What has two legs, an apparent disregard for nature and the environment and frequently drives a car?
Every year in Canada, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of garbage are strewn along our roadways, much of it from passing motorists.
But they’re not the only culprits, for many other sources emerge as we look into this aspect of human behaviour:
- Plastics and paper blow out of carelessly-packed blue boxes on pickup day.
- Animals tear open garbage bags and homeowners won’t or don’t pick up the mess.
- Trucks spew litter from their cargo areas.
- Well-meaning homeowners take their garbage to a transfer station but don’t secure it well.
- Fast-food chains don’t have sufficient litter containers or don’t maintain them.
- Industrial and construction sites carelessly leave debris to be blown onto neighbouring properties.
- Local collection sites where we take waste for disposal are careless and wind-blown litter moves offsite.
The result is a disappointing mess along roadways and property boundaries.
In my neighbourhood near a busy regional road, most of what I see comes from blue box leftovers and debris thrown from car windows. In fact, perhaps 95 per cent comes from the latter source. Coffee cups, beer cans, fruit drink containers, tetra packs, fast-food wrappers and the like are regularly tossed out of cars.
And with COVID-19 in our lives, masks and gloves are being regularly tossed out of cars as well!
What’s to become of these materials?
The litterer clearly doesn’t care, so I have to. At least twice each year (spring and fall), like thousands of other people, my wife and I do our own litter pick stretching for about one km on each side of our regional road. We collect what we can and recycle or dispose of it with our regular garbage.
We registered with Adopt a Road officially with our local government. We do this not for recognition but to make sure that we’re safe in our endeavours and can get assistance disposing of unusual items such as tires, carpets, toilets and the like … yes these are tossed out, not only on dead-end roads but also along major thoroughfares, usually at night.
When I was a kid, Canada was clean. You rarely saw pop cans or other waste along our roads and parks. As time went by, and particularly in the last 10 to 15 years, this has changed.
I have travelled a lot and always compared Canada to other nations that don’t have mechanisms to collect and dispose of garbage. And I was proud.
Ironically, in many Third World countries the opposite has happened. Their streets are clean and litter free and ours are moving in the opposite direction. I’m not so proud anymore.
But why has this change taken place?
We have first-rate garbage collection services for everything from non-recyclable garbage, to yard waste and recyclables. Even large items can be collected if you calls the municipality to arrange pickup.
Among the few things not covered are construction waste and household hazardous waste. But even there, facilities are available for a small fee or free of charge at waste stations. So why toss it and who’s doing it?
I really can’t say and no demographic seems to fit – young or old, new to Canada or born here, men or women. All seem to be involved.
The other day, I was driving in a small town near my home and saw two women in an SUV pull over briefly just in front of me and toss a bag of garbage out the window.
I decided to follow them to their work, about one km distance. I asked them why they did this. At first they denied it but I persisted and told them I saw what they did. One finally said she was just tossing out food scraps for the birds.
I explained that food wrappers and plastic bags aren’t food for wildlife. In fact, they can do more harm if animals ingest the plastic trying to get at the food scraps.
By the way, there was no food in the bag – I went back later and picked it up.
They seemed apologetic but really didn’t get it. Why couldn’t they just take it to work or home and put it in the recycling or garbage there?
So what’s the big deal? Who really cares if our roads are messy? How can our dirty little stretch of road have any real significance in the big scheme of things?
Wildlife can and will ingest plastics and sometimes shards of glass, needles or metal as they scavenge through our food scraps and litter.
Sharp objects can also cause injury to animals if they step on these dangerous discarded materials. This can be particularly devastating to young animals that have softer foot pads and a never-ending curiosity.
If you live near a river or ditches that flood and eventually flow to larger lake or the seas, the litter is carried with the fast-moving water.
Paper and other compostables will eventually break down, but even cardboard can cover fish breeding habitats and smother eggs and invertebrate food.
Larger objects such as carpets and plastic tarps can damage large areas of habitat.
But the biggest threat seems to be small plastics and microplastics that get into our environment in the millions of tonnes.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.