Newfoundlitter: The millions of pieces of trash we throw on our roads

There are 92 million pieces of litter in N.L. Litter is more than just an eyesore; it can hurt wildlife, but solving the problem isn't easy

Tim Hortons, McDonalds and Pepsi the top brands littering roadways: report

Tim Horton's is the most commonly found brand of litter, with an estimated 925,000 pieces litter on this provinces roads (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador sells tourists on its pristine beauty, but a report done by the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board shows what many local people already know: tons of garbage is strewn on roadways in this province.

The report counted litter in various sites around the province and extrapolated to estimate that there are 92 million pieces of litter on roadways. That doesn't count garbage chucked in the woods or littering beaches.

If you break that down, that's 170 pieces of litter for every single person.

There are an estimated 170 pieces of litter for every Newfoundlander and Labradorian. (MMSB report/CBC)

"It isn't pleasant to look at, and in a jurisdiction like Newfoundland where tourism is important and growing more important, litter is obviously a problem for that perspective," said Mike Samson, the president of the MMSB.

"It's bad for the environment, it's bad for wildlife … litter is a bigger problem than just the esthetic."

Students at Gonzaga High in St. John's noticed the wrappers and drink cups littering their parking lot area, so they cleaned it up.

Armed with gloves, rakes and garbage bags they waded into the trees to clean up the mess.

Kristie Earles was surprised by how much garbage was around the student parking lot at Gonzaga High School in St. John's. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

"Most of it is fast food litter, and like cups and bottles and stuff like that, which obviously is coming from our school community and people on their lunch breaks," said Kristie Earles as she raked up a Pepsi bottle and fast food bag.

"It is really shocking when you see just the amount of cups or just bags, or just beer bottles. It's kind of disheartening."

Tim Hortons No. 1 litter brand

When it comes to the brands of litter on N.L. roadways nothing tops Tim Hortons.

The study found an estimated 924,000 pieces of litter from the coffee shop, things like paper cups and bags.

From cigarette butts to fast food containers, what brand is littered more than any other? 1:28

The second-most found brand of litter was McDonald's, third was Pepsi, and fourth was Canadian Classics, a cigarette brand.

CBC News asked Tim Hortons about the abundance of litter from its company. No one would do an interview.

"Efforts at Tim Hortons restaurants include participating in regionally available waste diversion programs and encouraging guests to reduce waste by offering a reusable travel mug discount and anti-litter messaging on our packaging," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The head of the MMSB says companies do a good job of offering lots of garbage bins; he places the blame on their customers.

"Individual citizens take those products away from the place of business and then, effectively as the owner of that product or material at that time, make the inappropriate decision about how to get rid of it," said Samson.

Max Liboiron studies ocean plastics at Memorial University. She says the chemicals in cigarette butts can leach into the water and harm wildlife. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Cigarettes a big problem

The most common type of litter by far is something many people don't even consider litter: cigarette butts. There are an estimated 66 million cigarette buts littered around the province. Moves by businesses, health centres, and schools to push smoking off their properties have meant there are often no facilities for smokers to properly dispose of their butts.

Because of their small size they may not be thought of as litter, but the filters that remove toxic chemicals from cigarette smoke present a danger to wildlife.

Max Liboiron is a professor at Memorial University and studies ccean plastics.

She says each cigarette filter is made of tiny little strands of plastic. It's bad when they end up in the ocean, because they break down into 15,000 small plastic pieces.

Each cigarette filter contains 15,000 little pieces of plastic, which can be eaten by fish if they make their way into the ocean. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"The problem is too that when it comes to marine plastics, marine pollution, from cigarette butts or otherwise, smaller is more dangerous. The smaller it is, the lower down things on the food web can eat them," she said.

Liboiron doesn't blame smokers.

"Let's get some smoking infrastructure out there. Let's capture them so they don't end up on the ground and then washing into the ocean which is downhill from everywhere," she said.

It's not just the plastics that are a danger. Liboiron says experiments with snails showed that after soaking five cigarette butts in water for two hours the chemicals in the butts were strong enough to kill snails living in the water.

Litter comes with costs

Litter's cost isn't just esthetic; communities spend money to clean up the mess.

The City of St. John's estimates it spends $772,000 a year cleaning up litter.

All the paper cups currently littered in this province stacked up would be 11 times the height of Mount Everest. (MMSB/CBC)

Extra staff are hired every spring to clean up what the melting snowbanks leave behind.

Last year the province spent $110,000 removing litter from highways.

American studies have shown it's cheaper to provide proper infrastructure for people to dispose of garbage, but a 2011 survey found more than 60 per cent of communities in N.L. have no public trash bins.

What's the solution?

There MMSB is still reviewing the report, which it received last year.

When it comes to who pays for litter, Samson is warning that the trend is moving toward having the companies that produce the products be responsible to help clean them up.

"I think you'll see an increasing role for industry, and place for industry and contributions by industry," he said. 

About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.