Typical Roadside Litter
A pastime that I share with my father we both affectionately call ‘canning.’ Essentially, the process of canning means either taking a walk or cruising country roads by bicycle looking to collect returnable bottles and cans strewn along a roadside. The benefits of canning are two-fold in that it provides an incentive for outdoors exercise while it simultaneously cleans up the streets of litter. And, thanks to Michigan’s bottle bill, there is a financial incentive to canning as well, which puts a refundable 10-cent deposit on all beer and soda cans and bottles. Though ten cents for a single can may not seem like very much, over the course of an outing it does add up.
With concerns over transmission of the Coronavirus, Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered all bottle redemption centers closed starting March 24. Automatic bottle returns were not mandated to reopen until June 15, after it was determined that recycling is not a primary driver of disease transmission (in fact, the most dangerous thing you can take into a grocery store during a pandemic is yourself). In the 82 days that Michigan bottle returns were closed, it was estimated that Michiganders collected over $80,000,000 in unredeemed bottle deposits, as the number of unredeemed containers grew by an estimated $7,000,000 each week. At ten cents a pop for a can, that means at one point Michiganders’ had over 800 million cans sitting in their basements and garages! The sheer number of containers alone is staggering, but as a grocery store employee it comes as no surprise as daily I see the overwhelming capacity of beer and soft drinks that are bought and continuously restocked.
Anticipating the impending closure of the bottle returns, I deposited my final pre-closure collection of cans on March 23, just in time for the shutdown. I redeemed a modest sum, a little over $20, which is typical for just a couple weeks of collecting. This meant that during the Coronavirus shutdown, my dad and I would have a fresh start for can collecting so we could visually see just how many cans would pile up on our collection outings during the closure. Even though most grocery store bottle returns had reopened by June 15, the vast number of unredeemed containers created a nightmarish bottle-return backlog. It was not until much later that I finally redeemed all the cans we had collected during the shutdown, mostly due to waiting out the Black Friday-esque rush to redeem cans in the weeks following reopening, coupled with a $25 daily limit on redemption slips. Not to mention that the sheer number of cans I collected would not have even fit in my car (unfortunately, I neglected to take even a single picture of the epic bounty!).
It was not until July 8 that I had finally finished returning my three-ish huge garbage bags full of cans. That totals 107 days of collecting. Total value of redemption: $156.20. That equates to 1,562 cans and bottles total! (not to mention all the cans and bottles not redeemed for cash because they were either not acceptable brands or they were too mangled to be accepted by the machine. So this estimate will ultimately be on the low end!).
If we analyze this on a per day basis, this number comes out to nearly 15 cans per day! (14.6 cans to be precise).
Of course, my household did generate some of the cans in our collection. If we subtract our portion of the cans, with a simple estimate of 2 cans per household member per week (we don’t drink a lot of beer or pop), we end up with (15 weeks x 3 people x 2 cans/week/person) = 90 cans, or $9. Not a significant percentage of the bounty (6 percent).
So, excluding my household’s cans leaves 1,472 bottles and cans that were scattered by the roadside, strewn across parking lots, or generally improperly disposed of. In terms of the environment, this is 1,472 pieces of easily recyclable material that instead ended up as unwanted litter!
Michigan’s bottle bill, passed in 1976, put a ten-cent deposit on non-reusable beverage containers. Similar to other environmental legislation of the 1970’s, Michigan’s bottle bill was aimed at reducing trash pollution, conserving natural resources, and increasing the rate of recycling. Among the ten states that currently have bottle bills, Michigan has long had the highest deposit price (being joined only in 2018 after Oregon increased their deposit to ten cents as well). With that higher deposit comes the highest rate of container recapturing: prior to 2018, each year the bottle bill was implemented saw over 90% of beverage containers redeemed. It could be argued that the current trend of falling redemption rates is due to inflation decreasing the value of beverage container refunds; in 2020 dollars, the ten cents paid in 1976, the year the bill was enacted, would be worth about 45 cents today. Perhaps it is time to raise the required deposit to keep up with inflation.
Though Michigan’s recycling rate has fallen slightly as of late, we still lead the nation in terms of container recycling. Unfortunately our national recycling rate is at a disappointing 34.5%, which lags behind many other developed countries. Other states have had trouble passing bottle bills of their own, even though they face substantial litter problems. Tennessee, for example, had bottle bills die in legislation in both 2009 and 2010, even though recycling rates in the state are an abysmal 10 percent and discarded bottles and cans make up the majority of roadside litter. Indeed, the Container Recycling Institute says that beverage containers account for between 40-60% of litter. More states might enact bottle return bills if it wasn’t for the powerful lobbying interests of the can and beverage manufacturers who spend hefty sums to fight such legislation.
So we’ve seen that the ten-cent container deposit in Michigan really does boost recycling rates. But what happens to the deposits on the containers that are never returned? Remember, Michiganders place deposits on approximately 70 million cans each week. Where do the deposits from the 10 percent of containers that are never returned go?
Unredeemed funds from bottle deposits are called escheat funds, and these monies revert to the state. Twenty-five percent of escheat funds go towards retailers to defray the costs of operating bottle redemption sites. The remaining 75 percent of escheat funds goes towards environmental protection measures, which include site-specific environmental clean-up (80%), educational programming on pollution prevention (10%), and deposits into the Cleanup and Redevelopment Trust Fund (10%). The Michigan bottle bill generates around six million dollars each year in escheat funds for the environment.
So every time that you purchase a bottle of beer in Michigan, maybe you should stop and appreciate that the ten cents tacked on to your receipt is helping Michigan’s environment. Not only has the bottle bill increased recycling and decreased litter, it also generates funding for environmental cleanup that is paid for (in large part) by people who litter. Though, as evidenced from the falling rate of container redemption in Michigan, and from my recent collection of 1,472 littered cans, there is still a lot of improvement to do. Michigan could further incentivize recycling by increasing the amount of the required bottle deposit. To combat the abundance of single-use plastic water bottles thrown away, Michigan could consider joining states like Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New York, and Oregon that require a deposit on bottled water containers. And another common roadside polluter is liquor bottles; liquor is not included in Michigan’s bottle bill, but liquor containers have a 15-cent deposit in the states of Maine and Vermont. Until society reaches a point where there is no more litter and we recycle purely because it is the right thing to do, my dad and I will continue to enjoy the 10-cent per bottle perk every time we go pick up litter off the roadside.
At camp there is a magical box. It’s a magical box because the more trash that gets put into it, the cleaner camp becomes. This box is known as our Trail Trash, a motley collection of litter odds and ends found scattered across the camp property.
Though our camp may be on an expansive forested area in a natural setting, it doesn’t mean that litter isn’t produced here. Quite the contrary, actually, as our camp plays host to a multitude of 5th graders over the course of a few days for their environmental education. With ten year olds, a whole compilation of stereotypical litter materializes on the ground seemingly out of nowhere—candy wrappers, chip bags, plastic toys. The vast amount that gets dropped is tremendous, as if every 5th grader’s pocket leads directly to the ground. At camp, we can forgive this incidence of litter with magnanimity because the students are young and still learning to look after themselves and their surroundings. Thus, when leading a group of students through camp, I always keep my eyes peeled on the ground for those teachable moments inherent in litter. If I am inspiring and unyielding enough about picking up litter, then after every class I lead the students will have collected for me a few pocketfuls of trash to add to the Trail Trash bin.
I don’t like to think of litter as inevitable, but it is a part of life that must be dealt with. Even with the best of intentions, we all unknowingly litter. Things fall out of our pockets, or get sucked out the car window. We fumble a wrapper that is immediately swept up by a breeze. Something slips from our grasp and drops irretrievably into a crevice. We forget about things we’ve left outside, and before we can remember they have been lost to the entropy of the environment. I have littered in these ways a lot—countless times, in fact. Like death and taxes, it seems that litter is one of the few guarantees of life. But the inevitability of litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about it.
This is why we so strongly encourage and model the responsibility of picking up litter at camp. Ultimately, the vast majority of trash on our camp is produced by our campers. Through the practice of picking up trash instead of blithely walking past it, students become involved in the solution of cleaning up their own environment (though they likely don’t even realize that they are the ones making it dirty in the first place). Our students learn that it is not only environmentally unacceptable—but also socially unacceptable—to cast unwanted items into the environment. They learn that when throwing something ‘away’, there really is no away. From the trash the students pick up, they can visually see that the litter on the ground stays on the ground and continues to get trampled into the dirt until someone takes the initiative to pick it up.
I love referencing the Trail Trash bin at camp because it gives me great satisfaction to pick up litter and then deposit a handful of it into the bin, continually watching the level of trash rise. The bin provides a clear visual demonstration of our human impact on our hyper-local environment. The same sentiment towards trash compels me to pick up litter in other areas where I find myself as well, not just when I’m leading children at my job. Having lived and traveled to many places, I have seen firsthand how litter is a problem everywhere. Rubbish is just casually tossed aside to join the ranks of other discarded items on the wayside, and few places have advocates championing for their cleaning. Maybe not everyone feels the same way about litter as I do. Maybe not everyone knows better either. But trash is trash nonetheless.
Litter is a form of pollution, but unlike some forms of chemical or radioactive pollution, litter is something that we can tangibly handle. It is a visual presence as well, the results of trash being immediately observable to the onlooker. There is really no excuse for the amount of litter in our society where we all should have learned better. But just taking a look down any old highway or around any old vacant lot, one will see that we still haven’t acted any differently. Litter is the low-hanging fruit of pollution. It is everywhere. It takes no specialized equipment to clean up. If our goal is to clean up our environment in all forms, maybe we can start small. We can start with the pollution that’s the most obvious and unsightly and close to home. We can challenge ourselves to pick up trash instead of walking over it. Maybe then, more people will begin to be interested in solving some of our more troublesome pollution problems.
Since I absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment from picking up litter, I recently went to a trash clean-up event along the Cape Cod Canal in honor of Earth Day. Along the canal runs a narrow linear park with open space and a recreational trail popular with residents and tourists alike. For an organized clean-up area, the canal was in pretty good shape to begin with. In order to find trash, the volunteers had to scramble down onto the rocks which line the canal and rummage through the seaweed in order to find small bits of litter. After a couple of hours of searching, I didn’t even manage to fill my large trash bag. I pulled out lots of individual pieces of trash though, but most of what came out of the weeds was small, fragmented bits of plastic—water bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette filter tips, plastic rope fragments, balloon ribbon. Though it may have not been completely satisfying to only find small bits of trash, the clean-up event was gratifying nonetheless based on the fact of what trash wasn’t there. The evidence from this clean-up meant that the bigger and uglier trash is either being picked up or not produced at all—well, at least in our well-loved public parks. What remains in the environment are the smaller, more hidden bits of trash that may not have even been intentionally disposed of improperly. This example provides some hope that we must be doing a good job educating people about not littering—at least in some places. On my drive back to camp that day, I could still see all the roadside clutter clearly visible at 55 mph. Cleaning up our recreational areas is a good start, but our less beloved areas still tend to get carelessly dumped on.
But at least picking up litter is a place to begin. I genuinely hope that someday trash won’t be such a problem in our society. I hope that someday the trash that we’re picking up now—the small, one-time use disposable plastic bric-a-brac—will be phased out of our society completely. Educating people not to litter is one challenge, but the bigger underlying challenge is to refrain from producing all that garbage to begin with.