It can all start with an apple core.
A driver going down the freeway tosses out an apple core and thinks nothing of it because it’s biodegradable. As it sits on the side of the road, a squirrel in a nearby tree gets a whiff and scurries over to investigate. Far above the snacking squirrel, an endangered bird of prey sees the happy rodent and decides it’s time for lunch. He swoops down, his powerful eyes on nothing but the squirrel. Just as he curls his talons to grab his morsel, a car rounds the curve and sees the bird’s mighty wings beating the air and swerves to miss hitting the majestic fowl. The car goes into oncoming traffic where a mini–van filled with pre–schoolers is on its way back from a field trip. The car hits the van and three of the youngsters suffer broken limbs while the driver’s face is scarred for life from the broken windshield.
While this may be an extreme example, it still states the message that litter kills and that’s the message Linda Shadel, director of Palmetto Pride, South Carolina’s anti–litter organization, wants people to hear.
“Littering is a crime in South Carolina,” she said. “Littering literally kills. It kills wildlife, it starts forest fires, and it pollutes water and even the air. It causes senseless destruction of nature. Littering is a crime against all of society.”
On April 13, all levels of the law enforcement departments in South Carolina joined to kick off the 2010 Zero Tolerance for Litter at a press conference on the steps of the State House. The purpose of the campaign was to unite all of the officers in the goal of educating the citizens about the litter laws and how to address and enforce them.
“The officers enforcing these laws are the muscles behind the message,” Shadel said. “There is strength in numbers, and a campaign like this brings much needed media attention to help us get the message out that litter is damaging to our quality of life.”
Whether it’s the afore mentioned apple core or a fast food bag of left over fries, trash flying from an unsecured load on a pick–up truck, or someone dumping their daily garbage in the woods, litter makes our neighborhoods and communities vulnerable to higher crimes according to Lt. James Nelson, president of the SC litter control citizens division.
“We need to come together as officers of the law and focus on litter as a criminal act rather than a nuisance,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t just cheapen a neighborhood to see trash and graffiti around, it detracts from the economic development as well.”
Captain Chris Cowan from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and a member of PalmettoPride’s statewide enforcement committee agreed with Nelson and stressed the importance of litter control and education.
“Litter and graffiti will promote vandalism and that is the beginning of the destruction of a neighborhood,” Cowan said. “All of our officers need to be aware of that these crimes lead to much bigger issues.”
One overlooked litter violation is the tossing of cigarette butts out the car window, Lt. Nelson said.
“Tobacco companies have said the butts are bio–degradable and they are,” he said. “But it can take three to five years for it to happen. And when people dump their entire ashtrays on the roadways, that’s just a crime.”
He said to educate the public takes time.
“It’s a mindset in itself,” Nelson said. “We call it ‘Gramma’s Law.’ Your grandmother told you to put things where they belong and don’t throw your toys around the house and yard. She wouldn’t have let you litter then so why do it now as an adult?”
Unsecured loads and illegal dumping are also a crime, and there are consequences, he emphasized.
“The litter laws in South Carolina state that fines range from $450 for zero to 15 pounds of litter which would include a cigarette butt or a gum wrapper, $1,000 for 16 to 500 pounds and $2,000 for more than 500 pounds.”
When people illegally dump their trash and the land owner reports it, it is treated as any other crime, and there are officers assigned to the case, Nelson said.
“We have found that litterbugs are not geniuses,” he said with a grin. “They dump their trash on someone else’s land, but they leave envelopes with addresses or credit card receipts in the bags. And a personal favorite of ours is pizza delivery box. All those boxes have a bar code on them as well as the name and address of the restaurant. We take the box to the restaurant, they run the bar code, and we get a name and address of the dumper. It’s too easy.”
There is now a litter buster hotline in effect for the public’s use sponsored by PalemettoPride. A person seeing a litterbug toss something from his car can call 1- 877-754-8837 (1-877-7-LITTER) and report the location, time, type of litter, and the litterbug’s car make and model and license number. The litterbug will get a courtesy letter from the Department of Public Safety informing them that they can’t get away with littering in our state, and if an officer sees them they could get a serious fine or even, depending on the type of litter, jail time. If the observer wants to press charges after the person is found, they can. But Nelson warned that to make a false report also carries severe consequences.
“If a person calls in a friend as a joke, they are filing a false police report and that’s a crime in itself,” he said.
While litter is an eyesore and unhealthy, Shadel wants people to remember the high cost it has for wildlife.
“When you see a bird all wrapped up in a fishing line or a hawk killed on the road beside a bag of food, it breaks my heart,” she said. “Plastic bags, the plastic rings that hold a six–pack of soda together and just about any sort of litter can be lethal to wild animals. Animals and birds are curious and they will investigate. It’s such a senseless thing. I don’t know what people who do it are thinking.”
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