One of the biggest struggles public parks and outdoor recreational areas face is actually one of the simplest – managing litter.
Local environmental planners say the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped matters, either.
Littering has spiked tremendously within the past year due to pandemic precautions since venturing outdoors remains one of the safest ways to socially distance.
“People are going outside more because of social distancing, and people are producing more trash with more take-out orders and Amazon boxes,” said Alaina Wood, environmental planner for the First Tennessee Development District and executive director of Keep Jonesborough Beautiful.
As COVID-19 restrictions carry on, so does the surge of single-use plastics, which when not properly disposed of, become one of the biggest sources of litter. Litter isn’t just limited to take-out garbage, though. From beverage cans and food containers to cigarette butts and even banana peels, litter constitutes any discarded item, manmade or not.
One trouble spot in particular for illegal litter and trash dumping in east Tennessee has been Washington County’s Buffalo Mountain Park.
Wood said a variety of waste is continuously being dumped there, including “fast food bags and cups, household trash and even tires”.
According to an article by National Geographic, tires are amongst one of the most common plastic polluters on earth, accounting for as much as 10% of overall microplastic waste in the world. With this knowledge, Wood made an extra effort to extract them from the park.
Wood worked with Environmental Stewardship Coordinator Channing Taylor to organize a removal of the discarded tires last fall. The FTDD and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership filled two 30-yard roll-off dumpsters to the brim with the collected tires.
Affiliates of both Keep Tennessee Beautiful and Keep America Beautiful, along with conservation groups like the Boone Watershed Partnership, do their best to keep the location clean but are always looking for local volunteers to lend a hand.
Wood said in order to keep the public lands unpolluted, more people and more groups will have to come together and care.
The volunteers of Keep Carter County Beautiful are also doing their part in reviving the natural world, as they partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and KTB in a successful Watauga Lake cleanup in early February.
With the help of 15 volunteers and assistance from organizer Kathleen Gibi of KTNRB, KCCB was able to remove 3,202 pounds of trash out of the lake and surrounding shores in a single day.
Alongside disposable gloves and masks, KCCB Chairman Ed Jordan said they found an unlimited supply of foam containers, with “one block weighing an estimated 150 pounds.”
Education may be the key to preventing litter.
“Unfortunately, there has been an increase of litter throughout Northeast Tennessee since the pandemic started,” said Jordan. “We are working hard to educate and reach out to the litter bugs via social media awareness programs.”
KCCB found that people above the age of 50 are more likely to litter, and less likely to change their habits. Statistics also show that the more people litter, the more other people’s behavior changes, and they litter too.
“We need more support from our local law enforcement and state legislators to reinforce the anti-litter laws already in our Tennessee books,” said Jordan. “We have not fared very well and much more work needs to be done in this area.”
Much like the FTDD, KCCB is always looking for more helping hands. With the amount of cleanup and beautification programs Jordan has scheduled for the spring under CDC rules and guidelines, additional volunteers will be greatly appreciated.
Alongside volunteering, another way to help out the community and the environment is to consistently practice Leave No Trace ethics, something both Wood and Jordan implement into their daily lives.
The seven Leave No Trace principles provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone adventuring outdoors. The principles include planning ahead and preparing, traveling and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, leaving what you find, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting wildlife and being considerate of other visitors.
Wood said she has even made it a habit to never leave her house without extra gloves and garbage bags just in case she needs to dispose of her trash or someone else’s.
Litter scattered about recreational vicinities is not just unsightly, though. It can have serious environmental consequences that persist for decades. A Styrofoam container can take more than one million years to decompose and break down, a disposable diaper can take more than 500 years, a cigarette more than 10 and even a banana peel can take more than a month.
Properly disposing of a plastic water bottle after a hike or volunteering at a community cleanup are the first steps toward preventing one of the most prevalent problems in outdoor recreational spaces – and some of the simplest, too.