News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

March 22, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Litter trashes scenery on first day of spring

A mop is an ironic piece of litter.

Someone once used it to keep floors spotless. When its utility ended, this cleaning device became trash on the edge of a road.

Apparently, the shine on a kitchen linoleum mattered more than the beauty of the Hoosier countryside to the person who dumped the mop.

On Tuesday — a gorgeous, sunny first day of spring — I walked a half-mile stretch of a quiet country road in southern Vigo County. The natural scenery was inspiring, with neatly plowed farm fields, woods, blue sky, a bridge, a stream, birds, squirrels and other critters. The only blots on the landscape were the unnatural elements — roadside litter, tossed from moving or parked vehicles. Armed with a trash bag, sturdy gloves, thick jeans and boots, I picked up a small fraction of the rubbish. The mop, which wouldn’t fit in the bag, was one of many items I didn’t pick up, for various reasons.

Most people want a personal legacy, something for their descendants to remember them by.

Throwing litter along a road is one dubious way to accomplish that.

Unless public or volunteer crews admirably pick up the garbage, some pieces could linger for decades, even centuries. Glass bottles were plentiful, ranging from empty 1.75-liter jugs of spiced rum to a half-full olive jar (probably not consumed together), and dusty beer, hard lemonade and chocolate milk bottles. It will take approximately 1 million years for those glass containers to decompose, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

Yet, the more prevalent packaging choice, judging by the litter I gathered, is plastic. They once held beer and soft drinks, chips, deli sandwiches, smokeless tobacco, rum, ice cream, sports drinks, milk, six-packs of aluminum cans, vodka and water. The good news, for folks who care about their environment, is that plastic decomposes faster than glass. The bad news? It still takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose.

Four-hundred and 50 years. The nation’s most historic buildings aren’t yet that old.

There was more, though, and much of it — like the super-sized rum jugs — would be seen by future generations as relics of a careless, unhealthy culture. Cigarette packs, both plastic and cardboard, as well as cartons, lay in the grass and gravel beside the road. The brands included L&M, Marlboro, Winston, Misty and Doral, as well as Swisher Sweets grape-flavored cigarillos. (A couple of those grape cigars remained in their film wrappers, seemingly not as tasty as they appeared on the store shelf.) Pieces of those packages could take a few months to 30 years to degrade. Cigarette butts dotted the berm, too, and they’ll last another one to five years.

The foamed gas station cups I spotted will adorn the byway for around 50 years, which is just shy of the aluminum beer and pop cans’ 80- to 200-year life expectancies.

Some items had to be heaved, not tossed, probably from a truck bed or car trunk. A toilet. A living-room-sized roll of carpet. Tires. A car’s exterior rear-view mirror. A mop.

The litter left on this particular road is not unique. None of it would surprise volunteers from more than 20 organizations that clean up roadsides through the Vigo County Adopt-a-Road program, which the county commissioners initiated in 2008.

“You would be amazed” at the types of litter found, said Niki Clark, the storeroom/ safety coordinator for the county highway department. Shoes, clothes, drug paraphernalia, mattresses. The Adopt-a-Road volunteers — equipped with county-provided safety vests, trash bags, hand-picking sticks, rubber gloves, road cones and signs — are cautioned to leave large items and illegal drug paraphernalia for county crews and authorities, Clark explained.

The cleanup volunteers represent churches, service organizations, schools, local colleges, fire departments, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Inmates from the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex assist the Vigo County highway crews, and Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said at his State of the City address that the city is now using supervised federal prisoners to clean up litter and trash dumping sites.

It’s encouraging, but also sad, those folks must use time and resources to counteract others who apparently forget that bottle of YooHoo the instant they hurl it from the window of their vehicle. Out of sight, out of mind … for them. But for the farmers and land owners and neighbors, it’s a little reminder, for the next million years.

“I guess they’re just lazy,” Clark said of the litterbugs. “I don’t know. It’s just ridiculous.”

Americans leave an estimated 51 billion pieces of trash along U.S. roadways each year, according to the Keep America Beautiful agency. That amounts to an average of 6,729 items per mile. Thirty-eight percent of litter comes from tobacco products, Keep America Beautiful reports, followed by paper (22 percent) and plastic (19 percent). Motorists account for 52 percent of litter, compared to 22.8 percent by pedestrians.

Drive-by trash tossers probably never see what they’ve left behind, often chucked from their car or truck in the dark of night. An afternoon walk with gloves and a garbage bag might — might — enlighten some.

“When people see it up close and personal, rather than at 55 miles per hour as they go by, it has a significant impact on them,” Robert Wallace, vice president of communications for Keep America Beautiful, said Wednesday by telephone from its headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

That awakening tends to happen in springtime, when people venture outdoors after winter, just as I did Tuesday. Spring-like weather arrived early this year, and Earth Day (April 22) is a whole month away. But, of course, those stray Captain Morgan bottles will still be there then.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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