Why do people litter?

I’m a hiker with a sensitive eye towards litter.

A glittery foil gum-wrapper or beer can on a trail catches my eye faster than the things I should be enjoying. For many years, a hiking friend (now deceased) and I took litter bags with us as we walked the Ohio bike and park trails. Litter was far from our purpose at first, but soon became our major activity.

Together we gathered countless bags of litter, but were no match for the accumulations along creeks and road embankments. All we could do is say, “Don’t look over there!”

I miss my friend on these outings, and we found some amazing things over the years, many unmentionable; plus lots of Styrofoam, the bane of the litter-picker-upper.

So what should be done about litter?

In Ohio all jurisdictions seem to depend on the state law on littering (ORC 3767.32). It’s very detailed, but although “this section may be enforced by any sheriff, … police officer, … park and forest officer …” it’s seldom enforced. Signs warn of high fines for littering, but I tried unsuccessfully to find any such fines imposed. Understandably, local jurisdictions just have too much else to do.

It’s a third-degree misdemeanor, but “the court may, in addition to or in lieu of the penalty provided, require violators to remove litter from any public or private property” (Ohio Revised Code 3767.99). This is both good and bad news. It usually means leniency for the violator, but it also means we may get some litter picked up.

Is real enforcement even practical? To me it’s as serious as many minor moving vehicle violations for which drivers are routinely stopped. Simple tickets could be issued to violators and then, at supervised collection times, they could do what many walker/hikers do every weekend: pick up litter.

I reached out to local county and municipal authorities about this matter. Some county inmates reportedly do clean up specific county-property locations. Most responses were negative, but I didn’t hear back from two Montgomery County programs that might possibly have litter patrols.

For decades, children have been exposed to anti-littering TV shows, and most parents tell them where to proudly discard their candy wrapper. But the problem doesn’t seem to be diminishing as generations grow up. Of course, society has moved in a direction where there’s so many more objects created to be disposable rather than reused — and that means more things end up being littered. Portable food, plastic water bottles, soft drink containers and plastic bags are ubiquitous.

So, is it a systemic cultural problem, or a few slobs, or maybe just lots of good people who have small lapses? I’m not sure, but I do know we owe thanks to all those organized volunteer river, highway, trails, and bikeway cleanup crews; those adopting a stretch; the Scouts and many individuals in need of a formal noun.

I just wish their help wasn’t necessary, but it is — because our hiking trails and bikepaths aren’t disposable.

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One of our new regular community contributors, David Shumway is a retired engineer who spent much of his career at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He and his wife live in Beavercreek.

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