Why does almost no one pick up litter?

September 5, 2021 by Joshua
in Nature, Visualization

I can’t understand why I never see anyone picking up litter except people joining me.

Do I sound like I focus too much on this issue? Look at this picture:

Almost within living memory, plastic didn’t exist. That scene may be in the third world, but we in the overdeveloped world are catching up. The issue isn’t waste management, as the producers say, lying through their teeth. It’s overproduction. As bad as that scene looks, we’re increasing plastic production. That place used to be verdant and fertile, which is why people settled there.

If you think that outcome can’t happening where you are, you’re lying to yourself as much as the producers. Can you not see your community is part of the way there? I don’t know where you are and I’ll bet you it’s visibly on the way. I’d say some place in the United States looks like that within a decade, maybe five years, if we don’t act.

If you think your disposable coffee cup doesn’t count because you make sure to throw it away, you’re lying to yourself. Your money that paid for the coffee funds the system producing the picture above. Your cup is not the point. The system is. If you fund it, you fund it.

The point of picking up litter is to learn not to allow litter to accumulate, which ultimately means never buying packaged things, which leads manufacturers to stop producing them.

Reasons not to pick up litter

I can think of many reasons not to pick up litter:

  • I pay taxes and deserve to have someone from the government pick it up
  • It’s dirty
  • I didn’t create it
  • It won’t make a difference
  • I already do enough
  • It takes too long
  • It may cause disease
  • If people see it clean, they may litter more
  • It’s beneath me
  • I’m too tired to
  • It’s embarrassing
  • My friends might see and laugh at me
  • The company that made it should be responsible, not me
  • Someone will pick it up
  • Someone will create technology to clean it
  • I’m a germaphobe
  • It’s not that bad
  • . . . and so on

With all these reasons, why wouldn’t I get that nearly no one picks up litter?

Reasons to pick up litter

Even with them, the benefits to picking it up are clear: it cleans your local environment. More reflection reveals that taking responsibility could lead others to act too and lower taxes. Many people thank me, so they at least pay lip service to valuing picking up litter.

The numbers

In lower Manhattan, I probably see thousands of people per day, as well as thousands of pieces of litter. I’d expect to see some people picking it up. Outside people joining me, I can only remember seeing Alexis Stewart picking it up. We bonded so much she became a guest on the podcast.

I pick up mostly in the half-mile radius from my home so people must see me doing it multiple times. Certainly the Washington Square Park regulars do. Many of them thank me. None have picked up the habit at least in my line of sight.

I wouldn’t expect zero. Maybe a small number, but not zero. But it’s one—Alexis—but one out of tens of thousands rounds to zero for most purposes.

How many more pollute? I can’t put a number to it, but it’s a lot.

Why I’m asking

I’m not asking to hear new answers. I’m asking rhetorically, to prompt readers to start. I fantasize someone will respond about picking up litter. That’s what this world has come to. I studied physics to follow in the footsteps of Newton and Einstein, business to follow in the footsteps of Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin, and leadership to follow in the footsteps of King, X, and Mandela.

Yet the greatest challenge of this generation isn’t to improve quality of life, but how to keep us from choking and poisoning ourselves while billions of individuals claim they can’t do anything about it.

Consider picking some up and telling me about it, as well as other friends of yours.

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