Thursday, July 27, 2017

Litter, Litter Everywhere!

 Is it just me, or is our litter problem getting worse? I live on a country road in Maryland, and every day there are more plastic bottles, McDonald’s sacks, beer cans, paper napkins, and Big Gulp containers than the day before.

One of the many ways that plastic trash can affect the health and growth of
wildlife. Photo by Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK CC BY 2.0
Not only is the litter unsightly, it harms wildlife. One of the reasons animals get hit by cars is that they are attracted to roadsides and medians by the delicious smells of our litter. The last couple of times I’ve gone up Interstate 81, a 60- or- so-mile stretch from Hagerstown, MD, to Harrisburg, PA, I’ve noted ten or more dead birds of prey along the median - an alarmingly high number for that amount of space! The median is covered with litter, which no doubt attracts mice, which no doubt attract red-tailed hawks, which are no match for the steady stream of 18-wheelers going down the road at 65 miles per hour.

Food trash on the side of an Arkansas highway
I keep thinking about four possible explanations for all this litter. First, we are eating more and more crap from fast food restaurants and gas stations, which require plastic forks, plates, and cups, and paper napkins. We buy this unhealthy stuff, eat it in our cars, and then pitch it out the window. It makes me sad to think that most of the litter is from completely unnecessary purchases of so-called food that, for health reasons, we shouldn’t be consuming in the first place - and that we’re consuming our meals in our cars instead of at home with our families.

Second, in some places, local governments are providing fewer services, including trash collection. In our rural area, we have to pay for both trash collection and recycling, and they are expensive. Some of our neighbors choose to pay a smaller fee and haul their own trash to the dump. And some people choose to throw their trash on the side of the road: big kitchen garbage bags full of waste, television sets, tires, and all kinds of other things that cost big money to get rid of.

Third, I wonder if the increasing litter is a sign of Americans’ decreasing interest in the social contract. We don’t trust our government, we don’t like our neighbors, we feel this country isn’t giving us enough, and so we don’t mind junking up the roadways, even in our own neighborhoods. Think I’m making this up? I was talking to someone just the other day who said he never used to litter but now he does. His explanation? “I hate this #%!*ing state!”

Finally, I can’t help but think that the litter problem is related to our attenuated relationship with nature. Important books have been written in recent years about how we are spending less time in nature and how that harms us physically, emotionally, and psychologically - especially children. Perhaps people do not appreciate nature as a rich setting that we share with trees and animals and insects and depend on for clean air and water; perhaps instead people see it as empty space, a wasteland that may as well be trashed as not.

What do you think?

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