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Everyday Environmentalist

Don't Litter & Pick Litter Up

"Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year."

Haley A. Wilhite, philanthropy assistant for The Nature Conservancy in Florida

By Haley A. Wilhite

Most people today are aware of the more typical ways to become an "Everyday Environmentalist" — use compact fluorescent bulbs, get energy efficient appliances, try to commute on foot or by bicycle.

But that awareness doesn’t seem to be translating into green actions. Based on the latest Harris Poll, only 3 percent of all Americans have switched to energy-efficient light bulbs; and only 4 percent have taken steps to reduce their utility useage.

So maybe it's time to do something even smaller, something with a rich tradition — like not littering and picking up litter where you find it.

Litter is Still a Problem

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2006 every person in the United States generated 4.6 pounds of waste per day.

But only 32.5 percent of that was recovered and recycled or composted, while 12.5 percent was burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 55 percent ended up in landfills…or not.

For instance, the Independent (a U.K. newspaper) reported in February 2008 that a "plastic soup" of waste twice the size of the continental United States is floating in the Pacific Ocean — and growing at an alarming rate. Four-fifths of this 100 million tons of trash has come from land.

The United Nations Environment Programme reports that plastic debris causes the deaths of more than 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year.

In fact, Keep America Beautiful, a volunteer-based action and education organization, found that 18 percent of all littered items end up in streams and waterways as pollution. And a fire starts somewhere in the world every 12 minutes because of litter.

Pick Up Litter — On Your Own or in a Group

Keep America Beautiful has a list of things you can do to prevent litter — from adopting a spot in your town to keep litter-free on a regular basis to giving out litter bags at events.

Or you can do what I do: Anytime I see trash, I simply pick it up. Then I find the nearest actual trash receptacle (or preferably a recycling can) and dispose of it.

It’s something I’ve been doing ever since I was a kid growing up in a small Tennessee town. To occupy my time, I would pick up the litter on my street to keep it looking beautiful.

As I grew up, I realized that telling my friends to keep a small trash bag in their vehicle kept them from throwing litter out the window (at least while I was riding with them). And today, I just utilize whatever I have — a tissue, a bag, an empty cup in the car — to pick up litter and dispose of it correctly.

Take Litter Personally

As a long-time environmental steward of the Earth, my personal mission has been to clean-up litter wherever I can. I also share this mission with others, especially my own friends and family.

For many years I have served as an advocate against littering. Any person who has spent time with me knows if I’m around, you’re not going to throw that gum wrapper on the ground and get away with it!

So whether I’m just walking in and out of a business or riding down the road, I always try to do my part to keep our environment tidy.

Sure, it's very small — but it's a start. And the price to nature of not doing it is all too clear.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent those of The Nature Conservancy. 

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