Why Littering Is Just Throwing in the Towel of Caring

I was sitting at a traffic light on Green River.  Out of my passenger’s side window, I saw a woman with her window partially rolled down.  Suddenly, she dropped a piece of paper out of the window only to do so a few more times.  I sat there staring, but she didn’t look over.  Seconds passed and I could find myself getting angrier.  Although I almost never make comments to nearby motorists or pedestrians, I suddenly had the urge to roll down my window and ask if she could stop littering.  But as the light changed, I lost my nerve, and traffic moved on.

A few years ago, we joined our neighbors on the Northside to clean up a stretch of woods on Hesmer Road.  As our kids and others dove into the woods and through the creek beds, we were astounded at the number and variety of items that were strewn about.  What started as a beautiful, peaceful stretch of woods had been marred by bottles, cans, clothing, used household items, and other kinds of refuse.  Although inspired by our fellow neighbors’ collective effort, it was a demoralizing reality at just how little people seemed to care about their surroundings.  Even worse was my walk a few weeks later in which I saw the cycle of litter returning.

To maintain a healthy society, three basic requirements are necessary.  People must take care of themselves, take care of others, and take care of the environment on which we depend.  When any of these necessities is violated or compromised to varying degrees, all suffer.  When people do what they want over the needs of others and our environment, things really start to deteriorate.  Littering basically epitomizes the worst of these circumstances; in essence, it violates basic societal needs.  It not only denigrates and dirties our communities, but it also forces other people to do the work that should be done by the litterer.  Furthermore, it seems like an ultimate act of laziness and callousness.  Most of us are fortunate to have trash removal available in our homes, business, and public areas.  But instead of simply keeping the trash until a receptacle becomes available, littering turn the world into a dumpster.

Beyond the obvious issues, though, there is even further reason to consider that litter is detrimental beyond the discarded bottle itself.  Research has long shown that the cleanliness and neatness of our neighborhoods and workplaces can influence our mood, behavior, and an overall sense of expectations.  Police and community forces throughout the country have found that cleaning up the streets (e.g., trash, graffiti) seems to have a positive effect on crime and other related actions.  But when our streets become rundown, it unconsciously supports a settling of standards that seems rather trashy.

Years ago on our honeymoon, my wife and I ventured into the inland hardwood forests of Maine at Alamoosook Lake.  Surrounded by a number of cabins, homes, and other residences, this almost 1,000 acre lake provided a gorgeous, pristine backdrop for our first few days together.  But as we ventured out and around the lake, we were struck by a wonderful, unexpected surprise.  There was no trash anywhere, no sign of littering at all.  Although people may argue that the setting dictated the behavior, we had been to many beautiful lakes before, and the signs of human occupation were unfortunately easy to see. But here, the loons, the pines, and the setting sun remained untainted by human waste.

So I come back to the topic of littering.  I must admit.  It seems like one of the easiest issues to remedy, yet everywhere trash accumulates despite the fact I believe we all desire more beautiful place to live.  If you have any creative ideas to curb the practice, let me or the city know; otherwise, just having the courage to encourage cleaner habits (for people we meet or know) might be where we need to start.  And if you happen to be littering, beware of the driver next to you.  He might roll down his window and ask you (nicely) to keep your trash to yourself.

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