Shawn Micallef: Melting sidewalk glaciers reveal Toronto's dirty secrets
Spring is our most honest season and the sidewalk glaciers that are rapidly receding are the most honest brokers around.
They contain the truth of Toronto and right now the truth is butts. Endless butts. As if preserved in amber, the great spring melt is revealing thousands of cigarette butts on our streets in great piles and in long toxic carpets that will wash into the lakes and rivers if not swept up soon.
There’s more than just butts though; the glaciers provide an opportunity for urban archeology of the recent past. Along just one block of College St., the glaciers revealed a baked potato, a giant screw, a notebook, water bottles, clothing, shoes, and an entire Christmas tree that had been, until recently, completely buried.
There are also bikes that were caught in one of the recent blizzards. The lack of snow clearing, coupled with a few warm days, where the snow drifts turned to slush before freezing again, caused bikes parked along the sidewalks to become trapped like woolly mammoths in ice, impossible to move without a pick axe and a lot of muscle.
It’s not often we get to watch something disintegrate on the street. Along some streets that weren’t properly cleared, block-long glaciers lay in the gutter, nearly indistinguishable from the road surface. As they too shrink, tiny rivers of melt water will form mini ravines in them, like how Toronto itself was formed over time.
Like or loath winter, proper snow clearing or not, this time of year reveals how poorly we treat the public realm. Or at least how some of us do. It’s almost boring to write about this and it seems futile: litterbugs are eternal. And yet, it’s such an upsetting thing to witness, in action or in aftermath, it always demands push back.
As a responsible dog owner who sometimes searches for wayward turds on night walks with my iPhone flashlight, the amount of thawing poop in public places right now is distressing too. Who are these people who don’t stoop and scoop? You shame the rest of us. Worse, you shame your canine, an innocent who just needed to go and hoped you’d do the right thing.
Some of it is even bagged. The bagged poop, left out, is a subset of this genre that is most confounding: bag it only to leave it in a snow bank? Why the half measure? This phenomenon happens on hiking trails too: people will bag it then leave it at the trailhead.
As for the cigarette butts, they seem to be the last socially acceptable form of litter. Tolerated, at least. The quick flick of a thumb and finger, a flash of embers, it’s satisfying, I get it. For a brief couple years in the 1990s I smoked. The old, prone to breaking down, Pontiac Sunbird I drove had a lighter and built-in ashtray, but I flicked every butt out the window without a thought. Now that seems reprehensible, but that at the time was normal. Everyone did it.
While butts can be consistently found nearly everywhere, they tend to cluster in front of cafes and bars, the kinds of social spaces where people go outside for a smoke, then flick them a few metres away without thinking. If you stare at just the gutters, you’ll know you’re passing such an establishment without looking up because of all the butts.
Four years ago, a pilot project was started though a partnership between the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the West Queen West Business Improvement Area, Councillor Mike Layton’s office and a recycling company called TerraCycle. Boxes that smokers could butt out in were installed on poles and businesses emptied them and sent the butts away for recycling. The responsibility was shared, though smokers bear the most. We need more of this.
Spring cleaning, if we still go in for that sort of thing in this low tax city, will return Toronto to its usual state of cleanliness, which isn’t what it once was. That’s a choice we’ve collectively decided to make.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef