In the Oxnard Costco parking lot last month, I saw someone open his car door, drop a cigarette on the ground, and stomp it out while exiting. As he walked away, I said, “Oh, you dropped your cigarette.”
He responded, “It’s biodegradable,” as he walked away.
He was partially correct. Tobacco and wrapping paper will eventually degrade. Unfortunately, cigarette filters are plastic, and they contribute to the worldwide problem of plastic entering our oceans, at a rate of eight million tons per year (according to an article in the June 7, 2019 issue of National Geographic).
While the problems of plastic waste and flagrant litterers are hard to solve, the problem of littered degradable waste is also locally significant, and may be easier to address. People who would never allow their plastic discards to flow into a waterway may think little of tossing a banana peel into a bush or throwing an apple core out of a car window on a rural road.
“Degradable litter is still litter,” said Ventura Land Trust Conservation Director Laura Pavliscak, and litter can “change the aesthetics of open spaces.”
Degradable littler degrades quickly only under suitable conditions. It takes a week for an apple core to become unrecognizable in my worm bin, and it can take a couple of months for one to degrade in my compost bin, but our climate is usually dry, and moisture is essential to degradation. An apple core dried out on the side of a road can remain for much longer. Litter is unsightly and creates a norm of littering, attracting more litter.
Litter along roadsides is also dangerous. As noted by Gianfranco Laurie, a traffic engineer with the Ventura County Public Works Agency’s Roads and Transportation Department, “Food tossed on the side of a road attracts wildlife, and attracting animals to an area with fast cars is not just a danger to the animals. Drivers swerve to avoid animals, posing a danger to other drivers.”
Attracting rodents, such as rats, to dangerous roadsides may be of little concern to many drivers, who might not even bother to swerve, but with rats and mice come other, more likeable species. Among those are racoons, affectionately known as “trash pandas,” and opossums. Mountain lions and barn owls may also come too close to roads if their prey is there seeking food scraps.
“I saw a barn owl flying over Santa Ana Road last week,” reported Tom Maloney, executive director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, “and I thought of all the owls I have seen dead along the sides of roads. They go where they can find prey, and unfortunately, due to littered human food, that is often along roadways.”
Even in areas far from roads, food scraps tossed in wild areas can harm animals. “Processed food is really the problem in wild areas,” continued Maloney. “If someone dumps the remains of their chip bag off the side of a trail, that is a crazy amount of sodium for a small animal to eat.”
Human food can also “habituate wildlife to human presence,” according to Pavliscak, the Ventura Land Trust Conservation Director.
Another type of degradable litter does not come from people, but people are responsible for it. Dog doo should be picked up and packed out from heavily used preserves and parks as well as wild areas. Burying it is a less optimal option. To many species, dog poop smells like a predator. These species may avoid areas where they frequently smell predators, reducing available habitat. Bacteria and parasites in dog poop can also make wild animals sick and can wash into waterways, according to Maloney.
The problem of littering food scraps has special consequences on our local beaches, particularly in places such as Ormond Beach, and particularly at this time of year, when threatened species of birds nest. Food attracts seagulls and ravens, and when these predator birds run out of the easy meals, they turn to the eggs of the local threatened species, such as the snowy plover.
“Leaving no trace is the best principle to subscribe to, and a crucial pact we make when we venture outdoors,” said Pavlicscak.
David Goldstein, Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.