Monday, January 26, 2009

Talking trash


I just came in from picking up cigarette butts. Forty-nine cigarette butts, to be exact. A tenant in one of our rental houses moved out and although no smoking was permitted inside the unit, that didn’t stop my tenant’s boyfriend from dropping his smoked down cancer sticks all over the ground around the house.

How stupid can people be? Apparently, pretty darn stupid.

These days, with the correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer so well documented, one has to be either foolish enough to think he’ll be immune to the hazards of continually inhaling carcinogenic smoke into his system or too dumb to care.

And that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration what smokers are doing to the environment. Every year an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts find their way onto our streets, parks, sidewalks and waterways. Have you ever been at a beautiful beach or a lovely overlook along a highway only to glance down upon a mound of litter predominated by cigarette butts? Sadly, it’s an all too common sight.

Why are those cigarette butts still there? Don’t they break down and deteriorate like paper or cotton? In a word, no.

Cigarettes are not biodegradable. Ninety-eight percent of a filter’s composition is cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that does not readily decompose. What it does do is sit there on the ground until rains either sweep it into a sewer or wash it into a waterway. But that’s only the beginning of the bad news. One hour after a spent cigarette becomes wet, harmful chemicals like cadmium, lead and arsenic begin to leach out of the butt and into the environment. Fish and other marine animals ingest those chemicals. Birds eat them. So do wildlife and even humans. If you’ve ever been at a beach, you’ve inevitably seen a baby pick a cigarette butt out of the sand and stick it in its mouth.

Potent stuff, cigarettes. They poison the water. They poison animals. They poison people.

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m frustrated – not just by cigarette butts but by litter in general. Trash lines our county’s streets. Beautiful lakes and waterways are depositories for tossed beer cans, old tires and the remains of fast food containers. A couple weeks ago I drove out my dirt driveway onto the paved county-maintained road only to discover several dozen tires dumped along the roadside.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incidence.

What are we doing to our beautiful countryside? Are the majority of Lake County residents completely uncaring? Is the precarious state of our fragile environment so unimportant to most people that they’d rather pollute the land than put the tiniest bit of effort into keeping it clean? How difficult is it to throw a cigarette butt into a trashcan instead of dropping it on the ground?

Although generally an optimist, I’ve become pessimistic about the problem of litter. I used to think if one person did their part, others would follow.
Dutifully I filled garbage bags with the trash that landed along the roads leading to our driveway. I explained to the little girl down the street who repeatedly dropped bubblegum wrappers on the road when she walked to the bus stop and explained to her why littering was bad for the environment. I added a clause to every lease emphasizing my zero tolerance of all litter, especially that of cigarette butts. I chastised tenants who didn’t listen and, like the tenant who just moved out, picked up after them myself.

Still, litter continued.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Places do exist where litter is not an issue. When I lived on Cape Cod, garbage did not line the roadsides or fill the waterways. People cared enough to pick up after themselves. Even here in Central Florida, you’d be hard-pressed to find cigarette butts on the ground or fast food containers littering the roadsides of any on Disney-owned property. Why not? Because the people in charge at Disney takes litter control seriously.

There’s no reason Lake County can’t be a paragon of environmental consciousness. If enough residents let our county leaders know we want them to prioritize cleaning up the countryside, the amount of litter could drastically decrease. If enough parents insisted that our school leaders ramp up the anti-littering curriculum, more children could grow up to be informed, responsible adults.

If we don’t voice our concerns or make our desire for change known, well, I guess we deserve what we get – filthy roadsides, polluted water, cigarette-covered ground and a beautiful countryside marred by the ugly aftermath of county filled with uninvolved, poorly educated, uncaring people.

What better time than now, as we embark on Obama’s “Change We Need” presidency, to contact our school leaders and county commissioners. Insist upon the enforcement of existing littering laws. Demand that citizens – young and old - be educated on the importance of a clean environment. If more of us follow Obama’s lead and work for important changes in our own backyard, even difficult problems like littering can be overcome.

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