<1b> By Susan Laume
<2b> The Connection
Littering is the careless and incorrect disposal of minor amounts of waste in public places, like parks and roadways. The waste is often bottles or cans, paper, food scraps, plastic containers and cigarette butts. Each item may be small, but has an outsized negative impact on the environment, society, and aesthetics. Researchers note, “as an environmental problem, litter is a substantial source of contamination. Misplaced plastics, Styrofoam, paper, glass, and many other commonly used consumer materials accumulate in the environment, posing a number of harmful environmental
Litter is a costly blight that impacts each of us, whether or not we visit parks. It is costly to clean up and taxpayers bear that cost. It impacts quality of life and litter ends up in our waterways and polluting our drinking water. It injures wildlife and pets (see Connection, Osprey in Distress Rescued, July 27, 2023; Kite Flying Fun But Brings Hazards, June 23, 2022).
Clean Fairfax shares, “Virginia spends about 5 million tax dollars annually; and nationally, the cost is 2.5 billion tax dollars a year for litter cleanup. Debris in the roadway causes approximately 2,500 vehicular accidents a year. Every year, motorists drop over 16,000 pieces of litter on each mile of primary highway. Too much of that trash and litter is washed into storm drains and creeks and streams, and pollutes important watersheds and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.”
Although many environmental factors are beyond the control of individuals, littering certainly is under the direct control of each person.
Who are the litterbugs among us? Only a few litter and they are disapproved of by the majority. Why this lack of concern from some for each other and our environment? Researchers say there is little consistent evidence for the demographic characteristics of a ‘litterbug’. Studies conclude that littering is more common among males; younger adults, age 18-29; and in rural communities. Littering is more common in sites that are already littered, in sites without trash receptacles, and in sites with no existing signage about littering.
Laws have attempted to solve the problem. Littering is illegal. Section 33.1-346 of the Code of Virginia makes littering or dumping trash a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. In 2020, to address the growing amount of plastic litter, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation enabling local plastic bag tax ordinances. On Jan. 1, 2022, Fairfax County established the tax “to curb our collective use of disposable plastic bags, to reduce the amount of plastic waste in our local waterways, roadways, and open spaces and the damage it causes.” Plastics are a particular problem as litter, since they do not biodegrade like wood or other natural materials. Instead, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces but never disappear. The County notes, “Pieces of plastic both large and very, very small can wreak havoc on our natural resources and can find their way into our food and water.” Plastic bag tax legislation mandates use of those collected tax funds for environmental cleanup, providing education programs designed to reduce environmental waste, mitigating pollution and litter, or providing reusable bags to recipients of SNAP or WIC benefits.” In 2023, the General Assembly budget amendments included $350,000 related to anti-littering for fiscal year 2024. Those funds focus on educating elementary school children on the problem of littering, and on supporting the Keep Virginia Beautiful program, to support its efforts to reduce litter, encourage recycling, and promote community beautification across the Commonwealth.
While litter is a problem in many public places, it hits hard in the parks where we expect beauty to prevail. Director of the Park Authority, Jai Cole, says, “Environmental stewardship is a shared responsibility. We all want to live in a clean and hospitable environment. Whether we’re talking about our outdoor spaces or within the walls of our own home, the power to provide a safe, litter-free and enjoyable environment lies with each one of us and the individual choices we make whether or not to leave trash on the ground or throw it away properly. Leaving trash along the trail or in the parks is, firstly, illegal, and it creates all kinds of problems that impact wildlife and the quality of our land, forests and streams. Also, the inconsiderate trash left behind by others simply makes the parks less enjoyable for all of us. Currently, our park operations staff spend approximately 40 percent of their time on trash clean-up and removal. If we all could make an extra effort to dispose of trash properly, our staff could use that time for other park maintenance and beautification projects.”
Thousands of individuals, groups, and businesses assist with litter clean-up, recycling and beautification projects across Virginia each year. Earth Day, watershed clean-ups, and the Adopt-a-Highway program all take aim at the problem. Many individuals like Soumia Zeroual and Beau Benison regularly practice ‘plaking’ to help. Plaking or plogging is a Swedish term for picking up trash while walking or jogging. Zeroual says, “I workout here every morning [Laurel Hill Park] and it hurts to see all the trash left here and the workers struggling [to deal with it].” Three year old Beau, a Golden Retriever of Springfield, also regularly does his part. He has collected about 300 plastic bottles during his walks along the Cross County Trail, earning him the nickname “Recycle.”
For our parks, Cole thanks those volunteers, saying “I would like to thank the hundreds of volunteers who have and continue to contribute thousands of hours of their personal time and effort in assisting the effort to help maintain our fantastic park system.”
“We continue to rely on the partnership of our park guests in accepting their portion of the responsibility to help us maintain a clean and welcoming environment for the park guests that follow,” says Cole.