Letter to the Editor: Litter Poisons Environment

Letter to the Editor: Litter Poisons Environment

To the Editor:

Michael Pope’s recent article [“Carts Clog Creek,” Feb. 14] brings needed attention to the problem of the shopping carts that end up in Little Hunting Creek. Del. Scott Surovell introduced a bill that would have given Fairfax County the authority to require owners of abandoned property (such as Walmart, owner of most of the shopping carts found in the creek) to remove their property within 7 days or face a fine. This would have been an important step toward giving Fairfax County the tools to address its litter and dumping problems, but unfortunately the bill was tabled. I hope Delegate Surovell’s bill will succeed next year.

But abandoned shopping carts are just one part of a serious litter problem that affects every district in Fairfax County. Litter tossed from cars or by pedestrians ends up trashing our parks and roadways and is carried by storm drains into streams, the Potomac River, and the Chesapeake Bay. Items such as tires, car bumpers, old cars, broken appliances, and obsolete computer equipment are dumped in out-of-the-way places like parks and easements to avoid dumping fees. They contain toxics that leak into nearby streams and groundwater, affecting water quality and public safety, and they form breeding sites for mosquitoes and rats.

Litter and trash are offensive, create safety and health hazards, and affect property values and quality of life. According to the National Association of Home Builders’ pricing model, an otherwise similar house is valued 7 percent less when it’s located in a littered neighborhood. A study by Keep America Beautiful found that 36 percent of economic development officials say litter affects decisions to locate in a community. Litter and trash do not facilitate the hoped-for revitalization of the Richmond Highway corridor. Otherwise beautiful tourist locations along the Potomac River are despoiled by litter.

Virginia’s approach to litterers is to clean up after them. Business establishments which might be a source of littered material are only held slightly responsible. They pay a modest annual litter tax ($25 for a 7-11) which goes to a state fund used to support volunteer cleanups. Littering is illegal, but a person must be caught in the act to be prosecuted, so prosecutions are rare. Surveys show that self-admitted litterers (correctly) believe they will not be caught.

After a decade of organizing yearly cleanups by the Friends of Little Hunting Creek to remove trash and litter from the creek, I’ve concluded that Virginia’s approach is ineffective. There are no incentives for litterers to stop littering, so the behavior does not change and the litter just keeps on coming. There are no incentives for producers of littered materials to ensure that their products do not end up as litter. The burden is shifted to cleanup volunteers, who do the dirty, hazardous, backbreaking, and endless work of picking up the trash, and to government, which collects and disposes of it. Keep America Beautiful estimates that the annual costs of litter cleanups in the U.S. are $11.5 billion.

Why should people who don’t litter pick up after people who do? Why not create incentives to get people to pick up after themselves? Instead of relying on volunteers to pick up litter after the fact, it would be more efficient and effective to develop policies and laws to prevent littering, and to reduce the use and/or increase recycling of materials that end up as litter.

In 2011, the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens’ Associations passed a resolution supporting a Citizens’ Action Plan for Litter Prevention, developed by its Environment and Recreation Committee (which I chair). The plan calls for six actions that could be taken by Fairfax County on its own, and four that would require action by our legislature. The action plan can be found at http://mvcca.org/env-rec.html. Whether the county and state choose to pursue the actions advocated by MVCCA or adopt other strategies for reducing litter, something serious needs to be done to address this problem.

As a small but immediate first step, I hope that Fairfax County will participate in Litter Enforcement Month this April, and beef up training and enforcement of existing litter laws.

Litter poisons our streets and streams and parks and yards. We need to take steps now to stop it.

Betsy Martin