The Downside to Litter
February 27, 2009 8:40 PM   Subscribe

My friend and I are having a bit of a debate: Is litter harmful for the environment, society, or other aspects, as I've been led to believe? Legality is not the issue.

While eating out at a sandwich place with no indoor seating one night, my friend spilled sauce on his new coat, took a napkin to clean his coat, and angrily tossed the napkin out the car's window. I told him that he shouldn't litter, especially when there's a trash can 10 feet away. He then demanded that I explain why it matters if he, or society at large, littered. I was taken aback as I had never really thought out reasons for it, accepting it to just be a bad thing to do. Thinking hastily, I mentioned broken window theory, animals getting sick from the litter, and it generally making the community look worse. He said I was overstating the impact and/or the chances of each of those things happening, and said that life was too short to worry about litter and that none of his friends in his hometown cared either. To be fair, this was in a suburb of Trenton, NJ, and there aren't really any woods or too many animals nearby. Still, it just felt like he was doing something really wrong, and I was taken aback because he's a very strong democrat and usually is in favor of environmentalist policies. It struck me as at least a bit hypocritical.

Anyway, I decided to google if there were problems with littering, but I mostly found websites listing the legal penalties behind littering, or websites on kitty litter. What are the real, tangible downsides and consequences to littering? I'm not looking for an excuse to litter, as I find it no big deal to find a trash can and act accordingly. Nor am I expecting to find many personal consequences outside of shunning from strangers and tickets from police officers. Rather, I'd like evidence that litter is a serious problem for the environment. Information on urban and suburban littering would be most relevant, although I've seen it's particularly rampant out in the country.
posted by mccarty.tim to Society & Culture (61 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Does your friend shit in the toilet or in the living room? Why? This is a difference of degree.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:45 PM on February 27, 2009 [7 favorites]

Just to clarify, he doesn't consider it wrong to litter things other than paper, he also wanted to throw out the sandwich wrapper and plastic bag until I told him I'd throw it away for him and that I'd really prefer that. He's also made fun of me for waiting to find a recycle bin for aluminum cans and plastic bottles, once he found out I cared about litter (I did wait for recycling before, I just think it was below his radar).
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:46 PM on February 27, 2009

Well, people don't like to see litter, so they demand that the state clean it, and so the state has to divert prison labor that otherwise could have been employed manufacturing license plates, and the cost of vehicle registration goes up.

More seriously, that is the point behind the highway signs around here that tell people not to litter - "Litter costs Mass. millions!" - and it appears that most states spend at least a few million bucks a year on litter cleanup.
posted by phoenixy at 8:50 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, aside from:

1) Littering allows potentially harmful waste to not be properly disposed of (think of motor oil dumped on the ground or plastic six-pack holders left to entangle wildlife, and

2) Littering removes potentially recyclable materials from the waste stream, never to be recovered, and

3) Given a choice, most people would rather be in a clean environment than a dirty one, and by littering, your friend is making it less likely people will hang out where he's dumped his trash, directly affecting the residents and business people in that area.

Littering is just thoughtless and moves the onus on cleaning up after ourselves from the person littering to society at large. The only reason it "isn't a big problem" is that people clean up after mental-midgets like your friend. I'm sorry, but he's acting like a four-year-old.

I'd be willing to bet if he woke up every morning to find half a dozen fast food bags, dirty diapers, used condoms, broken bottles and the like littering his front lawn he'd demand that it stop, or if you came into his office, blew your nose on a tissue and just dropped that on his desk he'd be up in arms.
posted by maxwelton at 8:53 PM on February 27, 2009 [10 favorites]

@phoenixy: See, I tried that, and then he said it was helping unemployment.... Still, from the perspective of the parable of the broken window, said labor could have been used elsewhere, and the taxpayers could have kept their money.

Above I meant the broken window theory about misdemeanors. Didn't think I'd get to cite both in one thread!
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:54 PM on February 27, 2009

It's ugly, it's a sign of laziness, it makes that indian guy cry (and his horse too), and it will likely end up causing environmental pollution. See this article about how plastic ends up in the fish you eat.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:55 PM on February 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

Those garbage gyres bottlebrushtree linked to are made more visual and depressing in this TED talk.
posted by thebabelfish at 8:58 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Litter is just another word for trash. The reasons for proper trash removal include helping to keep disease, odors, rodents and insects under control. A flicked cigarette can burn down a neighborhood. Stepping on a broken bottle injures people and pets. Simple aesthetics is also a compelling reason to keep an area clean.
posted by sageleaf at 8:59 PM on February 27, 2009

So, when this guy walks into his house, does he just toss his junk mail on the floor? Why doesn't he throw the refuse from fast food onto the floor of his own car, if it isn't so bad? I mean, he could just as easily drive around with it, since it really doesn't matter, right?
posted by kellyblah at 8:59 PM on February 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

Not littering is the kind of social rule that's no big deal if only one person breaks it, but if everybody does, would lead to major problems. The inability to make this connection and to follow these rules is the definition of a sociopath.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:02 PM on February 27, 2009

Littering, like spitting in public, is boorish, and precisely the sort of behavior we should by now have found the common sense to rise above. I guess it's the difference between caring about other people and not caring about other people. Obviously, waste is bad wherever we put it. But some places are worse than others, and if we already have garbage dumps in place, I'd rather our trash goes there with the rest of it than in my face while I'm going about my day. Tell him I don't want to look at his crap, and I especially don't want to cart it home in my pocket to throw it out. If he's the jackass whose juice box I found the other day, though, just tell him I'd like words with him personally.
posted by roombythelake at 9:05 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Where I live in DC, I've seen people stuffing trash down storm drains rather than use municipal trash cans 30 feet away. Given DC's mixed sewer system, this is a problem: that drain and clearance capacity would otherwise go to help prevent overflows of untreated sewage into watersheds. I imagine similar problems arise anywhere with roads bordered by storm drains, over a long enough period.

Also, it sounds like your friend is littering basically to be spiteful. Which brings me to the societal consequences: people that litter are dicks. Smokers that toss their butts on the ground are the same smokers that light up 5 feet from the entrance to the buildings they're ot allowed to smoke in. That loser throwing a family-size bundle of McDonald's trash out the window while stopped at the red light is the same asshole that parks his greasemobile in the handicapped spot at the post office even though he's not handicapped. Littering is a symptom of an underlying deficient, inconsiderate mentality.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:06 PM on February 27, 2009 [10 favorites]

Tell your friend that littering is bad because it makes him look like a tool.

Also, it uglifies the environment (city streets are an environment too). Each individual litterer thinks "Oh, it's only a napkin/plastic bag/styrofoam coffee cup" and lo and behold, you've got sidewalks and gutters filled with crap. It clogs storm drains.

And the stuff that gets tossed out of the car window while you're driving down the freeway? Some lucky people will get to risk their lives cleaning it up while cars zoom by at 70 mph.

Mostly, though, littering is bad because the world is not your trash can, and your fellow humans are not your maid, or your mom.
posted by rtha at 9:07 PM on February 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Everything has a place. If you start placing things where they don't belong you start disorganization faster than it should occur (naturally...with us fighting it).

We could "help unemployment" by throwing books and information any which way in the library...or even not having libraries. I mean hell, why do we need to organize and store information in one easily accessed building. We would need more staff to help us access information...but what would that do? It would slow down humans because information would be harder to get to.

We are humans, and we create systems so that we can benefit from them. Once we forsake those systems we become like the animals we eat...which do not have the power to ruin.

We have a implied contract with one another to place things where they belong. As soon as you place a book where it doesn't belong on the shelves, park where there isn't any parking (including an intersection), or toss trash on the ground, you are breaking that implicit contract.

I bet that your friend would not be so keen on throwing trash anywhere he pleases if someone piled trash in the frame of his door and applied tape so that it would stay there until one opens the door.

Good luck...on making new friends. He's stubborn, and will never listen.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:08 PM on February 27, 2009

I should be more clear, re-reading the question and my answer. This person doesn't want trash around him right? What makes him think other people want to see it, regardless of it is a bigger, common area? Leave things as you find them, or better. Would you chuck it on the ground in your own space? No? Why would you do it elsewhere?
posted by kellyblah at 9:21 PM on February 27, 2009

Nthing the sentiment that littering is an indication that someone's either stupid (they just don't realize that someone else is then going to have to pick it up) or an inconsiderate asshole.

The other day this lady was driving down my street in a Lexus SUV. Opened her window and tossed out a bunch of trash onto the street. All that money spent on her car in an attempt to look classy? Instantly negated.
posted by Sublimity at 9:27 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

It ends up in the ocean. Small oceanic animals are actually incorporating plastic into their bodies at this point. Life is turning into plastic.

Also show him this bird that ate so much floating plastic it had no room for food and starved to death and this which is a man, in a boat in the ocean. Which is wall to wall trash.
posted by fshgrl at 9:28 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your friend reminds me of particular friends of mine who believe consumer recycling is a crock, and that industrial recycling is the only recycling that makes a difference. The people who have expressed this to me are usually liberal and at least give lip service to caring for the environment, but usually this is outweighed by the need to not look a fool. Better an asshole than a fool.

It may be true on a certain level that throwing a napkin on the ground isn't the worst thing humans can do to our planet, given the amount of poisonous pollutants we systematically pump back out into our environment. It may be true that our culture's need for order is based on criteria other than just concern for the planet. But your friend's actions suggest he thinks his shit doth not smell shitty, that he walks on water, and that his tossed litter blows around until it becomes a nice little meal/bed for some birds who will think upon him fondly like a kind and distant god.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:31 PM on February 27, 2009

Your friend is very small minded and selfish in this regard.

If he does it, is there a big impact? Of course not. But if everyone thought and acted the way he did, I could only imagine what things might be like.

Either he fails to see his responsibility in the bigger picture or he's just an asshole who thinks he's above everyone else.
posted by csimpkins at 9:43 PM on February 27, 2009

If he doesn't think litter is a problem, why doesn't he just leave it in his car?
posted by oneirodynia at 9:48 PM on February 27, 2009 [10 favorites]

Yes, the unemployment argument is pretty silly. As it is, the state never has enough money and they could easily blow that how ever many million bucks by doing plenty of things that increase welfare as well as employment--by hiring enough workers so that it doesn't take 2 hours to get a drivers license at the Chinatown RMV, or by maybe fixing a pothole occasionally, or extending public transit, or subsidizing health insurance, or having more schoolteachers, or by buying an ice cream cone for every child in the state. Instead they pay a guy to pick up after your friend. Did your friend think about how he is tearing ice cream out of the mouths of children? DID HE??
posted by phoenixy at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Litter, especially food and its containers, attracts and sustains rats, pigeons, and other vermin. This contributes to the spread of disease.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:00 PM on February 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I simply find it inconceivable that people think it's ok to throw their garbage on the ground. I don't understand it. I also find it difficult to understand why anyone would question why they should not do it. Why does he think this is not bad behaviour? The practical reasons have been stated already in this discussion (sanitation, aesthetics, practicality, personal responsibility). Can anyone tell me of a situation when it would be acceptable to "litter"? I, personally, can't think of one.
posted by Wendy BD at 10:21 PM on February 27, 2009

As everyone's already said, he's littering because he's a jerk; it's jerky behavior because while he clearly doesn't want the trash around he can't or won't extrapolate that to nobody else wanting it around either. While it's wrong for all the environmental reasons, it's mostly wrong because it's an insult to all the other people around him. His ridiculous devil's-argument attempts (eg, it helps unemployment) seem to indicate that he enjoys being a jerk, and that he's trolling in real life.

Don't feed the troll. He doesn't need counterarguments -- anyone his age already knows why littering makes you a dick (I say this in total confidence without knowing his age; it's true if he's 6). He needs to be ignored.
posted by range at 10:28 PM on February 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

He said...that life was too short to worry about litter.

Short for him, maybe, but not for society as a whole, or future generations. Meanwhile he buys food in stores with networks of farmers and producers and suppliers, drives on roads and bridges that were built before he was born, and expects doctors with the experience of generations to treat him if he has an accident. He quite possibly has littered the front yards of some of these people. His philosophy does not account for any of the benefits he receives from people who thought beyond their self-interest. Yeah, sociopath lite.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:28 PM on February 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

To my mind, litterers are in the same class of people who go around with dirty fingernails, stained clothes, and smelly pits. Not only do slovenly people lack a sense of respect, they seldom have any self-respect either.

Disorderly conditions breed bad behavior: The "Broken Windows" Theory of Crimefighting

Evidence of its effectiveness:

Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work—clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.

In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated "broken windows" theory really works—that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.
posted by aquafortis at 10:53 PM on February 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

Yes, the unemployment argument is pretty silly

It's the Broken Windows Fallacy!
posted by troy at 11:04 PM on February 27, 2009

Reconsider the company you're keeping. As qxntpqbbbqxl said above, this person is a sociopath.
posted by pianoboy at 11:10 PM on February 27, 2009

Not littering is the kind of social rule that's no big deal if only one person breaks it, but if everybody does, would lead to major problems. The inability to make this connection and to follow these rules is the definition of a sociopath.

First of all, you didn't link to the "definition of a sociopath" you linked too the Wikipedia article on antisocial personality disorder. Sociopath is not a rigorously defined term, and anyway none of what you said is even mentioned in the Wikipedia article you linked too. In fact in the very first section there's this:
Deceit and manipulation are considered essential features of the disorder.
There's nothing dishonest about littering, it just makes you a dick.
posted by delmoi at 11:21 PM on February 27, 2009

Trenton, NJ has a population density of 11,153.6 people per sq mile. Ever seen the result of 10,000 revelers at a concert, or even a few thousand people at the county fair? Ever cleaned up your house after having a dozen drunken friends over for a party? Either dude is incredibly unimaginative and small minded or dude thinks he's better than everybody else. People like that aren't going to change their song by facts alone, because the reality is so clearly obvious to anybody with the social concern to think about it honestly for 5 seconds.

There are models for dealing with people who don't see the consequences of their actions. An easy one to remember for future discussions is RISC. Repeat the behavior. Interpret its meaning. Share your point of view. Explain consequences.

For example: "Dude, I just saw you litter. Our neighbors will have to deal with that, what if everybody did that? When you disregard other people's neighborhoods and property, it makes me think you probably don't care too much about my property either. If you keep littering while I'm around, I won't be able to hang out with you anymore because it makes us look like assholes and I don't want to be a part of this."

Logic alone works for most people, but dude is beyond logic. If you actually care to change someone like this, which it sounds like you do from the tone of this AskMe, there will have to be stakes on the line. You might adjust the stakes to "I'll hang out with you less" or "I won't share fast food with you anymore", but, really, who the fuck wants to hang out with such an insufferable asshole if they won't change? People who rationalize small stuff like this are testing the waters to see what's socially acceptable, because they're rationalizing bigger stuff in their heads and getting ready to push other boundaries to be even more selfish.
posted by Skwirl at 12:37 AM on February 28, 2009 [11 favorites]

If your friend doesn't buy the above social reasons, have him try this one on for size: people who see your friend litter are going to see that your friend is a prick. You, ostensibly a reasonable person, do not want to be seen hanging out or associating with known pricks. You stop being friends with your friend. Because he is a prick.
posted by phunniemee at 12:40 AM on February 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

A play I worked on years ago made a very interesting connection between larger social problems and smaller ones; it was a one-man show which started out discussing why some people turn to right-wing militia groups, or feel drawn towards hate crimes -- but then suddenly halfway through veered off into pet-peeve kind of things like litter, dog poop left on the sidewalk, etc.

After pointing out that a lot of us sometimes just got really freakin' annoyed when other people did this, the play had the following light-bulb-over-the-head inducing line:

"People who don't feel like they're living in trash may not feel like they have to defend themselves against filth."

In other words -- people who don't see these mindlessly infuriating little reminders of people's unconcern for others may not be walk around thinking that the world's all going to pot, and may be less likely to snap and go from cleaning up to "cleaning up", ridding the world of whichever group they perceive to be causing the problem.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:29 AM on February 28, 2009

A different perspective, literally--litterally?! I live in Kuwait and by any reasonable standard, it's a sty. A few local-citizen voices are addressing this in newspapers, blogs, etc.-- and expressing disgust.

This is not all just someone coming to a different culture and criticizing it. (I was gonna say "trashing it.")

Dumpsters are regularly overflowing, trash bags and whatever strewn around them; common to see people go to the beach, sit down, eat a pizza and walk way with the box in the middle, plates, empty soda cans a sitting-body width from the box. Plenty of people spit great gobs out windows; toss used Kleenexes, used diapers around; pitch soda cans out windows.

As the local citizens say, it is unsanitary and it is part of a society that is far too lazy, selfish and ignorant. As these people say, this too-prevalent mindset manifests itself in any number of significant unpleasant ways that are detrimental to individuals and the broader society.

Nthing the common perspective in this thread; the person in question is either baiting you or a world-class shithead.
posted by ambient2 at 6:05 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and another thing -- dumping litter makes you look like a dick.

In fact: actually, you know what, tell him this: tell him that, if "none of his friends in his hometown cared either", that I said that I asked you what his hometown was -- and tell him it's because I've been looking for a place to dump my trash, and if he doesn't care, shit, I'll come dump it on his lawn.

No, I'm perfectly serious. Tell him that. And when he sputters and says no, then tell him I said, "well, I didn't like it when you dumped it on my town either."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:41 AM on February 28, 2009

Yes, littering is harmful to the environment.

Food scraps thrown to the side of the road attract animals, especially deer, raccoons, and possums, which are often hit by cars. There's a social cost, too--dead animal grossness, car accidents caused by swerving, human injuries, and higher insurance rates. (Or will he argue that that keeps doctors and insurance adjusters employed?)

People have already covered the issue of animals eating tiny bits of plastic. And does your friend not remember having drilled into him as a child the risk of six-pack rings to birds?

Cigarette butts leach toxics into water--lots of sources.

Decomposition rates of marine debris.
Another, unsourced, list.

Good luck.
posted by hippugeek at 6:54 AM on February 28, 2009

It perpetuates a bad stereotype of the good people of New Jersey.

I also find it difficult to understand why anyone would question why they should not do it.

Self defense. Otherwise they would have to admit that it was a fair cop and people hate admitting that they've been caught in a fair cop. Also, their is the appeal to one's vanity that the normal rules do not apply to One. Think Leona Helmsley and how only Little People pay taxes.

What really interests me is what are the positive sides to this guy's character. I mean, to the extent that you would call him a friend. He sounds a lazy, selfish, thoughtless, argumentative, short tempered sociopath - what outweights these alarming attributes?
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on February 28, 2009

there is. (Jesus....)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:04 AM on February 28, 2009

I can speak only about the thing I know the most about: urban streams. Really, litter in streams is not a huge problem ecologically compared to the fertilizer and pesticides from lawns, gas, oil, and tire residue from cars, and of course sewer leaks, not to mention the effects of altered hydrology due to impervious surfaces everywhere. Those things have direct, clear effects on stream ecosystems. Litter really doesn't. The plastics inside mammals and birds thing is a problem, but the total, basal disruption of the ecosystem is a much bigger (if not as photogenic) problem.

However, as others have said, litter comes through the stormwater system just as all those other things do. So if you see a huge pile of litter in a stream, you know that stream also has significant impacts of a more fundamental sort. In the meantime, tires provide habitat, and paper provides a food source in a stream that's been denuded of wood and leaves.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:06 AM on February 28, 2009

Rather, I'd like evidence that litter is a serious problem for the environment. Information on urban and suburban littering would be most relevant, although I've seen it's particularly rampant out in the country.

Litter is definitely horrible for the environment, particularly non-biodegradable plastics, which will persist for thousands of years. Plastic bags kill plants and trees by blocking sunlight, and they hurt birds by taking away shelter. There's a giant garbage island in the Pacific Ocean that bakes in the sun. The sun's UV radiation, salt water and time help the garbage leach heavy metals and all kinds of toxic plastic combustion byproducts (furans and dioxins, in particular) into the water, where it is incorporated into the food chain. Through ocean fisheries, we, in turn, eat fat-soluble organic compounds.

We've really made a mess of things.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:18 AM on February 28, 2009

When people tend to think of the "environment", they are thinking of the biosphere and plants, trees and animals. Environment is also in general, your surroundings whether it is your computer room, your yard, your neighborhood, or your city. When your environment is polluted or in the case of your computer room, disorganized, then you tend to suffer. You can't find where you left that book you were reading, you can't find your checkbook, or the clutter just weighs on you. It makes you unhappy. Unhappiness leads to depression leads to suicide and murder. Ok, maybe not always murder and suicide but at the very least a cluttered environment will not produce mental peace.
posted by JJ86 at 8:10 AM on February 28, 2009

he said it was helping unemployment

This makes it sound like he doesn't actually think it's not bad for the environment and the people of the community to have trash lying everywhere. It sounds like he thinks it SHOULD be cleaned up, just by someone else.

I suspect that when he sees how much his local taxes go up once everyone just stops using trash cans and the government continues to attempt to clean it all up, he'll feel differently.
posted by lampoil at 8:16 AM on February 28, 2009

Has he not seen the rafts of litter and plastic waste floating in the middle of the ocean? Broken window theory is a great example of little contributing to people's ability to care/respect the environment.

Sheesh, it's always been a no-brainer for me, clean up after yourself. Jenkinsear had a great comment.
posted by arcticseal at 8:23 AM on February 28, 2009

I think the solution is to dumb garbage in your friend's living room, and tell him "life's too short to worry about litter."

Streets aren't a no-mans land - they are the property of the community. Kids play along the sidewalks, and in parking lots (yeah, we weren't supposed to, but we did). And wind will blow litter right into specific people's property. I was constantly picking dirty old chip bags out of my front garden when I lived on a big road - chip bags probably thrown out of a car window like your friend just did.

Littering makes my blood BOIL. It's nasty and disrespectful. And people seem to be happiest to do it where the poorest people live.
posted by jb at 8:37 AM on February 28, 2009

I'm going to guess that you're both young, probably under 40. Why do I guess this? Because if you were older you'd be old enough to remember America before heavily enforced litter laws. Prior to the first lady Lady Bird Johnson bringing it to national attention and making a big deal out of how shitty the average American treated public spaces, the country was like a giant trash bin. A trip down the expressway looked like a dump truck full of paper and bottles had been over turned just a few days prior and nobody cleaned up.

Tell your friend to stop being a selfish asshole and exercise enough self control to not just fling his castoffs right out the damn window when ever he feels like it. If that doesn't work, just throw shit on the floor at his house whever you visit.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 8:56 AM on February 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Not littering is the kind of social rule that's no big deal if only one person breaks it, but if everybody does, would lead to major problems. The inability to make this connection and to follow these rules is the definition of a sociopath.

I think it's OK for your friend to litter, and disagree with the sociopath diagnosis. This is more clearly an example of the free rider problem. It's OK for him to litter because most people don't, and there is an organised effort to clean up after the small minority of people like him.

It's win-win for him, really. If he is somewhere like Kuwait, then there is nothing wrong with littering because everyone is doing it, and things won't change until there is organised collective action. In the States, it's OK because his individual actions are a drop in the bucket, and everyone else is doing the right thing.

The important thing to notice is that this makes it OK for him to litter - but I don't understand why he would be promoting it as a course of action for everyone else as well. He should be encouraging the rest of you guys to mind your trash. Better to keep it on the lowdown.

The other possibility (I admit, much less likely) is that he doesn't give a shit because he is actually a Lectroid from Planet 10.

"You live in this filth?"
"It's not my planet, monkey boy."

posted by Meatbomb at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2009

There's a giant garbage island in the Pacific Ocean that bakes in the sun.

Thanks for that article, Blazecock Pileon: I was going to mention the garbage island myself cut it out of my earlier comment in favour of anger instead. Anyway, I learned about it in the excellent book The World Without Us. If OP's friend thinks "life is too short," he may want to read this book and learn about what it will be like on earth when that short life is over: while the life of people may be short, the life of litter is most definitely not.
posted by roombythelake at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2009

Aluminum recycling is very important as 1) it is a non-renewable resource, and 2) it is far less expensive and far more environmentally friendly to recycle it than produce new aluminum. For instance, recycling aluminum only consumes 5% of the energy and generates 5% of the CO2 from new aluminum production, and recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a television for 3 hours. It is inarguable that recycling aluminum is definitely beneficial.
posted by lizbunny at 9:03 AM on February 28, 2009

There was an article in The Economist about a study done to investigate the effects of litter and graffiti. It was discussed in this thread.

Your friend is a dick, btw. I used to live along a busy street, and we'd have to go pick trash up out of the yard where assholes like him couldn't be bothered to behave like adults. I'm not kidding, at this point you could tell me that he spent his days doing volunteer work with homeless HIV-infected stray puppies that had been victims of landmines, and I'd still think he was a dick because of the littering.
posted by dilettante at 9:18 AM on February 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

He said I was overstating the impact and/or the chances of each of those things happening

Logical fallacy: Asserting the fact.

life was too short to worry about litter

Not a logical argument.

none of his friends in his hometown cared either.

Logical fallacy: Appeal to popularity.
posted by WCityMike at 9:19 AM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Our job as human beings is to fight decay in whatever ways we can. When your friend throws litter on the ground, that means that every person who passes by that stretch of land until it is next cleaned up does not see a clean environment, they see an environment where people littered. Think about how you feel when you walk by clean land (whether it be an urban stretch of stores or a rural stretch of grass, either way), and when you walk by littered land. I daresay you'll agree with me the former puts you in a better mood than the latter — even if it's in the minutest of degrees. Your friend, by littering, is making a lot of people's days fractionally worse, and by doing so is increasing entropy.

Also, if you don't want Google to be "helpful" and want it to just stick with what you're looking for, a plus sign and quotation marks can help. Typing +"littering" into the search box yields these results, of which these results will be particularly helpful: one, two, three, four.
posted by WCityMike at 9:25 AM on February 28, 2009

Once I visited a girls' orphanage in Tijuana that ran up against a canyon, which was absolutely clogged with trash and other junk. At one point, I saw one of the girls toss a handful of trash over the wall, into the canyon. She caught my eye and looked a little guilty. But everyone threw their trash in the canyon, obviously. It wasn't evil; just a mass apathy and laziness. But the keyword is mass. Not just one guy, deliberately being an jerk.

I remember feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mess-- not just in that canyon, but all the canyons and other areas, junking up TJ, just adding to the array of figurative messes Mexico has to clean up. And yet to be part of a society that promotes such an obvious anti-litter mindset, and to litter despite (to spite?) that mindset... I have to second "sociopath lite".
posted by changeling at 10:41 AM on February 28, 2009

A link to the real cost of free plastic bags.
posted by francesca too at 11:22 AM on February 28, 2009

life was too short to worry about litter and that none of his friends in his hometown cared either.

Life is too short to hang out with people like that, and maybe his friends in his hometown hung out with him because they, too, couldn't find other people to hang out with.
posted by davejay at 12:27 PM on February 28, 2009

this was in a suburb of Trenton, NJ, and there aren't really any woods or too many animals nearby

Meaning his trash is going to end up in somebody else's yard and that somebody else is going to have to clean it up.

We regularly clean up piles of trash from our yard, near the street, from lazy people like your "friend".

If you'd like to send your friend over, I'd be glad to explain to him personally why throwing your stinking trash in somebody else's yard is a stupid idea. I've a few years frustration pent up so I think this is a job I will really enjoy . . .

(And BTW if you throw it out in the street the wind will blow and your stuff will, likely as not, end up in somebody's yard, or worse.)
posted by flug at 2:43 PM on February 28, 2009

Legality is not the issue

The fact that it is illegal pretty much everywhere and there isn't even an organized group anywhere working to reverse that situation, pretty much tells you that it's universally believed to be harmful for the environment, society, etc.

I guess your friend can be the one person in a billion who actively believes otherwise (as opposed to just being lazy) but saying "litter doesn't hurt anything--prove otherwise!" certainly strikes one as post-hoc rationalization of stupid, lazy behavior rather than an actual well-thought-out intellectual argument.
posted by flug at 2:48 PM on February 28, 2009

Everyone's pretty much covered anything that I could say, but could you do me a favor?

Tell him that I live in a suburb of Trenton, NJ (Lawrenceville,) and I hate douchebags like him. I constantly have to defend my home state, which I love, because of fucking tools like him. I care a fuckton that there's garbage all over. Mind giving me his address so I can dump my shit on his lawn?

Also, there is plenty of wildlife around here.
posted by InsanePenguin at 5:04 PM on February 28, 2009

The only reason it "isn't a big problem" is that people clean up after mental-midgets like your friend. I'm sorry, but he's acting like a four-year-old.

He totally is. It's a critical mass issue. No, it is not a big problem if one person litters. But if everyone or even a lot of people litter, we're either all going to have to wade through garbage or spend a lot of tax dollars to hire people to pick it up. Since I am assuming your friend would not like either of those scenarios, it is hypocritical and selfish for him to litter while expecting other people not to and to pick up his garbage for him.
posted by orange swan at 6:42 PM on February 28, 2009

Okay, thanks guys. I just wanted to get an impression on how many people cared about litter after my friend acted like I was from Mars for wanting to get up and use a trashcan. FYI, it was actually my car and I was giving him a ride.

Really, he's otherwise a smart and interesting guy, although he can be a bit arrogant and narcissistic at times. He'll litter when I'm not around if I hang out with him or not, so I have no intention to DTMFA (that works for friends these days? Sweet, I'll use it in polite conversation more often!). Debating showing him this thread, he is an off-and-on mefite.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:16 PM on March 1, 2009

Oh, and thanks for the info on the "free rider program" concept. That really explains a lot, although the paper doesn't do much to encourage people to, say, vote, recycle, or volunteer in general. Still, seems to imply that caring for the community, society, and the environment are innate values in most people to some degree, since we wouldn't have much of a civilization without it.

We're college students rooming together at TCNJ, so it's fair to say he doesn't really feel like he "owns" any real sort of property nearby, aside from the dorm room. Still, the fact that he says he does the same at home is a bit striking. He has some borderline libertarian, "tradgedy of the commons"-style beliefs, and was into Bullshit with Penn and Teller for a while, and their track record on environmental policy opinion, in my experience, has been a little shaky. One episode did claim recycling was useless and that virgin wood was a better material for paper than recycled materials, although in reality it depends on what the initial product and the final product is (IE turning a newspaper into paper towels is a good way to save energy and trees, turning a bunch of old office paper into new resume paper calls for more processing than is sustainable).

I kinda doubt he's a full-blown sociopath as is the sentiment in a lot of posts here. He does sometimes say things like, "I don't care if I offend people, I can get approval from within" and so on, but I get the feeling that's more about how he was raised to see that as a totally positive and valid attitude than anything else, and that he might just say them to make himself feel better or less embarrassed.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:35 PM on March 1, 2009

I kinda doubt he's a full-blown sociopath as is the sentiment in a lot of posts here.

Oh, I don't think he's a sociopath, I just think he's a dick.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:33 AM on March 2, 2009

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