Saturday, January 10, 2009

Should I leave others' litter by the side of the road?

I felt really guilty when my son and I were walking the 2.7 miles to our synagogue today for Sabbath services.

As we strode down the gravel path in our residential neighborhood, to the side was what looked like the remnants of a crow's feast. A ripped MacDonald's bag lay in the mud, near a squashed soft drink cup, a french fry envelope, and a hamburger wrapper. The papers were strewn in a line along the path next to the street.

After we passed them, I told my son, "I should have stopped and picked up that trash."

"No, you shouldn't," he replied.

I was shocked. My husband is known in our neighborhood, because he regularly goes out on "trash patrol" with his Gopher stick grabber, searching out the stray water bottle, the tossed beer can, the pitched junk mail, and the odd Starbucks cup. He's so vigilant that when we're driving, he'll often make a dangerous swerve off the road in pursuit of the glint of glass juice bottle. Even with a carload of passengers, late to an event, a piece of cardboard from a candidate's sign will lure him like a lasso. If there's no place to park, and his vehicle must jut out into the street, or worse, block a lane while he leaps from the driver's seat (or commands me to "just open your door and grab that can"), no amount of complaint from the frightened riders will deter him. "Don't you care about where we live?" he'll shoot back accusatorily.

Usually I tamp down my frustration while he's out on the street after such a swerve-'n-stop. I tell myself that he's a good citizen, a good example to others who see him prying that bottle cap from the mud, or snatching cigarette butts off the sidewalk with his grabber. But, when he's captured the single prize that distracted him from his driving and--oh no!--notices further trash deposits up and down the nearby street, I do get rather testy. I'm sitting there in the car, a target for fast-moving or inattentive drivers, with nothing to do. I could get out and help him (and when he's legally parked, I often do) but without a grabber, in our rainy, grimy climate, that means coming back into the car with slimy hands and filthy feet (not to mention the disgusting crud I've picked up).

Now you know the underlying hostility with which my son greeted my regret for passing by the MacDonald's detritus on the street today. So, when we came upon a similar array of trash up the street a block or so, I decided to be the good steward and pick it up (for those who know: our community has an eruv). Luckily, partially buried under wet leaves (this occurred in light rain), was a plastic market shopping bag. I filled it with the other five or six pieces of ripped paper and a beer can as my son exclaimed "No! Don't Do That! Why do you have to pick that up? No! Let's go!"

I carried my plastic bag about a half-block to the nearest trash receptacle, the entire time arguing with my son that any responsible citizen should care for his environment and clean up trash, especially when he doesn't have to swerve a car to do it; in fact, it was right in our path. To ignore it would have taken a conscious decision.

But my son was adamant that by cleaning up the trash, I was actually harming the environment; that leaving the garbage by the side of the road would make a bigger impact in favor of a clean neighborhood. Why? He gave me some hypotheticals about thoughtless teens who chuck their trash while driving, without considering consequences. When they drive back by their refuse, he claimed, the offenders would see their mess and realize their mistake. They would then understand that there was a consequence to their selfishness, that they had despoiled the landscape and their conscience would compel them to think more earnestly before dumping next time.

This bit of twisted logic floored me. I told my son about the "broken window effect" as promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling (1982 Atlantic Monthly article). You know--the theory that a broken window on a block signals to low-lifes that this is where no one cares, and invites further vandalism. My son replied that without the evidence, when the rude teens return past the spot of their transgression, they'll just assume that "the city" has employees who routinely keep streets clean, and because of this, there's no negative effect. The litterers, my son insisted, NEED to see the trash left right where they left it to pique their sense of shame.

To the contrary, I argued, they have little sense of shame to pitch their trash so thoughtlessly, and such folk would most likely get a sense of glee if they returned to find their adjustment to the landscape intact. In that way, like a dog peeing on a tree trunk, they've marked their territory, as taggers do in order to provide themselves a sense of worth and power. My son said that picking up others' trash just makes those who would drop it feel the thrill of getting off Scott-free. Only he said "Scotch-free," which they may have been drinking before they threw its empty bottle by the side of the road.

I still maintain that responsible citizens don't want to live in a trashy environment, and that alone should motivate residents to pause when they see trash near them, to retrieve and properly dispose of it. Am I wrong? Should I just leave the trash? Should my husband obsessively swerve to clean it up?

Plenty of impatient passengers want to know.
(P.S. When returning from synagogue services, my husband, who always walks with bag in hand, collected the MacDonald's remnants I'd first passed, restoring our neighborhood to its pristine naturalness.)


  1. I think you are right. I've been influenced by Mr. Medved's attitude toward litter; if the citizens in the neighborhood don't care, who will?

    Litter in the neighborhood is a poor reflection on the entire neighborhood.

  2. I hear both sides of the coin. Certainly, cleaning up people's messes for them reinforces the idea that it's someone else's job to clean up after them (sadly, this notion is all too common).

    Also, read The Tipping Point! :)

  3. In theory I agree with you. On the other hand, I have 5 children between the ages of 6 and 23. After reading your blog, I asked them why they dump dirty dishes in a spotless kitchen or leave backpacks and shoes in a clean livingroom. Their response? "If the house were a mess, we wouldn't care and assume you didn't either. But if it's clean, at least we feel guilty." Picture the shrugs and sheepish looks...

  4. I think that doing this thankless, disgusting, and seemingly Sisyphusian (sp?) task--especially on a regular basis (ick!!!!)--is about the most humbling thing imaginable, and there is no way (despite their protests and arguments) that the children of such a person can grow up to be anything but total mentsches. And the littering teenagers will either forget about their litter, or SEE your nameless husband PICKING it up one time (which is quite likely) and be totally floored and do instant and complete teshuvah (repentance).