Have you noticed those people with blue and purple bags, picking up litter at the park on a Saturday in April? Are those litter-removers actually doing anything to help the environment, or are they just making our greenspaces a little prettier?
Good question! Litter bugs a lot of people, and in Frogtown, especially, there’s a lot of it. But as volunteers flock to our city’s Earth Day park cleanups, it’s worth asking whether an hour or two spent picking up litter does much to fend off the most serious impacts of climate change.
After all, climate change is already hitting our neighborhoods pretty hard. Remember the heat wave and drought last July? Get ready for hotter summers, if we don’t plant a lot more trees on our streets decimated by ash tree removals. Are you finding water in your basement this spring? Get ready for more of the same, unless the city installs more rain gardens and breaks up more pavement. And what about rising gas prices? They will continue to rise, if we don’t slow our demand for fossil fuel.
Given all these worries, it’s tempting to put litter pick-up on the low priority list. But here’s why litter does matter. Reducing litter actually has a direct impact on climate change.
Proper disposal of litter…
• …reduces global warming. Decomposing trash gives off harmful gases that hurt the atmosphere, like methane — a greenhouse gas that’s 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfills have their emissions regulated by the EPA, and compost piles turn food scraps into useful soil. But there’s no way to regulate methane from the carelessly strewn French fries and hamburger leftovers from a discarded fast-food meal.
• …decreases plastic pollution. We’ve all seen those pictures of turtles choked by six pack rings, or birds caught in plastic bags. Each year, an estimated 17 billion pounds of plastic flows into the ocean — the great majority is from land-based sources including plastic bottles, bags, and straws. One result? Micro-bits of plastic make their way back into our food supply and water, and eventually into our bodies.
• …leads to cleaner soil and water. The arsenic and formaldehyde in one discarded cigarette butt taints the soil; an entire ashtray’s worth of butts poisons the earth enough to stunt nearby plants.
• …gives us purer air. Tempted to burn collected litter or yard waste? Don’t be. For one thing, smoke from burning household garbage is dangerous to your health. Burning trash is also against the law in Ramsey County. Even those backyard bonfires we all love should be kept short and sweet.
The sad , post-pandemic truth is that items designed to keep us healthy can make us sick when they are discarded carelessly: This year’s litter harvest is likely to include a bumper crop of face masks and plastic gloves, leftover signs of the pandemic months (and years) we are finally putting behind us.
Litter breeds more litter. Research shows that people are more likely to intentionally toss litter in an area that is already garbage-strewn. (They’re also more likely to litter when there are no garbage cans nearby.) So, when you see those people with their blue and purple bags, this is the year to join them!
Frogtown Green is a volunteer-powered initiative to build green beauty in the Frogtown neighborhood. We plant trees, cultivate gardens and work toward a healthier environment. If you’d like to know more, our website is frogtowngreen.com and our phone is 651-757-5970.
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