It’s spring and time to get out and play. The first day was bathed in warmth as windows were thrown open to air out the dust of winter. Along with record high temperatures came clouds of tree pollen that brought back itchy eyes and stuffy noses from allergies all but forgotten. At home, spring cleaning is underway inside and out; places we collectively care about and enjoy beckon.
Friends from the city come out for the day and there is nothing like walking the wooded trails of Penrose Park, trillium spotting, beachcombing and simply breathing the fresh marine air. Here sound comes from songbirds, drumming woodpeckers and chattering eagles. The lively beauty of seabirds and marine mammals in Puget Sound with Mount Rainier is your backdrop. Yes, you live here. And you cherish it.
If you are one of those people who can’t walk past litter without wincing, compelled to pick up trash, plastic bottles and cans thrown from passing cars along your way, thank you. As much as it feels like nobody seems to care, you are not alone.
In 1960s America, an era of social and environmental consciousness awoke in part to address the impact that modern industrialized society had upon land, air, sea—and us. With it was launched a targeted campaign of public service messages that introduced our 1970s child minds to a cartoon owl speaking the slogan, “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute.”
It must have been a naturalist who observed the correlation between roadside trash and owls struck by motor vehicles at night, as the owls swoop down to capture the nocturnal rodents the litter attracts.
In another 1971 televised public service message was the iconic image of a Native American man (an actor later discovered to be Italian) overlooking a land filled with litter. The commercial ended with a close-up of a single tear running down his weathered face. Impressionable children like me cried too. And we began in grade school by collecting and bundling literally tons of old newspapers for recycling.
There are people who litter and there are people who pick up. Businesses, homeowner associations, civic groups and neighbors gather in teams for roadside cleanups on the Key Peninsula and arrange for Pierce County to pick up the bags. Volunteers from an early March KP Business Association cleanup removed 13 big garbage bags of litter in the mile and a half stretch of highway they scour several times each year.
It’s easy to spot litter trends as a walker. In my neck of the woods it’s the empties of plastic mini bottles for a single shot of liquor that far outnumber the used syringes people report. The best place to find minis and beer cans is around the corner off the highway just past where it meets the secondary road.
The Key Peninsula is surrounded by water on three sides and rainwater transports upland litter down drainage ditches and streams where it flows directly into Puget Sound.
The Ocean Conservancy reports that cigarette butts remain No. 1 on the top 10 list of items collected at shoreline cleanups, followed by food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic straws and stirrers, plastic bags, plastic grocery sacks, glass beverage bottles, beverage cans and plastic cups and plates.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1960 and 2013 the amount of waste from human consumers continued to rise in the U.S., nearly doubling the average amount of trash generated by each person from 2.68 to 4.40 pounds per day. The EPA states the most effective way to prevent marine and aquatic debris is to prevent waste in the first place.
After nearly 50 years, it is clear to me that blaming, shaming or ticketing the people who litter accomplishes little.
Pundits would have us believe that conservatives are against the very word “environment,” that climate change and industrial pollution don’t matter to them and a world dependent upon more oil production, corporate profits and lower taxes for the already rich matters most. Others would call liberals bleeding heart fools who want to sacrifice jobs to promote socialism, and bring an end to American economic prosperity with unnecessary and excessive environmental regulation.
Those are simplistic generalizations and patently false, but the reality is simple.
If you want your children to grow up drinking clean water and breathing fresh air, you are pro-environment. If you like to fish and hunt, you are pro-environment. Picking up litter or, better yet, not littering at all, is proof that you love living on the KP. It’s our home turf and we want others to respect it, and us.