Some seem not to notice garbage strewn about on grass and paths. Through the litter lens remnant trash is unmistakable and undeniable. The adolescent generation, in particular, seems not to care about littering.
I visited three schools serving my neighbourhood. If my broad, sweeping and wholly unscientific assessment of the schoolyards is any indication, the breakdown in litter awareness occurs as children enter high school.
The junior public school grounds were spotless. Similarly, our senior public school was not only cosmetically appealing, but free of litter as well, except for a scrap here and there in the parking lot.
Over at the secondary school an entirely different landscape meets the surveyor’s gaze. Ironically, on our way to deliver a donation to express the community’s thanks for the handful of students who volunteer for us, the front lawn area is a neglected mess.
Of course I picked up what I could. There were two of us, one to deliver the cheque to the door and one, as it turned out, to stay behind and observe.
A tri-sorting waste bin sat steps away.
I noticed the student perched on a ledge buried in her phone, oblivious to anything I was doing. First I picked up and bagged eight bottles and one can. These I put in the compartment for recycling. I always try to have bag or two on hand to use for litter retrieval. In this case my bag worked well to hold the many plastic cups and food related containers. Thankfully there were seven or eight unused Pizza Pizza paper napkins that served as hand wipes and which I composted at home later.
Apparently all Toronto District schools use the Green Bin now for organic composting. Maybe that’s just in theory because there was no immediate place for compostable food waste and wrappers.
I put the garbage in the section where a now-faded sign once had clearly indicated it was intended for litter. I removed two lidded plastic cups with straws and liquid still inside that were wedged in the section of the bin marked Newspaper and redirected them all the way into the litter bin.
How stupid are these kids? I ask myself, and what’s wrong with the system that’s producing them? They are the reason the litter problem has grown so much worse.
This week a study attempted to explain the litter gap in youth by attributing the growth in littering to an increasingly narcissistic generation of young people marked by inflated feelings of self-importance (often a convenient mask for low self-esteem.)
Rightist website conservativehome.com picked up on this point and linked it to littering in an excellent article by Peter Franklin:
Heresy of the week: Litter, self-esteem and why we could do with less of both
I never thought I would find myself agreeing with any opinion from the online “home of conservatism”, but on littering I do.
Author David Brooks describes a surge in self-absorbed feelings among youth today versus 50 years ago in his recent book “The Road To Character.” It’s not a far leap to suggest this has spawned a litter gap generation of 18-35 year olds in the 21st century.
“The proportion of American teenagers who believe themselves to be ‘very important’ jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as ‘I like to look at my body’ and ‘Somebody should write a biography about me’, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago…” Franklin quotes Brooks.
As studies both in the US and here in my Toronto hometown verify, recycling and the whole notion of responsible stewardship of waste has failed to catch on with these up-and-comers. It’s the older set that’s recycling. Where did we as a society go wrong? Somewhere between senior public and secondary school we failed to instill the non-littering habit as an unshakable core value. Perhaps we should begin indexing and ranking properties for litter levels as they do in nations like Australia and Ireland.
At some point we lost the compass that could lead us out of the woods. We failed to appeal to youth in a way that appealed to them, evidently. Those who try, like my friend Elijah Mensah at the non-profit Help Change Ghana, should be heeded, supported and applauded.
I just want to say, “Hey, kids: Clean is the new dirty.”