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Litter Bugs

A little trash pickup goes a long way


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Oh, I love trash!
Anything dirty or dingy or dusty
Anything ragged or rotten or rusty
Yes, I love trash.
—Oscar the Grouch

Oscar may love trash, but I don’t. And neither does Jeff Kirschner. Actually, it is trash-as-litter that makes Kirschner and me as grouchy as Oscar. Our coping mechanism differs, however. Kirschner has created an affinity group on a website called Litterati. Mine is a low-tech cope: I pick up litter. I retrieve it from the gutter as I walk the streets of my Sugar House neighborhood two or three times a week. It is the only form of multitasking I engage in, chiefly because it is an unhurried and beneficial practice that requires no high-tech skills. Picking up litter is not as remunerative in Utah as it’s in the 11 bottle-bill states, but the satisfaction I get is a better return than the nickel-a-can bounty that an empty can of beer brings in places like Boston and San Francisco.

Over the years, I have gained some insights into the sociology of litter. Most are intuitive. For example, no one would be surprised to find that thoroughfares like 1300 East and 1700 South accumulate more litter than the adjacent side streets. And it would probably come as no surprise that the East High School and Highland High School campuses are so litter-centric that seagulls are drawn to the parking lots to pick through the refuse for food. On the other hand, some littering is downright puzzling. I can’t understand why some dog walkers make the effort to bag Fido’s feces and then leave the bag on the curb.

Cigarette butts are ubiquitous, of course, and cigarette packages are about as common as last week’s yard-sale signs. Packaging labeled “organic vegetables”? I have never seen any. UTA bus stops are repositories of convenience-store drink cups, mostly large. If you pay attention to the composition of the litter Westminster College students leave on the streets near the school, you would note a preference for Pabst, Miller and Red Bull. Out-of-the-way corners of the city are trash magnets. The fence line around the abandoned Fairmont Park tennis courts is a good example.

There isn’t much difference between urban and rural littering, except that the city’s trash trucks contribute to the problem. Sometimes, refuse falls on the ground as a bin is lifted and emptied. This spillage is the source of the plastic bags that float like jellyfish in the breeze. Some residents clean up the mess in the street. Others don’t.

I participate in a periodic cleanup of a three-mile stretch of the East Canyon highway. Twice a year, my Adopt-a-Highway group scours the weedy shoulders of the road for garbage. Fast-food beverage containers, plastic water bottles and beer cans account for most of it, but clothing, diapers and car parts—rare in the city—show up regularly.

The underlying fact is that a percentage of the population has no qualms about throwing garbage in the street. For another percentage of the population—one that includes me and Kirschner—litter is an irritant.
Kirschner lives in California, where he has worked in high-tech start-ups. A year ago, while walking in a riparian nature preserve, his 4-year-old daughter complained about a box of kitty litter someone had dumped there. That was the genesis of and its vision of a litter-free planet. “By combining technology, social awareness and art, the Litterati is tackling this ever-escalating problem one piece of litter at a time,” the website says.

The website features a Digital Landfill photo gallery to which people around the world send artful Instagram photos of litter they find. More than 25,000 photos have been received. Because they are geotagged, the photos provide information that can be used to enlist municipalities and companies in the grass-roots campaign to eliminate litter. “Using who, what, where and when data, you can work top-down with cities to provide trash cans or work with brands to be more strategic about the packaging they create,” Kirschner says in a website video.

Littering is antisocial behavior. You have to ask yourself why people do it. I figure there are two categories of offenders: adolescents whose immaturity blinds them to the consequences of their actions, and boors whose mother always cleaned up after them. Both are minorities. Fortunately, most teenagers grow up to be responsible, litter-hating adults.

In Utah, littering is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $100 fine. You can’t toss “glass bottles, glass, nails, tacks, wire, cans, barbed wire, boards, trash or garbage, paper or paper products or any other substance which would or could mar or impair the scenic aspect or beauty of the land in the state.”

I like the fact that the law is anchored in aesthetics. Litter is an eyesore. So is the Salt Lake Valley’s gauzy air. It’s frustrating that I have no measurable impact on air quality even when I ride my bike instead of driving my car. It’s not the same with litter. In two hours, I can make a noticeable improvement in my neighborhood’s quality of life.

I wish Kirschner success, but I fear he will fall short. I offer a recommendation drawn from my experience of twice finding a $20 bill in the gutter. Invite the media to watch $5 bills being tucked into fast-food wrappers before being thrown in the streets around a city. Do that a few times, and you’ll create a cadre of litter-pickers just like me.