DOT’S BEAT: Trash Talk: The Psychology of Litter

by Dot Helling

split my time between walking and running the dirt roads in the Adamant area and the back roads and trails of Montpelier with my partner’s dog Rhea. For me, every day is Green-Up Day. I take bags on walks and usually return with them full of trash, year-round.

It seems to me that there is a psychology to litter, which reflects on the character of the offenders, the composition of the waste, and the geography of the place where litter falls. I believe those who litter fit into categories based upon class, habit, ignorance, and indifference.

Which class your local culprits fall into can be determined by what’s been trashed and by the locality. For instance, in secluded locations in parts of Hubbard Park, North Branch, and Sabin’s pasture, you might find piles of beer cans and snack chip bags, presumably discarded by youthful revelers. I once dragged tarps along with party remains from the bottom of the Sabin’s quarry, where it was obvious the place had been a popular merrymaking site, complete with a fire pit.

I don’t dare to classify litterbugs by their gender, educational, or financial status. But I will suggest that you can identify the offenders from what is found along sections of our beautiful roadways and fields. In Adamant, the 2-mile dirt byway that is Sodom Pond Road is a depository for many beer cans, particularly Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Sip of Sunshine IPA, and Milwaukee’s Best Ice. I have also picked up a number of Raspberry Twisted Tea cans, dog food bags, and diapers. These finds suggest repeat offenders. If you know someone who regularly enjoys some of these imbibements and travels this road, take it up with them and tell them to clean up their act.

A stretch along Sibley Road near Peck’s Farm Orchard in East Montpelier is consistently strewn with Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts cups and packaging. Around Montpelier’s city streets it’s shopping lists, receipts, ice cream napkins, and cigarette butts. Believe it or not, according to Nancy Schulz, a/k/a Sister Sludge, the Senior Center’s “Trash Tramps” usually pick up 3,000 cigarette butts in an hour on Tuesdays. Along the bike path behind the high school it’s peanut butter cracker, candy, and energy bar wrappers and snack chip bags, plus plastic water bottles—the bane of our global environment—and more cigarette butts.

Research indicates that various behavioral and attitudinal aspects of littering must be addressed to understand the phenomenon. There are active and passive litterers. Active ones intentionally drop or toss, or see a piece of debris drop yet walk away from it. A passive litterbug does not know when something has fallen out of a pocket, does not see it, and therefore unknowingly walks away. One concept for helping the passive litterbug is to design packaging that does not break into multiple pieces, as will a gum pack or energy gel wrap with separate parts to open in order to access what’s inside.

Littering degrades space. Studies show the rate of litter correlates with the amount found in an area, and that visible, pertinent signage can deter offenders. Cues such as signage in the environment and watchful eyes do reduce littering. The ability to dispose of litter close by makes a difference, which is a strong argument for why cities and towns should leave trash cans outside and accessible in the winter. One concept measures litter by political attitudes, noting as an example that political fliers hit the ground if not suited to the person receiving them. People do “follow the herd,” so the more incentives directing them to reduce inappropriate environmental waste and to recycle the better.

The psychology of a serial litterer includes traits such as juvenility; narcissism; a penchant for not wanting to be inconvenienced; and a strong, unreasonable, selfish belief in personal freedom. Narcissists believe it is the job of janitors and maintenance workers to pick up after them. Poor mental health may also be a factor, especially “resignation and despair,” according to Steve Spacek in Quora, a 2014 online periodical. Another underlying character factor is nonexistent childhood training at home.

The only true way to change attitudes and behavior toward littering is to increase public awareness, education, and participation, and to stress environmental issues and financial impacts. There is a scene in an early Mad Men episode in which the lead character and his family stop along a roadway for a picnic in the 1950s. They spread out their blanket, eat from their baskets and leave all the leftover packaging and food on the blanket, only to then shake it onto the grass and leave it as they casually drive away. Those were times when litter was freely flung from car windows with nary a thought about impact. In today’s world throwing your trash on the ground is not only socially taboo, it’s unethical. Trash left behind in sacred places—such as our forests, on the moon, off island shores, and on Mount Everest—is untenable.

Tis the season for giving. What better way to give back to your community than to help clean up before the litter that’s out there gets buried deep under the snow? Christmas colors are red and green. Celebrate the green by picking up what does not belong in our natural environment. Making it fun and cool to pick up litter boosts participation. As for how to celebrate the red, I’ll leave that one up to you, starting with the joy of holly. Happy Holidays everyone!

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