Q. Is littering illegal? It should be!

— Jory Roche, San Diego, CA

A. It is, though the specifics of its illegality vary from city to city, from county to county, and from state to state. “I don’t know of any community in the country where litter is not against the law,” says Rob Wallace, vice president of communications for the anti-litter nonprofit Keep America Beautiful. Anti-litter laws in some states — notably Iowa, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee — are particularly strict. Aimed especially at young people, the Washington State Department of Ecology’s “Litter and It Will Hurt” campaign urges Washingtonians to report litterers.

In your state, the California Highway Patrol has the power to ticket and fine litterers, and sometimes actually does--usually after they defenestrate items while driving. (That's SAT-word-speak for "throw things out the window while driving.") CHP Officer Joe Frasier says that in his 26 years of ticketing litterers, none have ever apologized for what they did or even acted embarrassed. Instead, he says they make up excuses: “When I catch them, they say, ‘It blew out the window’ or ‘It fell out of my hand.’ I say, ‘Right, I just watched your arm come out the window and throw it,’” Frasier laughs.

Anti-litter laws are notoriously hard to enforce, KAB’s Wallace says. Once something has been dropped, how do you prove who dropped it? And because litter is right before our eyes and at our fingertips, it is somehow easier to overlook than, say, greenhouse gas emissions. In all of today’s enthusiastic environmentalist rhetoric, “litter seems to be getting left out of the messages,” Wallace laments. Keep America Beautiful has done extensive research into why people litter, and found that often it’s just thoughtlessness.

“There’s a sense that someone will come along behind them and clean it up,” Wallace says, “a street-sweeper or something. And sometimes the issue is that people don’t feel a sense of ownership. They feel disenfranchised,” he says, and thus the streets and sidewalks of a neighborhood — even if they live there — don’t feel worth keeping clean or attractive: “It’s very hard for them to see the big picture, to realize that common areas are for all of us, and to wake up and see that 80 percent of the debris in the oceans started somewhere on land.”

Story by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2008