Let's Stop Littering

May 14, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Litter, litter everywhere – who wants to clean it up?

Recently, members of the Nelson Chamber of Commerce hit the streets of the Queen City to clean up litter as part of the annual Pitch-In campaign held in BC. The photograph in the Nelson Daily News showed chamber members placing litter in plastic bags provided free by Pitch-In sponsors. The chamber members were joined during the week by school children from area schools who dutifully cleaned up their playgrounds and nearby streets.

Littering is a problem in many communities. In April, a front-page story in the Castlegar Sun highlighted the problem of garbage being dumped at the top of Terrace Road above Verigin’s tomb. The Vancouver Sun reported the story of a Vancouver Island eco-tour guide who complained of tourists littering trails and the back-country while on guided tours!

If even the supposedly caring people who are interested in eco-tourism are litterbugs, what hope is there to stop this problem? Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is not who is going to pick it up, but how do we prevent litter from even reaching the ground in the first place?

Before answering that question, let’s look a little closer at litter and where it comes from. Motorists and pedestrians are responsible for creating between 30 and 55 percent of all litter. The rest comes from household or commercial garbage, construction sites, loading and delivery areas, and uncovered trucks. Garbage that is not properly disposed of is easily blown by the wind spreading litter to neighbouring areas.

People and businesses litter because they feel no sense of personal ownership for the area they are spoiling. For example, most people would never think of throwing a gum wrapper on their living room floor or throwing a bag of garbage over the fence into their neighbour’s yard. But these same people may not think twice about dropping it in a park, parking lot, sidewalk, vacant lot, secluded area, or roadway.

In British Columbia, signs along highways indicate litterbugs can be fined up to $2,000.00 for a littering offence. But the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks is hard pressed to say when the last successful prosecution occurred.

Research indicates males aged between 16 and 30 do most of the littering along roadsides. This information caused the state of Texas to launch its famous “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign which used well-known sports celebrities (persons this group of males looked up to) delivering tough, anti-littering television commercials. The result was a dramatic reduction in roadside litter.

In Oklahoma, the “Don’t Lay That Trash On Oklahoma” campaign debuted in 1988 and reduced litter by 60 percent according to the state’s department of transportation. But programs end, while littering continues. The state hopes it’s new theme (Keep Our Land Grand) will be just as successful.

Many jurisdictions, like our neighbouring state of Washington, implement Adopt-A-Highway programs, where well meaning citizens and business employees go out and clean up roadsides. They do this despite research that indicates people litter where they know someone will clean up after them! And when a highway sign indicates that so-and-so has adopted a stretch of highway, what could be more inviting to a litterbug!

Preventing litter is an education effort and it isn’t easy. “Littering is a habit that is really difficult to educate people about,” says Kelly Armfelt, a public information and education manager with the Ohio Division of Recycling and Litter Prevention. A surprising admission from someone in a state that for almost 20 years has funded the division with a two-tier litter tax code placed on Ohio corporations. Tier one is added to the corporate franchise tax rate. The second tier is an additional tax on businesses manufacturing or selling products which might become litter. The limit of each tax tier is $5,000 and it raises $10 million annually, $6.5 million of which is distributed to Ohio organizations facilitating or promoting recycling and litter prevention.

“But we still have a litter problem in Ohio,” admits Ms. Armfelt. She says Ohio will be embarking on a statewide anti-litter campaign in the year 2000 and may imitate the successful Texas program.

Better signage, lighting and barriers can reduce or eliminate continued dumping and littering in a given area. More litter receptacles, laws prohibiting the placement of garbage in these receptacles and specifying proper receptacle use, free distribution of litter bags, and regulations requiring load cover and spill prevention measures are all helpful ideas and some are already in place.

But more can be done. Some jurisdictions incorporate anti-littering education during driver’s license training. Others suspend a driver’s license for five days if he or she is convicted of littering. Hunters, fishers, and boaters are also educated when they apply for licenses. Still other jurisdictions publish the names of litterbugs and illegal dumpers.

What we clearly need is a strong, consistent message delivered year round by community leaders that littering and illegal dumping will not be tolerated and that anti-littering laws will be enforced. Without such messages, a few good citizens will continue to spend valuable time in April and May cleaning up after the lazy and ignorant.

All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.