Editorial: New anti-littering program off-mark

By Pitt News Staff

If you’re thinking of engaging in littering in the near future, you may want to reconsider: As… If you’re thinking of engaging in littering in the near future, you may want to reconsider: As of last Friday, the city of Pittsburgh is increasing enforcement of anti-littering laws as part of a new campaign.

The program, which is funded through a $45,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation, features TV commercials and community outreach programs designed to engage both youth and adults alike against littering.

We think this is a positive step. Pittsburgh — and South Oakland especially — could use a serious crackdown. Many of us have had the experience of bringing a parent or friend from out of town, only to discover that outsiders find the area filthy. The appearance of our community shouldn’t be so unkempt.

However, we do question the branding of the new campaign. Replacing the relatively benign “Don’t Be a Litterbug” refrain, which has been used by the city since at least the 1950s, is the new slogan “Don’t Trash My Turf.”

While it is possible to argue that any discussion of wording is simply a minor matter of semantics, we disagree. Any public relations campaign, especially one regarding a matter as civic and communal as littering, must fully engage the community from all sides. To affect behavior, the wording must somehow effect the nearly instantaneous and almost unconscious decision to simply drop a wrapper while in a hurried rush.

One concern is the word “my.” Such a word quickly creates a definitive black-and-white relationship between a person and his or her environment. No longer are we a collective unit trying to make our neighborhoods better. Instead, we become self-interested parties brandishing fists in defense of clean property. For much of the economy, these property rights help keep things in order, but to stop littering, it may be a bit too alienating to inspire action.

The word “turf” could likewise be contested. Aside from conjuring images of artificial grass, the old-timey-gangster mentality is similarly isolating. One cannot help but imagine Clint Eastwood behind a gun, teeth clenched, and sneering “keep off my lawn” at a prospective gum-wrapper tosser.

This isn’t to say the threat of punishment is necessarily a bad thing. A string of parking tickets on a street with haphazardly parked cars will motivate drivers to pay closer attention to the appropriate laws next time. The possible string of littering tickets from this campaign may do the same.

But for a broad public relations campaign — one that most residents will only interact with casually — promoting civic unity would be better. Our suggestion for a motto: “Don’t Trash Our Town.”

Not only does the slogan maintain alliteration, it also promotes collective action in a way that “Don’t Trash My Turf” or “Don’t Be a Litterbug” does not. It turns the decision to litter not into a calculation of me vs. you — a paradigm making the decision one of self-interest and thus leading to careless littering rather than engaging in a costly search for a trash can — but into a calculation of me with you. It is by fostering community spirit that residents may overlook personal costs and wait a few minutes before discarding their hot dog wrapper.

To be clear, this new motto is not a scandal. Pittsburgh voters need only look at their history if they want reasons to be outraged at Pittsburgh trash-management programs — former mayor Pete Flaherty’s opportunistic “For Pete’s Sake, Keep it Clean” slogan and current mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s infamous purchase of $1,000 dollar trash cans come to mind.

Just remember, we all need to change our behavior if we want clean streets. After all, it’s our town — don’t trash it.