This Ontario man filmed roadside trash to remind people how gross litter can be

Wayne Fernandes of Guelph, Ont., says he wants people to pay attention to the amount of garbage on the sides of roads and in their community because he believes littering is getting out of hand.  (Wayne Fernandes - image credit)
Wayne Fernandes of Guelph, Ont., says he wants people to pay attention to the amount of garbage on the sides of roads and in their community because he believes littering is getting out of hand. (Wayne Fernandes - image credit)

Wayne Fernandes says he hates all the litter he sees each day as he commutes to work.

Each weekday, Fernandes drives from Guelph, Ont., to Mississauga, taking Highway 401 for part of the drive, and he started to really notice the garbage along that route this past spring.

During his drives, he saw the snow slowly melting, and as the last bits of snow remained on the ground, it glittered in the sunlight. But long after the snow had disappeared, the glitter remained. That's when Fernandes realized it was all plastic.

"I noticed water bottles on the side of the road and they were glistening in the sun. This is amongst all the other trash on the side of the road and you know, they appeared to have human waste, and I thought, when did this become acceptable in Canada?" he told Craig Norris, host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition, in an interview Friday.

Fernandes decided to stop and film the trash along his drive to work.

"I was just wondering, what would this look like in 10 years if something is not done about it? But another thing that motivated me to do this was that I know I can't be the only one that feels this way."

WATCH | Wayne Fernandes's drone footage of litter along Highway 401 between Guelph and Mississauga:

Fernandes said he's also seen spots where lawn mowers have gone over the trash, breaking it up into smaller bits of plastic, making it harder to pick up.

He said while driving his electric vehicle in the U.S., he would stop at charging stations and see people clean out their vehicles while waiting for their battery to charge. Much of the garbage would be left on the ground.

"What's the point if we have a society 10 years from now where everybody has a nice, slick electric car, but we're littering more than the car itself. The people inside, you know, they're flinging trash out the window."

What's so bad about litter?

The City of Toronto's website notes litter can make a community look bad, but also can have harmful effects on the environment and animals and cost millions of dollars a year to clean up.

A 2021 study in the journal Conservation Biology sampled seven species of fish from Lake Ontario and Lake Superior. The researchers "documented the highest concentration of microplastics and other anthropogenic microparticles ever reported in bony fish."

"Although we cannot extrapolate the concentration of microplastics in the water and sediments of these fish, the relatively high abundance of microplastics in the GI [gastrointestinal] tracts of fish suggests environmental exposure may be above threshold concentrations for risk," the study's authors wrote.

Ontario Parks has also reported a dramatic increase in garbage not being disposed of correctly as more people enjoyed the parks during the pandemic.

The Ontario government estimates almost 10,000 tonnes of plastic debris enter lakes and rivers across the province each year.

The Ontario SPCA and Humane Society notes on its website that wildlife may use littered items for nesting, and when those items include masks, balloons, fishing line, plastic bags and dental floss, it can tangle up animals. The other thing that can happen is animals eat discarded food wrappers or other trash, which makes them sick.

What's being done

To combat the amount of garbage people are discarding in inappropriate spots, the province introduced a Day of Action on Litter in May 2020.

The day is meant to encourage people, municipalities and businesses "to work together to raise awareness about the impacts of litter and waste, and take part in a litter cleanup," Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, told CBC News in an email.

Since the first day of action, the ministry has engaged more than three million people on social media, Wheeler said, and monitored community cleanups across the province.

"We will continue efforts year round to expand our social media reach, continue to build awareness and promote behaviour change."

The ministry will also work to combat litter with other initiatives, Wheeler said. They include:

  • Moving the province's existing waste diversion programs to a producer-responsibility model, which the government says will promote waste diversion, save municipal taxpayers money and incentivize producers to redesign products to reduce waste. The Blue Box Program will transition to this model starting in July.

  • Supporting local shoreline cleanup efforts through the Great Lakes Local Action Fund.

When it comes to cleanup along provincial highways, the Ministry of Transportation says it has contractors that pick up litter throughout the spring, summer and fall.

A ministry spokesperson said the province has also installed signs along roads and highways, including at interchanges, on-off ramps and parking lots. The changeable signs on the 400 series of highways "also discourage littering along our highways," the ministry said in an email.

On top of that, the province and most municipalities support "adopt-a-road" programs where volunteers regularly help with litter pickups.

Tickets can be issued

Anyone caught littering can be fined up to $500, the Ministry of Transportation said.

But just how many people actually get caught and handed a ticket? Turns out, not many.

Sgt. Kerry Schmidt of Ontario Provincial Police's highway division told CBC News that in 2022, 175 tickets were issued provincewide for littering.

Between 2018 and 2021, the number of tickets issued ranged from between 201 and 295, he added.

When it came to littering tickets issued in Waterloo region in 2022:

  • Waterloo Regional Police Service issued 16 tickets.

  • City of Cambridge bylaw did not issue any tickets.

  • City of Kitchener bylaw did not issue any tickets.

  • City of Waterloo bylaw did not issue any tickets.

Bylaw officers with the City of Kitchener did not ticket anyone for littering because they take an education-based approach, director of enforcement Gloria MacNeil said in an email.

"When bylaw staff see someone in a park or elsewhere, they first explain that littering is not permitted, and give them the option to pick up and dispose of the litter properly before issuing a ticket," MacNeil said.

Jaison Empson/CBC
Jaison Empson/CBC

"If bylaw staff see or are made aware of illegal dumping on city property, they contact the individual and ask that they remove the items they dumped by a set deadline, and if they fail to comply, they can also issue a charge."

CBC K-W also reached out to other cities in the province to see how many littering tickets were issued in 2022:

  • Guelph: No tickets.

  • Sault Ste. Marie: No tickets.

  • Windsor: On average, maybe two or three tickets a year.

  • Ottawa: Four tickets including for dumping of debris, leaving waste in a park and depositing garbage on a highway.

'Very hard to solve later on'

Fernandes said it's clear the threat of tickets or fines are not enough of a deterrent, and ideally, people would take it upon themselves to dispose of their garbage properly.

"It's a culture change," Fernandes said.

He said he feels more could be done to ticket people.

Over the course of this summer, he said, he'd like to see local politicians who hold events including a community cleanup. He'd also love to see some kind of national campaign to get people to clean up their communities.

Fernandes said other countries have instilled in citizens the importance of cleaning up after themselves. They include Australia, Japan and Rwanda, which holds a community cleanup across the country once a month called Umuganda.

"I just went on vacation in Australia in April, and it was pristine and clean, and it reminded me of what Canada used to look like a few years ago," he said.

"I figured if we don't nip this in the bud or bring awareness to it right now, it will get to a scale that will be very hard to solve later on.

"I don't want to look back and say I didn't do anything."