Be honest. The last time you ate something on the street, what did you do with the plastic wrapper? If you stuffed it in your pocket or bag until you could find a garbage can, you’re in the minority. Chances are that you tossed it on the ground without a thought. If so, you’re a litterbug.

When I first came to Barranquilla, two years ago, one of the cultural quirks I most enjoyed was the intense pride that Barranquilleros feel for their city and country. You can see it whenever Junior or the national team is playing – the city becomes a rolling sea of yellow.

Imagine my surprise then when I realized that most Barranquilleros are litterbugs. That just doesn’t compute. If you love your city, why would you throw garbage on the street? Why would you intentionally contribute to making your beautiful city ugly?

Unfortunately, I often see people throwing their garbage on the ground here; it’s an everyday occurrence and people from all stratas do it. In fact, littering is a global problem. many cities around the world deal with the negative consequences of litter. Sometimes, people will toss refuse on the ground if they have nowhere else to put it – but here there are AAA trashcans at all the bus-stops and also hanging from poles at most of the busier intersections. There is absolutely no excuse for littering in Barranquilla.

Litter is ugly too, very ugly. In fact, a study from Britain found that property values in a neighborhood covered in litter can fall as much as 12% because nobody wants to live on a street where people don’t care about their neighborhood.

litter3

And its not just a question of aesthetics. A study published in The Economist showed that areas covered in litter create the perspective that residents in that area condone littering, further bolstering the problem. Moreover, the same study found that people were 50% more willing to commit a crime when the area was strewn with litter than not.

Litter can be dangerous, too. For example, cigarette butts contain 165 poisonous chemicals, including arsenic and lead. Studies in North America have shown that 36% of solid waste in storm sewers is from cigarette packaging and butts.¹. This material pollutes our water supply and kills wildlife. 

Here in La Arenosa, with each new rain, the arroyos sweep up and carry hundreds of tons of litter down the various canals, where it must be collected and carried away to a landfill. What isn’t caught makes its way out to the Magdelena and then on to Caribbean Sea, fouling beaches and communities all along the coast and contributing to a small degree to what is already a horrendous maritime tragedy, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Litter is also extremely expensive. According to a study published on the website, Keep America Beautiful, litter cleanup in the USA costs around $11.5 billion dollars a year, 80% of which is borne by businesses. In the USA, the culture is for the most part anti-littering. Here in Barranquilla, there is a veritable army of street cleaners who flock across the city each night, picking up after the city’s residents. Without AAA, the city would be unlivable. The cost of litter clean-up here must be astounding. Certainly, that money can be put to better use.

In summary, litter is a much bigger problem than we normally imagine and we’re going to have to put an end to it if we really want this city to grow. In my next article on this topic, I will present several steps we can each take to start building a solution.

“Litter in America” 2009 KAB Research

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