Thursday, April 6, 2017

Stop Littering: How to Keep Your Community Beautiful

Let's review how we might apply spring cleaning to the great outdoors and stop littering in the process.
Photo from southpaw2305 via Creative Commons 2.0 

It's springtime, that time of year when most of us do at least a cursory "deep cleaning" of our house, maybe even our yard, and call it spring cleaning. But what about the bigger picture? Could our surroundings, our communities, use some spring cleaning? How about the litter and other trash that's accumulated along the roadways and waterways since last summer? Let's review how we might apply spring cleaning to the great outdoors and help make, and keep, our communities beautiful in the process.

Take this quiz: You're standing at a bus stop with an acquaintence when she pulls a candy bar from her purse, opens it, eats it, then drops the wrapper on the ground. What would you do:
A. I'd pretend I didn't notice.
B. I'd ask her to pick up the litter and dispose of it properly.
C. I'd pick it up myself.
D. I'd ignore the wrapper. It's just a piece of paper, after all.

I'm not going to tell you how you should have responded, but I can tell you what I did when this exact scenario happened to me. It was many years ago, when I was a very young adult and hadn't yet learned to stand up for what I knew was right. Because of that, I have to answer "A" on the quiz. Even though I had been raised during the "Don't be a litterbug" generation of the 1960s and took that philosophy seriously, I remained quiet and pretended not to notice. Shame on me.

Where Does All That Litter Come From?

I think these days most people have a pretty healthy respect for the environment and probably would either pick up and dispose of the litter themselves or ask the person to pick it up. But if that's the case, where does all the litter that accumulates along our nation's highways and byways come from? Well, it starts out as just one piece of paper (like the candy wrapper mentioned above) or one water bottle, soft drink can, plastic bag, or fast food bag-full-of trash, and it accumulates.

Here's a video that I found quite interesting. These garbage trucks weren't just hauling trash to a landfill, they were losing litter along the way to the tune of an average 15 plastic bags a trip. Watch the video to see how quickly that adds up. (Happily, that problem in the Raleigh area has been resolved.)

Littering Is Illegal 

Cleaning up litter is an expensive proposition. Most states have laws against littering, but someone still has to clean up the mess. Chasing down drivers who throw trash out their car windows isn't the best way for a law enforcement officer to spend his or her time, but have you ever seen someone throw out trash and wish you had a badge? In some states, citizens are encouraged by road signs to report littering from cars. In Arkansas, where I live, the state uses the program as a positive approach, educating those driving through our state about fines for littering and the importance the state places on the subject. Hopefully the signs alone help people think twice before they throw that candy bar wrapper out the window.

Three Ways to Stop Littering (Litter Prevention)

1. Teach children to respect their surroundings by not dropping litter anywhere except in a designated litter bag or trash can. Pick up other people's litter if they miss (or ignore) the container. Participate in community or neighborhood clean-up events. Can't find one? Contact your local city or county. Many have websites and participate on social media to keep their citizens informed.

2. Keep litter bins and bags handy in your car, truck, and even your boat, at your campground, and at public parks and gathering places. Be sure to use a lid to keep the trash contained. Container getting over-filled? Close and dispose of the old trash bag liner and replace it with a new one.

3. If there's an accepted method of doing so, report littering. Some states have "report littering" phone numbers on signs along highways and byways. Some people honestly don't realize how quickly trash accumulates and the damage that it causes to wildlife, not to mention the tax money that it costs to clean up the mess. Education and prevention combine to create a better, cheaper choice. 

Resources To Help Stop Littering

Here are just a few links that I found when reading up on the topic of how to stop litter and littering. To find more that are relevant to you and your state, simply search "keep [insert your state's name] beautiful."

New River Gorge in the Author's Birth State of West Virginia - Photo in the Public Domain
A pristine New River Gorge in the author's birth state of West Virginia.
Can we each do our part to keep it that way?

~ Susan

Posted by Susan Deppner

Susan Deppner

About the Author

Susan Deppner is a baby boomer, a cancer survivor, and a Southerner who believes in the Golden Rule. She enjoys writing about food, faith, and fitness; health, home, and holidays; people, places, pets, and patriotism, and more. Follow Susan on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Note: The author may receive a commission from purchases made using links found in this article. “As an Amazon Associate, Ebay (EPN) and/or Esty (Awin) Affiliate, I (we) earn from qualifying purchases.”


  1. Susan, your subject resonates with me. When I was in the 8th grade our class did a play that dealt with littering. It made such a solid impression on me that to this day (many, many moons later)I can't bear the tiniest bit of littering. Over the years I've been involved in beach clean-up days, roadside clean up in our neighborhood, and other anti-littering days/campaigns. In your quiz, I'd immediately choose B and if that didn't work, I'd do C. NO litter gets by me... LOL.

    1. Elf, I'm glad to know that you still remember and carry that anti-littering lesson along with you. I feel certain that my parents never littered, so I never developed the habit, but I do remember specifically learning about why it was important not to litter when I was in sixth grade. Amazing what lessons stick with us. Good for you for choosing B in the quiz! I would today, but I still remember that incident and feeling horrible that someone would actually just drop their trash and go on their merry way.

  2. I am always amazed at how people will just toss trash out of their car windows. Clearly, they don't want to be bothered with their own trash. Why in the world would they think anyone else should have to pick up after them. I guess I most often see people toss out cigarette butts, but when I look at the roadside, I see it is littered with plastic bottles and cans. That kind of stuff just accumulates since it won't decompose. It seems no one worries about the possibility of fines.

    If I was standing right next to someone who so mindlessly threw down a candy wrapper the way you described, I doubt I would say anything. Adults with such a disregard for the environment will most likely have a disregard for my opinion as well. Therefore, if I did anything, I would pick it up and throw it away myself. In my everyday world, confrontation would not be an option. It could even get you killed.

    This is a great reminder to all of us that we should be environmentally conscientious and not give in to the temptation to toss something out of a car window or just drop our trash because it is an inconvenience. That video was most illuminating. I have seen things blow off of open trailers before, but not out of trash collecting trucks. That may well explain why I see so much trash on the side of a highway.

    1. Cynthia, I definitely appreciate your comment about confrontations these days getting people killed. Unfortunately, that is very true so people need to use good judgment if faced with a littering situation. I'm glad to know that you watched the video. I was quite impressed with the statistics and would like to think that it's other trash trucks with "leaky" covers that cause a lot of the litter, but I'm afraid it's more likely people who, if they think at all, think that "one little plastic bag" won't matter. Clearly, it does. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I don't litter, my parents didn't and my kids don't. But like Miss Mouse, I would be much more inclined to throw it away myself than to confront anyone. I once had a guy tell me that it's fine to litter as it gives people jobs. Insert eye roll here. Good reminder article.

    1. Thanks, Heather. I'm with you on the eye roll!

    2. In our community it's most likely to be volunteers cleaning the roadside. Our state has an adopt-a-road program in which both individuals and organizations participate.

    3. Same here, Barbara, and what a great idea the adopt-a-road program is!

  4. Litter is one of those things that really gets under my skin. I have stopped many people from dropping their "offerings" onto the street. What really gets me is the smokers who but their cigarettes and leave that mess behind. I was a smoker at one time and hated my fellow smokers for their lack of understanding that this was littering and not acceptable. I no longer smoke, but still hate seeing those butts everywhere....

    1. In at least one city near where we live, Grammie O, there was recently a law passed to ban smoking in parks. The reason was because of the accumulation of cigarette trash. I'm hoping that the trend to ban continues in our area and elsewhere. Appreciate your opinion, especially as a former smoker.

    2. Our state capital has banned smoking in the CBD - it's certainly made the area a lot cleaner.

    3. Good to know, Louanne. I don't like a lot of government intrusion, but this issue I can get behind.

  5. Good reminders for all of us. I can't stand the act of littering! Pet.Peeve. - If I ever caught my sons littering even in the smallest way, I'm was on them like a fly on you know what. Every single one of us can keep our communities looking beautiful just by doing our small share. It's not hard. Stuff the little bits of garbage in your pocket and toss them in the next bin you see. I also appreciate the sorting bins in most places for recycling. Let's all do our share like you said. I would have picked up the trash if I saw someone throw it (more than likely).

    1. I believe it's so important to raise our children to avoid littering and how they can just use their pockets if there's not a bin around. That's the type of training, I think, that often is easier caught than taught. Glad you've done both with your guys!

  6. I hate littering although I'm not confrontational so would tend to pick up the candy bar wrapper myself and dispose of it. My teenage daughter on the other hand gets so worked up with people littering she'd probably give someone a full on lecture about littering ........ her friends know not to even think about littering when she's there.
    I must admit I don't personally see a lot of littering these days compared to my younger days as I think we've brought our kids up to be more environmentally aware and schools have also helped to re-enforce the anti-littering message really well.

    1. I agree that there isn't as much littering as there used to be, Louanne, and I'm thankful for that. Glad your daughter isn't afraid to speak up and do the right thing!

  7. I would also tend to pick up the litter myself rather than confront someone who was littering. Littering can be downright dangerous. Those carelessly thrown cigarette butts have started a few forest fires. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Barbara, excellent point! Traveling on the highways around here, especially in the dry late summer, it isn't at all unusual to come across a section of median or shoulder area that has been burned. Worse, some of those areas do spread and turn into serious wildfires, most of which were totally preventable. I honestly can't understand why some people seem clueless about controlling their cigarette butts. Thank you very much for the reminder!


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