Soapbox Monday: What to do about urban litter?

(Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

Today, as a continuation of our monthly conversation, Lauren E. Leonard, editor of and I have been discussing litter.

Here’s how it went:

LAUREN: I grew up in a place where you just didn't litter. When I came to Philly for college, the thing that most made an impression on me was how dirty it was. Before I could recognize the city's vast cultural institutions, amazing public spaces, and historical significance, I had to wrap my brain around the litter.

Regretfully, to this day, we have a litter problem. It's even expressed in the less than appealing moniker "Philthadelphia."

SANDY: I still like to believe that most people don't litter. I'd like to think most of our litter is inadvertent, coming from public trash cans where the plastic liner blew inside out and all the contents spilled onto the sidewalk.

I wonder if Philadelphia's BigBelly trash cans, which are enclosed, have made a difference in the areas where they've been put.

One thing that really distresses me is the proliferation of things that people evidently don't think of as litter - the flicked cigarette butts, the spit-out gum, the dog poop (well, maybe that's another issue).

LAUREN: The BigBellys have gotten mixed reviews. They certainly contain the trash better than an open can, but jam easily (as soon as someone shoves a bag of residential trash in there) and the handles you have to touch to dispose of trash can be pretty scurvy.

The city could use more containers, but no one wants one in front of their home because of the potential for dumping, etc.

I just had the cigarette butt conversation the other day! They've become an accepted part of our urban landscape. Smokers have told me that they don't agree with littering, but don't see any other viable options.

Cig butts can't be put in trash cans for fear they could spark a fire and most businesses don't offer proper receptacles because they create a mess for employees to clean up.

As a dog owner, the dog poo conversation irks me. We've become the scapegoats of urban litter! The way I see is that you have two types of dog owners: the responsible ones and the irresponsible ones.

The responsible ones wouldn't dream of leaving a land mine on the sidewalk (we also use compostable bags and refuse our pups the opportunity to pee on a potted plant, obey leash laws, etc.) The irresponsible ones will let their dog go anywhere, anytime without a care for who might be impacted.

I think you find these two distinctions on either side of nearly every urban issue.

SANDY: Sorry, Lauren! Didn't mean to disparage you and your dog! I do see plenty of people picking up after their pets. It wasn't always this way, and I'm certainly glad to see it.

I, too, have heard that people deposit big bags of trash by the Big Belly bins. Ugh.

You know what I'm thinking now? Too much litter is a component of too much trash, which is a component of too much stuff. So we don't value it enough. I was in poor, rural parts of Africa in the '70s, and I don't recall any litter. They used everything six times over.

LAUREN: Sam (my dog) and I weren't offended. We share your frustrations with non-responsible dog owners...

I read something recently that said instead of focusing on supply we should focus on demand which seems to pertain to your comment on stuff. Maybe when we talk about litter we should be talking about consumption...

SANDY: Ha! I was worried I had strayed off topic with my last comment and was tempted to ask to withdraw it. But now I see: What if demand for, say, bottled water slowed.

It's possible the plethora of plastic water bottles in our gutters, in our waterways and along our highways would lessen, right? If I no longer used any plastic bags, I wouldn't have to worry about any of "my" plastic bags blowing out of the recycling or trash truck and becoming litter. Hmmmm….

LAUREN: Sandy, I think we're onto something! Our simple equation seems to be Less Demand = Less Litter. Instead of focusing on reuse and recycling (post-consumption), we're focusing on reduction (pre-consumption). We don't have to worry about properly disposing of waste that was never created.

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