The world is not a wastebasket

First published: August 11, 2005

Walking on the north side of DePalma Drive, in front of Northumberland Hills Hospital, sits an orange soda pop can. Not a metre later, a Tim Horton’s bagel bag lies on the grass. Centimetres along from that is a cigarette butt, then some paper scraps and an Oreo cookie bag, which looks as if might have held one or two – enough for a quick snack.

n the 100 metres leading up to the intersection of DePalma Drive and Burnham Street, a rough count finds 25 pieces of litter strewn on the grass.

It is amazing to think some people believe the world is their wastebasket. Yet, it is no surprise to Heather Nemec, the bylaw enforcement officer for the waste management department at Northumberland County. This kind of litter is nothing compared to the garbage she deals with when it comes to illegal roadside dumping

So far this year, the county has received reports of 74 instances of illegal dumping, about two to three reports per week, on everything from sofas and refrigerators to construction materials and household waste. Of those, Nemec has investigated 26, laying charges in one case. The fine would range somewhere in-between $105 to $305.

Thankfully, due to an unusual amount of co-operation between the county and local municipalities, illegal dumping is not too costly to clean up. To date, the county has spent nearly $4,000 cleaning up the mess some people leave in ditches, gullies, under bridges and down embankments along the roads within the county. This expense does not include all the time and energy roads employees and other municipal staff donates to picking up garbage they see lying around as they travel on other business.

Add to this, the cost of the bins the county supplies to the municipalities or the uncollected dumping charges the county does not collect in an effort to help local municipalities stem the tide of illegal garbage.

It is truly a bizarre mindset that allows a person to roll down a window to chuck a paper coffee cup out a window rather than waiting to get home to throw it in a garbage bag. Sure, one might try to rationalize flicking a cigarette butt out a vehicle window by saying tobacco is organic and will break down. But it never seems to occur to anyone that may take months, if not years for the paper and leaves to fully turn into soil. In the meantime, it turns our streets into a disgusting trash heap.

The trouble with the system is the difficulty in prosecuting people. Often, illegal dumping and littering takes place in anonymity. It is stunning to see the trouble people will go to in order to not pay for getting rid of garbage.

One of the most troubling aspects of illegal dumping is those people who use vacant property or undeveloped land as a instant landfill. These are the hardest to control, since the clean up is the property owner’s responsibility, not the county’s.

So unless there are witnesses who are willing to testify in court or give a sworn statement, prosecuting illegal dumping is tough.

More than anything, it is the incomprehensive arrogance that is most troubling when it comes to littering and illegal dumping. To think that none of this matters to the environment or to the wildlife is wrong. Rust, chemicals and other contaminants slowly drizzle into the water table when it rains. This eventually ends up in the water within wells or Lake Ontario, where we get our drinking water.

There is also the aesthetic argument that all the litter is just plain ugly.

In June 2004, the provincial government announced it would aim to divert 60 per cent of all waste away from landfills. During the preparation of the policy, the government told how problematic illegal dumping would become as efforts to divert waste increased. Many of the recommendations in the report are already carried out in Northumberland County, a fact we should makes us all proud.

But there are still shortcomings and illegal dumping is a tough nut to crack. Maybe the county needs to get tougher, hike penalties and offer incentives to those who report illegal dumping. It seems when people get hit in the wallet, they don’t soon forget. The urban municipalities could offer more garbage bins throughout the town, not just in major parks.

But more than anything, it is education and attitude that will win out in the end. Changing a few bad habits could make all the difference in the world.

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