Conservation Corner: Celebrate Earth Day the Right Way

By Jacob Kowal

Seeing trash on the ground has sadly become the new normal for society today. From debris as small as cigarette butts to items as big as a car tire, people have lost their way in keeping our planet clean. In the U.S. alone, over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways a year, that’s about 6,729 items per mile. At first, this impossible, but the majority of the trash (roughly 46.6 billion pieces) is less than four inches wide, so the human eye skips over it.

Here are some of the most littered items and how long they take to decompose in the environment.

  • Cigarette butts: 18 months – 10 years
  • Plastic bottles: 450 – 1000 years
  • Aluminum cans: 80 – 100 years
  • Plastic shopping bags: 10 – 1000 years
  • Plastic straws: 200 years

Given these statics, you can see that unless these items are thrown away properly or are cut out of our everyday lives completely, they will be here for generations to come. The question is though, how can you help? Cutting back on single-use plastic is a great way to take your first step into being more eco-friendly. Of course you need your Starbucks coffee in the morning, but do you really need that single-use cup or straw? Use a reusable cup, and it will save you 10 cents each time you get coffee at Starbucks, and you’ll help save more than 1.5 million pounds of paper a year.

A shocking 390 million plastic straws are used every day in the U.S. That is an alarming rate that can easily be cut down by just skipping or using a reusable straw. From a personal perspective, the average individual uses 1.6 straws a day. By skipping the straw, on your own, you can cut down 584 plastic straws that could harm an array of wildlife. To find other ways you can cut down on plastic, check out the Green Education Foundation website on tips to use less plastic.

Reducing your use of plastic is just one part of how you can make a difference on Earth Day. In 2017 an app called Litterati was created to bring awareness of the copious amount of litter around the world. The idea is when you see a piece of trash you take a picture of it, upload it to the Litterati app–which uses geo-tagging to track the location of where you uploaded the photo, then lastly add tags to the photo–such as straw, bag, and even Taco Bell. Yes, Taco Bell. In Oakland California, Litterati data showed that on one particular block the majority of trash was Taco Bell’s single-use plastic hot sauce packets, many of which were not even open. Making these companies aware of where their product is ending up can help them figure out a way to avoid impacting the environment negatively. For example, inside the store instead of having sauce packets for people to grab, they could instead offer sauce dispensers. In the drive-throughs, only give out the sauce packets if they are requested and make sure that it is not a handful. The app isn’t just for bringing awareness to large corporations either. A group of 5th graders picked up 1,247 pieces of trash on their campus. They identified plastic straw wrappers as the most common type of litter and brought it up to the school, which then stopped giving out straws. It might be just one school, but it represents years of waste the students stopped. Litterati is available in the App Store and Google Play Store.

If you are looking to make an immediate impact on Earth Day, take part in the #TrashTag Challenge. The #TrashTag Challenge is as simple as finding an area covered in trash and cleaning it. This could be a beach, lakefront, even your local bus stop. Take a photo of the area before you start picking up the trash then get to work. After the area is completely free of trash and you have your trash bags piled up, take a picture and post the before and after to social media using #Trashtag. The world thrives on social challenges, and this is one that we can all get behind.

So, this Earth Day, celebrate by taking that small step to being more eco-friendly. Whether it’s skipping the straw or cleaning an entire beach, every action counts.

Before clean-up.
After clean-up!