Alberta needs to quit its litter habit

Each year as the snow melts, an ugly truth is revealed: Albertans are slobs. Cigarettes, packaging, fast-food waste, plastic bags and other discarded items can be found on virtually every street corner, in parks and on vacant lots. Along the highways, the junk piles up, often thrown directly from vehicles.

Each year as the snow melts, an ugly truth is revealed: Albertans are slobs.

Cigarettes, packaging, fast-food waste, plastic bags and other discarded items can be found on virtually every street corner, in parks and on vacant lots. Along the highways, the junk piles up, often thrown directly from vehicles.

The mess is particularly noticeable in the spring. And this year, with precious little snow, our blemishes are being unveiled earlier than usual.

The waste is also prevalent beside and in our waterways, particularly through cities and towns. Many of the province’s lakes are victimized (yes, ice fishing shacks left to sink into the melting ice constitute litter).

The junk can be found in abundance around high schools, and in a wide radius around fast-food outlets and convenience stores. It can also be found around construction sites.

Every spring, volunteers in many communities take part in campaigns like Red Deer’s Green Deer, which over two months encourages participants to scour the city for rubbish.

Red Deer has made a concerted effort to put on a fresh face each spring for more than a decade. Often more than 5,000 participants register to clean up and others just pitch in without registering. Public service organizations also take part, as do schools, community associations and other groups.

Slowly, a mindset is developing that the mess is unacceptable. The program is about making a clean sweep and about changing attitudes. But it’s a long row to hoe.

Why do dog owners make a more concerted effort to pick up dog poop along pathways in the warm months than the cold ones? They can’t believe that nature is efficient at dealing with crap, or that it is their right to foul green spaces and ultimately allow their pets’ waste to wash into storm sewers and waterways.

And why do people still insist on throwing cigarettes on the ground, dropping fast-food trash out the windows of their vehicles, and generally showing a lack of pride in their community?

In Red Deer, cigarette butts account for almost 30 per cent of the trash the Green Deer program gathers; that volume is pretty typical worldwide. Yet cigarette butts can take up to 10 years to decompose. And butts contain such toxins as arsenic, lead and cadmium, which have a broad impact, leaching into waterways and soil, into the food chain and being consumed by animal life, including pets.

Could these litterers imagine that community groups might spend their time in better ways than picking up trash?

Could they honestly believe that the army of parks workers employed each summer — with tax dollars — is best used as a trash-gathering corps?

Or that the countless groups gathering trash along Alberta’s highways and waterways every spring couldn’t find better ways to serve the community and raise funds?

Most research points to people aged 18 to 34 as the prime culprits. And men are far more likely to litter than women, according to surveys. One U.S. survey says 75 per cent of all people admit to having littered in the past five years and that the average number of steps a person will take holding a piece of trash before they drop it indiscriminately is 12.

In some jurisdictions, tougher fines and policing have had an impact on litter volumes, and some regions have used the fine money to create educational programs to discourage litter.

Effective anti-litter programs have also included adding more receptacles, improving signage, introducing harsher laws, broadening recycling programs, improving lighting in areas where excess trash is left, and drafting more stringent laws about hauling and covering trash.

Other jurisdictions have forced changes to packaging, and outlawed plastic bags (it takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down, yet Canadians alone use more than 10 billion bags a year).

In some regions, driving, hunting and fishing licences are issued only after the recipients are provided with anti-littering information, and in some cases required to take classes on the subject.

Littering harms the environment and drains the public purse. And it’s lazy and selfish. Perhaps some day, Alberta’s littering habit won’t be revealed with every snow melt.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past.

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