Watoga Trail Report

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Interview with a litterbug

On a recent crisp, clear morning, I started up the park entrance road from Seebert, and my initial good mood suddenly became somber. I was greeted by one of those familiar blue and silver beer cans lying along the margins of the road, an item we refer to as litter when it is discarded improperly. I stopped and picked it up, but there were a half-dozen more such stops until I eventually parked my vehicle at the Bear Pen trailhead.

Ah, the work of a prodigious litterbug is, unfortunately, never done. We call those who seem to take some perverted pride in the act of marring anything that others deem beautiful, litterbugs. And that very word “litterbug” is a bit of a misnomer – the word litter as a verb, is indeed what they do, but to compare them to an insect shows little respect for the insect. I have yet to see a grasshopper toss a tiny beer can onto the ground.

These vandals are human, at least they hold some dubious standing among their fellow homo-sapiens. But unlike the majority of us, they demonstrate their apathy in a way that affects us all. At worst they rob us of a beautiful moment, at the very least it is an annoyance. Someone, at some point in time, must pick it up and dispose of it properly – such as in one of the numerous trash containers found throughout Watoga State Park.

It is not simply an act of carelessness; Littering is nearly always intentional. I am not even sure it could be accurately called a thoughtless act as it requires a process involving conscious intent coupled with a physical act. Be it a beer can or a bag full of trash from a fast food meal, the items must be thrown from the window of a vehicle.

I am not comparing littering in scope and gravity to, say, slashing a Rembrandt in the Louvre or dynamiting the 1,500-year-old giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban. But, littering says something about the person who commits this act as well as the culture that turns out so many litterbugs. Littering, in effect, has consequences even beyond the obvious ones. 

Littering costs us, the public, $11.5 billion a year. Littering spells death for more than a million birds and 100,000 marine animals, including sea turtles, every year. With the staggering costs to wildlife and the public coffers in mind, I had to ask myself, “Why would someone driving through a drop-dead gorgeous park, such as Watoga, and throw a beer can out the window?”

When I visited my childhood home up in Mudwallow, Ohio, my friend Delbert Lee Dinkle and I visited the site of the actual mud wallow that put the town on the map. Like many areas of our country, the ground and stream were liberally littered with cans, bottles, snuff containers, used diapers and other items generally related to the entrance and exits of the various human orifices.

I asked my friend Delbert Lee why he thinks people litter. His reply was an unexpected one – he simply said: “Why don’t you just ask one?” And, in true Delbert fashion, he said he could hook me up, but warned me that I would not likely get permission to use this individuals name in the Watoga Trail Report. The litterbug would be known as Sam.

I agreed to the terms, and we were soon driving down a private lane that was bordered with every broken toy, car part, TV set, bedspring imaginable – there was even one of those old-fashioned hairdryers found in a beauty shop from the 1960s. I cannot say for sure that this is the standard home scene of the average litterbug, but it did make sense.

When Sam opened the door to greet us, as if on cue, a beer can rolled out and onto the porch. He then extended one foot out just far enough to launch the can across the porch where it plopped onto the ground – talk about ironic!  His first words were “Sorry bout that,” and then he invited us in.

Delbert had called Sam on our way over and asked if I could interview him about littering, and he quickly consented. In fact, he seemed like an altogether nice guy.

I started off our interview by asking Sam if he was a litterer. He replied “Suppose so.”

Following an awkward pause, I asked the big question: “Why do you litter?”

He answered that he never really gave it much thought, and, after a second or two, added that he liked to keep the inside of his truck clean as if grasping for a reasonable excuse. Glancing around his house I thought that his truck appeared to be the only thing that rated such consideration. 

When asked if he thought littering was wrong, he said “Wrong in what way?”

I told him that it was unsightly and that, although he discarded the litter, someone else had to pick it up. He replied “They get paid to pick it up,” at which I advised him that the majority of litter is picked up by volunteers. His taciturn response – “Oh.”

My final questions directed to Sam were about the other members of his family – do they also litter? And this is where the real insight into why people litter made itself known to me.

Sam told me that his father and mother, as well as most other family members, habitually discarded trash out car windows, on sidewalks and even locations where they picnicked, swam and fished. In other words, he grew up thinking that littering is completely normal, and furthermore, he saw nothing wrong with it.

To Sam, it probably wouldn’t matter if the entire surface of the Earth was carpeted with trash. He was denied the concept of beauty and aesthetic by his upbringing and those around him.

Sam, and others like him, are likely just products of their family culture and that of the greater culture of the area in which they live.

The final irony of my interview with a litterbug appeared when Delbert and I were walking back to our car. I noticed a bumper sticker on Sam’s pickup proclaiming “I Love My Country.”

That may be true Sam, but you sure have a strange way of showing it.

I leave it up to the reader as to how this problem can be addressed.

Happy Hiking,
Ken Springer

Note: This narrative is based upon a real interview conducted by the author with a roughneck (oil worker) in the early 1990s. The afternoon spent with Sam was pleasant, and he was very cordial. He was not the monster that I imagined.

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