The Plague of America's Wild Spaces

The Plague of America's Wild Spaces

“I didn’t know littering was illegal!” It’s a claim no conservation warden expects to hear after citing someone for dumping garbage on public lands or sinking their empties beneath their boat.

Littering is perhaps the United States’ most universally scorned dick move, and yet we seldom need to look far for examples. The most recent study by Keep America Beautiful reported nearly 50 billion pieces of litter along U.S. roads and waterways in 2020, or 152 items per citizen. KAB says its 2020 National Litter Study is the most comprehensive research in the organization’s nearly 70-year history, and follows up on similar studies in 2009 and 1969.

Those 50 billion pieces of litter equate to over 2,000 pieces of litter per mile on U.S. roads (25.9 billion pieces) and waterways (23.7 billion pieces). Like flotsam from shipwrecks, litter resurfaces in force each spring as winter recedes. No wonder 90% of Americans surveyed in the study believe litter plagues their state.

Americans’ disdain for littering has deep roots, dating at least to the 1950s and the first Keep America Beautiful campaign. That distaste hardened after the first Earth Day in April 1970 when KAB released an iconic anti-littering advertising campaign. The group’s 1971 public-service ad featured actor Iron Eyes Cody paddling a birchbark canoe up an increasingly polluted river, as if arriving in modern America from a bygone era.

The buckskin-clad actor was actually an Italian-American named Espera de Corti, but he played Native American characters on TV and in movies (which was controversial in its own right). After Cody pulls his canoe ashore and walks alongside a busy freeway, a paper bag flies from a car window and bursts at his feet, splattering fast-food wrappers across his moccasins. A close-up shows a tear streaking his weathered cheek as the narrator intones: “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.”

Cody and the ad became forever known as the “Crying Indian,” and the award-winning message hit home on TV screens, billboards and in print for years to come. It helped make anti-littering a societal norm that remains strong today, complete with formal penalties (fines) and informal sanctions (dirty looks) for violators.

No One Loves Litter “We all carry the anti-littering norm within us," said Professor Tom Heberlein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in his 2012 book, "Navigating Environmental Attitudes."

"At least I haven’t met people who say it’s good to litter, or that littering makes them proud and not littering makes them feel guilty. No one wants that identity.”

Most people cited for littering feel humiliated, confirms Matt O’Brien, deputy chief warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “More people are embarrassed about littering than most other violations,” he said. “Everyone learns at a young age not to litter. Everyone knows you just don’t do that.”

Why, then, does it seem “everyone” litters, that we see litter “everywhere,” and that volunteers bag tons of discarded garbage during organized cleanups along roads and within wild places?

“Litter is visible, especially as it accumulates, but the vast majority of people dispose of it properly,” Heberlein said. “Even though few people litter, we tend to ascribe that identity to everyone except ourselves.”

In fact, the 2020 KAB study found that littering rates greatly improved the past 60-plus years. The KAB’s researchers monitored 600 randomly selected sites nationwide in 2020 and reported 54% less litter than in 2009. Further, that 2009 study documented a 61% decline from 1969. And even though plastic litter in 2020 was up 165% from 1969, and miscellaneous litter was up 13%, the 2020 study documented steep declines since 1969 in metal-based litter, -88%; glass, -86%; paper, -79%; and beverage containers, -74%.

As usual, the leading type of litter in the 2020 study was cigarette butts, but even those were down 69% since 2009, falling from 18.6 billion butts to 5.7 billion. The KAB study notes the plunge in cigarette-butt littering far outpaced the decline in U.S. smokers the past decade. The study also documented significant declines in newspaper, magazine, and receipt litter as the nation shifted to electronic media and digital transactions.

And despite overall declines in litter and littering, fast-food packaging remains a problem. The 2020 study estimated 2.6 billion food-packaging plastic film containers in America’s litter, including candy wrappers and snack bags; over 800 million pieces of food-packaging containers, including nearly 395 million fast-food cups and 423 million other fast-food packages; and nearly 350 million plastic bags, most of which (95%) came from retail stores, restaurants and other outlets. Only 5% of plastic-bag litter was actual garbage bags.

Farther down the list was the nation’s first estimate of litter from the COVID-19 pandemic. The KAB study found an estimated 207.1 million discarded PPE gloves and masks, with gloves making up 72% of the total.

Finger Pointing And because individual people smoked all those cigarettes, ate all that fast food, and wore all that PPE gear, most people attribute each piece of trash to individual hands. That is, we assume litterers intentionally drop, toss, or flick their litter to the ground. Heberlein said that assumption distorts the realities of littering and how it occurs.

“Half the litter we see comes from other sources long after it leaves our hands,” Heberlein said. “It blows out of trucks, trailers, open dumpsters, and from overflowing or blown-over barrels where nonlitterers put their garbage.”

In his 1971 study, Heberlein witnessed only 138 of 7,409 (2%) pedestrians improperly discarding worthless voter-registration notices he handed out on a busy street in Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist town. Likewise, a 2008 study in 10 states led by P. Wesley Schultz at California State University identified only 342 (3.8%) litterers among nearly 9,000 people it monitored. Those individuals accounted for 17% of littering incidents researchers witnessed at 130 sites.

Who are those litterers? A 2% sample size is so small it’s almost too tiny to scientifically study and break into demographic categories. Heberlein, however, notes that “young men driving trucks” generally describes the most likely litterers. Schultz’s 2008 study reported similar findings, with individuals aged 18 to 29 littering at a 26% rate, while those 30 and older held steady at about 15% rates. Those younger than 18 had a 13% littering rate. By gender, Schultz reported a 21% littering rate for men and 15% for women.

The rarity of individual litterers also explains why citations are so few. Colorado’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, for example, issued only 87 littering citations from 2010 through 2019, or less than nine annually statewide. In contrast, DPW officers issued 100 times as many citations (8,730) those years for fishing without a valid license, or 873 annually.

O’Brien said the Wisconsin DNR issued 167 citations for littering, illegal dumping, and illegal discharging of waste products in 2020. Those violations totaled only 1.35% of the 12,367 citations the agency issued last year.

“Littering is a tough ticket to write because you literally have to watch someone for hours to see those few seconds when they toss an empty can into the weeds or throw an empty bag into the woods,” O’Brien said. “People don’t make garbage every minute they’re out there.”

Even so, O’Brien thinks those rare citations create deterrence.

“I wouldn’t call it a golden ticket, but when we catch someone littering on a popular dam or fishing pier it sends the message that we take littering seriously,” he said. “We saw it, their buddies saw it, and we did something about it. Plus, it shows people that we were watching without them knowing we were watching. That makes people spread the word and think twice about flicking something out the window.”

Sam Lawry spent 23 years in law enforcement with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Lawry said littering enforcement also steers wardens to other violations. “These things go hand in hand,” he said. “Most law-enforcement officers have zero tolerance for littering. People who litter are showing disregard for the outdoors and our natural resources, which suggests a pattern. They might be worth a closer look. There’s a higher possibility they’re ignoring other things, too.”

Friendly Deterrence Formal sanctions and fines, however, don’t explain the ongoing decline in littering. In fact, conservation wardens often note that judges and prosecutors don’t take littering citations seriously, given the violation’s modest fines and the many “real” crimes crowding U.S. court systems. As Heberlein wrote in “Navigating Environmental Attitudes,” society’s anti-littering stance is relatively soft. Yes, we shouldn’t litter, but most people won’t scold litterers, and littering isn’t as bad as robbing banks or poaching deer.

Then again, why risk a confrontation or demand government-meted sanctions when mere “internal sanctions” like guilt and icy stares seem to deter littering? Heberlein, for example, often assigned his students littering homework: Go forth and litter, and write reports about what happened and how you felt.

“What really got them was having to litter in front of somebody,” Heberlein wrote. “They expected other people to say something, holler at them, or pick up the litter, which would make them feel bad. They didn’t seem to worry about somebody calling the cops.”

Therefore, clever advertising campaigns like the “Crying Indian” in 1971 proved effective. Likewise, the Texas Department of Transportation helped create a long-lasting anti-littering effort in 1985. Faced with $20 million annual cleanup costs for roadway litter, the Texas DOT hired an Austin advertising agency to create an anti-littering campaign to deter “bubbas in pickup trucks" from “chucking beer cans and the like out their windows.”

The agency delivered, first by rejecting the adult word “litter.” Instead, it crafted a slogan that basically tells adolescents and young adults to clean up their messy rooms. The result was “Don’t Mess with Texas,” which became a federally registered trademark of the Texas DOT. Celebrities like Willie Nelson and Chuck Norris volunteered to help by reminding would-be litterers that messing up the Lone Star State not only insults Texas, but breaks its laws. Over 70% of Texans still associate the slogan with anti-littering, and the Texas DOT sells “Don’t Mess with Texas” merchandise at highway rest areas to supplement its budget.

At the same time, the Texas DOT launched an even more successful anti-littering program with the nation’s first Sponsor a Highway campaign. That 1985 volunteer program put Texas citizens to work picking up roadside litter. Before long, Adopt a Highway programs took root nationwide. When seeing company logos and the names of local volunteer organizations on roadside signs, local motorists starting realizing that littering plagues their neighbors.

“Those signs, and volunteers in reflective vests picking up garbage along rivers and roadways, raises awareness of consequences,” Heberlein said. “Littering hurts and troubles people you probably know. It forces local Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, church groups, and others in your community to set aside time to pick up after you. Who wants that guilt?”

Land Tawney, CEO and president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said BHA’s Public Land Packouts the past three Septembers tap into those community connections nationwide. BHA members packed out 600 kitchen-size trash bags from public lands in 2019 nationwide. The program mushroomed to nearly 4,200 bags in 2020, and was on pace for another record in late September as Public Lands Month ended.

Tawney said BHA hasn’t posted signs to alert locals about the group’s cleanup efforts, but thinks the idea has merit. For now, BHA counts on good will and word of mouth to inform locals about cleanups by nearby BHA chapters.

“Hunters and anglers are great land and water stewards,” Tawney said. “We’ve always picked up trash at trailheads and boat landings, so we’ve had great results for organized cleanups in communities nationwide. In Florida alone this year we picked up over 1,000 bags of garbage. We’ll never stop all littering, but outdoor cleanups make a difference. Our Missoula group cleaned up a property three years ago and it’s stayed clean ever since. When you remove graffiti, less graffiti happens.”

In fact, many studies support Tawney’s claim that litter begets littering. Heberlein reported that when he handed out useless handbills to unsuspecting students leaving a classroom, only 4% littered if they walked out into a clean hallway. When the hallway was a mess, however, littering rates quadrupled. Likewise, a study of a Philadelphia hotdog stand reported a 33% littering rate when the street was dirty and trash barrels absent. When the streets were clean and trash barrels handy, the littering rate fell to 15%.

A Matter of Convenience? But simply providing dumpsters and trash cans at trailheads and parking lots won’t end littering, Heberlein found. In fact, trash receptacles can create litter for sites lacking staff and funding to collect garbage regularly. As trash barrels topple or overflow, people continue to drop garbage and bags at the site, and wind blows it around.

The solution? In state parks, where middle class families are the main visitors, agencies learned in recent years that litter decreased and sometimes disappeared after administrators removed all trash receptacles.

“At Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin, budget cuts forced the DNR to remove all the trash barrels,” Heberlein said. “Park users were confronted with two choices: leave garbage as litter or take it elsewhere, such as home to their own trash can. They took it home. No responsible parent tells kids to leave their shit under the picnic table.”

Tawney said BHA and other groups have also learned that picking up other people’s garbage doesn’t have to be drudgery. Just as some communities sponsor “Trash Dash” events that combine run/walk races and trash collecting, BHA chapters in Southeastern states sponsor “Gobblers and Garbage" and “Trashy Squirrel” hunts that award points for each ounce of garbage brought in. Contestants also receive points for each squirrel tail and each inch in a gobbler’s beard, but they can’t enter the contests without bringing in garbage.

And if fun and community pride don’t discourage litterers, they might get a rude reminder from wardens like Lawry.

“I’d visit hunters and fishermen in their camps, check their licenses, and point out the scattered trash and empty beer cans in the firepit,” he said. “I’d remind them to clean their campsite before heading home. Before I drove away, I’d take down their license-plate numbers. If I found a mess after they left, I’d write a citation. Littering will always be a crime.”