Outdoors: Litter can spoil the outdoors experience

Sep. 18—Anyone around in the 1970s recalls the powerful image of the Native American with a tear streaming down his cheek as he observes the litter, trash, and other detritus of society fouling the landscape.

The Keep America Beautiful campaign was necessary back then, and it remains important today as the slovenly behavior continues.

"It is, unfortunately, kind of a human nature thing," said Brian Banbury, the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Executive Administrator who spent more than 20 years in law enforcement. "Everybody knows better, but we still see littering cases on a regular basis."

Over the last 20 months, the Division of Wildlife has issued 287 citations for littering in state parks, wildlife areas, boat launches, roadways, and natural areas. The Division of Parks & Watercraft investigated 111 cases of littering in that same time span and issued 52 citations.

Banbury said what makes littering cases distinct from the many other violations that wildlife officers encounter is that ignorance of the law is never applicable.

"Once in a while you find individuals who violate the law and legitimately didn't know about the law, but littering is the exception. Every kid six or seven years old knows you don't throw litter on the ground or in the water."

Earlier this year, a group of state agencies joined forces to take on littering in the Buckeye State with a campaign intended to focus attention on the persistent problem. The Ohio EPA, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), along with Gov. Mike DeWine, urged the citizenry to put litter in its proper place with the "A Little Litter is a Big Problem" effort.

"Litter is ugly and costly," DeWine said, alluding to the fact that ODOT has spent at least $48.6 million over the past decade to deal with litter problems along our roadways. "One of the things we can all do is help clean up litter — because a little bit of litter is a big problem."

ODOT director Jack Marchbanks said that when road crews have to deal with litter, they are pulled away from other duties essential to the safety and maintenance of our roadways. Ohio highway crews spent 151,410 hours picking up trash in 2020.

"If we can work together to reduce the amount of litter that collects on our roadways, our crews can spend less time picking up trash and more time on critical maintenance work like pothole and guardrail repairs," Marchbanks said.

Ohio's parks saw a spike in usage as people escaped the shackles of the pandemic by going outdoors, but Banbury said that increase in visitors was accompanied by more litter problems. Some of those in the crowds that sought refuge in the parks to hike, bike, swim, and camp left a trail of trash.

"The increase in littering is directly related to increased participation," he said. "We have more people visiting the parks — all of the outdoors pursuits have seen an increase."

The brazenness of some of the litter violators is hard to understand.

In one recent case at Aldrich Pond in Sandusky County, a state hunting and fishing area near Elmore, State Wildlife Investigator Jason Parr contacted an individual who was observed driving on a non-designated area and then stopping to dump out a large amount of litter. After receiving a summons, the litterbug paid $254 in fines and court costs.

While on patrol at Milan Wildlife Area near Norwalk, State Wildlife Officer Michele Butler encountered a substantial mess of litter and as she cleaned up the site, Butler found material with an address. After questioning the residents at the address, one admitted he had "cleaned out" his vehicle at the wildlife area and dumped the trash there. He paid $300 in fines.

"When we cite them, embarrassment is usually the reaction," Banbury said. "Once they've been caught, I've never had anyone argue a littering ticket. There is still a negative stigma behind littering, so they don't do it in front of people. Generally, the guy has his head down and the only reason they did it was because they thought no one was looking."

Banbury said littering remains one of the violations he finds most difficult to comprehend, since trashing a park or natural area spoils the experience for everyone, including the litterer.

"I guess as long as there are humans on this planet, we will have issues with littering, but I cant think of any reason to explain or understand litter," he said. "People go out to these natural areas, countrysides, parks, and forests, and come to these places to escape and connect with nature, and then throw their trash on the ground."

ODNR Director Mary Mertz shares that frustration. "Litter spoils our experience with nature," she said, "but we are committed to doing our part to keep our beautiful landscapes pristine."

Banbury added that littering problems tend to ebb and flow, but regardless of such behavior being socially unacceptable, some human beings fail to respect the parks and public areas we all own.

"We can write tickets and try to change behavior, but I think it probably takes everyone, teaching our kids and setting a good example," he said.

First Published September 18, 2021, 8:30am