There and Back Again: A Look at Litter in the US

[ If you’ve been following the Off the Ground Twitter feed, you’ll have seen that I’ve been out of the country for the past few weeks visiting family in the US. While this was technically a holiday, I found it very hard to switch off my litter radar! Here are some international musings about rubbish and waste … ]

I grew up in Florida, in a small community perched on the edge of the Indian River Lagoon. This ecologically sensitive and biologically diverse estuary on the east coast was my introduction to conservation and environmentalism. From looking after endangered wildlife to the idea that all waterways lead to the lagoon (and sea), my time living in the US laid the groundwork for my interest in keeping the world clean.

However, it’s been nearly four years since I last visited my hometown, and one of the first things that Jon and I did after arriving was go on a two-mile walk around the neighbourhood with a litter picker and a few carrier bags. In Chippenham, we would have found at least two large bin bags worth of general rubbish and two bags of recycling. Indeed, we can’t usually walk a similar distance in the UK without the bags getting too heavy and awkward for us to carry.

On this walk, we found one carrier bag of rubbish and one of recycling—approximately 80% less than Chippenham.

I can’t speak for the whole of the US, or even the whole of Florida, but litter was definitely far more scarce. Which raises the question—why? What is it that causes one country to be covered in rubbish and another less so?

While I think the UK’s it’s-someone-else’s-job mindset is a big part of it, there are a few other factors at play. For example, I noticed a distinct lack of an eating-on-the-go culture, at least in this corner of Florida. In the UK, if you walk into any grocery store, convenience store, or drugstore, you’ll be greeted with a cooler full of meal deals: sandwiches, crisps, and beverage cans or bottles.

But this level of grab-and-go food just wasn’t present, and the rubbish we found reflected that. Rather than crisp packets and sandwich cartons, it was generally bitty: receipts, bits of unidentifiable plastic, scraps of sweet wrappers, and cigarette cartons. Living up to the stereotype, fast food is certainly ubiquitous in the US … but eating takes place in the restaurant, car park, or the car itself, not while walking from place to place, owing to the combination of car culture and greater distances to travel.

While I’m sure that fast food detritus does get chucked out of cars—and we did find one or two pieces during our visit—the sheer scale of the litter that ends up on roadways is a mere trickle compared to the flood in the UK. Signs reminding people about the correct behaviour are present—“Take only photographs, leave only footsteps” is a common refrain—and bins are common.

Could numbers also be at play? The population density is 87 people per square km in Indian River County vs. 287 per square km in Wiltshire, which indicates that fewer people may lead to less litter. I also wonder if Florida’s weather has something to do with it: it’s so hot, it wouldn’t surprise me if people want to enjoy their car’s air conditioning and can’t be bothered to roll down their windows … and therefore don’t bother to throw rubbish from their vehicle.

Whatever the reasons for the relative lack of litter, there are also some similarities in behaviour between both countries. In particular, wastelands—areas that don’t looked cared for or which don’t appear to belong to anyone—were litter magnets in the US, as were areas located along bends in the roadway. These are places where cars slow down and where people often throw out rubbish. In the case of my hometown, one such bend had attracted in excess of 50 aluminium cans (primarily Bud Light, which is its own concern given the likelihood of drink driving). After cleaning this up, no new cans appeared, indicating that it might have been the “litter of ages”—rubbish that had been there for months or years, rather than a quick accumulation.

Cigarette litter—particularly butts and cartons—were also some of the most prevalent rubbish we spotted. Isn’t it interesting how unhealthy habits and littering seem to go hand in hand, regardless of country or culture?

Where the UK was well ahead of the US in a positive way is regarding awareness of plastic pollution and taking the necessary steps to combat waste. The types of things I take for granted in the UK—shampoo bars, beeswax wraps, water bottle and product refill—were practically non-existent, or at least not visible in the places I travelled. When eating out, plastic straws are handed out as standard (only a few places we visited had made the switch to paper), polystyrene takeaway containers are used as doggy bags for the invariably large portions, and single-use plastic containers house everything on café tables. I was surprised to find that even an environmental festival we attended sold very few reusable products (although they did get bonus points for giving away water bottles).

Something that I go on about a lot in this blog is the importance of learning from others: re-inventing the wheel helps no one and wastes time, money, and energy. But refining what has been done elsewhere? That’s the way to make progress … and it seems that both countries have a lot to learn from each other on the environmental front.

My trip to the US wasn’t all rubbish! Keep an eye on the MissElaineous Blog for even more photos, or consider signing up to have new blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.

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