Litter is a pervasive and transient form of pollution. It starts in one location and then moves by wind and water to other locales. Keep Oakland Beautiful and other organizations, as well as responsible individuals, frequently go out and collect litter that has accumulated in our parks, creeks, and other areas.
However, when we collect litter, we only treat the symptom of the problem. While it’s essential that we continue to do this, it’s even more vital that we find ways to address the root causes of littering, so we can prevent it from occurring in the first place.
According to Keep America Beautiful (Keep Oakland Beautiful’s parent organization), people litter because:
- they feel no sense of ownership.
- they believe someone else will pick up after them.
- trash that’s already accumulated (e.g., in a creek, against a fence, in a vacant lot) suggests that it’s OK to pile on.
Keep America Beautiful found that 81% of littering was done intentionally. They also found that most littering occurs at a significant distance from a trash receptacle. Finally, it’s worth noting that most people who deliberately litter are between the ages of 18 and 34 years of age and that fast food wrappers and containers are a major contributor of litter.
In addition to contributing to the pollution of our environment and being unpleasant to look at, litter results in significant cost to the community, which takes funds away from other critical needs.
According to a 2013 article by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the City of Oakland spends about $8 million per year on litter abatement. That’s more litter abatement cost than all but four California cities in the study. This $8 million expense excludes costs borne by the county, state, and federal governments, as well as waste management and recycling costs, which are significant. Imagine how Oakland could put $8 million to better use, if we’d just stop littering.
Litter has other economic effects, as well. For example, litter finding its way into streams and subsequently polluting our waterways, beaches, and coastlines, can impact the tourism, fishing, and restaurant industries which, in turn, directly impacts the livelihoods of the people who work in those industries, which adversely impacts their families.
Litter even affects our property values. The National Association of Home Builders indicated that the presence of litter in a community will reduce property values by over 7%.
Litter can also harm our wildlife. The photo below says it all.
As Benjamin Franklin so aptly stated over 200 years ago, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ I believe this is the key to resolving the litter problem.
To reduce littering, we must focus on prevention strategies that will change our behavior, individually and collectively. Here are a few ideas that come to mind:
- Create a strong sense of civic pride in Oakland, so people will value being in our community and will want to protect and beautify it.
- Take responsibility and accountability for our own behavior as well as for the environmental health of the community in which we live.
- Actively model the behaviors we want to see in others, in order to create an environmentally sound community.
- Given the propensity for the under-35 population to litter, develop school programs to heighten awareness of the implications of littering and the need to be good environmental stewards.
- Ensure that there are sufficient trash receptacles available in highly traveled areas, especially at events that convene large groups of people.
- Continue efforts to beautify all areas in Oakland. As Keep America Beautiful learned, beautification projects lead to lower littering rates.
- If you feel safe doing so, ask a person to refrain from defacing our community when you see him or her littering. They probably won’t appreciate your request, but it may make them think twice the next time.
Unlike other forms of pollution that are driven by industry (e.g., air pollution) or community (e.g., light pollution), litter is usually driven by a careless individual’s behavior. It’s within our power to change this. It starts with you and me.
Wood Ducks, Lake Temescal, Oakland.
Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.
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