Where did all the garbage cans go?

Posted: October 8, 2011 in Indulgent Commentary
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I grew up in the age when America began its first steps of controlling pollution.  Who could forget the slogan, Keep America Beautiful.  It was a time that America recognized they needed to protect their environment.  The first public service announcement happened in 1956 which encouraged people to not litter.  It was also the time when the Environmental Protection Agency was created.  We all have seen the numerous anti-littering public service messages, which include some memorable scenes, including the crying Indian.  Since those days there have been many discussions about ecology and most recently the encouragement to recycle.

Susan Spotless 1963 adThough many Americans have embraced the world of recycling, I still think we have taken a step backwards as it relates to littering in general.  Just take a look at the sides of a highway.  There is trash everywhere, and I think it has gotten worse in the last few years.

I wondered what could have caused people to begin littering again.  What has changed, for this generation to begin littering again.  Is it the fact that businesses have reduced the number of outdoor trash cans.  I can remember the days when you parked in a lot of retail establishment within a short walking distance amongst the parking spots there were trash containers.  Today a trashcan in a parking lot is unheard of.  If you are lucky you may find one at the entryway of a retail establishment.

The other change in our society is the fast food consumption on-the-go.  Cars line up at a drive through for fast food.  With fast food comes trash.  And where does the trash go.  You are in your car and you don’t leave the trash in the car.  Do you bring it in your house or your household trash cans?  I suspect most of this garbage becomes the litter in our streets.  In my hometown there is a local fast food restaurant, which has a very busy drive through.  Looking over the area, there is only one trashcan available and it is a trashcan designed to have you drive near it and throw your trash in it.  The only problem is this it is located on the passenger side of the car.  It is frustrating enough that there are no trash cans, but even more frustration when you realize that the trash can is strategically placed to dissuade you from throwing your trash in it.  The other thing that drives me crazy with this fast food restaurant is if you are ordering more than one drink they insist on giving you a beverage container.  This is 2011 and most cars have cup holders.  The minute they give it to me I take the drinks out and put them in the cup holders, and am stuck with a piece of trash that was unnecessary.  This is the same establishment that won’t give you ketchup for your fries unless you ask for it, but continue to give you a cup holder that you do not need.

The impact of littering is enormous and affects each of it.  As taxpayers we pay millions of dollars to City, Counties, States, National Agencies, Forestry, and Park and Recreation Departments to clean up litter.  This money could have been spent on the State’s roads, bridges and thousands of potholes.  Without the help of volunteers and Adopt-A-Highway, the cost would be in the billions.

If you have ever had to research a new area to see the viability of living in the community, the first thing one sees is whether the neighborhoods are kept up.  If there is a lot of litter, it is unlikely you would select this place for your home.  The same is true for tourism; who wants to visit a litter strewn city or park.  These places will not be a candidate for a vacation.  Litter discourages economic development. Litter impacts real estate values. Good stores and important businesses will not locate in a community which lacks the pride to effectively control litter.

There is a myth that only “certain types” of people litter.  Litterbugs are everywhere!  “Litterbugs” can be found among people of every age, sex, race and geographic location, and in every level of society.

Litter Facts :

  • Litter is a safety hazard. Litter is a breeding ground for fire and disease.
  • Litter impacts car insurance rates because hundreds of thousands of auto accidents are litter-related.
  • Ingesting litter causes injury or death to thousands of pets as well as wildlife and farm animals.
  • Litter is a breeding ground for rats and disease-causing bacteria.
  • Litter Finds it’s way into lakes, streams, oceans, groundwater
  • Litter and Waste are partially responsible for the following: (From the EPA)

-50% of United States lakes are unfit for swimming and fishing
-40% of United States waterways are polluted
-35% of United States sewage ends up in marine waters

  • Beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.
  • 1/2 of litter is deliberate and 1/2 is caused by materials being “accidentally” lost from vehicles.
  • Males do 72% of deliberate littering and are responsible for 96% of accidental littering.
  • 69% of deliberate litterers were accompanied by one or more people.
  • 60% of deliberate littering is done by pedestrians and 40% is done by motorists
  • Composition of highway litter is as follows: 59% paper, 16% cans, 6% bottles, 6% plastic, 13% miscellaneous.
  • One mile of highway contains approximately 16,000 pieces of litter (estimated cost of pickup is 30 cents per piece of litter)(statistics from the EPA)

Why do people litter?

  • People are too lazy to dispose of trash properly
  • People are more likely to throw litter on top of litter than drop litter in neat surroundings
  • Don’t Care
  • Others will pick it up
  • Not aware they are littering

Primary sources of litter: (KAB Research, 1998)

  • Pedestrians
  • Drivers
  • Household garbage cans
  • Commercial dumpsters
  • Demolition Sites
  • Loading Docks
  • Trucks With Uncovered Backs

Main Types of Litter:

Type of Litter Percentage
Fast Food Waste (33%)
Paper (29%)
Aluminum (28%)
Glass (6%)
Plastic (2%)
Other (2%)

How long does it take to decompose?

Object Decomposition Time
Styrofoam container > 1 million years
Plastic jug 1 million years
Aluminum can 200-500 years
Disposable diaper 550 years
Tinned can 90 years
Leather shoe 45 years
Wool sock 1 year
Paper bag 1 month
Banana peel 3-4 weeks

Source: Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) survey of Adopt-A-Highway volunteers – 1994

The floating island of plastic slush

Did you know that there is a massive plastic island floating in the Pacific Ocean?  It now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States.  This world’s largest rubbish dump is held in place by swirling underwater currents.  This island of death is killing millions of seabirds and marine mammals.  The plastic is decomposing which is releasing chemicals such as bisphenol A and substances known as polystyrene-based (PS) oligomers, which are not found naturally. Bisphenol A has been implicated in disrupting the hormonal system of animals.  The styrofoam releases toxic substances called styrene monomer, which is known to cause cancer.

It is time for a change, again!

The best way to fight against this problem of litter includes:

  • Knowledge and awareness
  • Environmental education
  • Sense of community and an empathy with the needs of others
  • Ease of disposal
  • Law enforcement







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