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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Another Litter Rant

Posted in Environment, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2013
English: Garbage in Romania

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a runner, I cover a lot of ground on foot. While this allows me to be part of the world in a way that driving through it in a car does not, it also means that I get to see all the trash that people just throw to the ground.

While some folks are content to complain about the trash, I’ve generally followed what a friend of mine said years ago: “talk into this hand and do something with that hand: which gets something done?” So, my response to litter is to pick it up. Then write a self-righteous blog about it latter. The blogging is mostly therapeutic-I feel a bit better after a good rant.

One thing that annoys me about litter is how needless it is. After all, if a person can carry an item to a place, then can surely carry it out again-or at least carry it to a trash can. But, this is apparently a bit too hard for some folks-on a typical run in the park by my house, I end up carry a few armfuls of debris from the trails to the trash cans and recycle can.

When I run on the roads, I also see a lot of trash-many people seem to think nothing of throwing out bottles, cans, food containers and other trash. Presumably it is too much for them to just bring the trash with them to their next destination. I can understand it when people toss out really awful things-like bags of vomit. However, throwing beer cans or Styrofoam trays into the road seems to be either laziness or contempt.

Ranting on, one thing that also annoys me is when people litter in the park by throwing their trash out into the woods. While they are presumably trying to hide their crime, they just make it harder to get their trash-especially in places that have thick and thorny vegetation. So, I’d like to ask folks who simply cannot avoid littering to just leave their trash by the side of the trail-that way it is easy for me or the park workers to get their trash. If one must be an ass and litter, at least don’t be a bigger ass and make it hard to pick it up.

Fortunately, I am not alone in my litter picking. There are two women in my neighborhood area who walk everyday and carry bags to clean up the messes left by others. They are good citizens and get the idea that public spaces are not dumps. Naturally, expecting everyone to pitch in and clean up is probably expecting too much. But expecting people not to litter is expecting the very least they can do-which is surely not too much.

Rant terminates. For now.

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Corruption & Gravity

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 3, 2012
English: Littering in Stockholm

Image via Wikipedia

The Daily Show recently featured an interesting interview with Yale Law School professor Jonathan Macey. One part of the interview that I found especially interesting was Macey’s “defense” of capital firms like Bain in terms of what seemed to be the necessity (in the logical sense) of corruption. Macey made the fascinating claim that social scientists regard corruption as on par with gravity-something that they simply must include in their analysis and something to be presumably treated as a natural force.

While I was on my morning run, I mulled over this idea in the context of my own classes and wondered about a key question: is corruption like gravity in this regard? Further reflection led me to consider what I take to be a better analogy, namely Thoreau’s analogy to the friction of a machine.

Thoreau notes that “all machines have their friction-possibly it does enough good to balance the evil. ” In this case, Thoreau’s machine is the government and the friction is the inefficiency and corruption of this government. As such, this seems to nicely match the point being made by Macey, namely that corruption seems to be a constant presence.

Both Thoreau and Macey seem to be correct: it seems  as difficult to imagine a large political and economic system free of corruption as it is to conceive of a frictionless machine. That said, there is still a rather interesting matter to address, namely whether or not the analogy truly holds.

It is rather tempting to simply accept that corruption is unavoidable, mainly because that seems to be the case. As I ran and thought about this matter, I saw litter on the streets, sidewalks and even the running trails (I picked up as much as I could carry). As might be imagined, I made the obvious comparison between corruption and litter: both seem to always be present and unavoidable. That said, there is still the matter of the nature of this alleged inevitability.

In the case of a literal machine, fiction seems to be unavoidable because of the nature of matter and motion. As such, a machine cannot help but have friction (unless, of course, truly frictionless machines are possible). After all, its friction is not a matter of its choice or decisions on its part. This might not, however, hold true in the case of corruption.

If the corruption of the political and economic system is comparable to the friction of a machine, then it would seem that being critical of the corruption and even blaming people for it would be as absurd as blaming an engineer because the engine she designed is not frictionless. The corruption, it would seem, would be something we must simply accept. The same would thus be true of litter-it is simply something that must be there.

As might be suspected, my comparison between litter and corruption is quite intentional. Litter is, obviously enough, the result of decisions on the part of the folks who littered. It is not the case that litter just appears or that people are compelled to engage in littering by the laws of litter. While some people will, it seems, always decide to litter it does make sense to say that they could, in fact, have chosen to do otherwise.  For example, I saw someone open his window and throw a fast food bag onto the side of the road. He was, presumably, not compelled to do this by some sort of litter law that ensures that the correct percentage of litter is on the ground. In contrast, the friction that slowed and stopped the bag was under the dominion of the relevant physical laws-the bag had no choice. As such, there could actually be a world without litter-if everyone decided not not litter, then there would be no (intentional) litter. This is unlikely, but it is not because it cannot be done-rather it will not happen because people will elect not to make it happen.

The same would seem to be true of corruption. The corruption in politics and economics exists because of what people elect to do (or not do). As such, there could be a system without corruption-if people decided to not act in corrupt ways. This, like a litter free world, is incredibly unlikely. But this is not because it cannot be done. It is unlikely because people will chose not to create such a system.

It might be replied that the system is beyond the control of people. After all, the political and economic systems involve millions (billions worldwide) and trying to fight corruption would  fighting a force of nature, like a tsunami. As such, corruption is a necessary part of the system.

Thoreau has an interesting reply to this sort of reasoning. He notes that he “has relations to the millions as men, and not mere brute or inanimate things, so appeal is possible.” It is also the case that although these systems are vast and complicated, they are created by people. As such,  any corruption (or litter) must be put there by people-the corruption (like litter) does not just appear it must be intentionally placed. If humans are capable of free choice, then they would presumably be capable of choosing not to have corruption-just as they would presumably be capable of choosing not to litter.

I suspect that people tolerate litter and corruption on a similar basis, namely the mistaken belief that it is inevitable and beyond our control. However, just as each bit of litter is the result of some person’s choice, each bit of corruption is also the result of choice. As such, the defense that corruption is part of the system is no better a defense for corruption that claiming that litter is just part of the system.

However, even if it is accepted that the machine of society  must have  the friction of corruption, then Thoreau’s words would still seem to apply: “when the friction has its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, let us not have the machine. ” As such, while we might no more be able to be rid of corruption than litter, this is not a reason to tolerate it or to allow it to dominate. Just as I can refuse to litter I can refuse to be corrupt. Just as I can fight the filthy messes of litter created by the lazy and immoral, I can also fight the corruption of the wicked. At the very least, I should not contribute or tolerate the misdeeds of either.

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Cleaning Up After Others

Posted in Environment by Michael LaBossiere on June 20, 2009

I’m not a neat freak, as my friends will attest. However, I feel compelled to pick up trash and junk I see in public areas. At my university, I’ll often get strange looks as a walk to the nearest trash can carrying various bits of trash. I used to get even stranger looks when I would be seen running through the park, carrying bottles, cans and the occasional blender (really). I suspect that people either thought I was crazy (“that guy is nuts…I think it is that trash-madness that we studied in my psychology class”) or homeless (“that poor man, running around gathering bottles so he can buy pants and a shirt”).

One area I end up cleaning up fairly often is the pool in my home owners’ association. Although I do pay dues to take care of it, I also feel an extra bit of ownership because I spent days last summer pressure washing the deck and patching cracks in the concrete. In the past, I’ve cleaned up the usual stuff-bottles, cans, cigarette butts and such. Today, however, I had a new experience. When I went to the pool, I saw a soaked diaper lying on the deck. Fortunately, it had not been “used”, so cleaning it up was not as bad as it could have been. Someone had also thrown the life savers in the pool, so I fished those out-along with some shredded rope.

As I was cleaning up the pool, I wondered a bit about why people make such messes and do not clean then up.

In areas open to the general public, I suspect that people often treat the areas poorly because they figure that they won’t be back to that area anytime soon. But, the pool is only accessible to the people in my association (or folks who come here and climb the fence) and people will presumably return to use it.

I’ve got three main hypotheses as to why people make a mess of areas like the pool. The first is that some people are just accustomed to having someone else clean up after them. While this is generally seen as a kid’s trait, adults also exhibit this-especially when it comes to shared areas. People who leave stuff no doubt often think that someone else will take care of it. Of course, I suppose that I contribute to this-I don’t want to be walking on butts and cans when going to the pool, so I clean up after these people. I could leave it there in the hopes that the people who make the messes would eventually clean up, but I don’t think I could endure it longer than they can.

My second hypothesis is that some people are just oblivious to messes and filth. I’ve seen people who live in what could be described as filth pits. Oddly enough, these have often been educated, intelligent people who lived that way out of choice rather than because they were too poor to afford repairs or too overworked to have time to clean. So, perhaps some folks just treat the world the way they treat their own homes. Along these lines, I have also noticed that a lot of trash consists of beer cans/bottles and cigarette butts. My guess is that someone who treats her own body like a trash can will treat the rest of the world the same way.

My third hypothesis is that some folks simply do not think about what they do-they just do it. So, when someone finishes a beer, he throws the can down. When the cigarette is done, she just flicks it to the deck. When the diaper is removed, he just tosses it to the ground. There is no thought about the consequences.

People can change their behavior. For example, after some folks started leaving beer bottles around the pool, the treasurer of the association had a little talk with them and the bottle count dropped significantly. Of course, anyone with even a tiny bit of sense should have realized that a concrete deck by a pool is not the place to have glass bottles.

While leaving trash and junk around a pool is a small thing, it does reflect a damaging attitude towards the world in general. It shows a lack of concern for others and that is a fundamental cause of problems in the world.

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Natural Light Beer is #1 (as Litter)

Posted in Environment by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2008

A few years ago a kayaker told me that she always found discarded cans of Natural Light beer near and floating in various rivers. This tidbit caused me to start looking closer at the beer cans I saw (and disposed of) on my runs. Interestingly, Natural Light is the number one beer that I’ve found as litter. Last week I ran on the FSU campus on a Sunday after a game. The bike trail to the campus was littered with hundreds of Natural Light cans and the red party cups that are so popular with the drunk and trashy. Naturally, I was unable to clean up that mess. Fortunately, the FSU clean up folks do a good job cleaning up that sort of mess.

Not surprisingly, seeing so much trash all the time makes me wonder why people litter. One obvious answer is pure laziness. It takes a minimal effort to dispose of trash, but that seems to be too much to ask of some people. I do wonder if that character flaw infects the rest of their life as well. Speaking of character flaws, another option is that it is a sense of entitlement. Perhaps some litterbugs see themselves as having a right to have others tend to their messes. Maybe their parents cleaned up after them and never made the importance of taking care their own messes stick properly. Or perhaps it is just pure ego. Then again, maybe that attributes too much reflection to such people. It might well be the case that dropping trash is a matter of habit and unreasoning instinct. They use it, no longer need it and just let it drop without a second thought.

Litter, as you might guess, bothers me. It is ugly, pollutes the environment and serves to remind me (in a small way) about the badness of people. I’ve never found it difficult to take care of my own trash and it annoys me that so many other people cannot do the same. It is such a little thing, but it makes such a big difference. Also, I suspect that it is habit forming (or the result of bad habits). I’ve noticed that some people who see the world as their trash can treat their own bodies and residences that way. At least they are consistent in their vices.

In case you are wondering why Natural Light is the top trash beer, I’ve been told that this is because it is so cheap and hence is very common. Of course, my beer snob friends say it is because people who can choke down Natural Light are the sort of people who litter. I’m not sure about that.