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Lynn Spruill: Litter begets litter


Lynn Spruill



I confess that I do not understand littering. It is inconceivable to me that anyone thinks that it is quite acceptable to leave their garbage behind in locations that are clearly not garbage sites, such as parking lots, streets, sidewalks, and any other areas not intended to be a resting place for garbage. I will take it even further, I am amazed that we think so little of where we live that we are willing to step over trash on our way to our own front door.  


How hard is it to bend over and pick up an empty Sonic cup and throw it in a garbage can? It must be impossible for some and just unthinkable for others. Why is that? I located some articles that discuss the psychology of littering. Apparently there have been many studies done to attempt to determine what causes people to treat their surroundings with so little respect.  


I deal with this issue every day. One of the regular activities that I engage in on the weekends with a few exceptions for company coming and a few other assorted engagements is picking up trash around the apartments that I own and manage in Starkville. On any given Saturday or Sunday morning I can be found hanging off the side of my truck (with a friend driving) looking for loose trash and garbage bags to pick up. I am also prone to mumbling to myself about the general nastiness of some people.  


I even go so far as to carry garbage bags and gloves in my truck so I am ready for any clean up occasion. My business partner has told me multiple times that I really don't need to be doing that, but my response is always that it only takes a couple of hours and it gives me a better understanding of the quality of the tenant and what is going on around our properties. 


There are many ways to show leadership and influence behavior. One of them is to be seen acting in accordance with your beliefs. For me that includes picking up trash around the apartments. I am certainly not too good for the task and I have gotten pretty efficient at it. Over the years I have had so many people thank me for doing it and follow that with asking me why I am doing it and why I haven't hired someone to do it for me. It seems intuitive that if you show you care about something others may think twice about despoiling it.  


Interestingly enough that theory is borne out by studies. The consistent finding has been "Litter
The largest factor in determining how someone is going to treat an area is what condition that area is already in. People are much more likely to throw out trash in areas that are dirty than ones that are clean.  


The profile of those most likely to litter reveals that they are young, mostly below the age of 30, male, and more likely to be a smoker. The consistent level of littering of those observed was in the range of 20 percent. Of the cigarette smokers 65 percent flicked their butts out. Butts count as littering too.  


The studies also indicate that after keeping the area clean the most influential thing to deter littering is not a carrot but a stick. So if you see the sign that says there is a littering fine you are more likely to find a trash receptacle being influenced by the friendly reminder to "Pitch it." The moral of that story is to enforce littering laws and let everyone know that is what you are going to do. It tells people we care what Starkville looks like and acknowledge that the seeds of litter sown bloom into undesirable outcomes.  


There are so many things litter has been shown to spawn. It's almost of Biblical proportions. So like the first book of Chronicles, chapter 1 et seq. litter begets litter, lots of litter begets vandalism, vandalism begets crime, crime begets decline and decline begets loss of property values.  


I tend to think of littering as a crime with a domino effect.  


The best way to treat the small crimes is to keep them from becoming bigger ones. If you see litter, don't walk over it, pick it up and put it where it belongs. Do this very small thing to make a difference and see if it changes how people view that behavior. The rest of the world is not your mother and shouldn't be expected to pick up after you.  




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