Editor’s Note: This column was submitted by Michael Butler, CEO of Tennessee Wildlife Federation. The organization is one of the largest and oldest nonprofits dedicated to the conservation of Tennessee’s wildlife and natural resources.
Americans marvel at the beauty of our country. We seem blessed to have it all, from arctic mountains to tropical waters. Tennessee contains incredible diversity too, including those iconic amber waves of grain and purple mountains.
Despite our reverence for the majesty of our natural resources, Americans—and seemingly some Tennesseans in particular—have a knack for trashing it all.
A month ago, Tennessee Wildlife Federation asked for photos of litter in your communities that’s making our great outdoors a lot less great. Rural areas seem to get the worst of it.
We were overwhelmed by hundreds of images from every part of the state showing illegal dump sites and packaging of all sorts floating on our streams and strewn through our forests. Some were even able to capture how litter impacts our fish and wildlife.
A bear cub playing with a potato chip bag. A raccoon chewing a red Solo cup. A dead white-footed mouse, trapped in the neck of a beer bottle.
These images drive home what the stats tell us. There are an estimated 100 million pieces of litter on our roads according to Tennessee Department of Transportation. The Tennessee River contains more microplastic per gallon than any other river studied in the world.
Just trying to clean this up costs Tennessee taxpayers $15 million each year. Individuals and companies shoulder even more costs. For instance, farmers in the state suffer an estimated loss of $60 million a year thanks to litter.
But I was equally heartened by the number of photos of many dirt-covered Tennesseans doing their best to undo all this damage. We heard from dozens of groups that faithfully collect cans from roadsides, hoist tires out of rivers, and skim plastics off streams.
These Tennesseans need help. Yes, we should all join them in picking up our communities. But they need help from our state’s leaders too.
After 50 years of public service announcements pleading for the littering to stop, we’re still swimming in it. It’s an issue clearly in need of a bigger solution. A solution that our state’s leaders should be thinking about.
The right solution could clean up litter and boost our economy. An assessment by the Southeast Recycling Development Council concluded that the state’s industries have huge, unmet demands for recycled materials that are just flying out car windows.
If you’d like to let your state leaders know that Tennessee’s litter problem matters to you and that you expect them to lead on a solution, sign our petition at tnwf.org/Solve-Litter.