by Dr. Gary L. Welton
After I picked up the sticks in the yard and raked the leaves that had collected over the winter, I perused the lawn and enjoyed the various signs of spring. A few crocuses were already in bloom. The daffodils were starting to poke up. Indeed, that last little pile of snow would disappear yet this very afternoon. Then I looked toward the road.
The melted snow had revealed enough litter to fill my entire garbage can. Fast food wrappers and cups; beverage cans and bottles; even a few diapers. These sights have historically caused me to sing my own satirical version of “I’m Proud to Be an American.” I have realized lately, however, that the problem is international. CNN recently ran a story about the search for Flight MH370 entitled, “Plane search hampered by ocean garbage problem.” Granted, some of that ocean garbage is due to natural disasters, but really now, can’t we do a better job?
I am embarrassed to admit that, when I was a child, several times a year my family took our garbage (cans, glass, etc.) to the local dump, and tossed it onto the pile. The original owners of my current property did the same, but they just made their own pile out back in the woods. Every year I find more glass and cans.
For the most part, our society has learned to do a better job. We have developed some new norms. We recycle our newspapers, cans, and bottles. We pay to have our car batteries, tires, and electronics recycled. We collect our old oil. My local utility company pays me to have my large appliances recycled. Nevertheless, the litter problem along our roads continues.
Granted, we have developed a means of cleaning the roadsides, as generous companies and individuals adopt sections of roadway. I ask, however, why we don’t take personal responsibility for our own trash. In some cases, it is obvious that the litter is intentional. Bags full of fast food trash, half-full plastic bottles, and used diapers don’t just blow out the window. In other cases, it is unintentional. Sometimes the wind does blow something from your car. The bear or raccoon rips through the bagged trash. High wind pulls papers out of your hand. Let’s honestly admit, however, that much of the litter is fully intentional.
All states have enacted littering fines, even for small infractions. Sometimes these fines are as small as $20 (Colorado); sometimes as much as $30,000 (Maryland). In my state, Pennsylvania, littering from a vehicle is subject to a fine as high as $900. Based on my inspection driving down my residential road as well as driving down the interstate, I conclude that the state laws are not working.
Ultimately, our roadside litter problem will not be corrected by enacting larger legal penalties. Instead, we need to foster a new national norm—a new way of thinking. Folks, it is no longer acceptable to expect someone else to clean up your litter. It is no longer acceptable to throw your trash onto someone else’s land. You do not have the right to despoil the beauty of God’s creation in the American outdoors.
I say “Thank you!” to those who walk the roadsides and pick up the litter. You are doing a valuable public service for all of us. Ultimately, however, the litter needs to be prevented rather than picked up. Efficient offices learn how to handle papers and forms with fewer touches. The trash problem can easily be handled with fewer touches if we all took personal responsibility. Reduce your litter and improve the beauty of the roadsides. We may not know how to solve the ocean garbage problem, but the roadside litter problem is an easy fix.
I don’t want to see your litter; I don’t want to pick up your trash next spring.
–Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.