Are You an Accidental Litterbug?

In the past, I’ve blogged about environmentalism a couple of times. Once to share some cool tips I’d found and thought of, and then a rather angry passionate post about how much I loathe litterers. It’s hard for me to explain how important this is to me. I guess, to put it simply, it’s my cause of choice. Hub-a-dub and I participate in our local chapter of Keep America Beautiful. We’ve “adopted” a half-mile spot where we go to collect litter six times a year, sorting it into trash and recycling. Our latest run was yesterday, and (of course) I was thinking the whole time, “I need to blog about this.” So here I am.

We pick the weekend day with the best weather, slather ourselves with sunscreen and/or bundle up with ear warmers, wrap the bottoms of our jeans with gators (Texas weeds are full of these vicious little sticker thingies), tuck one blue trash bag and one black trash bag in each pocket, and tromp on out. We’re provided with work gloves and two of those reacher grabby tools that patients are often given after surgery. I hold the recycling bag, Hub-a-dub holds the trash bag, and we walk the length of our road, there and back, picking up every piece of litter we can find. All in all, our spot takes about three hours and produces about two bags of trash and two bags of recycling. That’s a lot of litter for half a mile of non-highway road.

You might be surprised by what we pick up. Among the list in the short time we’ve been doing this, we’ve found a huge bucket, socks, batteries of all types, lots of candy, coat hangers, ribbon, CO2 cartridges, tires, tampons… Or maybe that doesn’t surprise you at all (which, I think, should be disturbing to all of us). Lots of the things we pick up – maybe half – were obviously intentionally littered. You’d have to do some sweet talking to make me believe that empty beer bottles, fast food containers, or aluminum cans were “accidentally” tossed out a car window.

But that’s just half, which is why I really wanted to write this post. If (by my conjecture alone) half of the litter we pick up seems intentional, that must mean that the other half seems unintentional. And, since I love all of my readers, I would like to believe that this is the only type of littering any of you would be doing: the accidental kind. So here’s a list of things to watch out for.


Lost pet and garage sale signs. Yes, these are necessary. But there are two key ways to keep your temporary signs from becoming just another sheet of paper for volunteers to pick up.

1) Attach it properly. Don’t use packing tape on a wooden telephone pole; the first storm will slide that right off. Use a staple gun on wood. And if you must use tape, tape all the way around the pole so that the tape touches itself in back, like a sticky hug. Not only will this prevent your sign from becoming litter, it will ensure that people can actually read it.

2) Go back out and collect your signs once you’re finished with them. Garage sale over? Get out and pull those suckers up. Recycling bin. Found your kitty? Yay! Now go pull down the signs. And I know it’s painful, but if it’s been a month or more and your dog still hasn’t made it back, it’s time to pull the signs down.

Loose trash in your can by the curb. Our neighbors do this, and every single Tuesday there’s litter on our street. You can’t throw small, light objects in your trash can and expect them not to blow out when the collection truck turns that thing upside down. Sometimes it’s tempting to throw small trash in the big bin for convenience, but stick it in your pocket instead and throw it in a little can later. Or if you find yourself constantly adding individual pieces to your big can, pop for some giant liner bags and tie it off before trash day comes. Your neighborhood will thank you.

Speaking of trash bags, you need one in your car. If you don’t have a designated spot for trash in your vehicle, you’re almost certainly accidentally littering. Because when you put that straw wrapper in your door, that sucker blows out the next time you get out of the car. Plastic grocery bags on the floorboard, receipts in your cup holder, wrappers in the door pockets: all of these things are lightweight and ready to travel on the wind. Buy a trash container for the inside of your car, or stick a gift bag in the console. If you use a plastic bag, be sure it’s firmly secured.

And while we’re talking about vehicles, let’s mention unsecured cargo. If you have a pickup truck, don’t put small items in the bed; put them in the cab. If there’s not room in the cab, tie them down in the bed. If you do this often, consider investing in an attached box for storage back there, or maybe even a bed lid. But it’s not only truck drivers who commit this offense. Anyone traveling with cargo outside their vehicle is at risk for accidental littering. So tie it down, strap it down, net it down; just don’t go until nothing’s going to move when you hit 70mph on the highway.

If you’re carrying trash from your car into a store, don’t set it at the very top of an overstuffed can. I know; it’s crazy tempting. You really don’t want to carry that stinky fast food bag into a nice store. But if the can outside their business is already full, everything at the top is at risk for being blown away and becoming litter. Most litter occurs within six yards of a trash can. Please don’t contribute to that. Walk inside and find a trash can. Or better yet, ask them to throw it away for you and let them know their outside receptacle is full; this will prevent others from littering, too.

Don’t put lightweight stuff in your yard. Pinwheels, fluffy decorations, fake plants… they can all become litter in the first strong wind to hit your yard. Think twice if what you’re putting out to be cute weighs less than ten pounds, and make sure you secure it if it does.

And finally, don’t throw your cigarette butts on the ground. One study I recently read found that 65% of smokers litter cigarette butts. You might think it’s strange that I’m including this in accidental litter, since this is obviously a choice, but here’s the thing: people who would never *dream* of tossing a fast food bag out the window don’t think twice about tossing out their cigs. The problem is that many smokers don’t think of cigarettes as litter. I can tell you, after hours of picking them up (number one thing we see, by far), that they most definitely are. They are ugly, dangerous to animals, and take years to decompose (they are not biodegradable; the filters have cellulose acetate in them) – not to mention the fire hazard. Please please please, if you smoke, think about where you’re going to put that butt before you light up.


So that’s my spiel for the week. My hope is that you found something here that you might not have thought of before, and that you can all help prevent accidental litter in the future. Be clean, be green, and have a great week.

Have a tip to add to my list? Share below!

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  • Richardsfive

    Littering is one of my pet peeves too. I once demanded that the tour guide showing me around a monument in Italy stop the tour and pick up the trash he’d just thrown on the ground. We were standing less than 6 feet from a trash can! And he did it right in front of the group as he was talking to us about the beauty of the place! What a jerk!

    Anyway, you should send this article to a magazine. It’s very good.

    And cigarette butts? Don’t get me started…

  • Richardsfive

    “…you should send this to a magazine”

    Okay, that didn’t come out exactly right. Publishing it here is great. But it should also be published EVERYWHERE is what I meant. 

    • No worries; I knew you meant it as a compliment. 🙂 Thank you very much!

      And good for you. I’m glad you called him out on it!

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Littering really bothers me too, Annie. It’s so annoying to see someone roll down their car window and huck out a bunch of fast food trash. Once I was traveling with family along the coast in California – beautiful sea and beaches, twisty pines, just gorgeous. We stopped at a lookout point, and discovered someone had dumped a full bag of trash right over the guard rail so it made an ugly trash trail down the cliff to the sea. It seemed (and still does) like such an ignorant thing to do!

    • Oh, that is just the worst. Ignorance is one thing, but how could anyone be so ignorant as to throw a whole bag of trash over a guard rail like that? Grr.

  • TrudieMarie

    You know what I haven’t seen so much lately?  Those Don’t Mess With Texas!” signs.  At $200 a butt, that would give us a lot of money – and help prevent fires!

    • Well, I don’t know how much good the signs do, but I bet the fines help. Problem with those is that a law enforcement officer has to *see* the offense to fine someone; hearsay doesn’t count. In Denton we have a feature where you can go online and “report” a driver for littering. If you put their license plate, etc. in correctly, they get a Don’t Litter type kit in the mail, which I think is nice. Who knows if it actually does any good, but I’d like to think it might.

  • I’m so happy you posted this! I am with you on this pet peeve. I loathe litterers as well. When we moved from Colorado to Maine I was literally HORRIFIED at how much more litter there is in the east coast. The playgrounds at school seem particularly bad — I’ve wondered if it’s because we have so many more woods here, that people think trash will just be absorbed into the landscape… whereas in Colorado the plains showed everything? I’m not sure, all I know is I am pretty indignant at how much there is. I try to be ultra careful, but I’m sure there are times when I accidentally litter…. but I hope it’s not often. My only tip I’d add is dog poop. I’m absolutely STUNNED how many dog owners think it’s okay to not pick up after their dogs. I know it’s not exactly the same, but in addition to littering, it’s a health risk. And also… balloons, confetti, and other party favors — rarely picked up and then they turn into litter. THANK YOU again for posting this, Annie!

    • Thank you, Julia! Wow, that’s something. I wonder if it also has to do with population? Of course, I don’t know what cities you’re talking about, but in my head Colorado is less crowded than the east coast, in general. It also might have to do with precedent. Studies have repeatedly shown that people are less likely to litter in clean places than in places with existing litter. So once someone starts it, it can be a slippery slope.

      And yes, yes, yes. Dog poop is a big one; very gross. That’s one thing we don’t clean up on our volunteer days, haha. And the party supplies too, we see often. The confetti is especially heartbreaking because it’s impossible for us to pick it all up — especially after it’s scattered for days or weeks. Great reminders!

  • Good work, Annie – congratulations!!! You’ve inspired me to clean up my street as part of my “Birthday Project”. There’s a vacant house that I’ve been cleaning up for a long time. I agree that the cleaner an area is, the less likely people are to litter.

    • Oh yay! That makes me feel so good! Thanks for telling me. 🙂

  • Pegab

    I really like this blog post and I feel that talking about your community efforts is a great way to give others the motivation to do something similar. If we all did just a little more than we have to, our world would be so pleasant!!

  • This is awesome. I agree. A lot.

  • Kendra

    Love reading your blog and I came across this topic. I have watched a smoker standing over a very clean ash-can and then flick their cigarette out in to the grass or walkway near by. Grr! This issue came up recently at my local community college when a student interviewed grounds keepers on how often they have to pick up cigarette butts. They factored over 1 million man hours a year spent just picking up butts. The biggest concentration of butts…around the very receptacles they are intended for. I do not think this is an accident as much as it is indifference.

    • Thank you, Kendra! That is pretty horrifying. That sounds not so much like indifference as intention, to me. It would be just as easy to flick it in the ash-can, right? Maybe there is some bitterness or something going on there. I’m grateful I’ve never seen that happen.