Litter, litter, everywhere


LitterPop cans. Coffee cups. Candy bar wrappers. Fast food wrappers. Cigarette packages. Cigarette butts. Dog feces. Bags of dog feces. Flyers. Cellophane package wrap. Water bottles. Juice bottles. Chip bags. Beer cans and bottles. Disposable lighters and pens. Cardboard beer boxes. Discarded newspapers and junk mail. Plastic grocery bags.

I just don’t get littering. I’ve never gotten littering.

These are just some of the items I’ve seen stuck into snow banks and hedges in my neighbourhood, or dropped on the road the past few weeks. There’s always litter, it seems, always someone carelessly and thoughtlessly dropping garbage on the sidewalk, the boulevard or street. The snow has covered up the older stuff. Come spring it will come out again. The streams and creeks will thaw and deliver a new load of garbage into our harbour.

Why do people litter? Why would anyone pollute their own home? Dump their trash on streets and sidewalks they have to walk themselves? Why would anyone get a dog and let it crap on someone else’s lawn and not pick up after it? Or more confusingly, pick up then leave the bag of feces on the lawn for the homeowner to deal with. Or someone else to walk on.

What sort of animal fouls its own nest? What sort of person would foul a beautiful town like Collingwood? Surely we all want this to be the best, the prettiest, the cleanest and most livable town in Canada. Litter won’t let that happen.

Why would anyone – even a smoker – consider it acceptable to dump the contents of a car ashtray on the public street? After all, the public space is their space too: it belongs to us all. Would you do this in your living room? In your bed? yet I’ve often seen people do this downtown and in parking lots.

I’ve seen people buy oil and windshield washer fluid at Canadian Tire, fill their car in the parking lot, then drive away leaving the empty bottles on the asphalt. I’ve seen people walk into local pizza joints, buy a slice, eat it and drop the cardboard tray on the sidewalk only feet from the place they bought it.

I’m baffled. And I’m not the only one. Anneli Rufus wrote in Psychology Today:

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…

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.

I understand somewhat that not all children have been taught not to litter, and that a child’s sense of social responsibility is often under-developed. Some of the garbage I see is from elementary students walking to school. Candy wrappers, chocolate milk containers, that sort of thing. I’ve seen them drop it, even while parents escort them home. Sometimes the parents even stop and pick it up.

But coffee cups and cigarette butts – these are adults. I’ve seen adults at sports fields and events cheering their kids on in some game, then leaving coffee cups, discarded food wrappers and condiment bags on the ground at their feet when they leave. Usually there is a waste bin a few feet away. No wonder their kids litter; no wonder they don’t develop a healthy sense of social responsibility: they learn the lesson from mom and dad.

Toronto StarI’m sure every reader here has seen images of Canada Post superbox installations awash in the discarded junk mail people simply drop on the ground rather than take home and dispose of responsibly. A Google search will produce hundreds of such images, if not. Disgusting, I suspect you will say when you see them.*

These are adults, not children doing this. Adults are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be the role models for children: responsible, aware, conscientious, ethical. Stewards of the environment. Not lazy litterers.

And I’m sure everyone of them who did it knows full well that littering is irresponsible and anti-social behaviour. So why do it?

A 2009 New York Times article about the costs of cigarette littering to municipalities started with this telling anecdote:

Andrea Scott says she would never throw a candy wrapper on the ground.

“Littering is one of my pet peeves, and I always told my kids they’d be in big trouble if I catch them doing it,” said Ms. Scott, a 43-year-old financial executive, as she sat outside an office tower on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a recent sunny afternoon. “I see people throw stuff out their car windows, and I cringe.”

Yet she confesses that she routinely discards cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

For her and countless other American smokers, cigarette butts are an exception to the no-littering rule. “Aren’t cigarettes biodegradable?” volunteered Libby Moustakas, a co-worker who was enjoying a smoking break with Ms. Scott.

Scott, like most other smokers, apparently doesn’t see her own cigarette trash as litter. Yet she’s conscientious about other types of garbage and is offended when others litter. And therein lies a cognitive dissonance I think most of her fellow smokers and litterers share: they don’t see their own garbage as litter, merely as a somewhat bad habit or a minor inconvenience.

River litter

I don’t (entirely) buy arguments that these people are just selfish, stupid, irresponsible, dirty, ignorant or whatever adjective you want to label them with.**

It’s more complex than just some instant (and invariably negative) judgment would suggest.

I’ve seen caring parents do it. I’ve seen well-dressed teens on their way to school do it. I’ve seen dedicated joggers and cyclists do it. I’ve watched businessmen in suits remove coffee cups from their cars and leave them in the road downtown before they drove off.

Don’t Trash Arizona notes there are many apparent reasons people litter:

Individuals can be influenced by a number of factors, including a belief that an item is not litter (such as a cigarette butt or banana peel), laziness, perceived lack of consequences for their actions, seeing litter already in a given area, or a lack of trash receptacles.

Regardless of the reason – or lack thereof – for it, littering is a conscious, directed act, not an involuntary reaction. People choose to litter.

Robin Abrahams wrote:

It turns out that people — joggers, kids, hikers, homeless – don’t litter just because they’re lazy and don’t care. My box-strewn spot is what social psychologist Robert Cialdini would have predicted based on the “before” picture. The past decades of late night reservoir viewing have left the lookup with broken glass and small detritus. In “Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment,” Cialdini noted that people litter in an already littered environment, and they refrain from littering in a pristine environment. Littering happens when plastic bags, cans and broken glass inform us that this is a place where the normative — usual, expected — practice is to litter. A pristine environment sends the message that we would be socially out of step if we littered.

The availability of trash cans doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on littering behaviour. A study done by the Keep America Beautiful organization found people drop their litter even when a trash receptacle is nearby. I’ve seen them do it here in local parks: walk away from a picnic table and leave the trash behind when a bin is less than 50 feet away.

  • Despite the widespread availability of trash receptacles in public spaces, litter is still quite common. Of the 130 sites we visited, only two were litter free. The most commonly found existing litter was cigarette butts (106 sites, 82%), miscellaneous paper (87 sites, 67%), and food wrappers (58 sites, 45%).
  • The most frequently littered item was cigarette butts (in our focused observations of smokers, we observed a 65% littering rate). With regard to disposals, our team also observed high littering rates for food remnants and food wrappers.
  • Contrary to expectations, the majority of littering behavior (81%) occurred with notable intent. This include dropping with notable intent (54%), flick/fling of the item (20%), and other notable intent (7%).

A bit later in the study, you read that conveniently placed trash cans do reduce the rate of littering, but not end it. I suppose it depends on the measure of convenience: some people think 50 feet is inconvenient, so they feel justified in littering. Maybe if the bin was closer, say 20 or even 10 feet away, they might not. But clearly a municipality can’t have garbage bins every 10 or 20 feet.

That study also noted that the average site they researched had 69 cigarette butts, (with one site more than 1,000!). Of 8,990 people observed, 4% littered and 17% disposed of their waste improperly. That’s more than one in five!

Tobacco product litter (TPL) is one of the most costly forms of litter and all taxpayers are paying the cost for it:

City and municipal TPL costs are incurred through manual and mechanical clean-up of surfaces and catchment areas. According to some studies, public litter abatement costs to US cities range from US$3 million to US$16 million. TPL typically comprises between 22% and 36% of all visible litter, implying that total public TPL direct abatement costs range from about US$0.5 million to US$6 million for a city the size of San Francisco. The costs of mitigating the negative externalities of TPL in a city the size of San Francisco can be offset by implementing a fee of approximately US$0.20 per pack.

Litter isn’t just unsightly. It’s expensive. In the USA, the costs run into the millions:

Litter is expensive. On the front end, there is obviously the cost of consuming whatever product it held or enveloped. But at the end of that product’s life, it many end up on the curbs and sidewalks or, worse, in a sewer drain and into a precious body of water. According to a July 2011 post by Cool Cleveland, litter cleanup cost upwards of $4.5 million in the State of Ohio (1). This is aside from all the pro bono work done through initiatives like Keep America Beautiful’s Great American Cleanup, Pick Up America, and Earth Day activities. And just think of all the fuel costs associated with litter cleanup on our nation’s Interstate freeways. In the State of California, plastic litter claims more than $151 million per year, at the rate of $50,000 per year for weekly cleanup of each 5 mile section (2). Certainly, litter creates a few jobs, but the positive impacts are negligible. While nearly all state governments are struggling to balance budgets and pay for infrastructure improvements, it is counterintuitive to perpetuate the degradation of neighborhoods, by making it harder for governments to make even minimal improvements.

Litter and wildlifeLitter is also dangerous to our health, to pet and to wildlife. Every year there are thousands of animals killed by garbage.

Cigarette butts, as I wrote about previously, are a serious threat. They leach toxic chemicals into our water and soil:

Cigarette butts are more than mere litter; environmental and health groups are just now appreciating the seriousness of the butt problem, from bio-accumulation of poisons up the food chain to damage to commercial fisheries and water supplies. A recent study showed that cigarette waste easily meets standardized tests for city and state agencies to label a substance as toxic waste. This hazardous material persists in the environment for some time and is often ingested by aquatic creatures, wildlife, and pets, not to mention small children, who suffer serious health problems as a result. Cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that can break into smaller pieces, but will never biodegrade or disappear. What’s worse is that the filters themselves are a sham. They offer no health protection and are simply a marketing device to give the appearance that a cigarette is somehow safer.

And Legacy for Health adds:

…the environmental impact of tobacco goes far beyond litter. Cigarette butts leach toxic chemicals —including arsenic, cadmium, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—that could pollute the environment and harm its ecosystems. They are mostly made of plastic and are only biodegradable under ideal conditions, making them a long-lasting threat to the environment.

And like many aspects of tobacco, the impact of cigarettes on the environment has economic implications as well. Cities, towns and other municipalities must pay clean-up costs for tobacco litter; in 2009, in the city of San Francisco alone, these costs were estimated to be more than $10 million each year.

Lest you think this is an America-only problem, read this report from an Ontario officer in the Legislative Research Service. it notes:

In Canada, the one-day cleanup collected 335,771 cigarette butts from 1,337 sites.

Although a source of visual pollution, the more serious problems associated with discarded cigarette butts relates to slow decomposition and toxic content. Apparently made of cotton, the filters in cigarette butts are in fact made of cellulose acetate, a substance that is resistant to degradation. Studies show varying rates of decomposition, ranging from one month to three years, to 10 to 15 years (the consensus). As described by scientists, cigarette butts are photodegradable but not biodegradable. The difference is that, whereas biodegradable substances are organic materials that become neutralized by enzymes or sunlight, non-biodegradable substances stay in the environment for decades. In other words, cigarette butts will eventually break down into a powdery plastic residue, but they will never completely disappear.

So what can be done? More enforcement? Higher fines and penalties? Social shaming? I’m not convinced they work.

How do we educate and motivate people not to litter? I don’t know. I really don’t understand it, so I am at a loss for solutions. I’ll keep searching for some program, some initiative, some campaign that can make a real difference and stop the littering by all ages.

I’m open to suggestions and ideas.


* Canada Post shrugs off responsibility for the garbage, and in part they are not to blame for what individuals choose to do, but they can’t escape it entirely. CP should work with every municipality to set up waste and recycling bins at all superbox locations and contribute financially to municipal cleanup costs. That would be corporate social responsibility (CSR). Right now, Canada Post is severely lacking in same.

** From the Falkirk Council list:

  • They can’t be bothered or are too lazy to find a bin
  • They have no sense of pride in their community
  • There is a lack of education / poor parenting of young people
  • If an area is already dirty, why bother to look for a bin?
  • People don’t appreciate the consequences of littering (see Effects of litter)
  • We live in throwaway society with a ‘snack culture’ and too much packaging
  • It’s not cool to use a bin
  • Litter keeps someone in a job
  • People aren’t aware that some items are litter eg food, cigarette ends, chewing gum
  • It’s OK to litter if no one can see you!
  • It’s OK to litter if you are drunk!
  • There aren’t enough bins
  • The bins are in the wrong place
  • The bins aren’t emptied often enough
  • The bins aren’t big enough
  • The bins are not suitable for disposing of dog mess or cigarette ends
  • The bins are dirty
  • There aren’t enough fines for littering
  • One person can’t make a difference
  • It’s rebellious and anti-authoritarian to litter (is it?)
  • Fast food outlets don’t care about the litter associated with them
  • Everybody does it!
  • The Council aren’t doing their job properly
  • There are much worse things in the world to worry about than litter.

The City of Chicago lists these reasons:

  1. People litter because they do not feel responsible for public areas like streets and parks. The more they litter, the more it becomes a habit, and the worse the community looks.
  2. People usually litter outside their own neighborhood where their trash becomes someone else’s problem.
  3. People litter because they believe someone else — a maintenance worker or responsible neighbor — will pick up after them.
  4. Once litter starts to pile up, people feel even less responsible for adding to the litter. If an area is clean, people are less likely to litter.

The City of Milton adds:

Why do people litter?
People litter because they feel no sense of personal ownership for the area they are spoiling. For example, most people would never think of throwing a gum wrapper on their living room floor. But the same people may not think twice about dropping litter in a park, sidewalk or parking lot.

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