How Do You Solve a Problem Like Litterbugs?

Despite some progress, the boom in single-use plastic and an influx of new hikers are testing anti-littering efforts. Can making cleanliness personal help solve our garbage problem?

Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank

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The average American generates around 1,606 pounds of garbage per year; pack it into one-foot-by-one-foot cubes and stack it on top of each other, and that waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The United States as a whole generates over 250 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, enough to stretch to the moon and back 25 times.

More of that ends up on the ground than you would expect: Last year, United States taxpayers contributed more than $11 billion towards litter removal, about ten times more than the cost of trash disposal. And in 2020, as the ongoing COVID pandemic drives more and more people to recreate outdoors, there’s reason to believe more of it is ending up on public lands.

It wasn’t always this way.

“Back in the 70s…kids were getting coloring books with messages about litter,” says E. Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech who studied the psychology of littering extensively in the 70s and 80s. Geller remembers a time when people casually carried around litter bags and trash cans had signs that read “Be a ‘litter’ bit thoughtful.”

“People used to pick up litter. It was part of the culture in those days,” says Geller. “Our culture has very much shifted away from the environment.”

Cultural shifts aside, there is some reason to believe we’re getting better. A 2009 study by the nonprofit Keep America Beautiful estimated that the amount of litter in the environment has decreased 61% since 1969. On the other hand, the rise of single use containers has led to an increase of 169% in plastic litter. Some experts are of the opinion that in the absence of strong cultural norms around littering, humans will simply throw their trash where they please. And litter follows people, like in California’s Santa Paula Canyon, where Time reported the Forest Service shut down trails after a COVID-fueled boom in visitation left garbage and human waste strewn about.

“Left to their own devices, people are litterbugs,” speculates David P. Barash, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Washington who has also studied the topic. “The only time you don’t get a lot of littering is when there is either a strong expectation based on societal norms, like in Switzerland or Germany, or a heavy hand like in Singapore.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t have either when it comes to trash. From the Trump administration’s antagonism towards the EPA to the lack of messaging on conservation from parents and teachers, Americans lack a culture of anti-littering from top to bottom.

Part of the problem may be that for many people, the issue of littering doesn’t feel like a priority in the face of today’s challenges, Geller speculates.

“What’s throwing a piece of garbage on the grass, or on the hiking trail?” he says. “That’s so less important than COVID-19, which we’re wearing a mask to prevent.” Even in the arena of environmental issues, littering takes a backseat to things like fracking or species loss. It’s simply not on people’s radars.

The pandemic has also boosted interest in outdoor recreation at a time when public lands are still underfunded and understaffed. More people and less oversight means more trash, Geller says, and more trash means people are more likely to litter. Geller documented this phenomenon in a 1977 study wherein the more trash he dropped on the floor of a grocery store, the more trash his study participants dropped.

“If there’s more litter on the floor or on the ground, the social norm is implied that it’s okay,” he explains.

To alleviate the issue of littering, Geller believes it’ll take a broad cultural shift. He points out that while there are plenty of stories in the media about volunteers taking trash out of an ocean or cleaning garbage off a hillside, there are none that tell people how to avoid littering in the first place. “We’re not talking about it in terms of proactive behaviors to save our environment,” he says.

But we can change that. In countries like Switzerland or Germany, David P. Barash says that anti-littering behaviors “are taught from the crib almost.” Though Barash speculates that humans are naturally prone to littering, he also believes that it’s a behavior that can be unlearned.

According to Geller, education is a step in the right direction, but we need to do more. To help, he founded Actively Caring For People, a global initiative that gives recognition to prosocial behaviors like picking up trash. He believes that this positive reinforcement can get Americans more excited about cleaning up after themselves.

Geller is also an opponent of the concept of sustainability, which he feels is unnecessarily vague and difficult to resonate with. Instead, he says the U.S. needs to cast its conservation messaging in the language of concrete action.

As ambassadors for nature, staff and volunteers at popular national parks can help communicate those values to visitors, a strategy that can help turn the boom in visitation—and too often trash—into part of the solution. Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts periodic Smokies Service Days for adults and children; this year’s dates included vegetation management, gardening, and a group cleanup of the popular Deep Creek picnic area.

While the impacts of events like these may be local, Geller says, the change in culture that they encourage can have far-ranging impacts.

“There are simple, basic things that we can do every day, and we can teach our children to do every day, to save our environment,” he says.

Spread far enough, it’s a little message that could eventually have a real impact.