Keep America Beautiful was created in 1953 to address an increase in littering that coincided with the construction of the interstate system and the growing popularity of disposable containers. Local ordinances, national ad campaigns, and community cleanup efforts soon followed. Over the ensuing decades, the anti-litter movement grew to include other elements such as municipal recycling programs and the push for more sustainable products. But in spite of the tears shed by Iron Eyes Cody, the litter problem in the US has not gone away. Its effects on our communities range from diminished quality of life and safety concerns to neighborhood blight and reduced economic growth.
So . . . what is considered litter, what items are the most littered, where does litter occur, and who litters? The most common definition of litter is solid waste of any type put where it does not belong. (Some people still argue that if something is biodegradable, like gum, it does not count as litter.) Cigarette butts are the most littered items, followed by bottles, cans, fast food packaging and plastic shopping bags. Roadways, transition points such as entrances to buildings, outdoor recreational areas, and shopping centers are the most common locations for littering. People under 30 are the most likely age group to litter. More than 80% of littering is intentional. There’s no doubt that litter is unsightly, but it also has environmental consequences. Wind, rain, traffic, and animals can carry litter to gutters, ditches and storm drains where it is carried untreated to waterways. According to Keep America Beautiful, 80% of US waterways are littered with trash that was first dropped on land. Even worse, hazardous materials which are illegally dumped can leach into water sources, contaminate soil and pollute the air.
As with any human behavior, there is a psychological aspect to littering. Not feeling a sense of ownership for an area followed by the belief that someone else will pick it up are the most common reasons that people litter. What appears to be socially acceptable is another factor in human behavior. When an area is littered, it has an almost magnetic effect. Since “everyone else is doing it”, litter attracts more litter. But a funny thing happens when an area is extremely clean . . . littering appears to be unacceptable, and the incidence of littering is greatly reduced.
One way to encourage people to take ownership of their community and improve its cleanliness is to get them involved in the process. This past spring, Storm Water Management staff promoted and facilitated roadside cleanups in 23 unincorporated and 14 incorporated Jefferson County areas in conjunction with the statewide People Against a Littered State (PALS) Spring Cleanup. This spring, a total of 1,469 volunteers picked up more than 58 tons of roadside litter. To support the roadway cleanup efforts in unincorporated communities, the Jefferson County Commission approved funding to purchase gloves, bags, water, and safety t-shirts. The Sheriff’s Office provided traffic control for 714 volunteers who picked up 40 tons of litter in unincorporated areas. Roads and Transportation Department crews coordinated and properly disposed of the collected roadway litter.
You can make littering unacceptable in your community. Participate in (or even initiate!) a roadside cleanup in 2015. Call 325.8741 to learn more.
Don’t miss the chance to enjoy the July Brown Bag Series seminars at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The seminars are free, no registration is required, and light refreshments are provided. Call 325.8741 for more details.
Upcoming seminars include:
A Change of Scenery – July 9, Birmingham Botanical Gardens – 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (Auditorium) Discover how to make your landscape fit your current lifestyle, physical needs and desires. Instructors: Daniel and Andrew McCurry
GRANDScapes: Multigenerational Gardening – July 23, Birmingham Botanical Gardens – 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (Auditorium) Kindle the imagination of the (grand) kids in your life by creating fairy gardens, worm habitats, and other play inspiring features. Instructor: Vasha Rosenblum