We cannot afford to Rhett Butler our way out of littering with a “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”[i]
Hailing from a city in the south that has long since lost its title of ‘garden city’ for the questionably more attractive ‘IT capital of India’ (a title that’s slowly slipping away too), I have seen more garbage than one can shake a stick at. Of course, I do keep in mind that this city, the city of my birth, is constantly in a state of flux. Every new day brings with it more apartment complexes, businesses, and vehicles, each of which creeps like lantana into any free space available. These changes are accompanied by the production of mountains of refuse that are collected and dumped outside the city, out of sight and out of mind.
The worst part of this? A significant amount of trash doesn’t even make it straight to the landfill[ii]. Instead, like The One Ring, it gets dropped somewhere, and rolls onto the street, and goes on a whole journey, which could end positively, with a street sweeper picking it up, or terribly, with it getting stuck in the wind-pipe of an innocent grazing cow that only wanted a snack. Alternatively, it could end up in the ocean as marine debris, floating aimlessly with the waves until it washes up on a beach.
This trash that is disposed of in inappropriate places such as street corners and lakes and classrooms is called ‘litter’. On occasion, I also refer to it as garbage that has no reason to exist except for human negligence, entitlement, and perceived convenience. It is a huge problem, but unlike other huge problems plaguing the world at this moment, like global warming and imminent war, littering has a simple solution. Some may be surprised or shocked. Others may have heard of it. A small percentage of people may have even used it.
It’s a dustbin. A trash receptacle, waste container, garbage can, or street bin.
Granted, there are a number of factors such as infrequent emptying and bad placement that can affect the success of this approach to solving littering, but I strongly believe that in small areas that provide enough dustbins, that are also emptied regularly, littering has the potential to be absent. So why does it still exist, like the metaphorical persistent housefly that refuses to leave me alone at lunch, regardless of the amount of swatting and awkward hand flapping I indulge in?
According to Loretta Brown, a marine debris education and outreach specialist, “(Littering) probably goes to our roots as a species”[iii]. We’ve always had waste; the prehistoric man left broken bones and teeth scattered after his meals, while the organic waste was simply left to rot on the ground. It didn’t matter at the time because it was biodegradable.
Then, plastic was invented. It was a great leap for humanity in terms of celluloid film, Styrofoam, and breast implants, but it was less fun for the environment. Plastic could not, and did not, disappear once you threw it out. And today, despite the leaps and bounds we have made in terms of science and technology, it still does not.
Now for the dull part of this article (assuming that you’ve somehow found yourself interested enough to read to this point): the reasons suggested by psychologists that explain why we are incapable of using dustbins:
Social psychologists and police officers agree that if one window is broken in a house, the other windows will be broken soon, and the walls, graphitised. And although this may seem to suggest that humanity is inherently evil and full of bad intentions, it actually demonstrates the broken windows theory[iv]. According to this theory, one broken window is proof that no-one cares about the house, and will invite more people to vandalise it. In context, we do not feel guilty about adding our trash to a pre-existing pile on the ground, because we assume that no one cares if we throw it there. Ignorance also has an effect here; when we see that no one around us is bothered by trash, we assume that there is no reason for us to care either.
Another possible psychological explanation is the diffusion of responsibility. We often forget to pick up trash on the floor because we feel like someone else will come along and do it instead. And there are sweepers and trash collectors who pick up our refuse, but they are not magical beings of light who can locate and pick up every single piece of rubbish. Sometimes, the wind can blow candy wrappers underneath plants and effectively keep them hidden from sight.
There’s also the lack of a mental association between littering and bad habits. Constantly seeing trash everywhere could normalize littering for us, not even an eyelash fluttering at the sight of a biscuit wrapper flying across a hallway like it’s possessed. This is normalisation is also known as habituation. Additionally, the social learning theory dictates that we learn from the behaviour of those around us. So when we see other people littering without any negative consequence, we decide that it’s okay for us to do it too[v].
The one thing these theories have in common is that they all (in a wholly unsurprising turn of events) point at human behaviour as the culprit behind littering. As much as we want to weasel our way out of the tedious job of throwing our waste into a bin, we shouldn’t because we get nothing but momentary satisfaction. Is this satisfaction worth it? After all, litter has no positive effects.
It detracts from the beauty of a landscape and is an eyesore. Accumulated litter on streets is unhygienic and can increase the risk of people contracting diseases. Litter can seriously harm animals too, especially the seemingly harmless plastic bags we use for grocery shopping. Trash can also change soil structure and composition and can turn water bodies and groundwater toxic and render them unusable. There’s also cleaning up, which is by no means an easy task. If you hate cleaning up your bedroom, I am willing to bet that the economy hates it more. The U.S. spends $11 billion per year to clean up litter. Littering is also a waste of resources, as cans and bottles thrown away can be recycled.
Who was the great poet (William Wasteworth? Scrapspeare? Samuel Waste Bucket?) who extolled the virtues of the solitary crumpled biscuit wrapper placed lacking rhyme or reason on the smooth wooden tables of the modern classroom?
There’s a beautiful concept that the National Outdoor Leadership School propagates: Leave No Trace, which means to leave a natural environment exactly the way you found it. Although this concept pertains to camping and trekking ethics, it can be applied to other aspects of life. We can follow Leave No Trash instead, by using the trash receptacles more. As I always tell myself; if I can remember Japanese, I can also remember to take trash empty packets and paper cups when I leave the lecture hall. Similarly, if we all can remember the cafeteria timings, we can also remember to hold on to that bubble-gum wrapper until we get to a dustbin.
In all honesty, the best part of throwing trash is, in my words, is the Transference-of-litter-from-hand-to-receptacle ™.
There are countless ways one can dispose of the litter they are carrying in a dustbin. Some are simple (the Wrist-flick toss, the LOTR style drop, or the Flying kiss), some are harder (the Slam Dunk, the Frisbee Toss, or the Shuriken throw), and some are so dangerous that they should not be attempted without supervision (the Mobile Crane throw, the Bow-and-Arrow shot, or the Flying Trapeze Horse). A few precautions should be kept in mind while throwing your litter. First, do not hit people or animals while throwing trash. Second, if your aim is terrible and you miss the dustbin, go right back and pick up your trash. Remember, a failed attempt at disposing your trash is still considered littering.
If you’ve ever wondered what difference you could make to the world, this very well could be it. Picking up trash is a simple way to help out the environment and be a good citizen of this planet. Psychologists also observe that seeing someone pick up trash makes people more inclined to pick it up themselves. You could be that someone for other people.
As David Sedaris put so succinctly: “No-one should have to live in a teenager’s bedroom”[vi]. Especially not animals and plants who don’t get a choice in the matter. It is important to remember that our actions have consequences that affect other people and other living things that we share our home with. We live on this planet; we should take responsibility for it. We cannot afford to Rhett Butler our way out of littering, lest our cities end up foaming[vii] at the mouth and drowning in trash.
[i] “Frankly, my dear…” is the greatest American film quote of all time, according to the American Film Institute. It is quoted from Gone with the Wind (1939).
[ii] According to Cogent Environmental Science’s Review of Municipal Solid Waste Management in India, 12 million tonnes of inert waste is generated from street sweeping and debris from construction and demolition sites.
[iii] Read the rest of Loretta Brown’ s interview here.
[iv] The Broken windows theory is explained well here.
[v] These theories are also explained here.
[vi] David Sedaris is an American author and comedian, who goes on litter-picking walks in his hometown on West Sussex, England. His hilarious but valid opinions can be heard on radio here.
[vii] This is the city of my birth and childhood that I mentioned before.
– Author: Ishana Sundar