Posted on 16 May 2009

Litter can tell you a lot about a place–about not only the people that pass through it, but the people that stay.  For example, in downtown DC it’s pretty standard to come across ripped hair extensions, crushed plastic bottles, long ago fallen–and very smelly–gingko biloba fruits, and discarded chicken bones.  In my suburban Boston home town, you find McDonalds bags and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups along the main routes, tossed from windows by commuters speeding through town on their way to work in the morning.  Offended neighbors frequently retrieve these items as they walk by with their dogs, indignant that anyone could deface town property so casually.  Down on the Anacostia River the other week, my coworkers and I were greeted with a cluster of floating plastic soda bottles, partially crushed juice boxes, and Cheetos bags–among other things.  Their labels were either faded or ripped away entirely, the plastic cloudy from weeks of drifting along in the river’s brown, stick-strewn waters.  Yesterday Damien and I sat on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, watching the Friday evening crowds.  A passing kid eating fast food absentmindedly tossed a paper burger wrapper over his shoulder; it fell less than 6 feet from a sidewalk trash can.

What is it that prompts people to throw things into the bushes, over the bridge railing or onto the side of the road?  I’m pretty sure they don’t do that at home (although maybe some do?).  Would it help, then, to have a posse of proverbial “street mothers” patrolling towns and cities with their eagle eyes, to scold offenders even before their litter hit the street (or are policemen supposed to take care of that?  Maybe they just need a few wigs…)?  Whatever litterbug rationality is, it’s clearly universal–if not in kind, then at least in practice.  It will be difficult to find that many street moms…

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