Clean-up campaigns set set the stage for bigger environmental improvements

Any American growing up the 1960s or ‘70s remembers the motto: “Don’t Be a Litter Bug.” You couldn’t miss it on billboards, television commercials, and magazine ads everywhere.
Yet widespread cynicism greeted this early effort to clean up the environment, especially First Lady Lady Bird Johnson’s pioneering campaign to “Beautify America”. Humans, after all, had been tossing junk onto the ground since Neanderthal times. Why would they stop now?

But, surprisingly, it worked, and litter declined dramatically in a short period. Indeed, the Beautify American campaign helped pave the way for the ecology movement a few years later, and it is now pointed to by sociologists as conclusive evidence—along with smoking bans in public places and pet owners’ commitment to scooping up their dogs’ poop— that longstanding human behavior can be altered through spirited public education campaigns.

Take care of the neighborhood in the same way you take care of your own property.

The focus of the litter bug campaign was on personal responsibility. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when President George H.W. Bush was trumpeting the value of volunteerism, that the emphasis shifted to picking up other people’s trash—as witnessed by the sudden appearance along many American highways of signs announcing that a particular stretch of pavement was being kept clean by, say, “the Muntz family” or “Local 169 of the United Electrical union”. And that effort was successful, too, as garbage disappeared from many roadsides.

These strategies will also work in the streets around your house. Make a habit of bringing a bag along on walks, so you can pick up soda pop bottles, wind-blown newspapers, and whatever other junk accumulates on the sidewalks. Hint to your friends that they ought to do the same. The next step is to expand the clean-up into a neighborhood-wide project, sponsored maybe by a convenience store or fast-food restaurant—which are probably responsible for a good share of the litter in your area.

In Urbana, Illinois, Earth Day was celebrated one year by cleaning up Bone Yard Creek,which netted tons of trash. The creek was notoriously polluted, going all the way back, legend has it, to an Indian graveyard along its banks. ( Hence, the name.) But the clean up campaign prompted people around town to think of the creek differently, and soon government authorities began to enforce anti-dumping laws which had been ignored for years because nearly everyone viewed the Bone Yard as a open sewer.

In Baltimore, neighbors were worried about the fate of Mount Vernon Place, a four-block inner city park that was neglected and little-used. They organized a group, Friends of Mount Vernon Place to revitalize the park, and one of their first projects was sponsoring several clean-up days in the park. This helped launch bigger things, such as a flower market, a book festival, and greater attention from park district maintenance crews.