May 15, 2021

Why are we Littering Again?

As a child, I remember I marveled over the gasoline “rainbows” on the wet streets after it rained.

I choked on the ethereal clouds of exhaust as the gas-guzzlers chugged by when I walked to school.

It wasn’t uncommon to see a fast-food bag or pop bottle get hurled out the windows of cars as they sped past. The curbs, gutters, and alleyways were filled (literally) with trash. There were no roadside or public waste bins.

The conscientious among us would either take our trash home or at least dump it in someone’s can in an alley. But mostly, it was dropped to the ground without a second thought. Candy bar wrapper? Let loose in the wind. Cigarette butts? Flicked into the street or smashed on the sidewalk. I remember the world smelled bad then.

How We Stopped

Though the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign started in the 50s (and is still active today), it really didn’t seem to grab hold until the iconic “Crying Indian” commercials plastered our Zenith TV screens in 1971. The wildly successful ads hit a nerve with the public. I remember crying myself because he was so sad. I was nine.

Earth Day was first designated in April 1970, so when Iron Eyes Cody spilled that single tear on our television sets, it placed the blame squarely on the public’s shoulders. The narrator accusingly stated, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” And the guilt was overwhelming.

Schools began anti-litter crusades, taking field trips to local parks to pick up trash. Woodsy Owl told us to, “Give a Hoot! Don’t pollute!” between “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.” Cities across the country began to create ordinances and outlaw littering with tickets and, in some cases, hefty fines.

“No littering” signs appeared in parking lots and parks. Public trash receptacles also emerged with the now-iconic stick figure throwing something in it with a “Pitch In” slogan on it. It was wonderful when the Clean Air Acts of 1970 and then the amended and strengthened one in 1990 were enacted. It was a full-court press. It worked.

It became shameful and despicable to litter. We admonished people openly for dropping so much as a gum wrapper. We didn’t just leave our garbage at campsites or throw stuff out of the car. Vehicles were equipped with ashtrays, and it was completely normal to stuff wrappers back in your purse until you found a trash can. Until recently, it seems.

Why Did We Stop Caring?

While “littering” was never completely eradicated, it looks as if the messaging was not actually embedded in our DNA, sadly. More and more, I see trash on the ground, a wad of gum that someone spits out randomly, and those you’ve-crossed-the-line fast food bags in the streets.

Worse, the folks who don’t clean up after their dogs in the parks and side streets. Why are we backsliding? Much like racial inequities, I truly thought we were making progress. Does this go hand in hand with the rise in partisanship and autonomy? Is it the divisiveness this country has seen in recent years? Is it because of the “I don’t have to if I don’t want to” crowd?

Let’s bring back Iron Eyes. Let’s give a hoot and don’t pollute. Let’s pack a few grocery bags in the car for our next hike and fill them up. Pick up trash on your walk through the neighborhood or even poop-patrol your block. Double down on your recycling, donating, and upcycling.

Don’t shame; be the change. Lead by example. Pitch in!



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