By Carrie Hovey
Caring about our environment is a reflection of how much we care about ourselves. Litter is ugly, inconsiderate, dangerous, damaging, caustic and disrespectful. It is a reflection of how people feel about themselves and others. Taking pride in our surroundings and caring for the world around us is an important step toward healing and growing as a people and a culture.
Nothing makes me sadder and madder than seeing litter when I drive, bike, kayak or walk. We could pick it up everyday and there would still be more. Keep America Beautiful, and its state and county chapters, as well as other community organizations, have regular cleanup events. The sheriff’s offices along with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, regularly have prisoners picking up litter along the highways. There’s always more litter. One result of these reactive approaches is that it gives people an excuse to be irresponsible, thinking “someone else will clean it up.”
On top of that, along came COVID-19 with health and safety guidance further exacerbating the litter problem by introducing many more single-use disposables.
We need to shift and support proactive ways to prevent littering behavior from happening. How do we do that? How do we encourage people to care? At a base level, many people react and behave differently only when there is something in it for them. Sometimes that is financial related but not always.
Incentives need to be easy both in implementation and accessibility. We need to be able to recycle all recyclable items—all plastics (not just 1 and 2), glass, metal, cardboard, paper and others consistently. Eliminate plastic shopping bags in favor of reusable bags. Promote ways to refill food and drinks, in Europe many people bring bottles and containers to stores that sell in bulk. Sodastream was a great idea that didn’t take off because they eliminated many of the flavors. The concept – to make your own sparkling and soda drinks affordably at home in reusable bottles – was innovative. Fast food restaurants could offer discounts for people who bring their own bottles for drinks.
In conjunction, there needs to be actual enforcement of litter laws. Carter County is starting to prosecute and fine people for littering. But there needs to be places for people to bring trash as well – tires, appliances, furniture, hazardous waste, brush and more – to avoid dumping.
All these ideas require industry to be able to reduce, reuse, recycle and manage waste. Supporting and incentivizing businesses who create solutions is a key component.
State and local governments need ways to bring these solutions to their communities without significant financial costs that would create burdens.
We need to shift people’s perspectives to stop littering before it happens.
To learn about one initiative trying to do just that, visit tennesseeCLEANact.org.
A resident of Erwin, Carrie Hovey serves as the vice president of Keeping The Valley Beautiful, Unicoi County, and she is a board member of Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park.