As may have been revealed in these pages at some point, I am a dog “owner.” (I prefer “keeper,” or, sadly, “parent.”) As such I find myself strolling slowly in the immediate vicinity of my house some three times a day, waiting for the four-legged one to sniff all the sniffs he needs, eliminate what needs to be eliminated and generally make his magnificence felt by whatever neighbor dogs might also be making the gran passeggiata. Needless to say, these aren’t always the most thrilling parts of my day — a “big” walk might encompass a trip to the video store or a stop at the bodega, but for the most part we cruise along the residential side streets of Brooklyn, dog engrossed in smells and person trying not to be bored and impatient.
In trying to not be bored I’ve devoted an excessive amount of attention to the contents of neighborhood garbage cans and trash piles, and scrutinized hundreds of miles of sidewalk and gutter. Recently, I started to notice the vast quantities of recyclables littering the streets: glass bottles left on corners and park benches, plastic water bottles squashed flat and piled up on the storm drains, cans everywhere. As a dedicated recyliste, these containers are annoying, and a challenge — what if I tried to gather them up for collection? Were there enough to make the effort worthwhile? Would I look like a crazy person?
So I added a blue recycling bag to my dog walk equipage and I found out several very interesting things. The average dog walk (six blocks, about 20 minutes) easily yields a full bag of recyclable containers. Acquaintances kind of glaze over when you try to explain that you’re “conducting an experiment in recycling,” comfortable in their first assumption that you’re down on your luck and crazy. Eighty percent of the bottles clogging our streets are water bottles, and most of those are Poland Spring. (Stop drinking bottled water! It’s a waste of money and an environmental disaster!) At the end of the week I had amassed a pile of recycling equal to months of my own modest home output. And walking the dog had gone from being a chore to being an exciting treasure hunt. (Would I be able to fill the bag in the first three blocks? Four? Do I sound a little kooky? Maybe.)
Slipping briefly into a characteristic delusional vision, I imagined every dog walker in the city embracing my techniques, rendering the city sidewalks spotless and reducing by 90 percent the number of containers that escape recycling. Dogwalkers’ efforts and the publicity attached thereto would shine a spotlight on the scandalous waste of the soft drinks industry, and sales of Arizona Sugar-free Green tea and Diet Red Bull would plummet, as New Yorkers realized they had been throwing away millions of dollars on nutritionally useless and environmentally destructive novelty beverages. Clubs would form and aluminum canteens would be for sale on every street corner — in my dream we were all walking around with those old-school Cub Scout numbers, with the little snap-on covers. Neat-o.
Talking myself down, however, the lesson here is a simpler one, the lesson of multitasking. Though I hate the word, most certainly coined by a middle-management efficiency-optimizer type, the concept is a useful one, especially for the harried urbanite. What can you do while you’re doing other stuff, the stuff you have to do? Sure, you can pick up trash walking the dog, or clean up the dog run once you get there, instead of gabbing with the other dog owners. Find a group that needs help and stuff envelopes while you watch TV, or drop off some old blankets and towels at a dog shelter on the way to the subway, or old clothes to a Goodwill. Taking a little action in the face of so much indifference need not be a fulltime occupation. Sure, there are plenty of incredible people who are devoting their lives to change, but for their efforts to have meaning, the rest of us have to start somewhere, even if it’s the smallest contribution for only ten minutes out of the day. And don’t you think your dog needs a walk?