Litter Reflects Poorly on Providence’s Quality of Life
January 29, 2023
Political campaigns often cite decaying quality-of-life issues as a catalyst for voting for change. As a new government in the city of Providence takes hold, residents are seeking true leadership that encourages community buy-in, community support, and community input to stem the degradation of neighborhoods.
The lack of any snow cover so far this winter presents a less-than-picturesque landscape within Providence’s urban neighborhoods. As one walks or drives along many a street, last fall’s decaying brown leaf litter scatters along pavement edges, swirling like tumbleweeds amid a potpourri of litter. In my North End neighborhood — a collage of commercial, industrial, and residential settings — litter, in the form of fast-food packaging, alcohol containers, tobacco products, and household trash, is an ever-present and visual blight no matter what the season.
For nearly 30 years I’ve picked up litter along streetscapes within my immediate neighborhood and, frankly, I’m tired of doing so. But what I have anecdotally discovered over these decades in picking up litter, and in talking to my neighbors, drive-by passersby, and city officials, is both discouraging and enlightening. The gist: How can litter be a problem if most people don’t see it? And when confronting a litterer, the typical retort is “cleaning up litter is not my job!”
Litter is simultaneously one of the most neglected and most obvious forms of environmental degradation, and found in all regions of Providence and throughout Rhode Island. A person cannot drive on a highway, go to a park, or walk down a street without seeing some litter. Because litter is so widespread and needless, many conservation-oriented groups and committed individuals have undertaken anti-litter activities. Some of these activities — such as the activist work of Cozy Rhody Litter Clean-Up — have collected massive amounts of litter. Others, such as Keep America Beautiful, have placed primary emphasis on education and the placement of litter receptacles.
Despite some widespread interest, federal, state, and local governments have grossly neglected litter. Unlike air and water pollution, groundwater contamination, and the use/disposal of harmful chemicals, litter is not perceived as a health problem. While the neglect of many forms of environmental degradation can lead to serious illness and death, litter’s primary costs are aesthetic. The punctured car tires and cut feet (humans and pets) that occasionally result from litter are quite negligible compared to the primary cost of litter: ugliness.
Who causes all this litter? Where does it come from? And why? Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a national litter-fighting organization formed in 1953, has long studied the issue and worked toward combating littering through public education programs.
A necessary first step is defining what exactly is litter? It can be defined as anything that is tossed carelessly or thoughtlessly away. For example, you throw a fast-food coffee cup at a trash can. If it goes in, it’s solid waste, but if it misses, it’s litter. The actual composition of our litter problem is as varied as humankind, and its ability to cast aside objects.
KAB asked Gallup International to conduct a nationwide survey in search of concrete answers to the who and why of littering. Representative members of every major adult population group were interviewed, and no group was found to be entirely free of littering habits. Nonetheless, some interesting differences were uncovered. For instance, men litter nearly twice as much as women, while people between the ages of 21 and 35 litter more than three times as much as those over 50. Big families litter far more than small ones. Gallup researchers found that littering is engaged in far more by young adults (especially young men) and they are generally less concerned with the problem. Fewer young adults kept litter bags in their cars, and there was more litter visible in front of their homes.
Further, Gallup interviewers asked people to give their own definitions of a person who litters and then asked whether they themselves had littered recently. Most respondents described litterbugs as “inconsiderate, thoughtless, selfish, a slob, a filthy individual,” etc. Fifty percent of respondents then admitted to being litterers themselves. When asked why they cited two key reasons: (1) a combination of carelessness, laziness, and indifference; (2) no easy way to dispose of refuse properly. That is, no trash receptacles readily available on the street or in the car.
Lack of personal responsibility is an epidemic. Changing public attitudes and habits requires a great deal of time, effort, and money, a partnership of all stakeholders. A neighborhood reflects the mindset of the people who pass through it. Many people have nicer cars than places to live and cannot be bothered to keep a plastic or paper grocery bag on the car floor and instead toss litter out the window.
A multi-prong approach to curbing litter includes educational awareness training within Providence schools; encouraging renters and landlords alike to take pride in their neighborhood appearance; incentivize private businesses, particularly auto repair and food takeout, to provide car litter bags free of charge to their customers; placement of public trash containers along busy streets and commercial plazas — particularly those near fast food restaurants and city parks. The adoption of sensible new statewide laws such as a returnable bottle bill, as abutting states have, and enforcement of existing littering ordinances, would reduce roadside litter.
Clearing litter from the face of Providence’s public lands is a gigantic, expensive task. A considerable amount of taxpayer dollars is necessary to pay for this massive collection and disposal chore each year. The city’s efforts at providing e-waste and mattress disposal collection sites are to be commended. But more could be done to combat typical litter, such as requiring convenient stores, gas stations, and fast-food businesses to provide multiple and accessible trash containers on their premises, then monitor if those containers remain on-site and are properly maintained. Code enforcement fines against businesses and absentee landowners who don’t maintain their streetscapes should be better enforced.
Michael Veracka, a landscape ecologist and Providence resident, is a horticulture professor emeritus from SUNY Farmingdale. His design practice focuses on sustainable design, edible landscaping, and the adaptive reuse of urban spaces.