Littering — A Main Occupation of Our Species

Why Do Humans Simply Drop Everything They Don’t Want Anymore?



Every two weeks I don a pair of plastic surgical gloves, grab some sort of receptacle such as a grocery bag, cardboard box, or a large used manila envelope and go outside to clean up my street. I live on a very narrow brick alley in downtown Philadelphia. Cars can get down the street, but they rarely do because it looks impossible to those who don’t live here. In other words, this tiny street is not a main thoroughfare, not a place full of traffic. But what we do get is tourists, partyers from the main drag, and dogs and their owners using this street as a dog toilet. The result of all this foot traffic is litter. Lots and lots of litter, better known as other people’s garbage.


The detritus on my street includes cigarette butts, empty bottles and cans, food wrappers, unfinished take-out food, little green bags full of dog poop, empty bottles of liquor from airline size to those usually held in a back pocket, tickets to shows, and attractions, paper clips, notices, pens and pencils and all sorts of other junk. There have been used needles but we quickly call the cops to come and get those because we have little kids and inquiring pets in the neighborhood.


And so, I cruise the area in front of my building and a bit farther in each direction and pick this all up and dump it into the public trash on the main street. I pick up at least 30 butts every two weeks on half a block and I always wonder, “Who are these people?” It’s not my neighbors — they would never — so it has to be tourists or people coming to this area for a fun Saturday night. I’ve also asked every smoker I know why they drop their butts on the street (and sometimes half-smoked cigarettes and cigars) as if they were instantly compostable. But the butts will lie there for a least a year before they decompose into mush and then it’s another year until they sort of fall apart (The U.S. Forest Service says it takes 1–5 years for a discarded butt to decompose). In general, the presence of a garbage can seems to have no effect on this problem. On weekends when Philadelphia is inundated with tourists, discards decorate our sidewalks, doorsteps, and windowsills along the route to the garbage can as if Hansel and Gretel had placed them there to point the route home.


Here we are, we humans, with our highly flexible hands and those great opposable thumbs, hands that can pinch, squeeze, pick at, and carry but we mostly just open them and let things fall out. And we do it all over the world; sacred sites, quaint villages, and wilderness landscapes are now littered with the detritus of humans who come to visit. We’ve also been doing this for a very long time. Ever since our ancestors stood up on two legs and started to wander around the world, humans have been leaving lasting evidence of their presence for others to deal with. An entire academic discipline — archaeology — is, in fact, devoted to following the trail of all that human crap. The point of archaeology is to dig up “material goods” (read “leftover junk”), meaning things humans made or used and then discarded. These items indicate what those people ate, how they processed their food, and how they lived. Archaeologists analyze mounds of empty shells, stones refigured as axes, and bones of other animals that indicate butchering, cooking, and eating. Without those uncovered bits of human action, we’d have no idea how our ancient ancestors lived. But now there are so many more people on the planet and way more stuff to discard, and our present litter is made of manufactured materials that will never disintegrate.


We don’t know what our ancestors thought when they flung a bunch of half-eaten bones out of a cave, but today people seem to have a very cavalier attitude about their own garbage. As I scrape up all that broken glass and carve discarded cigarette butts out of crevices between bricks, it feels like littering has reached the status of a human right. Perhaps this sloppiness comes from being a culture founded on the idea that everyone is on their own financially and socially. In Western culture, were are supposed to take care of ourselves by ourselves. Lost in that belief system is the idea that one person’s actions can affect other people. What do I care if I drop a candy wrapper on your yard? It’s not my yard. In self-entered America, the idea that others don’t want to look at nor clean up your garbage seems to have never entered the cultural zeitgeist. Presumably, this mess is also the result of capitalism, which in turn has programmed us to want more and more stuff so others can become rich. Now, each one of us has so much stuff and so much stuff that comes in packaging, that we are used to overflowing garbage cans and all manner of goods left on the streets. In other words, maybe all this garbage and litter is a result of our relative affluence in Western culture. If we had less stuff, we have less garbage and less littering.


These days it’s also surprising when someone takes responsibility for picking up after themselves, let alone after others. Writer David Sedaris goes out every day in his small county of West Sussex in England and picks up litter on the road. Several of my neighbors routinely pick up litter on the sidewalks of Philadelphia as they walk around town and dump it into the nearest receptacle. One neighbor does this within limits — she won’t pick up something oozing or stinking.


These people give me hope, a sort of Sisyphusian hope, that the culture could change, and we could all be a little more considerate in the garbage department. And just this morning, as I was watering my plants outside the apartment, I saw a young guy smoking at the end of the street. As he walked away, I asked him to take his cigarette butt with him since I’d be the one picking it up later. He turned to me, smiled, and said, “Oh no. I have it in my hand and am taking it away.” I offered to give him a medal for humanitarian service.

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