Litterbug is not a bug or is it?

Photo by Lisa Fotios on

In a 2006 Indian film, an underworld don turned Radio Jockey tries to resolve callers’ problem with lessons learnt from Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhism/Gandhigiri). One such scene involves a caller fuming over an issue with his neighbor. His neighbor happens to be a compulsive spitter.

I wonder if his compulsiveness to spit on the caller’s door has anything to do with what he chews. In India, many people who are like this spitter chew on a psychoactive preparation called ‘paan’. Some swallow and some spit. The latter seems more prevalent. Munnabhai, the don-cum-RJ in the movie offers help. He advises his caller to greet the spitter with a smile each time he catches him spit and clean up the mess he has made. For days at end the spitter continues his thoughtless act. Frustrated, the caller calls Munnabhai again and is suggested to continue to do the same. Finally, as is shown in the movie, the spitter feels ashamed to spew out the staining cocktail and instead apologizes to the caller. The caller rejoices and so do the listeners. So will you if you watch the clip I just described, if you haven’t already.

Why should anything be clean?

Are people more inclined to litter a place that is already dirtied than to do the same at a cleaner place? May be. The most important question is why should places be kept clean? Places that aren’t clean not only breed diseases, but also lose its aesthetic value (which unfortunately many in India don’t consider). As children we are taught of hygiene but when we grow up why do we fail to apply it beyond ourselves or ours houses? The answer may lie in the absence of direct effects of such activities. It’s not like how we recoil from fire in order to protect ourselves from a burn. An example of indirect effect would be Leptospirosis, a disease. Rats are attracted to leftovers that people discard in public places. If any of these rats bears a disease, its infected urine can contaminate any water body it comes in contact with. If you happen to have an open wound on your body, let’s say your feet, and if you put your feet in such a water body, you can acquire a lethal disease called Leptospirosis. This is just one example.

Aesthetics and human psychology:

It is human nature to be attracted to beautiful things. It is also human nature to be repelled by things that look ugly. While the perception of beauty is subjective, there are many examples where we share the same view on things that are beautiful or ugly. A litter-free place can contribute to emotional well-being of people. If I ask you to choose between two apartments to live: one clean and the other with stained and chipped walls, which one would you prefer? I bet we have an unanimous answer. We would all choose the clean place to live. This being a constricted question, a much broader question would be one that applies to public spaces. We would all like to spend our time in a garden that is clean and green, won’t we?

In the general field of Environmental Psychology an increasing number of studies propose that subjects’ general well-being can be significantly increased as a result of contact with environments considered to have high aesthetic value. – Psychology in Spain, 2000, Vol. 4. No 1, 13-27 Colegio Oficial de Psicólogos

In 1988, Taylor and Gousie found that the architectural settings of a school can “facilitate the transmission of cultural values, stimulate or subdue, aid in creativity or slow mental perception, and cause fear or joy” – University of Georgia

German researchers found that just glancing at shades of green can boost creativity and motivation. – New York Times

When there are such undeniable benefits from clean and beautiful things, why not inculcate them into our lives?

Sanitation – a privilege in India:

In India, while sanitation and hygiene is a privilege for many, many also neglect it. The repercussions of which cost lives and the economy.

A recent study by the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank estimates that inadequate sanitation costs India the equivalent of 6.4% of its GDP.  –India Sanitation Portal

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has always been on the forefront when it comes to creating awareness. Many attempts have been made to keep India clean and green. The new Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has called for a cleanliness drive for Indian Railways. The purpose of this drive is to create awareness among the travelers to keep railway areas clean.

Plastic litter:

There’s so much plastic litter out there that if you set out to collect it from all over the world and sell it, recycle it, convert it fuel, you might end up on Forbes’ list of richest people in the world. There is so much of it that a new kind of rock is being naturally formed out of this plastic waste. There has been so much of it for so long time that bacteria have started to live on it. This is a serious problem for every part of the world and vertebrates mistakenly eating it – the fishes especially. Humans eat fish, right? The joke is on us.

Recently, Illinois became the first state to ban microbeads – small plastic bits found in cosmetic products such as facewashes.

Plastic litter has many environmental consequences, it not only harms us but also other living creatures that come in contact with it. It looks as if plastic litter is the only litter we make. It is not the case. Plastic or not, litter causes problems.

According to the most authoritative study, it constitutes only 0.6 percent of visible litter across the United States. So, even banning all plastic bags would have little impact on overall litter. – Fox & Hounds Daily

We can deal with this. It starts with me and you.

‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ – Mahatma Gandhi

14 thoughts on “Litterbug is not a bug or is it?

  1. Thanks Anuja, excellent post on litter. In Coimbatore, we use a ground (about 2 acres) for our walking, group stretching exercise, and shuttle cock. So, we keep it clean and remove all trash others throw periodically. The most difficult part that the people who drink on weekend use the same place, throw away everything like food wastes, packages, cups and plastic bags. We can remove all of them easily. But it is difficult to clean up the broken pieces of liquor or beer bottles that the drunkards leave on the ground. This happens every weekend. It is a serious problem in our area. I don’t know how to stop it. Bala.


    1. Hi Bala. I can understand your frustration. In my experience, Municipal Corporations and Pollution Control Boards are attentive and are ready to help you. If I were you, I would first contact Coimbatore City Municipal Corporation for this problem if the ground you are talking about is a public property.

      A very good article on littering (link below) mentions how CCTV cameras can help for catching the offenders.
      “I have a simple solution to all this. First, you catch the offenders using CCTV cameras. Then, instead of a fine, the punishment is to pick up the trash and clean up the place. And this exercise should be taped and displayed prominently, in the form of photographs or video, so that future offenders are deterred. It is amazing how the shame and embarrassment of being seen like this works as a deterrent. That is why the punishment for many petty crimes in the U.S. is so many hours of community service, including removing trash thrown on the highway.”

      A higher authority would be Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

      You can read the The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management & Handling) Rules, 2000 here:

      I hope this helps. Please let me know what happens.


  2. Anuja, I finally had time to read this post in detail. I very much like the thoughts you present in it. The spitting video is funny, and teaches a good point: one does not want to pollute a clean place. It seems to me that some people litter, because they feel that they are “better” or “higher up in society” and that there are people paid from their taxes to clean up.

    David Gieske, for the for humankind necessary “shift our ethos” goal, in addition to your FB community, you may also want to set up a community at Google+ and/or contribute to a newly formed one with a related mission: .


    1. That’s a good point you’ve mentioned there, Dirk – ‘there are people paid from their taxes to clean up.’. That’s why railway officials who’ve been cleaning the railway areas and the trains in India recently, have requested commuters to understand how difficult the job is.


  3. Dear Anuja: I have been all over the United States. It is my experience that most of the litter I see strewn about is plastic. I do not believe the quote from Fox & Hounds Daily, unless they are going by weight (plastic is very light weight). But by piece, or volume, litter is mostly plastic here. Many communities in the USA have passed plastic bag laws (fees or bans) and are noticeably cleaner than areas that have not. I believe that it is our “disposable lifestyle” that contributes to litter here in the USA. I am sorry we are exporting that way of thinking to other countries. I hope other countries do not make the same mistakes we have made.

    I am impressed by your research on how our environment affects us. I have always noticed that Americans who travel to Europe marvel at the beauty found in so many buildings, surroundings, etc. It is interesting to see it actually quantified.

    When I was young, I remember reading all the warnings in the newspapers about how PCBs and dioxins bioaccumulate. Scientists warned that these chemicals would eventually end up in humans. They were right.

    Keep up the great work – you are indeed “being the change”!


    1. Hi, noemidlpNoemi. Your point on “disposable lifestyle” hits home. I should have written about ‘Planned Obsolescence’. The other day I discussed with a friend about how America sometimes rubs off on people. Many believe that America has a lot of capability to be the seed of change. Jamie Oliver in his talk says something similar : He is from the UK and thinks that if America does something about the way we consume food, other countries will follow suit.

      Regarding pollutants in plastic, yes, it has been a while since scientists have been warning about its ill-effects. We are so dependent on it that we trade our lives for it – consciously or unconsciously. What we can do instead is reduce our plastic usage if we can’t stop using it completely. We can also recycle it and embrace other eco-friendly materials. The change may be gradual but we can always start with these baby-steps.

      Thank you.


  4. I like what you’ve put together here. Public awareness of the debilitating effects of plastic on the environment, is lacking horribly. Because environmental concerns by nature, (no pun intended) involved cleaning up society’s neglect for the natural world, there is very little, if anything, of value (other than are our well-being obviously) that we can attach to these concerns. Because it is not something that facilitates profiteering, and selling something, it is given very little attention by the media and therefore by society. The masses, have absolutely no idea the magnitude of this issue.

    I myself have a website and blog on environmental issues. I am currently looking to publish my latest blog which ironically is on plastic pollution. The problem with plastic pollution is that it’s a problem that because of civil engineering, most people don’t understand. When there are large scale public / social events, so much litter ends up on the ground, a large percentage of which ends up in our sewer systems, waterways, rivers, and ultimately back in the oceans.

    Then problem with plastic is the fact that it does not biodegrade but rather undergoes photo degradation into smaller and smaller polymers. But it never actually goes away. Instead it returns to its elemental form and creates a slimy, gelatinous, plastic soup made up of micro particulates in the oceans. I like that you alluded to the fact that we eat fish and the joke is on us.

    Recent studies conducted at the University of California Santa Monica have now been able to prove what we previously thought was unthinkable. That the dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls otherwise known as PCBs, are in fact transferred from one species to the next and ultimately end up becoming in bedded in the blood and tissues of the each species in the food chain. Sadly, with every fish we eat from the ocean there is a small percentage of the very plastic we throw away ending up back in our system.



    1. I’m glad you liked the post, Mr Gieske. I agree with all that you’ve said. Speaking of social gatherings/events, in 2013, The Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting had its theme as Green Chemistry. Michael Braungart, Hamburg, founder and scientific director, EPEA was a part of that meeting. He pointed out that chemical polymers were not eco-friendly; yet the conference bags distributed to students were made of plastic!

      Subscribed to your blog. :) I’ll be looking forward to your posts and will read existing ones whenever I can.


  5. I think penalties.. huge ammounts ..

    What I hate worst are the lot those who come abroad for holiday or something and follow every rule in the book..and the moment they land back in delhi this litter throwing starts..

    It seems they just dont care…

    The so called posh people or higher officials. .

    I have a simple rule I see anyone throw litter ..I give them a ticket with my autograph and worth 50 pounds..

    That makes sure either they stop littering or spend generously for the council… easy peasy..


      1. Well that is hrre dont charge the ones on back seat as they are drivers responsibility. .
        The driver gets charged..especially if minors. .

        Adults are responsible if they want to die.. well then good luck to them..

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a question I often ponder – why do people throw litter on the ground even when there are bins nearby? I wonder if it starts with habits like smoking, and perhaps these spitters you describe. I watch smokers throwing their cigarette ends on the ground, or out of car windows, and I wonder – if that becomes a habit, perhaps people forget what they are doing and just throw everything on the ground.


    1. You may be right, Steve. Such repetitive behaviors can be called habits. Some people might not be aware of the effects of the habit or may even forget about it. Some, unfortunately, just don’t care. Not to say that such people lack the capacity to care. May be they just need to be made aware of it. As I mentioned, the effects of litter or not as direct as a burn caused by fire.


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