvious.
Recycled and repurposed items are everywhere in Asheville. Junk is either turned into art or properly disposed of. I toured a lot of the city, not just the downtown. The restaurants used recycled plastic-ware and compostable cups. Styrofoam is nowhere to be seen. There is nothing in terms of dropped garbage along the streets. The Highland Brewery serves their beer in compostable cups and their spent barley is fed to local farm critters. Their office spaces and outdoor serving shelters were made from repurposed shipping containers. Even the lofty and elegant Biltmore Estate used paper napkins made from recycled paper.
One weekend is all it takes to fall in love with Asheville. It is a fun town full of fun, laid-back people. It made me wish I were young and had rich parents so that I could move to there and spend my parents’ trust fund money on beer and jazz guitar lessons.
Look, if you want people to feel this way about your town, it has got to be clean. Maybe not Disney World-clean, but pretty darn clean. Every town should think of itself as a tourist attraction. Making spaces attractive improves the lives of everyone who lives there or visits. Respecting and beautifying our own individual spaces is fundamental responsibility of humans. Respecting public spaces leads to aesthetic pleasure and a healthier life. Maybe it even helps preserve the planet. Certainly, it leads to happiness.
[i] Well, there probably is one. All evidence, however, points towards a sort of 1950s shovel-it-all-into-the-landfill- and-worry-about-it-later mentality. Every restaurant in town plus the movie theater serves food and beverages in Styrofoam containers. The recycling program is not curbside—it is “voluntary” which means that the garbage dumpster in front of our townhouse is full of all manner of recyclable items. Bryan and I are the only people I ever see toting bags of recyclables to the 17th Street recycling center, the only place in town that you can recycle corrugated cardboard. For a town with a university, it appears to be fairly unenlightened.