Changing Norms about Littering

In 1980 I became the Executive Director of a nonprofit nature center in Pueblo, Colorado, on the banks of the fast moving Arkansas River. I was shocked to find car bodies, refrigerators, stoves and tires on the banks at the nature center. How do you excite people about nature if it is trashed? I fondly remember Arlo Guthrie’s classic 60s song, Alice’s Restaurant. Hippies are caught by Officer Obey in the song, tossing trash out of their van. They explained it was easier to throw their trash down than to pick up all they saw on the ground. Obey was not amused. When the norms are “dump it easy,” some people follow suit based on what they see.

Social norms in some communities include the use of stream and river valleys as dumps, despite laws against the behaviors. Pueblo had a serious litter problem. We organized Clean Up The Rivers Day in 1981 and spent one day each September cleaning up the Arkansas and Fountain Rivers in Pueblo. The first few years local contractors loaned us frontend loaders and skilled operators to pull cars, trucks and refrigerators out of the rivers. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts scoured the river bottoms for bottles, cups and tab tops.

Twelve years later the event had shrunk from a major cleanup into a  litter pickup on the 20 plus miles of bike trails in the river corridors. The norms had shifted. Dumping trash in the river would quickly result in some thoughtful citizen calling the police, thanks to the convenience of cell phones and lots of people on the river trails. We organized volunteer trail rangers on bicycles to patrol and help people and respond when they see damage being done. We were quite proud of the nature center being the catalyst for a major change in the aesthetics of the river corridors that had become valued for walking, jogging, bicycling, dog walking, and trout fishing.

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Every big rainfall in Pueblo, Colorado, brought tires down from arroyos (dry creeks) to the Arkansas so clean up is never done even if norms improve. 

In our travels to 24 countries we found Rwanda to be the cleanest country of all we have visited, including the United States. It’s not an accident. Once a month every Rwandan spends a morning cleaning up in community service called umuganda and the impact shows. Rwanda also made plastic bags illegal years ago and now they are about to make plastic water bottles for individual use illegal. They have used both the laws and community activism to shift norms toward cleaning up their country. Why can’t we do that?

A dictionary definition of norm is “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” We live in Hawaiʻi. The islands have two million residents but more than nine million tourists visit the islands each year. Their beliefs about how to treat the environment come with them. Hawaiians have a tradition of mālama ʻāina (take care of the land). So Hawaiʻi residents’ norms about littering may or may not discourage a visitor from throwing a bottle out the car window or leaving fast food containers on the roadside. And some Hawaiians, like people everywhere, disregard the norm and litter.

My renewed interest in littering near our home was stimulated this week for a simple reason. I had a minor surgery that left me with stitches. I was told not to jog for two weeks to hasten healing. I rely on a daily run to meditate on the move, balance brain chemicals and shake off a few calories while toning up aerobically. If I can’t run, I thought, I could use the time to walk and pick up litter on our nearby roads, Napoopoo and Middle Keei in the Captain Cook area, much like we used to do along our hike and bike trail in Fort Collins, Colorado.  It turned out to be very rewarding for lots of reasons.

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I leave filled bags on wide shoulders of the road for retrieval later by car.

I had to walk downhill and not uphill to follow doctor’s orders so I packed my pockets with 13 gallon bags and took on a different two mile segment each morning. An hour later I would have three to six full bags (1.5 cubic feet of rubbish per bag) stowed along the road to pick up later by car and take to the dump and recycling center. Some of the good things:

• People stopped or slowed to say thank you or flash me a shaka (Hawaiian symbol for thanks or hang loose). A nurse coming home from a night shift said it would inspire her to do that also. Bicyclists going by always said thank you.

• On my daily drives up and down the local roads or my jogging trips a week from now, I will not be looking at the littered roadside.

• I took lots of photos of what I found to share with my Hospitality and Tourism students at Hawaiʻi Community College.

And I learned a few things.

• Donʻt try to climb down lava talus slopes. I fell the first morning and added about 20 abrasions to my legs and arms (don’t tell the doctor).

• Tourists contribute more of the trash than local folks. The parking area near the trailhead to Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Monument where tourists park daily was the trashiest stretch of the road. Middle Keʻei Road, used mostly by local folks, had a small amount of roadside trash compared to Napoopoo Road, the main way to get to Kealakekua Bay. Some tourists likely look at the lack of trash barrels and litter on the ground and like the hippies in the song, decide it’s just easier to throw their rubbish out the window.

• McDonalds, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and all of the cheaper beer companies provide the bulk of the trash. I didn’t find a single bottle of microbrew, despite the popularity of those brands. Budweiser and Corona share the beer brand award. Those one shot whiskey bottles were abundant making Jack Daniels the winner in that category. I was not surprised to find 3 pair of underwear, many shoes, milk jugs, ice bags, trash bags, drink cups, straws, hubcaps, candy wrappers, cardboard boxes, snack bags, a TV case, a 5 gallon soy sauce bucket, medical bottles, and a few usable bungee cords. The milk jugs I found were so decomposed that when I picked up a piece it would fall into dozens of smaller pieces Some plastics break down faster than others in the ultraviolet light from our Kona sunshine, but that just means there are more pieces to pick up, not that it goes away.

• Many of the soft drink and beer containers are HI5 items so a five cent bounty can be reclaimed for each one. But five cents is not a lot for the work involved. When I was a kid in the 50s, a Coke bottle was worth two cents. In inflation adjusted value we should have a 20 cent bounty on each bottle and can in 2018. The law has not kept up and some folks seem to need a financial incentive to keep such things cleaned up.

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This truck had the engine and wheels stolen while sitting on the roadside for more than a month before being towed.

• Abandoned vehicles are the big eyesores on the road. The state requires they be towed within three days but it almost never happens. When they sit along a road for weeks, the wheels, tires and engine disappear mysteriously. And the rusting hulk becomes a place for others to dump their trash bags. This situation is improving but not fast enough.

I have lived near and used these roads daily for three years but this was my first cleanup walk. I have adopted these five miles of road for the indefinite future. They are cleaned up now and I want locals and visitors to see it this way. In Hawaiian we say “Mālama ʻāina!” Care for the land. The decomposing plastics of the land add to the microplastics in local waters as the watershed transport all things downhill, makai (to the sea).

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 6.02.56 PMI am printing Pick Up Hawaii T-shirts in Safety Green to wear as I jog and walk each morning (I jog down hills and walk up them) carrying my litter bag. I am hoping it inspires others to give it a try in their own neighborhood.

It is illegal to litter and fines are steep, but few police patrol our roads and littering is easy as an anonymous activity. Norms protect us when they are standards we all believe and follow thoughtfully. We can change norms, but it takes time and we each have to take some responsibility. I cannot clean up the Hawaiian Islands, but I can take care of five miles near our home. I’m on it. And Lisa and I will be working on an expanded five year strategy to get others to follow suit.

Tim Merriman