Our second day in Southeastern Florida was mostly spent volunteering at Horses for the Handicapped.  We did a variety of things while there, from painting to picking up rocks to grooming horses, but mostly we cleaned up horse feces.  Horses defecate a lot.  I was happy to help, but I’ll be happy if I never have to clean up horse crap ever again.

The day was pretty uneventful until our way home.  The large van I drove down to Fort Lauderdale didn’t get the greatest gas mileage.  On the way home from volunteering we needed to gas up.  So I stopped at a gas station near our hostel to get some gas.  While I was pumping the gas a car pulled up to the pump opposite mine.  In the car were three young, black men.  The driver got out and began filling his car.  Meanwhile, the young man in the passenger seat seemed busy with something, then he threw something out the window onto the ground.

Enter one of Ryan’s major pet peeves: I HATE it when people litter!!!

I periodically see people through garbage out of their car onto the ground.  Whenever I do, my blood boils.  I’m not quite sure why I get so irate, but it really, really bothers me.  As most of the time I see people do this they are in cars and I can’t really pull them over to chew them out, I usually can’t do anything except honk or give them dirty looks (yep, I get that mad).  But this time… Well, the guy was sitting in the car 5 feet from me.  So, I put the pump on automatic and walked over to the car.  Here’s how the conversation played out to the best of my memory:

Ryan: Um, did you drop something?

Guy in car: Excuse me?

Ryan: I thought I saw something fall out the window.  Did you drop something?

Guy in car: Yes, I dropped something.  I threw it out the window.

Ryan:  Oh, you meant to drop it?

Guy in car: Yeah.

Ryan: Oh, okay.  Um, I wasn’t sure if you meant to drop it.

At this point the conversation paused while I considered whether to say what I was thinking.  Perhaps stupidly, I said it…

Ryan: You do realize there is a garbage can about 10 feet away, right?

Guy in car: Are you some sort of ecololo-ecolologist?  (that’s exactly how he said it)

Ryan: Nope.  Just a guy who doesn’t like to see people litter.

Guy in car: Why do you care?

Ryan: I just don’t understand why you’d drop something on the ground when there is a trash can 10 feet away.

Guy in car: I was done with it.

Ryan:  Oh.  Okay.

The driver of his car has now finished filling up the car and now gets in the driver’s seat and starts the car.  As he begins to pull out, the guy with whom I’m sharing this enlightening conversation decides he’s not done.

Guy in car (to the driver): Wait.  I’m going to pick this up.

He opens his door, bends down, and picks up one of the two pieces of trash he dropped on the ground.  He stands up in front of me and continues our conversation:

Guy formerly in car: There.  I picked it up.  (pointing over to more trash near the street)  But I have a question for you.  Why do you care so much about me dropping this when there is trash all over the f*cking place?

Ryan: Because it is littering.

Guy in car: But you’re not going to pick it up, are you?

Ryan: I volunteer picking up trash. (It’s true; part of what we did at Horses and the Handicapped is pick up trash.)

Guy in car: But you’re not going to volunteer to pick up trash right here, are you?

Ryan: I think you’re missing the point…

Guy in car: You’re not, are you?

It’s at this point he draws right up to my face until he’s about 6 inches from me, kind of like this:

This is pretty close to the real deal, except I doubt I was smirking and we were about the same height. This must have been how it looked to the students in the van (props to Quinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin).

He was actually about my height.  I think he thought he was going to be taller than me, so he could intimidate me, but he wasn’t any thicker than I am or any taller, so his attempt at intimidation didn’t work.  But he sure tried:

Guy formerly in car: Are you my f*cking mother?  (feints at me)


Guy formerly in car: Why don’t you mind your own business?!?  (feints again)

Ryan: (probably just staring dumbly at the fact that this guy is getting in my face because I called him on littering)

Guy formerly in car: Why don’t you mind your own business?!?  Why don’t you mind your own business?!?  (feints each time he says this)

Perhaps he thought I would back down or that I would throw a punch, I don’t know.  But when I just stood there and stared at him he eventually gave up his feints at me, turned, walked to the trash can, threw his trash in it, walked back to his car, got in, and drove away.  All the while I just stared.

After he left, I walked back to the van, removed the gas nozzle, and closed everything up.  I then opened the door and looked in to see all the students staring at me in a strange combination of awe and bewilderment.  One of the guys said, “I thought we were going to get in a brawl.  I was about ready to jump out and back you up.”

I laughed and said, “All that over a piece of trash.”

One of the students then said, “Remind me never to litter around you.”

Right.  So, that’s the story.  But I have to admit I’m really, really intrigued by this whole event.  As noted above, littering is one of my pet peeves.  But as a sociologist, I can’t help but wonder why people do it.  Almost every single person I’ve ever seen throw trash on the ground has been young, of a lower socioeconomic status, and black. Here’s where I’m intrigued.  Clearly there is a cultural difference between myself and the individuals who throw trash on the ground.  But I’m not sure which characteristics leads to this behavior.  I’m guessing it’s not a youth thing as I have been anal about littering since I was a kid and there are lots of kids who don’t litter.  I’m guessing this isn’t a racial cultural difference as I don’t ever see higher socioeconomic status blacks litter and I’ve been in predominantly black, middle-class neighborhoods (in Cincinnati) that were basically trash free.  Why it has been mostly blacks I’ve seen this, I don’t know, but it could be due to where I live (in cities where the poorest group tends to black) and the fact that blacks are more likely to be poor.  My best guess is that this is a lower socioeconomic status thing as I’ve seen poor white people litter.  I’ve also been in poorer, predominantly white neighborhoods that have a lot of trash on the street.  So, I’m going to venture a guess here and say that this must be a lower socioeconomic status cultural difference.

This leads me to my question, which I’m really hoping some of my sociology colleagues who read this post will be able to address:  First, am I right that this is a class difference?  Second, what is it about this socioeconomic group that leads them to litter?  I thought the response of the Guy in the car was somewhat telling – “he was done with it.”  Is that the mindset of people who litter?  They give no consideration to: (1) the environment, or (2) to the people who will have to pick up their trash.  Their only thought is: “I’m done with this and don’t want to have it around me anymore, so I’ll just throw it on the ground.”

I happened to catch a science news article a couple days ago after this incident that I thought might help explain it.  Apparently young offenders who think they are likely to die young are more likely to engage in criminal activities, which runs counter to common wisdom.  Perhaps there is a similar disregard for social order among those who litter?  Anyway, I don’t have an answer to this question, but am interested in any thoughts you have.  I’d really like to understand the litterer’s mindset.

Oh, and any thoughts on why the Guy in the car got in my face over this?  I have my suspicions, but I’m open to ideas on this as well.

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4 Replies to “PEACE Alternative Break – day 2”

  1. Loved this story also!!! I am so glad to hear you stand for something so very important. Littering is also something that I think we should be very aware of. Remember when we used to clean the highway for YW and YM?? I could not believe the trash people would throw from their cars. Most of the trash seemed to be beer bottles and tobacco products. So, I thought that most litter was thrown by those who use those products. Any thoughts on that??? Sounds like a good project to find out why people litter. Perhaps if everyone had to clean the highways- they would think twice about it– or maybe there will always be those who don’t care no matter what. I am also impressed with your courage. I would never confront someone like that- cudos to you for the courage that took and it sounded very diplomatic also. Loved it!!

  2. Good point about the beer bottles and tobacco. Certainly there is a preponderance of cigarette butts, which really bugs me. I don’t know why that is. It’s certainly not the case that all those who smoke and drink throw their stuff on the ground, but a certain segment of that population does. Odd…

    I’m still wondering if it was courage or stupidity. Some say there isn’t much of a difference! 😉

  3. As you know, I don’t do deviance or crime. But from my Intro prep, I’d guess that littering has a lot to do with social context and cues. Zimbardo ran an experiment where he left an abandoned bar in a nice neighborhood near Stanford, and a poor neighborhood the Bronx. The car was untouched in the former, and immediately stripped in the latter. In the next step of the experiment, he messed up the car near Stanford. After that, it was tagged with graffiti and vandalized. While the broader social context was the same (nice neighborhood), the immediate social cue indicated that it was ok to mess up this car since it was already messed up.

    When you live in the poorest part of Over The Rhine, for example, there are no social cues encouraging you not to litter because litter is everywhere. I would also guess that it’s a question of equity: society doesn’t care about me because I’m living in this crappy neighborhood, so why should I do the right thing?

    Props for standing up to dumb littering guy. I’ve done that thing many times and only got beaten up once. 😉 I’m enjoying the volunteering stories, it’s great that you did that!

    We should catch up, I’ll be in touch soon. Things are well here, and on the work front, I have resolved my teaching/research issues for the moment. Take care!

  4. Good thoughts, Dave. I think the social cues are definitely important. I’m also intrigued by the idea of societal equity leading people to behave in deviant ways. I wonder what’s been done on that from a criminology standpoint. Maybe I should track down Mike W. and see what he thinks.

    I look forward to an update. It’s been a while…

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