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January 20, 2008

Asheville Citizen-Times

Profane and mundane, litter chips away daily at WNC’s natural beauty
by Joy Franklin

0n my way home one recent weekday, I watched a white plastic bag sail out of the bed of the truck in front of me and veer off to land on the shoulder. The driver didn’t even know he’d just deposited yet another eyesore on the side of the interstate.

It was a disheartening moment. Driving out of Asheville on Interstate 240, I had been watching brilliant hues of rose as the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains and exulting in my good fortune to live in the heart of one of the most beautiful landscapes in America.

My sense of place took on another aspect as I drove the rest of the way home. The flying plastic bag drew my attention to every discarded cup, shredded piece of paper, wretched sheet of cardboard and other bit of litter between where I was and home.

Where does it come from? Who throws bottles, burger wrappers, plastic bags, cardboard, Styrofoam cups and every other imaginable kind of rubbish on the side of the road or in a public park?

No litterer profile

It turns out that it’s not possible to create a profile of a typical litterer, according to Keep America Beautiful. People of all ages and social backgrounds litter.

They do share certain characteristics. They feel no sense of personal ownership, even though roadways, parks, beaches and other such areas are public property. They think a maintenance worker, a volunteer or someone else will clean up after them. They think that because litter has already been deposited in an area, one more item doesn’t matter.

How much of this garbage gets tossed on the ground intentionally and how much just gets away from careless people, like the trash bag flying out of the pickup truck?

Keep America Beautiful hired R.W. Beck to do a comprehensive review of litter studies, attitude surveys and other litter-related literature. The review was published in 2007. R.W. Beck found that the proportion of careless versus deliberate litter has changed over the years.

Data suggest there’s less deliberately deposited litter and more unintentionally deposited litter. A Kentucky study found the amount of deliberately deposited litter decreased from 74 percent of the whole amount of litter surveyed in 1980 to 54 percent in 1998. Surveys in 2006 in Georgia and Tennessee also found an increase in unintentional letter, including such smaller items as miscellaneous paper and plastic, and a decrease in deliberate litter.

That suggests the educational efforts of Keep America Beautiful and local groups, including Asheville’s Quality Forward, may be having an impact on willful littering (though there’s obviously still much more to be done). Unfortunately, it may be that unintentional littering more than offsets that progress.

Recycling’s impact

Under “Trends,” the R.W. Beck review notes that curbside recycling programs began to proliferate between 1988 and 1994. Recycling has diverted a significant amount of material from landfills, but it has also created twice the number of vehicles collecting discarded materials from residential areas. Careless handling of those materials may be contributing to the litter problem.

I suspect a greater problem is litter in the possession of people who have improperly stowed it intending to discard it in the future, like the person who put a plastic shopping bag in the back of the pickup truck in front of me and probably never gave it another thought.

(As an aside, every year Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags, which are made from petroleum products. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil, according to a story by Katharine Mieszkowski published by Salon.com.)

The R.W. Beck review recommends that unintentional litter be an important focus in the future.

That means garbage and recycling haulers need to be especially careful to prevent spillage. It means educating owners of pickup trucks not to put anything in the bed that’s light enough to blow out. And it means the loads in trucks hauling construction materials or anything that could become litter on the highway should be covered.

Some sensible steps

Other important ways to reduce the amount of litter are for fast food restaurants to provide customers with trash bags for their cars and to aggressively promote their use; for shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to carry out groceries; and for the state to pass a bottle bill.

It was a great disappointment that members of the N.C. Senate Commerce Committee bowed to powerful lobbying groups and killed a bottle deposit bill during the last legislative session. The bill would have been a significant victory in the state’s war against litter.

Much of the litter that gets deposited on roadsides and other landscapes washes into streams. I’ve walked the Wetlands Trail along Mud Creek in Hendersonville after a rain and seen enough plastic containers, Styrofoam cups and various other detritus trapped behind a fallen limb to fill a large room.

Litter not only desecrates the landscape, it kills marine and other wildlife.

The steps needed to prevent most littering require only minor adjustments to people’s lives. The payoff comes in saving resources, protecting wildlife and preserving the natural beauty that surrounds us.

Readers can write Franklin at P.O. Box 2090, Asheville, N.C. 28802; phone her at 828 232-5895; or e-mail her at Jfranklin@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.



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