One of the things that’s pretty much a consensus about litter is our revulsion to it. As a species, we have what I guess is a natural aversion to personal items that we or others have cast off. That’s why most people don’t litter, because we’d find it repulsive if someone else did that. Whether it’s food or drink or smoked out cigarette butts or bodily fluids, it’s gross, we don’t want it back and we don’t want to see it again. One reason why trash cans have a lid. Disease and infection risks aside, it’s just naturally repulsive. Trash: we don’t want to see it, smell it, touch it.
Why should anyone else want to? Think about that, litterbug.
Litter is pollution, like oil spills and powerplant smoke and fertilizers and pcb’s, just not as immediately harmful as some other forms of environmental contamination. A lot of the difference is, most of the litter comes from ordinary people, not some evil corporation. The people from Marlboro aren’t secretly dropping used products along the roadway while nobody’s looking. Neither is that pimply kid at Burger King surreptitiously dumping crowns and fry cups beside our roads. Nor is Johnson and Johnson, or Starbucks or 7-11 taking their stuff, using it and throwing it out the car window. Not them, us. We the people. Let’s break that down a bit.
The googled top result, for the word “litter”, Wikipedia brings out some interesting facts, which I’ll excerpt and condense because you can get the long version from them: most people admit to littering in the recent past, everyone wants less litter, young people are the biggest offenders and people over 50 seldom litter and tend fill the ranks of the volunteers who pick it up. Like me.
Fifty percent of litter is intentional and the rest is accidental, windblown or fallen from a vehicle with a poorly secured load. Autos are almost always a common denominator. Except for the litter that comes from blown over trash can or kids and other careless types walking down the roadway and casually dropping candy wrappers and the like, it’s all been out for a ride. Hmm. Sounds about right, no?
It begs some questions though: What percentage of litter happens at night? Wikipedia is silent on that one. I think we have to answer that one intuitively. Except for the accidental stuff and the cigarette butt tossers, which are as ubiquitous as cell phone talkers, only a few people are littering in broad daylight in traffic.
At night, people driving in their cars know they aren’t as likely to draw attention to their piggishness. At night, drivers tend to be younger, for a lot reasons including the fact that older people tend to be at work during the day and at home at night. Over 40, according to Harvard, most people start having difficulty driving at night and many avoid night driving, leaving the roadways to the younger set. It’s a formula for casual littering. Let’s call it 75% just to put a number on it. That’s being generous I think.
Shall we even bother with the question of what days are the biggest producers of litter? I’ll cut to the chase: it’s the weekends. Period. Everyone knows this. It’s my most productive walk, that Monday morning stroll with the dog. Safe bet it’s that way everywhere in the world, except maybe Singapore which is famous for having clean as a whistle streets thanks to strict laws for minor offenses. In Singapore they levy very large fines, and community service for the convicted litter bug that includes picking up litter. Thrice convicted litter bugs have to wear a sign that says what you might expect such a sign to say. Maybe they’re on to something.
Here in New York litter enforcement is somewhat less of a priority, being roughly the ninth most common criminal court summons in the City (about 19,000 a year) and carrying a $50 fine. It’s not a big priority. Maybe it should be.
Much litter starts out innocuously enough – people doing the normalist American things: Saturday at the drive through or the deli or the drug store or the coffee shop, picking up something quick: food, alcohol, condoms, smokes. It’s all packaged up and clean and neat in the beginning. It is eaten, enjoyed, used, whatever, then tidied up nice in the bag or in one of those black deli bags that they give you for the beer and its out the window:
Pretty soon, the car window air mail is mixing with all the other cast off stuff or blown by the roadside and everything is turning sour and rank and starting to look like nobody really cares.
There goes the neighborhood. Well, except if someone picks it up that is.