Littering is a big problem, but who's really to blame?

litter on the sand
CC BY 2.0 Robin

We live in a throwaway society where everything is designed to be disposable.

As the snowbanks melt away, the trash that's been hiding beneath them is revealed. Every day, walking my kids to and from school, I pick up all the chip bags, beer cans, Tim Horton's coffee cups, and straws that stick to our cedar hedge like Velcro. It's annoying and gross, and I do it with great resentment, fuming at the irresponsible idiots who let their trash blow around town.

But perhaps my blame is misdirected. An intriguing article in The Guardian by Ros Coward suggests that, while consumers are certainly at fault for not disposing of their garbage properly, they are at the very end point in a system that's been disastrously designed.

"[People] who have grown up in a disposable society have a tendency to, well, dispose," Coward writes. When everything we buy comes in throwaway packaging that's designed to be used only once, never to biodegrade, and is so cheap that there is no incentive to keep it longer, is it any wonder that our towns and properties are strewn with garbage?

Municipal governments usually respond at this time of year by organizing community cleanups. People go out with garbage bags and pick up trash for a few hours. This is a common activity for school children on Earth Day. Along with these efforts, you see anti-littering campaigns, with signs reminding people to pick up after themselves. The intention is good, but somehow it misses the mark.

Coward quotes Sherilyn MacGregor from the University of Manchester, who has studied littering and thinks the problem is structural.

"Litter is at the end of a process that involves production, consumption and disposal, and 'this is a chain in which the consumer (and potential litterer) is the weakest link, with the least power'. This is why [MacGregor] thinks the government emphasis on behaviour is ineffectual. Rubbish should be tackled at source and the real solution is a zero-waste society."

The focus needs to be less on community cleanups, important though they may be, and more on mandating revolutionary packaging. There are industry groups that could make an enormous dent in this problem, far more than any number of community cleanups could manage. If supermarkets, for example, transitioned to zero-waste models, imagine what a difference that would make. Or if beverage makers were no longer allowed to sell single-use plastic bottles.

Think about it. Even if everyone became a model citizen and put their garbage in the proper waste receptacles, it does nothing to reduce the overall amount of trash being generated. It's still an enormous problem somewhere -- wherever it gets sent. What we need is elimination at the source.

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