Roadside Littering and Litterers


I was driving on US 30 a couple weeks ago and I noticed bagged trash left by the roadside by members of whatever organization volunteered to accept that responsibility for that stretch of road. It got me to thinking …

In Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I live, there seems to be a lot of roadside litter. I don’t litter, and I don’t recall being a driver or passenger in a vehicle when someone littered — at least not since my high school days. Yet given the amount of roadside litter, there must be more than a few folks who do it.

What I want to know is: what possesses someone to throw trash from their vehicle? Only someone who doesn’t give a shit about the environment, wildlife, and other people could do such a thing. But what is their motivation? What do they get out of it?

The main benefit has to be convenience. Pitching litter from your vehicle is certainly convenient. Now you see it — and smell it; now you don’t.

For teenagers there may often be a coolness dynamic at work. Some teens feel they can raise their social stature by committing rebellious acts. Littering is such an act. How about drunk drivers? Is the psychological payoff of littering similar to that of risking a DUI arrest, injury, or death. I suspect so. At their root, both drunk driving and littering are destructive behaviors. Furthermore, when a drunk driver throws their empties from their vehicle it is tantamount to getting rid of the evidence of their wrongdoing — a practical benefit in some cases to be sure.

Ironically, deliberate littering has been declining about 2 percent per year since the mid-1970s in US communities in which littering is measured. Frank Greve, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, explains that tougher littering laws and law enforcement have been driving the decline in some areas, such as New York City, New Jersey, Washington state, and large cities in Texas. There are other factors aligning against litter, though. Greve:

Recycling, for example, has made people more conscious of solid waste of all kinds. Tourist destinations discovered that it pays to be litter free.

Greve goes on to quote P. Wesley Schultz, a social psychologist at California State University at San Marcos, who suggests that Americans’ attitude toward litter hasn’t changed. OK, but their mindset has changed, right? So then how? Schultz:

People never had a very favorable attitude toward litter. What we have seen is a fairly dramatic change in people’s norms about how appropriate it is to litter.
[emphasis Schultz’s]

Hmm. Let me see if I understand this. People are littering less because societal norms have changed.

I think I’ll let myself be sold that. But we must remember that society is organic. A change in its composition inevitably affects its norms. The most prominent ongoing change occurring today in the US is the influx of Hispanics, many from Mexico. Unfortunately, this may result in an uptick in littering after three decades of decline. That’s right, blame the Mexicans!

Allan Wall does. He writes that littering is more socially acceptable in Mexico than in the US:

SEMARNAT (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales), the Mexican equivalent of the EPA, reported in 2001 that only 53% of the trash in Mexico winds up in officially-designated landfills and dump sites. The remaining 47% is tossed outside “in valleys, roads, vacant lots, bodies of water and ‘clandestine dumpsites’”.

There’s a whole class of workers in Mexico who make a living by selling objects they pick out of trash dumps. They even have a word for that occupation- pepenador. And 15,000 families live in trash dumps!

As another SEMARNAT document describes the situation: “Trash has become a persistent element in our surroundings….”
[emphasis Wall’s]

Among the anecdotal evidence Wall provides is this:

Once when I was riding a public bus, I saw a mother literally training her young son to toss a wrapper out the window.

And, of the impact in the US of Mexican immigration with regard to littering (as of the January 28, 2004 publication date of his piece), Wall writes:

… illegal Mexican immigrants stream into the United States, and bring their propensity to litter with them. They treat the Arizona desert like – well, they treat it like they treat their own country, dumping trash with reckless abandon.

But the immigration litter problem is not limited to the border region or California, though that would be bad enough. Reports from places as far removed as Long Island and Washington State associate litter problems with large groups of Mexican immigrants, often of the illegal persuasion.

Granted, Wall has a bee in his bonnet — maybe a whole nest — about illegal immigration. But what he writes is food for thought. Chester County has several pockets, some rather deep, of Hispanic immigrants. I can’t say that littering is regarded as a pressing problem here. The area is quite scenic, so one would think an increase in litter would quickly attract notice. For the time being, the prevention of suburban sprawl seems to be a much higher priority — as it should be.

RSS feed for comments on this post


7 comments so far

  1. gina on

    Interesting post.

    A few things:

    “Hmm. Let me see if I understand this. People are littering less because societal norms have changed.”

    I personally think that commercial in the 70’s with the crying Indian (this was before they were renamed Native Americans) had a huge effect. But seriously, I have been behind a couple of cars recently with trash thrown out the window, and for some reason, that was more difficult for me to fathom, then say, stealing, or assault. Don’t ask me why. (I didn’t check to see if they were Mexican, however…)

    I have a planned project to make a photo collage of runaway plastic bags, which I see everywhere.. especially along roadways, caught in trees, etc. I’m sure it would be huge.

    And funny this came up today.. I was too late in noticing an advertisement of soem sort in a baggie stuck under my windshield wiper, until I was driving down the road, and whoosh! it went. So, now I’m a culprit as well. (Shhhhhhh…)

  2. Kani on

    What about the surreptitious littering that I spot in almost every store? You know, the Starbucks or soda cup “accidently” left on a shelf in the middle of a clothing store. I have observed this internal littering much more frequently as of late. A side effect of our American non-stop drinking and snacking lifestyle, for those too lazy to look for a trash can.

    My favorite littering story involved my then-16 year old nephew, Dan. While driving, he told his friend to put out his cigarette, because Dan’s parents wouldn’t allow smoking in their car. The kid threw the lit cigarette out the window as they rode along. The boys parked the car and went into the mall. When they finally came out,they spotted fire engines and police – Dan’s car was on fire. The tossed cigarette blew into the back window and smoldered while they shopped.

  3. QC on

    I too have noticed the increase in internal littering and I agree it’s a side effect of the non-stop drinking, etc. You’ve given me a great idea for a possible future post(s): What caused Americans to get so thirsty? Americans weren’t always like this were they? When did the changeover begin? When will it end?

    I remember about Dan’s car catching on fire at the mall, but I didn’t remember why it happened. I hate it when people throw lit cigarettes out their vehicle windows.

    The crying Indian commercial no doubt had significant impact. I had forgotten about it. YouTube to the rescue:

    — 60-second version

    — 30-second version

    And here’s an interesting one: In 1998 the Indian was brought “Back by Popular Neglect” in a commercial that ran for only a short time in only a few areas


    When I’m behind someone who throws trash out their window, I’m often tempted to blow my horn, but thus far I haven’t done so. I figure if they’re callous enough to litter they may not hesitate to confront me and inflict a beating or worse.

  4. Gina on

    @ Kani: I have a small irrational fear of my car blowing up whenever I’m behind someone who flicks a cigarette out the car window..

    internal or external littering… really does it matter? It’s just perspective..aren’t landfills just organized litter piles? There is no such thing as ‘throwing away”.. where is ‘away’? And what about all of those abandoned buildings, or car fumes, or billboards, or poorly built housing developments, etc, etc..? Almost everything we make or use is just trash waiting to happen.. have you seen this?:

    @QC I, too, have not had the nerve to express my disapproval of car-littering.. but then again, based on the above, do i really have a right to?

  5. Gina on

    Oh yeah.. @QC.. re: thirsty Americans…marketing. And processed food. But mostly marketing.

  6. QC on

    I share that fear of my car blowing up. Why is the fear irrational? Is it because the rush of air would extinguish the cigarette before it could do damage?

    Chris Jordan’s photo art is amazing! I love the social consciousness of it. Thanks for that link.

    Sure you have a right to express your disapproval of car-littering … though I wouldn’t recommend doing so in most cases. The windshield wiper thing was an honest mistake.

    Snopes is a favorite of mine going way back.

  7. QC on

    In response to some callers on the QC audio comment line at 800-URA-BIGOT, my comment about blaming the Mexicans was made with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: