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Illustration by Gwen Keraval.

Can Public Shaming Help Stop Littering?

How do you change the incorrigible? One Granby resident assesses the value of publicly shaming an unrepentant litterbug in an uncivil world.

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Many years ago, long before Colorado embraced craft beer as some sort of divine nectar, a bar owner shared with me what he called his “Bud Light” theory of social profiling. I had asked him about his clientele, and he explained how the beers he served influenced the type of individuals who showed up at his establishment.

“That’s why I won’t sell Bud Light,” he said. “Because then you get Bud Light people. I don’t want Bud Light people.”

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As a predictor of human behavior, this struck me as at best imprecise. At worst, it seemed harsh and judgy, even absurd. How could a ubiquitous Anheuser-Busch beer be a reliable gauge of personal ethos? How could a simple brand choice predict noxious behavior? I didn’t put much stock into his odd theory—at least, until this past spring. Then I began to wonder.

My regular warm-weather bike ride takes me on a 15-mile loop from our house outside of Granby, along a series of dirt roads, and into town to pick up our mail. I typically ride those roads a few days a week.

Last spring, as I gasped my way up a steep grade, I noticed, in the gully to my right, a glint of metallic blue, the color of a Rocky Mountain sky. A few yards later, I spotted another blue glint. Then another. I stopped, dropped my bike, and climbed down the shoulder to see what they were.

There, I found dozens of blue aluminum bottles scattered among deadfall, under stumps, and tucked into tall grass. There was no coherent pattern to the way they’d landed; the identical recyclable metal containers were simply scattered across a quarter-mile. Dozens of them. By the look of things, they were tossed one at a time from a passing car, over a long period of time. The label of each bottle read “Bud Light.”

Here in nature-loving Colorado, it was like discovering a party guest peeing in the punch bowl. We cherish the Leave No Trace ethos and revere pristine spaces. This mindless assault on the environment—aluminum cans take 80 to 100 years or more to biodegrade—was simply inconceivable. I mean, who does that?

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When I checked this side of the road again a few rides later, the bright blue bottles seemed to have multiplied. They were being flung far enough off the road that they were probably invisible to passing motorists, but they were distressingly obvious to a cyclist moving uphill at the pace of a sloth. Each blue abomination felt radioactive.

Now, I’m not a vindictive man, but I’ll admit some disappointment that the words “imprisonment” and “death” do not appear anywhere in Colorado’s littering statutes. Our worst criminals face an escalating series of fines, ranging from $20 up to $1,000 for first, second, third, and subsequent offenses. Maryland—now there’s a state with teeth in its littering laws. The worst offenders can face fines of up to $30,000 or imprisonment of up to five years, or both, and the court may require cleanup, payment of damages, and community service.

But what to do about the unrepentant, beer-swilling landscape befouler in my neighborhood? Inaction wasn’t an option. We live in an age of Us vs. Them, and I’m convinced the line between civility and barbarism is thinner than we think. I can’t help but believe it’s worth brightening that line whenever we have the chance.

Advancing age has made me prone to treachery, and arduous miles of pedaling have a way of focusing the mind. By the time I got home an hour later, I had a plan. I clearly was dealing with someone for whom Colorado’s tepid laws were no deterrent, someone who I imagined embraced Bud Light’s nonsensical advertising phrase—“Dilly Dilly!”—with the gusto of a chest-tatted redneck on spring break. Beyond that, this was someone who’d made drinking, driving, and casual littering a lifestyle choice; someone who probably motors past my house regularly with a blood alcohol content exceeding Colorado’s 0.08 percent limit for those 21 and older.

I ran through elaborate sting scenarios—stakeouts, game cameras, tire spikes—before deciding they were impractical. In the end, I was left with just one choice: public shaming.

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There’s a proud tradition of openly and pointedly embarrassing litterers in Colorado. In 2015, for example, land managers at Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain began adorning every pile of dog poop at the mountain’s trailhead with a festive pink flag. And until Instagram shut it down last year, an account called @TrailTrashCO was a favorite online forum for naming and shaming outdoor evildoers. Even if it doesn’t change the most stubborn of the miscreants, shaming makes others aware of the problem—and often deputizes them into the cleanup effort.

Some of the most memorable calls to action have employed appeals to emotion while hinting at public shaming. This includes the long-running Keep America Beautiful nonprofit, which once featured a memorable ad depicting a Native American man who tears up at the desecration of the land. Keep America Beautiful’s efforts are partially responsible for a 35 percent decline in littering in this country between 1968 and 2009, despite our surging population.

So on my next uphill bike ride, I spent half an hour retrieving every bright blue discard I could find. I arranged them into three impossible-to-ignore piles along the side of the road, spaced about 20 yards apart. Then I waited. While I did, I also posted a photo of one glittering heap to a Grand County Facebook page with the note: “Looking for the name or license plate number of the guy (safe guess) who is using the steep hill on County Road 623 as his personal trash can. Here’s a clue: He prefers Bud Light. Help me find this bonehead.”

The author’s photo of the trash that’s scarred the roadside near his home. Courtesy of Martin J. Smith.

The responses were those of an angry mob, ranging from straight-up name-calling (“What a douchebag prick”) to xenophobic finger-pointing (“Probably from Texas”) to reasoned speculation (“More than likely a closet alcoholic that drinks in his car then ditches the evidence before he gets home”). Their outrage seemed entirely appropriate, and it pleased me in much the same way I’m pleased to see belligerent racists shamed on YouTube.

Two days later, the piles of blue cans were gone. I imagined the embarrassed culprit recognizing his idiocy and succumbing to overwhelming social pressure. I hoped he’d crept back to the scene under the cover of darkness to collect his empties and, as penance, took them for recycling. At least, that’s how the world’s supposed to work, and so for the next week I rode my bike with the smug self-satisfaction of my altruistic mission.

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The world, it turns out, doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. The empties continued to accumulate in the weeks that followed, quickly enough that I was able to create two more large blue stacks about a month later. A neighbor drove past as I was assembling the latest discards, and she offered me a plastic bag in which to dispose of them. I thanked her but declined.

“He’ll be driving by here again,” I said. “He needs to know someone’s watching.”

She nodded and drove off. Two days later, the piles were gone again. If nothing else, at least the roadside was getting cleaner, and I’d inadvertently enlisted a like-minded partner. But, of course, I was the one doing the cleaning, and some fellow Trash Fairy was doing the collecting. And neither of those things was solving the problem.

Ben Lawhon, education director at Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, cites a study that classifies my LitterBud as a “careless” or “illegal” litterer, and it remains to be seen if the person could be enlightened by education or shaming. “For whatever reason, they feel like it’s totally appropriate to litter public lands,” he says. “Whether that’s because they don’t care, or they feel like someone else will come along and pick it up, or because they’ve had too many Bud Lights and they’re just not in their right mind, we don’t necessarily know what is driving their behavior.” Which makes trying to change them particularly difficult—and frustrating.

Weeks passed. Spring turned to summer, and summer to fall. The day we got our first snow in October, I checked again and counted another dozen aluminum Bud Light bottles winking at me from the side of the road. I collected those too and made another mound, feeling a little like Sisyphus and contemplating my next move.

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Lawhon offered some hope, though, and suggested trying another tactic. “Maybe you make a sign that makes it even more obvious,” he says, helpfully offering sample wording: We see what’s going on, and we want it to stop. “Maybe that’s the tipping point for this person. Maybe that level of shaming is what it will take, not just a pile of cans by the side of the road.”

I’m not overly optimistic. I am, however, mulling the idea—along with the irony that it might take an unsightly, hand-lettered roadside sign to make Colorado a little more beautiful.

Winter Adventures

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