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Don't litter where you live and work [Commentary]

Is it just me, or is the amount of garbage strewn about along roadways in Harford County and beyond getting out of hand?

The weather could be affecting my impression of the situation. I can't remember a time in my nearly five decades in Maryland when we've had noteworthy, paralyzing snow storms in each of four months in a row, but we sure got plastered this year. As a result, the ground and a fair amount of roadside litter were concealed for most of December, January, February and March. When the thaw finally came, it seems like the ground was still covered in too many places with bottles, cans, fast food wrappers and, as always, plenty of cigarette butts.

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Maybe it's that I had become accustomed to seeing the roadsides covered by heaps of dirty snow. Maybe all the snow prevented four months worth of accumulated litter from being blown to some other less conspicuous location until warm weather hit. Or maybe it's a combination.

My gut feeling, though, is littering is as much a problem in these parts as it ever has been. I'm old enough to remember the days when there were some fairly poignant campaigns encouraging people not to litter. There was one in which an American Indian was paddling his canoe through a sloppy mess of an urban waterway. It remains, so far as I know, as effective an anti-littering message as ever was produced, in part because it concludes with the stoic and physically strong-looking Indian shedding a tear at his personal inability to turn the tide against the garbage and other pollution.

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Also there were campaigns with slogans like "Don't be a litterbug" and "Give a hoot, don't pollute."

It was in those days when there was a dramatic shift among lovers of the outdoors. Going back before the late 1970s, it was regarded as perfectly acceptable, when hiking through a remote area, to burn any garbage and bury anything that didn't burn. That sentiment shifted in a big way starting in the 1980s and the phrases "pack it out" and "leave no trace" became the mantras of nature lovers. At one time, "leave no trace" even had a sister rule, "leave nothing but your footprints," but the idea of leaving footprints, especially footprints off the beaten path, is regarded in some circles as being nearly as bad as leaving a food wrapper at a campsite.

In natural areas, the "pack it out" sentiment has been a good deal more successful than I ever thought it could have been. In Maryland's state parks – at least in the day-use areas – garbage cans are rare. Go in for a picnic, bring your garbage home and dispose of it there is the rule. When it went into effect, I thought for certain, litter in the parks I frequent would increase, but instead the opposite has happened. Near as I can tell, parks with no garbage cans available for general use are cleaner than they've ever been.

I only wish I could say the same about every place else I end up traveling. Litter is routinely strewn about the roadways of Harford County. Many a civic-minded group have taken to adopting sections of state and county roads, but, unfortunately, they have no trouble filling plenty of garbage bags year after year.

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As is so often the case, the cause of the problem is easy to pick out. Comic strip legend Walt Kelly often had his characters, notably Pogo, identify the culprits using a phrase that has become part of American English: "Yup, son, we have met the enemy and he is us."

Litter, generally, is easy to ignore. A few years back there was a big rain that washed a huge slug of garbage into the Patapsco River at the I-95 bridge where it could be seen by thousands of commuters. Turns out, the problem was an old one. It wasn't that there was suddenly an increase in the amount of litter being tossed carelessly into a place other than a garbage can. The problem was nets have been put in place to catch litter when it washes into storm sewers, and from time to time they break.

In other words, it's kind of presumed litter will be tossed somewhere so it can eventually be washed into a creek or other tributary to the Chesapeake, so garbage nets are used to clean up after our collective lack of social skills.

I've long been of the opinion that a cornerstone of civilization, right up there with agriculture and access to clean water, is that everyone needs to follow the rule about not fouling the places where we eat, as summed up by a less-than-polite five-word phrase that's in common use.

On the whole, we have a pretty good system for dealing with the kind of flushable waste featured in that phrase, but our success with proper disposal of other kinds of garbage is bad and, near as I can see, getting worse.

I'm inclined to believe where the removal of public garbage cans from parks had a positive result in terms of making for clean parks, the opposite is true in the more ordinary places where we work and live. Drive through neighborhoods and commercial districts in Bel Air, Edgewood, Belcamp or most anywhere else in Harford County, and public trash cans are rare to non-existent. To their credit, many stores and restaurants have well-policed garbage cans on their properties, but finding a garbage can in close proximity to a bus stop (for kids or adults) or in a neighborhood common area is a pretty rare thing. No doubt, it's because of the taxpayer costs associated with regularly emptying such cans, but I can think of a lot less worthy things that get taxpayer funding.

While I believe more public garbage cans are part of the solution, I remain convinced that no amount of garbage cans will ever make the world a cleaner place as long as a substantial number of us are careless with our waste. It's not simply a matter of not throwing garbage out the car window. It's also making sure it doesn't accidentally get blown out the window.

It may be too much to ask of any one person, or even a dedicated group of people, to clean up all the litter that ends up along our roadsides, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect each of us to be a lot more careful with our garbage.

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