Get your butt off the lawn (Lucie Semenec and Jen Wood)

Some areas of our campus are still beautifully undamaged by our waste. Let’s make all of our campus look like this! (Photo courtesy of Oonagh Bodin)
Although we see litter on our Melbourne campus every day, it's probably not something we actively notice anymore.

Maybe we’re just too busy studying or socialising, or perhaps we’ve become desensitised 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 who create the litter may not fully understand the problems it causes, and those of us who just see the litter as a problem don’t really know how to go about fixing it! But surely we can all agree that it doesn’t look nice!

This is why like-minded individuals from the Department of Microbiology decided to take action on this litter problem and clean up our campus! This is the story of our experience and what we discovered.

One 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 we found, which included plastic bottles, wrappers, papers, cans and cigarette butts.

There were a number of major trends we noticed during the pick-up session.

First, the more crowded an area is with students, the more litter 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!

Figure 1: Distribution of litter types across the La Trobe campus. 
Sites targeted for cleanup were: Carpark 1, LIMS and Thomas Cherry, Agora North, Agora South, Simpson lawn, David Myers lawn, Moat – near Eagle bar, Moat – near Glenn. 
Designated smoking areas also targeted but not represented in figure.
Second, 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 La Trobians needing high-energy inputs for optimal brain function! However, no energy seems to be leftover after such candy-fuelled studying sessions since these bits of plastic end up on the ground instead of in the bin. C’mon, everyone, we’re better than that!

Such tiny litter is the easiest to ignore because it is so small it 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 and, as it does, it becomes smaller and smaller until it is microscopically small. At this point, we can no longer stop it from being ingested by wildlife.

Third, there is a high number 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, streets and, apparently, from the La Trobe moat!

Our moat is home to a wide range of animals including wood ducks, other water fowl, 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.

Figure 2: 
Image A - Bottle waste on its way to degrading into our environment forever near the pub moat. (Photo courtesy of Oonagh Bodin). 
Image B - Jen Wood meticulously scanning the moat to gather as much plastic as she can reach (Photo courtesy of Lucie Semenec). 
Image C - Oonagh Bodin pointing out one of many plastic bottles found in our moat water (Photo courtesy of Lucie Semenec).
Fourth, the car parks were littered mainly with fast food outlets' take-away rubbish, 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.

Finally, 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 sampled, 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 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 being enacted right here on our own campus!

Figure 3: 
Image A - Cigarette butts just metres from the designated smoking area, with designated smoking area highlighted (Photo courtesy of Oonagh Bodin). 
Image B - Counts of cigarette butts collected in 15 min at sites across LTU
So, besides its aesthetically unpleasant properties, litter is making a negative impact on our quality of life through the air we breathe, 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 La Trobe?'.

To this we say: 'Get your butts off the lawn and help us clean!'.

We are calling out to all of you on Melbourne campus who 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 gain from our institutions; learning how to be more responsible and thoughtful members of society is an invaluable lesson for us all 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 university an exemplary campus and a place so clean that we could eat off the ground without getting styrofoam trash stuck in our teeth!

Email Lucie or Jen if you would like to participate in the next litter cleaning session which will be held Friday 13 May at 4.00pm.

Environmental microbiologists taking action against the litter atrocities on campus. 
Come join us next time!


Lucie Semenec completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) at the University of British Columbia and a Masters of Science in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

She is currently completing a PhD specialising in Environmental Microbiology at La Trobe University. 

Her research is focused on the characterization of electron exchange interactions between electrogenic (electric current producing) microorganisms. This research has applications in microbial fuel cell technologies including bioremediation, power production and microbial biosensors. Lucie tweets at @luciesemenec.

Jen Wood is currently completing a PhD in microbial community ecology with Associate Professor Ashley Franks' lab. Jen’s  research interest is in understanding the ecology of soil microbial communities and the practical applications this information will have for global sustainability. In particular, she is investigating how soil microbial communities can improve the plant-based-bioremediation of anthropogenic pollution such as heavy metals.

Jen is passionate about science communication and has been involved in La Trobe's 3MT competition and the La Trobe COMMuniversity. Last year, she cofounded Supporting Women In Science (SWIS) and was a semi-finalist in the Victorian Young achievers award. Jen tweets at @wiltshirejen.