I live on a collector street for my neighborhood, which means I’m continuously picking up litter from the street and my yard. Mostly it’s drink bottles and fast-food waste. I first assumed it was all discarded by people walking to the bus stops or tossed out car windows. Then, I kept finding some things over and over again, week after week, like cigarillo wrappers and single-serve Chardonnay bottles. I began to wonder if these were from my neighbors.
I got a surprise answer to the Chardonnay bottles one day. I looked out my kitchen window at lunch time and couldn’t believe what I saw. A car was stopped on the street alongside my house. The driver opened the door, placed a bag on the street, then drove away. I never imagined someone would leave a bag of trash with such intentionality!
My initial reaction belied my diaconal calling. I wanted to confront the driver and give them a piece of my mind. Fortunately, it all happened too fast for me to do that. Fuming, I went outside to retrieve the bag. By the time I got to it, cars and wind were dispersing the contents. It was a four pack of empty, single-serve Chardonnay bottles. After months of picking up these bottles, I was doubly mad. Since it was a repeat offender, maybe I could watch for the car, flag it down, and confront the driver. It didn’t take long to realize the absurdity of that thought. Assuming I didn’t get shot, all they would probably do is change the location where they left the bottles, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the crazy lady.
As my fury subsided, I started to wonder about the person. Did they drink all four bottles this morning? Did they not want to use the waste bin where they were going because they didn’t want others to know they’d been drinking? Did they place the bottles “neatly” on the ground, instead of tossing them out the window, because they realize what they’re doing isn’t right? Why are they drinking this much Chardonnay? What’s the pain in their life that has led to this? I realized littering wasn’t the issue. Littering was just a symptom of a bigger problem, something wrong in the person’s life.
It’s this way with most environmental issues. They’re entangled with racial, social, and economic issues in complex ways. Environmental destruction is typically part of a larger problem that’s also harming people.
Compared to deforestation, contaminated water, and climate change, littering seems like a simple problem to solve. On the surface, all people need to do is put trash into bins, and voilà! The problem is solved. But it’s not that simple.
Keep America Beautiful (KAB) has been trying to eliminate littering since the 1950s. In 2009 they published Littering Behavior in America: Results of a National Study. The study sought to determine why people litter. The report has a lot of interesting data. Like the driver who stopped the car to place the Chardonnay bottles on the street, the study found that: “Contrary to expectations, the majority of littering behavior (81%) occurred with notable intent” (p. 2). At the same time, the study also found that: “Across our research, we find the near unanimous belief that littering is wrong” (p. 58).
As a society, we believe littering is wrong, and yet, a lot of people litter. KAB’s 2020 National Litter Study Summary Report estimates nearly 50 million pieces of litter on the ground and in waterways of the US. That’s 152 pieces of litter per person! If people litter despite knowing its wrong, then the solution is not as simple as more waste bins. I think it has to do with how a person feels about themselves, their community, and the place where they live. These connections start getting at the root causes of littering and the other ways we harm the environment on which we depend, even when we know we shouldn’t.
An extreme example of litter being a symptom, not the problem, is the litter associated with people who are experiencing homelessness. If society doesn’t even provide you with a safe place to go to the bathroom, properly discarding your trash is the least of your concerns. I also can understand why someone who can’t find a job after being incarcerated, or someone who’s working more than one minimum wage job and still doesn’t have enough money for food and shelter, would litter. A person who feels unseen, unvalued, or discarded by society is not going to feel the same way about discarding litter that I do.
I’m not implying people marginalized by society are the only ones who litter. KAB’s littering behavior study found common reasons for littering are being in too much of a hurry to deal with the trash, not feeling like dealing with the trash because they’re in a bad mood, and thinking its someone else’s job to cleanup what they litter. These attitudes reflect someone who feels they’re too important, or what they’re doing is too important, to be bothered with waste disposal. On the surface, this person may not appear to be marginalized by society, but their behavior indicates a lack of meaningful connection to community and place.
Solving the littering problem, or any other environmental problem, requires working on these connections. It means we can’t just be against something like littering. We must have a vision of a better way of living together. This is part of why Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an exceptional man. He wasn’t just against segregation and racism. Informed by his faith, he had a vision of a beloved community where people were not judged by the color of their skin. This vision of community was based in the concepts of redemption and reconciliation, in other words, connection.
Environmental issues are entangled with racism, economic inequities, neo-colonialism, and other systems that marginalize people by breaking their connections with community. If you’re already working to address any of these social issues, then you’re doing environmental work. As Cynthia Moe-Lobeda says in the introduction to her book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, working on environmental issues doesn’t mean taking on another cause. It means to perceive more fully “the profound necessity of radical change in foundational aspects of the way ‘we’ live” (p. 6). It means seeing and naming the ecological injustices woven into systems that also are unjust to people. I appreciate the way Moe-Lobeda’s book goes beyond naming what’s wrong to creating a “moral vision” of what can be. She calls us to connection with others through just and loving relationships that bring abundant life for all, including creation.
We need this vision in our personal lives, too, so we can work on the root causes of our participation in systems that contribute to environmental degradation, climate change, etc. We seldom see the connections between our actions and the people and places that suffer because of them. We don’t feel in community with them. I’m finding Randy Woodley's book, Becoming Rooted: 100 Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth, helpful for creating a sense of connection.
Sometimes we unknowingly participate in unjust systems. Other times, like the person placing the bag of Chardonnay bottles on the street, we know what we’re doing. We may know it’s wrong, but we’re too busy, in a bad mood, or think someone else will cleanup. It’s easy to think our actions are too small to matter in relation to the size of the problem. But like the over 50 million pieces of litter in the US, every environmental problem is the accumulation of things being “dropped” one at a time. What we do matters.