The psychology of casual street cleaning

Summary Picking up other people's trash is an empowering gesture that turns you from a whiner into a fixer.

I've developed a peculiar habit. Sometimes when I'm approaching our apartment block I scan the ground for small pieces of trash. If I spot one not too far from my trajectory I pick it up and put it where it belongs - in a nearby dumpster. This behavior is much less common than you might think. It's also surprisingly rewarding.

Street litter has always been a common problem here in Bratislava and it used to upset me. That's the prevailing attitude in this city. People don't like dirty streets and will tell you so when asked. Few, however, do anything about it. There are several psychological barriers:

  • It is widely acknowledged that someone else should do the cleaning. Some - one might call them "conservatives" - would tell you it's up to those who did the littering. Others - "socialists" perhaps - would maintain it's the city administration's responsibility. Both notions are rather naive. The underlying attitude is that it's simply not fair that we, upstanding citizens who never litter the streets, should clean up after those who do.
  • When most people think of street cleaning they imagine removing all the litter from a substantial area. That's obviously a lot of work which needs many people if it's to be finished reasonably soon. Coordination is required and before you know it there's a project to manage.
  • Another mental block stems from the sheer futility of the effort. When a street does get cleaned up by municipal workers or by "spring cleaning" volunteers it doesn't take long for new litter to bloom. And it doesn't take a lot of litter to make a street look messy.
  • There is the simple unpleasantness of trash itself. Picking up someone else's cigarette butt and carrying it to a trash can means overcoming a hint of revulsion. It's ironic: the very feeling that motivates street cleaning also makes it difficult.

Coping with these inhibitions is all about awareness. Street litter presents no immediate threat nor opportunity so it's blocked out by the subconscious most of the time, along with many other details of the urban exterior. The blocking takes work, however. Garbage is visually loud - it mostly consists of discarded packaging designed to stand out on store shelves. Navigating dirty streets thus incurs a subliminal mental cost we're mostly unaware of. Once we recognize the full magnitude of the cost we become more willing to deal with the problem.

Another thing to realize is that removing even a single piece of trash reduces the mental cost in a tangible way. The street may be quite as dirty as before but the piece we picked up must have caught our attention which means it was somehow "more important" than the rest of the environment, amplifying the cost reduction. The immediacy of the reduction gives it even more impact (the reptilian brain is a sucker for immediate rewards).

From a more long-term perspective, the effort to remove one piece of trash is a one-time investment which pays off every time we visit the affected place. This is a delayed reward further compromised by new garbage appearing all the time, so it's not very significant. What's more important is that if we experience the immediate reward often enough a habit starts to form, lowering the mental cost of the act itself and making the reward even more attractive. A virtuous cycle forms.

All of this speculation may sound rather abstract but the psychological benefit I've experienced is real and substantial. When I notice a piece of litter these days it doesn't bother me anymore. I either pick it up and dispose of it properly or concede to myself that it's too far off my path. There's a sober honesty and clarity about it which does feel liberating. At the same time, I get regular experiences of doing noticeable good with modest effort.

In conclusion, I can recommend casual street cleaning as a worthwhile activity (given proper sanitary precautions, of course). Next time you find yourself angry at the unknown hooligans, why not try undoing their carelessness? You will help yourself more than anyone else.

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