How did we become a community of litterbugs?
Look around you — cigarettes, packaging, fast-food waste and other discarded items can be found on virtually every street corner in Red Deer, in every park and on every vacant lot any day of the week. Often it is thrown directly from vehicles.
The volume is particularly noticeable in the spring, as the winter snow melts.
It is also prevalent along our waterways, particularly on the Red Deer River banks — and in the river — and the creeks (Piper and Waskasoo) that run through the city. The region’s lakes are also victimized (yes, ice fishing shacks left to sink into the melting ice constitute litter).
It can be found in abundance around high schools, and in a wide radius around many fast-food outlets and convenience stores.
Every spring, volunteers take part in the Green Deer campaign, which, over several weeks, encourages participants to register and then scour city streets for rubbish.
This year’s effort drew 5,190 registered participants — plus many unregistered but equally committed ones. Among them were members of five Red Deer public service organizations that took part in a trash-gathering challenge.
Schools have joined the cause, along with community associations and other groups.
The mayor can regularly be seen walking to and from City Hall gathering garbage on his commute.
Suzanne Jubb, community and program facilitator with the city’s Recreation, Parks and Culture Department, believes that the program has started to change people’s attitudes about trash, over Green Deer’s eight-year history.
This year, she said, volunteers went beyond the garbage left over the winter and gathered some that had been in place for years.
This year’s theme, “Leave it better than you found it,” no doubt has contributed to the increase of garbage pickers.
“We may be a couple years away from getting a real good handle on (the older garbage),” she said. “But with the mindset of people changing, it is going to get better.”
Jubb has expressed an interest in a broader anti-littering awareness campaign.
And her program has made inroads. But the problem remains.
So 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?
Could they possibly believe that cigarette butts are biodegradable? Could they imagine that community groups might spend their time in better ways than picking up trash?
Could they honestly believe that the army of young people employed by the city Parks Department — with tax dollars — each summer is best used as a trash-gathering corps?
Can they be so certain that their pets’ feces can be left on public or private property, to foul green spaces and ultimately wash into storm sewers and then into waterways?
Sylvan Lake’s new Beach Ambassadors crew is out helping visitors to that community — and picking up garbage. It’s an unfortunate part of encouraging a good tourist experience: cleaning up after other careless visitors and residents.
The annual provincial highway cleanup — which rewards community groups for picking up trash — is another example of how we must clean up to make a good impression to others, regardless of the cost.
Most research points at young people as the prime culprits: those anywhere from 13 to 30 seem to have less regard for their surroundings.
But litter can also be the product of poorly secured loads in vehicles, or even garbage put out for collection but not properly contained.
Some regions have introduced litter tax, and use the 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 trash (and providing better enforcement of those laws).
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.
Essentially, it’s about delivering the message repeatedly and clearly: littering is lazy, costly and selfish.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.