Spring showers wash it into our lawns, collect it in the gutters by the roads, and consolidate it on storm drains. With no leaves as camouflage, we see the plastic bags caught on bare branches. Beer bottles, tin cans and Styrofoam cups nestle like Easter eggs under shrubs and bushes. Litter is a man-made blight on the American landscape.
But litter doesn't stop here. In his eye-opening book, "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman describes a small continent of litter floating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. He writes: "It was not unlike an Arctic vessel pushing through chunks of brash ice, except what was bobbing around them was a fright of cups, bottle caps, tangles of fish netting and monofilament line, bits of polystyrene packaging, six-pack rings, spent balloons, filmy scraps of sandwich wrap, and limp plastic bags that defied counting."
What is the source of all this flotsam and jetsam? The book concludes that "80 percent of the mid-ocean flotsam had been originally discarded on land. It blew off garbage trucks, out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers, washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers, wafted on the wind, and found its way to the widening gyre."
Many people reading this may be thinking, "Why on earth do people litter?"
According to the Keep America Beautiful campaign: "People tend to litter because they feel no sense of personal ownership. In addition, even though areas such as parks and beaches are public property, people often believe that ... a park maintenance or highway worker will take responsibility to pick up litter that has accumulated over time."
Part of the mission of Keep America Beautiful is to engage people in cleaning up their communities and to make them feel that they have vested interests in the environment. The organization points out that litter also can happen accidentally, e.g., from overflowing garbage cans waiting for curbside collection, from trucks at construction sites that are not covered properly, and even from municipalities that don't offer litter cans or proper receptacles in public places.
Every year, Keep America Beautiful hosts the Great American Cleanup from March 1 to May 31. This is the nation's largest annual community improvement program, with 30,000 events in 15,000 communities. In 2007, volunteers collected 200 million pounds of litter and debris; planted 4.6 million trees, flowers and bulbs; cleaned 178,000 miles of roads, streets and highways; and diverted more than 70.6 million plastic bottles and more than 2.2 million scrap tires from the waste stream.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. Every year, 176 million pounds of them are collected. Plastic -- often in bottles, wrappers and bags -- is the next-most littered item, accounting for 33 percent of litter. Beer bottles make up 70 percent of the glass found on our roadsides, while beer cans are 53 percent of the metal, with another 33 percent coming from soda cans.
What can you do to help?
*Go to http://www.kab.org, and volunteer to organize a cleanup in your community.
*Suffering from nature-deficit disorder? Grab the kids and some empty buckets, and walk the banks of the nearest stream picking up litter. Be sure to separate recyclables from trash.
*At home: Keep a litterbag in your car; use a bungee cord to keep your curbside garbage can closed; and carry a pocket ashtray if you smoke. Teach your children to be stewards of the earth.
*At work: Ask your boss to "adopt" a road, and take responsibility for keeping it litter-free. Conduct a recycling drive to collect paper, usable clothes, tires and other goods that can be donated.
*At school: Ask your teacher to set up a class cleanup project or recycling system in the classroom, or create a community garden.
*In your community: Identify eyesores, and organize civic groups to eliminate the litter. Create a "trash-fishing contest" to clean up the waterways. Take computer equipment to a transfer station.
*Local government: Establish regular community cleanups, and support volunteer efforts. Set up communitywide trash receptacles, with recycling bins clearly marked. Mandate stiff fines and penalties for litterbugs, and then enforce them.