Still Littering After All These Years

July 31, 2014
Jim Caldwell
How You Can Help

Yesterday, on my way home from work the driver of the car in front of me rolled down her window and threw a candy wrapper onto the street. I just do not understand that mentality. I mean, who did she think was going to pick up that wrapper? I wonder, while preparing dinner does she toss the empty pasta box out the kitchen window? Or, while getting the mail does she pitch her unwanted junk mail onto her lawn? I would assume that like most folks she keeps her property neat and clean, but thinks nothing of littering our public spaces. Just who are those people who toss whole bags of fast food remnants, soda cans, 12-packs of empty beer cans, ashtrays, or any assortment of unwanted trash onto our roads, lawns and stream banks? Truth is they are neighbors, friends, and fellow county residents. Few will admit to this practice, but the sheer volume of material seen along the roadway is proof enough that too many people find this an acceptable method of disposal. This is not a new phenomenon. History is repeating itself. Who can forget the nostalgic 1960’s image of the Native American shedding a tear as litter is thrown along the highway? That masterful campaign led to a significant drop in littering for a period of time. Unfortunately, it seems the behavior change that message prompted has slowly been lost over the last 50 years.

For the record, trash deposited in public spaces does not miraculously disappear. There are no stealthy gnomes who run around after hours and collect all this garbage. Nope, it is a different group of friends, neighbors and county residents who volunteer their time picking up the trash left by others. In addition, local government and private businesses spend millions of dollars each year to pick up trash. Despite the best efforts of these groups, trash continues to clog gutters and stormdrains, and when assisted by rain ends up in our streams, rivers, and harbors. Take a walk down any stream valley and see the trash that has accumulated. Better yet, check out Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Anacostia in SE Washington after a storm. Six tons of trash are removed from Inner Harbor every two weeks. A portion of that harbor trash makes its way from Howard County. Survey after survey concludes that the local population wants to improve the Bay ecosystem, yet as a society we continue to have trash littering our streams and the Bay. Something is wrong with this picture.

The magnitude of the trash problem has prompted the Maryland Department of the Environment to regulate trash as a Bay pollutant. Howard County may soon be required to establish a trash mitigation program as part of our Municipal Stormwater Permit (MS4). With all the Bay related work that will be necessary to manage uncontrolled runoff, limit nutrients, and restore stream habitat it seems a shame to have to spend time and money addressing litter. This is a simple problem to solve if everyone acts responsibly and disposes of their trash properly. Several neighboring jurisdictions have recently instituted a bag fee in an attempt to limit the amount of trash finding its way to our streets and streams. They report that in 2009, volunteers picked up 41,000 plastic bags during a regional watershed cleanup! These communities are quick to point out that the bag fee was not implemented as a revenue source but instead to establish a behavior change. The fee must be working because the number of bags purchased dropped by 50% in the first few months.

The irresponsible behavior of some folks who toss trash in public areas has a negative impact on our local ecology. Thanks to citizen groups like the Patapsco Valley Heritage Greenways, and Alliance for the Bay; and government sponsored programs like Adopt a Road, and 20 Minute Cleanup; our community tries to stay ahead of the mounting roadside litter problem that quickly becomes a waterway pollutant problem.

Unfortunately, the good deeds of others cannot keep up with the volume of trash in public areas and we may soon be required to institute stronger and more costly programs to reduce the trash in our waterways. We have a considerable amount of work to do in the Bay watershed to improve water quality and it seems a shame to spend time and money on dealing with trash. To quote another aging campaign, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” This is an easy one. Let’s make it happen.

Jim Caldwell
Stormwater Manager