Plastic straws aren’t the only environmental contaminants missing the trash can, or, rather, the recycling bin.
As companies such as Starbucks move away from plastic straws, environmental advocates say these items aren’t the worst litter offender.
“Straws are getting a lot of news, but on a volume basis, straws are literally … a drop in a bucket,” Noah Ullman, CMO of Keep America Beautiful, told USA TODAY.
The national nonprofit works with more than 600 community-based affiliates and organizations to end litter.
Plastic straws didn’t even make it into the organization’s top five most common forms of litter, according to the group’s latest national study. Cigarette butts, paper, food wrappers, confections and napkins/tissues topped the list.
While some of these items might get into the environment by accident, experts say in most cases, people are to blame.
“The products themselves generally aren’t bad in and of themselves,” said Mark Gancy, president and CEO of Waste Zero, which leads hundreds of waste-reduction programs nationwide. “They become bad if you don’t recycle them. The worst is if they become litter.”
Here’s what you should know about some of the most common items littering our nation:
Even though smoking rates are down nationally, tobacco trash is among the most frequently littered items in America, according to Keep America Beautiful. Cigarette butts are easy to toss on the ground, especially when ashtrays aren’t nearby.
“Some people don’t consider cigarette butts litter,” said Angela Spears, communications specialist at Keep Florida Beautiful.
Spears said improperly discarded cigarette butts in Florida often end up in waterways, posing serious risks for marine life.
Discarded cigarette butts, the most commonly littered item, are seen floating near pooled water on a New York City street.
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The Ocean Conservancy collected more than 2.4 million cigarette butts with plastic filters along the world’s beaches and waterways, according to its 2018 report. That’s enough cigarette butts to line the distance of five marathons.
Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin III, also behind the Don’t Mess with Texas litter prevention campaign, told USA TODAY cigarette butts are a repeat offender in his state, where more than $30 million a year is dedicated to trash collection along roadsides.
Most cigarette filters are made of a form of plastic that isn’t biodegradeable. So, they can remain in the environment for months or years, and are known to start wildfires.
Cigarette butts recently sparked two wildfires at Lake Tahoe, local California station KCRA reports. In 2014, an improperly discarded cigarette ignited a fire that killed four people in a New Jersey motel.
Becky Lyons, COO of Keep America Beautiful, advises smokers to keep a portable ashtray with them.
Fast food wrappers and cups
America has been called a “fast food nation,” and with that has come more fast food litter, as more and more people eat on the go and don’t properly trash their waste.
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Plastic, paper and styrofoam cups are a common find along California roadways. Mark Dinger with the California Department of Transportation said litter removal totaled about $67 million last year. Jagjiwan Grewal, acting chief of the stormwater program there, advises drivers to keep a small bag in the car for cups, wrappers and bags leftover from meals on the road.
“By doing a small due diligence, we can keep our roadways clean,” Grewal said.
Plastic bags, which can reside in the environment for at least 50 years, pose risks to the health of many birds and mammals.
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Plastic bags, both empty and full of trash, are among some of the most prevalent pieces of litter in New York, according to the New York State Department of Transportation. The department reports collecting more than 73,000 bags of trash and other litter between April 2017 and March 2018.
Joseph Morrissey, a spokesperson for the department, encourages drivers to “keep trash inside their vehicles.”
Plastic bags – actually, plastic of any kind – is also a huge problem in coastal areas such as Brevard County, Florida, where advocates report turtles, birds and sea mammals eating the litter, which can clog animals’ digestive tracts, Spears said.
Tossing food on the ground is much different than tossing it in a compost.
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Some don’t realize that by tossing an apple core out the window, they are littering. While food might break down faster than plastics, Austin noted the act of leaving it outside of a trashcan is still considered illegal in many states, Texas included. Aside from making areas dirty, leftover food can also attract animals to busy roadways, which poses serious risks to the animals and motorists.
Other common litter offenders:
- Gum wrappers
- Plastic bottles
- Beverage cans
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