Although we see litter on campus every day, it is not something we actually notice anymore; maybe we’re just too busy studying or socializing or perhaps we’ve become desensitized to it because it’s always there. Or maybe we know it’s wrong but turn a blind eye because it’s just easier to think of it as “someone else’s problem”. Those of us that create the litter must not fully understand the problems it causes and those of us that just see the litter as a problem, don’t really know how to go about fixing it. But, surely we all agree that it doesn’t look nice! This is why like-minded individuals in the microbiology department decided to take action on this litter problem and clean up our campus!
On Friday afternoon we set out in teams to collect litter from several points around the university. Time was limited to 15 minutes of collecting at each site and we noted the different types of litter found including plastic bottles, wrappers, papers, cans and cigarette butts. There were four major trends we noticed during the pick-up session:
1) The more crowded an area is with students, the more litter that is found. The ducks on campus seemed to notice this as well since they were found gathering in the more pristine parts of the campus. Surprisingly, even though only 15 minutes were spent collecting litter, a number of our collectors had to stop because their garbage bags were too full!
2) One of the most common pieces of litter found on campus was plastic candy wrappers (Figure 1). The excessive amounts of glucose-related refuse must be a product of you hard-working latrobians needing high-energy inputs for optimal brain function. However, no energy seems to be leftover after such candy fueled studying sessions since these bits of plastic end up on the ground instead of in the bin. C’mon guys, we’re better than that! Such tiny litter is the easiest to ignore because it is so small and starts to blend in with the grass and leaves on the ground. This is however one of the most harmful forms of litter as its plastic components slowly degrade and incorporate into the soil. It takes decades for plastic to decompose but as it does, it becomes smaller and smaller until it is eventually microscopically small. At this point we can no longer stop it from being ingested by wildlife.
3) There is a high incidence of cans, styrofoam cups and plastic bottles in our waterways (Figure 2). Why are these drinking vessels abandoned here? The vast majority of the plastics in our seas come from our urban areas, from our streets and apparently from the La Trobe moat. Our moat is home to a wide range of animals including wood ducks, water fowls, turtles, fish and of course the world’s largest virus, the Pandora virus (Pandoravirus dulcis). It is our responsibility to ensure the animals living in it are in good health and that means no litter in their homes.
4) The car parks were littered mainly with Macca’s take away rubbish and papers and chocolate bar wrappers from people’s cars. Perhaps a few bins located nearer to the car parks would help reduce this? The worst thing about the litter in the car parks is that the wind blows it into neighbouring green spaces.
5) The most distressing finding was the amount of litter in the form of cigarette butts. Despite designated smoking zones with ashtrays located nearby, cigarette butts were found distributed throughout the campus. The highest number of cigarette butts was found near research buildings and the upper levels surrounding the library, where smoking is not permitted. At the two designated smoking areas samples, nearly 400 cigarette butts were collected off the ground, right next to a bin, specifically for cigarette butts! (Figure 3B).
Disturbingly, hundreds of butts on the ground are within meters of a designated smoking areas (Figure 3A). The failure to use the designated smoking areas and dispose of butts in bins may indicate that in addition to the known health effects, cigarettes affect eye-sight and hand-eye coordination. But all jokes aside, cigarettes are loaded with toxic chemicals such as cadmium and lead that leach into the soil or are washed into drainage systems with the rain, eventually entering beaches, rivers and streams. Within just one hour of contact with water, these chemicals begin to leach into the aquatic environment and threaten the wellbeing of marine life. Additionally, these butts can be mistakenly ingested by wildlife, leading to severe health risks and death to the animals. In our department, a number of us are working hard to come up with innovative strategies for the bioremediation and detection of heavy metals in the environment. It is heartbreaking to see the exact kind of pollution we are striving to repair on a global scale are being contributed to at our own campus!
So besides its aesthetically unpleasant properties, litter is negatively impacting our quality of life, through the air we breathe, and the water we drink and the lives of the wildlife that call La Trobe University home. Hopefully you are now asking: “How can I help combat litter at LaTrobe?”. To this we say: “Get your butts off the lawn and help us clean!”. We are calling out to you all that use this campus and like living in a clean and healthy environment, to help out the next time we hold a litter clean-up session. Or start your own cleanup crew; it’s good karma and a Friday beer with friends tastes better when you’ve just achieved something positive.
Getting an education is not the only thing we can learn from our school, but learning how to be more responsible and thoughtful members of society is another invaluable lesson for us all here at La Trobe University. We have the power to be an example to the world of what university students are capable of. Let’s make our school an exemplary campus and a place so clean that we could eat off the ground without getting Styrofoam trash stuck in our teeth!