Dear EarthTalk: What is the impact of all the littering that individuals do, largely from their cars and on highways? What can I do to help clean it up? How can we strengthen laws to prevent it?
—Won’t litter in Norwalk, CT
Environmentalists consider litter a nasty side effect of our convenience-oriented disposable culture. Just to highlight the scope of the problem, California alone spends $28 million a year cleaning up and removing litter along its roadways. And once trash gets free, wind and weather move it from streets and highways to parks and waterways. One study found that 18 percent of litter ends up in rivers, streams and oceans.
Cigarette butts, snack wrappers and take-out food and beverage containers are the most commonly littered items. Cigarettes are one of the most insidious forms of litter: Each discarded butt takes 12 years to break down, all the while leaching toxic elements such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into soil and waterways.
The burden of litter cleanup usually falls to local governments or community groups. Some U.S. states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, are taking strong measures to prevent litter through public education campaigns, and are spending millions of dollars yearly to clean up. British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland also have strong anti-litter campaigns.