America's Love Affair With Littering

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."

Amaker sees this dynamic at work frequently. "Last week, I was going to lunch and I saw a woman open her pack of cigarettes and just drop the plastic wrapping on the sidewalk," he said. "I politely said, 'Pardon me, ma'am, but there's a trash can just eight feet further up the street, and if everybody would utilize that we would have a cleaner community.' She looked at me like I was crazy, but then she realized I might be right and actually said she'd make an effort not to litter in the future."

Amaker admits not all such "grassroots" confrontations end so benignly or with such lack of hostility. And while his organization has had some success in organizing litter patrols, lobbying for more trash receptacles and educating people on the harm of litter, Amaker remains frustrated.

"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. Some police beg to differ.

"Pursuing litter violations is not a low priority at all," says Connecticutt State Trooper Roger Beaupre, a public information officer at the state police's headquarters. "If troopers see someone discharge an object from a vehicle, they will conduct the proper procedure. Also, if we find four or five bags of trash dumped along the side of the highway, we will thumb through it in search of something with a mailing address on it, go to that place and confront the resident. I have done this many times myself. Most people confess to it when confronted with the evidence."

"It shows a lack of respect for other people and the environment and, unfortunately, a ticket for littering is not something that will help them unlearn their behavior," he says.

Instead, Beaupre suggests that other motorists can play a major role in punishing motorized litterbugs. All they have to do is jot down the license plate number of any vehicle from which litter has been tossed and report it to the police.

"It's the same as any moving violation, such as someone cutting you off in traffic or hurling an object at your car," he says. "The police will take a written sworn statement from you, then contact the accused. If the accused contests the charge, you would have to appear in court."

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.

"Auntie Litter is the wife of Uncle Sam," she says. "I want her to fight to save the Earth as hard as he fights to save the country. The idea came to me in 1988, when the bad news about the environment kept bothering me."

That was the year the syringes washed up on the beaches of New Jersey and the fires raged out of control in the West. The final straw was the arrival in Mitchell's Alabama backyard of a barge filled with New York City's garbage.

"I thought, why are they sending us their garbage? And I learned that this garbage was making money for Alabama. Now, that is sad, don't you think?" she says. "I began to study the way people littered at the beach one day and I realized that it was out of control."

Mitchell suggests that when a person chooses to toss a lit butt or wad of fast food trash from the window of a car, he is not just breaking the law, he is extending a middle finger to the world.

"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."

Mitchell cites the sort of statistics that anti-bottle bill folks would rather she keep to herself. For example, the cost of picking up litter, nationwide, has risen to $500 million and, in Connecticut, the price tag hovers near $2 million. That's just picking it up; that doesn't include the cost of recycling it or the cost of maintaining a landfill. With numbers like these, and Mitchell's well-honed classroom skills, she avoids well-meaning but inefficient solutions like cleanup patrols, preferring a "proactive strategy" that aims to alter human behavior-starting as young as age 3.

"You'd be amazed what 3-year-olds can teach their parents," says Mitchell, whose national campaign has earned her an invitation to the White House and the chance to carry the Olympic torch. "Elementary schools are my core audience. It's all about preventing the litter in the first place, eliminating the need for roadside patrols. Auntie Litter is here to tell them that litter is unacceptable and inexcusable. Adults will only change when a panic sets in. How many deaths are caused by litter?"

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. "Tougher littering laws may only inspire rebellion ... Futile though it seems, perhaps our best hope lies in continuing to pick up litter and ... putting our energy into preventing intentional acts of depreciation."

Kiss My Butt

The item most often littered -- and ignored or dismissed as inconsequential -- is the cigarette butt. Each year, according to CigaretteLitter.Org, about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide, and in the United States, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, the butts "make up half of all roadside litter." Butts don't just litter roadsides; they are also tossed on sidewalks, in the gutter, in municipal flower planters, on nature trails and beaches. At this point dead butts are more ubiquitous than mosquitoes or cockroaches, and just as ugly.

The operative myth about cigarette butts -- which tobacco companies have taken pains to encourage -- is that the filters are biodegradable. Nothing could be further from the truth. The filters are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that remains in the environment as long as all other forms of plastic. These undegradable filters are eventually carried by wind and the rain into the water supply, where the toxic chemicals that were trapped inside them (rather than enter the smoker's lungs) leach out. Clean Virginia Waterways has also noted, "Cigarette butts present a threat to wildlife. Cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine creatures who mistake them for food."

Furthermore, cigarette butts are like magnets; they beget more litter. Generally, they are the first item littered in the chain reaction known as the "gateway theory," which posits that once the cigarette butt appears, other litter will follow, and that negative human behavior is simply looking for a "gateway" through which to express itself.

Earlier this year, Maine state Rep. Joseph Brooks proposed a "Returnable Butt Bill" (officially LD258) that would have required a 5-cent deposit on every cigarette sold in the state. The bill gained momentum and had a chance of passing, until the tobacco companies pumped millions into a propaganda campaign that included making a presentation to the legislature. Still, the idea has some legs and other states are looking into proposing a similar bill.

Plastic People

Since glass will eventually break down to its natural silica components and much of the paper will degrade in time (in fact, newspaper and paper towels can be placed in compost heaps), the most troubling litter is plastic and polystyrene foam. One of the greatest victories in the litter battle was when McDonald's did away with foam "clamshell" packaging in November 1990.

Still, we've got more of that nondegradable stuff circulating today than we'll ever know what to do with. Ten percent of all landfills, by weight, are taken up by plastics, which do not degrade over time and thus always take up the space they initially fill. Each year, over 20 million tons of plastic enter the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.

Like that other environmentally destructive addiction -- the internal combustion engine -- plastic production is driven by fossil fuels, specifically, petroleum, natural gas and coal. These fuels are treated and heated to form monomers, like ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene and para-xylene. These monomers are combined to form chains called polymers. Although there are 45 basic families of plastics, the most common in use are thermoplastics, which account for 80 percent of U.S. plastic production.

The good news is that the overabundant thermoplastics can be remelted and resolidified many times before the resins degrade. These are made from plastic resins, like polyethylene, that can be altered in density for different purposes. High density polyethylene -- accounting for nearly 15 percent of all plastics in use -- is used for milk cartons. Low density polyethylene, comprising over 18 percent of the waste, is used for plastic bags.

Other common plastics are polyethylene terephthalate, used in soft drink and detergent containers, the highest percentage of plastic product that is recycled. Polyvinyl chloride, used in durable goods, is seldom recycled.

And what of those broken triangles, containing numbers, on the bottoms of all plastic objects? They are a coding system devised in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. The triangle is actually a "chasing arrow" intended to suggest recyclability. The arrow, like any voluntary industry program, is deceptive. Most of the plastic is, as things are set up now, virtually nonrecyclable. The most often recycled are the chasing arrows numbered 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and 2 (high density polyethylene).

The ubiquity of plastic will continue to rise, as plastics are now used for most bottling (won't break, can't be used in barroom fight as weapon); packaging (safe for microwaving); even in medicine (plastic knees, shoulders, heart valves, etc.).

What ill omen does this bode for the content of roadside litter? What will happen to all those plastic bottles sitting in gulleys and floating on the ocean?

Well ... they sit and float there until some do-gooder like you or me picks them up.

Alan Bisbort is a writer for the Hartford Advocate.

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