Find yourself behind a Louisianan government vehicle, and you will undoubtedly see that high-contrast bumper sticker, a plea in black ink on a canary-yellow background: Don’t Trash Louisiana!
Litter control varies from parish to parish, but when trash finds its way into an interconnected watershed, one city’s trash can become another city’s trash problem.
Despite ongoing media coverage and aggressive public campaigning to curb public littering, East Baton Rouge Parish’s storm drains continue to deposit tons of waterlogged, ketchup-crusted city filth directly into surrounding waterways. By way of Ward Creek, Bayou Fountain and Corporation Canal at LSU, gravity siphons our forsaken go-cups and gum wrappers downhill, straight into Bayou Manchac—one side of which is located in Ascension Parish.
A handful of anti-litter advocates have taken to battling the mess both before and after it hits Manchac. Some work in groups. Others clean alone. But they all must travel by canoe or kayak to reach the worst areas. With nothing but the nuanced palette of municipal trash at their fingertips, these motivated eco-Samaritans often find themselves wondering what might cause someone to throw trash on the ground, not to mention the old TVs and broken appliances they haul out of the water from time to time.
This is where your trash goes when it leaves your car window, tracked by those who struggle to understand how it got there—even after they pick it up.
“Funny thing about anti-litter laws,” says Jonathan Scott, president of the litter-battling Bayou Manchac Group. “Do you know anyone who’s gotten a ticket for littering?”
Scott’s joke aside, littering tickets do exist.
Currently, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries issues more littering citations than any other state agency, averaging around a thousand per year. Additionally, the agency has operated the state’s toll-free litter hotline—which allows people to report littering incidents for investigation—for two years.
While Scott and other activists applaud Wildlife and Fisheries for its enforcement efforts, Scott notes that tips from the hotline must be accompanied by very specific evidence to result in a citation.
He also claims that enforcement doesn’t happen often on the highways, where trash begins its journey to the bayous.
“I understand that when the murder rate is as high as it is here, the cops need to focus on that,” Scott says. “But people are aware that a cop probably isn’t going to turn the car around to write them a ticket for littering, and that can definitely be a factor in their decision to do it.”
The state agency is authorized to pull over littering drivers—and they do. Media Relations Officer Adam Einck says the agency takes littering seriously but that highway patrols are not a top priority.
“Our agents have a lot of ground to cover,” Einck says. “We do investigate and cite a large number of illegal dumping cases in wooded areas, as opposed to roadways, but if an agent sees someone throwing trash out of a car, they’ll pull you over.”
Back in 2001, Scott and a loose alliance of neighbors decided to do something about the trash in their shared bayou backyard. A few years of organizing later, they became the trash-battlers of the Bayou Manchac Group, aiming to raise awareness of litter through both public activism and volunteer-powered canoe cleanups.
The cause isn’t without its setbacks, however.
“It’s hard to stay motivated after such hard work when you come back to find the same amount of trash,” Scott says. “If it rains, it’s back the next day.”
Less-rainy cities empty just fine with grated storm drains, but Louisiana is the second-rainiest state in the country, in terms of inches—a verified statistic that Scott believes is correlated with litter problems. As a bayou resident with 14 years of environmental engineering experience under his belt, Scott knows more about how the trash gets in the bayou than the average citizen, but there are days when he wishes he didn’t.
“The storm drains in Baton Rouge are designed to drain the maximum amount of water from the streets without clogging, so there’s nothing keeping your Styrofoam cup from washing straight into the waterways,” he says, adding that the high-water line at Manchac is visible due to the trash.
In early June, he corresponded by email with a coordinator at the Department of Public Works. He recommended several models of drain covers as a possible solution. DPW says a fix is still in the works.
Three times a week, 64-year-old Claude Nall packs an old camera, his reusable water bottle and a couple of different types of bread in his camouflage kayak. By 9:30 a.m., he’s rowing into the murky waters at Wampold Park near LSU, scanning the shoreline for hungry geese and crows—and things that don’t belong there.
“Rain or shine, I’m out here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning,” Nall says. The retiree is uncommonly dedicated to picking up trash. Having spent a number of years camping in his truck, Nall admits he’d usually rather be in the woods than in a room full of people. For Nall, cleaning the campus lakes is more of a spiritual obligation than a simple good deed.
“I’ve always had a deep connection with nature and animals,” he says. “The crow is my spirit guide.”
The green rope he wears around his wrist reminds him of that connection. It also identifies him as part of the Green String Society, which he founded to spread the spirit of taking better care of our natural surroundings.
“I found this gift bag with a green plastic rope for a handle, and I thought, ‘That’s perfect,'” he says of the string’s origin. “When you wear it, you are making a choice to respect nature.”
If launching a kayak three times a week wasn’t hard enough, Nall is tackling a historically filthy area. Whether by student hands or otherwise, the overflow canal near Wampold Park appears to operate as a public trash can.
Standing on the pedestrian walk overlooking the mess, Nall winces, shaking his head. “You know, I see this, and I just don’t understand why. Why is this an option for people?”
Ask a variety of people why litter warriors do what they do—clean up after others—and the answers will vary. Even between those who litter and those who do not, the responses will differ.
“Probably because I want to take my boat out on that water, and I don’t care for trash in it,” says paddling enthusiast and Bayou Manchac Group Vice President Nathaniel Klumb. “And anyway, why not?”
Klumb is a systems analyst for the EBRP School Board, but he spends his off hours cleaning the 22 miles of traversable waterways connecting Ward Creek and Bayou Manchac.
While Klumb seems to look at the bright side of most situations, he has had his share of frustration when picking up other people’s litter. One simple cleanup he conducted by himself in a median near his home just about made him snap.
“I don’t know why, but someone decided to throw a fast-food cup out the window not far from where I was standing.” He pauses. “Seriously.”
Klumb attributes some of his litter awareness to his daily bicycle commute to work. “On a bike, it’s a lot easier to pull over and grab the candy wrapper,” he notes. “Cars, I think, kind of remove people from the reality of their surroundings. Like a bubble.”
Despite the strength of these litter warriors’ convictions, frustrations with what they view as the area’s basic infrastructure problems and political semantics can complicate their already-upstream battle. As president of the Bayou Manchac Group, Scott is usually the one who deals with the upper levels.
Two filtering devices currently operate in area waterways to prevent trash and other debris from clogging the natural drainage routes, but the nets must be cleaned out frequently to work properly. Nall, Scott and Klumb all claim that maintenance is far from regular, and a series of phone calls to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality concerning the dirty filters ended in a bureaucratic limbo, Scott says.
“No one could tell me who was in charge of cleaning them out, but they knew it wasn’t their job.” 225 made a similar series of phone calls to LDEQ, DPW and LWF, and none of the agencies was even aware of any such trash-specific booms.
One of the more astounding obstacles in their way, Scott claims, is ironically being perpetuated by LDEQ. He says that a state project aimed at battling forms of water pollution that don’t have precise origins—the LDEQ’s Nonpoint Source Pollution project—does not recognize trash as a threat to navigable waterways.
LDEQ spokesperson Jean Kelly confirmed that the Nonpoint project does not include waterborne litter as a waterway impairment, adding that it would be difficult to prove that Manchac’s trash is a result of street-level drainage from Baton Rouge. “We don’t deal with litter anymore,” she says. “We haven’t for the past two years.”
Including the distinction, Scott says, “would change everything.” But until then, volunteers will continue to paddle the waterways, collecting the bits of life that others carelessly toss away.
According to those fighting the litter battle, it is a task that is worth doing.
“This is my work,” Nall says, smiling. “This is what I’m here to do, but I wish I didn’t have to do it.”