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.
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….”
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.