Fewer people are trashing America

WASHINGTON -- The United States is getting cleaner, litter experts say.

They estimate that deliberate trash tossing has fallen about 2 percent a year since the mid-'70s in communities where it's been measured.

On U.S. beaches, cigarette butts, beverage cans and Styrofoam peanuts for packaging are down, cleaners say. In most communities, pooper-scooper laws make carefree strolls possible.

Even along roadsides, more of what's visible today is grass.

Remarkably, the improvements come despite an increase of 90 million in the U.S. population since widespread trash surveying began in 1974.

If you haven't picked up on litter's decline, don't be surprised. People raise their standards as places get cleaner, so they're never impressed, according to John Doherty, New York City's sanitation commissioner.

Thirty years ago, independent assessors rated nearly half of New York's streets and sidewalks as filthy. Twenty years ago, New York was still so dirty that humorist Dave Barry accused the mayor of having appointed a Commissioner for Making Sure the Sidewalks Are Always Blocked by Steaming Fetid Mounds of Garbage the Size of Appalachian Foothills.

Today, the same independent assessment system used 30 years ago rates 95 percent of New York's streets and sidewalks as clean.

Once-rare litter penalties now are the second biggest source of the city's revenue from fines, after parking violations.

As New York goes, so goes the nation, albeit by fits and starts, because litter curbs are almost entirely a local or state matter. For example:

In New Jersey, revenue from special $50 Shore to Please license plates subsidizes cleanups of river, bay and ocean shorelines by state prisoners.

In Washington state, a multimedia "Litter and it will hurt" campaign warns motorists of the state's serious litter fines: $1,025 for tossing a lighted cigarette, for example. The effort has cut litter by 20 percent on state-overseen highways and roads since it began in 2002, according to Megan Warfield, the state's coordinator of litter programs.

In Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and Washington state, people who spot highway litterers can rat them out to hot lines by reporting their license plate numbers. The numbers, converted to vehicle owner addresses, generate tens of thousands of warning letters yearly. "That really gets their attention," Warfield said.

In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, litter-law prosecutions are up sharply, according to John Ockels, director of the Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center, a nonprofit organization in Sherman, Texas, that fights litter. "

In and around Augusta, Ga., junk cars are towed if they won't start.

Beyond enforcement, many factors aligned against litter.

Recycling, for example, has made people more conscious of solid waste of all kinds. Tourist destinations discovered that it paid to be litter-free.

It isn't that U.S. attitudes about litter changed, said P. Wesley Schultz, a social psychologist at California State University, San Marcos. "People never had a very favorable attitude toward litter," Schultz said. "What we have seen is a fairly dramatic change in people's norms about how appropriate it is to litter.

"People now feel littering is inappropriate and that others will disapprove of them if they litter. The norm about what's right and wrong changed."