Any excuse given for littering is garbage

ATLANTA -- The other day, I watched a driver in front of me toss a fast-food cup out the window. I started to try to catch up to and scold this fool. But I remembered half of Georgia is packing, so I bit my tongue and eased off the accelerator.

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Bill Torpy
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- The other day, I watched a driver in front of me toss a fast-food cup out the window. I started to try to catch up to and scold this fool. But I remembered half of Georgia is packing, so I bit my tongue and eased off the accelerator.

That some lazy, inconsiderate boob is using our public space as a garbage can is not necessarily unusual. But you're less likely to catch them in the act these days. I suppose litterbugs are a bit more sly, knowing it has become a social taboo -- kind of like letting your kids smoke when they are not buckled into their car seats.

Society has come a long way since the '60s and early '70s, when a kid could earn pocket change collecting discarded pop bottles and returning them for deposit.

Littering was an inherent part of life. Sure, thoughtful people didn't litter, and your mom always instructed you to find a garbage can. But folks weren't always thoughtful, nor did they always listen to mom.

An episode of the series "Mad Men" captures the casual nature of littering during the 1960s when Don Draper tossed a can in the park and his wife shook loose onto the ground a picnic blanket full of trash as they packed up to leave.

A 2009 national survey from the folks at Keep America Beautiful found that 15 percent of Americans admitted they littered, compared to 50 percent in 1969. The operative word here is "admitted," because that same survey said there were an estimated 51 billion pieces of trash along the nation's highways, including 4.6 billion pieces larger than 4 inches long. So, obviously someone's doing it.

According to that study, 36 percent of the visible trash is cigarette butts. That's like 18.6 billion butts, give or take a carton or two. Fast-food or snack packaging makes up about 40 percent of the 4-inch-long trash.

Retired Sandy Springs, Georgia, police Capt. Steve Rose said he probably wrote two dozen or more littering tickets throughout his career because, well, it bothered him.

"It's rude and it's sloppy," he said. "What gets me is when they throw cigarette butts out the window."

Yep, to many smokers the world is their ashtray.

Rose said you don't often see people casually toss stuff from cars. But, he added, "people still do it. You see the evidence everywhere."

Littering has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it's one of those societal ills that a person can actually do something about.

Stopping crime can be dangerous, keeping government honest is time-consuming, and saving trees in Atlanta is almost futile. But bending over to pick up a plastic bottle and chuck it into a garbage can doesn't take much effort. And you see an immediate benefit -- a sidewalk that no longer has a Wendy's bag flapping in the wind.

For the past year or so, I've been picking up trash while walking my dog. I was already carrying a couple of Kroger bags for the poop, so why not bend over a few more times?

Near my home is a grass triangle of land that serves as a magnet for detritus. Once a month or so, I'll fill a bag or two. Interestingly, the largest collection of trash isn't on the main roads fronting the grassy triangle. Instead, it's found on the quiet side street used as a cut-through. I guess the slobs figure there are fewer eyeballs along that stretch.

The MARTA stop on the triangle is also a source of trash (there is no garbage can there). I suppose bus patrons have a better reason for littering than do motorists. A driver can just toss the can or bag in the back seat and dump it off at a gas station or at home. Bus riders don't want to carry their garbage aboard and then bring it home. So they must gulp down their Gatorade or gobble up their Cheetos before the bus arrives.

Peggy Denby is executive director of Keep Atlanta Beautiful Inc., an org that used to get garbage cans for communities and arrange trash pickups. (The city took over those duties three years ago.)

"The presence of litter brings more litter," said Denby, who for years led a neighborhood watch in the Ponce de Leon/Midtown area. "It builds on itself."

To turn it around, "You have to start at the bottom. Pick things up," she said. "Once you have a neighborhood start looking better, people think differently about it. But you can't go into someone else's neighborhood and clean it up. It has to be organic."

She added, "There should be a hotline to the city where people can say, 'I just saw someone throw trash on the road.'"

However, cops have enough to do and the logistics and reality of such a system would be troublesome.

Cop to driver: "Someone reported you tossing a KFC bucket out the window."

Driver licking his greasy fingers: "Prove it!"

There is a site online that does do this: "16 oz soda bottle (Sprite or Mountain Dew) thrown from the window of a black Chevrolet Silverado," complete with the offender's license plate number.

This doesn't really get anyone in trouble, but I suppose it gives uptight people like me something to do.

An article in Atlantic magazine quoted Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini saying collective peer pressure does the trick.

"One of the things that's fundamental to human nature is that we imitate the actions of those around us," said the prof, who has conducted studies in littering and litter prevention. The article said those studies show "people are likely to do what they think is expected of them."

Interestingly, instead of picking up all the trash, leave a single wrapper on the curb.

"If there is one piece, you are least likely to litter," Cialdini said. "If you see one piece, it reminds you that most people are not littering here."

And it tells you that you're a jerk if you drop the second piece.

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