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Show D.C. Some Love: Don't Litter

So what's up with all the litterbugs in the District? And why are they the way they are -- especially the biggest offenders, young folks between the ages of 12 and 24?

The D.C. Public Works Department wants to find out and today, it's calling in focus groups of youth and adults to the Reeves Center to get at the existential questions of why do people litter and, more importantly, why is there a "growing culture of apathy toward littering" in the District.

"We're trying to understand it and develop messages that might reach that target audience that studies show are most likely to litter: young people," says DPW spokeswoman Nancee Lyons.

Last fall, DPW aired public service ads aimed at teenagers and young adults. Since then, DPW had its own answering to do to irate residents who complained at a D.C. Council oversight hearing about sloppy trash collections that resulted in missed pickups and the L Word -- litter -- being left behind on streets and alleys.

DPW hopes that the focus group discussions and a follow-up town hall meeting in May will help the agency develop a new public awareness campaign aimed at cultivating "a whole new generation of young people that feel like littering is morally wrong," said Lyons.

DPW is also looking for young people who have been fighting litter and graffiti in their neighborhoods to call (202) 671-2637 to see if their stories might be worth filming for an upcoming public education show.

The highest number of litter complaints called in to DPW come from Ward 1, followed by Wards 2, 5, and 7, officials say. Is excessive litter a problem on your block? Let us know.

By Sylvia Moreno  |  March 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  City Life  
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it isn't just the young people. i live in bloomingdale, where old dudes hang out drinking on the corner, and there are 5 street trash cans on this block (five!). yet they still pitch their empties and chip bags in peoples front yards, onto the sidewalk, and into the drains. they just don't care.

Posted by: IMGoph | March 27, 2008 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Another related issue that has bothered me for a long time: why is it alright for smokers to put out cigarette butts out on the sidewalk or otherwise throw them from moving cars? Where are all of these butts supposed to go?

Posted by: Section315 | March 27, 2008 8:34 AM | Report abuse

It's not just the youth of this city who litter. The parks along Mass Ave on the edge of Chinatown are full of beer cans, chicken bones, food wrappers, shattered liquor bottles etc, despite the multitude of trash cans.

And I, too, have never understood why smokers think it's okay to use the streets as their personal ash trays. Litter is litter, and they should be fined accordingly.

Posted by: j | March 27, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

In Singapore they have an interesting support system for people who forget how to use a trash can: they brutally beat them, in public, until they remember. Needless to say, this is not often necessary, and there are few repeat offenders.

I think young people litter as a perverse expression of status, the sense that this isn't my problem, and a kind of gratification that someone else will have to clean up my mess.

Unfortunately and against all logic and reason, this attitude does not always disappear at the age of 24. In fact, it often does not disappear before adulthood, child rearing, and the assumption of a career (in the DC government, for example).

There's no need to make adjusting the law-enforcement approach too complicated (remember the Singapore approach). In fact why not fight fire with fire - make littering the ultimate status symbol. Simply spray paint a large "L" on the perp's clothing and let them go. Makes the point in a nonviolent but appropriately humiliating way.

Posted by: Sweetback | March 27, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

More important than making attempts at reforming today's litterbugs (which is bound to fail, since, as another person said, they just don't care), is educating the next generation about the negative consequences of litter and waste in general. We need punchy educational signs posted on garbage cans and t.v. ads. My husband and I talk to our 3-year-old about it and she already understands. She picks up trash she sees that gets thrown in our yard and a nearby creek, then puts it in a trash can. The solution is not hard - teach them early.

Posted by: rooibos | March 27, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I'd suggest requiring more young people to participate in stream (or other public space) cleanups where they can see firsthand how litter accumulates and has a negative impact. Since someone does eventually clean up after the kids who litter, they are insulated from having to see its cumulative effect -- but take them somewhere where litter has accumulated (I've done a few Anacostia cleanups and one in Baltimore that involved a truly amazing amount of trash) and between the visual images they'll take back with them and the hard labor they have to put into cleaning it up, it's likely to make most teens "get it." Considering how much advertising kids are bombarded with today, I think hands-on experience will have a bigger impact than any PR campaign.

Posted by: anon567 | March 27, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Litter is definitely a huge problem where I live, in Brookland (Ward 5), not just on my block. There's tons of trash (including cigarette butts) in the street island says "Welcome to Brookland." A fine welcome that is. There is trash that blows down my block (not a heavily traveled street) from elsewhere. There are McDonalds containers sometimes and the nearest McDonalds is at least 1 1/2 miles away. We definitely need to work on this problem. One of the most successful antilitter campgains, as far as I know, was the "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign. We need something similar here but it has to go beyond PR. Who do we call to get litter picked up?

Posted by: hiya | March 27, 2008 10:25 AM | Report abuse

The trash that's on the sidewalks and roadway on my little street in N.W. is mostly put there by adults. There are folks in the neighborhood who sell drugs by night. They walk up and down the block on their way to other parts of the neighborhood and toss their soda cans, beer cans and food wrappers in neighborhood yards and tree boxes - so you walk outside in the morning and get greeted by a yard full of last night's trash.

We have folks who drive to my side street after work, park their car and have a few drinks before driving off - before leaving though they put their beer cans, cans of orange juice chasers, brown paper bags, etc. in the gutter. They may have their wife or girlfriend and kid in the car - so if she changes the baby's diaper - she puts the dirty diaper in the gutter outside the car as well - they drive off never having to worry about cleaning up their mess.

We have guys in the neighborhood who change their car batteries, mufflers, etc. on the street - and leave the old one in the tree box or on the sidewalk - we tell them not the leave their trash on our street but that only starts a fight - how can you call the police for something like that? My neighbor received a fine from the District government for an old muffler someone had left in front of his house - he went downtown and gave them holy hell - and the fine was rescinded. We get in trouble for people who leave old tires, mufflers, bedframes, etc. on our street when they could easily call the District government to get this trash picked up. Not to mention the people who abandon cars on our street!! We are ever vigillant on these matters but it's a constant cat and mouse game with folks who don't care about the environment where they live. Why do people throw down trash in their own neighborhood? I don't understand that.

My neighbor used to have a basketball hoop in his side yard - but people walking by used to use their trash to try and make a basket - the trash got so bad that he had to take it down.

Do we even need to mention the dog walkers who leave their calling cards in the tree boxes - no one on my street even owns a dog but there are people in the neighborhood who use our street as their dogs toilet - my poor neighbor had almost gone to blows with these folks over their dog waste in front of his house. So forget trying to plant flowers in the tree boxes. I mulch the tree boxes every Spring and water the three closest to me in the Summer.

About three years ago, after much lobbying the District government, we got several new street trees to fill in some empty tree boxes - the neighborhood kids promptly went about breaking limbs off the new trees and, for all intends and purposes, trying to destroy them. What's in the mentality of kids who do that? Even now as an adult, I water the three street trees nearest to my house - I did it as a child and now as an adult - I still see the value of having beautiful, healthy neighborhood trees.

I think kids see adults trashing the neighborhood so they emulate the adults - also the adults never correct the kids when they see them tossing trash on the ground - how can they when they do it themselves! The adults have abducated their responsibility towards the neighborhood kids so the kids do what they want without anyone correcting them - plus if you say anything to them - their parents are ready to kill you - or if you say something to the kid - they will curse you out like an adult!! When I was a kid - if I did anything wrong and someone told my parents - my parents would correct me - not shoot the messenger.

Posted by: summer55 | March 27, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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