I recently returned to the Rouge National Park, just east of Markham, to pick up the litter I’d observed the last few times I was there. My mandate was to clear the entire section just south of the Old Finch one-lane bridge, where the park entrance was and where I normally walk. This time I brought large bags and gloves so I could pick up all that I saw.
The river had calmed down from its energetic churn just a week ago. But, unfortunately, I also discovered a whole new amount of dumped garbage in the forest just by the parking lot. With a sigh, I ventured on and began my pick up. I found mostly Tim Horton’s disposable cups, Nestles plastic water bottles, pop cans, cigarette butts and packs, various candy and fast food wrappers, and empty plastic bags.
Litter discarded in streets, roadsides and parks can travel through the storm water system to our rivers and creeks, where it can cause harm to aquatic wildlife, which are particularly susceptible (especially to cigarette butts). It’s worse near or in a natural park with a flowing river. Trash has more likely routes of reaching and poisoning the water. If trash is sitting in or near the water, contaminants will leach into the water, which carries the contaminants throughout the watershed and bioaccumulates in the aquatic life. Wherever the water evaporates, whatever was in the trash is now in the air.
During my walk, I noted several places along the river bank where a sacred ceremony using Ganga water had taken place. I knew this because they left behind a pile of litter including empty plastic bottles of Gangajal. I’d already challenged one group of men earlier who had brought in various materials to the river shore. I reminded them that this was a national park, which didn’t seem to impress them; but they did assure me that they would not leave anything there. The irony is that Ganga water is holy and as per Maharishi Vedvyas, Ganges water has the power of warding off all the evils of Kalyuga. One of the “evils” of the Kalyuga is the diminishment of cleanliness and the promotion of pollution. Is littering not this very thing?
At the end of my litter-picking walk, I’d grown so upset by the recent huge trash piles that had been carelessly thrown into the forest and the river, that I decided to go to my sanctuary location—the lesser known and lesser used Little Rouge woodland—to meditate.
Ironically, it was here, in my little woodland, that I encountered the most unsettling wrath of the day.
I had just come out from the upper marsh with a bag of litter I’d collected, when a couple walked past me, both holding Tim Horton’s cups—the main culprit of my litter pick up—and one of them smoking a cigarette—of which I’d collected several butts on this very trail earlier. Fresh from my collection and feeling suspicious of the cigarette smoker in the forest (smoking really does not belong in a national forest!), I gently suggested that they were going to “not leave those items in the park, right?” The smoker grew violently irate at me, condemning me for “accusing him” of being an abject polluter. Then he peremptorily threw down his still-smoking cigarette on the path and stomped out of the park (thankfully) as I extinguished and picked up the butt to throw into the garbage can.
Perhaps I’d hit a resonating note? One that sparked guilt? Had I called him on his bluff? What else does a smoker generally do when they are finished with their cigarette? I’d seen the evidence in this very park. I’ve also reviewed the statistics: a recent survey revealed that 75% of smokers admitted to discarding their cigarette butts on the ground and out of the car (on the ground)—wherever. I should know; I grew up with two parents who smoked, and disposed their cigarette butts in a similar way. This man’s actions and temperament strongly suggested that he likely hadn’t intended to extinguish then carry his cigarette back to the waste receptacle just outside the park (as some smokers might do). That would explain his incendiary anger–an anger of guilt.
The Miasma of Cigarette Butts
As it turns out, cigarette butts are the most common form of litter on the planet. According to Truth Initiative, “about 4.5 trillion cigarettes [are] discarded each year worldwide.” Cigarette butts contain harmful chemicals, including arsenic (used to kill rats), lead, and over 4000 other toxic compounds that can contaminate water and soil. Scientists have documented residues of pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and heavy metals in discarded cigarette butts.
A 2015 article by Curtis et al. in Tobacco Control revealed that 98% of all cigarettes contain plastic (cellulose acetate) non-biodegradable filters, which take close to a year to decompose under natural circumstances. This is why cigarette butts tossed on streets, roadsides, beaches and natural parks persist, allowing them to leach toxic chemicals that pollute land, water and air.
Since 2016, smoking has been prohibited in all of Australia’s parks. The smoking ban applies to picnic areas, campgrounds, accommodations, beaches, lookouts, walking tracks, and on national parks roads. Smoking is already banned in certain outdoor areas under the Smoke-Free Environment Act 2000. Sadly, in Canadian national parks no such ban is currently in place.
Why Some People Litter
Several reasons for littering have been suggested, including:
- construction projects (e.g., irresponsible workers: “it’s not my job”)
- lack of trash receptacles (e.g., laziness and irresponsibility);
- presence of litter (“if it’s there already, why not me too?”, litter already there is cited as one of the most common reasons);
- the belief that there is no consequence for littering (the belief that they can get away with it; some people don’t think cigarette butts are litter; others don’t believe that littering in that particular location will incur a penalty);
- lack of environmental education;
- laziness and carelessness from thoughtless not caring.
In their book Litter-ology, psychologists Karen Spehr and Rob Curnow suggest that people are more likely to litter in transition areas that are often out of the way (easier to litter surreptitiously and avoid penalty).
Because it’s not clear who’s responsible for cleaning them up, litter accumulates (due to a failure in social compact); this creates a place that looks extremely neglected and uncared for—a signal that littering is socially acceptable—and reinforces more.
Virtually every reason for littering points to an attitude-issue related to:
- A lack of connection with one’s environment
- Not living actively and mindfully
- Not living responsibly and considerately
- Lack of respect for the non-human world (in fact, littering shows a lack of respect for the human world as well).
This is why I firmly believe that by addressing and reducing littering, we are addressing and reducing all forms of pollution. Because, what is needed is a paradigm shift in how we see ourselves and relate to our world.
Engendering a Sense of Place & Community
Spehr and Curnow tell us that “human beings have an innate need to belong and to be an accepted member of a group and this primal need to connect with others is most clearly expressed in our relationships with family, friends, sports teams, interests and our local community. The need to be part of something greater than ourselves also extends to how we relate to our surroundings in public places. More than just familiarity, a good public place reflects a sense of caring and welcome, whether it’s a busy vibrant shopping hub or a quieter place of contemplation. It feels good to be in places like these and we’re often likely to refer to them as having a ‘good sense of community’. If enough people have these feelings for a place, a strong sense of shared ownership will develop, with people looking out for both the place and each other. This feeling of involvement and attachment leads to a sense of shared responsibility to look after the place, with littering and damage far less likely to occur.
“Some people really stand out in terms of their involvement with a place and act as a kind of champion for it. Through their efforts in taking responsibility for disposing of rubbish and clean-up activities, they highlight the positive contribution people make, which in turn promotes communication and good relationships between others who regularly use the place or who are just visiting. Like many other human behaviours, it’s a bit ‘chicken and egg’ – a good sense of community helps reduce the likelihood of littering behaviour and places where there is a good sense of community are less likely to be littered.”
In fact, it doesn’t take much to champion a place: you just have to decide that it is part of you and your home.
While I don’t live nearby, the Rouge and the Little Rouge have become like home to me and I visit these parks almost weekly. I will continue to champion these parks and do my part to pick up litter there.
Perhaps you have a favourite place you like to visit—a local stream, river, park or beach. The wildlife and the trees and the water will thank you for your efforts.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.