Picking up trash during a beach, creek, or park cleanup day is an easy and rewarding way to do something good for the environment and your local economy.
A few weeks ago when I saw a Coastal Cleanup Day notice in my social media feed, instead of clicking on the signup link I scrolled down the page feeling irritated and frustrated.
I was thinking things like, “Geez, if people didn’t litter, then the beaches wouldn’t need to be cleaned up every dang year!” and “Why do people pile up trash around a full trash can instead of looking for another one or just taking their trash home and putting it in their own garbage can?” The thought of people tossing trash out of their car windows as they are driving along our coastline made me feel infuriated and powerless.
After fuming for a day or so, I decided I was not powerless and that I could do something about litter so I signed up for a Coastal Cleanup Day event where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. I talked my spouse into participating, too.
Once I had taken this positive step, I returned to thinking about how litter affects people, the environment, and local economies.
Why Do People Litter?
Even though I believe, everyone has littered at one time or another I doubt most of us would say we think littering is a beneficial act.
At the dinner table one night, I posed the question “Why do people litter?” to my family. The responses included people do not care, it is a small crime easy to get away with, and people think someone else will clean up after them.
I think that pretty much sums it up.
What are the Consequences of Litter?
Someone taking the devil’s advocate approach might say, “So what if there is a discarded candy wrapper, plastic bag, or Styrofoam cup on a beach, in a street gutter, or on a hiking trail? Is it really hurting anyone?”
Yes, it is.
Litter Begets Litter
Litter mysteriously seems to attract more litter.
If one person discards his or her empty single-use plastic water bottle on the wall between the beach and the sidewalk, it sends a message for other people to do the same. If someone discards their old mattress in a vacant lot or on open land, it attracts other unwanted items and the area becomes an unofficial trash dump creating a dangerous and potentially toxic situation for the people living near it.
Conversely, if people clean up a trashed area it shows that someone cares and people are more apt to keep it clean.
Litter is Dangerous
In many cases, the littered items are harmful to the people, pets, and other living creatures that encounter them. Below are examples of dangerous litter people leave behind.
- Sharp objects – fishing hooks, pieces of broken glass, and syringes
- Entangling items – fishing line, six-pack holders, straws, string, and plastic bags
- Ingestible bits – cigarette butts, bottle caps, and tiny pieces of plastic and Styrofoam
Litter is Costly
Whom do you think pays for removing litter from public places, dealing with plastic bags clogging up storm drains, and clearing up unofficial trash dumps? You do one way or another.
Any town, city, or region that relies on tourism cannot afford to have visitors deterred by yucky debris filled beaches, parks, or campgrounds. That means diverting tax dollars and fees to clean up trash instead of paying for community programs, fixing potholes, or doing hiking trail maintenance.
Picking up Litter is Empowering
When Saturday, September 16 rolled around, my spouse and I slathered on sunscreen, grabbed some gloves, a tub, and a pair of kitchen tongs (instant trash picker upper), and headed for the Cleanup Day check-in spot at our local beach.
After turning in our release waivers, the site volunteer Dave gave us a tiny pencil and a sheet to record the different types of trash we picked up. Voilà we were now citizen scientists collecting data on marine debris.
I was in charge of making tick marks on the trash sheet as my spouse picked various pieces of trash and carried the tub. I did pick up trash, too.
At the end of 2 ½ hours, we had covered our self-assigned section of beach and the adjacent park and we had filled up our tub about half full of trash.
The most numerous identifiable litter items we encountered were cigarette butts, bottle caps (metal and plastic), and aluminum can pull tabs (I was surprised by these because I thought they were supposed to stay on the can). Combined we found about 40 cup lids, straws, pieces of plastic flatware, plastic single-use water bottles, plastic bags, and picnic plates and cups.
We picked up hundreds of little pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, and paper that had begun life as candy wrappers, picnic ware, coffee cups, potato chip bags, and take out containers. The number of little plastic labels that are put on fruit and vegetables that we found lying around the park was astonishing. To me, all the small bits were the most worrisome. They are lightweight so they can blow all over the place and they can be picked up and eaten by curious and unsuspecting toddlers, pets, birds, fish, and other critters who live on land and in the water.
One of the fill-in-the-blank boxes on our trash form was for recording the most unusual item we collected.
Our findings of a dog collar, a filthy sweatshirt, a clothespin, a comb, and a chess game pawn were not especially unusual but I bet the person who owned the chess set was bummed when they discovered they were missing a piece.
We returned to the gathering spot to weigh our trash, turn in our tick mark sheet, and thank Dave.
I was glad we participated in the Cleanup Day for a number of reasons. Leaving behind a litter-free stretch of beach and a park for everyone to enjoy gave me a sense of accomplishment. My spouse had spotted and cleaned up a broken beer bottle, which could have given someone a nasty cut. Maybe we saved a seabird from ensnaring itself in the tangled fishing line and hook we picked up off the beach. Perhaps someone who had seen us that day picking up trash was inspired to make the extra effort to walk to a trashcan to throw something away instead of just leaving it on the ground.
People littering still ticks me off.
However, I can empower myself to do something about it and so can you. Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to set a good example by picking it up.
See you next year.
Featured Image at Top: Leffingwell Landing State Park and Beach in Cambria, CA (our cleanup site)
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