/Our roadside shame

Our roadside shame

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

The exceptionally late arrival of winter’s snow has covered up Canada’s dirty little secret: We are not holier than other countries when it comes to garbage. Especially the garbage we toss from our vehicles and onto our roadways.

Some years back the Newfoundland/Labrador government counted trash at select road sites and estimated there are 92 million pieces of litter on its roads and highways.  

There does not appear to be any accurate or coherent studies for Canada-wide road litter, but you can bet the numbers run into the many millions. A 2020 national litter study in the U.S. found that country produces 24 billion pieces of roadside litter every year.

Lack of snow in November and December left roadsides and leafless forest edges exposed, revealing toss-out litter usually covered by snow. The number of bottles, cans, takeout coffee cups and other assorted litter spotted along popular highways such as 117, 118 and 35 was shocking.

Roadside litter is not just unsightly. It is dangerous. 

Food scraps in litter attract animals onto roads. Cyclists often swerve into traffic lanes to avoid it.

Studies have found that roadside debris is responsible for thousands of traffic accidents every year.

And, it’s bad for the environment. Cigarette butts, small as they are, are toxic and often end up contaminating streams, ponds and lakes. 

These butts are made of cellulose acetate, a man-made plastic that contains hundreds of toxic chemicals, including arsenic. Butts now are considered the most abundant form of plastic waste in the world with an estimated 4.5 trillion butts polluting our environment. 

There is no shortage of writing and talking about the problem, but it continues year after year. This coming spring, volunteer groups will be out picking up and bagging roadside trash, but as soon as they are done more bottles, cans and bags will be tossed from vehicle windows.

Trying to keep up with roadside trash costs us all money, despite the volunteer efforts. Various governments have litter cleanup programs that cost taxpayers millions of dollars. 

Exact figures for Canada are hard to find but researchers in the U.S. estimate annual cost of cleaning up litter is $11 billion. 

Policing littering is difficult, expensive and ineffective. The Ontario Provincial Police issue roughly 200 littering tickets a year and fines usually are not significant enough to deter others.

The greatest challenge related to roadside littering is how to stop it. It’s a cultural problem in which people simply do not realize the damage that can be caused by tossing garbage out their vehicle window. 

When someone tosses debris from a speeding vehicle it has no effect on their life. It is gone and no longer something they have to deal with. They figure it will be picked up by someone, likely a government worker or volunteer.

Some countries are seeing littering as a serious social problem that they are addressing through “trash doesn’t touch the ground” programs. In Kigali, Rwanda, for instance, all able-bodied persons of working age spend three hours once a month tidying up the city.

Research has shown that well-placed and regularly-serviced waste bins are a major help in reducing littering. Also, the cleanliness or messiness of an area has a major effect on littering. A major 1990 psychological study found that littering more than doubles in areas already littered.

Professionals who study such matters say the key to reducing roadside litter is to create more campaigns to help people realize the damage it causes. They say more school programs are needed to teach children how littering is socially unacceptable and that anti-littering campaigns evoke community pride and create more responsible citizenship.

Some research shows that educational campaigns can reduce littering by 50 per cent. 

Canadian attitudes about garbage in general go far beyond roadside litter. Each of us generates about 2.7 kilograms (six pounds) of garage each day, according to the Conference Board of Canada. That agency has said Canadians produce more garbage than any other country and ranks it 15th among 17 developed countries studied for environment efficiency.  

We need to start realizing that our planet earth is not a garbage can, despite the fact that our roadsides often look like one.