Black suede high-heels and soggy old textbooks mixed in with cigarette butts, food wrappers and disposable coffee cups litter Victoria roadways and beaches. Litter wreaks havoc on wildlife, damages the beauty and health of our natural environment and even causes fires. Litter strains government resources, ultimately costing taxpayers.
As a university student relying on public transit, I’m frequently confronted with litter — and litterers — as I trudge the city’s roads and wait for buses. Even at bus stops supplied with garbage bins, I find more litter around the trash bin than inside. Once, I saw a young man nonchalantly drop his empty pop can on the sidewalk, a few steps from a trash can. Sometimes when a vehicle passes, someone will flick a smouldering cigarette butt onto the street. So when I recently stumbled upon a 2009 CBC news report listing B.C. as Canada’s greenest province, I laughed. The idea of B.C. being clean and green seemed absurd after witnessing that nonchalant young man and observing piles of garbage around Victoria.
Litter is any misplaced solid waste abandoned in an inappropriate location — be it a tiny non-biodegradable cigarette butt or a large, malfunctioning refrigerator. The city of Surrey reports that motorists and pedestrians create 30 to 55 per cent of all litter in Surrey. Households and businesses account for the rest. Despite the widespread misconception that litter collection and removal is someone else’s problem or that litter will be picked up by another person, in reality, each one of us is that someone else.
What we consider litter affects the prevalence of littering. For example, a 2011 study on cigarette litter showed that “those who did not consider cigarette butts to be litter were over three and half times as likely to report having ever littered cigarette butts and four times as likely to have littered cigarette butts in the past month.” However, cigarette filters are non-biodegradable and extremely toxic, particularly to tiny marine creatures and bacteria.
Meghann Cant, an animal welfare educator, states in a news release on B.C. SPCA’s website that “even a single piece of litter can be very dangerous.” Each day, while scavenging for food, many animals are injured, become ill and die from litter as they either swallow garbage or become entangled, Cant says. Trash on the ground easily washes into storm drains, pollutes our waterways and oceans and ultimately hurts people and wildlife.
Marine litter is a pervasive and growing problem. Researchers on the Kaisei, the Ocean Voyages Institute’s Research Ship, have studied a floating mass of garbage called the North Pacific gyre. They found the expanding gyre now threatens Hawaii’s valuable habitat of Papahānaumokuākea, the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. The gyre primarily contains litter originating from North America, including B.C.
Each spring, volunteers from the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, Canada’s largest direct-action conservation group, take time to help clean up and protect B.C’s delicate shorelines by picking up discarded ocean-side trash. While noticable improvements were made in 2010 and 2011 from 2009’s record high of collected ocean-side litter — 15 930 garbage bags after cleaning 2 457 kilometres of B.C. shoreline — the results from last year’s cleanup show the problem of littering is not going away. In 2011, more than 56 000 volunteers cleaned 3 144 kilometres of B.C. shoreline and filled 11 794 garbage bags. However, in 2012, volunteers tidied a slightly smaller area of 3 102 km, but filled 12 895 bags with beachside trash — a whopping 1 101 more garbage bags than the previous year.
Littering can also cause fires that devastate whole communities. In 2003, a smouldering cigarette butt mindlessly tossed on the ground ignited one of the largest forest fires in B.C.’s Southern Interior. The McLure fire reached a final size of 26 420 hectares and destroyed parts of the small communities of McLure, Barriere and Louis Creek. One person’s littering caused the evacuation of 3 800 people and destroyed or severely damaged 72 homes and nine businesses.
Finally, littering costs taxpayers. Research by the University of Lethbridge estimated the McLure fire cost $31.1 million, taken from the pockets of British Columbians. Cleaning up litter uses taxpayers’ money that could otherwise go into education and healthcare.
Although littering may seem insignificant, it affects our hope for a greener future. Canadians, especially my generation of university students and those to come, must kick the littering habit. Otherwise, we will be left paying for the damage.
To live up to our reputation as a green province, B.C. must lose that nonchalance and take action. Motorists, instead of throwing trash out the window, keep a litterbag in your vehicle and put the bag in the garbage at your destination. Smokers, dispose of your cigarette butts safely. Pedestrians, take the extra few steps to throw your trash out in the nearest bin. Households and businesses, use garbage containers instead of bags that tear easily and allow animals to rip the bags apart and scatter the contents. Make sure trashcan lids are securely fastened. As the City of Surrey website states: “Littering is a crime. Litter clean-up is a burden. Litter prevention is easy.”
Let’s do our part and stop littering, B.C.