Litter is an insult to District residents striving to keep their city clean regardless of race or class. Neighborhood cleanups have become a social event with a purpose, engaging youths and adults for a few hours of feel-good volunteer community work.
The work, however, is never-ending along D.C. corridors where drivers and pedestrians persistently throw trash on the spot where they are standing or toss it aimlessly onto the streets as they drive by.
Fast-food containers, cigarette butts, water bottles, alcoholic beverage containers and plastic bags make up most of the litter thrown along curbs and sidewalks in every quadrant of the city. This refuse ends up in the sewers and then into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, contributing to one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, and lately, the cost of the cleanup is being levied on D.C. taxpayers.
“We are trying to figure out why people litter,” Laura Cattell Noll, program manager of the Trash Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, told The Informer.
A series of focus groups conducted by the organization to determine why people litter found that most people don’t litter at their homes. The results led to a public education campaign utilizing about 100 yard signs, banners and cleanup events to remind people of something they already value: the place they call home.
“It’s about encouraging someone to think about the fact that someone lives here” and discouraging them from littering, Noll said.
The regional initiative is sponsored by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which has been sponsoring neighborhood cleanups in the region for more than 20 years. Established in 1954, the foundation’s mission is to connect people to the natural world, sustainable agricultural practices, and the cultural heritage of their local watershed through education, stewardship and advocacy.
The Trash Free Initiative seeks to prevent litter and to help citizens to understand the negative impact of trash on the waterways. The program is operated in local communities and area schools, and resources such as a toolkit make it easier for neighborhood organizations to coordinate anti-littering efforts of their own.
In Ward 8, a widespread display of street signs placed on dozens of street corners have popped up promoting the message: “Your Litter Hits Close to Home. Take control. Take care of your trash.”
“It is our hope to change behavior and to help remove the barriers to litter prevention,” Noll said.
Littering in the District is illegal, but the law, which went into effect in 2014, is rarely enforced. City police have the authority to issue $75 notices of violation or to arrest any pedestrian observed littering.
Most states, like the District, have littering laws. According to the National Association of State Legislators, courts typically impose a fine and may order litter cleanup or community service for minor cases. Fines range from $20 in Colorado to $30,000 in Maryland.
In more serious cases, offenders may be subject to imprisonment, with sentences ranging from 10 days in Idaho to six years in Tennessee.
Laws in Maryland, Massachusetts and Louisiana also provide for suspension of a violators’ driver’s license in certain cases. Penalties in all states typically increase for subsequent convictions.
In D.C., Metropolitan Police Department regulations allow an officer who sees the driver or passenger of a vehicle toss trash of any kind onto someone else’s private property or onto any public space, such as streets, alleys, or sidewalks, to issue a $100 traffic ticket.
Some fed-up residents have taken their complaints to Litter-Bug.org, a website that allows the public to anonymously post specific details about a littering incident, including the culprit’s car make, model and license plate number.
For example, in September, someone driving a Nissan Versa with D.C. tags was reported throwing two cans and a Rice Krispies Treats wrapper out of their car window. There’s no record of a fine or arrest.
The program is working well, Noll said, because community partners are actively engaged in the initiative. In Ward 8, the Congress Heights Community Training and Development organizes cleanups and was responsible for distributing the signs.
Noll said collaboration with other jurisdictions is needed in order to rid the region of litter.