Litter: Woodsy Owl and the First Environmental Lesson You Ever Learned

Diane Bickett

Think for a minute and try to remember the first environmental lesson you ever learned. If you are of a certain age, you probably remember, as I do, “Woodsy Owl” and his anti-litter message, “Give a Hoot Don’t Pollute.”

The Forest Service developed Woodsy around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 to introduce young children to the importance of conservation and fighting pollution. It promoted the idea that young children could do some simple things to help such as not littering and planting trees.

Even before we were taught to recycle and turn off the faucet when we brushed our teeth, we learned it was important not to litter. That lesson was important because it taught us civic responsibility. We were all responsible for keeping our neighborhood clean just like we were responsible for cleaning our bedrooms on Saturdays.

At least that is how I remembered that lesson growing up in the 70’s. And tragically, somewhere along the way, many people have forgotten that lesson and think it’s okay to toss their fast food bag out the window or put their cigarette butts and cigar tips on the ground for someone else to clean up. Even worse, illegal dumping has become an enterprise in the inner city with criminals hauling trash for a fee then dumping the garbage in someone’s neighborhood instead of a landfill.

The fact that some people no longer feel the need to clean up after themselves costs us all. In addition to the environmental and health impacts, litter and garbage strewn on roadways, parks and vacant lots creates an image. One that says we don’t have pride in our community or that we have given up. Fortunately, the trash belies the truth. The majority of us do have pride in our community and we have not given up. Remember last summer when volunteers spruced up downtown Cleveland and the RTA Red Line before the Republican National Convention? We wanted our visitors to be proud of the city and to tell their friends about us. We wanted the national spotlight to show a clean, green sparkling city on a blue lake.

Similar efforts to clean up our community continue today by organizations like Keep Ohio Beautiful, Litterbugz, the Cleveland Rotary and Canalway Partners’ River Sweep event. Each year, on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, local businesses, schools and individuals team up to clean our shared backyard, the Cuyahoga River Valley. For more than 27 years, River Sweep has recruited 19,108 volunteers to extract and recycle 24,019 discarded tires and picked up 623 tons of rubbish.

People willing to give their own time on a weekend to get involved with these cleanups never forgot their first environmental lesson. We all need to pass that lesson along to children today that respect for the earth starts with a respect for themselves and their community. That’s when littering and illegal dumping will end.

Fighting Litter Locally

This month, Kathleen Rocco, the District’s Education Specialist had the opportunity to participate in the Let’s Move! Outside Program organized by the Cleveland YMCA for 5th graders at George Washington Carver school in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. The Let’s Move! Outside initiative was created by Michelle Obama and is administered by the Department of the Interior. The Department was joined by the YMCA of the USA and the National League of Cities to coordinate efforts to bridge the growing disconnect between young people and the great outdoors by creating meaningful connections to nature through four pillars: play, learn, serve and work.

Kathleen’s part of the program involved teaching the students about litter, illegal dumping and plastic bag pollution. To make it real, the children were visited by two detectives from the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Environmental Crimes Task Force who talked about how Cleveland is working to stop illegal dumping in their neighborhood. They then got to participate in a neighborhood cleanup.

The two-block clean up yielded 20 bags of trash and nine tires plus candy. The candy came from a business owner who stepped outside to see what was going on. When he learned the children were picking up litter, he offered them candy as a thank you. An elderly woman also stopped to thank the children. She offered to pay the kids but that was politely declined by the teacher. Through that short activity, the children were surprised by the amount of littler that was on the ground that they never noticed before. They had just been walking by it every day. Now they can walk down the street with the pride of knowing they had a hand in cleaning it up.

Woodsy Owl would be proud.