Perhaps you’ve seen this: a guy driving his pickup down the freeway at a high rate of speed with trash flying up out of the bed of the truck and falling all over the asphalt and the grassy right-of-way.
Or maybe you’ve been behind a car where someone tossed out a bag of fast food garbage or flung a cigarette to the ground. You might also have seen the circumstantial evidence – an unofficial dumpsite collecting tires, bottles, mattresses, old furniture, or who-knows-what else along the side of the road, or trash floating down a stream, or cans, cartons and other signs of human habitation along a trail.
Litter is an environmental issue. And while other issues seem to garner much more press these days, littering remains the kind of problem that can impact everything from water quality, to scenic beauty, to quality of life, to general sanitation. Some think it’s not as much of a problem as it once was.
“I only see one major problem with littering – and that’s while people are trying to do something good,” said web designer Jimsey Bailey of Magic City Moments. “The situation is that the wind blows the trash from the recycle bins all over the neighborhood. I think people either need to put their recyclables in a plastic bag (I know, not P.C.), or the recycle bins should be taller and have lids on them.
“Other than that, I think people are much more aware of the need to not litter than they have ever been. People are very quick to point a disapproving finger, or say something outright to a litter bug, which is great. I also think the city does an excellent job with trash, brush, and recyclable pickups.”
That rosy view has some support, including from one of the most outspoken advocates against litter, Pat Mitchell, the creator and personification of Auntie Litter. She’s preparing to move out of the Birmingham area next month and to pass the local Auntie Litter baton on to a successor. So after 23 years as Auntie Litter, Mitchell has a unique perspective on efforts to clean up our area.
“I think they don’t see it as much as they used to because government is paying more to have it removed,” Mitchell said. “It’s not the eyesore that it used to be. But it’s still there.”
For some, it’s more “there” than it is for others. “I think we have a terrible litter problem,” said Russ Willcutt, a senior editor at Cahaba Media Group. “I travel to cities like Seattle and Portland, and they actually care about their surroundings there. I get so tired of watching people flick cigarette butts out of their car windows around here, you know?
“What drives me craziest, though, are all the guys in pickups who throw their trash in the bed of the truck and it somehow magically disappears while they’re driving down the interstate!”
And there is anecdotal evidence that sometimes, even people you’d expect to be aware that litter is both illegal and not-environmentally friendly somehow miss the point. Sam Brasseale, chief technology officer of freshfully.com, related something he witnessed recently.
“Walking into our store from a side street, I see a guy standing near his car smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a tie-dye shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. He took his last drag, and flicked the butt into the sewer. This pissed me off, obviously, not only polluting our street, but God knows where that butt will end up in our water table, or some exiting water system.
“As he got into his car, I noticed a sticker on his back window. It said ‘Save the Cahaba.’ I just stood there in awe at the stupidity of what I witnessed.”
That experience may illustrate an important point to some people: litter may seem to be a small issue, in comparison to, say, saving a river from pollution or fighting against toxins in the air that we breathe. Even those guys littering from their pickups seem to believe, Auntie Litter said, that the trash they strew across the landscape is someone else’s problem.
“People just think someone is going to take care of it,” Mitchell said. And seeing litter-polluted areas tends to inspire others to bad behavior. “Litter creates more litter, because people think it’s socially acceptable to put it there,” she said.
It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that no one cares. In fact, the generally cleaner surroundings cited by Mitchell, Bailey, and others, can be attributed partly to the efforts of local and state agencies, and scores of volunteers determined to pick up litter and fight its proliferation.
For example, there is an organization called PALS – People Against a Littered State – aimed at assisting cities, counties, schools and communities “by providing programs that address litter prevention, cleanup and litter control.” The Montgomery-based organization is a public-private coalition including the Alabama Department of Transportation, Alfa Insurance, Honda Manufacturing, and Vulcan Materials.
In 2012, according to the PALS newsletter, there was a lot of litter around the state, and there were a lot of people working to clean it up. “Your efforts,” PALS Executive Vice President Spencer Ryan wrote, “led to a year in which over 340 tons of litter were reported during the 2012 Spring Cleanup, over 5,000 volunteers picked up a record 207,557 pounds of litter during the Alabama Coastal Cleanup, over 100 new Adopt-a-Miles were adopted, and the Alabama Clean Campus Program recorded the largest number of school on-site programs ever.”
Times have changed, according to PALS Chairman Jeff Helms. “Twenty-five years ago, however, many Alabamians were taking these gifts for granted. In Jackson County, where I grew up, it was not uncommon to see household trash, broken appliances and soiled furniture dumped along the winding mountain roads. Some of my neighbors thought nothing of tossing rubbish into the Tennessee River or out the windows of their cars. There were few, if any, organized litter prevention programs.”
Today, however, there are groups like PALS making continual plans to combat litter. Currently, PALS is planning a statewide “Don’t Drop It on Alabama” Spring Cleanup for April 20-27 and the annual Alabama Coastal Cleanup for September 21.
There are also other campaigns aimed at enlisting public support for combating litter. Litter-Bug.org, for instance, allows irritated citizens to report littering in a given area with a vengeance. The online postings remain there with as much detail as an offended witness can supply. For instance, on December 1, 2012, someone reported that while driving along Interstate 65 in Birmingham, a person in the backseat on the passenger side of a “White jeep in front of me (tag: t4g78) is throwing trash out their window … onto my car while driving. Not just one piece, but several pieces of trash.”
On March 11, 2012, someone in the 500 block of 79th Street South was reported as follows: “Household members are dumping their household trash directly on street curb, across from their house. They are not using a garbage can. Trash is blowing throughout neighborhood.”
The goal of Litter-Bug.org is that “Neighbors, communities, and law enforcement can use Litter-Bug.org data to help prevent and deter future littering and possibly catch perpetrators of illegal dumping activity.”
The city of Birmingham also fights litter – with more success in some areas than others. Brenda Dent-Russell of Keep Birmingham Beautiful responded to Weld’s request for information about those efforts, but that response was not released by the City Public Information Office in time for publication.
For Auntie Litter, the solution to the problem has always been about teaching. “I’ve always believed that education is the most successful route to take with stopping litter and other environmental problems,” she said. No wonder then, that after retiring as a school teacher in Atlanta, Auntie Litter made her debut in Birmingham on Earth Day 1990.
“Because of the overwhelming ecological problems of the 1980s I realized I couldn’t just remain a bystander,” Mitchell said. “I had to get involved to see what I could do to help.”
Specifically, the idea for Auntie Litter was generated in part by a well-publicized event in 1987. A barge called the Mobro 4000, laden with more than 3,000 tons of garbage from Islip, New York, headed down the East Coast seeking to dump it in North Carolina, but was rejected and sent off looking for a new home for its pile of refuse. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas all said no to what had become called “the gar-barge.”
The barge tried to get to Mexico, but was repelled by the Mexican Navy. It went to Belize, but was rejected there, too, as well as in Florida and the Bahamas, before it finally returned to New York months – and thousands of miles – later. As it captured news footage and headlines, it also stayed on the mind of Pat Mitchell, who devised her costumed alter ego while picking up litter along the beach in Gulf Shores.
She made her debut at the Birmingham Zoo. “I was standing there giving out litter bags, and they were asking me who I was and why I was dressed the way I was. I explained, if you have an Uncle Sam, can you have an Auntie Litter?”
She invited people at the zoo to use the bags she was giving them in their cars and to recycle what they could. “Recycling had not even come of age yet,” she recalled. “And I was tooting that horn quite loudly.”
Before too long, Auntie Litter was a regular Earth Day icon and a year-round environmental crusader who spent most of the year talking to school children and others about the need to keep their environment clean. She has traveled the country, spent time with Presidents of the United States and created an organization with influence far beyond its humble beginnings.
And it’s all about picking up trash and teaching people not to drop it in the first place.
“My focus by starting Auntie Litter was to reach the children between the ages of three to 10,” she said, “and to tap into their imaginations on living in a clean and healthy environment. Once you’ve got them by the time they’re 10 years old thinking about not littering and thinking about recycling, then you’ve got them for life.”
Her legacy, in fact, can partly be seen in the children who have grown up with her message. “About two or three years ago I was in Bed Bath and Beyond, and this young man who was working in the store was from Jasper and he recognized me,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t in my uniform and he recognized me. He said, ‘Auntie Litter, you got us to go green before anybody else did.’ And I thought that was, like, an awesome thing to say to me.
“That’s where my proof comes in. I can never say that because of Auntie Litter there are so many tons less of litter on the ground. I don’t have that raw information. But I can say, more times than not, people in their 20s and 30s will come up to me and say, ‘I can remember when you came to my school. And yes, I do not litter, and I do recycle.”
And, she acknowledged, maybe Auntie Litter’s legacy can also be seen where you don’t see litter today. “When I started Auntie Litter our state was spending $3 million a year on removing trash off the main highways and streets,” she said. “About 4 years ago, I heard, we were [spending] over $13 million picking up litter. So I’m sure to some degree Auntie Litter made a difference.”
Although she’s moving to south Alabama, Auntie Litter plans to take the original Auntie Litter with her and continue her work there. In the meantime she plans to finish her term in Birmingham with an event back where it began – Earth Day – April 22, at the Birmingham Zoo.
The generation of people who see her off next month will hear the same message Pat Mitchell has been preaching for the past 22 Earth Days and every week in between – that the way to clean streets, neighborhoods and communities begins with teaching people that it’s just wrong to litter. “I do believe education is the key… educating our youth, and promoting taking pride in our community, is the key to stopping litter.”
For more information about Auntie Litter, visit auntielitter.org.