by Rikki Hall
When you think about pollution, do you think of litterâ"trash strewn along roadsides or bobbing against the shore of a lake? Even though we don't have to breathe or drink litter, as we do more insidious forms of pollution lurking in our air and water, trash is a constant reminder of our impact on the planet.
Water pollution is nearly invisible, though it sickens wildlife and forces humans to abandon natural drinking sources like springs and wells in favor of municipal systems requiring expensive filtration and maintenance. Air pollution is visible in a puff of exhaust before it dissipates or as smog and haze against the horizon, but mostly you breathe it without seeing or smelling the low concentrations of chemicals mixed with our atmosphere's natural gases. Our machines and beasts have altered the air, making rain and seawater acidic and disrupting cycles that moderate our climate. Asthma and other respiratory ailments are on the rise due to air pollution.
By comparison, litter seems almost benign. It is ugly, but it is not killing us. Not all litter is created equal, however, and all of it is created carelessly. Discarded glass inevitably breaks, and while a cut causes pain to a person, it can be lethal to a wild animal. Some trash ensnares animals. Some gets eaten and causes suffering. Discarded bottles and tires may become prolific mosquito hatcheries.
Whatever threat a given piece of litter might pose to man or animals, it could have been disposed of properly. This is the tragedy and opportunity of litter: It is entirely preventable. We can work to reduce air and water pollution, but we will never eliminate them. Engineers and planners can deliver ever more efficient technologies, but the goal is to balance our emissions and residues with nature's abilities to absorb them. Economies without pollution are like perpetual-motion machines; they are not physically possible. With litter, the only obstacle keeping us from zero is carelessness.
No type of litter exemplifies carelessness like cigarette butts. More than five trillion cigarettes are manufactured each year, and an estimated four trillion butts currently pollute the world's roadways, sidewalks, and beaches. Not all those were discarded in the past year, but obviously a large portion of cigarettes are tossed on the ground instead of into ashtrays or receptacles. Smokers seem to think cigarette butts are biodegradable, but filters are made of cellulose acetate, not cotton, and they take years or decades to break down. If you look for butts next time you are walking, you will be stunned by how many you see.
Theoretically, tossing a cigarette out a car window can earn the litterer a hefty fine. In practice, littering laws are not enforced at that scale. Between the filter and the chemicals trapped inside, butts release a variety of toxins into the environment, most of which wash into streams and rivers. Animals and even young children mistake cigarette butts for food. Unextinguished butts cause at least half of brush fires, some of which cause deaths and significant property damage.
Fast-food bags and wrappers also get tossed from cars too often. I was behind a truck in South Knoxville a few months ago when the passenger tossed garbage from his lunch out the window. We were driving beside an embankment, so there was nowhere for the trash to land. His bag and a glass bottle bounced back into the road, the bottle rolling into my path, forcing me to swerve to avoid a punctured tire.
If you treat the world like a trashcan or an ashtray, please stop. If you are tired of watching others act that way, speak up.
In January, in conjunction with the StopLitter program, Tennessee created a hotline for reporting litterbugs. You can call 1-877-8LITTER to report littering. The owner of the offending vehicle will receive a letter and trash bags or ashtrays for their personal use. No one will be fined based on such citizen reports, but perhaps the next step will be law enforcement officers ticketing those who litter. Of course, the cops will need to stop tossing their own butts first.
Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.
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