Littering – A global scourge Part I

example photo - not of road in Mississippi Mills
example photo – not of road in Mississippi Mills

by Theresa Peluso

Litter proliferates everywhere – in the roadside ditches, streets, parks, nature trails and waterways. We know that it harms your health, society, the natural environment, and the economy. So why do people continue to litter? And how can we stop it?

A few months ago, a letter by Laurel Cook appeared in The Millstone, titled Mississippi Mills – an embarrassingly filthy town. She was only repeating what dozens of friends and neighbours have remarked to me time and again. And she was only repeating what people have been saying all over the world for decades about their own countries – even Singapore, notorious for its strict rules, where in 2014, 19,000 tickets were issued for littering, double the number in 2013.

Because littering is such a big topic, I’ve decided to tackle this issue in two parts. Part I focuses on defining the problem, and on describing local initiatives, as well as approaches taken in the United States, to address this problem. Part II will discuss strategies and solutions developed in Europe by the Clean Europe Network.

Despite several initiatives by the municipality of Mississippi Mills, Lanark County, and numerous civic groups and individuals, the problem of littering persists. A few years ago, the Beautification Committee followed up their pleas to pick up litter by purchasing dog-poop bag dispensers and placing them in Gemmill Park and other dog-walking areas. They are now in the process of installing more garbage cans along town streets, playgrounds and park areas. The Beautification Committee Chairperson, Fern Martin, is currently working on a new play, Trash Dance, about – you guessed it – littering. It’s a novel – and guaranteed-to-be-entertaining — way to spread the message!

Mississippi Mills staff have, for many years, provided free dump passes and organized a large-item day in May where people can drop off, for free, their old sofas, appliances, etc., at designated points. The Town also actively promote Pitch-In Week during the month of April, an initiative in which many schools, businesses and community groups participate. Lanark County has established an Adopt-A-Road program, with many cycling groups, Civitan Clubs, and church, business and scouting organizations committed to keeping a designated stretch of road cleared of garbage. Some stores, such as Patrice’s Your Independent Grocer, provide, not only garbage bins, but also recycling bins, which is commendable.

In a response to a question about littering, asked of all candidates during the 2014 Mississippi Mills municipal elections campaign (www.mississippimills.ca/en/…/CandidatesQuestionstoMunicipalStaff.pdf), it was explained by municipal staff that :

The Roads and Public Works Department collects garbage (this is IN ADDITION to the weekly garbage collection) on Mill Street, Bridge Street, Queen Street, and Martin Street (near the high school) every Monday and Friday all year. The Parks and Recreation Department does all other locations from May to October …. The Roads and Public Works Department will pick up litter in the areas of garbage receptacles on an as-required basis when performing collections. The Department also collects garbage dumped illegally on the roadside, as well as roadkill on an as-required basis. The corporate budget for Litter Pick Up in 2014 was $21,370. This activity is not tracked on a street-by-street basis; therefore the cost cannot be readily broken down for a single street or location. (end of quote)

And still, the littering continues.

Although our municipality has a by-law (no 02-78) against littering; specifically, “prohibiting the throwing, placing or depositing of refuse or debris on private property or on property of the municipality or any local board thereof without authority from the owner or occupant of such property”, it is rarely enforced. Penalties are based on the provincial Environmental Protection Act, and are a $1,000 fine for a first offence, and $2,000 for subsequent offences.

Some jurisdictions have decided to focus on punitive measures to address the littering problem. In Singapore, the Environmental Public Health Act was amended in 2014 by doubling the littering fine to $2,000 for a first conviction, and increasing the fines for a second and subsequent conviction to $4,000 and $10,000, respectively. In addition, the courts may also impose Corrective Work Orders requiring offenders to clean public areas for up to 12 hours. Last year the courts issued 688 Corrective Work Orders, more than double the 261 in 2013. Singapore has also mobilized volunteers to engage in persuading litterbugs to put their trash in garbage bins. Refusal to comply results in the volunteers taking down the particulars of the culprits and relaying this information to the authorities. (The Straits Times – Singapore (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/environment/story/current-measures-against-littering-singapore-20150210#sthash.x8IkIu7s.dpuf) Current measures against littering in Singapore by Carolyn Khew, Feb. 10, 2015)

Who are the stakeholders? Environmental and government organizations and farmers concerned about soil and water pollution and harm to plants and animals, both wild and domestic. Merchants (Who wants to be associated with a coffee cup that proliferates on the roadsides? And who wants to shop in a town where there are dog droppings and discarded wrappers littering the sidewalks?). Residents and taxpayers, who value their health and safety, and dislike seeing their tax dollars used to deal with the ignorant behaviour of others. All levels of government, in keeping with their responsibility to ensure the safety of people and property.

By the way, did you know the following interesting fact about cigarette butts? Tobacco Control, an international peer-reviewed journal for health professionals and others in tobacco control, states that: “Cigarette butts contain all the carcinogenic chemicals, pesticides, and nicotine that make tobacco use the leading cause of preventable death worldwide, yet they are commonly, unconsciously and inexcusably dumped by the trillions (5.6 trillion and counting) into the global environments each year.” (http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/20/Suppl_1/i1.full

Here’s information on anti-littering approaches taken in the United States, taken from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) booklet “Illegal Dumping Prevention Guidebook” (www.epa.gov/region5/waste/illegal_dumping/). This booklet specifically targets illegal dumping, which they define as “the disposal of waste in an unpermitted area” or, more colloquially, as “midnight dumping”.

The EPA recommends that communities offer residents an affordable collection service for garbage and recyclables, and clear guidelines about allowed and forbidden materials, as well as alternative disposal options. (Mississippi Mills already does this.) They stress that program development must provide an integrated approach consisting of leadership by:

  1. local officials, who support the effort to combat illegal dumping with funding, equipment, and labour, including enforcing by-laws and encouraging residents to report illegal dumping;

  2. cooperation among authorities, communities and industries, such as setting up a special task force that includes police, health, environmental, public works, and sanitation departments; and

  3. feedback to all stakeholders about the program’s successes, to encourage continued support from all the stakeholders, and provide data to track and evaluate the program’s success, which is useful to determine budget allocations and facilitate grant applications .

The EPA guide advises site maintenance and controls. Mississippi Mills already has numerous groups and organizations that help with this, but perhaps more are needed? In the U.S., a non-profit organization, Pennsylvania CleanWays, involves residents, law enforcement officials, businesses, haulers and landfill operators in cleaning up illegal dumpsites. Pennsylvania residents report illegal dumping to the police and, if possible, help to clean up the garbage. Projects are usually funded by government agencies or private companies, which donate cleanup supplies and the use of heavy equipment. To keep sites clean, communities can post illegal dumping signs, install lighting and barriers, and keep the area in good condition.

The guide also emphasizes the importance of educating the community. People need to know how to become involved in monitoring illegal dumpsites, whom to contact for assistance and how to report violations.

Of course, targeted enforcement is a key part of this effort. The rules and penalties need to be clearly explained and publicized. Enforcement and prosecution is helpful in stopping this behaviour. Some cities are using geographic information systems (GIS) to assist with tracking and monitoring illegal dump sites, according to the EPA guide. In addition, a computer database can track the status of violations, fines, cleanup activities and surveillance. (Perhaps the fines that are collected can be used to offset the cost of implementing this program.)

All in all, the EPA’s approach is more of a stick than a carrot, but it appears to be quite effective. Would any of these approaches work for us? Although our municipality has a small population and covers a huge physical area, we may be able to devise some new solutions in addition to those already being followed. Mississippi Mills residents have a strong feeling of community, and may be able to engender a feeling of group responsibility, by educating and encouraging our family members, friends and neighbours who litter, about the need for a clean environment. Perhaps making a show of picking up litter in a crowded park would convey the point that residents care about cleanliness in their parks, playgrounds and walkways. Publicizing municipal anti-littering by-laws and listing specific penalties for violations would also help, as well as assigning a by-law officer to deal with the culprits. Explicit signs at sites where garbage is illegally and regularly dumped would also get the message across that this behaviour is wrong.

These are just some anti-littering approaches for your consideration. Stay tuned for next month’s column, with some additional, innovative strategies offered by the Clean Europe Network!