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home : opinion : opinion July 25, 2021

7/12/2021 12:18:00 AM
Litter Problem: More Than a Pet Peeve
Blight upon landscape ruins beauty, affects wildlife, property values

Thomas Lark
Staff Writer


Litter has always bothered me deeply.

I’m old enough to remember Iron Eyes Cody’s anti-litter ads on television, not 50 years ago. The image of an Amerindian weeping over a formerly pristine landscape, now sadly befouled by the usurping invaders of his land, was seared into my young brain and has stayed there ever since.

Cody, of course, was actually Italian, as it turned out. But who cares? His well-intended pretense worked, and he spent his life helping Amerindians and their related causes. But that’s another topic.

And not 40 years ago, as I remember, there were adult family friends that kept plastic grocery bags, then a new invention, attached to their cars’ console cigarette lighters. Thus they didn’t litter, and their cars’ cabins stayed clean. A fine idea, as I thought, and I copycatted them for a time once I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. These days, I habitually gather up whatever junk mail, paper cups and plastic bottles may be inside my car and dispose of them properly or else put them in our recycling bins.

Would that everybody did the same. When we moved to the Stanley-area countryside three years ago, my wife, Julie, and I were much impressed by the beauty of the local landscape. Old NC-27 is a scenic route, almost like something out of the Blue Ridge Mountains with its winding curves and lined as it is with thick woods of oak, maple and pine. Seemingly every other time we drive along this route, headed for Stanley proper, we spot a white-tailed deer in the trees or crossing the road. We’ve seen solitary does, does with fawns, bucks with does and fawns and lucky bucks with a whole harem of does.

Once, I stopped the car completely to let a rafter of wild turkeys cross the road. There was no traffic, fore or aft, so I just sat there for what must have been more than a minute as a total of 20 of these Thanksgiving birds unhurriedly moseyed into the trees and disappeared. For several weeks in ’18, a turkey frequented our backyard bird-feeder, picking it clean of seeds within mere minutes. He may have been the same tom we later watched chasing a small, brown female across the backyard––his feathers splayed wide, one thing only clearly on his mind. All he needed was a miniature pilgrim hat.

Then there are the coyotes. We haven’t seen them, but on occasion, we do hear their howling at night.

Yes, it’s a green, woody and beautiful spot. But not long after coming here, we noticed that this beautiful place was sometimes, in some places, not so attractive. We were shocked to see what had been the green, litter-free Old NC-27 suddenly blighted by discarded fast-food bags, copious beer cans and bottles, countless black plastic bags of trash, rotting mattresses and more, all strewn along the shoulder.

And now there’s a new “Pleasant Valley Sunday”-style neighbourhood of several-hundred cheap homes coming in between NC-27 and Old NC-27. It abuts said beautiful woods, which Duke Power has thankfully set aside as a forest preserve. But thanks to the unfortunate spill-over of the Charlotte Effect and what I call the devel-opers, Stanley is expected to mushroom over the next several years, its population set to expand from that of a town to that of a bona fide city (communities of more than 5,000, according to the US Census Bureau’s definition).

All this of course just means more problems, only one of which will be increased litter.

What to do? Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done. Steep four-figure fines for littering don’t appear to deter enough scofflaws, and you can’t very well follow these rednecks home to browbeat ’em about their wrongdoing.

Nobody in his right mind fouls his own nest or is happy with those who do. I’ve spoken with local leaders who aren’t happy about litter either. They’ve spent Saturday mornings with their families, picking up roadside trash.

And talking of discarded beer bottles, several times in the past 18 months on Old NC-27, some idiot drunk has dropped a bottle right-bang in the middle of the road, just where someone––maybe you or me––might run over it with his tires. If you’ve ever had to change a tire in the wee hours of the morning in a pouring rain, you know what I mean. This made me so incensed, I returned to the spots with a broom and a dustpan and swept up the broken glass myself.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (or DPS), six years ago, the NC Department of Transportation spent more than $15 million to collect some 7.5 million pounds of roadside litter. That’s 3,750 tons.

The DPS further states that, quelle surprise, litter reduces property values. Tourism declines when scenic vistas are spoiled by litter.

And as you might expect, the discarded remnants of cigarettes make up some 33 percent of existing litter. These nasty things take 12 years to biodegrade, and they leak cadmium, lead and arsenic into our soil and waterways. Cigarette ends can poison children or animals that may find and eat them. They accumulate outside of buildings, on parking lots or streets. They can be washed through storm drains to streams, rivers and beaches. And of course, lit cigarettes thrown from car windows can cause forest fires.

Want to report litterers? Use the “swat-a-litterbug” form on the NCDOT Website at www.ncdot.gov. And if you see someone littering, call the highway patrol on your cellular telephone by pressing the asterisk and then “HP.”

It’s probably a problem that will always be with us. But by working together, maybe, at least to an extent, we can lick litter and trounce trash.



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