In Defense of Litter: Why I Litter and Why You Should Shut Up About It
Some of you will instinctively reject my premise and probably me, personally, for being enough of an asshole to express it. But I must say it. In my estimation, the most ethical thing you can do when holding a piece of your personal trash is to simply relax your grip. This upsets everyone from the bare-footed greenies to corporate titans, albeit for different reasons. This easy consensus should be an early warning of vapid morality. I have always thought that the indignation directed at litter (and litterers) to be a bit lazy, sanctimonious and misdirected. My thinking on this subject began early. It’s a childhood memory I can still recall starkly…
I burst out of the small corner pharmacy, full of excitement. My father had bought me some sugary confection and I was eager to tear through the packaging, to get to the corn syrup I so desperately needed. In a Tasmanian Devil-like frenzy to get to my sticky treat, I let the wrapper float gently to the ground, into several pieces. Seeing this, a thermonuclear explosion of rage overcame my dad, an emotional New York City native.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing? How dare you throw trash on the streets of my city?”
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At the time, I lived with my mother in New Jersey. I felt like a disrespectful outsider; my indifference, contributing to local problems. It was a feeling of guilt and self-disgust I imagine a nefarious houseguest would feel…after accidentally jizzing on his host’s throw pillows. I hung my head in shame as my dad picked up my litter and threw it, with exaggerated aggression, in a public bin lined with a bright blue plastic bag.
Being a brooding, contemplative child, I couldn’t move on. I rehashed it over and over in my head as we strolled down the sidewalk. My father had moved on, shifting the conversation to his beloved, but hopeless, Flushing-based baseball team. I wondered aloud as to what happened to the trash after it was tossed in the can. He explained the duties of the sanitation department. I wanted to know what happened next. He informed me about the concept of landfills. (Massive, disgusting holes in the ground where decades of waste are crammed into.) Then what? Apparently they take a while to fill up, but when they do, no worries, we simply dig another one.
It was clear, at this point, that cans and collection did nothing to address our waste problem. This was before I knew about landfills, dug in pristine and remote areas of Appalachia to deal with New York and New Jersey trash; before I knew about a patch of disposed plastics, the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean; and before I knew about mountains of waste shipped every year to West Africa and other less consumptive areas of the world. Yet, somehow I knew we weren’t facing our problem. We passed the buck; let the literal shit float downstream.
I think other people sense this as well, and it may be part of the reason why littering elicits such a visceral response. It peels back the curtain a bit. Allows one to see how the sausages are made.
Einstein taught us that matter and energy are neither created, nor destroyed. Since your junk is matter, the same principle holds true. This is such a basic concept, yet very few seem able to grasp it. Throwing your Starbucks cup in the can doesn’t make it magically vanish from the face of the earth. I understand you want your space neat and tidy but don’t act as though you are somehow doing the right thing. Whether one litters or not is irrelevant. What matters is that the trash is generated in the first place.
Since sanitation workers aren’t fairies (maybe a few, on their days off), who can wave a wand and make your used condoms and snotty tissues disappear, it has to go somewhere. I get it; you hate seeing bags of Doritos and cigarette butts in your front lawn. And we as a nation are rich enough that, for the most part, we don’t have to deal with it. New York has a little litter problem, but considering the population density and the amount of waste produced, the current situation is like…only getting the clap from a prostitute. It’s disgusting but it should be far worse.
Does our desire for clean streets and disposable everything, trump the people of less fortunate nations’ wish to not receive the contents of our landfills? Maybe it does. Our organized criminals pay their organized criminals to take it. Free markets mean you can buy and sell everything. Right and wrong may be relative but my inclination is that one should handle one’s own problems.
Out of sight, out of mind. This tired cliché did not receive its distinction by not being true. Few people, including myself, have any interest or knowledge as to what happens to trash after it’s picked up from the curb. Why would you? You never have to see it again. And next week, you’re free to leave another steaming pile of garbage in the same place and the process repeats itself. Imagine for a second, we had to live in all the rubbish we produce through consumption. The half-full solo cups, the paper plate you threw out because a piece of bread touched it, the half roll of paper towels you used to dry up a small water spill; all of it forming a sea of filth outside your home. Nothing is really a problem until you are forced to face it head on. A massive campaign of litter in the areas that produce it may be the only movement with the ability to force consumers to rethink the convenience of the cheap one-time-use.
I’m not bold enough to think I’ve made you think differently about garbage. Hell, I’m definitely more a part of the problem than the solution. Few things satisfy me more than guzzling a Poland Spring, crushing the bottle between my fingers, and slamming that sucker in the bin. I’m no environmentalist. In fact, I don’t worry about the Earth at all. She was here long before us and will be here long after we’re all gone. If we dirty her to a point where we can no longer live on her, that’s our problem and not the world’s. Mother Earth will adjust and go on just fine. My only agenda is to let litterers know that they’re no worse than anyone else and to let self-righteous litter haters know they are no better. I don’t care what you do, but when you see me throw my shit on the floor, kindly mind your own fucking business.
What are your thoughts on litter after reading this? Leave them in the comments.
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Photo Credit: glogster.com