As a comedian I've performed in over 30 countries, and I try to spend my days exploring the city I'm in. For years I've noticed a common thing in every one -- litter. Not just any litter, the same litter in every city, in every country. You know the stuff I'm talking about -- crumpled bags from Whole Foods and empty cans of Coconut Water, right? I'm kidding, we never see that. What I consistently observe is probably familiar to you as well -- fast food wrappers, soda cans and cigarette butts. Whether at home or abroad, I often pick up after strangers, and this led to two incidents that stuck with me.
The first was on a park bench in New York. I was next to a guy eating KFC who proceeded to drop the bones, the box and the greasy napkins at his feet. What astounded me was that the bench we shared was next to a garbage can. I wanted to say something, but instead I picked it all up, and he asked, "What the f*ck are you doing?!"
I told him, "Throwing it in the trash."
He replied, "Why are you disrespecting me?!"
Disrespecting? Why do people constantly use this word and use it wrongly? I made the decision to skip the debate and told him the simple truth; "I'm just trying to keep the neighborhood clean."
He told me, "F*** off, bitch."
The second incident happened while walking down Bethnal Green Road (I was based in London for nine years). I saw someone chuck an XL soda cup on the ground. Again, I said nothing, but I picked it up and placed it in the garbage steps away.
Noticing this, he asked, "Why'd you do that?"
I said, "Just keeping the area clean."
Throwing big arms, he shouted, "That's what we pay taxes for you f***ing dumb-ass."
I found myself stunned by the utter stupidity of his comment, and in a blink his friends aggressively surrounded me. I calmly explained the situation, but they were having none of it. I needed to Liam Neeson my way out of this one fast, but I lacked Liam's particular set of skills, and I had a hunch that my observational comedy and cartoon voices wouldn't impress the guy in the Scarface shirt.
Just as things were escalating, an older man broke up the circle and I again pleaded my case. He looked to the litterer and asked, "Is this true?" He nodded. Turns out it was the old man's shop and this was his son. He yelled at him, "You take a free drink and when you finish it you throw it on the ground, right where the customers come in? Why are you so disrespectful of my business?" At this point I wanted to cheer and commend his father on the correct use of disrespectful, but I opted to slip away unharmed.
Eventually I made the choice to take things to the next level and I started to make a game out of Litter Shaming. The way to do this best is when you see someone litter, in a very helpful manner, you point and shout, "Dropped something!"
Their immediate reaction is not what they discarded, it's what they think they've lost, so before looking, they begin to madly molest their body, feeling for their precious iPhone, keys and wallet. I love watching this manic scramble as they confirm, "Still there. Still there. Still there." Bonus points if you film this and put it to a Rick Astley song.
It's only when said litterer realizes I'm talking about the empty Red Bull they've chucked that things can turn sour. My wife insists that Litter Shaming is a shortcut to me being stabbed, but if I do get a knife jabbed in my side, they could very well end up doing community service with a pointed stick and stabbing something else -- litter.
I can confirm that in the nicer areas of every part of the world that I've travelled to, there is little to no garbage on the ground. From what I've observed this is not because there are bustling crews maintaining them 24/7 like some sort of garbage SWAT team. No, it is because it does not end up on the ground in the first place. This is the best solution and it really is that simple. There is no way you can argue with me that it is ever okay to throw anything on the ground. Even if you hand me free Nickelback tickets, I will happily walk them to the nearest garbage.
You have to care about your surroundings, and believe me I understand this can be challenging for people when their neighbourhood's a dive. What's another spent Doritos bag on the ground when there's already 10 there? Well, it's actually now 11 Doritos bags and that's worse. To be honest, I do not live in the best area. My real estate agent refers to it as "in transition" and "up and coming." It's a mess, and that's because most of the people who live here refuse to break the cycle. They just do not care, and I sure wish they did, because I certainly do.
In our building's garbage room, people were putting full bags of trash in front of the dumpsters; just stacking them up one by one. When I brought up that this attracts rats, racoons and roaches, the Homeowner's Association presented a fascinating argument. They told me that many owners are elderly or short and therefore are not strong enough to lift their big garbage bags into the dumpster. My solution was extremely complicated, yet effective, and I will try my best to summarise it for you: Ask them to use smaller garbage bags.
In my comedy travels the only place in the world that was spotless was Singapore. The penalty for littering anything in Singapore is $2000-$10,000 and the fine includes the litterer doing a public cleanup that's widely covered by the media. For the record, the fine in NYC is $50-$250. I guess the financial threat works because people certainly second-guess flicking that spent Marlboro on the ground when it will cost them 10K and a spot on the nightly news.
While doing stand-up in Singapore I had post-show beers with a table of American expats. I brought up how the city looked amazing and although they agreed, they also genuinely viewed the huge fines as if one of their freedoms had been taken away. What freedom? Should you really have the freedom to be an a**hole? I quickly realized that if those fines were the only things stopping these people from throwing trash on the street, I was drinking at the wrong table. Check please!
Since the overwhelming amount of litter is junk food in one form or another, I feel it's safe to arrive at the conclusion that the people who care less for their themselves are less likely to care for their surroundings. Dumb people throw away dumb litter. I challenge you to find what I call Unicorn Litter. I want to see the mini-carrot pouches, Almond Milk cartons, Coconut Water empties, Whole Foods bags, kale stalks, trail mix packets or even a dusty National Geographic discarded on the street. I would love that, that is truly Unicorn Litter.
The solution to clean streets is free and easy -- don't throw it on the ground in the first place and never tolerate those who do. Your city, its people and the planet will benefit.
Oh, and if you do you see the elusive #UnicornLitter, please tweet me a picture with that hashtag and mention where you found it. I really want to know if it's even out there.
Thanks for also wanting to make our world a better place.