Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

Trash Talk

What's the psychology of littering?
What kind of mindset does it take, and what must one be thinking, to litter?

I know, it sounds trivial. Just as litter seems trivial. Wars are raging around the world and the economy's in meltdown. What do a few bottlecaps matter? But I think they do. I believe that the proliferation of discarded packaging peppering urban and suburban America -- strewn over sidewalks, streets, gutters and gardens rather than being dropped into recycling bins and trash cans -- tells us something. I just can't figure out what.

Every day we each step over and around a slurry of discarded cups, cans, straws, snack wrappers, cigarette packets, and more - all dropped by others. Most of us pay no mind. Litter isn't pretty, but it won't bite. So over it we step, averting our eyes.

But hey: Each of these items got where it is because someone was holding it in his or her hands and then let go.

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Here in the civilized world, municipal trash cans stand on nearly every streetcorner. Public areas are ringed with recycling bins and other trash receptacles. Litterers are nearly always within sight of at least one receptacle when they choose, instead, to litter. And it is a choice. Something is in your hand; then it isn't. It ceases to be in your hand. How? Reaching the nearest trash receptacle would mean only grasping the item a few seconds longer, two or three minutes at most. But somehow, for countless someones, that wait isn't worth it.

Why not?

Rob Wallace, a representative of the anti-litter nonprofit Keep America Beautiful, which organizes beach and roadside cleanups and other admirable projects, told me that the research on reasons for littering is ongoing but not yet conclusive. Wallace theorized that some people litter because they feel disenfranchised from society, that they feel powerless. I've heard this before, but I've yet to see how discarding snack wrappers onto the sidewalk instills a sense of power. Sure, maybe it's an expression of anger, a look-at-me-I'm-not-invisible cri de coeur, serving much the same purpose as graffiti. I was here. But what's the payoff? Wading through your own detritus?

Wallace also theorized that some people litter because they've come to believe that whatever they do, others will pick up after them. They have no sense of responsibility. This idea was confirmed by a veteran California highway patrolman who told me that in his twenty years-plus of pulling drivers over for tossing litter out their car windows -- a misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $1,000 -- not once had an offender ever apologized once caught. They either denied having littered, the patrolman told me, or shrugged off the act as insignificant.

A trip to the supermarket last night was typical: the gutter and curb surrounding the store were slick with discarded paper cups and snack wrappers. And this is a city that prides itself on environmental awareness. Its councilmembers and activists busily patting themselves on the back for passing clean-air initiatives clearly don't look down. At a central bus stop one recent afternoon, I waited alongside a teenage couple. Both sipped tall frothy Starbucks drinks. Trash cans stood at both ends of the bus shelter, at arm's length. Draining his drink, the boy flicked his empty cup into the flowerbed behind the bench. The girl giggled, did a cute little hop-dance for him, then flung her nearly-empty cup onto the sidewalk. Their bus arrived. They boarded it.

Litter is every town's dirty little secret. No one wants to admit how ugly it is, or the fact that it is getting worse despite decades of anti-litter education such as those early-'70s posters and commercials whose taglines were "Don't be a litterbug" and Give a hoot. Don't pollute."

The dirtiest part of this dirty secret is that many if not most litterers are young. They're not so young that they don't realize what they're doing. They're cognizant enough to acquire the snacks and cigarettes in the first place, to choose from a selection of products and brands and pay for their selections. When they litter, they know they're littering.

Because I walk several miles each day I am perhaps hyperaware of litter, which perhaps makes me hyperconcerned. Was it obsessive of me to circumambulate the local high shool at around 4 p.m. one weekday not so long ago, picking up litter and -- before chucking it into the many municipal trash bins ringing the campus -- listing each item in a spiral pad? Half an hour yielded the discarded packaging for: Gummi bears, licorice whips, Laffy Taffy, Newport cigarettes, Krispy Rice Treats, Chinese take-out, Jell-O, Zingers, Trolli Sour Brite Crawlers, Wonka Grunts, Mini Oreos, Welch's fruit snacks, Lay's potato chips, Rice Krispy Treats, Kudos, Yogos, Gatorade Rain, Gatorade Frost, Coke, Pepsi, Luna bars, Crystal Geyser, Camel cigarettes, Marlboro cigarettes, Frito's Flamin' Hot Munchies, Svenhard's Berry Horns, Corn Nuts, ketchup, Reese's peanut-butter cups, A&W root-beer candy, SoBe, 7-Up, Shasta grape soda, Minute Maid grape juice, Gus grape soda, Push-Ups, and Funyuns. Lay's, M&Ms, and Cheetos made a remarkably strong showing, as did cups and bags from McDonald's, Carl's Jr., Cold Stone, Taco Bell, and Starbucks.

All those items were dropped onto sidewalk, street, gutter and grass, probably all on that one afternoon, by fully conscious human beings.

What were they thinking?

 

 

 

 

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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