Time to clean up our act: Anti-litter advocate fights for Ontario-wide garbage strategy

Sheila White leads a group of students in a lesson about litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)
Sheila White leads a group of students in a lesson about litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)

Canada is falling behind other countries when it comes to litter prevention, according to Toronto-based anti-litter advocate Sheila White.

White – once a senior aide to former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman – is once again sounding alarms about the lack of federal, provincial and corporate leadership when it comes to an issue that often gets tossed aside in favour of the sexier environmental topics such as climate change or pipelines.

In 2012, White called on the Ontario provincial government to put in place a provincial litter strategy. They said no, arguing that litter is a municipal responsibility.

But in an interview with Yahoo Canada News, White argues that municipalities need some stewardship – that two years later the piecemeal approach is not effective.

“I’d be happy with any government ministry, agency or politician to step up and say that they’d be willing to look at it,” she said.

“I believe there should be a custodian of the file and a person to draw all the players together and come up with the creative, innovative cost effective ideas, for promoting the idea that littering is unacceptable.”

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White says that other jurisdictions – led by the corporate community, the government or some combination of the two -- are doing just that.

In the United States, a consortium of corporate donors fund a non-profit organization called ‘Keeping America Beautiful.’ Their mandate is to educate and engage governments and local communities to clean up the trash.

In the U.K., the British government is a major funder for Keep Britain Tidy, an agency charged with instituting nation-wide programs to eliminate litter and waste and to educate school students.

Scotland, Australia, and India have similar initiatives.

“Most [countries] have an overarching entity that provides not only funds for community clean-up but does the missing piece of…education and awareness,” White said.

“We [in Canada] can do a better job of instilling a more responsible attitude in our citizenry.”

A lack of litter enforcement in Canada

White leads a group of students in a lesson about litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)
White leads a group of students in a lesson about litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)

White has started a company to market her own Litter Prevention Program which educates school kids --- and the business community -- about the consequences of litter, through interactive songs, live music and a game.

But while education is a big part of what she does, White admits that there needs to be more enforcement of existing rules.

In Toronto, litter-bugs are subject to a fine of $365, but it’s a punishment that seems to be scarcely used.

“There were zero charges…in 2013 and there were 12 charges in the preceding year,” White told Yahoo.

Meanwhile, there are more international examples of how the government can better enforce litter laws. Some jurisdictions in the United States have litter courts.

Singapore fines its residents $500 to $1,000 for first time offenders while repeat offenders can be fined up to $2,000 and assigned to ‘corrective work’ litter pick-up having to don a brightly coloured jacket as part of a public shaming.

The UK actually has ‘green wardens’ with body cameras used to track down and fine litterers.

How much litter is out there?

The City of Toronto claims to have made some progress on the litter file. A 2012 litter audit noted that large litter in Canada’s largest city dropped by 20.9 per cent since 2006; the occurrences of small litter dropped a whopping 67.3 per cent.

But White isn’t necessarily buying that.

“Those audits are only based on 340 odd sample sites,” she said.

“They’re not going to, for example, industrial areas that are sheltered from public view.

“If you take a look at transition points and major arterial roads, bus stops, construction sites, out of the way places... you’re going to find that it’s everywhere. “

Nationally, other cities have also conducted their own audits.

Edmonton’s 2013 audit touts a 41 per cent drop in large litter since 2009 but highlights a persistent problem with cigarette butts.

In Vancouver, the amount of litter that the city collects is slightly greater in 2014 than it did in 2013 with some anti-litter advocates complaining about an increase in paper cups and lids being thrown out of car windows and onto sidewalks.

White poses with a group helping to clean up litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)
White poses with a group helping to clean up litter. (Courtesy Sheila White)

The cost of litter

According to a U.S. organization dubbed Litter in America, litter clean-up costs the U.S. economy over $11 billion a year. In the United Kingdom, estimates to deal with their rubbish problem are pegged at over a billion pounds a year.

While Canadian data is tougher to nail down, some city halls have provided estimates: Litter remediation in Hamilton, Ontario cost taxpayers $2.5 million in 2010; Ottawa taxpayers forked-out $7.9 million dollars.

There are, of course, other consequences of litter over and above the cost to taxpayers: Quality of life suffers, housing prices drop, recreation areas become less attractive and it can be an environmental hazard to wildlife waterways and green spaces.

“The idea that litter is just an innocuous, nasty little unimportant thing is quite wrong,” White says.

“It’s a significant hazard.”