Trashed: recounting the agony of throwing away souvenir cups at Coney Island
Dressed in mismatched patterns and vibrant colors, my friends and I exited the subway platform into what felt like a parallel universe.
It was the Coney Island mermaid parade — a New York City tradition of sorts. Every summer solstice, the nutty, nautical side of the city shows itself in a celebration of art and culture. The southern end of Brooklyn was brimming with people excitedly snapping photos of glittery get-ups, Nathan’s hotdogs, and amusement park rides.
After the parade crowned its mermaid of the year, many of the thousands of people in attendance flocked toward the beach, and seeing as it was the first official day of summer, my friends and I couldn’t pass it up. We were sidetracked en route by a large sign that, as if set up by a siren herself, called to me.
The drink of days off. Of sunshine. Of relaxation. Of the beach.
It would’ve been blasphemous not to get one.
Four, actually — one for myself and each of my friends.
I enthusiastically place my order with a droopy-eyed server who asks which of the over-the-top souvenir cup I’d prefer. “Do you have just regular cups?”, I ask, feigning to imagine where a giant plastic pineapple would fit in my Brooklyn kitchen.
She brushes me off and tends to the next customers, a mother-daughter duo who seemed happy to take the cups.
I’d waited in line for twenty minutes. And I was hot. And I wanted to drink a piña colada with my friends.
So the pineapple, please.
When I emerge from the pool of people with two souvenir cups in each hand, my friends almost couldn’t contain their excitement. We had been sold an ice-cold dream, and we bought it.
One sip into the artificial slush and we knew it was just a dream. We couldn’t expect a real piña colada at the mermaid parade, I guess. But at least we had our pineapple cups! How great will these be for a rooftop party?
After a few hours of carrying around the cups, one of us caved.
“I want to throw this away.”
We all gasped.
Into the trash can it went while the remaining three of us held fast to our belief that these plastic pineapples would go on to live a good life.
On we walked, until the second one of us couldn’t take another poke in the thigh by the fronds.
And then a third.
Each time one of us threw the souvenir cup into the trash bin, beside used chip bags and Styrofoam containers, we felt a twinge of guilt. We should hold on to the cups, even though we don’t want them, and even though we don’t have room for them in our kitchens, because we paid for them.
Bulky, brand-new, and on the beach: it didn’t feel right to throw something out after using it once.
The final palm tree dangled over the bin for a while before my friend mustered up the courage to let it go.
But why did it feel wrong to toss in these souvenir cups, and not the single-use cups that filled the rest of the bin?
Our communal hesitation and looming guilt revealed something concerning about the way we live our daily lives — we are so used to throwing away the thin and flexible kind of plastic handed out at fast food chains and office lunches that we’ve become numb to the act. We are too far removed from the waste management practice, and too accustomed to the status quo, to care so deeply every time we throw something away.
Feeling guilt each time you throw something out is not the solution. Behavioral research has proven guilt to be a generally ineffective means of motivating sustainable change. But that the big ticket items still spark a little bit of pain on their way to the bottom of the bin is a signal that we know deep down how damaging our disposable lifestyles are.
It’s time for us to become better connected to our daily practices — to see where our resources come from, and to see where they go when we are finished with them. I am personally beginning by trying to buy local products that can be easily re-used or recycled, and avoiding single-use plastics whenever I can.
Every now and then, I think about that plastic palm tree and how, although it’s a tree of the never-going-to-grow variety, it has helped me grow a little.