Trash Nation

By Rea, Kimberly | Parks & Recreation, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Trash Nation


Rea, Kimberly, Parks & Recreation


Learn how to prevent your public lands from being trashed.

In recent years the nation has turned into a trash dump. It has become quite common to drive down the road, and see the person in a car in front of you throwing out a hamburger wrapper or other debris. Each piece of trash contributes to the problem and our environment suffers.

It is hard to imagine why a person would take a truck load of garbage and decide to dump that garbage in the middle of a recreation area, campground, trailhead, river, lake or other natural public area. Most people would not back into their neighbors' driveways and dump their trash, so why do so many people think it is okay to throw trash out the window of a moving car or dump garbage on public lands?

Illegal dumping and littering on public lands is a serious problem across the country. Not only does it detract from the beauty of the landscape, it also causes health problems and environmental hazards.

Attracting rodents and pests and polluting our rivers and lakes, dumping has become everyone's problem. On any given day, recreation professionals working for agencies across the nation find tires, refrigerators, paint cans, yard waste, construction materials, toilets, bath tubs, batteries, oil cans, asbestos and a multitude of other items.

In contrast to some public opinion, public lands are not the preferred areas for dumping of the aforementioned items. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified many of these items for special disposal. Proper removal can be costly to the agencies recovering the items, and can require additional manpower and equipment causing reduction in public services. For example, from 1993 to 2003, the Kentucky Division of Waste Management reported more than $51.8 million was spent to clean up more than 21,000 illegal dump sites. In 2003, the Kentucky Forest Service was slated to spend about $30,000 to cleanup 25 illegal dump sites along the Trinity River. These and similar projects take an estimated two weeks to complete and divert funds that could be used to improve recreational facilities.

The U.S. is the world leader in solid waste, producing 236 million tons of garbage in 2003. This is an increase of 148 million tons since 1960. According to the EPA, the average human has doubled his production of garbage since 1960, producing 4.5 pounds a day. So it is no surprise that we have serious littering and dumping problems.

The mentality that one piece of trash won't hurt is a problem that we must overcome if we are to be successful in changing the tide and making the public aware and accountable for its negative impacts on our environment. (see sidebar on page 120).

In an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental program for fifth grade classes, one young lady raised her hand and said she didn't see what the problem was with throwing trash on the ground, and could not see the difference between trash in a landfill and trash in a public area.

Shocked? I was the ranger who had to respond to that fifth grader and her class. We must make our youngsters aware of the negative impacts littering and dumping can have on our environment if we hope to decrease this problem in the future.

Stephen Stone, natural resources park ranger with the Army Corps, says dumping is a major problem at his project, the Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System in Louisiana. According to Stone, catching the people responsible is almost impossible. On one occasion, rangers found a large dump of old shingles and parts from a car, including a hood with a vehicle identification number that was traced back to the violator. The man was given 24 hours to clean up the dump and provide a receipt verifying that he had properly disposed of the garbage.

Corps of Engineers projects across the nation as well as other local, state and federal agencies face the same challenges as Stone and his colleagues. In many cases, violators who are caught are made responsible for the cleanup of their dumps.

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