News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

April 21, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Littered with irony: Why do people callously discard their trash, and who are they?

TERRE HAUTE — Though they aren’t acknowledged by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are basically two demographic groups of people …

•Those who would dump their old toilet on the banks of the Wabash River or a rural roadside.

• And those who wouldn’t.

Folks in the latter category should resist the temptation to feel sanctimonious, though. The john-dumpers merely represent the extreme of mankind’s ecological indifference. Anyone willing to toss a plastic sports-drink bottle out their car window harbors the potential to work their way down to pushing a busted commode off the bed of a pickup truck along a secluded country road or stream. Consider a beverage container as gateway litter for a future toilet-pitcher.

Both pieces of refuse, and many others, big and small, can be found illegally discarded in Vigo County.

Each April 22, Earth Day arrives at the ideal moment to assess the local litter problem. Trees and plants aren’t yet in full bloom and can’t hide the trash. Likewise, snow no longer covers empty vodka and soft-drink bottles, fast-food bags and straws, smokeless tobacco containers, beer cans, cigarette packs, cracked car parts, thin plastic grocery store bags, and pseudoephedrine packets picked clean by meth-makers. Spring reveals it all.

A hiker or motorist viewing such a sight may ask, “Who does this?”

A Virginia Tech researcher helped answer that question in a report last year. It included a profile of litterers. Most are male, and in the 18- to 24-year-old bracket, but that age group is hardly dominant. The percentage of litterers in double-digits included those 11-17, 18-24, 25-29, 30-34 and, get this, 45-54. The least likely? People 55 and older.

The study also cited surveys conducted by several states and organizations, including a poll of Texas third-graders. Of those kids, 32 percent saw their parents pitch trash from the car window, 49 percent watched someone else in their car do the same, and 26 percent admitted to littering from the vehicle themselves. They obviously paid attention to their elders.

People usually litter alone, though, while driving. Smaller percentages litter while enjoying the outdoors, unable to find a trash can. In a Keep America Beautiful survey, cited in Virginia Tech’s research, 86 percent of people said legal penalties would keep them from littering, but only 4.5 percent said such current laws were effectively enforced.

Forty-five percent of guys and 20 percent of women confessed to littering. A majority of respondents figured prison labor would most likely clean up litter.

Litter is littered with irony. People use a toilet to properly dispose of waste, and then heave the john into a ravine. They choose a sports drink with healthy electrolytes, and then hurl its plastic container into the roadside grass where it will take 450 years to decompose. Eighty-six percent would avoid littering if fines or jail time hung over their heads, yet more than half expect an inmate to pick up their rubbish.

Thank goodness, inmates at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex camp help tackle that big job here, as do city and county crews, and various civic, church and college organizations.

Thank goodness, the prisoners volunteer to help.

Two years ago, the city organized a program in which Terre Haute Code Enforcement employees work with groups of five to six federal inmates to rid tree rows, alleys and roadsides of trash and litter. One or two times a week, from March through December, they gather and bag discarded items on public property inside the city limits all day. On Thursday, for example, the prisoners cleaned along Fruitridge Avenue and the downtown district.

“These are people who are trying to acclimate” to the outside world, said Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, impressed with their efforts.

Similarly, teams of state Department of Correction inmates are removing trash beside highways, assisting the Department of Transportation’s annual Trash Bash throughout April. Their most common finds are pop bottles, drive-through food bags and stray paper, said Cher Elliott of INDOT’s Vincennes district. The inmates’ work complements that by numerous groups volunteering for the state Adopt-a-Highway program. On a local level, Vigo County Highway Department began an Adopt-a-Road program in 2008.

Undoubtedly, the concept of prisoners collecting trash is good. Violating laws harms a society, and sprucing up a roadway is a small, yet significant step in repaying the debt. Still, it’s worth remembering that nearly all of those federal inmates call some other place their hometown. Those of us who consider this community our home should treat it as such and find more effective ways to reduce the willingness to litter.

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