Observing the trash lying by the roadside near my home in rural Virginia has gotten me thinking about garbage. The main thing I think about it is that there shouldn’t be any by the roadside. If someone is eating a cheeseburger or drinking a beer while driving (and of course they really shouldn’t be drinking beer while driving at all), is it really that difficult for them to keep the refuse in their vehicle until they stop and then transfer it to a garbage can? Of course it is not that difficult, but someone people just refuse (yuk yuk) to do it.
That brings us to the question of why some people won’t do it. The answer, I aver, is culture. Some of us were raised in a culture that values putting garbage in garbage cans. Some of us were not. A few people may change their minds in one direction of the other later in life, but by and large we stick with what we’re taught, after which the garbage sticks wherever we put it. Pointing out to people that it’s easy to not litter by the roadside won’t solve the problem. If we want to change habits, we need to convince others that littering is bad.
In many regards I have found myself growing more and more traditionalist and old-fashioned as I age. However, I think that this is one situation where I like the modern approach a lot better. In ancient and medieval times there was no garbage collection; people just dropped whatever they had no use for any old place. As a result, streets were filthy and stinky more or less all the time. The imposition of garbage collection and the changing attitudes towards trash was a big step towards modernity. That is why littering is bad and putting garbage in garbage cans is good.
Of course, the garbage collection system has produced problems of its own. Consider New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest in the world:
It covers almost four acres on Staten Island and the mounds of garbage are taller than the Statue of Liberty. (But they don’t attract as many tourists for some reason.) In 2001 it was shut down by law due to concerns about pollution, then briefly re-opened to receive the ruins of the World Trade Center, and finally closed for good in March of 2002. But it will continue to require maintainance and pose pollution risks for decades to come. The moral being, that in addition to putting trash in trash bins, we should also try to produce less of it.