As such, we are regularly asked why we don’t do more to prevent litter from finding its way into our waterways in the first place.
The West Michigan Environmental Action Council is not involved in any litter-prevention programs at this time, per se. We do work hard to encourage recycling and composting, but our primary interest there is to divert waste from landfills and into a stream that will capture a greater value for our community. In this context, we view litter as a symptom of a larger waste problem, not the problem itself.
To a large degree, litter is more of a law enforcement issue than it is a matter of environmental education and/or advocacy. People that litter regularly or in large quantities due so with impunity.
There is not any of the moral ambiguity surrounding litter that there is around many of the other issues we work on. People know they're not supposed to litter; it is literally a crime. When people do, it’s generally because they think it's a victimless one.
This is how the Grand River Green Up helps to educate the community. It is a means to reshape people’s perception on water issues and highlight the cumulative impacts of litter and water pollution — if everyone throws away just one item per year, that's a lot of items.
One of the most important impacts of our cleanups is that it connects people to their water resources and gets them personally invested in keeping them clean. We believe that for every pound of trash we pick up, we’re going to prevent a couple more pounds, and who knows what else, from getting there in the first place.
If you give up your Saturday morning to go pick up trash with us, you’re going to do more than haul off a couple bags of refuse. One, you’re going to start thinking about how you’re impacting our water resources — and not just litter, but in what you put down the drain or on your lawn, and how much water you use.
You might even buy a rain barrel or start using organic fertilizers — something like that.
Two, you’re almost certainly going to tell your family, friends, colleagues and classmates how you spent your Saturday morning, and they’re going to start thinking about these things, too.
What’s more likely to get you to stop littering? Someone like me telling you not to? Or hearing that a friend of yours had to clean it up?
So, what are we doing to prevent litter? We’re picking it up!
Of course, some of the trash we clean up does get there via honest mistakes, things falling out of backpacks or curbside trash cans tipping over. That’s a harder one to address, but we’ve got some ideas.
On the other extreme, people that litter in large amounts risk felony arrest in many local communities. On one occasion, our clean-up efforts actually resulted in a felony arrest for an individual that chose the wrong time to dump a load of broken TVs in the woods.
In a way, litter is clearly a symptom of a larger problem. Very nearly every item we pick up would offer a real financial benefit to our community if it had been recycled (or composted) instead of thrown away. We’ll actually be cashing in the metal for its scrap value before the day is out.
We’re rapidly entering an age of resource scarcity. For reasons both economic and financial, we need to be squeezing every last drop of value out of the resources we use.
To really clean up litter, we must close the waste cycle. Recycle, reduce, reuse, compost. Reinvent.
But we’re going to start with picking up the Grand River.
— By Daniel Schoonmaker, the director of member services for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.