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By Rhonda Shiffman
According to Keep American Beautiful (KAB), over $51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways per year, about 6,700 items per mile. The KAB’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study estimated litter cleanup costs the country almost $11.5 billion a year. There are two important negative impacts of littering. First, the presence of litter in our communities affects quality of life, property values and housing prices. Second, litter has environmental consequences. Wind, weather, traffic and animals move litter around into gutters, parks and into storm drains, which transport the litter to local waterways. Besides creating toxins, litter – especially plastic - can harm fish and other wildlife when it is confused for food.
When I was eight years old I dropped my ice cream wrapper on the ground during a visit to the city zoo. One of my parent figures looked at me and asked, “Who is going to pick that up, God?” The question made me think. Somehow I thought someone else was responsible for picking up litter – not me. I was a child, and tried from that moment on to do the right thing and find a trash receptacle to throw away litter. Today I wonder, do adults subconsciously think the same thing, that it is acceptable to throw litter to the ground because others are employed to pick it up? That litter creates jobs?
The state of Texas has run a 25-year campaign to raise awareness about littering, with a slogan, Don’t mess with Texas. The campaign is dedicated to educating Texans about the real cost of litter through award-winning ads, statewide road tours and pure Texas pride. Besides the ads with high-profile country western celebrities, there is an annual contest to design a litterbag for bagging trash. Don’t Trash California is a similar campaign to create a social mindset in California that this state doesn’t tolerate polluting of freeways and highways. The campaign involves media advocacy, special events, partnerships, and community outreach, and is conducted in accordance with the National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems Permit.
Even though high profile anti-littering campaigns can work, there is still much to do: While we are rightly concerned with the affects of litter on our lands, we must also be concerned that much of our trash, in the form of cigarette butts and plastic from packaging, also ends up in our oceans. Greenpeace talks about the trash vortex the size of Texas in the North Pacific where an estimated six pounds of plastic for every one pound of natural plankton is found, along with other degrading garbage slowly swirling around in a clockwise fashion, choked with dead fish, marine mammals and birds that get snared in the garbage.
Here is the bottom line. Litter is the result of individual behavior: we either choose to litter or be careful about managing our waste. We have to first view littering as wrong and we have to act on that belief on a local level and force the regulatory hand.
For instance, consider plastic bags. Though San Francisco was the first city to ban the use of plastic bags in 2007, there are currently a number of cities and counties that have enacted or are now contemplating bans on single-use plastic grocery bags. Bagmonstor.com is a website tracking the legislative progress of the movement across the nation to ban the use of these bags. It’s estimated that one person’s shopping leads to receipt of 500 plastic bags a year. Imagine the damage we are continually causing with a world population that is growing above 7 billion.
We can kick the single use bags habit! ChicoBag is only one of many compact reusable bag manufacturers that can help all of us become socially conscientious about waste and help you look hip while doing it. Time NewFeed published an article in August 2011 that discussed how California lawmakers are also considering a ban on Styrofoam containers used by grocery stores, restaurants, and other vendors for packaging food. Whether it is the carrot or the stick, we have got to choose to not be careless about waste. Caring about waste is part of our DNA deep down inside.
Rhonda Shiffman is a graduate student at Presidio Graduate School. She will earn her MBA in Sustainable Management in 2012. She is employed in the Environmental Operations Department of Pacific Gas and Electric Company where she manages an environmental program. Rhonda has over 20 years experience at managing hydroelectric, water quality and fuel storage tank compliance.