Litter: more harmful than you realize

It's bad for the environment, bad for the economy — and can even kill you

November 16, 2010|By Jonathan Wixen

Is litter like murder? Not exactly, perhaps — but it's worse than you probably think. According to donttrashaz.com, more than 25,000 car accidents a year are linked to litter, scores of which result in fatalities.

Of course, the environmental effects of litter are well known. Trash in the streets gets blown into the sewer system. From there, it clogs up the sewers and waterways or flows out into bays and estuaries. Chemicals and toxins from plastic bottles leech into water systems. Animal get tangled in six-pack rings, cut on jagged metal or broken glass and stuck inside containers. When food waste is littered from a vehicle, it attracts animals to the road, where they get into traffic and can quickly become road kill, damaging your car. Littered open containers hold water, which is a great breeding place for mosquitoes.

But you have probably heard all this before. What if I told you there were economic effects from litter too? For example, houses in littered neighborhoods sell for less money than those in unlittered neighborhoods. Cleaner communities have a better chance of attracting new businesses, residents and tourists. Moreover, much of what is thrown away or littered could have been recycled and is thus a lost resource.

Here in Westminster, a group of 30 McDaniel College students and faculty last month performed various service projects, including cleaning up trash in the city park. Naomi Raphael, the liaison for community outreach and service at McDaniel College, says, "The important [thing] was that we were showing a vested interest in creating positive changes in the community."

There are organizations like Adopt a Highway that try to help with the litter problem. Adopt a Highway works by offering companies or corporations the ability to "adopt" or take care of a highway. They pay Adopt a Highway a fee and hire a service to clean the highway. Then the entity that adopted the highway gets to have a sign put up on the stretch of highway. Many companies see it as a source of pride. According to the highway coordinator for Carroll County, Patricia Newsome, "the Adopt a Highway program saves us a lot of money because the inmate crews can't pick up all the litter. It saves the taxpayers lots of money."

The most littered items in the world are cigarette butts. Cigarette butts may be small, but they are not harmless. The fiberglass in the filters contains toxic chemicals that end up in storm drains, which eventually lead to our waterways. The second most littered item is fast food wrappers, followed by beer and soda cans (which in a perfect world would all be recycled).

Next time you're tempted to flick that cigarette butt out the car window or toss your food wrapper on the ground, just think about how long that junk will stick around. Paper, which is completely recyclable, takes six months to decompose. Cigarette butts take two to five years. Plastic bottles, which are also recyclable, take five to 10 years. Plastic shopping bags: 10 to 30 years. Gum: 20 to 25 years. Potato chip bags: 90 years. A tin can takes 80 to 100 years, and an aluminum can takes 200 to 400 years (both are recyclable). A golf ball takes up to 1,000 years to rejoin the earth.

If all that doesn't move you to do the right thing, maybe this will: Litter is illegal, and in Maryland is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and up to $1,500.

But apart from not littering, what can one person do about all of this? Jenny Kotowski, a McDaniel College recyling advocate, has the right idea: "Students can pick up litter when they see it, take responsibility for keeping the area around their particular dorm building clean, keep a trash bag in their car so that trash doesn't find its way to the ground on its way from the car to a trash can, invest in a stainless steel or plastic water bottle — and don't flick cigarette butts!"

Good advice for college students — and everyone else, too.

Jonathan Wixen is a student at McDaniel College. His e-mail is jbw001@connections.mcdaniel.edu.

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