Litter bugs some people more than others

‘Don’t be a litterbug!’ ‘Every litter bit hurts.’ Those oldtime TV public service messages actually worked. Look around today. Maybe it’s time to bring them back.

SHARE Litter bugs some people more than others
The rising sun reveals the previous day’s castoffs along Montrose Beach.

The rising sun reveals the previous day’s castoffs along Montrose Beach.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

With apologies for being the grouchy old guy on his lawn, we really need some sort of revival of the anti-littering campaigns of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The other old people know what I’m talking about. 

When we were young, we were bombarded with TV commercials warning us, “Don’t be a litterbug!” Also that “Every litter bit hurts.” These were public service messages sandwiched between the cartoons and reruns.

Here’s what gets overlooked: The ads actually worked. 

An entire generation that hadn’t necessarily benefited from seeing good littering behavior modeled by their parents learned it wasn’t cool to throw trash out of their car windows or to leave it behind in the park after the picnic.

Peer pressure and public shaming usually are looked at as being negative. But this is an arena in which it absolutely was beneficial. 

Teenage girls let boys know that guys who littered were less attractive, and kids sometimes had to take the lead in teaching their parents that a world of new disposable packaging didn’t mean they could just chuck it anywhere.

As those kids became parents, they taught their kids the same lessons, and that became the accepted standard.

Somewhere along the way, though, that went out the window — followed by a fast-food wrapper.

Litter is out of control. Visit most any city park on a regular basis, and you know what I mean.

Nearly every morning, I walk along Montrose Beach, often just as the Chicago Park District workers driving the beach-grooming tractors begin their task of cleaning up the previous day’s mess. 

Chicago Park District tractor drivers can’t be expected to collect all of the litter people leave behind.

Chicago Park District tractor drivers can’t be expected to collect all of the litter people leave behind.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Anything you can imagine that someone might bring to the beach gets left behind: glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles, pop cans, plastic cups, lids, straws, bags, food wrappers, clothing, towels, diapers, bedsheets and toys. That’s some of the stuff I’ve seen in just the past few days.

While some of it probably was just forgotten as a family hurried home at night, much of it has been intentionally discarded by people who think it’s somebody else’s job to clean up after them.

It’s true the beach groomers will get most of it. But there’s always 10% to 20% they can’t reach, much of which ends up in the water and pollutes the lake or blows into the Montrose Point bird sanctuary.

For several years, I’ve been part of a group that, during the summer, picks up trash in the protected nature area as long as it doesn’t disturb the piping plovers. I’m always stunned by all the refuse we find in what’s supposed to be a refuge.

The emphasis these days is on removing microplastics — tiny bits of plastic that can cause great environmental harm when ingested by birds and fish. The pieces are so small that I never would have bothered with them previously because of all the other trash we find.

I really believe this is mostly an educational matter. Chicago has a lot of people who have never been taught to regard this as their responsibility.

That’s why I want to brainwash their kids the same way the Ad Council and the Keep America Beautiful campaign did me when I was that age. The two organizations were so excited about the idea that neither responded to my inquiries.

Someone will probably point out those anti-littering public service ads from my youth were really part of a disingenuous effort by the packaging industry to deflect attention from all of the garbage they were generating.

But that’s no excuse for failing to recognize the need for personal responsibility.

A gallon jug discarded on Montrose Beach.

A gallon jug discarded on Montrose Beach.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Still, if you prefer to direct your anger to corporations, be my guest. Some of the brands I found strewn in the park one morning this past week included: Budweiser, Crown Royal, Dixie, Dunkin, Frito Lay, Gatorade, Ice Mountain, Jimmy John’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Modelo, Smart Water (it doesn’t seem to be working), Solo, Starbucks and White Claw. 

Earlier this summer, Mayor Lori Lightfoot chimed in on the litter problem.

I haven’t heard her say anything about that since then, which is probably wise. She has enough other things to scold people about.

Is this the biggest problem facing Chicago? No, that would be gun violence. And I don’t have a solution for that. When I do, I’ll be sure to get back to you.

But I have seen, in my own lifetime, people learn to take responsibility for cleaning up their own trash.

With a little help from the professional brainwashers, we could do it again.

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