Sadly, most of humanity has developed a mindset where it’s become acceptable to litter. And for those of us who know it’s wrong, we know deep down that we’re guilty of not throwing our trash properly, creating more waste than necessary, or leaving our empty cups, bottles, and chip bags in public places if we know that no one is looking at least once in our lives.
We justify our actions by saying that someone else is being paid to clean up after our mess. Or, we argue that our bag is designer and you don’t want to keep your trash in your bag before finding a trash can. Or, you might feel that it makes you look poor to hold an empty bottle until you can find a bin.
No matter how much you justify your actions, the fact does not change: the world has a waste problem, and the United States is no exception. Everyone has contributed to the pollution that’s plaguing our world right now. In fact, nearly 75% of people in the last five years have admitted to littering in public at least once in their life.
You might not know this, but littering is actually illegal in many places in the United States. Several state and local government have imposed anti-littering laws and policies, and people can be fined if they’re caught littering in public. However, you don’t see a lot of reports on the news about people getting fined for littering or even arrests for repeat offenders.
Given the state of our pollution, though, isn’t it time the government strictly enforces these laws?
States with Littering Penalties
Enforcing the anti-littering penalties benefits local governments as much as it does the people. The United States governments are spending around $11.5 billion every year to clean up litter. Just imagine how much of your taxes are going into funding litter cleanup costs when the problem could have been solved by throwing your trash properly for free.
Litter is also a threat to the private individual. Aside from the fact that it’s an eyesore, litter can be a breeding ground for flies, rats, roaches, and other pests that can cause health problems like leptospirosis, typhoid fever, cholera, malaria, and more. These diseases can end up putting you in the hospital and suffering long-term effects on your health, which could put you in heavy medical debt depending on your insurance coverage. A heavily-littered area can also affect the property value of your home, the homes around you, and the quality of both private and public property.
Because of these effects, all states have implemented anti-littering laws and penalties for those caught openly littering. Some states impose a fixed fine or mandatory litter cleanup, while others implement fines depending on how much trash a person littered. All punishments increase for repeat offenders, with some states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Louisiana going so far as to suspend a driver’s licenses.
Littering may be a crime anyone can commit, but the fines are far from small. In Alaska, you can be charged with up to a $1,000 fine, while in Idaho, you may either be forced to perform up to 40 hours of litter cleanup or imprisonment of up to 30 days.
These laws were created to act the same way as other laws that deter people from theft, breaking and entering, and other crimes. You do something bad, and the law punishes you for it. Crime and punishment.
Despite states imposing littering laws, however, it’s not stopped people from doing so. People aren’t scared to litter. Those that choose not to litter do it because it’s the right thing to do, and not because they’re afraid of the consequences. And you’ve rarely ever seen anyone go to jail because they litter. Some might think that it is because no one really is littering. But when you look at the state of trash on the street, you know it’s not true. Instead, the more likely reason is this: there’s no accountability or punishment for a law that remains not totally enforced.
Where Does Our Trash Go?
Many just assume that if they leave trash anywhere in a public place, it is someone’s job to eventually pick up their trash and clean up the place. The thing is though, where your trash goes is much more complex than going Point A to Point B.
When you fail to throw your trash properly, two things can happen: it’s either picked up and thrown away by someone cleaning the area (your trash then ends up in a waste sorting center, recycling center, or a landfill or recycling center, depending on the type of garbage segregation used in the area), or it ends up elsewhere before someone can get to it.
Plastic bags and wrappers are more likely to fly away than wait for a street cleaner or park employee to clean up the mess, while empty plastic bottles find themselves in gutters ready for the next rain or flood to carry them into the sewer.
And whether it flies through the air or ends up in an underground tunnel, the trash you neglected and left out in public eventually makes its way to join the other 5.5 trillion pieces of trash that is currently polluting the oceans.
If everyone thought their trash was just a small contribution to an already even bigger problem, imagine that millions of people are saying that every day about their own trash.
Will Imposing Stricter Littering Laws Help?
To a certain extent, yes it can help curb littering. But there’s only so much laws can do until people start changing their mindset about their trash and the environment. There are laws against robbery, trespassing, and DUI, yet crimes like these persist because there are people who consider themselves above the law and think that the consequences do not apply to them. So while it can deter more people from littering because they know the consequences of it, anti-littering laws aren’t going to completely eradicate littering in the United States.
Unless every person had a police officer watching them 24/7, stricter laws are ineffective. If you see a stranger throw a candy wrapper on the street, you might think less of that person, but you wouldn’t perform a citizen’s arrest or call a law enforcement officer to arrest them. In fact, the police can’t ticket someone unless they personally saw them throw trash on the ground.
Also, think of it this way: some officers may think that littering isn’t hurting anyone. They have to respond to a burglary situation because a property owner’s assets and household members may be in danger. Trespassing could result in someone getting hurt. And DUI could have led to public and private property destruction. But when someone throws a candy wrapper or soda can on the street, no one really sees the long-term effects of it. So, even if the law exists, some law enforcement officers might think that littering is not worth their time and may choose to ignore it.
There’s also the fact that waste isn’t limited to littering. While people who litter are a part of the waste problem, there are also people waste resources like throwing perfectly good food into the trash or manufacturers throwing away “ugly produce” that is safe to eat but visually deformed. There’s also the fact that the majority of toxic waste isn’t coming from everyday people who litter but from companies and corporations who aren’t using sustainable methods of production.
This shows that there is indeed a waste problem in the United States, and stricter laws and reinforcing these laws can help, but it won’t solve the problem.
Changing Our Mindset on the Environment
There’s still no certain way to completely end littering, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution to sustainably getting rid of waste and its effects on the environment. While strictly implementing littering laws won’t totally solve the problem, enforcing people to practice proper waste disposal can surely help.
Our waste problem has become so huge that it has become one of the biggest factors against our survival in this world. The best thing individuals can do, though, is to recognize the effects one little wrapper can have on the environment.
Too much garbage can have negative effects on the environment, so we need to stop looking at our empty plastic bottles as just one more miniscule addition that won’t affect an already larger problem.
Millions of people think this way which, in turn, leads to millions of plastic bottles ending up in the oceans. If more police ticketed people even for the slightest piece of garbage, more people can be deterred against leaving their trash anywhere and practicing better waste disposal that’s beneficial to everyone involved.