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The Litter Deficit

Thirty years later, the anti-litter movement searches for a jolt.

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“I’m a real trashy person,” she teases.

Osbourne and fellow members of the Varina Women’s Club are regulars on the anti-litter circuit. Four times a year the group holds an all-day cleanup as part of Henrico County’s beautification program, where volunteers have adopted 45 roads, 11 schools and five communities for trash pickup. This year, Osbourne and 1,770 other volunteers picked up 3,548 bags of trash across the county, says Nancy Drumheller, coordinator of the Keep Henrico Beautiful Committee.

But their efforts may be in vain.

Thirty years after Iron Eyes Cody’s single tear launched a generation of conservationists, the anti-pollution movement seems to have fallen off the public radar. Despite three decades of green activism, Americans are burning more gas, building bigger houses and creating piles of litter.

Meanwhile, the number of cleanup volunteers across Virginia is steadily declining, and anti-litter funds are shrinking.

While Drumheller and state officials lavish praise on volunteers such as Osbourne, their work barely registers a dent in the ongoing litter cycle. The state doesn’t officially track or study the depth of Virginia’s trash problem, but cleanup efforts have dipped significantly in recent years. In 2000, 121,000 volunteers participated in the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s cleanup programs, collecting 210,648 cubic yards of trash. By fiscal 2003, that number had dropped by nearly 30 percent to 96,000 volunteers picking up 180,649 cubic yards of litter.

The future doesn’t look any brighter. In the 2004-’06 state budget, Gov. Mark Warner nixed money for anti-litter marketing and education programs, redirecting about $350,000 of the approximately $1.7 million from so-called litter taxes to the general fund to balance the state’s $59 billion budget.

The budget isn’t official until later this month. But if it passes as expected, the litter cuts will stymie plans to relaunch a statewide campaign aimed at increasing participation in cleanup programs — and addressing the litterbugs themselves. The latest campaign targets single males between 18 and 34 years old, the main culprits of trash tossing.

“Our research found the message to reach the 18- to 34-year-old is that litter is harmful to animals,” says Dennis P. Gallagher, chairman of the Virginia Litter Control and Recycling Fund Advisory Board. Reacting in focus groups to the impact on animals in the wild, he says, “they were like, ‘Holy smokes!’”

The campaign will have to wait. Localities will continue to receive $1.27 million in state grants for various cleanup efforts, but no one is sure when the marketing and education funds will be restored.

“We’re all walking around very carefully,” says Rosemary Byrne, executive director of the Clean Fairfax Council, which runs one of the biggest volunteer anti-litter programs in the state. “Many of the programs get just enough money. We will all have to be a little more cautious when we find out what our grant amounts are going to be.”

While the litter money seems miniscule in a $59 billion budget, the state contribution is seen as critical. Byrne and Gallagher describe the $1.7 million in state funds as seed money, generating between $8 million and $9 million in estimated volunteer time that taxpayers would otherwise have to pay for. (The standard rate for cleanup labor, according to DEQ, is $17.97 an hour.)

With a little financial prodding, there is evidence that anti-litter campaigns can sometimes move the masses. In late March, Richmond’s first annual Super City Cleanup netted 6,400 volunteers who spent the day picking up trash all across the city. The city launched the campaign this year to raise awareness, but officials expected only a few thousand people to show up. A similar program in Norfolk, says Bill Farrar, a spokesman for Richmond’s Public Works Department, nets only about a thousand people every year.

“For the first time out of the gate, we were surprised,” he says, adding that the city handed out trash bags and 4,000 litter sticks. The program was started get people to start thinking about cleaning up their neighborhoods, he adds, something that seems to have dropped off the public conscience.

“People have gotten numb to the whole idea of keeping up the environment around them,” Farrar says. “We’re trying to do things to get people involved.”

For decades, the anti-litter movement has been steadily losing steam. Since the first official Earth Day on April 22, 1970, the Green movement has slowly shifted its focus away from individual activism — it starts with you replacing that aerosol spray with a roll-on — to a more corporate focus.

Environmentalists cite the McDonald’s Styrofoam clamshell containers as a case study in the mid-1980s. After activists failed to move customers to boycott the Golden Arches — the manufacture of the containers emitted harmful, ozone-destroying chemicals — activists began working with the company to make the product greener. In 1989, McDonald’s introduced paperboard burger boxes as a result.

The shift to corporations, and the ensuing marketing push by many major companies once targeted as polluters, has led to a massive marketing push that leads many to believe the pollution problem isn’t what it used to be. Rick Webb, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, says there is more wasted energy as a result. For example, electricity consumption is increasing at a rate of 3 percent a year.

“Nobody seems to be promoting conservation,” Webb says. “We have lost our moral bearings. The people who throw litter out onto the roads are basically heathens. We’re becoming a heathen nation.”

The problem, he says, is a lack of national leadership. Ever since President Ronald Reagan removed the solar panels from the White House in the early 1980s, he says there has been little initiative from Washington to fight pollution.

“Since the current administration has been in office, we’ve been in sort of this wartime mentality,” Webb says. “And during wartime, rightly or wrongly, that’s when the largest environmental losses occur.”

In Virginia, the wartime mentality has a lot to do with billion-dollar budget deficits. But regardless of the funding, local cleanup volunteers such as Sis Osbourne, and Bob Brick, a Chesterfield County resident recently recognized for his “tireless” trash pickup efforts, it’s not about the money.

For the last 17 years, Brick, 53, has been picking trash around his home on Windsor Road in Chester.

“A one-mile radius of my home always yields an orange bag,” he says. “I’d like to think that downtown Chester looks a little better now.” S

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