It's Time We Graduate from Trashy Behavior


No, that isn’t the Central Landfill in Johnston. It’s the Main Green at Brown University in Providence on May 24 shortly after graduation ceremonies ended. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The trashy scene left behind after the Brown University Class of 2015 graduated perfectly exemplified growing U.S. selfishness. Kindergartners leave a cafeteria with more grace than the “litterati” who exited the Main Green by dumping their lunch trays on the ground. It’s sickening how little we think of others and the places we share that it’s considered acceptable to leave behind an easily-avoidable mess for someone else to clean.

After celebrating the accomplishments of young men and women, the litterbugs who attended the May 24 graduation left the university lawn littered with half-drunk plastic water bottles, newspapers, commencement programs, half-empty coffee carafes, pieces of lightly bitten fruit and other barely touched foods, and, of course, all things plastic.

The litterati ignored the many bins, barrels and totes Brown University had thoughtfully placed throughout the area to collect trash and recyclables. Plastic crunched underfoot and litter was inadvertently kicked as graduates and their guests slowly left. The workers responsible for folding the chairs and removing the rest of the commencement infrastructure were left to navigate the debris.

It would be nice to think that the litterati kindly left their unwanted food for hungry squirrels, but, sadly, they just thought someone else should pick up their mess. The littering elite couldn’t even be bothered to freshen the trampled lawn with the water they left locked in jettisoned plastic bottles.

There’s little wonder the U.S. recycling rate is a lackluster 35 percent, our composting rate considerably less, consumption is soaring, apathy increasing and our collective concern negligible. Wasted food makes up the largest percentage of all material buried in our landfills. We throw away up to 40 percent of our sustenance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In fact, the average American wastes 10 times as much food as the average Joe in Southeast Asia — up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s.

Of the more than 150 million mobile devices we discard annually — many still in fine working order but no longer socially fashionable — only about 12 percent are recycled.

A mobile phone contains about 40 elements, including heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants such as flame-retardants, PVC, lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, bromine, tin and antimony. Such chemicals have been linked to birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, premature births and early puberty.

Our response to this problem has become the American Way. For instance, the United States is the only industrialized country that hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty that makes it illegal to export toxic e-waste. The convention’s main goal is to protect human health and the environment from hazards posed by transboundary movements of hazardous waste.

Since 1990, U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions have increased by about 6 percent, according to the EPA, and we have been one of the largest, if not the largest, emitter of climate-changing emissions for decades. Our response has been to blame China and India for now polluting as much as we do.

Unfortunately, thinking of others and the environment aren’t ideals that get you elected or make you rich and powerful. The trickle-down effect of our expanding self-indulgence was on full display last Sunday at Brown University. The mess is likely unseen in the background of countless selfies.

It has become increasingly OK to leave our trash at college graduations, on airplanes, in movie theaters, at ballparks, in public parks and at the beach. Someone else will pick up mess … or birds will choke on plastic bottle caps mistaken for food … or donations will eventually be made to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Since we can’t even be bothered to properly dispose of trash and recyclables at an event that celebrates society’s potential, what sacrifices are we truly willing to make to ensure a prosperous and healthy future for others?

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.


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  1. sad.. grow up people. I think the America the Beautiful ad from the 70’s needs to be run again.

  2. I was there and these photos make it look a lot worse than it really was. People should not drop litter. Fact is that they will and it is up to the sponsoring organization to pick it all up and dispose of it (which Brown of course did). I don’t much like the class consciousness of this story. Litter is one thing, referring to the students and families of Brown graduates as "the literati" is pretty dumb. This is an issue that impacts us all and is no worse among the most privileged among us than the most marginal. Worse were the piles of trash which burden residential neighborhoods in Providence at the end of every college year. The intermingled crap and good furniture and appliances) that departing students leave mounded over dumpsters is pretty awful but it is no worse at Brown than at any other college or university in an urban area.

  3. Robin, it was more than just some litter. It was wasted water and food, and demonstrated a complete lack of caring. Of course Brown University picked up the mess (in fact, it supplied plenty of bins to avoid one), but why should university employees (or anyone else for that matter) have to clean up a mess that could (and should) have been avoided had some common courtesy been shown. The column was about society’s growing self-importance. This example happened to play out at an Ivy League school, but it could have just as easily been at a road race, parade, beach cleanup, city sidewalk or public school. This complete lack of caring, compassion and understanding plays out everywhere and that is the problem (and the point of the column). As for those who helped leave behind that disgraceful scene last Sunday, I could have called them much worse than litterati. Also, the photos weren’t staged or Photoshopped (I’m not smart enough to do either), and I would argue don’t do enough to document the mess. — Frank Carini/ecoRI News editor

  4. Litterati. Brilliant. Well not brilliant, actually. Very sad. And very yesterday. Yes, time to bring back Keep America Beautiful. And common courtesy. And gluttony as a deadly sin.

  5. This mess is indicative of the sense of entitlement Americans have. As you noted, the same thing happens at the movie theatre, sporting events, etc. It’s almost as if Americans are embarrassed to clean up after themselves, that they will not seem "cool" if they actually take a moment to clean up their own mess. Keep America Beautiful has been trying to change these behaviors for decades, but here in New England the public’s behavior seems to be getting worse, not better. A focused public education campaign would help, as would public announcements by event organizers that explicitly remind people to take a moment and clean up their mess before they leave.

  6. Very well stated. I invite your readers to join more than 15,000 people worldwide in the Picking Up The Pieces project, a daily personal effort to address the problem of litter. Each of our participants makes the attempt to pick up at least three pieces of litter on a daily basis, a simple concept but a very sustainable endeavor that hopefully becomes a habit for all involved. To take part in in this simple gesture for the common good, LIKE and SHARE facebook.com/pickingupthepiecesproject. Collectively your impact is greater than you might think; at this point our participants are committed to picking up over 16 million pieces of litter on an annual basis. You can also follow @piecesproject on Twitter. Three pieces a day; anyplace, anytime, anywhere!

  7. Robin, the photo doesn’t lie. "photos make it look a lot worse than it really was". It was just at is looked in the photo…disgusting, disgraceful, thoughtless and far below what the ivy league schools would have us want to believe their standards are. Your position of "it is up to the sponsoring organization to pick it all up and dispose of it" unfortunately reflects the thinking of those that left the mess. Seems you are in their ranks. Your further comments only reinforce what the photo shows and what you seem to call acceptable behavior "Worse were the piles of trash which burden residential neighborhoods in Providence at the end of every college year. The intermingled crap and good furniture and appliances) that departing students leave mounded over dumpsters is pretty awful but it is no worse at Brown than at any other college or university in an urban area." If this is true in regards to what occurs at other schools, I’d say Brown has missed an opportunity to make a change in social behavior. But any individual can make a change at anytime. The power of one!

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