Litter, Vandalism & Ethics

English: Littering in Stockholm

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I went for my run on Monday, I ran across the usually bounty of litter that people dump in the park, streets and sidewalks. I actually run litter loops in the park each day, picking up trash. On Monday someone had slung the remains of a big takeout order from a restaurant into the park-the large bag, plenty of plates, cups and so on. I also got my usual collection of discarded water bottles and other assorted debris. I also ran across some impressive vandalism.

When the park was “renovated” a few years back, they added sign posts labeling the various trails. These posts are landscaping timbers that were sunk into pre-dug holes and had spikes driven into them to make it harder for folks to pull them out. But, some local vandal-hulk was up to the task and ripped out one of the signs, bending the spikes. I spotted the hole before stepping into it (a person could easily get a foot stuck and break something) and then found the timber that had been tossed into the woods. I replaced it as best I could and then checked the others for vandalism.

Since I’m teaching ethics and had plenty of time on my run to think about this, I wondered about whether or not littering and vandalism are evil. On the face of it, I would say that they would seem to involve, at the least, a lack of virtue.

In the case of littering, there would seem to be two main contenders for the controlling vice. The first would be laziness: littering because one is too lazy to carry the trash away. This, obviously, would not account for people who throw trash from their cars, but could explain those who simply leave empty water and sport’s drink bottles littered about. The second would be a lack of respect for the environment and other people. Of course, a person might also casually litter due to lack of thought-some people treat their own living areas as trash pits, so they would no doubt see public places the same way. I would probably not consider being this way an evil thing, but is clearly a defect of character and it could be considered a vice.

Vandalism is more clearly immoral. After all, a person is damaging or destroying property with a malicious intent. Even if a person is “just playing” or “having fun”, the person is still causing damage or harm when s/he has no right to do so. There is also the obvious matter of the consequences of the vandalism. Someone will have to expend resources to repair or undo the damage. For example, I had to spend my time this morning putting that timber back in place so people would know where the trails led and, more importantly, so that someone did not get injured by stepping into the hole.

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  1. Thought-provoking post. I’ve thought a lot about litter as well. It really bugs me, because I consider it a sign of disrespect. The person littering doesn’t respect the rights of others (thinking “somebody else will pick that up”) and doesn’t respect themselves to keep the area they’re in a nice space.

    I have children and of course when they’re small, they drop all manner of things and it’s a constant job to remind them to pick up whatever it is they put down or dropped into its place, whether that’s onto a shelf, into a clothes hamper or in the bin. I think many people who litter haven’t been taught to even think about these things. This doesn’t excuse them, but perhaps explains how they could be so careless.

    I also wonder if the people who litter or vandalise property are in a way trying to leave their mark on the world. “I am here. You cannot ignore me”. While they may not be aware of wanting to exhibit that specifically, they know full well that they are altering something that authority or someone else has put into place and ruining it, whether or not they understand the statement they’re making.

    It’s also becoming harder and harder to dispose of your litter in public spaces, as so many bins have been removed for reasons attributed to public safety (as in the Tubes) or because of cuts to sanitation services.

    Years ago I worked at a media company and every afternoon the ladies loo became appalling, with paper towels that had missed the bin just left where they fell, loo roll on the floor of the stalls. I complained to a colleague, wondering which of our lovely coworkers could be the kind of people who toss their rubbish on the ground and can’t even be bothered to pick it up. She said she’d read a study that showed that in neglected spaces people who would normal look after their environment (throwing away rubbish, etc) were more likely to litter or damage the space. The space itself and how well it’s looked after influences whether people continue to look after it. I’ve never read the study itself but it’s certainly food for thought.

  2. An admirable task you are undertaking for which it appears you get not thanks and as such must have some moral motivation.

    The situation as far as it is described did cause consideration of ethical issues not referred to though.

    Having returned the signpost to its proper location making the area safe, did you later report the problem to the parks authorities so a permanent repair could be made?

    Would the actions taken in replacing the signpost create any sort of legal responsibility for yourself regarding hte ongoing safety of persons around that re-erected signpost, if so, would the legal responsibility be a proper reflection of a good deed, or a reflection fo something else?

    If the damaged sign was not reported, was that done to assure further involvement in the problems apparently inherent in the park were minimized to a level acceptable to the circumstances at the time and fully under the control of the individual, and what are the ethical issues surrounding that?

  3. Well, one of the things I don’t like about Toronto — and it’s a long list — is that it looks and feels like an American city: sprawled, noisy, cloying atmosphere and ugly dirty. The problem is not ethical. It’s political.

    Some jurisdictions breed nasty, brutish and damaging citizens. Some jurisdictions, though, have perfected the skill-set of rearing quiet, clean and caring citizens. Who? the Japanese, Swiss, Scandinavians. The Brits, I suspect, are losing civility. Still, it pretty hard to top the Americans when it comes to ugly and cruel. Top prize, though, has to go to Mexico; but for other reasons than citizens’ surliness.

  4. Ian,

    I don’t think I’d be under any legal liability for putting the post back in place-if I were arrested I would make the case that I was protecting the public from a potential danger (a hard to see hole in the ground).

  5. Jennifer,

    I do agree that some folks probably litter for the same reason children do-they just do not even think about it. As you said, kids just discard and drop things without much thought (or malice).

    Interesting point about leaving a mark. I see graffiti when I run and it seems reasonable to see that as often being an attempt to (literally) make a mark. In the case of simple damage, perhaps that is for the less artistic folks. 🙂

    Like you, I have noticed that there are ever fewer trash receptacles in public areas. In the park near my house, they used to have trash cans (55 gallon drums with giant trash bags) all through the park. Now there are three trash cans and two recycling “cans” in the whole park. One side of the park (the park is divided by a pond and streams) has no trash cans at all and the trails do not have any. It makes sense that people might just drop their trash when the nearest can is a quarter mile or more away.

    College bathrooms have the same problem-someone will probably miss the can with a paper towel and ignore it, then people just do the same thing. I end up picking this paper up whenever I see it. I also pick up trash on campus while walking between classes. I do get some odd looks when I’ve got my hands full of junk.

  6. It seems to be conventional wisdom among those of us who maintain hiking trails here in New England that litter begets litter. This bandwagon or piling on process must fit under one of the fallacies you have written about elsewhere . “If someone else littered, then it must be okay”

  7. One excuse for littering I’ve heard many times in Europe (especially Spain) was that it keeps street cleaners employed. It’s amazing that a moment’s thought wouldn’t extend to thinking about what else these people could be helping out with using the public dollar.

    In Paris I remember an ad campaign 6yrs ago to stop people throwing garbage in the street (the dog poo is but a single symptom of a wider problem) but I have heard it hasn’t had much success. As one of my neighbours at the time said “when you have an army of mostly poorly paid immigrant workers cleaning up the streets every night there’s little incentive for [Parisians] to keep themselves clean”.

  8. I have wondered about this problem myself and your post made me look into the research on the topic. It seems that for the most part people don´t seem to think they do anything particularly wrong. Common answers are ‘It keeps someone in a job’,‘There aren’t enough bins’, ‘This place is already filthy’ and then the most selfish reason ‘It’s not my problem’. Some of these reasons are just bad excuses I think for being lazy, and it is funny how the same people that throw trash in the streets probably complain about their parents, school, job, politicians and what have you. They do have morals- they just lack them a bit on their own behalf. Or am I being to harsh? Would be nice to hear from one of the readers who DO throw trash in the streets- I am sure they don`t see themselves as evil- in case there aren`t any, I guess the solution to the problem is more philosophy 🙂

  9. I suspect that, as well as the other reasons given here, there is probably an element of social status and appearance. Holding onto one’s litter (let alone picking up other people’s) doesn’t seem cool.

  10. Aha! Has the conversation taken an economic turn? A signal difference between European and American cities is that Europeans will pay to keep their cities ‘looking’ clean and Americans will not.

    There is another approach. Make the manufacturers of consumer packaging pay to have their product containers and wrappers recycled. But, of course, the manufacturers will only pass on the cost to the consumer. And wouldn’t that be just another economic drag?

    Don’t be a silly twit. It is NOT OK to let garbage accumulated in the future sub-soil. Make the added cost to the consumer refundable. In one fell swoop, children and impoverished elders will happily become street cleaners.

    But do Americans have the socio-political imagination for that sort of thing? It’s hard to imagine. Man is a rational animal unless he is living…

  11. @Boreas: I think the “signal difference” may reflect more on whether cities are tourist destinations rather than the continent they sit on.

    “Make the added cost to the consumer refundable.”

    I would like to see that work for cigarette butts. They’re a scourge on the streets everywhere.

  12. “I don’t think I’d be under any legal liability for putting the post back in place-if I were arrested I would make the case that I was protecting the public from a potential danger (a hard to see hole in the ground).”


    The point regarded an ongoing liability. If the base of the sign (a concrete one?) were not properly stable and a walker broke their ankle by stepping on part of it, and then took out litigation against the parks, would any liability cascade to the person re-seating the sign. Certainly they would naturally feel a moral responsibility as their actions had created a situation causing damage to another, albeit one they did not perceive at the time of their deed. (Many authorities place warning signs (in appropriate languages) around potential hazards to avoid public dangers (however minor) of this type, an option not available to the passer by doing a good deed.)

    Consider another park user, having twisted their ankle upon an unsound sign base moves the sign out of the way so the same danger is not present for others. Which park user has done the greater good…

  13. Many years ago, in Switzerland ,I was amazed to see someone employed to clean cigarettes from the dirt under a mountain gondola and another cleaning the lightbulbs in street lights. I didn’t feel justified in adding to the litter.

  14. @Duncan: A couple of Swiss datapoints.

    1.On my second visit to Switzerland, a man was so moved by me cleaning up after my dog that he embraced me on the street.
    2. My uncle lived in Zurich for about a decade and said that if you didn’t keep your lawn mowed to the right height or otherwise infringe on the rigid aesthetic order then your neighbours would report you to the police. I asked a couple of Swiss friends about this, and they said that this neighbourhood spying was one of the reasons they no longer live there.

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