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The Litter Problem

The letter below was published in various editions of the Prince George's Gazette, Feb 21 2002. I put it up on the web as an open letter to the people of Prince George's County, Maryland, and to the whole world.

It was not a figment of my imagination; others commented independently on the noticeable increase in garbage lying everywhere in Prince George's County. This letter also inspired a spate of other letters to the editor on the subject. I believe it also provided the spark for one of the candidates, and only one, in a then upcoming election for the County Executive, to actually list the litter problem as a major issue. Now that was a refreshing change in a nation where wind-up candidates can only squeak, "education, education, education..." when asked about the issues. He won the election, and I tip my hat to him, although I suspect Prince George's County is probably three or four feet deeper in trash since I moved away in 2003. (I'm guessing the kids are no more brilliant, either.)

Another joke about all of this is that Prince George's County had implemented an exorbitant trash pick-up fee on all homeowners - $319 per year - back in 1996. (Prior to that it had been less than $200 per year from a private contractor. Yes, an attentive reader could find little slips here and there from officials admitting the new, whopping, county charge was for balancing the budget.) One supposed feature of this new fee was that, since everyone had to pay it, it would eliminate litter.


Not enough litter in Prince George's County, Maryland

Dear Gazette,

I have been a resident of Prince George's County for about 20 years. Like most county residents, I can count among my ancestors many distinguished rats, crows, pigs and maggots, and therefore feel safe in speaking for everyone when I say how thrilled I am with the recent explosion in the amount of trash lying everywhere.

This is a very exciting development for all of us. Everywhere you look - along our roads, in the roads, in parking lots, on our lawns and in our wooded areas - you can't miss the fruits of this latest outburst of community spirit. We have made impressive strides, going beyond the mundane coffee cups, soda cans, plastic and glass bottles, plastic grocery bags and paper fast food wrappers to big ticket trash such as shopping carts, tires and mattresses.

Still, we have a way to go before the entire surface is blanketed. Some of you may feel that you are already doing everything you can, but don't be discouraged - I have several suggestions.

First, we can petition our county leaders to terminate the solid waste disposal service. It appears that some of our more uncivilized neighbors are still using it. A side benefit is that, with the extra $300 per year we save on our property tax bill - well, just think of how many more large fry boxes you could buy, and toss out, with that!

Second: parents, make sure your children are being brought up properly. If you should ever catch your child throwing a piece of trash in a trash can, make sure the punishment is swift and severe. I would suggest, as a minimum, a smack across the face. Try to leave welts on repeat offenders. They must learn early.

Third, if you feel that you just don't have any more trash to throw around, ask your out-of-county visitors if they would be so kind as to bring some of their extra trash with them. Prince George's will welcome it!

My final suggestion is the only one that might be viewed as even slightly extreme, but I make it anyway. We must set up roadblocks all around the border of our county. Every car leaving Prince George's County must be stopped and searched. Any trash the police find in the car must be left behind in the road. For some people, that won't be enough, of course, so there will also be a fine that has to be paid on the spot. Note that this will make the roadblock operation self-sufficient.

So, keep up the good work, everybody! Even though we're not quite there yet, nothing can stop us from achieving 100 percent coverage in the very near future. When that happens, Prince Georgians will have every reason for dancing in the street!


Donald Sauter


Date: Feb 28 2002
From: David Warrington, Cheverly Town Administrator

You hit the nail on the head.

As a resident of Prince George's County for 36 years, the recent litter attack has left me considering a move. I would like to let you know of one refuge that still exists, the Town of Cheverly. The Mayor and Town Council have recognized litter as one of the biggest issues regarding quality of life in our community. We have a full-time litter control person. The Town does not confine its cleaning efforts to town streets. We realized a long time ago that the State and County's performance in roadside litter collection did not meet our standards. We therefore instruct our staff to pick up Maryland and Prince George's right-of-ways that border Cheverly. Our sanitation crews meticulously patrol our interior streets.

I invite you to take a tour and a step back in time to remember the good old days.

Suggested Solutions to the Litter and Shoplift Problems

I try not to complain about something without offering a solution. Littering is a particularly tough problem since it's so difficult to catch people in the act. And if you did, they would just deny it. Obviously, you can't have the police force following everybody around with video cameras all day long in the hopes of catching somebody toss a gum wrapper.

Shoplifting presents a similar stuation - you can't catch everybody. As far as I'm concerned, the solution to the shoplifting problem is simple. The people who are caught at it will be fined enough to cover all losses due to shoplifting, plus all the costs of prosecuting him. So, if say one out of fifty shoplifters are caught, you would be fined fifty times the cost of the item you shoplifted, which would be returned to the business, plus prosecution costs.

At first glance, many people will view this as wildly unfair. Think about it and you will see it simply makes shoplifting a break-even business. Getting caught once neutralizes your last fifty successes. (Of course, no wrongdoer in modern society is actually forced to pay penalties, but I'll bet that would change if he were offered a choice of paying up or a stint of forced labor until his debt is paid.)

Back to trash. The best solution would be for responsible parents to set good examples for their children. I think that's why Ontarians don't litter. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the last generation of responsible parents in the U.S. are now senior citizens. We've had too many decades now of nobody being held responsible for anything they do. (Anybody else ready for a change?)

Obviously, the shoplifting solution wouldn't be reasonable for littering since only one out of a million people, if that, would get caught. You might have noticed that I'm not a big government person, but it looks like it's going to be here for a while. I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but I propose a new, separate, highly visible, completely unavoidable tax devoted to cleanup.

The cleanup tax has to be new and separate, so that people could reduce or eliminate it by keeping their region clean or spotless. There would be no incentive to do so if this money were just shuffled around from one part of the budget to another.

The cleanup crews will be highly visible, wearing slogans such as, "Put me out of work - don't litter," or, "It's your tax dollars, slob." The tax will not be hidden in the property tax, which nobody sees, anyway, because that's all snuck into their mortgage payments. It would make no sense to shackle just the homeowners with this since the homeowners probably do the least littering.

Every household will receive a separate bill, and the bill will be proportional to the number of people in the household, from infants on up. Look, it's people who litter, not the dwelling. Not paying the bill will get you a nice stint of forced labor - maybe out there on the clean-up crew.

Sound harsh? Well, you could try not littering.


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