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With all the heartbreak that’s been dealt in the past year, and with all the unprecedented issues arising from extended shutdowns across the country during the pandemic, littering has been the last thing on my mind. This changed, however, when I received a wake-up call in the form of a headline about how 2 million pounds of trash were collected from North Carolina roads within the first two months of 2021. This number is alarming and confusing when you consider how the number of people on the roads is much lower than usual.

What’s more, survey data on garbage found around campus — which was collected by Roland Kays, an NC State professor in the forestry and environmental resources department, and his students in FW 221: Conservation of Natural Resources — shows that NC State has a serious littering problem as well. Considering the school’s extensive efforts to reduce waste, this data came as a shock. So what’s not working?

WCNC Charlotte attributes the increase in litter along roadways to a lull in trash pickup gatherings that occur in the effort to abide by COVID-19 guidelines. No more pickup crews means the trash has largely been left to accumulate over the past year. As for the problem of garbage accumulation on campus, it’s really a question of why people are inclined to litter in the first place. 

Thanks to the historic “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, littering has become taboo due to heightened awareness for how it impacts the environment. I refuse to believe people litter because they don’t care enough about social taboo or the environment to dispose of their trash properly, and the good thing is I don’t have to. Research done by Wesley Schultz, a social psychologist at California State University, San Marcos, shows how the idea that people litter because they don’t care is a huge misconception.

The truth is, while most people care about the environment, they care more about convenience. If it is inconvenient for someone to dispose of their waste properly, chances are they won’t. The likelihood of littering is then further increased by the presence of existing litter. In other words, littering begets littering.

So what about those 5,000+ landfill and recycling bins scattered about campus for our convenience? Is that not enough for the Wolfpack community to take a hint? Apparently not. Schultz’s research also shows it’s not just the quantity of receptacles present that affects how people dispose of their trash, but the location of them as well. Trash bins need to be near and plenty for us humans to take the initiative on waste management in our communities.

It would be easy, then, for me to suggest that NC State find some better placement for garbage stations, but the truth is that I think they’ve already done just that. Whenever I’m on campus getting food or buying something from the C-Store, I can trust that those trash and recycling bins will always be lurking around every corner in pairs. It’s one of the things that attracted me to NC State’s campus in the first place.

If, at the end of the day, all the research-backed solutions still fail to eliminate littering altogether, then it’s time to team up to manage the accumulation of garbage ourselves. It could make a difference in the long run.

As I mentioned before, littering begets littering. It’s as if all the loose trash is saying, “It’s OK, you can litter here too.” But, maybe, by working together to keep our campus clean through organized trash pickups, we could get rid of that precedent and hopefully prevent others from following suit. With the use of masks, gloves and social distancing, it could also be well within present COVID-19 guidelines to carry out. 

Through current initiatives, NC State already diverts 54% of campus waste. That’s impressive, but we can do better. With Earth Month at NC State around the corner, we’ll all have the chance to reflect on our relationship with our environment and try our best to keep it healthy. Think of it as returning the favor.