Riddle of the smashed lighter: Why do we litter ?

By Jayson Jacoby April 25, 2014 03:01 pm

Big problems rarely lend themselves to easy solutions.

We can’t reverse global warming by twisting a thermostat.

We can’t make Vladimir Putin behave himself by yelling at him to lay off Crimea and Ukraine.

We can’t balance the federal budget by....

Well, actually we could do that by playing hide the checkbook with Congress, but first we’ve got to get our hands on the thing.

There is, though, one widespread mess that we could clean up today, and we’d probably save energy in the process.


Not the most pressing malady on the planet, of course — I’m referring here to the ubiquitous roadside variety of trash, not dumping nuclear waste next to a school playground.

Yet it seems to me that tossing burger wrappers from cars and flipping cigarette butts onto the street, though more an aesthetic blight than an environmental one, ranks among the more indefensible of humanity’s bad habits.

Littering is never necessary.

It accomplishes nothing positive.

By contrast, a lot of people think we burn too much fossil fuel.

But at least we get something out of that.

An economy, for instance.

Nobody earns a paycheck because of littering.

The few people who collect a minuscule proportion of the crap we toss out are either adopt-a-highway volunteers or people working off community service stints.

Mostly the stuff either travels at the whims of the winds or sinks to the bottom of lakes and streams.

A great lot of our litter, of course, gets heaved from vehicles.

This annoys me more than any other sort because it’s not as if the average automobile lacks space for a couple of empty soda cups.

The cups, after all, were also in the car when they were full. Did they suddenly become an unbearable burden once the soda had been swallowed?

If anything, it’s harder to dispose of most things when you’re driving, what with the window slipstream working against you, than stopping to stuff your swill into a trash can.

Which receptacles are hardly uncommon — especially in town.

I don’t mean to imply any innocence on my part.

I’ve littered.

I doubt there are many among us who are faultless in that regard.

But I have strived, at least as an adult, to minimize my contributions to the general dinginess. 

I might not chase a store receipt that gets away from me in a parking lot on a gusty day. But neither do I toss every coffee cup into the barrow pit the instant I’ve drained the last caffeine-laced dregs.

I walk around Baker at least a few days a week and the volume, and the variety, of curbside trash I see both frustrates and intrigues me.

There is in these layers of refuse a story, much as the striations of rock in a roadcut tell a geologic tale.

The other day, in the course of a 4-mile walk, I saw three discarded butane lighters. Two were intact and the third was smashed into plastic shards.

Did this latter lighter fail to produce a flame at a crucial moment?

Or was its owner the victim of a sudden plunge in Bic stock value?

Either way I don’t understand why leaving the thing beside the street, like an abandoned puppy, is more satisfying than dropping it into the maw of a garbage can.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.