The Secret Lives of Litterers (An Informal Kitsap Sun Investigation)

Littering, unquestionably, is a horrible thing. It creates habitats for disease infested insects and rodents; it harms wildlife; and most notably (and selfishly) for us humans, it creates an eyesore and dilapidates our communities. It’s also illegal, by penalty of fine or even jail.

Yet against our laws and outrage, why are our streets covered in — to put it bluntly — discarded crap? And who are these litterers, and why do they do it?

On Sunday, I decided to find out. But it’s hard to catch a litterer in the act to ask them. (That’s our first clue in this little investigation: litterers are secretive about their trashy ways.)

So to peer inside a litterer, I looked to the litter itself. In two bags worth of junk I collected on Wheaton Way in Bremerton, here’s some VERY informal observations:

* Litterers have protected sex. There were numerous condoms and their wrappers strewn around. (Good thing I wore gloves.)

* Litterers are people who use substances for energy (be it Coca Cola or Rockstar) or relaxation (beer).

*Litterers definitely smoke their share of cigarettes. Butts and cartons were among the most common of items I found.

* Litterers seem to like fast food. Bags that once held hearty, salty fast food were faded and slopped about in the grass.

* Litterers like things with packaging. (Which begs the question: would they litter if there were no such packaging?)

*Litterers seem to ride buses. Around several Kitsap Transit bus stops, there were quite a few wrappers, butts and bottles. This might be the most frustrating of all litterers to me — how could you toss an item to waste in nature when you’re minutes away from boarding a bus with a trash can?

* Litterers supported Fred Finn’s campaign for state representative. Honestly, not Mr. Finn’s fault, but the people who elected him needed to have his sign out of our greenery prior to, I don’t know, four months after the election. It’s March!

I think we northwesterners notice littering more than other Americans because an expended bag of Cheetos sticks out against the pristine backdrop of a group of douglas firs. It’s like someone dabbing orange paint onto the Mona Lisa.

But there should be other reasons on people’s minds against littering. Let’s put it into financial terms: littering costs money (read = your tax money) to clean up.

Littering, as perhaps the most non-violent, non-victimizing crimes there is (admit it= better that someone discarded their Funyons than stole your iPod) is just not prosecuted very often, evidenced by the trashy cacophony we’re greeted with while driving down the road.

I’ve told you who’s littering. But why are they doing it?

The government of Prince Edward Island, the smallest of all Canada’s provinces, points to these reasons litters do what they do:

* Lack of knowledge of the environmental effects of littering.
* Litter has already accumulated. The more litter present the more people are inclined to litter.
* Lack of social pressure to do the right thing.
* Absence of penalties or consistent enforcement.
* Number, placement and appearance of disposal containers at or near the site.
* People who litter often feel no sense of pride in the areas they are littering.
* They don’t view the item as litter. That’s often the case with cigarette butts.

And that brings our investigation to its conclusion: how do we stop them?

One way is peer pressure.

Some of you may recall the Broken Windows theory, introduced in the Atlantic Monthly By James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory says that if police enforce the smallest of laws — even turnstyle jumping to avoid subway fares — other, more serious crimes decline. And, if that “broken window,” is repaired, people will be less likely to break other windows (and commit other crimes in that neighborhood).

Could the same hold true for litter? I think a litterer would indeed be deterred to dump his trash if his environment were clean.

It should go without saying — a citizen would go without littering if his town didn’t make an oft-appearance of looking like a trash bin.

My experiment will continue. I plan to return to Wheaton Way in the coming weeks to check on the litter (and pick it up again). I will blog the progress.

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