If Americans Are So Worried About Pollution, Why Are So Few Willing to Speak Up About It?

Smokestacks billow toxic clouds while crumpled food wrappers dance across the street with the breeze.

Given the damage pollution can cause, it’s fair to wonder, how do Americans feel about it? What types of pollution bother us the most, and why? A new study by SaveOnEnergy asked more than 2,000 Americans these questions. Here’s what they learned.

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While pollution is a broad term, several different types bother Americans. Based on the survey results, industrial pollution draws the most ire, followed by water waste and civilian pollution (such as littering).

What people may not understand, is what exactly industrial pollution is. Perhaps images of massive factories or plants with smoke shooting from its stacks 24 hours a day, seven days a week come to mind.

These plants pose a major risk to the health of the surrounding environment and population. Byproducts from such plants include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, lead and mercury—toxic elements that no one wants near their home or community.

The remaining four types of pollution are of a more personal nature: Water waste, littering and/or civilian pollution, food waste and energy waste are all types of pollution that can be caused by a single person.

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When looking at specific instances of civilian pollution, people were most offended by pollution of our natural landscapes. Out of 10 scenarios, young adults leaving beer bottles behind after a day of surf and sun was the most bothersome to those surveyed. Save Our Shores, a nonprofit marine conservation organization, says glass bottles take upward of 1 million years to break down naturally.

A situation in which someone neglects to pick up their dog’s excrement in a local park also presents a health risk. In fact, a study of air in Cleveland and Detroit found that between 10 and 50 percent of the bacteria in the air came from man’s best friend.

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Respondents found contaminated local water supply to be the most upsetting industrial pollution scenario. No one wants to consider what health issues could arise if they were using a compromised water supply in their daily lives. Whether due to burned chemicals, changes to a less protected water source, or even from failing to use federally mandated anti-corrosive agents, so many things could go wrong. And you might not know before it's too late, as the residents of Flint, Michigan, who found out their water supply was contaminated by high levels of lead.

The second- and third-most bothersome industrial pollution scenarios deal with waste from a local power plant and factory smoke impacting the quality of air. More than half of the U.S. population resides in areas where air pollution levels are dangerously high. Air pollution also kills about 7 million people worldwide every year.

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A business that chooses to be environmentally responsible isn’t just good for the planet—it may even encourage greater customer loyalty. Nearly 90 percent of participants are more likely to support a business if it is environmentally responsible. In fact, 19 of the top 50 most sustainable companies in the world are from the U.S., including Cisco, Coca-Cola, Intel, General Mills and Johnson & Johnson.

However, while many people are willing to make their feelings known through their wallet, fewer respondents are willing to share a verbal or written concern with a business they believe isn’t behaving in an environmentally responsible manner. A little over 20 percent are willing to voice their concerns.

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Have you ever witnessed someone littering? What about harmful chemicals being dumped on the ground or into a body of water like a river or lake? Would you be willing to confront them? It turns out, more than half (54 percent) have not previously confronted a person for their environmentally irresponsible behavior.

Notably, though, just over 30 percent of respondents are likely or very likely to call out environmental recklessness in the future. Further, more than 40 percent are not likely or very likely to single anyone out in the future.

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Those surveyed indicated they were most bothered by pollution because it contaminated the water and air. Without clean water and air, we’d have a very hard time maintaining a healthy lifestyle. There can be no doubt that pollution has a massive impact on our survival.

Planting the Seeds of Change

When it comes to environmental protection, more fight and less flight is required to protect air and water supplies for current and future generations. Nobody likes pollution. But while the jury is still out on whether Americans will say anything when they see someone taking environmentally unfriendly actions out on the planet, they will support businesses that have a greener focus.


SaveOnEnergy surveyed 2,000 Americans aged 18 and older about their biggest pollution pet peeves. The survey participants came from nearly every state with a wide range of ethnic, educational and professional backgrounds. The rankings of each scenario were averaged in the survey to find which ones were the most offensive.

Study and graphics: SaveOnEnergy

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