For too long, citizens have simply accepted the deplorable amount of trash and litter on our roadsides, in our neighborhoods and at other public spaces.

When it comes to litter here and across the commonwealth, we need nothing less than a cultural change. For too long, citizens have simply accepted the deplorable amount of trash and litter on our roadsides, in our neighborhoods and at other public spaces.

One way to begin this process is to learn from other states.

In Tennessee, the state Department of Transportation launched a litter prevention campaign last June to help keep trash off roadways. The “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” campaign includes billboards and commercials, as well as educational programs and anti-litter promotional items.

According to Mike McClanahan, a manager of the Tennessee Highway Beautification Office, Tennessee DOT spends $15 million annually on litter cleanup. About 100 million pieces of litter are on the Tennessee roadsides at any given time.

As a result, the state organizes a “Clean Out Your Car” week in November and May. “A tremendous amount of roadside litter originates from inside the vehicle, and our events highlighted that motorists should keep a tidy vehicle,” he said. “We spread awareness about the harm in having items fall from a floorboard, or fly out a window or back of a truck.”

The “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign was designed to address a host of related issues, including litter prevention. Decades after its launch in 1985, it has become genuinely iconic, partly thanks to endorsements from Kelly Clarkson, Willie Nelson and others.

But it’s not all about glitz and glamour. Results show that the campaign has played a significant role in communicating a long-term litter prevention message. The campaign’s 2013 report found that 98 percent of Texas residents are familiar with the slogan, and there had been a 34 percent reduction in visible roadside litter since 2009.

Listen to an interview with the president of Cape Cod Anti-Litter Coalition:

Why does it work? “Don’t Mess with Texas” speaks to local people in a way they can instantly connect with. It appeals to their pride in their local community, helps them to “own” the campaign and be proud of their achievements.

Sick of seeing cigarette butts on the ground, Chicago got creative. Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the U.S., but might not be if more places adopted this approach.

In an attempt to keep its sidewalks and beaches clean, the city partnered with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to pilot voting-style cigarette butt bins. The receptacles feature two deposit slots, each with a question. Which is the best Chicago baseball team: Cubs or Sox? Which do you prefer: Chicago hot dog or deep-dish pizza? These are just a few of the questions smokers along Chicago’s beaches were asked. Smokers vote by putting their cigarette butts into one of the two compartments. The receptacles each hold about 400 to 600 cigarette butts.

The playful anti-littering campaign isn’t the first: The idea actually originated in London, and Boston adopted it last spring. Boston’s program, dubbed Neat Streets, is counting on interactivity to encourage smokers to become more environmentally aware.

Tarps across America

In South Carolina, PalmettoPride, its anti-litter organization, is planning to distribute 5,000 tarps to nine counties to help reduce the amount of litter flying off trucks. Although state law prohibits uncovered trucks on any public highway, unsecured loads still contribute to more than 20 percent of roadside debris, according to the Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In fact, uncovered vehicles are the No. 1 source of roadside litter in South Carolina, according to research conducted by Keep America Beautiful.

As a result, South Carolina promotes a “Tarp It or We Ticket” campaign, which reinforces the existing law mandating tarping of loads and provides residents free tarps and bungees to help keep communities clean.

“Tarp campaigns bring awareness to drivers of state litter laws and puts the power of prevention in the citizens’ hands,” PalmettoPride Executive Director Sarah Lyles said in a press release. “Our goal is to change the behavior that creates litter.”

Here on the Cape, uncovered trucks should be reported at every town transfer station. And a similar tarp campaign should be considered here.

PalmettoPride was created in response to citizens’ concerns regarding the amount of litter in South Carolina, with the stated goal of encouraging “behavioral change” in its citizens. For example, the home team is always left to pick up the pieces after high school sporting events. Used cups, dirty napkins, and greasy food containers litter the stands and concession area.

South Carolina schools are committing to this goal through educational efforts, teaching students about the impact of litter on our environment, economy and safety. PalmettoPride Litter-Free Games takes those lessons from the classroom to the ball field.

In addition, the state sponsors a Children’s Book Writing Contest. Aspiring writers submit original, anti-litter stories, and the winners’ book is donated to all elementary schools in South Carolina. The stories are required to be no more than 30 pages, and feature Louie the Lion, PalmettoPride’s mascot.

In addition, PalmettoPride’s annual art contest lets students express their creativity on how “Litter Trashes Everyone.” The winning artwork will be featured on PalmettoPride’s 2018 volunteer T-shirt.

School presentations

In Pennsylvania, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful believes that education is one of the most effective ways to discourage littering and encourage recycling and waste reduction. It is dedicated to teaching Philadelphia students of all ages about the economic, social and environmental impacts of handling trash as individuals and as a society.

Thanks to volunteer teachers, Philadelphia offers 45-minute middle/elementary and high school presentations focused on litter, recycling or composting. The presentations aim not only to teach students about the consequences of how they manage their trash, but to help them make a difference and offer concrete resources to take action.

Also in Philadelphia, the mayor appointed a Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet in 2016, which set goals to reduce the city’s waste and increase its recycling output by 2035. 

Last week's installment in this series can be found here.

In North Carolina, the Wake County Board of Commissioners in Raleigh adopted a goal in 2008 to address the roadside litter problem in Wake County. The 86it Anti-Litter Campaign launched in 2010, with strategies and tactics to engage citizen participation in addressing litter. The goal of 86it is to change littering behavior and to instill a sense of community pride and responsibility by encouraging a culture.

To achieve these goals, 86it is taking a multifaceted approach to changing behavior through community outreach, organized cleanups, high school program development and an aggressive upbeat social media and marketing campaign.

“We deliver free litter cleanup kits to residents of Wake County,” said Chelsea Arey, coordinator of the 86IT Anti-Litter Campaign in Wake County.

Proscribing plastics

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., prohibited plastic foam food packaging in 2014 because that waste made up much of the trash polluting the nearby Anacostia River.

In North Dakota, “Keep North Dakota Clean” sponsors a special contest for students in grades 1-8. Participants create artwork that reflects their knowledge about the responsibility we all have to keep the state and water clean, reduce waste, recycle, plant trees, prevent wildfires, create wildlife habitat and use all natural resources wisely. First-place artwork is turned into billboards.

In Oklahoma, where the state DOT spends $5 million a year retrieving litter, the DOT’s Trash Poster Contest selects 12 winning designs for anti-litter posters from thousands of submissions from Oklahoma students, which are then compiled into a calendar for the next year. A final poster is selected as the TPC Promotional Poster of the Year.

“It’s a chance for students to express their art, and it’s a great opportunity for children to learn about the issues concerning litter,” according to Madeline Miller, public information officer. Schools also teach lessons about litter’s effects on the environment while students work on their submissions.

Bay State ideas

Here in Massachusetts, Neil Rhein, executive director of Keep Massachusetts Beautiful, a nonprofit group based in Mansfield, said the following programs and ideas can help reduce litter:

• The 2018 Great Massachusetts Cleanup: More than 100 towns and cities are planning spring cleanups as part of this year’s cleanup. “Our goal is to someday have all 351 Massachusetts communities participating,” he said. More information is available at keepmassbeautiful.org/2018GMC.

• Education: Public awareness campaigns such as “Don’t Mess With Texas” and “Nobody Trashes Tennessee” are not just clever slogans. “They raise public awareness about the litter problem and educate people about how to dispose of trash and recycle responsibly,” he said. “We believe that MassDOT and the commonwealth should develop a comprehensive campaign to educate the public. Perhaps something along the lines of ‘Don’t Trash Mass’ or ‘Massachusetts Pride’.”

• Enforcement: “We need to get local and state police to ticket violators,” Rhein said. “We have also proposed a new system that would allow ordinary citizens to report litterers, who would then get a warning letter from the state. We are exploring this option with MassDOT.”

• Local action: By organizing a local Keep Massachusetts Beautiful chapter, communities can make meaningful progress against the scourge of litter, while also beautifying their communities. “Local chapters in Mansfield, North Attleboro, Natick and elsewhere are making significant progress by having a dedicated team that focuses on litter prevention and cleanup, waste reduction and recycling, and neighborhood beautification programs,” Rhein said. “Collectively, these groups raise civic pride and involve community members and the local business community to take care of their own streets and neighborhoods.”

But overall, Rhein said, Keep Massachusetts Beautiful and its local chapters need at least some financial support from the state. At the very least, they need support from upper levels of our state government, including Gov. Charlie Baker.

We can keep making excuses for not making litter a priority or we can learn from other states about how they have significantly reduced litter.

— The Editorial Board