America Loves Its Litter

I despise those who litter, and place this group not much above child molesters. For years I have been carrying around with me from server to server this text from Alan Bisbort's excellent piece about this loathesome class of people. There's no way I could put my feelings into words without them turning into a full-blown, foam-at-the-mouth rant, so I hand the keyboard over to Mr. Bisbort.

Reprinted yet again, and hopefully still with Alan's permission...

America's Love Affair With Littering
By Alan Bisbort, Hartford Advocate
25 October 2001 

What ever happened to the outrage over litter? And what does it say that so many of us are collectively fine with the idea that the world is our garbage can?

Not so long ago in America, the very idea of littering—the wanton, stupid and illegal disposal of trash—was generally regarded as barbaric, something piteously subhuman and far-fetched, like a missile shield, faith-based government programs or Creationism.

Take a look around today. Drive down any street, highway or interstate, walk through any park, push aside the beleaguered botany in any public garden, in rich and in poor neighborhoods, in rural areas, urban landscapes and suburban blight, and it is quickly obvious litter has made a roaring comeback.

Statistics would be impossible to compile for the sheer quantity of litter, but anyone who opens their eyes to it will see that the act of littering occurs more often than, say, spitting on the sidewalk or farting and belching in public. In short, littering now seems as American as apple pie and violence.

What ever happened to the outrage over litter? And what does it say about us as a species—or more importantly our future on this planet—that so many of us are collectively fine with the idea that the world is our garbage can?

Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “empowering individuals to take greater responsibility for enhancing their local community environment,” offers some insights into the problem. The group has studied litter and littering for 47 years, and has sponsored thousands of local clean-up efforts around the country.

According to their surveys, litter is caused by any of the following: pedestrians, motorists, uncovered trucks, loading docks, construction sites, improper residential refuse set-out and improper commercial refuse set-out. Of all litter, 40 percent is accidental, such as something blowing out of a dump truck, while much of the 60 percent that’s intentional occurs in places where litter has already accumulated.

But while Keep America Beautiful can generally identify litter’s sources, the organization can only make educated guesses about why people litter. “Nobody has a definitive answer,” says Walt Amaker, Keep America Beautiful’s communications director. “More than anything else, it’s just apathy. Illegal dumping is an entirely different issue from everyday littering, of course.”

“In a way, we’re at the same place we were 47 years ago, when the organization was formed. It’s almost like we’re fighting a losing battle,” he says. “We did a nationwide survey in 1999, and one of the things we discovered was that 75 percent of those Americans we interviewed admitted to littering in the previous five years. And yet, if we’d asked them if they enjoyed having a clean environment, I’ll bet 999 out of a thousand would say ‘yes.’”

A recent Northwestern Mutual insurance company survey of graduating college seniors reveals a similar dichotomy. The survey stated: “People have different ideas about what’s right and wrong. As I read things some people do, tell me whether you think each one is absolutely wrong under all circumstances, wrong under most but not all circumstances, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all. Item 1. Tossing out trash while driving.”

Of the college students surveyed, 77 percent said this was “absolutely wrong,” 13 percent “mostly wrong,” 9 percent “sometimes wrong.” This was not far enough removed from the national average to indicate a deep pathological change; still, the anti-litter horror is not quite as strong as it once was, if one compares the above survey of young adults to the nationwide statistics: 89 percent saw it as “absolutely wrong,” 6 percent “mostly wrong,” 5 percent “sometimes wrong.”

This disconnect from reality—overwhelming numbers of people who say they love a clean environment, and yet overwhelming numbers of littering violations—baffles anyone who confronts this problem. Even psychologists who have studied this problem can’t agree. Some think the answer may come down to something as mundane as inconvenience.

”People litter for the simple reason that it is the easiest way to get rid of unwanted things,” says Francis T. McAndrew, a professor of environmental psychology at Knox College in Calesburg, Illinois. “You do not have to take the trouble to find a place to dispose of it and carry it there.”

McAndrew, whose studies of littering and litterers comprise a portion of his widely used college text, Environmental Psychology (Brooks/Cole, 1992), has even delineated what groups are likeliest to litter.

”Young people litter more than older people, men litter more than women, people living in rural areas litter more than urban residents, and people who are alone litter more than people in groups,” he says. “Some studies show that there is a relationship between the types of outdoor activities one engages in and the likelihood of littering. Bird watchers, nature walkers, and canoeists litter very little. Hunters, fishermen, campers, motorboaters, and waterskiiers litter a lot.”

Steve Sherwood, a psychologist at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, looks at litter from a different perspective. A former national park staffer, Sherwood is painfully aware of the peculiar pathology that drives people to litter in wilderness areas.

”The easiest answer as to why people defile their most beloved park lands is that litterers are vandals with little sense of the damage they do, whose parents raised them badly,” says Sherwood. “This may be true, but litterers do more than show a casual disregard for the environment.
For many, littering may provide a means of asserting personal freedom, setting territory, even soothing fears. People may mark the wilderness to make it less threatening ... for litterers, and perhaps for all of us, the wilderness may serve as both spiritual recharger and psychic trash dump.”

Sherwood thinks littering in the wilderness may, in part, be a deeply embedded, “ancient” need to establish territory. “In national parks, the most common temporary territories are fishing holes and campsites ... we could tell the best fishing holes along a given lake or stream by the number of discarded beer cans we found,” he says. “Changing brand names even told us where one hole ended and another began, as if the space an angler needed matched the distance he or she could cast an empty can.”

Those of us who see litter on a daily basis might be less generous in our psychological assessments of these littering miscreants. In a word, they are pigs, not to mention lawbreakers. Ironically, although littering itself is on the rise, the laws, if anything, have become stricter and the penalties harsher. Check out those scarifying roadside signs that vow Ayatollah-like severity for litterers, with some fines as high as $1,000. And yet, have you ever seen anyone pulled over for littering? Has anyone, besides Arlo Guthrie, ever gotten a ticket for littering?

One of Amaker’s contentions is that, like gun laws, litter laws are on the books; they are simply not enforced or with only the lowest priority. This lax enforcement only makes it easier for Americans to disconnect from reality on this issue.

Auntie Litter

Americans, as we are constantly reminded these days by the rest of the world, are the planet’s premier wasters. In addition to the gas-guzzling SUVs that we continue to purchase despite all logic to the contrary, we toss out 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour, creating four pounds of garbage per person per day. With only 5 percent of its population, we produce half the world’s waste.

So, where does all that garbage go? You guessed it. Litter.

Auntie Litter is a one-woman education machine trying to change that. “Auntie Litter” is Pat Mitchell, a former schoolteacher in Birmingham, Ala., who has turned her fears about the fate of the earth and her obsessions with litter into a personal crusade. She created the
character of Auntie Litter to be the moral equivalent of Uncle Sam.

“Litter shows a lack of pride, lack of education and laziness,” she concludes after more than a decade of studying the problem. “People have the sense that they can throw their trash anywhere and volunteers will organize to pick it up. They still think a big mommy will pick up after them. Some just don’t want the trash in the car, so they put it out of their sight, not making a connection to what they are really doing.”

Sometimes, she admits the fight seems overwhelming. “I’m not going to tie myself to a tree,” she said. “But I can understand why people would do that.” So does Sherwood. “With so many forces arrayed on the side of littering, a person can’t help feeling pessimistic,” he says.

A SOLUTION (Curitiba, Brazil)

Curitiba is referred to as the ecological capital of Brazil, with a network of 28 parks and wooded areas. In 1970, there was less than 1 square meter of green space per person; now there are 52 square meters for each person. Residents planted 1.5 million trees along city streets. Builders get tax breaks if their projects include green space. Flood waters diverted into new lakes in parks solved the problem of dangerous flooding, while also protecting valley floors and riverbanks, acting as a barrier to illegal occupation, and providing aesthetic and recreational value to the thousands of people who use city parks.

The “green exchange” employment program focuses on social inclusion, benefiting both those in need and the environment. Low-income families living in shantytowns unreachable by truck bring their trash bags to neighborhood centers, where they exchange them for bus tickets and food. This means less city litter and less disease, less garbage dumped in sensitive areas such as rivers and a better life for the undernourished poor. There’s also a program for children where they can exchange recyclable garbage for school supplies, chocolate, toys and tickets for shows.

Under the “garbage that’s not garbage” program, 70% of the city’s trash is recycled by its residents. Once a week, a truck collects paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass that has been sorted in the city’s homes. The city’s paper recycling alone saves the equivalent of 1,200 trees a day. As well as the environmental benefits, money raised from selling materials goes into social programs, and the city employs the homeless and recovering alcoholics in its garbage separation plant.

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