By Wanda Gooden
Directorate of Environmental Management
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - A cigarette butt carelessly tossed out a car window. A fast food bag tossed along the side of the road. An open motor oil container left in a parking lot. You’ve seen it and wondered why someone would do these things. You might also agree that these things are unsightly, but not everyone realizes that litter and illegal dumping add up to a big water quality problem for the Chesapeake Bay region. Trash travels.
So, what happens to that cigarette butt that is tossed on the ground? Here, in the urban Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the butts are frequently picked up by rain water and washed into the nearest storm drain. From there, they are given an express ride through the moving water network and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay where they can remain for a long time. We know that this body of water is already stressed.
Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic material which is slow to break down. While the butts are hanging around in the water waiting to degrade, substances can leach out of the butts and present a toxic threat to aquatic animals.
Another big component of the litter waste stream is plastic. Plastic is present in many of the things we use every day: plastic shopping bags, straws, food utensils, as a wrapping for food and consumer goods – the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, many of these plastics wind up as litter that finds its way into the environment when it is not recycled or properly managed in a waste landfill or incinerator. Plastics can take years to break down and can persist in water bodies where they can entangle and choke the life out of aquatic animals.
While littering usually refers to the careless disposal of waste materials, illegal dumping usually refers to the intentional disposal of large amounts of trash, used oil and vehicle fluids, construction and demolition materials (drywall, roofing shingles, concrete) and large items such as tires, appliances, and furniture, into unpermitted areas. Waterways, stream banks and abandoned/unsecure areas are likely targets where people dump their “stuff.”
Pouring certain liquid wastes, or discarding trash down storm drains can also be considered illegal dumping. Illegally dumped wastes frequently contain hazardous and toxic materials that can harm the environment, people and animals. Litter and illegal dumping are both prohibited in virtually every jurisdiction in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Data collected from the International Coastal Cleanup in 2011 indicated that cigarettes were the number one item collected from beaches and inland waters around the world. Plastics were among the other items in the top 10. Over 81,000 items tallied in the “dumping activities” category were collected from the U.S. alone during this same cleanup event. These included refrigerators, washers, 55-gallon drums, batteries, tires, and construction materials.
Now, what can you do to prevent litter? Changing a common behavior, like littering, starts with you. You must accept responsibility for your actions and influence the actions of others around you and in the community at large. We all contribute to the problem, so we must all be part of the solution. According to the Keep America Beautiful Campaign, you can start with these actions:
• Choose not to litter. Make the commitment now to join with thousands of other Americans to not be a litter-bug.
• Join with others on Facebook. Get your friends and family to join.
• Remind others not to litter and why.
• Get a litter bag, and if you smoke, a portable ash receptacle to share – keep these in your car.
• Volunteer in your community to help prevent and cleanup litter — from cigarette butts to illegal dumps. Join the International Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 21, 2013.
JBM-HH’s Directorate of Environmental Management needs your help in preventing the installation from being a source of pollutants to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. This involves not littering or dumping waste. Help JBM-HH become the benchmark for lessening the impacts of its activities on the sensitive waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Fort Myer and portions of Fort McNair have storm drain systems that are intended to collect only storm water. Anything that gets into the storm drains at both installations will flow directly or indirectly to the Potomac River. The storm drains are not connected to a wastewater treatment plant.
While prevention is the key, relying on public reporting can be effective as an anti-illegal dumping measure. DEM asks that you report illegal dumping, pollution, or anything you see on the installation that could impact water quality or the environment. DEM will investigate all reports and take actions needed to keep the environment clean and to protect water quality. You can report your observations in one of several ways: calling DEM directly at 703-696-8055/8513; stopping by DEM, Bldg. 321 on Stewart Road on the Fort Myer portion of JBM-HH; or by downloading and completing an environmental incident eport form, available at the JBM-HH homepage, www.army.mil/jbmhh/web/jbmhh/directorates/environmentalmanagement.html.
(Gooden is the water program manager for Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s Directorate of Environmental Management.)