On Earth Day, my family participated in our town’s 15th annual Clean and Green Day.  Town residents, including children, get together in the morning to help clean up the town. 

We start at a local elementary school, where we are given our assignments for the day. Then we divide and conquer.

It’s a great community service for both adults and children, and my family has participated since its inception.

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This year alone, in about 4 hours our town collected over 6 tons of garbage, from common items to unique “treasures.”  For instance, this year’s odd finds included a very old, rusty horseshoe and a large street sign with the pole still attached. Picking all this stuff up for several hours, a pattern among the litter becomes apparent. The majority of the items seemed to fall into three groups: beverage containers, fast food containers, and cigarette-related items (packaging and butts).

Spending 4 hours of what should have been leisure time picking up other people’s cigarettes and alcohol containers can certainly be annoying on its own. But I find it particularly frustrating when I spend so many of my days trying to get people to not initiate — or to discontinue — these behaviors.

Cigarette smoking has decreased in the US by about 28% in the past decade. But cigarette butts still remain the item that makes up most of our litter — not just in the US, but elsewhere around the globe. Discarded tobacco products account for approximately 38% of all US roadway litter, including an estimated more than 176 million pounds of cigarette butts each year.  Worldwide, the yearly estimate of littered cigarettes is more than 4.5 trillion.

The next most common litter items are fast-food and drink containers for both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Of the drink containers, those that had held alcohol outnumbered those that had held nonalcoholic drinks. Even more concerning, as we were collecting these containers along roadsides, it appears that the alcohol containers were discarded while driving. 

It is certainly clear that alcohol, tobacco products, and fast food don’t just harm our physical health. Their packaging is a major contributor to litter, and is harming the environment as well. 

So as physicians, when we counsel patients to stop using tobacco products and to cut back or stop consuming alcohol, we not only help them be healthier, but we help the world they live in be as well.

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