TALKIN’ TRASH: The Trouble with Litter

According to a 2009 litter survey, more than 51 billion pieces of litter appear alongside American roads each year — 6,729 items per mile of roadway!

In the 40 years between study in 1969 and the 2009 study, paper, metal, glass, and beverage container litter has decreased by 74.4%. However plastic items in the litter stream have increased over 165%. The most littered items in the country include tobacco products of all kinds and fast food and beverage containers. Unfortunately, that’s easy to see when driving around Lincoln County.

People also litter at recreational areas, and we have a lot of those near water in Midcoast Maine. That means a lot of the litter on the Pemaquid Peninsula finds its way to the ocean where it is joined by marine debris from boats. Once there, it can entangle or be eaten by ocean creatures, sometimes killing them. Even when it doesn’t kill those animals, the litter they’ve eaten becomes part of the food chain — and that can mean it ends up on our forks!

Cigarette packages, cigarette butts and cigar tips make up 30-35% of all litter. According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), cigarette butts include insecticides and fungicides. When littered, they leach these chemicals into our environment. The BMJ research shows that in waters containing one cigarette butt per liter, 50% of freshwater minnows die within 14 days. And it can take up to 400 years for a cigarette butt to degrade. Most smokers litter their cigarette butts when there is nowhere to properly dispose of them, so it’s important for smokers to use ashtrays in their cars, and for businesses and parks to provide ashtrays at their entrances.

Fast food packaging is the other form of litter that seems to be everywhere. This includes polystyrene (Styrofoam) and paper containers and cups, but also cans and bottles from soda and beer. Many of these also contain harmful chemicals that end up contaminating our environment, not to mention that they are just plain ugly to look at. Litter reduces property values, maybe as much as $7,000 for every $100,000 of property value, and it contributes to lost tourism.

The 2009 survey also states that cleaning up litter costs U.S. businesses $9.1 billion a year, and states, cities, and counties together spend $1.3 billion on litter clean-ups. Here, there are many volunteers who clean up our neighborhoods for free, and for that we owe them a big thank you.

In Maine, littering is against state law. Unfortunately, it seems that this law is seldom enforced. And the 2009 survey shows that where there is already litter, people somehow feel that littering is OK. So we need to keep the focus on individual responsibility. If you’re tempted to litter, please don’t! And if you see someone else littering, ask them to “Please, don’t be a litterbug!”

Portable ashtrays are available free at the PWA office.

By Lynne Gilbert, PWA Member

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