Living litter-free might seem like an easy thing to do. We all keep our homes and property clean, but often we forget that public lands—such as state parks and forests—are our responsibilities as well. As taxpayers, we own these public spaces, but we rarely consider our duty to keep them clean.

There are many consequences when a mess is left in our state parks. Keep America Beautiful affiliate reports show that annual litter cleanup costs top $11.5 billion each year. An immeasurable amount of time is spent by park staff cleaning up after visitors who leave behind their trash; that is time that could be better spent improving our parks. Additionally, wildlife and humans alike are put at risk by the litter left behind, and the trash can have harmful long-term effects on the environment.

California State University social psychologist Wesley Schultz says, “The presence of litter is a strong predictor of littering behavior.” What does this mean? If an area has litter scattered about, it is much more likely that people will continue to litter in that area. But, if we hold ourselves responsible for the mess that we find on public lands, we will have a sense of pride when we visit a place that is clean and beautiful. Connecticut has a “carry-out what you carry-in” policy, but the sad truth is that people don’t always follow this guideline. In a perfect world, if everyone would leave with what they brought in, our parks would be litter-free.

What can we do?

Carry-out what you carry-in:Leave every space you visit cleaner than when you arrived. Pick up trash even if you didn’t leave it there. This doesn’t mean we have to clean public lands until they are spotless, but if every person that visited picked up one piece of trash and didn’t leave any of their own behind, litter would be reduced over time.

Plant flowers:It is proven that wherever flowers are planted, it is less likely that litter will be present.

Set a good example:Whether it is your first or hundredth time visiting a park, set an example. Picking up a piece of trash when visiting with friends or family and encouraging them to do the same can only help. If we set a good example for children and stress the importance of keeping public lands clean, they will continue to follow that example and pass on the good behavior they learned to their friends and future generations.

Volunteer:Participating in community cleanup events is a great way to reduce litter. Not only does it have the immediate effect of removing the litter, but it brings the community together and helps promote awareness of the issue.

Don’t be part of the problem:The one thing we control completely is how we act. By not being the cause of litter, we are helping in the reduction of litter.

Other things we can do to help prevent litter include:

  • Carry a litter bag in your car
  • Create a litter cleanup group
  • Reach out to neighbors and schools
  • Educate your community and children
  • Make signs
  • Adopt a highway
  • Do something rather than nothing
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for their actions

We can only reap benefits by living a litter-free life. Not only will it help keep our parks beautiful, it will reduce the economic impact of cleanup costs. Beautiful parks are more inviting and friendly, creating a more enjoyable experience for everyone. Forest and wildlife health will improve, and risk of human health dangers will be reduced. We all need to do our part in keeping what belongs to us clean.

Peter Wilson is a veteran and a student in the Environmental Studies program at Goodwin College. He has a passion for the outdoors and a desire to help improve the world through civic engagement and motivating people to act in support of environmental issues.

Photo credit: Stock Arts