April 29, 2023
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.”
He was partially correct. Tobacco and wrapping paper will eventually degrade. Unfortunately, cigarette filters are plastic and contribute to the worldwide problem of plastic entering our oceans at a rate of 8 million tons per year, according to a 2019 National Geographic article.
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. Litter, she added, can “change the aesthetics of open spaces.”
Degradable littler breaks down 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.
“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,” said Gianfranco Laurie, a traffic engineer with the Ventura County Public Works Agency’s Roads and Transportation Department. “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 out seeking food scraps.
“I saw a barn owl flying over Santa Ana Road last week,” said Tom Maloney, executive director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. “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,” Maloney said. “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 —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. For many species, dog poop smells like a predator they want to avoid, reducing available habitat. Bacteria and parasites in the waste can also make wild animals sick and 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. 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,” Pavliscak said.
David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, can be reached at 805-658-4312 or email@example.com.