Is there anything productive I can say to litterbugs?
September 19, 2017 11:22 AM   Subscribe

I live in New York (work in Manhattan, live in Brooklyn) and often see people just throw trash on the ground whether it's a cigarette butt or some plastic, even while in close proximity to garbage cans, is there anything productive I can say to them?

I'm not sure why this is a thing people do in the first place, but seeing people litter really upsets me. I've often wanted to tell them off, but am not sure if it'll lead to a larger altercation or something like that. Is there something I can say that wouldn't escalate the situation and might cause them to think twice next time? Or is this just something I need to ignore and move on from?
posted by jourman2 to Human Relations (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
"I think you dropped something" - and hand it back to them.
posted by Miko at 11:24 AM on September 19, 2017 [22 favorites]

Is there anything productive you can say? Probably not.

Flag it and move on.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:29 AM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is kind of a philosophical question, but my personal take is, while an individual littering is a bummer, the vast bulk of environmental damage is caused by enormous multinational corporations. My belief is littering stems from a feeling of lack of investment in one's neighborhood - a feeling of disempowerment and lack of agency. So my personal belief is work on supporting local democracy, empowering neighborhood participation, and holding massive corporations accountable.

You can also just pick up litter you see and throw it away.
posted by latkes at 11:32 AM on September 19, 2017 [47 favorites]

Nope. Just bottle it inside like the rest of us.
posted by bondcliff at 11:33 AM on September 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Ugh I HATE littering but had someone reprimand me when I had no idea I'd dropped something and had also just gone through a Stressful Life Event. I burst into tears!

In general I avoid public shaming because you really, really don't know what's going on in other people's lives.
posted by lalex at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2017 [30 favorites]

I've thought about this a lot and tried different approaches, a few of which made the person angry, some of which resulted in laughter, and most of which got basically no reaction. My guess is that about 90 percent of people don't give a damn and aren't going to change their behavior. Maybe 10 percent might not do it next time if it's pointed out to them, but getting angry or snarky is unlikely to convince them.

My preferred approach works only when there's a trash can or ash tray nearby: "Excuse me: Next time, there's a trash can [ash tray] right there." Sometimes I just pick it up and throw it away right in front of the litterbug, without comment.

I'm also more likely to say something if the person is dressed professionally and is, like me, white. On the other hand, the only person who ever physically threatened me when I criticized him was a 60ish white guy in an expensive suit.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:36 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I think you dropped something" - and hand it back to them.

I cannot recommend this approach
posted by beerperson at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

I get furious when I see someone littering, but I agree that it's not really fruitful to say anything. If it's something that I can pick up and toss myself, like an empty cigarette carton, I sometimes do that. (The one exception to this is when I was walking back into my building one day and I saw a guy, my hand to God, take an empty envelope and shove it into a snow pile right outside my first-floor apartment's window. In that case, I said, "Hey! I live there, you know!" The guy looked at me blankly and kept walking.)
posted by holborne at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Please do not scold total strangers, wittily or otherwise. If the litter bothers you so much, pick it up yourself. Possibly the litterbug will notice and be shamed, and perhaps he or she will ignore you, in which case you should absolutely return the favor.
posted by milk white peacock at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

I generally suggest doing nothing/throwing it away yourself, but on bad mood days I have picked up the trash and said to whoever i was with loudly enough for the litterer to hear "WEIRD THAT SOMEONE WOULD JUST DROP THIS TRASH RIGHT NEXT TO A NEARLY EMPTY TRASH CAN" and throw it away. This is a bad approach and just escalates things. It does feel good in the exact moment, though.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 11:50 AM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

honestly a blanket policy of DNE (do not engage) tends to be the wisest tactic, particularly in NYC and environs. i understand the frustration, but engaging is a good way to get yourself into an altercation that may end in a discomfiting or even violent fashion. i don't know why NY has a heavy culture of littering, but it does -- more than other large cities i've been in. it seems resistant to most efforts to change it.
posted by halation at 12:06 PM on September 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

In New York? Absolutely not.
posted by Automocar at 12:09 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

i don't know why NY has a heavy culture of littering, but it does -- more than other large cities i've been in. it seems resistant to most efforts to change it.

It's a tossup whether there'll be a nearby trash can and also a tossup whether that trash can will be full to overflowing, so people don't get in the habit; trash pickup guys and street sweepers (at least in my neighborhood) appear to load trash into confetti cannons as they go by, so there's always trash on the street pretty much no matter what you do; and in a lot of places there's so little green space that the entire city feels like a completely artificial environment which cannot be harmed by litter anyway so who cares.

(I throw all my trash away but it often feels like I'm more making a statement than actually creating any concrete difference in the city's level of cleanliness.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:12 PM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also for cigarette butts specifically - of course throwing them on the ground is bad, but you're not really supposed to pitch them into the garbage, either, since you might wind up with a flaming garbage can.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:13 PM on September 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

(the cigarette thing is a different story btw. I'd be hesitant to encourage people to throw something that was recently on fire into a receptacle containing God knows what.)
posted by lalex at 12:20 PM on September 19, 2017

Unless you consider a reply of "fuck you pal" to be a productive outcome, then no, there's probably not much to say.
posted by obliterati at 12:22 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

My brother has been known to do this, framing it along the lines of, "Excuse me, I think you dropped something", in a fairly cheerful way and handing them back the object. There again, he is tall and broad and supremely self-assured and thus is unlikely to be challenged. I would just fume inwardly and Mr MMDP would pick the item up and dispose of it.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 12:22 PM on September 19, 2017

I also cannot recommend the "hey did you drop that" move. I did this once when I really did think that someone had dropped a bus transfer they might have needed later. It did not go well. She pulled my glasses off my face and yelled at me. I cried.

The takeaway here is that neither of us was having a great day to begin with and neither of our actions made it better.
posted by clavicle at 12:24 PM on September 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

It's probably most effective to bring the issue up when someone is in a fairly neutral or positive state, which means you won't know whether they litter or not. Still, making the subject more active in general might increase awareness, and help reduce littering overa ll.

As for in the moment: few (but a non-zero number of) people will react positively to most corrections _in the moment_, but I think it's likely that a word or two that includes some kind of indication that you _actually are predisposed to like them as a person_ (probably non-verbal, tonal, gestural, and 100% sincere -- you have to feel it) could have a positive impact later on, maybe weeks or months later. Some people violate social boundaries out of defiance, but a whole lot of them do it out of just not knowing any different.
posted by amtho at 12:44 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could politely say Please don't litter. But people can be quite aggressive when they are caught being assholes. Or sponsor some snarky signs.
posted by theora55 at 1:26 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could say in a helpful tone "I think you dropped something" and NOT hand it back to them.
posted by serena15221 at 1:35 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I clean up trash in my downtown LA neighborhood all the time. I don't tell people off because confrontation does not change behavior. My local trendy coffee place baristas see me with a pair of latest gloves or a trash bag and they give me a free cup of coffee, which is nice, but honestly, I wish their customers would pitch in. Cigarette butts are gross but they will decompose eventually.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:39 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I actually did the "I think you dropped something" and handed it back to the old man, not realising he was actually littering, I thought it was an accident. He swore and threw it at me, so there's that...
posted by Jubey at 1:44 PM on September 19, 2017

I think the best approach is to set a good example. Whenever I see trash on the ground in NYC (or here in Westchester) I pick it up and toss it. Most of the time it is not so gross, but regardless, I just wash my hands whenever I get where I was going or I have a small bottle of Purell with me. Lead by example.

Also, I have learned that while it is obvious when someone litter's in NYC, there are times that I see good reason to not put directly into the can. For example, my friend the social worker who mostly works with the homeless, always puts her bottles and cans on top of the rim of a garbage or on top of a newspaper box. It makes it easier and less gross for a person picking up cans to scrape by. Same goes for leftover meals. When I go out to dinner and get the part I cannot finish, to go, but then decide that I do not want to drag it around all night, I was instructed to place it on top of either a mailbox or some other box rather than toss it in the garbage. It is more likely to be taken and eaten by someone that way. Actually, this was a big argument I had with the person. To me, the most likely place to look for excess food is in the garbage, not on a payphone shelf, etc. but I defer to her expertise.
posted by AugustWest at 1:47 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am similarly frustrated by litterers. I live in NYC. I've tried confrontation, I've tried the "I think you dropped something." It usually gets me a dirty look. I do not look like Martha My Dear Prudence's brother.

I've resorted to simply and pointedly picking up their trash when I see them drop it.

I figure the physical proximity is engagement enough. It doesn't have to come with a remark, which can come off as superior and make the person feel threatened. "I think you dropped something" comes off the same as "pick that up," and then you get into a battle wills and superiority.

If they were the type to be shamed by a remark, then making that action should shame them just the same without confronting them.

If they weren't going to be shamed by someone noticing their littering and acting on it, it's unlikely they'd be the type to be shamed by a remark.
posted by Borborygmus at 1:52 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Cigarette butts are gross but they will decompose eventually.

This is not meaningfully true at all and is a frequent lie that smoking litterers tell themselves and others.

They are plastic, they take up to fifteen years to break down, they are an environmental disaster.

OP I have done basically everything in this thread at one point in time. Now I just pick it up.
posted by smoke at 2:13 PM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

"What the fuck, man? We live here."

Usually this gets me the finger or called a cunt or something but every once in a while I'll get eyes rolled at me which is a pretty positive response imo. I'm reaching them!!!
posted by phunniemee at 2:21 PM on September 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

Hi, part of my job is picking up trash in the NYC area.
I wouldn't try to get people to pick up litter. Setting a good example is great. Carrying a pair of gloves and picking up litter is great. If you see a parent teaching their kids to pick up their own litter, smile because they're awesome. But directly or indirectly confronting someone about throwing trash on the ground is not a good idea.

ps. I hate cigarette butts because smokers are the. worst. litterers. Stub it out. Throw it out. Cigarettes are horrible and non-biodegradable and they smell awful and you know they've been in someone's mouth. Seriously, if you're a smoker, you really need to think about the person who laboriously picks up every single butt you toss on the ground.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:57 PM on September 19, 2017 [12 favorites]

Something to think about: if you do this, please do not pick the least threatening demographic and only do it to them. As a petite white female in NYC, I was scolded and/or lectured many times a day. It wasn't littering but it was other stuff that people feel "strongly" about... and in my observation, nobody feels strongly about anything that involves a person larger than them or more tattooed than them or whatever else they perceive as likely to result in "a larger altercation" - case in point, your own conditionally worded question.

Also an anecdote: I once saw a group of middle-school aged black girls walking by, one of them dropped something and picked it up, and all the other girls laughed at her for "acting like a white girl". As people pointed out above, you really don't know what's going in strangers' lives.
posted by rada at 3:32 PM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

"If you're not part of the solution..." might get into their head a bit by making them complete the thought.
posted by at at 3:38 PM on September 19, 2017

Also, be aware that some people if they accidentally drop something, cannot bend over to pick it up without physical pain. I once accidentally dropped something while queuing to get off an airplane, and the middle aged man behind me said very aggressively

"Oh, it's so much easier for people to leave rubbish on the floor for other people to clean up, isn't it?"

and I ended up saying curtly, I have severe lower back pain, I CANNOT safely bend over in a crowded, unpredictably-moving aircraft aisle queue to pick up something I have dropped.
posted by Murderbot at 6:49 PM on September 19, 2017

Heck no! Let it go. If you really feel the urge, take a trash bag with you, and a poker thing to police the area.
posted by Oyéah at 7:20 PM on September 19, 2017

If you're not particularly concerned for your safety in a given encounter, you might try a simple "Excuse me - why did you drop that?", with the intention to express open curiosity. I'm guessing that this approach could be useful in three ways:

1. The person might offer an interesting answer, which could lead to a conversation.
2. They might hear the question in their mind the next time they go to drop something on the ground, and think twice.
3. If you can truly engage your curiosity, it can take the place of feelings of anger. We are all humans, and we all (I suspect) make decisions that are sometimes bad for ourselves or our community. This propensity won't disappear in any of our lifetimes, if even in the lifetime of our species. Why suffer when observing human behavior? Enjoy it, instead, as an anthropological investigation.

For what it's worth, I've only had the opportunity to try this once.

I was driving down a quiet street, and saw a man pitch a plastic bottle into a bush as he was walking. I rolled down my window and said "Excuse me - why'd you throw your bottle in that bush?"
Guy: "Because I didn't want to carry it any more!"
Me: "Why not throw it in the garbage? Somebody else will have to pick it up now."
Guy: "If you're so concerned, why don't you go pick it up?"
Me: "Eh, I guess you've got a point!"

I stopped my truck and got out to go retrieve the bottle. At the same time, he turned around and started walking back, too. He said, "You know, you're right. I don't want to see garbage on the ground, either."
Me: "Right on! Thanks, man."

Now, in all fairness, I am a 6' tall white male, I was driving a beat-up pickup truck, and the guy I was speaking with was black, and was perhaps a bit smaller or slighter than me. It could be that he reconsidered his stance on littering in that moment, but it could also be that he didn't think I was stopping my truck in order to go retrieve the bottle...
posted by cavedweller at 7:50 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

A former manager at one of my first jobs was awesome at gently getting his point across. Even though you knew he was calling you out, he always projected the attitude that your bad behavior was actually a genuine mistake, and even if we grumbled to ourselves, we never got into any arguments with him. In this situation I imagine him very good-naturedly saying "oh, hey, I'll get that for ya" and then picking up the item and pitching it in the nearby trashcan. Always with a smile, and probably with a "have a good day!"at the end.
posted by vignettist at 8:51 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's likely that this desire to scold strangers will end up reinforcing systemic oppression.

You'll tend to unconsciously feel confident scolding people in certain demographics, which means you'll scold more of them, more vigorously. Which groups will that be? women? young people? small people? introverts? people with low-status body language? poor people? Those people are already experiencing other systemic disadvantages, too.

And you will tend to unconsciously feel less-confident about scolding people in other demographics, which means you'll avoid scolding them. Who will that be? men? tall people? muscular people? people with confident body language? expensive-looking confident people? Those people are already experiencing other systemic advantages, too.

You'll unconsciously assign yourself a specific spot in a pecking order in each environment, and you'll peck down... and you'll end up pecking at people who already get pecked all day.

I speak from experience. I tick a few boxes and people LOVE to peck me. When other people doing the exact same thing right beside me remain unpecked. It sucks. Don't contribute to that.

So either:
(a) only scold big rich straight white men in suits... (which sounds discriminatory, right? but the thing is that human nature dictates that there's a huge chance you'll end up unconsciously discriminating in an inverse way anyway)
(b) don't do it at all, to anyone.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:33 PM on September 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, it's time for a plug for systems level solutions. I'm from a generation that saw the Don't Litter logo everywhere, and had Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute burned into my brain. I haven't seen anti-litter messaging in ages. Maybe connect with local representatives to note that you've been seeing an upswing in littering and ask about the status of anti-litter messaging?
posted by Miko at 5:54 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I once was walking and saw a Chicago cop throw trash out his window. I was outraged and picked it up and tossed it back in his window.

I do not recommend this method in today's climate.
posted by RedEmma at 5:33 AM on September 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

My theory is there are two kinds of litterers: people who don't care what anyone thinks of their littering, and people who do have some capacity for shame so they try to do it inconspicuously and not get noticed. The former type, you can't get through to no matter what you say or do. The latter type might be somewhat affected by just looking at them and their litter with a raised eyebrow. If they notice this, it can reinforce that they're likely to be noticed and met with social disapproval if they litter, possibly causing them to be a little less likely to do it in the future. I live in NYC and am generally in favor of directly telling people know if they're doing something wrong, but in this case I think speaking up would tend to be counterproductive because you'll be talking to people who know perfectly well that they're not supposed to do it and decided to do it anywhere, and they'll mainly just talk back to you.
posted by John Cohen at 7:31 PM on September 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

The New York Times actually had an article on this very subject in the mid-90s -- specifically, about people who confront rudeness and littering and so on. I remember it because one of the people they interviewed was Allen Ginsberg.
posted by holborne at 10:23 AM on September 22, 2017

Wow! Gisberg sure had a quirky way of doing this:

"I'll take a position across the street and in a stentorian tone say 'PHAT!' -- a Tibetan word pronounced 'pay' -- or 'HUM!' That interrupts the mind. It puts out a vibe, interrupts. It breaks the chain of progression for a millisecond."

posted by latkes at 11:23 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

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