One of my Austrian neighbors is a smoker and just throws his cigarette butts on the ground. Apparently, he doesn’t consider them “litter.”

Merriam-Webster defines “litter” as “trash, waste-paper, or garbage lying scattered around.”

This definition exactly fits the picture in both Austria and the U.S.: Whether I’m in cities or the woods, I always come across cigarette butts “lying scattered around” — even though they’re highly toxic. They contain about 4,000 chemicals including arsenic, chromium, hydrogen cyanid, nicotine, and lead, which eventually end up in the sewage system, soil, groundwater and ocean.

Speaking of the sewage, there are also people who use their toilets as trash cans. They throw in oil, sanitary products, medicine, and food scraps. Not only does this ruin pipes and attract rats, but it also gets into the sewage system, making the removal of contaminants more expensive. Those chemicals that can’t be removed end up in the environment. Therefore, the only thing ever to throw into toilets is toilet paper.

The woods, too, serve as trash cans for some people. We can find cans, plastic bottles, wrappings, food scraps, tires, TVs, abandoned cars, you name it. Even though it’s common knowledge today that we ought to not litter in Nature, some people still understand the woods as a convenient disposal site.

There’s no doubt that we need a lot more trash cans, especially on hiking trails. But their lack mustn’t be an excuse to litter. I also know how hard it often is to dispose of trash properly, particularly in small Pennsylvania towns where money decides the fate of recycling programs.

Still, it’s no excuse to throw things into toilets or the woods. And for cigarette butts, there’s a simple solution: just make sure they’re extinguished and throw them into the regular trash can.


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