Davis: The consequences of littering


Last week, trash bag in hand, I took a walk down my semi-rural Vermont road. It is a habit that was drilled into me by my wife who always carried a trash bag whenever she walked down the road. A walk was never just a walk, but a chance to clean up the roadside. To her, every day was Green Up Day.

The sad fact is that no matter how much trash I picked up last week, there will be more trash the week after and more trash the week after that. I only walked about a mile but managed to fill up a tall kitchen trash bag with a variety of items.

There were soda cans and beer cans, all kinds of wrappers from fast food take-out, empty cigarette packages and a wide variety of other types of packaging. The overall impression that all of this trash left with me was one of disgust for a segment of the human species who believes that the planet is their trash bag.

Most noteworthy was the abundance of cigarette butts. They were, by far, the most littered item along the road, but I did not pick up any butts during my walk. This got me to thinking about what kind of environmental impact cigarette butts have and whether or not my small sample was representative of the bigger trash picture.

What I found at the Keep America Beautiful website blew me away. They noted that, "Cigarette butts are the most frequently littered item. Tobacco products comprise 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter and 30 percent at "transition points," places where smokers must discontinue smoking before proceeding. As part of Keep America Beautiful's 2009 Littering Behavior in America, research specific data was gathered about cigarette butt littering. This included observations of smokers at recreation areas, bars/restaurants, retail, and medical/hospitals."

Their study found that, "Medical/hospital sites have the highest littering rates, followed by recreation areas, bars/restaurants, and then retail locations and city centers. They also noted that, "38 percent of cigarette butt littering is associated with the physical environment, including the number of ash receptacles. The presence of ash receptacles, either as stand-alone, or integrated into a trash can, correlates with lower rates of cigarette butt littering."

"A national survey of over 1,000 smokers found that 35 percent toss five or more cigarette butts per pack on the ground. Because a cigarette butt is small, smokers tend to overlook the consequences of littering."

Since cars no longer have ash trays it means that people who smoke in their cars need to have their own personal ash tray to deter them from littering. This is not happening to any significant degree. In addition, the number of ash trays and receptacles in public places decreased as smokers became social pariahs.

In the world of 2015, anyone who smokes now has to take responsibility for their own butts. That is not happening enough when you consider that smoking trash is the most littered item. And according to the Why It Matters website, "Litter traveling through storm drains and water systems, ends up in local streams, rivers, and waterways. Nearly 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources. Cigarette butt litter can also pose a hazard to animals and marine life when they mistake filters for food."

Whether it is butts or other types of litter, how do we change the behavior of a segment of our population that feels the outdoors is their trash bag? Education helps, but I doubt it is enough to bend the curve.

A few years ago a friend and I were standing in my driveway when a car passed and the driver tossed a can out the window. My friend grabbed the can and jumped in his car and raced to cut off the car of the trash scofflaw. He walked over to the driver and handed him the can he had tossed and simply said, "You lost something," and walked away.

Perhaps a charged moment of confrontation in an effort to instill guilt is the best weapon we have against the trash problem. It takes a lot of effort and there may be some degree of risk, but it just might be an effective tool for behavior modification.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at rbdav@comcast.net.


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