From Litter to Climate Change ~ We have to Care to Help

The other day, a balmy Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a child commit a crime. He was about nine years old, walking his bike down the sidewalk, and struggling to open a candy bar. He paused momentarily, outside the shop window where I stood, and succeeded in freeing the chocolate. Then, casually, oh so casually, he dropped the wrapper on the ground and walked away.

I was stunned.

Growing up, littering was akin to larceny in my household. You just did not throw trash on the ground. Ever. However, when it comes to sullying our surroundings, humans are pretty fickle bunch. Even in our increasingly environmentally conscious world, littering is commonplace. While not a glamorous infraction (just ask Arlo Guthrie), it does have serious implications – environmental, aesthetic and budgetary. According to Keep America Beautiful, Inc., cleanup for litter in the United States costs nearly $11.5 billion every year. Just to put that amount in context, a Forbes contributor estimated that Brazil spent $11 billion on World Cup preparations. It costs the equivalent of one World Cup, every year, just to keep American streets free of cigarette butts, plastic bags and soda cans. That is a lot of litter.

Much of litter cleanup costs are born by businesses, but we are increasingly relying on volunteers and litter remediation efforts. Several large cities are advocating changes and new attitudes in the management of litter. These efforts include both public service initiatives to motivate, and harsher penalties to deter. Back in 2009 Philadelphia replaced many of its traditional city trash receptacles with large solar compactor cans. The UnlitterUs campaign for cleaner streets also pushes businesses, schools and individuals to form litter-free zones in area communities. Last year Chicago increased littering penalties, making the infraction worth a $1,500 fine with possible vehicle impoundment. It is enough to give the most hardened litterbug pause.

These clean-up campaigns appear to be making some headway, but a critical question is why we have such a considerable litter problem at all? The National Waste & Recycling Association reports that, while studies show most people considering littering to be wrong, 81% of observed instances of littering are intentional. The organization attributes this to a lack of “personal responsibility” and “belief that someone else will pick up after them.” Clearly when it comes to litter, the adage, you break it you buy it, does not apply.

Perhaps this mentality is indicative of our collective attitude toward other environmental issues. Instead of creating a joint feeling of responsibility for the environment, green issues in our nation cause a political fracas. We debate whether or not effects on the climate are actually real. We debate whether or not people cause them. We start to agree that maybe they are, and maybe we do … but then start to debate the merits of doing anything about it. Where is our feeling of responsibility? According to the EPA, America falls behind only China when it comes to generating carbon emissions. Yet, there has been no clear national stance on the major climate issues facing our country and the world. Until now.

Recently, climate and environmental issues were brought to the national stage like never before, by the White House’s Climate Action Plan. The President’s announcement is important on two fronts. First, it acknowledges America’s contribution to the damage being wrought upon our planet. Second, it recognizes that no one else will deal with our environmental messes. With this plan, the administration is essentially saying that, although America does contribute vastly to the pollution that is littering our planet and wreaking havoc on the climate, we are not going to sit around hoping that someone else will eventually come along to clean things up.

There is much debate about the future environmental, economic and health related consequences of the fledgling plan. The results will depend on how states decide to reach the new goals. A lot of groups are throwing around a lot of statistics, and it may be a while before we know if any of these numbers are valid. What we do know now, however, is that our nation has taken a major step. And the President is not stopping at climate change. This week he announced that protection will be extended to additional thousands of square miles of ocean in the south central Pacific. This expands an area of protection established by President George W. Bush, under the Antiquities Act. Although the area is not currently threatened from an environmental standpoint, this pre-emptive measure shows foresight and care for the planet of tomorrow, not just the convenience of today.

Recent headlines promise a shift in mindset toward environmental issues. It is becoming a national dialogue and, importantly, being worked into current policy and future planning for our country. That nine-year old litterbug has already learned that dropping trash on the street feels like it has zero consequences. When he bikes past the same corner a few days later, the wrapper appears to be gone. But it is still out there somewhere, floating down a creek, or wrapped around stalks of meadow grasses. Until recently it has been too easy to think of planet pollution in the same way. Hopefully, the recent realizations about climate change have awoken our country to this concept, that any pollution we put out into the world has lasting ramifications.

Because who else will clean up after us?

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