A rubbish post: the global curse of litter

Lake and litterWe looked on in shock as the young couple finished their lunch, stuffed a carrier bag full of crisp wrappers, cans and polythene and casually threw it through the open window of the train. Seeing our poorly disguised expressions they shrugged and said “Look, this is India. Everyone does the same here.”

The problem is not India’s alone. In so places around the world the beautiful landscapes, blissfully untouched in so many other ways are blighted by waste tipping on a disgusting level. On our recent travels in Central America we lost count of the number of roadsides we passed that were littered with every type of waste. In some places the rubbish was piled so high and spread so wide that it hid the view beyond. People we spoke to locally were embarrassed by the stain that this thoughtless tipping creates on their land, yet could not rouse any optimism that the problem would disappear anytime soon. “It’s a question of education” is something that we often hear by way of resigned explanation.

Dunna Chuck Bruck

Litter sign in Shetland

What is it that allows people to feel so comfortable in the habitual littering of their own neighbourhoods? Perhaps there are no municipal collection facilities? True in certain places but by no means an excuse for most people as litter is often dumped next to designated bins (here in the UK as well). Is it really a lack of education? I only buy that argument partially as in many areas people see the consequences of piles of rubbish (thousands of rats and an unbearable stink) yet continue to dump at will.

I wonder if in some cases there is a lack of belief that their efforts in social hygiene will amount to anything; a reluctance to contribute to a society that has not helped them perhaps. I don’t know the answer and am sure many people have more informed perspectives on this problem. I speak only as a passing tourist who is appalled by this unsightly curse.

Yet there is hope. While out hiking in Mexico and El Salvador our guides on both occasions made a point of picking up litter that they found on the trails, and in both cases expressed their anger at the damage that this thoughtless littering would have on their own livelihoods working in tourism. In parts of Central America we saw sophisticated recycling programmes that seemed better thought out than our own schemes in the UK. Maybe it is back to education again?

As for the couple on the train, perhaps we made a difference after all. A couple of hours later after finishing another snack they gathered their rubbish up again, but this time the man wrapped it up in a plastic bag and put it back in his rucksack. We have no idea where that rubbish ended up, but if we made one person uncomfortable about throwing it from a train window then I’m happy to claim a small success.


If you enjoyed this post I would recommend Barbara’s ‘A new way of thinking about trash’ post at Hole in the Donut, which looks at different attitudes to litter from Nepal, Mexico and Vietnam.


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Freelance travel writer

15 Responses to “A rubbish post: the global curse of litter”

  1. There is a civic movement Lets Do It World (originated from Estonia) that will try to engage millions of people to clean up the planet during the World Cleanup 2010. This has been tried out in several countries – in Estonia in 2008 more than 50 000 people cleaned up over 10 000 tons of illegal garbage during just one day. Here’s an overview of the project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3JW3_ysO2w&feature=player_embedded#at=357
    And their website: http://www.letsdoitworld.org/

    February 28, 2011 at 11:26 am
  2. Funny – I was just going to write about this as it’s one of the biggest cultural divides yet I find as I travel. Some cultures have the ‘litter is bad’ chip and some don’t. I was in Saida Lebanon yesterday and there is a huge mountain of trash by the ocean where they used to dump their city trash. It is now all eroded and all of that trash is going out to sea. It was a very hard site to see.
    Thanks for the great article…one baby step at a time…it all counts.

    February 28, 2011 at 11:42 am
  3. I hate seeing rubbish too and could never in a million years bring myself to drop some in the street but and interesting point was made in the book ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. He mentioned that if everyone stopped dropping rubbish in India, hundreds of people would be out of their jobs. it is part of their culture and provides jobs for a lot of people.
    I’ve just returned from a diving trip in Indonesia and was horrified by the amount of rubbish in the sea. It was awful to see fish swimming around with plastic bags and whole islands of rubbish.

    February 28, 2011 at 11:55 am
  4. Ah, this reminds me of a personal experience I had in my home country, the Philippines, while backpacking in the northern mountain ranges. I was inside a 6-hour bus ride through the bumpy road from Sagada to Baguio, sitting on the window side of the bus. Next to me was an old man and his grandson. They were snacking, and upon finishing, they gathered all their waste and put it in a plastic bag, and went over me and tossed it outside the open window. I was surprised that a local would do that.

    Later on, I thought that they perhaps would not even think of doing that to their backyard, but since the road is a public place, it’s okay. I think what is lacking is this sense of collective responsibility, that roads are still “ours” and not “theirs”. I think this lack of collective responsibility is correlated not only with lack of education, but also the failure of the government to maintain and take care of public hygiene. Granted, I’m just speculating here, but it seems to be true looking at the places I’ve been to.

    February 28, 2011 at 12:16 pm
  5. Some of our study abroad students in Florence, Italy are doing their part to help keep a beautiful city clean and “giving back” in the process. They’re also building connections within the city as a result of their hard work! Read about it at http://www.ceastudyabroadblog.com/2011/02/cea-students-clean-san-lorenzo-square.html

    February 28, 2011 at 7:35 pm
  6. The psychology behind why some people drop litter is complex. I wish I could understand it. I worked for many years in the construction industry and litter, graffiti and untidiness was a problem. I used to think that nobody was like that at home, but having visited many employees in their homes, I found that some had homes that weren’t clean and tidy, some even had rubbish in their gardens. It was difficult to get the can recycling bins used. If they were too close to the tables in the canteen they would simply dump food waste in them. If they were too far away then they simply didn’t bother using them at all.
    Apparently, one of the major US car manufacturers had the same problem. They then let it be known that the energy required to make aluminium from cans is a fraction of that required when using bauxite. That cheaper aluminium meant cheaper engines, which meant more sales and thus more job security for the car plants. Once this message was broadcast the bins were filled with cans, not other polluting rubbish.
    The jobs argument has been voiced frequently and is often used to defend the indefensible. For example, the fact that the arms industry provides employment for thousands of people, doesn’t make that industry ethical. We now cringe watching politicians try to excuse their decision to sell arms to Libya. If only the research, engineering and production capability of industries like the arms industry was directed at sustainable energy etc.
    You can say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

    February 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm
  7. The worst I had ever experienced was in Indonesia. The locals just throw their trash in random areas whereas in other parts of SEA I had visited, the locals made piles of trash which were easier to clean up.

    February 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm
  8. The amount of waste in Asia is appalling. There would be fields where hundreds of plastic bags would be swirling in the wind. Part of the problem there is an obsession with the plastic bag in first place. I would buy a small battery and they would want to put it into a bag even if I said no bag please. I sometimes had to say no bag two or three times until they got the point.

    March 1, 2011 at 3:48 am
  9. Thanks for the many comments and good insights (and John, don’t worry you’re not the only one. I hope some day others will join you….). Great to see the initiatives that have taken place where people have gathered together to clean up parks/public spaces. And I agree that the mentality of “our place” rather than “their place” must play a part. Look at how the people of Cairo took to the streets to tidy up after the protests in the square. Suddenly they felt it was their city again.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:10 am
  10. It absolutely infuriates me when I see somebody just cast their litter aside, I have seen people do it stood a foot from the bin! The UK is one of the worst places, the problem is people do not have enough respect for the place or are just too plain lazy! Does not seem to matter how hard the councils try to clean up, there is just a load of rubbish and broken glass all over the streets and local parks.

    Going to amazing places like Everest basecamp or a lovely Corsican village and finding heaps of rubbish in a huge pile is quite distressing.

    I have been to a number of quite pristine places too, but the villages of Val Gardena, Italy in particular sticks in my head. They are obviously extremely proud of their villages, and can be seen out on a Monday morning the whole town just cleaning up their homes, shop fronts and the streets. Just go to show what a little pride can do.

    Thanks for sharing.

    April 10, 2011 at 11:16 pm
  11. Thanks Iain. You’re quite right, the UK is as bad as anywhere and it’s particularly annoying when you see people drop litter when there is a bin in throwing distance. What can you do with these people?
    It’s in the remote places where it creates the most disturbing eyesore – you mentioned Corsica and Everest Base Camp, while even in the Lake District you’ll find crisp packets and plastic bags being blown around the fell tops.
    Laziness, respect, education or just a lack of pride and sense of ownership… don’t know how we’ll solve the problem but it needs to be tackled.

    April 11, 2011 at 8:46 am
  12. Well Andy, they say great minds think alike. I’ve been working up a post on this very subject for months and finally thought I had enough of a handle on it to write it today. I just published it and flipped over to Twitter and, lo and behold, I see this post of yours. I think we’re pretty much on the same page about this issue, but you may be interested in something that happened to me that made me look at the problem from a different perspective: http://www.holeinthedonut.com/2011/04/11/trash-mentality-around-world/

    April 11, 2011 at 10:12 am
  13. Anyone see the episode of MadMen where the family have a picnic on the grass and then drive off leaving the paper and detritus from their idyll blowing around in the breeze?

    I remember reading that in India the chai wallas used to sell tea in pottery cups and when the travellers finished with their drink they threw the cups out of the windows. The cups smashed and over the years the tracks became covered with russet coloured dust.

    Maybe I noticed it. Or maybe the dust blended into the background and it never registered with me.

    I think throwaway plastic is a crime in itself. What a squandering of resources to get the oil out of the ground at huge cost, and then turn it into plastic and throw it away.

    Yes, education. But for what it is worth, I think that fairer societies are the basis of a caring society, and all the education in the world won’t necessarily change the attitude of someone who doesn’t identify with the society in which he or she lives.

    April 11, 2011 at 10:42 am
  14. I have posted pictures in my blog of Singapore and of the Gulf states, and have received quite a few comments on how clean the streets are. If they can do it, why can’t anyone else?

    June 12, 2011 at 9:32 am
  15. b #

    Thank you for this post. I did link to this in an article I wrote about Mexico. Maybe, just maybe, if traveling people make a point of helping to keep that country they are visiting clean it will help. We visited Sapa, Vietnam this winter. Trekking in a big industry for the local area. I just hope that all those people are carrying litter out and teaching or learning from their host families. It is a beautiful country.


    March 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm