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VOL. 43 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 3, 2019

New anti-litter campaign tosses aside punishment

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Capital punishment is perhaps too harsh a penalty for litterbugs – emphasis on “perhaps.”

They are the human equivalent of the stray dog that leaves its calling card in your front yard. Only worse, since dogs aren’t supposed to know any better.

And so it was with appreciation that I read of a “litter summit” scheduled for May 4 from 10 a.m. to noon at the police precinct on Myatt Drive in Madison. Panelists are to be on hand from the Metro Police, Metro Codes, Metro Public Works and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

“The speakers will be ready to answer any questions you may have on how to combat litter in your community,” the announcement reads.

Is it OK to flog litterbugs? That’s one question that comes to my mind. What about a return to the shaming of a public pillory?

“We expect people will want to talk about their individual issues and how they can resolve them, like what department or resource can step in,” says Kelly Tipler, director of the Metro Beautification and Environment Commission.

“People like to know statistics on litter and especially on illegal dumping, so we will be presenting those, as well.”

Among the stats she provided for me:

• Nashville had 607 litter cleanup events in 2018.

• Neighborhood cleanups removed 61.5 tons of litter from Nashville streets and alleys during the first three months of 2019.

Readers of a certain age might remember the “Tennessee Trash” public service announcements in the 1970s featuring video of an unsavory lout tooling along in his decrepit Corvair convertible, gleefully heaving debris right and left along the highway.

“Ain’t no lower class than Tennessee trash,” sang Ed Bruce, the songwriter who contributed the soundtrack.

The campaign was a hit, so I gather, in that it created a memorable image for people. But instead of seeing the driver as a boorish miscreant, some folks may have adopted him as a role model.

Surprised? Not me.

A young litterbug experiences a taste of karma in this ad from the “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” campaign.

-- Commercial Screengrab

The updated version of the campaign, Nobody Trashes Tennessee, features messages from public figures like the radio personality Bobby Bones (Litter’s Bad. No Bones About It.) and the singer/songwriter Valerie June (Litterbugs Got No Soul.).

And instead of a lout, the new TV spot features an attractive young woman who casually tosses a plastic cup and straw out her car window, only to be rewarded later by a trash truck crashing through her bedroom wall and dumping its load there.

“It’s time to keep your trash to yourself,” is the message.

“We are getting a lot of positive feedback, and coupled with other outreach, are getting more people signing up for litter cleanups and Adopt-a-Street,” Tipler says.

All these approaches are well and good. But I’m not sure how well gentle persuasion works with litterbugs, who seem unmoved by concern for their fellow human beings.

Similarly, I have mixed feelings about the organized community cleanups. I get the point: Be the change you want to see in the world. And, as Tipler noted, “People tend to litter where they see litter, so getting it removed as quickly as possible is important.”

But the efforts seem to send an unhelpful message to offenders: Don’t worry. We’ll pick up after you.

Tipler also pointed me to litter prevention tips from the Keep America Beautiful campaign, with which state and local efforts are affiliated. Those tips include not being a litterbug. And encouraging other people not to litter.

The first is easy enough. Good luck with that second one.

You can also report littering when you see it happen. Nashville (615-862-8418) and the state (1-877-8-LITTER) have hotline numbers to rat the finks out.

But if you’re hoping for a stern response, you’re out of luck.

“Our office will send people that have been reported a letter encouraging them not to litter and a reusable car litterbag,” Tipler says.

So, what to do?

I’d love to see the city launch a crackdown on the folks doing the damage, rather than just depending on good people to clean up in their wake. State law provides a starting fine of $50 for littering, which can escalate to $3,000 and jail time for egregious and repeat offenders.

I’m an absolutist on the topic: Flick even one cigarette butt aside, and you get a ticket. No warnings. No excuses.

You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.

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