Tell Me This: Why Would Anyone Litter?

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We explore the psychology of those who befoul our beaches and roadways.

My husband Chris spent the early days of the pandemic picking up trash along Barnes Road. Most days he filled one or two large garbage bags with empty nip bottles, crushed soda cans, beer bottles, construction debris, car parts, and candy wrappers. People driving by sometimes yelled to him out their car window: “Thank you!” and “Bless you.” He also got hecklers: “I see they let you out on garbage duty.” 

For the purposes of this piece, let’s define litter as an unwanted item that is improperly disposed of and let’s define a litterer as the person who is responsible for the improper disposal. Penalties for littering in Massachusetts include the possibility of a fine that can range from $25 to $15,000, arrest and imprisonment, and driver’s license suspension. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “The most common types of litter are food packaging, bottles, cans, plastic bags, paper, and tobacco products.”

The word “litterbug” was coined in 1947. The campaign against littering gained traction throughout the 1950s and 60s and on April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day. Since then, there have been anti-litter ad campaigns that have moved us to tears — If you’re of a certain age you remember — “People start pollution and people can stop it.” And yes, we know, “Give a Hoot — Don’t Pollute.” 

So why the hell do people still litter? Why are our roads and beaches scarred with discarded debris? Who are the litterers amongst us? Why do some people toss their masks, their cigarettes, their soda cans, their nips and napkins and bagged dog dung into our woods? The MV Times polled people in their daily newsletter, The Minute, to try to find out. Apparently litterers don’t answer surveys, or at least don’t answer truthfully. Almost all of the 320 respondents claimed to never litter. A small sampling revealed they littered “A few times when I couldn’t avoid it” or they littered “accidentally.” 

I started to wonder if littering might be a compulsive behavior, a kind of psychiatric disorder. Maybe litterers can’t help themselves. Are litterers like kleptomaniacs, but instead of surreptitiously stealing they defile their surroundings with their waste and trash? 

I asked two psychiatrists with Vineyard ties if they had ever treated a patient with a compulsive littering habit. “No,” they both told me, shooting down my theory. Littering isn’t a psychiatric disorder, nor is it a compulsion, but there are psychological reasons that some people may be more inclined to litter than others. 

Dr. Charles Silberstein, a psychiatrist who practices on the Island, explained that people who litter may exhibit narcissistic tendencies. “A litterer may think, I am a special person and my needs are more important than other people’s needs. I am entitled to do what I want.” He went on to explain, “At the root of narcissism for some people there is often the reality of having been abused or mistreated as children and a later sense of anger and the feeling that the world owes me and so I am entitled to defile it.” 

Silberstein also suggested that litterers may suffer from poor impulse control. “Think about the condoms, needles, cigarette butts, and nip bottles that litter the parks and woods. The people who have left those behind are just not thinking about littering at all, they are consumed with getting their highs,” he explained. 

Dr. Peter Kramer, psychiatrist and bestselling author of “Listening to Prozac,” agreed that littering can be a sign of narcissistic and entitled behavior by people who don’t want to be told what to do. He added that “some people are inclined to feel guilty about littering — or even to feel compelled to pick up other people’s litter — while others are resolutely unconflicted.” Kramer also pointed out that “some people are just not not well put together, and they seem to leave a trail of objects as they go along.”

Following our conversation, Kramer sent me an article published in the popular British magazine The Spectator with the headline “My obsession with litter is bordering on mental illness.” “Whenever I leave my house, I make a point of taking a plastic bag with me so I can pick up litter,” writes Toby Young. “Why do I care so much about this? No doubt there’s a smidgeon of mental illness involved. It’s probably a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder — litter rage.” 

Kramer also pointed out that ‘some people are just not well put together, and they seem to leave a trail of objects as they go along.

Writing in The New Yorker last spring, Bill McKibben contemplated whether there was much of a difference between the personal litterer and corporate polluters. Tossing an empty soda can out the window is one thing, but companies (multi-national or not) polluting rivers is another. Citing the psychoanalyst and author Sally Weintrobe, McKibben noted that our culture is one of entitlement writ large: “The self-assured neoliberal imagination has increasingly revealed itself to be not equipped to deal with problems it causes,” Weintrobe wrote in her recently published book, “Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis.” It is the young people, says McKibben, with their appropriate sense of entitlement who are “demanding we start cleaning up after ourselves.”

“​​What kind of thinking goes into adopting a … strategy to protect a business model as you wreck the climate system?” McKibben asked about the tactics currently deployed by the Exxons of the world. Perhaps the psychology behind the can tosser and the corporate polluter really aren’t that different. 

Organized efforts to clean up Vineyard beaches began in 1992 when Bob Woodruff rallied a group of students from the high school to comb and clean the beaches. The following year, Vineyard Conservation Society took over the beach cleanup, which remains an annual April occurrence. 

“We find a lot of plastics, food wrappers, styrofoam, cigarette butts, nips, cups and lids, fishing and lobster gear, strings and balloons,” said Signe Benjamin, VCS’s membership and events coordinator. “Eighty percent of beach trash is local in origin,” she says, which means that most of our local litter is not a “washashore” thing, it is coming from us. Benjamin has noticed a decline in the amount of refuse collected in recent years during beach clean up days, which she attributes to the growing number of people on the Island who pick up trash on a daily basis while they’re out for a walk. 

Paul Doherty is one of the Island’s conscientious litter-pickers. “This all started for me while walking my two dogs throughout different parts of the Island, just to mix it up for them. I started seeing nip bottles along the roadways,” explained Doherty, who along with a few other litter-pickers, is not shy about posting a photo of his haul of nip bottles he collected from the side of a road, usually not too far from a liquor store. “The nip bottle issue is a two-fold problem, the first being drinking while driving and the second, littering [the] fragile ecosystem of this Island,” laments Doherty.

VCS’s Benjamin also noted that the nip bottles on the side of the road aren’t just about litter. “It’s a social issue, not just an environmental one, and we need to have substance abuse experts involved to get it resolved.” She added, “I feel like from cradle to grave, nip bottles are produced to be thrown out your car window.”

“You keep asking yourself, where’s it coming from?” asked Steve Bernier during a recent phone interview. For years the well-respected owner of Cronigs had a Sunday morning ritual of picking up litter off the side of the road. (He has been temporarily sidelined by health issues, but says he can’t wait to get back to it.) “We have an abundance of open pickup trucks and I think the stuff that’s coming out of the back of pickup trucks is three fourths of the problem,” Bernier said, “The weekends when we’re moving our trash to the landfill, we’re causing a lot of trash.”

Could it be that the majority of litter along the Island’s roadways is a result of people ineffectively securing their rubbish while they are on their way to the dump? If so, it seems like this somewhat passive-aggressive approach to littering (my analysis, not the psychiatrists’) should be relatively easy to remedy. Maybe we can start there. 

“Let’s care about our Island,” pleads Bernier. For years, one Sunday after another people would honk and yell out “Thank you” and “Good morning, Steve” while he picked up the remnants of what he appropriately termed “a disposable society, full of single-serve everything.” “Screw that,” said Bernier. ”Don’t say good morning to me. Pull over on the side of the road. Grab a bag and jump in and help.”

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