Is it just me, or do McDonald's bags and beer cans scattered on the roadside get under your skin? Several years ago my wife and I noticed more garbage showing up during our bike rides and hikes. Cigarette butts, candy wrappers, beverage containers and fast food bags are becoming a common sight on our trails, cities paths and alongside our roads.
We decided to take a proactive approach. Whether walking trails or sidewalks, we often take a litter bag along. And if the situation warrants, confrontation will occur.
One day my wife, Karen, was driving past the local high school parking lot when she saw a McDonald's bag fly out of a car window. With her blood boiling, Karen up turned into the lot and drove next to the car.
"Hi there. You need to pick up that bag," she said, pointing at the trash.
"What do you mean, lady?" asked one of the occupants.
"I mean, pick up the bag. I'm not leaving until you do and I'm writing down your license plate number. Do you know there's a hefty fine for littering?" Karen locked her car doors as she continued to stare down the occupants of the other car. Finally one of the kids popped out of the car and retrieved the bag.
"Thank you. I really appreciate it," Karen said before driving away.
According to Keep American Beautiful (KAB), over 51 billion pieces of litter appear on U.S. roadways each year. That's 6,729 items per mile of roadway.
• Tobacco products comprise roughly 38 percent of all U.S. roadway litter. Paper (22 percent) and plastic (19 percent) are the next most frequent types of discarded materials.
• Packaging litter comprises nearly 46 percent of litter, including fast food, snack, tobacco and other product packaging.
• Most roadway litter, 76 percent, appears to originate from motorists and pedestrians. Individual actions by motorists (52 percent), pedestrians (22.8 percent), improperly covered trucks and cargo loads (16.4 percent), and other behaviors are the source of roadway litter.
• Most nonroadway litter is found at "transition points." These are at or near entrances to movie theaters, retail outlets, bus stops and other places where anyone consuming a food or tobacco product is required to discard the item before entering.
It starts with cigarette butts
Karen works at an office complex on the Fox River in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. She likes to take quiet strolls along the river during her lunch break. But it disgusts her to see piles of cigarette butts piled up near outside break areas. During a recent walk, Karen said she saw a woman flick a cigarette butt onto the walkway.
"Excuse me. Cigarette butts are litter and you can't litter here. Please pick it up," Karen recalled saying.
The woman looked shocked. "I'll pick it up when I'm done with my break," she replied. When the woman didn't, Karen picked it up and followed the woman into her workplace. At the reception desk, Karen said, "your employee is littering cigarette butts in our break areas. Please remind her to clean up after herself. Here is the cigarette butt she tossed." Karen then handed the receptionist the butt.
Driving home from work one day, I watched in disbelief as a teenager emptied her ashtray out the window. I called 911. I apologized to the dispatcher. "I know your officers have more important things to do, but some people don't think littering is a crime," I said.
The dispatcher was courteous and sympathetic, "There might be a squad in that area," she said, and took down the license plate, occupant and car description.
Thirty minutes later, a Sheboygan County Deputy stopped the vehicle. The teenager admitted throwing out "a couple cigarette butts." I confirmed the earlier information I provided and offered to testify in court. The offender was ticketed.
Littering starts with the innocuous tossed cigarette butt. What's the harm in that? Well, cigarette butts, are made of plastics. According to a report from the American Littoral Society, cigarette butts are made from cellouse acetate and, depending on environmental conditions, can take as long as ten to 15 years to breakdown. Another study suggested cigarette butts never fully biodegrade.
Cigarette butts contain chemicals that can leach into waterways where they can be lethal to aquatic life. Birds and other animals choke to death on cigarette butts. And of course moldering cigarette butts have triggered fires causing property damage and even death. It is estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts become litter every year.
All kinds of litter ends up in waterways where it degrades water and habitat which threatens the survival of sensitive species. Eating fish from these waters can have negative effects on humans. Disease carrying rodents are also common in refuse strewn areas.
I was recently driving in my rural Greenbush neighborhood, following a trail I often run with my dog Arctic. Directly in front of me a 12 pack of empties was tossed out of car window, sending the cans rolling across the road and into the ditch. I laid on the horn and flashed my brights. The car in front of me hit the brakes and two 20-somethings ran towards my car. I locked the car doors.
One of the guys approached Arctic's passenger side window and yelled, "What's your problem man!" Arctic wasn't too impressed with this jerk and thrusted his 130-pound frame out the window with a deep-throated growl.
"You can't throw your trash in my neighborhood. Now pick it up or I'm letting my dog loose," I said. As they fetched their trash, I counted my blessings for having a large Labrador retriever in the front seat. The last thing I want is a physical confrontation.
According to the organization Earth 911, 81 percent of observed littering is done intentionally and 53 percent of litter is attributable to motorists. Individuals over age 30 are less likely to litter than younger individuals. Keep American Beautiful pegs litter cleanup costs at more than $11.5 billion annually with businesses paying $9.1 billion. Local and state governments, schools and other organizations pick up the remaining costs.
What is missing in these statistics is the complete economic costs. According to the Florida Litter Study, litter has been identified as a major indicator of neighborhood decline and disorder. The study goes on to explain that criminals are drawn to areas where unlawful behavior, such as littering, is ignored. If crime is tolerated, businesses move out of these areas, the tax base suffers and area services are reduced.
Penalties & prevention
Some states fare better than others in the amount of littering tolerated. States that are pro-active, and enforce stiff litter laws have less litter. In Wisconsin the littering fine is a maximum of $500, but many police officers doubt such a fine would stick for the tossing of a cigarette butt. Yet in Washington State pitching cigarette butts can result in a $1,024 fine. The littering penalty varies by states, ranging from $50 to $5,000. A state-by-state comparison of littering penalties can be found here: www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=13215.)
Local governments and many 501c3 organizations across the Midwest are aware of the negative impact of littering and work toward preventing it. In rural eastern Wisconsin, the Friends of the Kettle Moraine & state forest staff organize an annual roadside clean-up to celebrate Earth Day. Since 1992, tons of trash has been picked up by volunteers in Sheboygan and Fond du Lac counties.
"The outlook for this event continues to look bright because there is always garbage to pick up," Northern Unit Property Manager Jerry Leiterman joked. "Seriously, it's a great way to teach youth the importance of not littering."
Before 1991, forest employees spent significant hours cleaning the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive of garbage. With recent reductions of forest staff, time for roadside cleanup is limited. Now the friends group, Boy Scouts, 4-H, church & school groups, families and horse, ski and bike club members pitch in.
Litterer ID'd but no penalty
At a remote parking lot in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, we find a huge heap of home trash, far enough off the road to make hauling it out difficult. My crew is an angry bunch of runners who decide to sort through the trash in hopes of finding the culprit's name. Sure enough, several bills and letters provide a name and address. With proof in hand, we rule out vigilante action and contact the local DNR. The DNR staff wasn't too surprised, as home trash heaps are frequently found in the state forest. The DNR Warden contacted the trash owner, who claimed the garbage was stolen from his garage. Imagine that. No ticket was issued.
Local citizens and businesses see the negative impact littering is having on our state forests and are drying to do something about it. The Waste Management Company has donated dumpsters and tipping fees for over a decade. After years of helping organize and participate in the Friends of the Kettle Moraine Clean-up, I developed a list of the most popular litter: Cigarette butts and packs, Bud Light cans, Mountain Dew bottles and McDonalds' food bags. The most unusual items: a blow up doll and glow in the dark condoms.
Several programs. including the Clean Community Challenge, Rivers Alive and Adopt-a-Highway have made great strides in removing litter. All this is necessary because of disrespectful and indolent individuals. Reducing the amount of consumables and being more pro-active towards littering can have a positive impact on our streets, trails and neighborhoods.
Mike McFadzen enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, paddle sports, biking and running when his day job doesn't interfere. He serves on the Wisconsin State Trails Council, Friends of Wisconsin State Parks and the Sheboygan Nonmotorized Pilot Program. He lives in Greenbush with his wife Karen and dog Woody.
Silent sports events are part of the problem and the solution
More and more recreational events are being held on public lands with obvious impacts. The use of state parks and trails for trail runs, mountain bike races, triathlons, ski races and other organized events has grown dramatically in the past several years. This trend often conflicts with traditional park users who find full parking lots when arriving for a picnic or camping trip.
And while most silent sports enthusiasts view themselves as environmentally aware, there can be piles of litter and garbage following an event. In some cases the litter is moving from city streets to old growth forests as the demand for adventure style racing grows.
"We still get application permits for weddings and picnics, but the trend for group adventure events are making us revisit how we can accommodate these users along with our traditional user groups," Peter Biermeier, Wisconsin State Parks Chief of Recreation Planning and Development, said.
These new events are much more involved, requiring contingency plans for safety, first aid, communications, traffic control as well as handling all the garbage they generate. "Most groups are good about cleaning up, but there are occasional problems," Biermeier said. State park staff, he continued, "will withhold permit monies if events are not cleaned up properly, if there is erosion or other damage. These new events make much wider and intensive use of our trails and parks, they don't just hang around the parking lots."
Biermeier said a balance needs to be found. "While we welcome these events as a means to get citizens outdoors, it's important that we don't displace our traditional park users," he said.
State Trails Coordinator Brigit Brown is working on a new special events policy for handling this major shift in park and trail use. The policy will require a calculation of the total cost of an event in terms of staff time and public resources needed. Currently event organizers might pay for traffic control and garbage clean-up. But the Department of Natural Resources may have to factor in repair of trail damage, invasive species propagation and displacement of other park users.
"In some cases, we (DNR staff) have no means to recoup monies when damage or clean-up isn't properly done," Brown said. "Under current law, we can't charge for staff time, which is a big dilemma for us."
A commitment to cleaning up
While some event directors cringe at the idea of more regulations, Jeff Crumbaugh of Great Lakes Endurance has embraced public park rules as part of his commitment to put on sustainable events.
"We started the Keweenaw Running Festival (in Michigan's Upper Peninsula) 12 years ago as a way to combine my two passions: running and the environment," Crumbaugh said. "I've seen the scattered garbage following city running races and knew (trail running races) had to be different."
Some of Crumbaugh's events, including the Grand Island Marathon, take place in environmentally sensitive areas. "We leave the area cleaner than we start. We use compostable water cups, reusable plates and forks and educate our runners on resource impact," the event director said. He limits participation in sensitive area and has disqualified runners for littering.
"Trails are a good way to get people connected to the environment. We use it as a tool to educate runners on this great resource. And some of our runners become advocates for environmental sustainability," Crumbaugh said.
In 2008, Trail Runner Magazine awarded Crumbaugh with its inaugural Sprout Award for the "Greenest Race Director" in North America.
Another Midwest silent sport undertaking that has become well known for it's environmental ethic with care is the Chequamegon Fat Tire Fest. Gary Crandall has directed this mountain biking event in northwest Wisconsin since its inception in 1983, and it has grown into one of the largest races of its kind in the country.
"The Fat Tire (race) could be twice as big, but we would exceed the carrying capacity of the resource," Crandall said, referring to the public land that consitute the Birkie Trail and fireroads serving as the event courses. The event has capped ridership since 1992. Capacity - 2,750 riders - was reached for the September 17, 2011, event shortly after registration opened.
"We know the impacts and organize the race based on capacity," Crandall said. "We perform erosion control, we have wet weather options, and have developed a large cleanup operation to deal with the inevitable litter."
Are riders who litter disqualified? "We encourage people to not litter but won't disqualify them if they do," Crandall answered. "We have bigger fish to fry, including ensuring the welfare of the racers and course."
A 16-member GU Clean-Up Crew devotes many hours to picking up energy bar wrappers, water bottles and other litter left by the bike racers. Team members get an assortment of GU products and a guaranteed entry in the following year's race.