We Have a Problem and It Reflects Poorly on Prince William County

by Kristina Nohe

Go to almost any parking lot in Prince William County and invariably you will see discarded gloves and masks, littered reminders of the pandemic we all lived through.

Litter tells others what the people in a community think about where they live. If someone walked into your home and there were chip bags scattered on the floor, a week’s worth of fast food containers piled in the corner, ripped-up notebooks in the sink and a few tires sitting next to the couch, it would make an impression – and not a very good one. The same is true for our community.

Litter comes from a variety of sources. There is, of course, the irresponsible person who throws trash from a car window or drops a soda bottle along the sidewalk, but a lot of the garbage that we see strewn about comes from other sources. Unsecured items in cars and trucks easily find their way onto the side of the street; anyone who lives along Route 234 near the landfill has seen evidence of this phenomenon.

We’ve all seen overfilled trash cans and recycling bins lining neighborhood streets from which a stiff breeze can blow items out onto the road. And if it’s not the wind, it’s animals looking for food who leave a trail of wrappers in their wake.

Much of this refuse does not stay on the roadside, but gets carried into our waterways. Last fall, the Friends of the Occoquan pulled 168 bags of garbage and recyclables out of the river. Everything from iron beams to soccer balls was separated, categorized and refurbished, recycled, or taken to the landfill. The litter is such a problem that volunteers must conduct this clean-up twice a year.

Likewise, the Belmont Bay Paddlers clean the waterways they use and participate in the Adopt-a-Stream program. Finally, last spring, the Prince William Trails and Stream Coalition did a clean-up of Marumsco Creek and Veteran’s Park that yielded 119 bags of trash, 15 tires, a road construction barrel, an office chair, a trash bin on wheels, a cooler, several stacks of 5-gallon buckets, a television and a plastic car bumper.

The litter problem in this county has clearly gone far beyond the stereotype of a few lazy people throwing things out of car windows.

Litter is not just an eyesore; it affects our quality of life, the environment, and our economic viability. First, litter has a fantastic ability to attract more litter. Once a place like a playground, shoreline, or parking lot begins accumulating trash, it signals to others that littering in that area is accepted by those who live there. Ergo, a few forgotten water bottles become a landscape of debris.

Also, litter can be full of toxic substances that poison our wildlife, leach into our water supplies and present other hazards to human health. Rotting food attracts vermin, and containers in which rainwater can accumulate provide a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects.

Furthermore, litter limits where people can go for recreation or to enjoy nature. The smells emanating from garbage-lined waterways or overflowing garbage cans in area parks make visiting those areas unpleasant. Lastly, litter affects the economic viability of our county by creating a community aesthetic that drives away potential financial investment and high-paying jobs.

There is a silver lining: This is a problem with a solution in which we can all do our part. Residents can participate in one of the many spring clean-ups around the county, or organize one for their neighborhood.

To keep our community clean, we can ensure that litter ends up where it belongs. Public trash cans outside of offices and stores can be emptied regularly to prevent a build-up of garbage that can spill onto the ground. Likewise, we can crush cans and bottles and break down oversized items to ensure our own garbage cans are not so overfilled that lids cannot close.

Loose items, like boxes, should be broken down, bundled and tied to keep them from blowing away. If something doesn’t fit in the trash can, take it to the county landfill instead of dumping it.

Together we can keep Prince William clean and healthy for everyone.

Kristina Nohe is a political activist, adoption advocate and homeschooling mom who is proud to be from Prince William County. This column originally appeared in INSIDENOVA and is reprinted with permission.