Sunday, November 30, 2008

Littering: An Unacceptable Social Plague

Even though it's not generally considered a major problem in most circles, one of my biggest pet peeves for a great many years is littering, all kinds of litterering, but especially that involving cirgarette butts and chewing gum. I know society has more important problems to deal with, especially now, with our poor national economy, high unemployment, large number of home foreclosures, and financial crisis, as well as a continuing high level of serious crimes. However, I'd still like to see a comprehensive, well thought-out and effective action plan with teeth developed and implemented at a number of different levels. Our ultimate goal, though realistically it will not be easy to achieve, should be to eliminate littering permanently as a significant issue in this country.

Littering is a very meaningful problem for many different reasons. First of all, it is very unsightly and has an adverse impact on our ability to fully enjoy the scenic beauty of our country and the attractiveness of the places we work, live and shop. To me this is reason enough for our society to pay good attention and act on this issue. However, there are several other important reasons. Studies demonstrate that littering can often be harmful to wildlife, which can mistake litter for food. It can also be a big nuisance and even harmful to us. Accidently stepping on discarded chewing gum is one of the biggest nuisances to my mind. Stepping on a discarded banana peel can cause one to slip and fall, and potentially sprain or break a leg or hip, especially for elderly people.

There are three additional fairly obvious reasons why littering is an issue worthy of more attention. Picking up litter can cost state or local municipalities a significant amount of money, to the extent unpaid volunteers or prisoners cannot be recruited to do the job. Cigarette butts not completely put out and thrown out of vehicle windows, or dropped by pedestrians on a street can cause, and have caused, dangerous and expensive fires destroying homes and businesses and occasionally leading to human and pet casualties. Finally, littering is completely unnecessary and represents a careless, anti-social and selfish act. Afterall, trash cans are generally available and most cars have ashtrays.

Some facts may help support some of my points. According to the non-profit group Keep America Beautiful, cigarette butts account for as much as one-third of all litter in the U. S. 370 billion filtered cigarettes smoked in this country each year result in 135 million pounds of butts littering the landscape, particularly on city streets, parking lots and on our beaches. (The significance of the filters is that they are made of a plastic-like material called cellulose acetate which is not biodegradable.) In terms of the environmental impact of littering, studies show discarded plastic bags can be expected to last as long as 10-20 years, aluminum cans 80-100 years, glass bottles an incredible 1 million years, and plastic bottles "indefinitely."

A Texas study concluded that prime litterers are males, all youth under 25, smokers, and frequenters of bars and fast food restaurants. Most offenders who are caught apparently settle out of court. For limited littering, offenders typically face a monetary penalty depending on proven income and/or a specified number of hours picking up litter or other community service. Jail is a very rare punishment.

Based on my limited research, littering is a social activity we generally learn from parents and pass on unconsciously to children. The existing presence of litter is a influential instigator of more littering. Lax law enforcement due to higher priorities and inadequate police and security staffing is reportedly a contributing factor. A residential area primarily consisting of home owners typically has less littering than an area where home renters predominate. Litter laws, enforcement efforts, and prosecutions definitely help to curtail littering. None of this surprises me.

What more can be done? Litter control is usually, and should be, a local or state issue, as opposed to federal. Nevertheless, the President-Elect could in his inauguration speech or subsequently in a press conference spend a few minutes to outline an initiative to work with state and local authorities to come up with a limited cost, coordinated effort to compile and distribute a listing of litter control successes that have surfaced in various states and communities. It wouldn't have to be a federal project. President Obama could propose that the state governors handle this and advise him in due course how the federal government could play an effective supporting role, without any substantial financial contribution. His support and involvement could add needed leadership and visibility to a government sponsored anti-litter initiative.

It would also be helpful for this initiative if President Obama would declare, in this connection, that the federal government would shortly establish a serious anti-litter "clean up America" campaign implemented by their employees on all federal properties, including military bases, in the country. Private companies should be encouraged to initiate similar programs without a need for government subsidies or tax incentives.

Parents need to rethink whatever littering habits they may have, and the importance of their example as key role models, with a view to favorably influencing the behavior of their children. Churches, community groups, non-profit agencies, and, importantly, the media can play constructive inspirational, educational and supporting roles in this endeavor.

I'd also like to see local government officials, prosecutors and court judges review their anti-litter policies, enforcement actions, and sentencing guidelines, comparing them with other towns and cities which have had more success, and making appropriate adjustments to improve outcomes. Finally, individuals, acting alone or as volunteers as part of a non-profit group, remember there are about 305 million of us in total, can make an important contribution. I think admiringly of my deceased sister who very regularly picked up and carried out other people's litter when hiking and camping in our many attractive wilderness areas. I have tried to follow her good example by picking up and disposing of litter dropped by golfers on a number of public courses I play on. It is both surprising and quite irritating to me that so many golfers, most of them adults, litter so much, when with few exceptions there are trash cans on every tee where most of the littering seems to take place.

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