To clean up our city, we must clean up our act
To most people, the topic of litter may not be at the forefront of the everyday thinking. After all, daily routine has many of us rushing around trying to empty our inboxes in life… which, to our chagrin, never seem to empty. Who has time to care, right? While most of us may not be thinking about litter itself, much less its negative impacts economically, socially, and environmentally — what we fail to realize is just how much every day life and “our routine” contributes to the litter problem. I am not suggesting everyone litters in cold blood! Many of us do our part by recycling and using a trash can, but a great portion of the everyday population litters… whether they realize it or not.
Locally, and nationally, litter is a problem yet is one of the most preventable sources of pollution. If we would start by simply using a trash can, we can make a big difference in the amount of random litter choking our environment. In the early 1970s Keep America Beautiful Campaign, getting litter into the trash can was a first step. Then along came recycling. In Cleveland, it seems that this first step has been largely forgotten, let alone the act of getting something recycled!
I have always subscribed to the philosophy regarding waste… that collectively, in a consumer society, many contribute to creating waste, and collectively, we can contribute to reducing the waste. Such logic can be applied for abating litter problems. Litter results from various sources. It may be the first and obvious: Someone pitching debris out of their car window while driving, or when walking, dropping the plastic bottle, can, or empty cigarette pack onto the ground, and so on.
Tossing objects on the ground isn’t the only way we contribute to litter. Recycling or trash cans, left unsecured, may result in windstorms blowing the contents all over the neighborhood. Even our clever urban population of racoons, the smallest member of the bear family, may decide to forage for a late night meal, via the “trash can drive-thru!” when containers are not properly sealed.
More ways in which we contribute to litter without actually littering
Most of us do not stop to think about what happens to our trash when it is hauled away. We take it to the curb, forget about it, and it magically goes away. Unfortunately, it does not just go away. It is hauled to regional landfills (nearing capacity with increased waste) and during that trip, ample amounts of debris are blown off trucks and right back into the environment, and maybe blown right back into our neighborhoods. We contribute to debris being blown around in the first place simply by making choices of products that are highly processed and packaged while doing something as innocent as shopping in the grocery store!
The above happens because of a collective result of negligence or not thinking. The opposite can happen with a collective result of awareness and participation to do a part in reducing the problem.
Just by making better choices when we shop, we can make a difference. Next time you are in the grocery store, take a cloth bag instead of choosing to use more plastic. And better yet, RE-USE your plastic bags even before you recycle them. Recycling is not without its own consequences, like the energy consumption needed for recycling and the possible litter that can result if materials are blown off trucks during transport, as described earlier.
Choose to not use a plastic bag every time you have to buy some fruits and vegetables. It may be a little inconvenient at the checkout, but take pride in knowing that you are helping to undo litter problems. Try and purchase items that have minimal packaging. Instead of using disposable plastic utensils, plates and cups, opt for reusable ware such as glass, metal, or dishwasher safe plastic.
Even more ways you can help reduce litter: Organize or join a local clean-up effort and have them on a weekly or monthly basis. Cleaning our environment is not something we do one time and we’re finished — it’s an ongoing job where we cannot afford to sit on our laurels! Litter clean-ups are a good way to meet new people, share camaraderie and get in the outdoors.
Litter in the environment is a much larger problem than most people care to admit. The environmental impact is significant… How large? Well, what is estimated to be the world’s largest dump was recently reported on many online resources. Often called the North Pacific Garbage Patch, the dump’s located in the North Pacific Gyre (an area of the ocean where many currents converge), which is twice the size of the state of Texas, and is essentially a huge swirling mass of litter — mainly plastic — which has made its way from land to sea courtesy of multiple continents. Researchers have discovered small bits of plastic in the digestive systems of fish and other marine life, very often causing death. Thanks to these small bits, plastic is now in the flesh of the food chain — in food that people ultimately eat.
When I read about this problem, I thought that if litter can contribute to causing a problem this large, in a body of water as big as the ocean, think about what impact it can have on our tiny Lake Erie, right here in Cleveland, which is a mere puddle in comparison! The litter mass in the Gyre is largely a result of only the last 50 years of mass consumer society, compared to the entire history of the planet. You have to ask, “What have we done?”
But what about Lake Erie?
Litter does indeed impact our Great Lake. Locally, groups like Adopt-a Beach, Friends Of Edgewater, Sierra Club and other conservation groups perform monthly or frequent clean-ups along the lakefront and shore. I have attended many of these clean-ups and was shocked to see that in just 20 minutes, along less than 50 yards of shoreline, six large trash bags were packed full! The sight was heartbreaking and shameful. I also thought that this condition certainly cannot be good for the local economy as, eventually, left unabated, who wants to spend recreation or leisure dollars on a polluted shoreline?
For me, it’s about pride as well. When I have guests visiting from out of town, I want to demonstrate to them that Cleveland, a city notorious for its riverbank and shoreline abuse, like many regional industrial cities have been, has turned this lack of regard for its water resources around… that we have ushered in a new era. If litter is surrounding me on the beach or in a waterfront park, it sure suggests that many of us simply do not care in the least. It is one thing to be faced with pollutants we cannot see, but when we start to erode the visual quality of such an area, detraction is taken to another level. And, while our lake has improved in many regards of the more dramatically visual pollutions in the past, it seems a whole new host of threats like litter can arrive at equally degrading results.
The Great Lakes Region is among the world’s largest supply of fresh water, but this is a small amount compared to all the water on the planet, which is mostly salt water. So, we really need to ask, can we afford to treat this minute supply like a dumping ground? Who will pay the price, and in how many ways… Health wise? Economically? Environmentally? Socially? It all comes back to spending money to fix the problems. Money that needn’t have to be spent.
What about litter’s impact in Cleveland neighborhoods?
Some may view all the following as subjective, but it really makes sense. Litter anywhere, when left “for someone else” to worry about, only results in more litter. “Litter begets litter” is a common rule of thumb I learned when adopting a park hiking trail several years ago. Areas that are highly littered tend to attract more litter because the mindset becomes one which thinks, “What is one more piece of trash? Everyone does it!”
On the other hand, areas that are kept litter-free almost present an embarrassment or fear factor for someone who thinks about littering such a place. Litter in our neighborhoods spoils curb appeal and detracts investment which could provide vitality and jobs and create the vibrant neighborhoods we’d all like to see.
Health and safety issues are another area of concern. Broken glass bottles create potential hazards for bicyclists and walkers, or even someone mowing grass if accidentally he/she runs over a bottle with a lawn mower. I know because this happened to me! Discarded fast food litter can attract wildlife that can become a nuisance.
What is the mental/social impact?
Psychologically, in walkable neighborhoods like Cleveland’s inner-ring suburbs, places highly littered undermine the walking experience and thus are not conducive to attracting increased pedestrian foot traffic. Increased pedestrian foot traffic, regarding crime, can also have a positive impact on generating more eyes on the streets. Litter itself is a crime in Ohio and a violation of Cleveland codified ordinance.
More on the local and national economic/other impacts of litter….
The Costs of American Littering — The following information is Courtesy of Keep Ohio Beautiful:
Over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year. Most of it, 46.6 billion pieces, is less than four inches, according to Keep America Beautiful’s 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study. That’s 6,729 items per mile.
While visible roadside litter has decreased by about 61% since 1969, litter is still a persistent problem. Consider these facts:
Litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year ($4.5 million in Ohio), with businesses paying $9.1 billion. Governments, schools, and other organizations pick up the remainder.
Community economy and quality of life suffer. The presence of litter in a community takes a toll on quality of life, property values, and housing prices. Litter in a community decreases property values 7%.
Litter has environmental consequences. Wind and weather, traffic, and animals move litter into gutters, lawns and landscaped areas, alleyways, and parking structures. Debris may be carried by storm drains into local waterways, with potential for serious environmental contamination.
Ohio highways… How much is it costing us?
On highways tattered with litter, we show everyone who traverses through Ohio, and through Metro-Cleveland specifically, that we must lack civic pride. While on the other hand, areas that aggressively abate the litter issues glow in the bask of national praise. While it may be untrue that we do not care, first impressions go a long way! Speaking of our local metro highways, I have done some poking around and recently contacted the Ohio Department Of Transportation. I wanted to find out how much they have spent on litter clean-up along Ohio highways in recent years. Here are the numbers:
2006 – $5.6 million investment, 297,221 hours, 610,826 bags
2007 – $4.3 million investment, 211,859 hours, 442,057.63 bags
2008 – $3.7 million investment, 169,298.6 hours, 350,434.38 bags
2009 – $4.1 million investment, 187,951 hours, 342,552.44 bags
2010 – $4.4 million investment, 206,221.9 hours, 392,305.58 bags
Wow! Over 17 million! Think of how that money could be spent if we simply helped reduce the litter problem, following some of the solutions mentioned throughout this article.
“But this isn’t litter… its just a tiny…”
Finally, I want to address what might be considered the far less obvious. It can be amazing at what some people do not regard as litter. Let’s look at one example, and probably the most prolific: Cigarette butts and cigar tips. When I was helping with the shoreline clean-ups at Edgewater, I could have collected more plastic cigar tips than stones! At Edgewater, much of the litter makes its way to the lakeshore via storm drains or park visitors failing to clean up properly after their picnic adventures. This litter begins on the street or well above the beach and is washed down sewers where it is flushed out onto the beach or in the lake or simply blown towards the shore.
Notice the next time you walk downtown how many cigarette butts or cigar tips that have been carelessly tossed onto the ground. I shudder to think how many more would be there if it weren’t for The Downtown Cleveland Alliance crews sweeping the streets. Still, how about not throwing them on to the ground at all. It’s not that difficult. Here are some sobering facts, specifically pertaining to cigarette butt and cigar tip litter, courtesy of Keep America/Ohio Beautiful:
One cigarette butt left in a gallon of water for one day can kill about 80% of aquatic life.
Cigarette butts and cigar tips are the most commonly littered item on our beaches.
32% of litter at stormdrains (such as the giant one at Edgewater Beach) is tobacco products.
Cigarette butts and cigar tips do not break down: They end up in our lakes and oceans. 95% of cigarette butt filters are composed of plastic and can remain in the environment for 25 years.
Cigarette butts and cigar tips can pose hazards to land and aquatic animal life. These debris can be mistaken for food.
A final thought
I find it interesting that Cleveland is a city that is striving to revitalize its neighborhoods into clean, safe, walkable communities. And, it’s a city that wants to re-connect with its waterfront. But, ironically, as a community, we sometimes miss the little things that can make a big difference in achieving a better quality of life. I would hope that in the process of making better neighborhoods and re-connecting with our shores, we can all be a part of fostering a better appreciation and civic pride in those neighborhoods — and respecting the greatest economic, environmental and social asset we have in Lake Erie — by keeping our waters and shores clean of litter. All it takes is a simple awareness to put it in its right place! I hope this article has raised some awareness to the problem — and better yet, offered some examples on how to reduce the problem.
In tough times, keeping our community as litter free as possible is among the simplest and least things we can do as individuals. The benefits are many and the message sent is that we, a city that has notoriously disregarded the environment with its polluting industrial past, have ushered in a new era of concern. It was done once with some of the more visually dramatic pollutions of air and water in the past. Now, let’s do it again with what may be considered by many to not be such a big deal. I hope that this article has illustrated why it is a big deal and why we need to acquire a better concern, especially if we are going to be a city leader and example setter in sustainability.
For more information about how you can help curb litter in and around Cleveland and along our shores, contact Friends Of Edgewater State Park: firstname.lastname@example.org, The Clean Cleveland Campaign: email@example.com, Keep Ohio Beautiful (Cleveland needs a chapter!) firstname.lastname@example.org, “Adopt-a-Beach” email@example.com. Contact your local neighborhood association or block club.
Robert Carillio is a former Ohio Regional Contact for The North American Native Fishes Association, avid self-taught naturalist, native fish enthusiast/advocate of 23 years, and volunteer for Gardens Under Glass in downtown Cleveland. For information on field trips to local streams, please contact Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his blog at http://QualityChatter.com.