Littering really annoys me, indoors, in the streets, in parks – and particularly in woods and wilderness. My whole family often collects bagfuls of garbage on walks or visits to the lake. I can’t understand the mind of a person who drops an ice cream wrapper on a forest trail, particularly one that they walk themselves all the time. To me, its like crapping on your own couch.

But thinking dispassionately about it, I realise that most litter is an aesthetic problem and not an ecological one. It isn’t toxic. Few pieces of litter hurt wildlife in any mechanical way. Most of it quickly degrades or gets grown over or ends up in lake-bottom sediment. I think the reason I hate littering is that it produces clutter and it mars natural vistas. Both of these aesthetic ideals are typical for the Swedish middle class to which I belong. Also, there’s the fact that the litter is largely eye-catching printed packaging that I feel is particularly “wrong” in a natural setting. I wouldn’t mind as much if the litter consisted of apple cores, potsherds, bones and knapped quartz.

Aesthetics are a matter of taste. I rarely see people do the littering. But judging from the folks that I meet around my housing area, the woods and the lake, my guess is that the litterers around here are mainly working-class and/or recent immigrants. The reason that they litter with such abandon is in all likelihood that they don’t share the aesthetic ideals of the Swedish middle class. Litter doesn’t bother them. They don’t share my taste in interior decoration either. And it’s their woods too.

Swedish Parliament recently passed a new anti-littering law that allows the police to hand out fines on the spot to litterers. Excellent for me and my peeps who are more likely to pick up others’ litter than ever to drop any. But I feel a little uneasy about the law. If the working-class recent-immigrant youth who drop beer cans around my area really had a voice in Parliament, that legislation would never have been passed. Littering laws encourage everybody to become more like the middle class, to which almost every single member of parliament belongs.

So I try not to think about those litterers in terms of ignorant moronic trash.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

25 thoughts on “Littering”

  1. The reason that they litter with such abandon is in all likelihood that they don’t share the aesthetic ideals of the Swedish middle class.

    More likely they don’t feel like home, so they just don’t care. That attitude doesn’t depend on nationality. Even a middle-class Swede from ÅmÃ¥l can litter in Stockholm.


  2. Interesting perspective on class and litter.

    I had a rather contrasting experience of litter and class when i lived in Liverpool, a city which is often portrayed as having a very proud working class heritage.

    The area I lived in was to put it politely, a tip and not for nothing did Bill Bryson claim that the city was having ‘a festival of litter’ when he went there.

    The odd thing is that a generation or so ago (and still to be seen amongst older residents) was an almost obsessional need to sweep the step and pavement in front of their houses as per the ‘working class housewife stereotype of old’.

    The fact that such pride or aesthetic appreciation of their area was absent amongst (presumably) the younger people doesn’t really speak of a gulf in class but a lack of concern or care for their supposedly ‘proud’ heritage.

    I’m afraid, under those circumstances (perhaps through my screen of middle class snobbery) I really did have to conclude that it was the actions of thoughtless morons who should try and look after the place they lived in.


  3. I think it’s more a combination of disaffection and exceptionalism.
    For the former, I think it’s well established that as people feel more alienated and unhappy they’re more likely to litter and vandalise.

    For the latter, sadly, many people are flaming hypocrites. Most people who themselves litter are still opposed to litter in general. In a similar way, a village near my parents petitioned the police to install a speed trap to stop people speeding dangerously fast through the residential area. Something over 90% of the inhabitants signed the petition. The speed camera caught many people speeding, and the vast majority were residents who had signed the petition. People from other villages and towns were actually underrepresented compared to speed-neutral traffic surveys.


  4. I think you’re overthinking it. 🙂

    We forbid all kinds of things – you’re not allowed to spray-paint other people’s property (or communal property) as you please. You’re not allowed to build houses without a permit (and those can be withheld on aesthetic grounds). You’re probably not allowed keep your garbage piling up rotting in your own yard causing a stench for your neighbours (not even if you can prove it’s not a a health hazard and that you yourself like the smell).

    Yeah, maybe it ‘hits’ underprivileged people harder, but really, making them not litter isn’t exactly class warfare.


  5. I can’t understand the mind of a person who drops an ice cream wrapper on a forest trail, particularly one that they walk themselves all the time.

    It is a matter of culture. I was very astonished to find that the Japanese, who take off their shoes when entering homes in order to keep them clean and tidy and who also are very fastidious about their cars, seem not at all concerned about litter in their parks and public places. In Nara, I even saw a deer that had a piece of paper trash tangled around its neck. And in America, there are so many slobs that a number of states instituted laws requiring makers of soda and beer containers to charge a deposit price for containers of the beverages they sell in stores, as opposed to restaurants or pubs. This greatly reduced the need for cleaning crews to constantly be picking up the cans and plastic bottles that people would toss out of their car windows on the sides of roads. Those that do get thrown onto the sides of roads get picked up fairly quickly by people who want to take them to the store and redeem them for the amounts of the deposits.


  6. One thing I could not get to grips with about Sweden is how Swedes do not like the idea of big cities. I know the country is only nine million and that relatively speaking there are some large Swedish cites – Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg, but in the press, talking to people and on the TV, there seemed to be expressed irritation at fairly typical types of urban phenomena, one these being littering.

    Others would be 24 hour opening, foreigners, private mini cabs and graffiti.

    From what I remember about Swedish history when I studied it, I would say that this dislike of cities must be traced back to Sweden’s fourth estate in the early modern period and that we are within our rights to blame it on the farmers.


  7. When I was in Venezuela @ 1990, there was litter everywhere, but concentrated on roadside rest stops, scenic overlooks, and beaches. Litter, in this case, includes full garbage bags in numbers. There was an anti litter campaign started in the mid 1990’s, but I don’t know how successful it was. I had a joking idea of starting a company to gather up Venezuelan litter and sell it to homesick expatriates.

    In the late 1960’s, at the peak of the USA space effort, I happened to see both the yearly budget for NASA, and the annual cost of picking up litter on our interstate highways. The latter was slightly more than the former. We have programs now, where persons or organizations adopt a stretch of road and routinely pick up litter there.


  8. Jim, in Minnesota a few months ago I saw signs along the motorways proclaiming proudly that e.g. the Minnesota Atheists cleaned a certain stretch of road. Members of a similar organisation then told me that they had to drive for half an hour just to get to their bit of road. Most stretches of highway are of course far from where anybody lives, as contract archaeologists know all too well.

    Kai, our litterers for some reason don’t break much glass. They’re big on wrappers and aluminium cans. As for non-degradable inert plastic, I don’t see the ecological problem. It’s basically a kind of colourful rock.


  9. An excellent exercise in self-abnegation, Martin, good work! It’s funny, I wouldn’t dream of littering in the forest but routinely let discarded wrappers build up around my armchair at home.


  10. It is interesting, to my limited intellectual engine, to contemplate the desirability of litter for early man and how they might have benefited from litter.

    Given a nomadic existence and the energy invested in materials dropping unneeded materials in the open, instead of secreting them away, makes them more available to the next group of nomads to pass through. Discarded materials might represent a form of community supply for reuse, welfare, and reserve for hard times.

    Cast into a wilderness in modern times you might get a leg up on survival by finding litter. A discarded plastic water bottle makes a suitable canteen. A beer can can be used to boil water and the thin aluminum works as a crude knife and can be folded into an effective spear or arrow point. Discarded glass bottles are easier to find than mineral glass but they work well as knives or scrapers.

    Litter would also serve as marking. A tribe on the move would be made aware of other tribes through litter and it might be possible to identify or characterize the other group by studying their litter. Finding litter tells you this isn’t virgin territory and to expect some negotiation to be necessary.

    In modern times you can do much the same. Find a spot with lots of beer cans and bottles and you have found where people drink. If you find bits of rolling paper and seeds you know smoking a joint was part of their drinking. If you find spent brass from rifle or shotgun you are looking at drinking hunters. Spent shells from a pistol draws a picture of plinking and entertainment shooting. Look closely and you can tell how long this has been a popular spot, how popular it is, and when it was last visited. There are also clues as to age and sex of visitors and assumptions that can be made as to their motivations and interests.

    Litter might also serve as a marker identifying locations suitable for a camp or activity. If you are nomadic and new to an area finding a camping site with lots of litter might tell you where to camp. In a hostile environment a frequently used site might tell you where to camp away from hostile animals, pesky insects, flash floods or rockfalls. Litter might be a sign of safety and suitability. Many caves have a rich history precisely because the cave was so favorable a site.

    In modern times litter is seen as an eyesore or warning. Camping where the local rowdies party is unaesthetic and unlikely to be a quiet, contemplative experience. Add in some recreational drugs and firearms and things might get downright ugly. Unless you share a taste for those things. But given a different time, a time when the wilds were seen as more of a threat, and your fellow humans less of the threat, you might go out of your way to camp where there was quantities of litter. And who knows, you might find a bit of bone, flake of flint, or scrap of hide that will allow you to complete that project you work on in your spare time.

    In the woods, on beaches, even in town, I tend to pick up litter. Seldom do I go for a walk without returning with some trash and often stuff a sack in a pocket to make picking it up easier. Litter makes a place look unkempt and uncared for. Litter seems to encourage antisocial, lawless, slovenly behaviors. I’ve also noticed that places without litter tend to resist littering but places with litter tend to encourage it. Most people seem to avoid being the first to litter but are not restrained if they see litter. When in Rome…


  11. I once went with a couple of mates to camp at a good fishing spot in a National Park (where it was actually illegal to camp). When we got there, the place was a mess of broken bottles and other rubbish, so when my mates went off to fish for dinner, I picked up every scrap of rubbish I could find, filling in the process 4 big black plastic rubbish bags.
    The following morning, my mates were off fishing for breakfast when the Ranger came around, presumably to give us shit for camping illegally. I picked up the first two bags of rubbish and offered them to him, explaining that I’d gathered all the rubbish and could he please take it away. He declined to take the rubbish, but he didn’t threaten to prosecute us for the illegal camping either, so it just goes to show, picking up rubbish doesn’t just provide an aesthetic benefit.


  12. I once told a woman that she “dropped something” when it was clear that she was littering. A few blocks later, she drove past me in her car and threw a soda can at me. Scary maniacal litterer.


  13. Litter annoys me too, but because I view people that litter as simply anti-social; littering as a behaviour ignores the impact on people that have to clean it up (whether they are employed to do so, or do so by donating their time).

    The impact is a drain on other people’s time and money, and ultimately results in a waste and drain on society as a whole (and I’m ignoring the problem of the existence of stuff that exists to be “thrown away”).

    I don’t let this colour my views on people too much, but this is largely why I myself don’t litter: I would be forcing someone else to deal with my laziness…


  14. Isn’t this a little ironic in that your profession is dependent, at least in part, on the littering habits of past generations?


  15. I think that this is a symptom of the decline of working class pride.

    At the age of fifteen I became an apprentice in a big engineering firm in Ireland. At the time there was a very proud working-class culture, complete with myths, stories and songs that you learned along with the practical skills of the job.

    It was a place where you could get a very good political education, better I suspect than was available in many universities. I worked with older men who had been in the International Brigade in Spain, people who could tell stories of the battle of Cable street, the Kinder Scout trespass or the innumerable lockouts and strikes. Many leaders were socialist or communist and, even in 1960’s Ireland, had a withering, and well-deserved, contempt for the Catholic church.

    The surrounding culture was quite supportive. Ewan McColl, the Dubliners and even the early Beatles gave working-class culture musical form. The youth hostelling movement allowed us to travel cheaply and see other lands. Some of the tabloid papers were quite good, the Daily Mirror had a cheap and easy-to-build sailing dinghy designed so that sailing was no longer the sport of the elite.

    ‘Our’ areas were kept spotless but there was an element of class warfare in how you behaved in areas you perceived as belonging to the ‘enemy’.

    That’s not to say that the culture was perfect. There was a deep and nasty streak of racism and sectarianism. Sexism was so entrenched that it was not even recognised as existing.

    The world changed in the 1970s. Industrial expansion and greater access to conventional education meant that clever working-class youngsters could make their way into the middle-classes. That was fine for them but effectively deprived the working-class areas of talented leadership. There was a decline in the culture, workingman’s clubs sold their painstakingly assembled libraries of philosophy to make room for bars and strip clubs.

    There was also a systematic decline in the quality and quantity of traditional industrial jobs, skilled metalworkers and printers spent their last years in burger shops or on the dole. The drugs epidemic of the 1980’s made some working-class areas into a worse environment than existed in the hungry 1950’s.

    Passing laws allowing on-the-spot fines for littering is not the answer. Revitalising working class communities is a much bigger task.


  16. Great post but come on now:

    “The reason that they litter with such abandon is in all likelihood that they don’t share the aesthetic ideals of the Swedish middle class”

    Do you honestly think that if you sat down people from all over the world in front of a pristine sandy beach and asked them what they would prefer: 1: the way it was, pristine with no litter, or 2: ice cream wrappers blowing along the shore and a beer cans littered around rocks, that some people would prefer the littered beach?

    In my opinion no, of course every one would PREFER the beach unlittered no matter where you are from.
    The difference is in my opinion simply how you are brought up, in Sweden we are brain washed from an early age to respect nature and not litter in it, so it’s natural for a Swede to become appalled when we see a beautiful nature setting littered.
    Swedes also are fortunate enough to usually spend a lot of time enjoying nature growing up and even as adults have a close relationship with nature. Some people who are immigrants to Sweden might not have this, First of all they might not have had much contact with nature in the same way and also even if they did their parents or guardians might not have brought up littering as an important issue. So for them it’s not second nature to put that ice cream wrapper in the trash, even if it means carrying it all the way home, for them you simply throw it down wherever you are and you don’t think more of it.
    This doesn’t mean that they aesthetically prefer nature with litter in it.
    It’s just not important to them.


  17. “Also, there’s the fact that the litter is largely eye-catching printed packaging that I feel is particularly “wrong” in a natural setting. I wouldn’t mind as much if the litter consisted of apple cores, potsherds, bones and knapped quartz.”

    I sense a dilemma here. If you manage to get Sweden completely rid of trash, future archaeologists may assume there must have been some sort of plague that exterminated every human on the peninsula.


  18. I grew up in the 60s when there was a big propaganda movement in the US against litter. Apparently, everyone used to litter, even upper middle class families having a picnic (see Mad Men for an example on this). Of course, the sheer quantity of litter was rising – wrappers, disposable bottles and so on. One of the things that struck us when we visited Europe in the 60s was the relative lack of packaging. A loaf of bread might come with a small piece of paper, not a multi-layer set of bags, and you can imagine what the French would say about individually wrapped slices of cheese, even today.

    By the 60s, litter was a big problem. Not only was there a lot more stuff to litter with, but also people were getting around more. If you compare travel pre-war, where the few travelers were relatively well off, and post-war travel, where just about anyone could afford to see the USA in their Chevrolet, the potential for litter everywhere was serious.

    So, in the 60s, they launched an anti-litter campaign. It was seen as quixotic, as likely to succeed as getting dog owners to pick up their pet’s excrement, but it actually worked, as did the latter effort. Money, persistence and propaganda can really change attitudes and behavior. Sure, there are still litterbugs, but parks and sidewalks are a lot cleaner than they used to be.

    I live in a rural area, and the trail litter is often handled by volunteers or government employees, but the road side litter is handled by prison work gangs. In fact, the local newspaper reports on their total weekly haul and more interesting items e.g. mannequins, working television sets. Apparently, the prisoners like the outings as they can be barred from the gang if they cause trouble.

    Lady Bird Johnson, President Johnson’s wife was a big force behind the anti-littering movement and also worked to limit road side signage in scenic areas. It was one of those president’s wife pet projects, but it was part of a general change in feeling and so effective.


  19. I think part of littering is economic. It costs money to have your garbage picked up, and costs to take something to the local landfill. So I think a lot of poor people see no way to get rid of garbage other than to litter. So, for some, littering is a usual part of culture, and they may still litter should they become fiscally able to have their trash hauled away. My experience is that there is a lot more litter in poor areas, or countries, than in better off places.


  20. This is not why people drop ice cream wrappers in the woods on the way to the lake where I live. The golf club offers a big dumpster for free right nearby.


  21. I didn’t know it was suddenly classist to tell people to pick up their crap or speak articulately or not be an idiot.

    If that’s classist, well then, I don’t want to NOT be classist.

    I’m tired of seeing people hold the lower classes up like paragons of virtue when they are decidedly not (and frankly neither are the middle and higher classes but at least they manage a proper education; this socialist and communist anti-intellectualism from the further left is sickening, almost as much as what comes from the right).

    I wish there was enough money to get everyone a university education, enough food to feed all brains young and old, and no more abuse rampant in society.

    ‘Til then all I can do is tell all sides to fuck off.


  22. Littering is one of the things that really annoys me too. I try to pick some up sometimes if I am walking in the city or in my community and there’s a garbage pail nearby.


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