A Philosopher's Blog

The Cost of Litter

Posted in Environment, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2014
English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After running the Palace Saloon 5K, I participated in a cleanup of a nearby park. This event, organized by my running friend Nancy, involved spending about an hour and a half picking up trash in the Florida sun.  We runners created a pile of overstuffed trash bags full of a wide range of discarded debris.

On my regular runs, I routinely pick up litter. This ranges from the expected (discarded cans) to the unusual (a blender dropped off in the woods). These adventures in litter caused me to think about the various issues related to litter and most especially the cost of litter.

One obvious cost of litter is the aesthetic damage it inflicts. Litter is ugly and makes an area look, well, trashy. While this cost might be partially paid by those who litter, it is also inflicted on those who visit the area and do not litter. One of the many reasons I pick up litter is that I prefer not to run through trashy places.

Another obvious cost of litter is the environmental damage it inflicts. Some of this is quite evident, such as oil or paint leaking from discarded cans. Other damage is less evident, such as the erosion and flooding that can be caused by litter that clogs up storm drains.  There is also the harm done to animals directly, such as sea life killed when their stomachs fill with plastic debris. As with the aesthetic damage, the cost of the litter is largely paid by those who did not litter—such as the turtles and sea-birds harmed by discarded items.

A somewhat less obvious cost is that paid by people who pick up the litter discarded by others. For example, I take a few minutes out of almost every run to pick up and dispose of trash discarded by others. There are also walkers in my neighborhood area who pick up trash during their entire walk—I will see them carrying full bags of cans, bottles and other debris that have been thrown onto the streets, sidewalks and lawns.  And no, they are not gathering up the debris to cash it in for recycling money.

What I and others are doing is paying the cost of the littering of others with our time and effort. This is doubly annoying because the effort we need to expend to pick up the debris and dispose of it properly is generally more than the effort the discarder would have needed to expend to simply dispose of it herself. This is because such debris is often scattered about, in pieces or tossed into the woods—thus making it a chore to pick up and carry. Also, carrying trash while running is certainly more inconvenient than simply transporting it in a vehicle—and much of the trash beside the road is hurled from vehicles.

Some states, such as my home state of Maine, do shift some of the cost of litter to the litterer. To be specific, these states have a deposit on bottles and cans. When someone litters a can or bottle, he is throwing away the deposit—thus incurring a small cost for his littering. When someone picks up the bottle or can, she can redeem it for the deposit—thus offsetting the cost of her effort. While this approach does not cover all forms of litter, it does have a significant impact on the litter problem by providing people with an incentive to not litter or to pick up the litter thrown away by others.

This model of imposing a cost on littering and providing a reward for cleaning up litter seems to be an ethical system. In terms of fairness, it seems right that the person littering should pay a price for the damage that she does and the cost that she inflicts on others. It also seems right that people who make the effort to clean up the messes caused by others should receive compensation for their efforts. The obvious challenge is making the model work on a broader scale beyond just bottles and cans. Unfortunately, there are many more people who are lazy, uncaring or imbued with a feeling of entitlement than there are who have a sense of responsibility and duty. As such, I know I will be cleaning up after others for the rest of my life.



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19 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on April 18, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Maybe we should just start caning the people who litter, like they do in Singapore?

    “If you drop that trash, you get the lash.”

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 18, 2014 at 11:02 am

      Maybe a light corrective beating with whatever the person discarded. This would encourage people not to toss refrigerators into the woods.

      • magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm

        I see your inner totalitarian comes out when it comes to litter, but when it comes to terrorism, pouring water on someone is too much. I call for consistency.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm

          Not at all. I think the cost of littering should be shifted as much as possible to the litterer. I don’t think that having deposits on cans and bottles is totalitarian. I do think that there should be fines for dumping litter and garbage-the fine should at least cover the cost of having the trash disposed of properly.

  2. apollonian said, on April 18, 2014 at 11:45 am

    We Need Massive Public Executions

    Litter would seem to be most eminently simple matter of politics and economics. People who own their land are observed to taking most meticulous and loving care of it, a universal observation for people of all cultures/civilizations.

    Another observation is that a just society whence the people observe a true rule-of-law provides for most contented, hence responsible citizens who would best then see to proper disposal of litter.

    There are far, far more pressing problems of society and politics than litter–like exterminating the present criminal class that rules our culture and is killing the people, as by means of AGENDA-21, GMO foods, trying to gin-up wars in Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, etc. There’s nothing like public executions, French Rev.-style, for setting a good example for the people and future generations, by golly.

  3. magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    James Q. Wilson, a man after my own heart.

    The Broken Window Theory.


    • WTP said, on April 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm

      Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge.

      So if philosophers had their way, this behavior by the police would be stopped. The philosophers know what is best. People living in the so-called “real world” don’t know what is good for them.

      • magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 4:30 pm

        Yes, in the modern world, theory trumps empirical evidence. One great thing about Wilson, is that even though he was an intellectual, he would always point out in interviews that he had a theory, but if it hadn’t been tested in reality, he could not say for sure if he was correct. He said he learned long ago to not make predictions and that he offered no easy, all-encompassing solutions for society. He said that real progress in society is often made in very small increments, and many times at a cost in other areas.

    • WTP said, on April 20, 2014 at 4:18 pm

      Also, Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones.

      Isn’t this a slippery slope argument? Just because one window is broken somewhere, why does that have anything to do with another window, possibly in a building across the street? And what of the sociological and economic free speech statement of the window breaker? How does this differ from graffiti?

      • magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm

        Wilson’s assertion is that disorder begets disorder, that this is ingrained in human psychology. To some extent this hypothesis is confirmed in studies on habit: When people establish one good habit, it tends to make the establishment of other good habits easier. For instance, studies show that people who take up exercise and make a habit of it are able to form other good habits more easily.

        Wilson is making the same argument about slippery slope that I do: It’s more about human psychology than mathematical imperatives.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 20, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    From Wikipedia:

    In addition, there is a perception that Singapore society is highly regulated through the criminalization of many activities which are considered as fairly harmless in other countries. These include failing to flush toilets after use,[6] littering,[7] jaywalking,[8] the possession of pornography,[9] the sale of chewing gum,[10] and sexual activity; such as oral and anal sex between men.[11] It has been claimed that one of the results of such heavy regulation is that Singapore has one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes in the world.[12] A catchphrase recently used in a police anti-crime campaign was “Low crime does not mean no crime”.

    Singapore retains both corporal punishment (in the form of caning) and capital punishment (by hanging) as punishments for serious offences. For certain offences, the imposition of these penalties is mandatory. More than 400 people were executed in Singapore, mostly for drug trafficking, between 1991 and 2004. Statistically, Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world relative to its population, surpassing Saudi Arabia. Science fiction writer William Gibson famously described Singapore as “Disneyland with the death penalty”.

    • T. J. Babson said, on April 20, 2014 at 6:01 pm

      You don’t want to be caught waking on the grass, either.

      • WTP said, on April 20, 2014 at 6:14 pm

        OTOH, everyone is free to leave. I wouldn’t want to live there myself. I’ve done business with their air force, i wasn’t impressed. But it’s a small, educated country and I’m guessing anyone who doesn’t like it there can move to Indonesia or Thailand or anyplace else in the area they would be accepted. As oppressive as it is, it’s not And a better place to live than any of its neighbors.

        • T. J. Babson said, on April 20, 2014 at 8:51 pm

          I don’t have anything against Singapore. There are many worse places to live. But I have been known to disobey “do not walk on grass” signs occasionally, so it is probably not for me.

          • magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 9:55 pm

            The first time I got yelled at for walking on grass was in the Army. I’m still not over it.

    • magus71 said, on April 20, 2014 at 7:36 pm

      But oddly, lower suicide rates than Canada, the United States and Britain.

      • WTP said, on April 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm

        Well suicide’s against the law, donchaknow.

      • T. J. Babson said, on April 20, 2014 at 8:48 pm

        Probably greater social cohesion.

  5. WTP said, on April 20, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Damn wordpress… Following “it’s not” I had in angle brackets “insert socialist country here”.

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