We Hate to Waste logo
Sign up for our Newsletter ‐ it's Free!

Pick up Litter, New York!

Pick up litter, New York!

The lengths some folks will go to ignore litter. Pick it up, New York!
Photo:  The New York Times

Ever watch someone go out of their way to avoid a piece of litter?  It’s really quite hilarious. A kind of dance is done to skip over, skirt or step around an errant shopping bag, coffee cup or fast food wrapper.

Click here for 60 FREE resources for getting to zero waste in NYC

Click here for 60 FREE resources for getting to zero waste in NYC

Some litter on the streets of NYC —  like soda cans on the subways steps at rush hour, is downright dangerous. But who ever leans down to pick up that can or coffee cup and drop it in what’s now likely to be a nearby trash or recycling can, or God forbid, even take it home to make sure it gets disposed of safely?

If I told you you wouldn’t die, you wouldn’t be late to dinner, and no one would think you were weird, would you bend down to pick up a stray piece of trash?

How dirty or dangerous do New York City’s streets need to get? What would it take for you to pick it up?

Pick it up, New York!  (Add YOUR CITY here?)

Jacquelyn Ottman's book, If Trash Could Talk, inspires a new consumption culture in NYC.

Jacquelyn Ottman’s book, If Trash Could Talk, inspires a new consumption culture in NYC.


About the Author
Jacquie Ottman is an advocate for zero waste. She is the founder and editor of WeHateToWaste.com She is currently writing a book about Leftovers as a solution to food waste. Read more about Jacquie HERE, and check out her other posts.
  1. Jenny Abel Reply

    I have no problem carrying around other people’s litter that I’ve picked up. Sometimes I go all the way home with whatever I’ve rescued, if I don’t see a proper receptacle along the way. Flying plastic bags are the worst offenders. Today, it was an empty soda bottle rolling around within a foot of a storm drain. I honestly cannot bear the sight of plastic waste that I know will inevitably travel to a place where it could cause harm. My only rule with picking up loose plastic bags… if it looks like a dog has peed on it, I don’t touch it.

  2. Don Carli Reply

    Hi Jacquie:

    In fact, I did exactly that today.

    There is a Dunkin Donut on the ground floor of the building where I live. As I walked past it today I saw two plastic garbage bags in the middle of the sidewalk right in front of 6 people who sitting and talking while looking straight at the bags and doing nothing about it… and at least a dozen people walked right over them or around them without picking them up.

    I wondered just how long it would go on. Then I saw one of the Dunkin Donuts staff looking out the window at the bags and doing nothing about it… and I decided that enough was enough. So, I glowered at the lot of them, bent down, picked up the bags and placed them in the trash bin that was just three feet away.

    The sad thing is that none of them appeared to care a bit that the bags were littering the sidewalk… nor did they apparently see it as their duty to pick them up and dispose of them.


  3. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    I’m with you, Don. Totally amazed at how people just don’t seem to care or maybe they don’t seem to notice. Or maybe we’re such a clean-obsessed country that we’re afraid of picking up some major germs? It would be fun to figure this one out — and make it uncool to walk past litter and not to pick it up. (Smile, you’re on Candid Camera??) I don’t want to sound ‘holier than thou’, but I secretly feel good when I pick up litter that I just might inspire someone else to do the same.

  4. Wendy Brawer Reply

    I sometimes rinse my hands with my water bottle if the litter I’m carrying to the corner basket or recycling bin feels iffy. And sometimes I tell people ‘you dropped this’ when I see them littering, like I assume it’s a mistake and I am doing them a favor. In many cultures, ‘municipal housekeeping’ is an everyday thing, good for the commons and good for the individual.

  5. tamanna Reply

    I do the same..I nearly slipped one day when I got out of the subway and stepped right on a coke bottle. I picked it up and threw it in a trash can. Many times I pick up newspaper lying on the street/subway and throw it in trash.

  6. Fredrica Reply

    This post reminded me of the anti-littering campaigns of my youth, when people thought nothing of dropping trash on the sidewalk or emptying car ash trays on the street. Keep America Beautiful (with the famous “crying Indian” commercial) did a lot to change social norms, and is still active (www.kab.org).

    While carelessness persists, I suspect that a lot of litter is caused by accident or lack of infrastructure. For example, the overflowing trash can in the photo accompanying this post was not emptied in time to prevent items from flying off the pile and onto the street. Or perhaps there are too few trash and recycling bins in public spaces. On a recent walk through my suburban town, I counted four trash bins on one block, two of them paired with recycling bins (great!). But across the street on the same block, in front of a hospital, there were no trash or recycling bins, even beside benches where employees and visitors gather. Nor were there any on the next four blocks, including at bus stops. While Waste Watchers like me may be willing to carry their own (and others’) trash and recycling all the way home, the average person probably does not bring the requisite rubber gloves, tongs and bag needed to substitute for public sanitation.
    I think it behooves communities to figure out where the trash and recycling bins (hopefully paired) should go, put them there, and empty them regularly. And I would gladly have my taxes pay to employ trained and properly equipped workers to pick up litter, which is a form of pollution. Think of it as green jobs with benefits to public health, safety, and beautification.

  7. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    Fredrica, yes, alot of litter is inadvertent — the fast food napkin that blows away, the trash can that gets knocked over, etc. And cities can do a much better job of designing trash and recycling systems. But isn’t it desirable for ordinary citizens to be incentivized to take the initiative to actually bend over and pick up their own or even a stranger’s piece of litter whether out of civic pride or even the potential to head off an accident, track fire or even harm to birds??

  8. Fredrica Reply

    Since I firmly believe that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” my earlier comment addressed the causes of the litter in the hopes of reducing it. But I’m with you on creating (or strengthening) social pressure to simply pick it up. Like taking your own shopping bag to the supermarket, or bringing home leftovers from the restaurant (preferably in your own doggie bag), I believe that such a practice can become a social norm if enough of us do it.

    You have inspired me to tuck THREE items in my purse or pocket when I leave the house: One string bag for small purchases (in addition to a trunkful of canvas totes for larger shopping trips), one clean baggie and twist tie for leftover food, and one plastic NY Times wrapper for picking up litter. Newspaper delivery bags are the perfect size. I wear it like an evening glove (very glamorous!) to pick up the offending item, then roll it down over the object and carry it where it needs to go. On recent walks in the neighborhood, I have picked up the usual food wrappers, flying receipts, and plastic bottles, but also a Christmas ornament and a pair of latex gloves (glad I had a plastic bag for that one!). Now that I’m in the groove, I’ve got my eye on those cigarette butts and smaller pieces of paper that elude my grasp. Maybe someone will design a retractable litter stick that I can tuck in my pocket too!

  9. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    Fredrica, you are an inspiration, and of course this is all MUSIC to my ears! Question is: What motivates you to do this? and How can we motivate everyone else to do the same? Can you imagine how clean our cities and parks and rivers would be if everyone just picked up one piece of litter per day????

    • Fredrica Reply

      Jacquie – Regarding motivation to engage in sustainable behaviors, there are obviously a lot of forces at play. I’ve always been interested in personal and cultural values as an influence on consumer behavior of all kinds. Some individuals may simply feel a stronger sense of responsibility, and therefore pick up after themselves (and others, when practical). We can dip into your New Rules of Green Marketing to find some other clues. 🙂 As you point out in Chapter 6, in order to communicate green benefits to mainstream consumers, they must first be aware of and concerned about the issues—in this case, the scale and impact of the litter problem. Education and information are key. An organization like 5Gyres.org helps to make the connection between one loose plastic bottle and the resulting pollution of our waterways, impact on wildlife, and risks to our own health. Consumers must also feel empowered to act—i.e., believe that one person can make a difference, that the actions of an individual can have a meaningful impact. Belz and Peattie point out that this “perceived consumer effectiveness” (PCE) is consistently shown to be a significant influence on sustainable behaviors (along with perceived costs and benefits). As with so many sustainable behaviors, one often hears the defense—I’m just one person, so even if I did pick up a piece of litter (or recycle, turn off the lights, stop buying bottled water…) it wouldn’t make a difference. I think people can be persuaded that their actions do count, especially when added to the actions of others. Now I feel like I’ve been lecturing, so I’ll just leave you with this video that I shared with you exactly two years ago. It illustrates some of these points in an entertaining and heartwarming way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYnd5JRu86E

      • Jacquie Ottman Reply

        Just catching up with this comment. (It’s been a busy summer.)
        Yes, love flash mobs. Would love for some college or university to try this as a concerted way to start to change culture. Every time I pick up a piece of litter, I have to admit, I don’t feel like the world should make me a hero — because we all should be doing it all the time — I do feel like I hope to be inspiring at least one other person to do the same the next time they have the opportunity. And little by little…

  10. Charulata Savala Reply

    In India it’s not possible to pick up trash, as the streets are full of it, even if I wish to pick it up. Helpless, just to ignore it, which is sad.

  11. Christina Reply

    I once saw a “Wall Street” type of man in his 60s who was dressed in a very expensive suit walking down the street. He noticed a plastic bag on the ground and picked it up. It made me smile for days. That action showed me that no matter how much money we have or how old, we’re all in this together!

  12. Erik Douds Reply

    Since I was a kid, I would wait as my mom pulled the car aside to pick up trash along the streets. This is because trash is something that makes OUR parks, streets, and cities ugly and dirty. Imagine if everyone picked up just one piece of trash a day? NYC should welcome a program like Six Flags – where every employee gets one of those plastic ‘claws’ to pick up trash as they pass by it.

  13. Jacquie Ottman Reply

    Erik — your Mom sounds like my kind of gal! I really do pick up litter — at least one piece per day. How dirty could it be, right? I’ve been inspired lately by the Ocean Plastic post that we just launched, and wondering if there is a connection. For example, I live right near the East River. What if people felt that alot of litter that blows around will eventually wind up in the river. Do you think that would prompt folks to pick it up? If not that, then what?

  14. Samantha Niedospial Reply

    I moved to New York City from San Francisco. When I first arrived I was shocked at the amount of trash that remained in the streets even after garbage day. I believe that people follow the majority when it comes to litter. I had a conversation with a friend yesterday who said that they believed because the streets were filled with trash it make it social and ethically acceptable to dispose of your trash as you see it, in the streets. My friend claimed that if a tourist saw that it was normal for locals to throw their trash on the ground rather than a block up in a trash can that it seemed welcoming for them to do the same. It made me realize that it isn’t a matter of caring about how dirty and litter filled the streets are, but a matter of what is acceptable.

    My grudge against litter would pertain to cigarette buds. As smoking became illegal in restaurants they became more frequent on the streets. This to me can be apart of the basic norm for people littering in the streets. If it is acceptable to throw your cigarette buds on the street why wouldn’t it be acceptable to throw your food wrappers on the street?

    I try to clean up the street that I live on and my neighborhood as much as I can. I pick up trash and cigarette buds and place them in the closest garbage can.

  15. Carl Landegger Reply

    Don’t dance … Circle it @ chalkcirclechange.com!!!

  16. Havas Worldwide Chicago Reply

    We’re all familiar with the serene environment that a great community parkcan offer. From a calming breeze, to a shady tree, to a quiet retreat, parks offer us simple pleasures in life, and can take on a different role for different people.

    Unfortunately, and far too often, these urban sanctuaries are turned into a dumping ground for everything from candy wrappers, to old cigarette butts, to discarded hair weaves. Each piece of litter representing someone’s laziness or carelessness for preserving such a peaceful place.Here in Chicago, we’re regarded as one of the cleanest big cities in America, but as the other Havas Worldwide CHI interns and I walked through our beloved Washington Square Park last week, with Hefty trash bags (our participating partner client) in tow, I witnessed a different story. With miscellaneous scraps paving the pathways, I couldn’t help but wonder, “If Chicago is one of the cleanest cities, how bad are the others?”

    As my fellow interns and I spent the afternoon sweeping, raking, and manicuring the park, part of me felt the cleanup was just a small, insignificant effort that wouldn’t have any real impact on the community. However, I began to see all of the shocked faces, inquiries and gestures of appreciation from people passing by, and began to realize we were on to something bigger here. One woman, in particular, was very grateful about having her favorite park cleaned. I began to realize that cleaning the park was having somewhat of a pay it forward effect; others were taking notice and (hopefully) thinking twice about their own littering habits.

    By the end of the day we had collected five, 30-gallon Hefty Large Black Bags, full of both trash and recyclables to be donated. But, it wasn’t what we were recycling that made me feel like our effort had been a success – it was the park-goers excitement and curiosity over what they were witnessing, which we hope inspires them, and others, to keep our city clean that will have the lasting impact.

    Our efforts, at a minimum, made everyone who passed us that afternoon think about their own actions with waste. That piece of trash they carelessly let fall to the ground has an impact. Hefty and Havas’ goal isn’t to clean up the entire city – it’s to show Chicago that we can keep our reputation as being one of the cleanest big cities in America. We just have to start with the little things, like making the extra effort to throw away a simple candy wrapper. Then we can enjoy the park as it was meant to be enjoyed—litter free. It really does make a difference.

  17. Fredrica Reply

    Recently read this item about London’s “Neat Streets” campaign to fight litter, which seems to be working. Nice application of nudges designed to make behavior change easy and fun. Here’s the link:


  18. Francisco Cernusco Reply

    Flashmobs and all kind of emotional tactics is one of the best ways to catch people’s attention whenever you want to say/teach something.
    Its embarrassing that people don’t even think about picking up a bottle, can or paper lying on the floor. As we know for example plastic bottles take 450 years to discompose, I would promote this kind of messages to the almost 6 million passengers taking the subway everyday. MTA should create more cleaning habits campaigns.
    My question is, why are companies still selling plastic bottles and not looking for an alternative.
    When I see someone throwing rubbish on the street I always approach them and say “sorry your paper fell” or “Sir, you forgot your bottle”. Trying not to be disrespectful but at the same time making him aware of what he/she is doing. I sometimes get terrible responses but most of the time this actually works and people do end up throwing it away in the next bin they find.

  19. Liz Pudel Reply

    Growing up in lower Brooklyn right near the Sheepshead Bay Canal, I was always shocked that littering was so rampant. Especially littering directly into the water! As a kid, I remember pestering my grandmother when we went on walks around our neighborhood about the clusters of garbage that would gather at the corners of the canal and she never quite knew what to say to me to quell my concerns. It’s truly shocking. To this day, having lived nearly in New York for nearly 20 years, it continues to baffle me how little people care about such a big problem with such a simple solution.

  20. Jessica Wasser Reply

    I pretty much always find myself picking up litter that isn’t mine. I often find myself in situations where a friend of mine is going to litter because a garbage is not convenient for them and I end up holding on to their trash for them. It’s quite entertaining watching the short length that people will go to actually go throw something out properly. There are garbage cans on almost every street corner and it is humorous to me that people can’t even hold on to a simple wrapper for that short of a distance. When in cities like Toronto or Jacksonville it is shocking how much less litter there are on the streets. I’ve always wondered what makes NYC more prone to litter. Is it the lack of city sanitation or just the idea “if he does it i can do it?”

  21. Fredrica Reply

    Just read this article about “weirdos” like us who pick up litter, and thought I’d share it: https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/recycling/blogs/are-you-one-weirdos-who-picks-litter
    It mentions a couple of movements (Litterati, Take3ForTheSea), complete with apps and hashtags, that may be of interest. And since cigarette butts were mentioned in some of the comments above, here’s a clever solution from the UK: http://ballotbin.co.uk/

  22. Lillibeth Liriano Reply

    This is a concept that parents need to teach their kids (even though it is also common sense). I remember being about 4 years old, seeing litter all over a stair well and naturally dropped my own litter on the floor. I’ll never forget the scolding my mother gave me. I was confused because there was so much litter, I thought it was normal (what a horrible thought!). She told me that it doesn’t matter if the floor is filthy, and that I should actually pick up some of the trash myself even if it wasn’t mine because at the end of the day planet Earth is our home and we need to collectively work together to leave it cleaner than we found it. We need to teach kids young, because its easier than trying to convert adults.

    • WHTW Administrator Reply

      We’re with you, Lillibeth! Per this post, we’re suggesting that New Yorkers should actually start to pick up litter. I am certain there’s a grassroots campaign idea in here somewhere. Imagine how clean the streets would be if people started to pick up just one piece of litter each day. http://www.wehatetowaste.com/pick-up-litter/

  23. Brygida Dabek Reply

    I don’t ever mind picking up someone’s litter. I’ve done so many cleanups that it doesn’t even phase me anymore, just amazes me about how careless people can be. I’ve seen people through entire fast food take out bags out of their car windows. Seeing so much trash is sickening.

  24. Katherine Elliot Reply

    I love this challenge. It is something so simple but over time, it can have such vast impact! I mean picking up one piece of litter today takes less than a minute. It will also cause people to take this minute and reflect on the natural world around them. Every day, especially in New York City, people live such busy lives, running from place to place, never really reflecting on the world around them. By picking up one piece of litter a day we not only are helping out the world around us, but we are forced to stop and reflect on our place in the world and the impact our actions can have on the bigger picture.

  25. Cristina Russo Reply

    I always cringe when I see a piece of litter on the streets and sidewalks, and I cringe even harder when I encounter litter on the beach where it can easily be swept into the ocean. I always make it a point to pick up litter I find along my path. When I’m at the beach with friends and the wind carries a piece of garbage my way, I always pick it up and throw it out. My friends tend to laugh and say that it got carried over to me on purpose because the universe knew I would throw it out. If everyone picked up just one piece of trash they encountered, the Earth would be a much cleaner place!

Leave a Reply