In recent weeks I have been closely monitoring local officials’ concerns about the littering problem here, which definitely needs attention.
The Tourism Partnership of Surry County, which obviously is bothered by the impact the area’s appearance can have on visitation, is among those focusing on the issue. The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners is another, particularly in light of the existence of a litter trouble spot — U.S. 52 — in the city limits.
It has been refreshing to see such groups wanting to tackle a problem that is undermining the scenic beauty to be found here.
But one thing that is troubling about this new initiative is that most of the concern seems to be centered on cleanup efforts and trying to identify various resources that might be available to deal with the mess.
In other words, the emphasis is on addressing the problem after the fact — how we should react once the litter has already found its way onto local roadsides.
Instead, I would advocate steps to attack littering BEFORE the fact, to keep the highways from being trashed in the first place.
Of course, the ideal solution involves altering the human behavior that prompts people to do something so thoughtless as throw trash from vehicles or dump garbage down a hillside.
Various and sundry programs to educate the public on why this is a bad practice have come and gone over the years, and judging by the conditions still apparent along highways these have largely been a failure.
I am afraid that a hard-line approach is now in order since efforts to achieve voluntary compliance haven’t worked.
The littering situation sort of reminds me about the need for people to use seat belts. There wasn’t much improvement when the government said, “you really should buckle up because it’s the safe and responsible thing to do.”
What really got the public’s attention was when the government later said, “Click It or Ticket.” It has been hailed as one of the most-successful enforcement campaigns ever. Since people now have gotten the message that not buckling up can cause a hit to their pocketbooks, it seems everyone wears seat belts these days.
The same kind of approach needs to be taken with littering. Because the need to simply keep our community beautiful has proven to be insufficient motivation, people should be forced into a state of awareness in which they won’t even consider throwing out trash because of the risk.
And how can this be achieved? Well, the same way other problems are corrected: threatening people with financial repercussions as well as loss of freedom.
Before you say, “No one can be locked up for littering,” consider that this very thing happened earlier this month in nearby Henry County, Va., where a 34-year-old man was sentenced to eight months in jail for dumping trash on private property. His actions required a work crew to remove eight bags of trash from the scene, with the man’s refusal to clean it up himself serving as an aggravating factor in the case.
When he went to court on the matter and was sentenced, the offender was ordered into custody right on the spot. The presiding judge said if the man appealed the case to a higher court, he would not be able to post bond and be released.
“Cruel and unusual punishment for a relatively minor crime?” a critic of such action might say. I would prefer to use another term to describe what the court did: “Effective.” I’ll bet that everyone else in that particularly county will think twice before littering in the future.
This same kind of thing needs to happen in Surry County if we are ever to make a dent in the littering problem at its source. Tough enforcement and punishment represent the ultimate solution.
While this requires more diligence on the part of law enforcement officers, who must have evidence before charging litterers, there is also a program in place on the state level which allows citizens to get involved. It is the Swat-A-Litterbug Program, which is administered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Office of Beautification Programs.
Anyone who sees someone disposing of trash illegally can report them by email through the agency’s website at http://www.ncdot.gov/doh/operations/dp_chief_eng/roadside/Beautification/Litterbug/.
Citizens also can call a customer service office at 1-877-DOT-4YOU (1-877-368-4968) to report a litterbug.
In the case of a motorist who litters, the providing of the license tag number for the vehicle involved will lead to the owner being notified about the littering offense; informed about the penalties for littering; and urged to stop the practice.
While that is well and good, my solution would go a few steps further by implementing a whistle-blower program similar to that in place for employees of public agencies to report abuses in government without fear of reprisal.
I would advocate cash rewards being offered to those who turn in the names of litterbugs, even if it’s their husbands or mothers.
You could bet a pickup load of aluminum cans that this approach would definitely take a bite out of our littering problem. Naturally, the money to pay the whistle-blowers would come from the fines levied against litterers — which would be substantial under my plan.
A little jail time wouldn’t hurt for repeat offenders, either.
I suspect that some of the chronic litterers wouldn’t consider treating their homes in such a matter, and might react violently to someone throwing trash in their yard.
They must be made to respect public spaces with the same fervor — even if it means putting them behind bars.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at 719-1924 or email@example.com.