Experts: Fewer people trash U.S. roads, beaches

In Pennsylvania, people who catch highway litterers can report their license plate numbers.


WASHINGTON — America is getting cleaner, litter experts say.

They estimate that deliberate trash-tossing has fallen about 2 percent a year since the mid-’70s in communities where it’s been measured.

On U.S. beaches, cigarette butts, beverage cans and plastic foam peanuts for packaging are down, cleaners say. In most communities, pooper-scooper laws now make carefree strolls possible. Even along roadsides, more of what’s visible today is grass.

Remarkably, the improvements come despite an increase of 90 million in the U.S. population since widespread trash surveying began in 1974.

If you haven’t picked up on litter’s decline, don’t be surprised. People raise their standards as places get cleaner, so they’re never impressed, according to John Doherty, New York City’s sanitation commissioner. “The more you improve the cleanliness level, the higher people’s expectations are.”

Doherty, 69, who started out as a city street-sweeper in 1960, has lived the progress.

Thirty years ago, independent assessors rated nearly half of New York’s streets and sidewalks as filthy. “A sweeper’d go out and there’d be mounds of steaming dog waste,” Doherty said. “That was tolerated then.”

Twenty years ago, New York was still so dirty that humorist Dave Barry accused the mayor of having appointed a Commissioner for Making Sure the Sidewalks Are Always Blocked by Steaming Fetid Mounds of Garbage the Size of Appalachian Foothills.

Today, the same independent assessment system used 30 years ago rates 95 percent of New York’s streets and sidewalks as clean. Once-rare litter penalties now are the second biggest source of the city’s revenue from fines, after parking violations.

As New York goes, so goes the nation, albeit by fits and starts, since litter curbs are almost entirely a local or state matter. For example:

•In New Jersey, revenue from special $50 Shore to Please license plates subsidizes cleanups of river, bay and ocean shorelines by state prisoners.

•In Washington state, a multimedia “Litter and it will hurt” campaign warns motorists of the state’s serious litter fines: $1,025 for tossing a lighted cigarette, for example. The effort has cut litter by 20 percent on state-overseen highways and roads since it began in 2002, according to Megan Warfield, the state’s coordinator of litter programs.

•In Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Washington state, people who spot highway litterers can rat them out to hot lines by reporting their license plate numbers. The numbers, converted to vehicles’ owners’ addresses, generate tens of thousands of warning letters yearly. “That really gets their attention,” Warfield said.

•In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, litter-law prosecutions are up sharply, according to John Ockels, the director of the Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center, a nonprofit organization in Sherman, Texas, that fights litter. “Nobody running for office in Texas ever wants to be soft on crime,” Ockels explained, “and nowadays that includes environmental law enforcement.”

•In and around Augusta, Ga., junk cars get towed if they won’t start. Littering citations against waste and recycling trucks are up 1,300 percent over last year, thanks largely to police traps on the road to the landfill. Neighborhood associations demanded the added enforcement, said Marshal’s Office Sgt. David Bass, the head of the anti-litter unit.

Beyond enforcement, many factors aligned against litter. Recycling, for example, has made people more conscious of solid waste of all kinds. Tourist destinations discovered that it paid to be litter- free. The same schoolchildren who pulled cigarettes out of their parents’ mouths got on them when they littered.

It isn’t that U.S. attitudes toward litter changed, said P. Wesley Schultz, a social psychologist at California State University at San Marcos. “People never had a very favorable attitude toward litter,” Schultz said. “What we HAVE seen is a fairly dramatic change in people’s norms about how appropriate it is to litter.

“People now feel littering is inappropriate and that others will disapprove of them if they litter. The norm about what’s right and wrong changed.”