woodsy owlThis morning as I was walking the dog, I picked up a discarded McDonald’s bag from my neighbor’s lawn. As I carried it to the trash can, it hit me: whatever happened to litter?

Is there less of it, or are we just using the word less?1

I grew up in the 1970s, and remember Woodsy Owl’s warnings to “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” I remember my Cub Scout troop handing out plastic litter bags to hang over your car’s stick shift. I remember that crying Indian commercial.

Litter, and in particular the act of littering, was a cultural meme.

But I don’t see anything like that now. Did recycling replace it? Is there just less random trash, and thus less need to call attention to it?

I wonder if the anti-littering campaigns of the 1970s were successful enough that behavior genuinely changed, thus making litter less common. In 2011, if you saw someone throwing a plastic cup out the window of a moving vehicle, you’d think “asshole,” wouldn’t you?

But was that true in the 1950s or 60s? We could interview our parents, but asking people to report on their behavior a half-century ago feels unreliable.

Since we don’t have time machines, maybe the closest we can come is developing countries. From my limited experience in Africa and South America, I’ll say I definitely noticed more random trash blowing around, and no particular urgency in cleaning it up. Some of that has to be attributed to limited government services; if you don’t have regular trash collection, you’re going to have more garbage lying around.

But I also suspect there is a virtuous cycle that happens once you start noticing and removing litter: you’re less tolerant of it, and the people who generate it.

  1. Obviously, the third option is that neither one has declined, and it’s all my subjective experience. But a poll of my co-workers (Matt) suggests this isn’t the case.