No More Litter Bugs

It is not okay to litter. Not only is it against the law, it's harmful to the environment. Who agrees?

I don't get it. Seriously, why do people think it is okay to litter? The other day I was in the car waiting for my husband to get some items at the grocery store and I saw a guy come out of the store with a pack of cigarettes. He opened his pack on his way to the car, leaving the wrapper on the ground. I was so annoyed with this behavior that I just could not let it go. I got out of the car and went over to him and picked up his trash and said something like, "Why do you think it is okay to litter?" I did not wait around long enough for a response, but I'm hoping that the embarrassment of someone seeing him do it and then pick up his trash will at least shame him into not doing it anymore (or at least to think twice about it).

This is not an isolated incident. Within the same week, I saw a woman carrying her Starbucks coffee, and granted, she did have her hands full, but she dropped her napkin. She saw it fall behind her and she just walked on. I spoke loudly about how unbelievable it is that people don't pick up after themselves. I picked up her trash and threw it away. What is with people? Why do they feel entitled to leave their trash on the streets? Is it really that hard to make it to a trash can?

I just looked up some statistics and found that over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year. Motorists (52%) and pedestrians (23%) are the biggest contributors to litter. On roadways, tobacco products, mostly cigarette butts, are the most littered item (38%), followed by paper (22%) and plastic (19%). Off roadways, mostly at entrances to businesses, transportation, and other places where items must be discarded before entering, the top littered items are confection (e.g. candy, chocolate, gum) at 54% and cigarette butts at 30%. The reasons for why people litter include the following: people don't care, litter begets litter, ignorance, lack of pride, and lack of consequence for their actions.

There are many reasons why it's not a good idea to litter. To highlight a few,

  • Houses for sale in litter neighborhoods are valued lower, estimated at a 7% decrease in property value.
  • Fires started by litter causes millions of dollars of damages every year.
  • Every year there are numerous vehicle accidents caused by attempting to avoid litter in the roadways.
  • Millions of birds, fish, and animals die annually from litter.
  • Litter carries germs.
  • Litter costs money. Litter cleanup costs the U.S. almost $11.5 billion each year. 

(Statistics from Keep America Beautiful)

Littering is illegal in all states in the U.S. In California, penal code 374 says it is illegal to litter and penal code 23111 says it is illegal to throw a lit cigarette out of a moving vehicle (this one really irks my husband). The fine for littering ranges from $100 to $1,000. I contacted the police departments in my city, Danville, and nearby Walnut Creek, to see if the police actually give tickets for littering. Danville police said they do, mostly for cigarette butts. My friend who works in the Walnut Creek Police Department said he has stopped people who litter—sometimes citing them and sometimes making them pick up after themselves. I would imagine both would be effective coming from the police.

In my research for writing this blog, I came across a site, LitterButt, that lets you tell on litter bugs who throw trash from a car. You report the license plate number and the offender receives a letter from the state notifying them they were caught littering. No fines are levied, though they are informed of littering fines. Three states currently participate—Pennsylvania, Texas, and North Carolina. I think this is pretty cool. Too bad California doesn't participate. The site does have ways to take action to try to get other states to participate, making it very easy with a written form to submit online to your state governor. This site has a wealth of information including litter laws by state, statistics, and effective ways to reduce litter.

So, what can we, as concerned citizens do? Educate! People who are aware of the dangers of litter often make more of an effort to not leave their trash behind. Call people out when you see them littering to let them know it's not okay (if the person seems approachable). Teach our children not to litter. Pick up litter when you see it. Others may notice you doing it and follow your example. Encourage our police departments to more proactively enforce the law.

Now that I'm armed with more information, I plan to handle my conversations with litter bugs a little more maturely. Rather than speaking loudly in my disapproving tone or saying something and leaving, I plan to try to engage them in conversation and educate them. I'll tell them them that not only is it harming our environment, but also it is illegal with serious fines.

Who else will join me in the "No More Litter Bugs!" campaign?

Dina Colman is a healthy living coach. She has her
Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University and her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. She founded Four Quadrant Living—a simpler, more fun way to a healthier, happier, and energetic life. Four Quadrant Living provides information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. Dina has a private practice, working with clients to help them create health in their lives by eating well, finding the fun in exercise, reducing stress, managing relationships, and creating a healthy environment. This blog is from the Environment quadrant. Contact Dina at dina@fourquadrantliving.com

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Dina Colman March 30, 2012 at 12:45 AM
That is crazy, Lance! Hard to imagine people throwing such large items out of a car window! That seems pretty hazardous to other cars on the road if they are moving. Curious about this, I just looked online and found that 1978 was when it became illegal to litter in many municipalities, so that makes sense that you saw so much litter in 1973. I haven't seen anything tossed out of a car window lately except for cigarette butts. I just seem to encounter the pedestrian littering. According to Keep America Beautiful, roadside litter has decreased by about 61% since 1969. So you are right, we have made progress. But we still have work to do.
Lance Howland March 30, 2012 at 01:02 AM
I don't think it was laws, Dina. There were laws against it. Fines might have been low then. It was awareness -- Lady Bird Johnson's anti-litter campaign, then the river caught fire in downtown Cleveland, then Earth Day, then the TV commercial with the Native American shedding a tear about pollution. It became uncool.
Dina Colman March 30, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Thanks for the history lesson, Lance. ;) It's a great example of how social pressure can have more impact than the law. That's why we all need to let people know it's uncool to be a litter bug!
Carol Olmert March 30, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Ah, litter, one of my pet peeves. When I walk around various areas of Walnut Creek, I am distressed to see how much of it there is out there, especially around school sites. Admittedly, things have improved since 1973, but we still have a long ways to go. Whenever possible, I carry with me a bag into which I dispose trash. But complain as I do, a trip to most foreign countries makes me realize how much awareness of the problem has increased around here.
Dina Colman April 01, 2012 at 06:03 AM
HI Carol, It's great to meet other people who don't like litter bugs! You are so right about foreign countries. I was in Cambodia in the fall and there was so much trash on the roadside and then chickens walking all around it and I thought to myself, "this is the chicken that I'm eating. gross!". Litter in the U.S. is a step ahead some countries, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't stop striving for more. Thank you for chiming in and doing your part to keep our towns clean!


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