The Earth is not your Dustbin
A semi-serious look at the phenomenon of littering
Hailing from a South Indian city that has long since discarded its title of ‘garden city’ for the questionably more attractive ‘IT capital of India’, I have seen more garbage than one can shake a stick at. This city is also in a constant state of flux- every new day brings with it countless more people, apartment complexes, businesses, and vehicles, creeping like lantana into any and all free space available. Each of these changes is significant contributors to the mountains of refuse that are growing in the city like the Himalayas, albeit at a slower rate. We segregate the trash we produce and, along with our senses of accountability, we leave it outside our homes to be collected and dumped outside the city, far out of sight and well out of our minds.
Although the landfills do present an imminent problem, it is alarming is that a significant amount of trash does not even make the journey from our homes to those landfills¹. Instead of dustbins, lots of trash find themselves stranded on streets like children from Dickens’ novels, abandoned once their utility ended. These chocolate wrappers and bottles are usually swept up by street sweepers. Some also go on to get eaten by domestic animals such as cows or donkeys, or find themselves in the ocean as marine debris, floating aimlessly with the waves until they wash up on a beach.
This trash that is disposed of in inappropriate places such as street corners, lakes and, on occasion, classrooms, is defined as ‘litter’. It is garbage that exists due to human negligence, entitlement, and perceived convenience. It further contributes to a myriad of other environmental issues, particularly harming plant and animal life. It is a type of waste that should not actually exist.
Of the many ideas that have been suggested over the years, the most effective solution this crisis of urbanization is to increase waste disposal and the use of trash receptacles. It is more effective than merely telling children to not litter, over and over again; not only has this not done anything in terms of solving the issue, but it has simply bolstered the fact that overusing a phrase makes it lose all meaning, like the word ‘awesome’. We need everyone, not just children, to understand why it is so critical to use dustbins; that we should not throw plastic bags into lakes because they could get lodged in the throats of birds and suffocate them, not just because it is bad to do so. We need to cultivate a sensitivity towards the environment.
Granted, there are a number of factors such as infrequent emptying and bad placement that can affect the success of the dustbin approach to solve littering, but I strongly believe that in areas that provide enough dustbins, that are lucky enough to be emptied regularly, littering has the potential to be a thing of the past, like mullet haircuts.
Loretta Brown, a marine debris education and outreach specialist, has said that “[Littering] probably goes to our roots as a species”². We have always produced waste- prehistoric humans left broken bones and teeth scattered after their meals, and left organic waste was to rot on the ground. It did not matter at the time, because most of the trash was biodegradable.
Fast-forward to the part of the plot where our antagonist shows up- Plastic was invented in 1907. It was a great leap for humanity in terms of celluloid film, styrofoam, and breast implants. Unfortunately, it did not have such an impact on nature, because 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, and if we dig hard enough, we would probably be able to find plastic discarded years and years ago still embedded in the soil.
Now, assuming that you have somehow found yourself interested enough to read to this point, I implore you to read this next bit with care, as it lists a few reasons suggested by various psychologists that could explain why we seem so incapable of using dustbins correctly.
Social psychologists and police officers agree that if one window is broken in an abandoned house, it will not be long before all the other windows are broken as well, and the walls covered in graffiti. The takeaway from this example is not that humanity is inherently evil and full of bad intentions, it is the broken windows theory. According to this theory, one broken window is enough proof that no-one cares about the house, thus inviting more vandalism. In the context of littering, it means that people do not feel guilty about adding trash to a pre-existing pile on the ground. They assume that no one cares if they throw it there. Ignorance plays a big role in this theory; when people look around them to see that no one else is bothered by the trash, they assume that there is no reason for them to feel any different.
A second explanation is the diffusion of responsibility. It is a common occurrence, for people to not pick up a piece of trash from the floor because we assume that someone else will come along and do it instead. And although this is true in some situations, and there are sweepers and trash collectors who pick up our refuse, we should do well to remember that these people do not have inbuilt radars in their head that will help them locate and pick up every single piece of rubbish. Not to mention that wind and footfall often transport refuse to other places, and sometimes out of sight, often postponing their disposal indefinitely.
There is also a lack of mental association made between littering and bad habits. The constant appearance of trash has seemed to have normalized littering, so much so that not even a single eyelash of the average person would flutter at the sight of a biscuit wrapper flying in circles in the hallway like it is possessed. This normalization is also known as habituation. Additionally, the social learning theory also dictates that we learn from the behavior of those around us. So when we watch other people littering without eliciting any negative consequence, we decide that it is okay for us to do it too³.
One thing these theories have in common is that they (in a horror movie-esque predictable turn of events) point at human behavior as the culprit behind littering. And as much as we want to weasel our way out of the tedious job of throwing our waste into a bin, we should stop and think: is the momentary satisfaction worth it? As far as the solutions to the world’s environmental problems go, not littering is perhaps the easiest task that we, as ordinary citizens, can do. Are we okay with not being able to do even such a measly task?
Litter 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 seriously can torture and hurt animals, especially those seemingly harmless plastic bags we use when we buy too many bags of chips at the convenience store. Trash can change soil structure and composition and can turn water bodies and groundwater toxic and render them unusable. Cleaning up this trash is by no means an easy task, either. It raises quite a hefty expense for state and local administrations. Littering is also a gigantic waste of resources, as many of the things that we toss aside without a single thought can be reused or recycled.
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 NOLS applies this concept to camping and trekking ethics, it can be applied to other aspects of life. Perhaps we could amend it to say Leave No Trash instead, and remind ourselves to use trash receptacles, and look around before we leave a room, lecture hall, or park bench to see if we have left anything behind. If we can remember the cafeteria timings, we can also remember to hold on to that bubble-gum wrapper until we get it to a dustbin.
The best part of throwing trash is, in my words, is what I call the Transference-of-litter-from-hand-to-receptacle ™or, the throwing bit. There are countless ways one can dispose of the litter they are carrying, into a dustbin. Some are simple (the Wrist-flick toss, the LOTR style dramatic drop, or the Flying kiss), some are more complex (the Slam Dunk, the Frisbee Toss, or the Ninja 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). On a more serious note- responsibly disposing of your trash is a really simple habit you can cultivate, one that is much appreciated by those who clean up after you. And remember: a failed attempt at disposing trash still counts as littering. Trash should be in the dustbin, not somewhere near it.
If you are one of the countless millions who has dreamed of making a difference to this bleak world we live in, this could very well be it. Picking up trash is a simple way to help out the environment and be a good citizen of this planet. Psychologists have also observed that even just watching someone else pick up and throw their trash into a dustbin makes us more inclined to pick it up ourselves. You could be that someone, inspiring other people to clean up after themselves. It is also a great way to make other people feel guilty if you like that sort of thing.
As David Sedaris once put so succinctly: “No-one should have to live in a teenager’s bedroom” ⁴. 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, if not for anything else. We cannot afford to ignore the costs of littering, lest our cities foam at the mouth and drown in their own trash.
¹ 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.
² Read the rest of Loretta Brown’ s interview here.
³ These theories are also explained well here.
⁴ 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.